Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories

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Ebook pre-order now available here! Release is August 17th.

A town where people go missing and inexplicably return as cruel versions of themselves.

A not-quite-human mother races against time to build a new body for her ailing daughter.

Lovesick ghosts inhabit the body parts of living people in a world where the only other choice is amputation.

A woman takes extreme measures to combat the repercussions of a childhood hazing ritual gone wrong.

Obsession. Selfishness. Cruelty. Doppelgängers. In these dark, speculative stories—six reprints and six never before published, including the novelette “Girls Tied to Trees”—J.A.W. McCarthy explores how far humans and the not-quite-human will go to tame the darkness in their world and within themselves.

Praise for J.A.W. McCarthy and Sometimes We’re Cruel:

“A horror revelation, Sometimes We’re Cruel is part fantastical body horror, part meticulous dissection of the soul. Bodies are shared, reshaped, escaped, leaving us with a residue of dread. Easy to tell from early on that this merciless book is something special. At the crossroads of Gwendolyn Kiste and David Cronenberg, J.A.W. McCarthy will haunt you.”

Hailey Piper, author of Queen of Teeth

“Written with the painstaking finesse of a master wordsmith, McCarthy’s collection Sometimes We’re Cruel firmly cements her as one of the finest storytellers of modern dark fiction.”

Eric LaRocca, author of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke

“There’s a peculiar darkness to Jen’s writing which immediately draws me in. Like those peripheral entities you can’t ever quite see—Sometimes We’re Cruel is like having coffee with one of those. Like hearing something we’re not meant to be privy to from an unflinching orator.” 

Scott J. Moses, author of Non-Practicing Cultist

Photo by Jenny Jimenez

J.A.W. McCarthy’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including VastarienLampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, where she gets most of her ideas late at night, while she’s trying to sleep. You can call her Jen on Twitter @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at www.jawmccarthy.com

On Editing and Writing With Jessica Landry

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Joe Sullivan: Editing is such a broad field of specialties, from reading slush for an anthology to helping an author develop the plot of their novel. What was your path into professional editing?

Jessica Landry: When I started out, I had no intentions of editing—I just wanted to write and get my name out into the horror world. So I started by reviewing books for Hellnotes, and, as a reviewer, I quickly learned how to self-edit. At the same time, I was honing my own creative writing skills, and started taking those self-editing lessons into my fiction. I made my rounds through Hellnotes and did a stint at the (sadly) now defunct Dirge Magazine before I landed an editor role with JournalStone Publishing. It was there that I truly learned what editing was all about: how to build up someone else’s story without losing their voice. I had a wonderful few years there—working with some amazing writers like Gwendolyn Kiste, Lisa Morton, S.P. Miskowski, and Ed Kurtz, to name a few; and being able to work on novels, novellas, and collections—before I left to focus more on my own writing (which had taken a back seat at that point). 

You were able to work on multiple well-regarded books with S.P. Miskowski and Gwendolyn Kiste. What are some of the qualities of a good author-editor partnership?

Trust is a good thing to have between an editor and an author, but that doesn’t necessarily come right away—it’s something you both have to build up to. And when you take on a project, it’s very possible that that trust never comes, and that’s okay—just like a real-life relationship, you aren’t necessarily going to “click” with everyone that you meet or work with. But if you’re both working toward the same goal (making the story the best it can possibly be), and if you’re both open to having discussions on, say, why the author chose to word it like this, or why the editor thinks the author should try it like that, then that builds that foundation of trust. 

I think some writers shy away from editing because they’re worried that they might lose some of their style or voice in the intimate process of editing someone else’s work. You’re award-winning for your fiction while working on some great stories by other writers. How would you say editing has impacted your storytelling for better or worse, if at all?

Some people are great at self-editing and don’t necessarily need a full edit on their work, but I think, even as a writer with some experience, getting an extra set of eyes on your words goes a long way, so don’t be afraid to use an editor or a beta reader or to give your work to someone you trust. A good editor shouldn’t try and change your voice—they should amplify it. That can come in different ways, like making suggestions on how to tighten a scene, or giving constructive feedback on the overall structure of your work. These are the things I keep in mind while editing others’ works and my own work. Having gotten the opportunity to edit different kinds of works from different kinds of authors has helped my own writing in ways that I never thought it could—I learned by reading. I took note of how they pieced together their own prose, deconstructed it, and thought long and hard about how it worked so well and why I responded to it. From all that, I found my own style.

Your debut collection The Mother Wound released earlier this year from Independent Legions. I believe it covers your work from 2015-2021. While putting the book together, were you surprised at any of the themes that emerged from your body of work, that maybe you weren’t entirely cognizant of beforehand?

Absolutely. Let me tell you, it ain’t called “The Mother Wound” for no reason! Whether it was consciously or subconsciously, I filtered a lot (if not all) of my own issues into my stories in a bunch of different ways, and as I was editing and re-reading works I hadn’t scanned over in years, I thought to myself, Damn girl, you have problems. But this is how I deal—writing. Every strained relationship, every trauma that’s happened, it’s all in my work. It may not be obvious (because who wants to fully admit all their issues?), but in every single story, there’s a thread of truth, a thread of something that I’ve experienced, that I’ve locked away but am slowly letting it out to see the light of day. This is how I deal with my trauma, and it’s taken me a long time to see it, but I’m okay with how it’s coming out.

There Is No Death, There Are No Dead is a Spiritualist-themed anthology you co-edited with Aaron J. French, featuring some of my favorite horror writers and scheduled for release this summer from Crystal Lake. I grew up hearing the stories and visiting the sites of the Spiritualist Movement: Lily Dale, the home of The Public Universal Friend, Georgetown Spirit House, the Joseph Smith sites, etc. So I’m hoping New York will get some love in your anthology. Could you speak to some of the direction you gave your writers in order to bring out your theme?

Some of my favourite horror writers too! Aaron and I got very lucky in putting this book together—it started off as a What If? idea, and became reality through the support of everyone who backed and donated to the Indiegogo campaign, and thanks to Joe Mynhardt at Crystal Lake Publishing. We had no real restrictions or directions to give the authors, other than make your story about spiritualism. That was it. Go nuts. The stories we got back…they exceeded my expectations in every way, shape, and form. Even as I’m re-reading them now (for the umpteenth time) for our final edits, I’m still in awe of each of them. We wanted to cultivate different experiences, different styles, different stories, and the end result is just that. This book is truly something remarkable (I mean, I’m biased, but still…). (And there are a few interpretations of Lily Dale in the anthology!)

