Dinner Stains

by River Rivers

$7.25 an hour doesn’t pay the bills.

At least it couldn’t when Tully was a school Janitor. Years passed since those days. He had since moved up in the world, finding respectable work in his trade. His current employer, Immaculate Worship Church, hired him $15.00 at full time with all the included benefits. It was dirty, repetitive, thankless work, but it allowed him to support a large family and spend time with them too.

This morning Tully and his trainee Henry weren’t upkeeping the church grounds, they would be taking the company van out to the worship’s privately owned warehouse. Tully was surprised the boy was ever hired. Henry was a self-proclaimed Protestant, who believed Mary wasn’t an eternal virgin and had natural born children before Christ. Tully reminded Henry when he began to keep his beliefs private. The Immaculate Worship didn’t tolerate such hearsay among its affiliates. Tully learned fast to keep his thoughts to himself. He’d be fired if he told the Elders that the idea of virginity is sexist and promotes slut shaming.

“Be respectful when entering this place,” Tully warned Henry upon arrival. “It’s on these site grounds that the Vestal apprentices who failed to keep their hymens intact before they age to thirty are buried alive under stones to preserve the order’s sanctity.” The Vestals, also called the Roman Women, were virgin priestesses honored among the Immaculate Elders. They attended to the many properties and practices of the church.

The boy nodded his head as he listened, reassuring him with an, “I will, I will.”

They gathered their cleaning supplies into a cart. When allowed inside the warehouse the two Janitors were made welcome by several Vestals. Practicing nudists, the vestals saw the naked form as a non-sexual entity. They were permitted no clothing when performing duties. The common vestal was known for their white cotton masks and pearl jewelry. Their nakedness made Henry uncomfortable. Tully, a married man, took no issue with this and was used to their eerie presence. Only a Lead Mary was allowed to speak on the group’s behalf. Any other Vestals were wraiths that waited in silence, otherwise, they moved about their tasks almost unseen.

The Lead Mary, a tall woman who Tully recognized, greeted them with standard prayers and asked them to drink from the cups her apprentices offered. It was ‘Elders Brew’ a blisteringly hot and bitter tasting liquid which was custom for church hosts to offer their guests. Tully always had to pee minutes after drinking it and would need to use the restroom before getting to work. Henry didn’t feel the need and waited. Upon return he noticed the Lead Mary was carrying a strainer with water miraculously held within, not a single drop had fallen through the mesh holes. She said nothing of it and led them where they needed to be.

The main room was locked and it took an elder’s own key for the Lead Mary to open it. She blessed them with a bow and left. “Is it true that come Armageddon the Elders will sell the Vestals to powerful men in order to secure assets? Virgins go for a high bride price.” The Trainee asked him the moment she was out of earshot.

“What did I say about respect, boy? The Elders could be listening.”

They opened the door to a warm blast of stinking air. Enough to make any man vomit. A poor ventilation system and smoke coming from a recently abandoned fire pit worsened the smell. The scene was pure gore. They walked to the table over lily flowers that covered the floor from corner to corner. By the bust of Athena displayed in the center, he determined this warehouse room was set up to mimic the Parthenon Dining Hall of the main church building. He pictured the Elders in here during the twilight hours clinking their dinnerware and casting spells.

We are cleaning after a Conception Feast. Henry is not ready to see this, thought Tully.

The sins of the cult needed to be washed away. The dinner remains were left a bloody mess as if a giant had spilled a cup of deep red wine onto the room’s contents. Blood didn’t simply stain the symbolic marriage-bed-sheets hung up like tapestries. It stuck to the dinner plates, congealed together in pools on the tablecloth, splattered onto silverware, filled bowls to the brim, even the glasses contained foggy fingerprints. There were too many knives to count and a tattered white dress tossed aside to be forgotten. Strange symbols and words spread out and written in a language he could not read. The evidence of virginal sacrifice and spiritual consumption were obvious. Nothing Tully hadn’t seen or cleaned after before.

However, the boy wasn’t expecting this, he was in shock and trying to process the scene before him. Tully informed Henry they would need more than what was brought in the cart if the task was to be completed in time. Sending him to the van for supplies would save him from viewing the nearby body. Henry would have no idea that the girl’s sacrifice would allow a Vestal, most like the Lead Mary, to become pregnant with a future Master and Elder. That a Vestal was prophesied this century to give birth to the next Prophet, the next Saviour.

