Featured

The Writing Will Soon Begin…

This is the post excerpt.

As we haphazardly scramble along our trip into madness, our thoughts will spill forth on this page like vomit from an exorcism… or blood from a gut wound… or pus from a zit.

Your welcome for all of those lovely images. Check in often, fellow voyagers.

insanity

Z

Slender, rough-hewn arms stretched toward the patchwork ceiling. My eyes followed them spasmodically hopping from trunk, to branch, to twig, to delicate leaf, finally landing on the wall upon which a living crevice grew.

That crack fed daily. Often I wondered if others were aware of its meals, bits and pieces of soul and energy it siphoned from unknowing bodies. I, of course, know.

It was the knowing that originally brought me into the lion’s den. Figuratively, of course. I’m not that crazy.

Walls of shabby white surrounded the crevice and me, closing me into a space I had no hopes of escaping. All of this wasn’t my fault, though. None of it was.

My eyes drifted lazily back to the soil-filled pot in the corner. More than dirt and water fed the burgeoning plant.

With a clarity becoming dread, I realized the leaves had morphed. No more were they the tender green children of the tree’s womb. Slitted blue eyes hung from the twigs with the tenacity of an infant’s clenched fingers about a mother’s lock of hair.

Tails of blood-red veins sprouted from the backs of those fluid-filled sacks, twisting angrily up the stalks and trunk, grappling for a spot closer to the fire-drips of sun leaking through the window.

“You have no brain,” I wondered aloud. “Where will the signals travel?”

The thing shuddered. Flowering eyes glared, invisible eyebrows knotting in fury.

A fresh dancing, disturbed limb emerged from the densely packed dirt, leaning further to the left than the originals.

Although a facet of me felt the intense desire to crunch myself into a ball as far as I could in the corner of the tiny room, a larger section urged me forward. My thinly-socked feet slid across the worn wood of the rocking chair, landing with the soft thrumming scrape of a leaf against a window.

“Shhh,” I heard my teeth scratch, an attempt to mollify the not-quite-sentient thing in the corner.

My arm cut 90-degree angles at my waist, reaching toward the eye-plant with little desire. And yet. And yet I could not back away.

Mouse steps carried me forward.

Leaves crinkled, daring me to move in closer. Are those teeth?

Three steps more. Now only two. The aura was changing and I felt the a cold hatred emanating in waves from its being.

Suddenly it grabbed me, fully with knives of ice slamming into my chest. I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, couldn’t breathe.

It owned me and I felt complete dread such that my arms and legs refused to obey.

“Please,” my muffled voice pushed through the cotton-like presence, shrapnel of memories shooting into the center of my muddled mind. My hands, grasping at a tiny face, willing it to stop its crying. I couldn’t. I couldn’t have this alien mishmash. I couldn’t.

For a moment, I was filled with rage, rage that poured into me as molten metal is poured into a mold. It shaped me into something pitiful – pitiful and terrifying.

And then – and then I was hollow.

“I’m sorry… oh god, I’m sorry.” Hands gripped my ears, pulling on the lobes, moving to the tiny hairs at my temples. If I could only pull enough, cause enough pain, I would be brought back to reality. I would forget the mutilated body of my once-daughter dripping in the corner.

A plethora of visions slammed against my cranium, shoving out any sanity that had taken refuge in the most distant corners of my mind. I’d attempted to push them down, repress them out of need, but those giant kaleidoscope eyes came now. Staring. Devouring. Occupying me.

My baby had breathed. She had cried. I remembered. Oh god, I remembered.

They had come – like clockwork – every afternoon for an entire year. Although I could never understand how no one else had noticed, I had known the truth myself. They were aliens – disgusting beings from another world who deemed my body their property.

Its hands had been slimy, greasy. Every time. Every single time. I hated it. I hated it so much. And yet, somehow, I hated myself more.

My child had wriggled. Her little eyes had scrunched. Squeezed out the tears as I had squeezed her out of my memory.

I couldn’t. It wasn’t my fault. She wasn’t mine. Not really. She had always belonged to them. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t give them one more mutant half-breed.

An elongated gasp rasped from my chest as I swallowed the sobs strangling me.

“Forgive me, Z.” It was less an apology and more of a plea.

‘Z’ I called her. The end of the alphabet – the end of me.

The end of me.