What other future projects can you share, either as author or editor?

As an editor, I’m wrapping up final notes on There Is No Death, There Are No Dead, which is scheduled for release at the end of August from Crystal Lake Publishing. All my editing energy is going into that project, so we’ll see what comes up after its release!

Author-wise, my collection, The Mother Wound, was released in May from Independent Legions, so I’m trying to get the good word out there. I mostly work as a screenwriter, so I haven’t written many stories so far this year, but I do have a big one coming out in December—”Carbon Rites” will be included in Aliens vs Predators: Ultimate Prey, edited by Jonathan Maberry and Bryan Thomas Schmidt, from Titan Books. It’s mind-blowing to write a story for two franchises that you grew up watching, so, needless to say, I’m really excited for that anthology.

I’m working on several film and TV projects, too. I have a few Lifetime movies that are scheduled to air later this year, most notably Breast Cancer Bucket List, starring Kelly Hu (I believe that’ll air in the fall). I’m currently gearing up to direct an original feature, My Only Sunshine; am writing on a true crime series called Heartland Homicide, which will be airing in Canada in the fall (and hopefully in the US, too!); and have a few other projects in development that I have to keep quiet on for now.

I am busy, and I love it!

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From the day she was born, Bram Stoker Award-winner and Shirley Jackson Award-nominee Jessica Landry has always been attracted to the darker things in life. Her fondest childhood memories include getting nightmares from the Goosebumps books, watching The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, and reiterating to her parents that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her mental state.

Since then, Jessica’s fiction has appeared in many anthologies, including Tales of the LostTwice-Told: A Collection of DoublesMonsters of Any KindWhere Nightmares Come From, Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road, and Fantastic Tales of Terror, among others. Her debut collection, The Mother Wound, is out now from Independent Legions Publishing, and There Is No Death, There Are No Dead, an anthology co-edited with Aaron J. French, is set to be released in August from Crystal Lake Publishing.

Her original horror feature, MY ONLY SUNSHINE, was accepted into the Whistler Film Festival’s Screenwriters Lab in 2020 and is currently in development with Eagle Vision, producers of CBC’S BURDEN OF TRUTH. Alongside Neshama Entertainment, Jessica has written several MOWs, including A SECRET TO KEEP, BREAST CANCER BUCKET LIST, DEADLY MOM RETREAT, and THE THERAPY NIGHTMARES, with others in development. She’s also currently writing for APTN and Eagle Vision’s joint sitcom, FAMILY FIRST; Eagle Vision’s factual series, 7TH GEN; a World War II biopic with Sir Harry Films; a true crime series with Farpoint Films; and has other projects in various stages of development.Your best bet at finding her online is at jesslandry.com, and on Facebook and Twitter where she often posts cat gifs and references Jurassic Park way too much. You can also check her out on IMDb.

New Voices in Horror with Brennan LaFaro

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Joe Sullivan: You’re a music teacher living in New England. I feel like Stephen King should’ve had a music teacher protagonist somewhere along the line–if he hasn’t already–he has enough English teachers in his stories. There’s something unique about music that I think most people miss out on. Everyone gets the creative aspect, how it makes you feel, but it takes rigor and an analytical mind to put it all together and birth a song that resonates, even just to satisfactorily perform a piece. Do you think your skillset as a music teacher has colored your writer’s tool kit at all?

Brennan LaFaro: First off, thank you for having me. To my knowledge, Uncle Steve has never used a music teacher as a character in one of his stories, but it’s possible I missed one. He’s written a fair few stories after all.

You’re absolutely dead-on. Music, especially the theory side, has a lot of critical and analytical thinking to it, and teaching that side to young musicians is a challenge, albeit a rewarding one.

The most easy to identify way music has affected my writing is in describing sound. Engaging readers using sensory description is key. You can tell a great story, but in order to immerse the reader, they have to be part of the sights, sounds, and smells. Having spent a substantial portion of my life studying sound, I have a lot of terms in my toolbox that I’ve been just waiting for an excuse to throw out. Writing a haunted house story, for example, where the characters are waiting for something to happen, gives you a lot of opportunities to play with sound to build tension.

Music teachers are also faced with a task most teachers aren’t. In an average week, I see about 500 students. A month or so into the school year, I know them all by name, know what to expect from them during a 45 minute class, and have a sense of their personality. Not to take anything away from classroom teachers, but it lends itself well to keeping track of a large cast, something I discovered I could do while co-writing a horror/dark fantasy novel.

Being a teacher and a writer walk hand-in-hand together nicely. Day to day, you always have to look deeper because all these kids are three-dimensional characters in their own right. You can’t work with them if you don’t make every effort to understand them. Teaching music, at the elementary level at least, forces you to constantly take an in-depth look at all the characters, even the ones who might be considered minor.

Your story from the Shiver anthology “A Shine In The Woods” is pretty straightforward and effective: there are monsters outside our cabin and we have to figure out how to get to the car to escape them. I believe it’s one of your first published short stories? What was the impetus for you to begin submitting your fiction for publication?

“A Shine in the Woods” was my first published piece and my first attempt at a creature feature. I was honored to have it accepted into Nico Bell’s anthology. It’s written from the perspective of a young girl. Calling back to the first question, writing from the POV of children is something I find myself doing quite a bit in my short fiction.

I wanted to write for a long time before I first gave it a shot in Summer 2019. Mostly, I didn’t know how to get started, so I didn’t start. I had some ideas, but felt there was a skill set required that I didn’t have. Discovering how much incredible independent horror fiction is out there lit a fire. I sat down one day and started writing what would become Slattery Falls longhand in a notebook. I’d write in bursts, then step away for weeks at a time, convinced I didn’t know what I was doing.

In April 2020, I submitted a short story on a whim. It didn’t get accepted, but the personalized rejection gave me some much-needed confidence. I never really looked back after that.

I’ve been following the news of your debut novella with Silver Shamrock: Slattery Falls (July 2021). Congratulations on that, by the way! The brief reads along the lines of: a group of college kids who check out haunted locations find themselves in danger at one of the infamous locales. We here at Cemetery Gates live for horror fic set in real life locations. Is Slattery Falls set in, or based-on any real life places you’ve lived or visited?