Tully then remembered that Conception Feasts came in pairs and a male virgin was more valuable than a female in the eyes of the Immaculate. This sin was forgiven, but soon another will be committed. Suddenly he feared for his trainee Henry. That was a stain he didn’t want to scrub out.

River Rivers is a writer lost in the Cascadian mountain lands of Oregon. He spends his time with his two adopted Pitbulls, Gemma and Murphy. Somehow in between their chaos, he finds a time for work and fiction.

Gay Cowboy Vampire Highlander

by Duane Simolke

My cowboy vampire highlander wears only a kilt and cowboy boots. The kilt his mother made for him. The cowboy boots were a gift from an American ex-boyfriend, cursed with good looks and bad timing. He turned my love into a vampire on a moonlit night before going home to Texas and an arranged marriage.

My cowboy vampire highlander has absolutely torn every shirt with his hairy beer belly. He wears them tight or not at all. Being turned immortal while failing on a diet never worked out for anyone, but I never needed a muscle man, just a man who loves me forever.

He steals my heart attacking druids who try to sway me with the spices they mix in their magic grinder. They can’t steal me from him, even when they splash him with holy water or chase him on horses with stakes and swords.

Legend has it that a bear roams the Scottish highlands. That bear roams the hills and valleys of my heart and shares my bed. He slips into it wearing the cowboy boots, but not the kilt. Never the kilt.

Duane Simolke lives in Lubbock, Texas. Three of his books received StoneWall Society Pride in the Arts Awards, and one received an AllBooks Reviewers Choice Award. He edited and co-wrote the fundraiser The Acorn Gathering: Writers Uniting Against Cancer. DuaneSimolke.com includes some of his writing, as well as a variety of links to his work.


by S. Kearing

None of us can say for sure when it started. But we all know that something just isn’t right with Serena Sellers.

Maybe it began when her feelings for Amity Fleming transitioned from mere annoyance to boiled-over hatred. Maybe it began when she took up with Professor Moriarty, a move we all considered cliché as hell.

Maybe it began when the black talons of Serena’s jealousy closed in on Craig Honig, choking the Craig Honig right out of him. He used to be the hub of our social group, but now he belongs to Serena and Serena alone. His agreeable disposition and good-natured sarcasm have been replaced by uncharacteristic rigidity and a constant scathing commentary. Basically, Serena poisoned him, and by extension, poisoned our group. But we can’t cut her from us like a tumor from flesh. If we did, we’d lose Craig, too.

So my sisters and I have a sleepover. That’s right—a slumber party.

Our sorority house is filled with the scent of buttered popcorn and the early spring air that flows in through our windows, which we always leave open just a crack. Throughout drunken Twister and a raucous game of Never Have I Ever and the arrival of our greasy pizza, Cara and I notice something.

Serena is giggling, making inappropriate jokes, and swigging her craft beer merrily. This is the old Serena—the one that we know and love. It’s Craig that’s insufferable. And it’s not because Serena’s hanging on him or whispering in his ear; on the contrary, she’s spending most of her time catching up with the girls. Everything that Craig does, he does of his own volition.

He makes joke-veiled criticisms about our bodies as we contort them over the colorful play mat. He refuses to drink after the Never Have I Ever prompts for which he should clearly be imbibing. He takes way more than his share of pizza, then proceeds to pick off almost every topping.

After everyone’s eaten, Cara holds up a tattered game box and announces, “Ouija time, guys! Go wash your hands and then come see me.”

“Wash our hands?” Serena says.

“We always clean up before we start one of Cara’s spooky activities,” I say, hoping I sound casual. “You don’t wanna go into something like Ouija dirty—physically or in any other way.”

Craig sneers. “‘In any other way?’”

“Meaning energetically. If you’ve got dirty energy, you’ll attract dark spirts! Duh.” Cara says, lightening the mood with her obvious enthusiasm for all things esoteric.
Thankfully, everyone washes their hands, even Craig.