All In The Family

by Caelyn Shaner

I stare at my grandmother, sitting in the creaky plastic chair across the small beige diner-like table. I imagine her as she once was, distinguished silver hair pulled back in a ladylike bun. A lively twinkle in her dark eyes, wrinkles forming around her lips from laughing. In another life, she had carried herself with grace and dignity, back straight, shoulders pulled back with an air of decorum.

That is not the woman who watches my every miniscule movement now. Uncombed gray wires stand above her head in a wadded mass of tangles, like an uneven blob of steel wool. The deep creases in her face make her appear permanently shocked and terrified. Her eyes look like cavernous black voids now, no life emanating from them but unending fear that seems to pour from the very depths of her soul. A drab, baggy dress sits crookedly on her small frame, exposing one bony age-blemished shoulder. I move my hand toward my cup of tea, and her eyes dart from my face to my slow fingers like she’s a hawk.

She grabs it suddenly, her clawing nails biting into my wrist so hard I wince. “Ow, grandma! Let go!”

Her onyx eyes turn wild now, her sunken face twitching nervously. “That outfit! Where did you get it?” she yips.

“It’s a uniform,” I answer, rolling my eyes. “I thought mom told you I got a new job. They had an opening since you left.”

“No!” she shrieks violently, her frantic grasp yanking my nearly out of my seat. “You can’t! Quit, now! Get out of there before they get to you!”

I don’t have time to respond before the orderly rapidly intervenes, peeling her off me and dragging her towards the door, muttering that if she couldn’t behave she would be sent back to her room. Exasperated and rattled, I stand to leave.

“I was hoping you’d be better,” I call across the room as she is escorted out of the family meeting area. “But it doesn’t end, does it? You’re just as crazy as ever!”

Her screaming recedes down the hall as I storm out of the facility, fed up as always.

 

The elevator shudders as it nears the top floor, making my heart flutter. I shake my head to dislodge the unease as it comes to a shaky halt and the doors creak open. I step over the threshold, trying to calm my nerves as the lights – what few there are that work – flicker ominously. Under my breath I curse my boss for sending me to a closed floor to clean. It’s easy to blame him for this among everything. Overworked, underpaid, and looked down upon for being a toilet-scrubbing maid, I am constantly exhausted and enraged and the supervisor with his many human faults makes for an easy target. Really though, it’s not his fault that they keep two rooms open up here for traveling med students. If the space were available for them to sleep on an open floor, I’m sure they would. But it’s such a small local facility, we must make do with what we have.

Walking down the darkened hallway around the corner, I make my way to the rooms. “Housekeeping,” I call lightly as I knock on the wooden door. I slip my key into the lock when I hear no reply and walk inside, my gloved hands holding a sanitized cloth and toilet cleaner.

The stench hits me like a wall… That raw, heady boy smell, like my teenaged brother’s bedroom. The bed linen lies twisted and strewn across the mattress. A collection of personal belongings clutters the nightstand, street clothes sit in rumpled piles all over the floor like animal droppings, and various kinds of junk food sit on every flat surface in the room. Working my way through the mess, I reach the restroom and see a dirty towel tossed on the floor in front of the shower. The toilet seat is erect, water marks splatter the vanity mirror, and I find smeared toothpaste and beard clippings in the sink.

The irritated complaints never stop falling from my lips as I do my best to clean the disheveled room, careful not to upset his possessions.

Locking the door behind me and setting up my wet floor sign outside, I hold my breath as I approach the second room. Again, no answer, so I let myself in.

This time, it’s a pleasant surprise. The trash receptacles are almost entirely empty, the bed is perfectly made, only one towel in the hamper, and the restroom is practically spotless except for the handful of bottles of multivitamins sitting on the ledge of the vanity.

As I finish up, I murmur to myself, “If these two lived together, they would have killed each other. Hell, I would have killed the guy myself.”

I’m just closing the door behind me, when I hear something crash loudly inside. Jumping in terror, I rush back in to see what happened.

Before me stand a young man and woman in powder blue scrubs, screaming at each other. The lamp, which had previously been placed on the nightstand, is lying shattered on the freshly cleaned tile.

My lips part to express my concern, but stop short, too petrified to move any further. I watch in frigid, motionless horror as the man turns away from her angrily and begins to stalk towards me. He doesn’t even seem to notice I’m standing in his way, doesn’t bother to even meet my eyes. I fly out of the way, pressing myself against the wall, making myself as tiny as I can seconds before her storms past. An overwhelming urge to run engulfs me. Before I can react, however, the woman grabs a sturdy ceramic vase and hurls it directly at me. I duck, barely in time, and it soars over my head, crashing into the back of the man’s head with a nauseating thud. He drops to the floor before my eyes, blood pooling around him like thick crimson ink.