Thank you! So mostly no, with a dash of yes. Being a novella, we learn about the town of Slattery Falls, mainly its history, but at 140 pages, there’s more to explore, and I plan on revisiting down the line. Unless it’s buried deep in my subconscious, Slattery Falls is not based on a real town. I’m a lifelong Massachusetts resident and in the book, some surrounding towns are listed. Conway and Deerfield are real places in central/western Mass, but Hobson is a fictionalized version of the town I grew up in, which I’ll leave nameless here.

I wish I could tell you that town had some rich, interesting, creepy history, but I tend to pull more from small-town dynamics and geographic features than anything else. Hobson features prominently in a story called “Piece by Piece”, which will be published in the inaugural anthology from Snow Capped Press, due out later this year, and if you look carefully, you might even see Slattery Falls get a nod.

Regarding things up Cemetery Gates’ alley, Slattery Falls pays a visit early on to the Nathan Hale house in Coventry, Connecticut. All the background information written into the book, including the reports of paranormal activity, is factual. Everything that happens after that is a story, one I hope people will enjoy.

Would you say Slattery Falls is a haunted house book? What horror themes and tropes most interest you as a storyteller?

Slattery Falls certainly fits into the haunted house subgenre. Travis, Elsie, and Josh—three characters I loved every minute of writing—visit multiple haunted locations throughout the book before winding up at the Weeks house in the titular town. It’s got elements of occult as well, and some coming-of-age even though the characters are out of their teens at the start of the story.

I’ve got a special place in my heart for haunted house horror, be it books or movies, but mainly I just need to invest in the characters. I think that’s true from both the reader and writer perspective. I’ve abandoned stories where I loved the premise because I didn’t have a handle on the character, and I’ve written some of my favorite things without any idea where the story was going until it got there. Simply because something about the main character clicked for me.

Since that answer feels like a total cop-out, I love what writers are doing with splatter and weird westerns. Coming-of-age is such an expansive sub-genre and there are so many ways to sprinkle that spice. Finally, I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would disagree, but I think there’s still material to be explored in the zombie genre.

What themes do you hope to explore with your future books? Do you have a career trajectory in mind regarding your writing projects?

Being a father and keeping my/other people’s children safe is a theme I’ve explored in several pieces, and one I will continue to hit. There are so many ways to go about it, and when you discover the story by writing it, sometimes everything turns out alright. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I’d like to write a true coming-of-age novel. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve written some short fiction from the perspective of children. The book I’m currently working on, as well as a few co-written with Patrick R McDonough (my co-host of Dead Headspace podcast) have taught me the process for writing longer-form fiction. I won’t pretend to know what I’m doing just yet, but I’m walking in the right direction. A coming-of-age novel is something I don’t want to learn by doing, which is why I haven’t gone there yet.

As far as career trajectory is concerned, I’d like to keep seeing my stories get picked up and my future novellas/novels find homes. If I’m lucky enough to be invited to write something for an anthology, I’ll be happy to mark that on my career path. I want what I think most writers want—to see my stories resonate with readers. To see something I wrote matter to another human being. Long-term, I don’t have any illusions of giving up the day job to write full-time, but I wouldn’t say no to making enough to quit my second job. Mostly, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, because I’m having a blast.


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Follow Brennan on Twitter!

The Last Night at Camp Saint Michael’s

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by Tom Coombe

These boys are too old for ghost stories.

That’s what Jeff says anyway, and in cabin 8, Jeff’s opinion is law. Scary stories are for babies, not soon-to-be seventh graders.

Still, this is Camp Saint Michael’s, where the traditions are as old and rooted as the trees, and the last night of camp means ghost stories with Steve Rodrigo. The camp’s unofficial storyteller lumbers into cabin 8 just before 10 p.m. and parks himself in a metal folding chair in the center of the room.

“I’m scared already,” Jeff mutters, triggering a wave of giggles from 10 of the 11 other boys in the cabin. Eric, their chemistry major counselor, says nothing, nose buried in an Orson Scott Card novel.

The eleventh boy stays silent. This is the New Kid. He’s told them his name — Earl or Lyle or something with an L — but they call him New Kid.

They call him worse things when the counselors aren’t listening, this quiet, gangly sad sack who had a meltdown on the high dive and runs like a girl. The boys have plans for the New Kid. Tonight when the counselors sleep, they’ll teach him a lesson, something Jeff’s brother saw in a movie last year.

They look at him now. He’s actually interested in hearing Rodrigo’s stupid story.

“This happened 13 years ago, the winter of 1976. Bad winter that year, although you’re all too young to remember. The worst storm came on January 8, a blizzard so bad the state shut down the highways. But there was one car out on the road that night. Mark and Judy Cullen, a married couple from Scranton, expecting their first child. Her contractions began just as the storm reached its peak, and they had no choice but to get in their car and try to make their way to the hospital.

“They made it three miles before they were lost, the gas gauge resting just above E. The visibility on the highway was so bad that Mark had no idea that he’d driven off the interstate and onto a narrow country road…that led to a camp for Catholic boys.”

Eleven campers groan. The New Kid stays silent.

“By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. Mark tried to turn the car around, and found himself stuck in a snowbank. Trapped and desperate, the couple abandoned their battered Volkswagen and made their way to the closest building they could find, the eighth cabin in a row of 10.

“Inside the cabin, Judy collapsed onto the nearest bunk, moaning and crying atop the bare mattress. Mark realized with horror that his new son or daughter would enter the world in this cold, dark place, miles from any doctor.

“‘It will be ok,’ Judy said. ‘Women gave birth on their own for centuries.’ And she was right. By some miracle, their baby arrived quickly and safely. The thing is, guys, not all miracles come from God.”

Eric glances up from Ender’s Game. “Steve…c’mon…”

Steve ignores him, deep in story mode now.

“The wind howled and the baby boy howled with it, wrapped in a thin blanket his dad found under one of the bunks.

“Mark curled up next to his wife and son as they tried to keep themselves and the baby warm. He decided he would let the storm die down before searching the camp. Every camp had an office and every office had a phone. He just had to let the storm calm down, he thought before drifting off.

“He woke to find the sun peeking through thick grey clouds. The wind had died and a new sound broke through the dawn. Thump. Thump. Thump. The deep bass of a drum, coming from the trees surrounding the cabin.