Cara stations herself in front of the coffee table, hovering a bundle of lit sage over her “sacred” bowl. “Everyone, before you sit, let me smudge you with this white sage.”
“Welp,” Craig says. “I’ve never been smudged before.” He bumps past the girls who are arranged single-file before Cara. “And if I actually wait in this horrible line, I could die a smudge virgin!”

When our cynical guest presents himself to Cara, she volleys me a satisfied look. But then we notice a shift in Craig’s demeanor as he takes in the fragrant smoke billowing from the bound herbs.

“May Craig Honig be cleansed of all negativity, darkness, and stagnation,” my sorority sister chants, beckoning him to come closer.

“Wait.” He takes a quick back step. There’s a franticness in his voice when he says, “That stuff is making my eyes hurt.”

“Oh, come on, Craigy. Let her clean you, ya filthy animal,” Serena jibes, pushing him forward again.

He shrugs off her hands with shocking volatility. “Stop it, Serena. Can’t you see I’m allergic?” He turns toward her, revealing swollen eyelids and reddened cheeks. He barrels out of the room, unconcerned with who or what he bumps into.

“Allergic to sage?” Clara frowns at the smoldering bundle.

Serena chases after Craig. Before long, we hear them burst out the front door and pound down the wooden steps.

“Jeez,” I say to Cara. “Those two are getting ruder by the day.”

“It’s fine.” She puts out the burning herbs with some bottled water. “All the sage in the world probably couldn’t’ve cleansed him.”

I offer my immediate assent. “Yup.”

It’s true. Something just isn’t right with Craig Honig.

S. Kearing is a night owl who loves writing dark fiction inspired by the works of Gillian Flynn, Lionel Shriver, Blake Crouch, Stephen King, and Han Kang. She has just signed a contract with Horror Tree for her short story entitled “Servitude.”

The Clearing

by G. R. McNeese

Darrius abhorred spring cleaning, despite the fact his dorm room was the most immaculate. It was more of the fact that during his Spring Break, his mother Ava set up an entire weekend to cleaning the house. This year, she gave him the task of cleaning the basement. Of all the rooms, Darrius hated the basement the most. He complained that it always smelled like someone died. Despite his grumbling, Ava smiled and handed him the cleaning tools. He marched downstairs, hiding the disdain on his face.

“Well,” said Darrius, “let’s get this over with.”

He turned on the lights and immediately went to the radio sitting on the window sill. He twisted the knob, searching for the station that was broadcasting the basketball tournament. It came out a little fuzzy, but was satisfactory for him. Dust rose from the linoleum floor as he swept. It entered his mouth and he coughed as though he swallowed a fly. He swept the dirt into the dustpan and deposited it into the trash can.

This went on for an hour. The basement was so muggy from the lights giving off heat. Even with the handkerchief wrapped around his head, Darrius wiped his forehead on multiple occasions. Ava came downstairs, admiring her son’s hard work. She carried a stack of boxes to the workbench. She then pulled totes from underneath the bench.

“Mind helping me with this stuff?”

Darrius released the broom and slid each of the totes away. He then noticed something he hadn’t before. A small wood door with a latch.

“Mom, what’s this?”

Ava kneeled down underneath the bench. They looked at each other clueless. Darrius grabbed a flashlight and opened the door. A strong stench overtook their noses. Darrius gagged.

“I think this is where the smell is coming from.”

He entered the crawl space. He waved his flashlight, but all that was there was mounds of insulation. He crawled further until he felt something soft. He backtracked and shined the light. He sifted through the mounds of fluff and became amazed at what was buried.
“Darrius, what’s in there?” Ava asked.

“You’re not going to believe this.”

Darrius pulled himself out with a black bag in tow.

“There’s our culprit.”

He slung the bag onto the open floor. They untied the bag and gasped in shock. The bag was full of decayed kittens. Ava covered her mouth and tears started to run down her cheeks. Ava ran up the stairs. Darrius turned off the radio just as the announcer reported the biggest upset of the first round; the Wildcats lost.

G. R. McNeese started writing in eighth grade. He originally went to college pursuing a teaching degree, but changed it to English with a Creative Writing concentration. He primarily writes Contemporary short stories, but lately he’s been trying new genres.

Three Weeks

by C. Joy

Teresa stumbled, the underbrush grasping her feet as she plunged towards the shore. The sound of breaking waves roared nearby. The island was caught in the last rays of daylight, and she quietly begged the sun to have mercy for a few minutes longer. A lone howl made her cast a fearful glance behind her. They were already looking.

Jerkily, she clambered over the slippery, moss covered rocks. Surviving on worms, beetles and little sleep made her muscles scream. Her breath was uneven, coming in short gasps and grunts. The sharp rocks cut her hands, but she ignored the pain, terror pressing her on. A misstep sent her sliding down a large boulder, leaving a crimson trail along the jagged surface and sea green moss. She screamed in frustration, climbing back up. The darkening night air filled with howls and moans, making her skin prickle. The last place she had found solace still lay a hundred yards away.

The yacht lay sideways in a shallow pool. It drifted lifeless, each wave mocking its inability to free itself. Finally, last of the sun disappeared, leaving her to blindly stumble across the uneven rocks. The air was thick, borderline electric. A distant rumble of thunder joined a brilliant burst of lightning.

A storm was coming. Even the stars had hid from the horrors to come.

He mentioned the island on their first date. His story fascinated her, but so had his bright blue eyes. The horrifying tale of an insane asylum on a deserted island, home to the worst and most terrifying , the blight of society. Church leaders and psychiatrist argued between mental illness or demonic possession, he scoffed. Fearing the latter, the Lady Sovereign of the Ursuline Convent was consulted. Soon, fourteen seasoned nuns arrived to manage and care for the asylum.

In theory, it was perfect. The ultimate humanitarians caring for the morally and mentally deranged. They were horribly wrong. Indiscernible scrawls and terrifying images covered every wall and ceiling. Notes were found, detailing futile exorcisms, patients vomiting nails, blood running down the walls, and concerns of a heavy presence of evil.

Nobody survived.

She had listened, scared and enthralled. A small graveyard bordered the convent and asylum, tombstones dated older than both. Years after they closed the asylum, it was there that they’d found the nuns bodies. Chained, nailed, and burned, they were found in various, ritualistic forms of torment, evidence of the evil residing within.

Three weeks ago. Their third date. Out of the blue, he’d suggested a quick sail. Once on the water, he asked if she wanted to see the island. She should have said no.

The sky lit with a deafening peal of thunder. In that brief second, glimpsing an incoming swell, she noticed the waves increasing size and intensity. Panic kicked her sleep deprived brain. Desperately, her round eyes picked a path to the yacht. Glancing behind her, she realized it was impossible to go back as the rocks had been swallowed by the growing waves. And the yacht was dancing in a deepening pool, threatened to break free. She could see a sliver of grass just beyond the yacht. Ribbons of a sand dune crest connecting the rocky shore and the island. The island she was running from.

The sky bellowed with another flash of lightning. In that second, everything changed. A wail escaped her, hope splintering around her. It was the flash of the emblem on the broken hull that caused her to cry out. She had hoped, prayed that he’d escaped. And would return to rescue her. That this was a different yacht she’d stumbled on three long days ago. Waves crashed around her, breaking her trance as the sinking realization overcame her. She would never leave this island. Sobbing, she debated letting go, letting the sea claim her.

But she didn’t.

Tired, weak, shoeless, with her shredded shirt and shorts barely covering the countless bloodied crosses she had cut onto her skin, she climbed past the broken yacht toward the grass and sand. Teresa de Meo, a forbidden descendant of Father Gabrielle de Meo, stood and faced the island of Evil.

Howling wind and sharp needles of rain began to sting her cheeks. Black, wet tendrils of hair whipped her face. Taking a long ragged breath, she began to grasp that this night had been set in motion an eternity before. Destiny had patiently waited, until a man with bright blue eyes and a story like a sirens song lulled her here. Her great-great-grandfather, Father de Meo was a powerful, righteous man. His blood, forged centuries before, was destined to war against the evil Blackness throughout the ages. This blood of triumph and loss mingled with the insatiable need for eternal vengeance, carried for centuries, now stirred within her.