“It grew louder as the drum and the drummer emerged from the trees. He was a short, hunched-over figure wearing a Buster Brown suit, his skin the consistency of tree bark. The drummer chanted as he approached, over and over in a sickening frog voice.”

“‘Make way for the Father. Make way for the Father. Make way for the Father.’”

The boys are listening despite themselves, even Jeff.

“The chant continued as more figures walked out of the forest, each one further loosening Mark’s grip on sanity. He saw spindly men who leapt from tree to tree like apes and others that walked on all fours as easily as Mark did on two.

“All these things bowed their heads as a newcomer stepped from the pines. He stood at least seven feet tall, his face masked by a cloud of reddish brown locusts.

“‘We have to go, baby,’” Mark said, turning to Judy. His wife stared back with eyes that had gone snowy.’”

Steve makes his voice high and ghostly.

“‘It’s ok, darling. I dreamed of this. They want the baby. He’s going to be their new lamb.’

“Mark took Judy’s hand and tried pulling her to her feet, but she refused to budge. She began to scream and the baby joined in. Their wailing grew louder as the things outside began hammering the cabin door. Winter had turned the wood wet and brittle, and they were through the doorway within minutes. The creatures scuttled across the floor and surrounded Mark. The wind picked up again and covered his screams.

“A pair of snowmobilers found the baby the next day, wrapped in a blanket on the floor of the cabin, fat and happy. His parents were never seen again. The baby went to a Catholic orphanage and was adopted by a good Catholic family. He grew up with no idea of who his parents were and what happened to him on the day he was born.

“But the things who lived in the forest waited and watched. They spoke to him in his dreams, told him of his great and terrible destiny. One day he would return to the camp and take his place next to The Father. And that boy’s name was…”

Steve takes a long pause, looking around the cabin.

“…Jeffrey.”

The boys hoot and applaud, teasing their leader. Jeff gives a little half smile. Steve bows and turns to leave. A small voice stops him.

“Excuse me…”

The New Kid raises his hand.

“Yes, um…”

“It’s Leonard, sir. I just had a question about the story.”

“Uh, sure, go ahead.”

“It’s just that, how could anyone know all that if the baby’s parents were never seen again? Or that he grew up to be called Jeffrey?”

The other campers laugh and groan.

“It’s…it’s a story, Leonard. I made it all up. And whenever I tell a story like this, I pick a random camper’s name as a little kicker. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, way to step on my punchline, kiddo.”

“Retard,” Jeff whispers.

Steve walks outside, Eric the counselor following. The boys can hear them whispering and laughing.

“They’re laughing at you,” Jeff says to the New Kid.

Eric comes back, reads for a bit more before shutting off his little lamp. In 20 minutes, they can hear him snoring.

Jeff coughs three times, the signal to get ready. The boys reach under the covers, find the weapons they’d made earlier: bars of soap stolen from a supply closet, wrapped in bath towels. Their going away present for the New Kid. One whack each, Jeff’s brother had told him. Enough to hurt, not enough to mess him up for good.

He hops out of bed and pads to the New Kid’s bunk, ready to strike the first blow. The bed is empty. The boys scan the cabin, expecting to find him huddling in a corner or cowering under a bunk. It’s Chris, the closest thing Jeff has to a lieutenant, who spots him. The New Kid is walking away from the cabin, towards the flagpole at the center of the camp.

They put their sneakers on take off after him, waving their towel clubs like warrior dwarves. Where does this kid, this little shit, get the guts to sneak out? The New Kid hears their footsteps, turns and favors them with a mile-long grin. His eyes are entirely white.

The night is silent, save for the singing of the frogs. When the song stops all at once, a few of the boys jump.

“He got most of the story right,” the New Kid tells his cabin mates. “Everything but my name.”

“Fucking weirdo,” Jeff says, but his voice cracks.

“They’ll be here soon,” Leonard says. “Do you hear it?”

Deep in the woods, a drum begins to beat.

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Tom Coombe is a journalist-turned-freelance writer who has loved horror since his first viewing of Poltergeist. He lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cat. Find him online at tomcoombe.com or on Twitter at @CalmTomb. 

Just Til Morning

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by K.S. Walker

“Hey Britt…you’re not gonna like this.”

Brittany pressed her eyes shut, for just a moment. Her shoulders ached, her blisters burned, and there was not a square inch of exposed skin that did not host the raised welt of a bug bite. Whatever waited for her at the campsite could not possibly be worse than what she felt right now. She pressed forward through the trees, and stepped into the clearing. Her heart sank.

The last three of their seven miles were made slow and torturous by the late season black flies and wet trail. They were supposed to make camp hours ago. Already the sun was dipping below the tree line.

“This place is trashed.” Brittany fought to keep the tears out of her voice.

Mikayla snorted while toeing the larger fragments of broken glass bottles together. “That is an understatement.”

Brittany dropped her pack and joined Mikayla in her appraisal of their site. The wind had torn loose pages from a newspaper pinned under a rock; wet circulars were plastered across the dirt clearing.  Brittany kicked a bottle of lighter fluid towards a punctured can of bug repellant. Several soggy rolls of toilet paper rested on a rolling cooler. An overturned camp chair jutted out of the fire pit. A rain-soaked tent obscured half the picnic table. Brittany picked at the pile of canvas, revealing the box the tent came in. ‘Sportsman 8 with Screen Porch and Dividers’.

“This was brand new. Who leaves this kind of stuff behind?” Brittany asked.

“Rich white people,” Mikayla shrugged. “No offense.”

Brittany rolled her eyes, “I’m only half white. And neither side is rich.” She knew Mikayla knew it, but Brittany couldn’t stop herself from saying it anyway. Both girls attended Camp Kalkaska on the same scholarship and had for the past six summers. They made a game of keeping track of who’s photo had made the most appearances in the annual fundraising newsletter. So far the score was Mikayla: 5, Brittany: 7.

Brittany groaned, “I do not want to clean this up. All I want to do is take my boots off, eat an under-seasoned dehydrated meal and take my butt to sleep.”

“Fine. We have to move the cooler though. We’ll leave everything else.”

On top of her aches, the trashed campsite, having to set up camp in the growing darkness, the abandoned cooler felt like just one thing too many. The last of her composure was peeled away and her tears came hot and choking.

“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” Brittany asked.

“Because we want to be junior counselors next year and junior counselors get paid $1500 for the season.”

Mikayla was quieter when she added. “And because they don’t think we can.”

And there it was, the truth of it. It wasn’t in anything anyone said directly. It was more in what wasn’t said that made it very clear that no one, not their head counselors, not their peers, expected either girl to apply for the position much less follow through the skills test.

It was Mikayla’s idea. One whispered from the darkness of their shared bunk bed. At first Brittany dismissed it. But sometime over the last year the idea burrowed into her and became her own. And as much as Brittany wanted the cash, she wanted to throw it in their faces even more. Not one, but two Black junior counselors.

“I’ll take care of the cooler, Britt. We can figure out dinner when I get back.”

Brittany nodded, wiping at her face.

Brittany stood stretching skywards. Then she did a slow circle, fully appreciating her surroundings for the first time. Three red maples sprouting gloriously grotesque burls lined the eastern end of the site. Between a gap in the trees she could see the Manistee River winding through the bottom of the bluff below them, wide and slow. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Maybe they wouldn’t have been if Mikayla didn’t return from her cooler dump asking the questions Brittany was happy to ignore.

“What the hell happened here?”

“Can you play detective while helping set up camp?” Brittany’s tone was snippier than she intended, but she had reached her capacity for stoicism two miles back, the last thing she wanted was a mystery to solve. She fished in her backpack and pulled out their campstove and two headlamps. She tossed one headlamp to Mikayla. “You don’t think the storm surprised them and they just dipped?”

“But they must’ve had a car, look at all this stuff they brought. Why not just throw it all in the trunk?” Mikayla said, slapping at an insect attracted to the light of her headlamp.

“Maybe there was a medical emergency and there wasn’t enough time. They might even come back for their stuff later.” Brittany swatted something winged out of her field of vision too.

Mikayla spat, “I swear to god, a bug just landed in my mouth. Where are all these coming from all of a sudden?”

“Goddamnit,” Brittany swore. “It’s our headlamps. They’re attracted to the light.”

“No shit. Why are there so many?”

Mikayla had a point. Brittany had spent six summers in the woods and had never had so many insects use her headlamp like the north star. She looked around and saw that the night was filled with fluttering moths. Brittany dropped the stove to swipe bugs with both hands. Her palm connected with something meaty. She stood from the table and ripped off her headlamp.

“I can’t do this, Mikayla. Forget dinner.”

“Listen…”

“Let’s just eat a protein bar and go to —”

“Brittany, listen!

“To what, Mikayla? That’s not funny!”

And then Brittany heard it too. Like slow strokes of sandpaper against itself. Brittany swung around searching for the source of the sound.

Then she saw it. In the spotlight of Mikayla’s wavering headlamp, the lump at the base of one of the red maples moved. The lump was shifting, separating as if to open a chasm to the hollow core of the tree.

The huge growth Brittany had mistaken for a burl lifted itself on pale, spindly, appendages and it fanned out mottled forewings to separate from the tree entirely. Brittany backed away slowly, unblinking. She wished she could unsee the creature. She couldn’t afford to.

The terror’s movements were not graceful. The creature listed through the air on ragged wings, its feathered antennae trembling.The large compound eyes gleamed when caught in the red light of the headlamp. Its abdomen was by turns patchy grey and glistening smooth.  And its mouth…its mouth was a ragged slash full of flat human teeth.

Brittany was beside Mikayla now, pressed against her. She bit her lips together to stifle a sob. Mikayla whispered, “There’s two.”

“Run!” Brittany moved when she felt Mikayla’s tug on her elbow. She stumbled but regained her footing and followed the bounce of Mikayla’s headlamp through the trees. They zigzagged down a narrow path. Branches whipped at Brittany’s face, her hands. Above her, behind her, she could hear that raspy buzz. It filled her head, vibrated her teeth.

“Down!” Mikayla shouted from in front of her. Brittany felt the tug of grasping appendages in her braids and dove. She landed hard on her right shoulder and rolled down a steep bank of gravel and sand until a downed tree broke her descent. They’d run right to the bank of the Manistee. Dazed, she looked around in time to see one of the moth creatures drop towards her, its six legs outstretched. Brittany covered her face with her arms and rolled. She heard a thud connect with a fleshy body, and another, followed by an enraged screech.

She looked up to see Mikayla hurling rocks at the creatures from the river’s edge. Brittany took the open Mikayla created and staggered towards her. They dove into the water together.

The cold was jarring, Brittany counted to twenty before resurfacing. She broke the surface sputtering out water from inflamed lungs. She grasped for Mikayla, and tangled their hands together.

“Look,” Mikayla said, pointing with her chin, “They won’t come in the water.” It seemed true. She hoped it was true. The two giant moths remained near— circling in their staggering, lilting way, but they weren’t coming any closer.

“But how long do we have to stay here? How long until someone comes looking for us?” Panic clenched at her throat. There were tears streaming down Brittany’s face and she was bleeding freely from a cut on her temple, but her face was too cold to register either.

“We don’t have to wait until camp comes for us. We just have to wait until morning, right?” Mikayla said.

“Just wait until morning?” Brittany repeated.

“Just til morning.”

Brittany pulled herself closer to Mikayla wishing she could ignore the buzzing and rustling of the terrors in flight above her. Just til morning. Brittany repeated to herself. Just until morning.

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

K.S. Walker writes speculative fiction. Their favorite stories include either monsters, magic or love gone awry. You can find them on Instagram @kwalker_writes.

The World Is Hard For Little Things

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by C. O. Davidson

Camp Rockaway Christian Camp. The horse barn. I check my watch, and according to Mickey, it’s now more than three hours after lights-out. The horses shift in their stalls, tails swatting flies, they chuff in their sleep. I’m squatting behind this mound of hay, waiting for you. You think you’re coming here to meet Missy again, our cabin counselor, and I bet you’re ready to say anything to get her top up and panties down. But tonight she’s fast asleep, easy as five Benadryl in her Diet Coke.

When I first noticed you, I’d been here a week, would be here the rest of July, my parents both working, and church camp being cheaper than a baby-sitter. The first week, I mouthed the words to “Amazing Grace” and bowed my head at prayers, thinking about my books in my room at home. The next Friday came and with it the new campers for the new week. Standing in the shade of the portico at the rear of the kitchen, hidden, eating a stolen Twinkie, I watched the bus roll into camp. That’s when you and two other boys’ counselors came around the corner, talking about naming the “freshest meat” when the girls stepped off the bus.