The hair on the back of her neck rose in response to the howls and moans closing in. Her fingers, wet with blood, curled around the silver crucifix in her pocket. One night, as she scoured the island for relief from the night terrors, she had found the crucifix clutched in the hand of a nuns corpse, still chained upside down on the cemetery gate.

She’d been here three weeks. Twenty one days. She had lost four days of memory, and almost her mind to the taunting voices in the asylum. She’d fled to the abandoned convent seeking refuge. Instead, fourteen angry souls tormented her, their work interrupted and unfinished. She spent nights running and hiding in crags, holes and trees, caught in an ageless war between the righteous dead and spirits of darkness, a war no mortal could survive. She knew victory wasn’t promised, but neither was defeat. Gingerly, she made her way up the path.

He was waiting at the gate. She clasped her trembling hands, the crucifix tightly hid within. Small sobs of fear threatened to overtake her.

“Good Evening, Teresa. We’ve been waiting for you,” he whispered, his blue eyes dancing.

Living in the middle cornfields and an occasional burst of trees, C. Joy calls the Midwest home. Writing for fun, but dreaming to hit it big.

Lost Cassandra

by Holly Hearn

Cassandra waded through her malaise to the replicator. She ordered a chai latte, refusing to admit that this would be the most interesting thing she’d experience today. And the next day, and the day after, and the day after…

Mug in her thin hands, she shuffled over to the wall to wall glass windows. Outside, a white hot, tiny star was tethered to a spiral of plasma by its own life force, circling the drain and bleeding into an unknown.

Staring stoically into the abyss, she sipped her latte. There was no soundtrack for this spectacle, save the undercurrent hum of the generators, though she’d long since gotten used to those. The power for the station came from solar panels pointed at the lone star and its parasite; eventually it would run out.

Everything ran out in the end. It had been five years since her only companion died. Suicide, blew himself out of an airlock. She tried not to blame herself, but did wonder if he’d still be here if she’d been more accommodating.

No one else would be along. The slingshot trajectory from the next nearest base passed directly through the black hole’s event horizon, making any approach impossible. It also made transmissions back home impossible. Nobody knew she was still here. Cassandra would have normally retired by now from her position as the station’s chief astrophysicist, but as it was she’d given up collecting data ages ago, and now pottered about aimlessly in a desperate attempt to drown out the ticking of her life, slipping like so many grains of sand through her grasping fingers.

Suffering the silence no longer, she put on some music to fill the air around her. It would be another day of basic maintenance on the life support systems, followed by existential poetry. Until the music faded.

“Incoming transmission.”

“Don’t be silly,” she murmured. “Any transmission heading this way would get sucked in by that damned black hole.”

“Play incoming transmission?”

Cassandra halted, brushing a silver lock behind her ear. It was exactly this sort of interruption she’d longed for, and now feared. The moments slipped past. Her heart raced.

“Play incoming transmission?”

“…oh, fine, go ahead.”

Static filled the void she preferred to plaster with music, but eventually a voice struggled through.

“Cassandra! Cassandra…”

Her heart stopped, lodged in her throat. The voice belonged to a stranger. She’d never heard it before, but they knew her.

“Cassandra, I hope you’re listening. I’ll start with the most important part, in case I get cut off: I love you. With all my heart.”

The stranger was female. Cassandra wracked her brain, but could not think of anyone who would have such a deep connection to her. She never married, never loved anything but her work.

“I’ll never give up, I’ll never stop searching. You’re my everything.”

Cassandra felt herself relax, a tension she’d barely realized unknotting itself as she warmed to the genuine feeling in the woman’s voice. She stood frozen, drink forgotten in her trembling hands. She wouldn’t risk missing a single word, the first thing said to her in five years and the first thing ever said to her that moved her.

“I know you could be anywhere in time or space, or maybe you’re everywhere in time and space. I don’t know. But I know I still feel you beside me when I sleep at night, I know you’re somewhere waiting. I love you, and I’m coming for you, Cassandra. I’m coming.”

“End of transmission.”

Cassandra’s insides were tangled, emotions she didn’t realize she had swirling and constricting her. Above the din rose hope. Someone was looking for her. Someone who would devote their life to finding her. A shaking hand released its grip on the mug to reach up and brush away the foreign object that escaped from her eye and raced down her cheek.