I mean, really, I wasn’t surprised. Just like home, all the kids and counselors here are like that: Christiany at the Public Times, the only times that seem to count. But when they think Jesus isn’t watching, they probably make Him want to puke in His name.

So I started following you, at first out of boredom. I spied on you spying on the girls taking showers, laughing at the kids you called queer, drinking your smuggled beers after leading evening prayers. No one was watching me, not the other campers, not our cabin counselor, not the youth minister or lifeguard or arts-and-crafts teacher, canoe instructor, no one ever missed me, this pudgy girl, covered in bug bites and acne, pealing sunburned skin. And you never saw me.

But I saw you. Who you really were when no one was watching your white smile and tan muscles at the lake or listening to your earnest testimony at chapel or you strumming “How Great Thou Art” around the campfire.

But then I really saw you.

The morning after a storm, I was on my way to the showers, early. I had to get there before any other girl might see me naked.

I saw you standing by the path, your back to me, looking down at a small, gray squirrel. The storm must’ve blown her from her nest. She was turning in a circle, blind, until she finally curled up like a fern. You squatted by her. I thought to help. But then you stood, and as I was about to call out, to ask if I could help, you smashed your boot down. Bones cracked. And I froze. Only the tail left intact. Terrified, I couldn’t move. But you never looked around, never checked to see if anyone saw you. You just walked away, pausing only to scrape the sole of your boot along the gravel path. You left a horrible smear of blood and fur behind.

I buried her and prayed. But never told.

Because everyone loves you. And you’re in college.

And I’m just a kid. An ugly, weird girl no one likes.

But tonight you’ll finally see me, and I’ll be a terrible cipher.

I sneeze. For the twelfth time in, like, two minutes. And my nose, it drips and itches. I rub it though my mask, actually more of a hood, made from a feedbag, cinched at my neck with a bit of knotted rope. Soon, you’ll see me. As stars collapse behind your eyes and pull you down into the hell you deserve, you’ll stare up at me in pain and wonder, and see only my blood-slicked bailing hook, swinging down, again and again and again, splitting you open.

I’m thirsty. And hot. And my left butt cheek is cramping from squatting so long.

And you’re late.

………………………………………………………………………………

C. O. Davidson is a founding member of the Atlanta Chapter of the Horror Writers Association. She co-edited the book Monsters of Film, Fiction, and Fables (2018), and her writing has appeared in Dark Moon Digest and is forthcoming in Dark Ink’s collection Generation X-ed. She is on Twitter as @colearydavidson.

The Sacrifice Table: Making Time to Write

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by Gabino Iglesias

Unless you’re a full-time writer, you have to make time to write. Yes, I said make. We all get the same amount of hours each day, and when you subtract the time we spend at work, the time we spend on the road, the time we spend on family, friends, and pets, and, last but not least, the time we spend on things like eating, showering, paying bills, and sleeping…well, time is gone.

I often see writers on social media complaining about the lack of time to write and their very next post is about how they just watched four episodes of their new favorite series in a row. Before we go any further, please understand three things:

  • This is an article in which I discuss a few tricks that might help you make time to write, which means I’m not telling you to never take days off or to not take care of yourself if you feel like you need to watch some true crime instead of writing.
  • Ultimately, you are the only person in charge of your time and you choose how you spend it, so this isn’t me telling you what to do.
  • If you read the preceding two points and still feel the need to argue, you will be ignored. Why? Because I don’t have time to waste on silly arguments.

Okay, so now that what we got those things out of the way, let’s get to the five little things you can do to make time to write:

1. Recognize that any time is a good time for writing

“You should write at night because yadda yadda” or “You have to wake up early and write before the day starts because reasons.” I’ve heard those two and many more. Everyone is right and everyone is wrong; whatever works for you is what works. If you find that early works for you, wake up and kill it. If you start at midnight and that works for you, awesome. I’ve done both. What matters is getting words on the page.

2. Accept you don’t need to have an elaborate/meaningful/theatrical writing ritual

Sit your ass down and write. You don’t need candles or music or coffee or tea or your lucky socks or whatever. I know some of you are mad at that sentence, but the reality is this: if you have half an hour to get shit done and you spend fifteen minutes on your ritual, you spent half of your time on things that didn’t put a single word on the page. If you feel like fighting, please reread the three points above and please wash your lucky socks from time to time. Or don’t, it’s your business.

3. Realize you can write a book in short bursts

When I started writing my next novel I was teaching four classes at a public high school, and MFA courses at SNHU, and had my usual writing and reviewing gigs, so sometimes the only writing I got done was with one hand while wolfing down lunch at school, or for twenty or thirty minutes at night when I was done with everything else. Sure, it was slow, but I managed to write about 40k words that way in a year. Not great, but something. Point is, it can be done.

4. Accept you have to sacrifice things

Yeah, yeah, go read the three points above again. Saying you want to write is easy; writing is hard. I don’t give a fuck about people who say they want something but aren’t willing to put in the work. If you have time to watch four episodes of something, you have time to write. If you have time to post a hundred selfies or pictures of your cat or memes, you have time to write. I’m not saying you have to write, okay? That’s up to you, but good luck selling a book you’ll never finish. If you really want something, you have to make sacrifices, and lounging around or napping for hours when you could be writing is something that kills many careers before they’re even born.

5. Come to terms with the fact that you will never have as much time as you want

This is true even for full-time writers. Responsibilities and deadlines pile up, baby! If you have two hours and you use them to write, you can’t use them to edit. If you use them to edit, you can’t use them to write. It is what it is, so be grateful that you got two hours of work in and start figuring out ways of getting two more.

Only The Stains Remain

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Ebook and paperback now available here!

Jude is a troubled man, a man who is fighting the ghosts from his past, monsters of flesh and blood and bone. As Jude (aptly named by his mother after the patron saint of lost causes) reaches the lake, bloodied and out of breath – it’s clear that he’s running from something. But what?

In the calm vista that is before him Jude pulls from his shoulder his trusty satchel.

Within Jude has collected totems from his past, trophies from the monsters that haunted his childhood – macabre rewards of the revenge he’s enacted for him and his brother Kyle, each one is a memory, each one is a sacrifice, each one is a pain and torment realised and released – all of them a declaration of love for his brother Kyle.

At the water’s edge Jude begins to sift through the items and with each tainted artefact he is forced to remember his troubled upbringing, his childhood that caused him to grow up too soon at the hands of his abusive father and uncles – with their shield of protection gone, the beasts… they soon came to feed.

And so we wait under the weight of tragedy, suffocated by the brutality of childhoods lost to abuse and we wait for Jude’s final judgement.

Because after all is said and done; only the stains remain.

Ross Jeffery is the Bram Stoker nominated and Splatterpunk Award nominated author of Tome, Juniper & Tethered. A Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with with a number of anthologies. His work has also appeared in various online journals. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982

Ten Tips to Survive Twitter

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by Gabino Iglesias

So far we have only talked about publishing in this space. However, the constant drama on Twitter over the past few weeks made me decide to use this month’s column to talk about social media and Twitter in general. Social media was part of my dissertation and it’s something I teach regularly, so while a lot of what you will read here could be called opinions, I assure you that they are educated ones and I offer them here in hopes that they will help folks navigate social media–which is to say I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, tell you how to behave on Twitter, or chastising you for anything you do with your platform. In any case, here are ten tips to help you survive Twitter:

1. Remember it’s not real life

Social media isn’t real. That’s why people always yell at each other and threaten to kick everyone’s ass. This means that most of what happens on it has no effect on your life. This isn’t to say it won’t ruin your mood or push you to take some time off social media, but it will rarely affect what you do with your day on a regular basis.

2. Accept that you won’t change anyone’s mind

Racists, homophobes, Ted Cruz stans, white supremacists; if it’s trash, it’s on social media. If you’re on social media, especially Twitter, you will encounter these people. Trying to change their mind is a waste of time. Would you try to explain to a Klan member why they’re wrong if you saw him at a coffee shop? Would you go to one of those events that are about how Trump will be reinstated in August and try to explain to the people there why that’s not happening? Social media is the same way; no one will change their mind because you have data or live a reality that proves their opinions are wrong, so don’t waste your time trying to do that.

3. Keep in mind that you don’t have to engage with anyone

You don’t owe anyone a thing. Your time and mental health are yours to enjoy and take care of, so only engage when you want to. I can’t stay quiet when I see certain things—racism, transphobia, sexual harassment—but there are plenty I shake my head at and ignore. That helps me keep my blood pressure under control. If someone is yelling about something on Twitter and you don’t care, you can ignore it and talk about something else.

4. Recognize that, to a large degree, Twitter is what you make of it

I’ve been called a spic and beaner, to name two slurs that have been present in my life since I started using social media. I’ve had a reading on Zoom interrupted by racists yelling slurs while I was trying to read. However, most of my interactions are with truly awesome people, positive folks who aren’t out to pick fights because it’s fucking Tuesday or sunny or raining, and amazing artists looking to share their work and the work of others. I choose to surround myself with good people, and that makes Twitter great almost all the time. Will you get the occasional asshole? Of course. Will drama land on your plate as you’re trying to do something else? You bet. Is the horrible side of social media always there? Yup. Can you stay away from it most of the time? Totally. Have you seen the news lately? All of that awfulness is happening in the real world, so it’s normal for it to crawl into social media, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to it all the time or allow it to enter your space.

5. Learn to mute and block people

Remember those slurs I mentioned? Well, anyone who says that to me is blocked. I won’t spend six hours going back and forth with them on social media. Fuck them and fuck that. Any time I spend typing is time I will spend working on articles, novels, short stories, book reviews, or talking to friends and trying to support others. I don’t have time to waste, and people who throw racial slurs around don’t deserve a speck of my time. Block and mute people if they get on your nerves or insult you. Seriously, it’s good for your mental health and will improve your Twitter experience.

6. Accept that people are angry and a lot of them put all their anger on social media

Your tweet: “Good morning, folks! Have a great day.”

First response: “Fuck you! Don’t tell me what to do!”

Second response: “Who da fuck says ‘folks’? lol”

Third response: “You will have a great day if you buy my book! (insert Amazon link)”

Fourth response: (insert huge coffee meme)

Fifth response: “I always try, but I can’t because THE FUCKING GAY AGENDA WON’T LET ME!”

Sixth response: “Sure.”

You get the point. Do you and don’t pay attention to the anger that has nothing to do with you. If we’re being brutally honest, none of us are perfect and we’re all assholes from time to time. Some people will dislike you because of that and, in a way, that’s understandable. However, I lot of people will be angry at you because you seem happy or because you seem to be doing well or because you shared some good news or because you didn’t reply to their 2:15am dick pic or “hey” DM or because you look good in a selfie or because you took a picture of a pretty tree. Their anger is on them, so let them fester in it and soar high above that shit.

7. Accept that followers come and go

I’ve studied social media for a long time and teach it at SNHU and my own workshops. That means I pay a lot of attention from time to time. That also means I know that every action on Twitter has a reaction, and that reaction is often getting unfollowed. I lost dozens of followers because I shared a photo of a dead snapping turtle. I lose ten to twelve followers every time I tweet about how horrible Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Lauren Boebert, or Marjorie Taylor Greene are. I lose followers whenever I talk about diversity in fiction, which also fills my notification with hatred for 24-48 hours. Oh, and every time I support trans people? Mass follower exodus. Shit, sometimes I’ve gone to DM a friendly acquaintance on Twitter about an interview or to ask for a galley and learn they unfollowed me or blocked me. That’s okay. Followers come and go, so focus on doing whatever makes you happy and not on numbers.

8. Learn to take time off if you need it

FOMO is a real thing, but if being on Twitter or any other social media platform is affecting your mental health or keeping you from doing the things you’re passionate about, take a break. Seriously, unplug and do something else. It will all be there when you come back, the good and the bad, and you won’t miss anything more important than your mental health.

9. Internalize the fact that Twitter is part of the public sphere and what you put on it is for public consumption

One thing we spend a lot of time talking about in my workshops is the idea of privacy on social media. Anything you put out there, including DMs, can be made public in about four seconds flat. It’s okay to keep your religion, family, sexuality, hobbies, politics, or health private. There should be some stuff you enjoy and keep to yourself. You can talk about movies or gaming or books or music, but you can also keep some of that stuff to yourself and use it as a refuge when you take time off social media. Don’t want to share anything? That’s cool. I mean this: you don’t HAVE to be on social media. I know plenty of folks who aren’t, and none of them worry about it.