“Computer,” she whispered. “where did this transmission come from?”

“Origin unknown.”

“At what point did you detect the transmission?”

“Within one astronomic unit.”

“What? There’s nothing that close by…”

Her eyes drifted to the window, watching the molten spiral spinning lethargically as it sucked the life from the nearby star. The appearance of the black hole had cut them off from any supplies or chance of returning home, but had also opened up the possibility of jumping across time and space. Several expeditions had departed for the singularity in the name of why not, she remained behind…just in case.

What if something finally escaped?

Cassandra spent the rest of the day playing the transmission over and over again. She fell in love with the voice, heart full of hope and head full of ideas about who this person could be. Each day she listened to the transmission. Each day could now be the day she was found.

Holly Hearn is a multi-genre fiction writer and budding poet. Her favourite genres are horror and sci-fi, and she enjoys writing flash fiction. She is also the founder of Itchen to Write, a group for Hampshire, UK writers. Follow her on Twitter @hearningcurve and read more of her work, including her book reviews, at ashandfeather.com

The Bookstore

by Goody Niosi

Madison started small: a packet of chewing gum and a candy bar from the 7-11. And even then, she only did it on a dare.

“Bet you’re too scared to steal anything!” Barb had said.

“No I’m not.”

“Oh yeah? Prove it!”

So she’d gone in, wandered up and down the aisles and when she was sure the clerk was busy ringing through a customer, she’d slipped the items into her pocket, then walked casually to the magazine rack, leafed through Teen Vogue, put it back on the rack, shrugged, and waved her fingers at the clerk as she pushed the door open.

She was sweating, her legs trembling.

“So?” Barb asked.

Madison emptied her pocket. “No big deal,” she said.

“Sure isn’t – like that’s all you got?”

“Well why don’t you go in there if it’s no big deal?”

“Can’t now – not two in a row. They’d get suspicious.”

Madison decided “never again.” It wasn’t worth it. She looked behind her all day, expecting to see a policeman with handcuffs. Would she get expelled from Junior High if anyone found out?

She didn’t think about stealing again until she lived on her own with a roommate. Brigitt was struggling between night school and a minimum wage job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Madison worked at a Hallmark store in the big mall at the north end of the city.

They split the rent of a small basement suite and shopped together for food. Most nights they ate eggs and toast or mac and cheese. One Friday, while they cruised the aisles of Loblaw’s looking for specials, Brigitt slipped two cans of salmon inside her bag.

“Won’t they know?” Madison asked.

“No – we’re good,” Brigitt said.

They paid for their Kraft dinners, a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, a jug of skim milk, and a bag of apples. They walked out, Madison certain she would hear an alarm. Nothing.

That night they ate salmon salad sandwiches. “Best meal ever!” Madison said.

They didn’t steal food every week – just when money was extra scarce – or when one of them craved something special.

One day Brigitt came home with a new T-shirt tucked under her sweater.

“Tell me you didn’t shoplift that.” Madison said.

“I did so.”

“Holy cow! What if you get caught?”

“You have to take off the tag – that’s all,” she said.

“But what if they’re watching?”

“You take it into the dressing room.”

“What if they have cameras?”

“Look for them. They won’t anyway – for sure not in the smaller stores.”

One Saturday afternoon, they walked into a busy gift shop on Queen Street West. Its shelves were crowded with small stuffed animals, colouring books for adults, replicas of old Toronto streetcars, and photo place mats. Earrings and bracelets hung from a wooden rack.

Brigitt tucked a set of earrings into a pocket. Madison slipped a bracelet into her bag. They took a couple more pieces each and walked slowly out of the store. They had taken about a dozen steps when they heard “Hey! Thief – Stop!”

They ran. “Split up!” Brigitt gasped.

Madison turned a corner, reached into her bag, flung the bracelet onto the sidewalk. She fumbled in her pocket, dug out two pairs of earrings, threw them behind her, ran around another corner, tore across a street and ran and ran.

She ran down an alley, past overflowing garbage bins, dodged a skinny grey cat, and barrelled to a stop at a door, slightly ajar. She walked down a dark, narrow hallway and into a bookstore. At the raised front counter, an old man was bent over a book, glasses sliding down his nose, white tufts of hair sticking up over his ears, a dim light bulb painting a round sun on his smooth, bald skull.