10. Self-care should be your number one priority

Social media is fucking insidious in many ways. You have to learn to combat that by focusing on yourself instead of focusing on it. Making friends is awesome, selling books is great, participating in certain discussions is illuminating and intellectual stimulating…but those things won’t happen if you’re constantly angry and frustrated and want to quit social media. There are many things that matter more than Twitter, so keep in mind why you’re there. Take care of yourself and who/what you love first and then spend whatever time you have left on social media. If it’s the other way around, you might need to rethink your priorities. You matter more than any platform.

The Embalming Room is Off Limits

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by Corey Farrenkopf

Lake hid beside the body-part sink. At least that’s what they called it. They didn’t know the specific term for the sink coroners employed to dispose of innards not destined for the casket. They didn’t even know if that’s what the sink was truly for. It had an opening in its basin large enough to stick two twelve-year-old arms down. What else could it be?

Lake knew this, testing the sink’s depths with Cashel and Mark one day after school.

“It hasn’t been used in years,” Cashel promised. “Just do it. Totally sterile.”

So Lake did, groping for whatever lay below, the cold cast-iron like a tunnel of ice.

“Wouldn’t they do something different with their hearts? Or their kidneys? Or whatever they put down here?” Lake asked.

“Probably now, yeah, but this place has been around since the 1800s. Who knows what weird shit they did with the leftovers.”

***

Lake tucked his sneakers in tighter to his body, trying to shrink himself as much as possible.

Lake and Cashel and Mark were playing hide and seek in the old funeral home Cashel’s mother was converting into condominiums. They usually avoided the embalming room, but Lake had a desire to actually see something, to not live strictly through second-hand stories.

When Cashel’s mother bought the historic structure, much of its previous life was left intact. There were coffins in the attic above the garage. Metal coffins for burials at sea. Wicker coffins woven into odd, pill-like shapes. Baby coffins, two feet long and inhumanly narrow.

Cashel’s mom sold them on eBay.

Each went surprisingly quick.

The first floor was a winding labyrinth of connected rooms, some with wide windows looking over Route 28, others with no windows at all. Most were carpeted in dull yellow swatches smelling of two-hundred-years of dust and the fresh paint recently applied to the ceiling. Electric candelabra stuck from the walls, an attempt at ambiance for grieving families. They’d been disconnected for some time, the wiring a fire hazard according to Cashel’s mother.

***

The sound of footsteps passed through the hall outside the embalming room. Lake held his breath, forcing limbs to still. The steps passed into the garage, across the cement floor, climbing the stairs to where the coffins once sheltered.

The coffin maker’s workshop lay between the garage and what was now Cashel’s bedroom on the second floor. That’s where Lake’s friends heard most of the noises, saw most of the figures wavering between one life and the next.

It always happened at night, they said. The hammering. The sound of a saw shearing boards. Mark had seen globes of light hovering above his sleeping bag, a dozen tiny eyes gazing down at him. Cashel had seen army medics carrying stretchers across the room, translucent bodies suspended between, fingers grazing the floor only to vanish through walls. They had dozens of stories, of sights and sounds divorced from reality.

But Lake had no stories.

His parents didn’t allow sleepovers.

He’d missed so much. The ghosts, yes, but they were only one item on a long list. There was the bonding time, the comic books, the video games played on a tiny tube television. Secrets shared. First crushes. Awkward, pre-pubescent moments. Shared dread. Shared joy.

Lake missed all of it once the sun went down. Maybe today he’d get a glimpse, he told himself, something to align what his best friends experienced, but he lacked. It would almost be like they hadn’t been apart, hadn’t had an extra degree of separation driven into their friendship.

***

The steps continued overhead, then there was the sound of a slap, skin on skin. Cashel had a habit of smacking whoever he found during the game, as if it was some unalterable rule.

“You dick, you don’t need to do that,” he heard Mark say above, his voice muffled by the floor.

“It’s the game buddy. If you’re going to play, you’re going to get slapped,” Cashel replied.

“That’s why it’s better when Lake searches. He doesn’t smack me.”

“I still haven’t found him.”

“I bet he’s outside in the bushes. He loves it back there.”

Then their footsteps drifted away, towards the second story deck and the outdoor staircase beyond.

The boundaries of their game weren’t limited to the house’s innards. The grounds were fair territory. A screen door slammed, then there was silence. Lake let out his breath, shaking his feet that had fallen asleep, pins and needles drifting through ankles. He’d won the game, but he wouldn’t show himself. There was a twinge of pride in outlasting his friends, but there was also the desire to regain something he’d lost.

He held his breath again, searching for the hammering, the saw, the sound of sandpaper over rough wood. Only stillness echoed back. Lake’s eyes darted around the room, searching for movement in the dim blue light filtering through the pulled curtains. Before him was the metal dissection table, the glass fronted cabinet that once held chemicals. There was a chair, a bookcase, a pile of paint cans and foam rollers ready for the next step of renovation. No figure reclined in the chair. No thin man wandered about his duties, slicing and stitching whomever lay upon the table.

Lake could imagine each flicker of translucent skin, each flash of the unseen, but they refused to playout before him. He would never get to know what his friends had seen, to know if they were being honest or messing with him. It’s what he feared, an inside joke he could only view from a distance, through closed windows and locked doors.

Tears climbed his throat, nudging his sinuses. He couldn’t let them come, not when Cashel and Mark would find him soon, all red eyed and puffy. He swallowed hard and swore, accepting his lack, accepting the distance.

Another door slammed out front. Footsteps tracked towards the embalming room, cutting through halls and viewing rooms as if all other hiding spots had been exhausted. Lake stood from his cavity besides the body-sink as Mark and Cashel pushed into the room, dull blue light washing over their faces.

“I thought we promised not to…” Cashel dropped off.

Mark said nothing.

Lake traced their wide eyes to the sink at his elbow, to the silhouette of a man standing over the wash basin, back to them, the flush of water reverberating in the pipes, something seething beneath their feet.

They were together, frozen in place, a moment shared, a question peeled back, the punchline of a joke never spoken.

“Finally,” Lake said as the man shut off the sink and turned to the friends, arms outstretched, something beating clenched in his hand.