The man looked up. “You’re back.”

Madison nodded.

“It was inevitable, you know. You can’t escape your plot line.”

“But I don’t want to be a thief! I don’t want to go to prison! I don’t want any of it – the gangs and the recidivism and all the horrible crap that goes on inside jail.”

The man shook his head. “I wish I could help you. I can’t. You need to go back now. I can’t sell a book missing its main character.”

He pulled a volume from under the counter. The Reluctant Thief. He opened it, laid it on top of a stack of magazines. “Just slip in.”

Madison stared at the open pages of the book. “How does it end?”

“I can’t tell you that,” the old man said.

She walked toward the back of the store.

“Don’t be stubborn, Madison. Don’t make me use force. This is your second escape – I won’t have you doing it again.”

He reached for her. Madison grabbed a book, opened it – and jumped.

“And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts – his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.”

Madison stood in a group of more than a dozen women dressed in nineteenth century bonnets and crinolines.

“Where am I?” she whispered to the older woman closest to her.

“Oh!” the woman said. “Who are you? You’re not in costume!”

“I know – but what…”

“Are you in the wrong book, dear?”

“Sort of.”

“Well – I suppose you can be a sister or a cousin or an aunt.”

“Of who?”

“The admiral. Can you sing?”

“Not well.”

“You may just have to mouth the words.”

“To what?”

“HMS Pinafore of course.”

“You’re joking.”

“Oh no – only the main characters get to joke. But it’s great fun and you get to rest a lot being in the chorus.”

Madison learned the sisters, cousins and aunts bits of the chorus quickly enough. But all the free time was boring and she considered her options – back to The Reluctant Thief? Or should she try Harry Potter. Hogwarts would be such fun. But escaping the pages – that was only possible when someone opened the covers.

She could only hope that a Gilbert and Sullivan fan entered the store before the pages yellowed and faded with age.

Goody Niosi began life in the film industry as an editor and later, a director. For the past twenty years, she has worked as a freelance journalist and has had five books published focused mainly on biographies. In the past year or so, she has fallen in love with the short story form. You can find her random ramblings on her website: goodyniosi.com

Breaking Ground

by Tianna Grosch

Flower buds poke gentle heads above ground to seek the sun’s stretching fingers. She throws her own fingers high above her head, reaching as far as she can until her shoulders pop and crack. Throwing her head back, her hair falls over her back like a cascading waterfall, rippling.

She breathes fresh air smelling of final frost and sets to work breaking ground, the teeth of her shovel biting deep into the dirt. She digs until her palms blister against the wooden handle, until they are scraped and stinging.

The hole is as big around as a fire pit, perfect for roasting marshmallows or summoning demons. She empties a box of kindling into the pit. She rummages inside another box until her fingers touch something soft. A stuffed animal, big beady eyes and stitched fake fur gazing up at her.

She throws it in the hole and pulls out a box of matches. She strikes one match, the smell of sulfur lingering in the air as she tosses the little flame into the pile and watches the fire expand, hungrily devouring its fuel.

The box contains old love letters – scraps of paper confessing undying devotions. It contains dried roses, hung upon a wall and forgotten. The box contains secrets and things better forgotten. A strip of cloth, a bit of lace. A leather-bound journal with its spine cracked and cover faded.

All of it belongs to the fire. Its flames lick and smile. She watches it burn and her lips curl. Tendrils of smoke caress her, tracing across her hips, playing with strands of hair, circling her eyes. She becomes clean, unburdened by what once held her down.

The fire crackles until it has finished its feast.

She will return under the cover of darkness. She will take off her shoes and walk through the pit, to feel what her past secrets have become. In the dead of night, a chorus of springtime frogs and crickets will serenade her as she dances in the ashes.

Tianna Grosch lives in the woodlands of PA, works as Assistant Editor at Times Publishing Newspapers in Bucks County, and received her MFA at Arcadia University this past May. Her work has previously appeared in New Pop Lit, The Odyssey and Loco Mag, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine and Paragon Journal. Follow her on Twitter: @tiannag92