I don’t wait for the woman to turn her sights on me; I bolt from the room, leaping over the man’s body and skittering across the tile floor, heading clumsily for the stairwell. I refuse to wait for that ancient, rattling elevator. I race down the four flights of stairs, panting heavily, and sprint for the front desk.

“Rapid…response…” I wheeze, slumped over the counter. “Fourth floor…”

Jumping to action, she immediately called for the emergency response team over the intercom.

 

I tremble, heart thundering, my teeth physically clattering as I raise a shaking hand to unlock the door.

I had shakenly made my way to my boss’ office just after alerting the receptionist. After explaining the events that I had witnessed filled out the reports he handed me. I was sent home, an act of compassion on his part after what I’d just experienced.

He had called the next morning asking me a litany of questions of how much stress I was under at work and if I’d been feeling okay, then suggested I use some sick time to rest.

I obliged.

Today, however, I have finally returned to work. Per my boss’s request, I’ve gone to clean those same rooms. I am to report to him immediately after finishing with any details about how I handle the situation – an odd instruction, I think, but I’m not going to argue.

I open the first door, my breath shallow and uneven.

I expect everything to be cleared out. The blood-soaked body has been removed – this is a medical facility, after all. Surely they have completely washed down everything in the area. The hallway looks perfectly in order.

I realize with mildly horrified perplexity as that familiar stench fill my nostrils that that was not the case. Trash overflow from the cans, new piles of dirty laundry lay crumpled on the floor, and a freshly spilled soda sits tipped on the floor next to the bed. Confused, I back out of the room, shivering uneasily as I gently rap on the second door before unlocking it. I find it nearly spotless once again, with only a few minor wrinkles in the bedspread and a couple of vitamins scattered on the bedside table. Taking a deep breath, I reach for the work-issued phone in my pocket to dial my boss’ extensions. Had the med student recovered and been cleared for work? Had the girl not been arrested for assault? Was she even allowed to work here anymore, let alone be any near the man? All the items in the room appear to be her possessions from before, just disturbed enough to make it apparent that someone had recently been inside.

Just as I turn to retrieve my supplies from the cart, I hear a commotion as the two young people enter the room. I gasp as I watch the two fumble into the room, entangled in an embrace, clinging to one another in desperate passion. Again they don’t notice my presence, as if I’m a phantom. I don’t make a sound as he tosses her to the bed. She tears his shirt from his body, the buttons freed from their constraining threads, flying around the room in a shower of plastic baubles.

Mortified, I scurry from the room, leaving them to their endeavors. My cart of equipment abandoned, I hurry to the elevator and jabbed the button repeatedly, anxiously awaiting its arrival. I board before the doors are completely open and take it all the way down, making my way to my supervisor’s office. He opens the door once I’ve heartily knocked, his face stunned and then a bit…sad?

“Is the male student upstairs okay to work?” I ask in a rush as he eyes me warily. “The blow he took to the head seemed pretty severe.”

He doesn’t speak for a moment, then ushers me inside and closes the door. “Take a seat.”

I obey, apprehensive and uncomfortable under his disappointed gaze.

“Did you see anyone upstairs while you were cleaning?”

I nod slowly, to which his gaze intensifies. “The same med students as before.”

“Are you sure?” he presses, as if he’s hoping I’ll change my answer.

Again I nod. “I think they must have been having a lover’s quarrel the last time I was up there. They seem to have gotten over it now.”

He sighs, and I can see him press a button on his office phone. “Did you take my suggestion while you were off to see a therapist?”

Embarrassed, I shake my head. “No. It seemed silly. After all, I wasn’t the one that got hit on the back of the head.”

Taking a deep breath, he leans in a bit, as if bracing himself for something unpleasant. “Listen. There is no way you could have seen anyone up there today.”

I inhale sharply, shocked. “What?” Was this a joke?

“Today is not one of the days they are scheduled to stay here. No one’s been up there for several days.”

I stare at him, confused, and consider this. “Perhaps they were looking for some privacy. Maybe they live at home with their parents and needed some place to rendezvous.”

He shook his head, no longer meeting my eyes. “There wasn’t anyone upstairs the day you called the rapid response team unnecessarily either.”

My heart begins to sink as I struggle to grasp what he was saying. “But I saw them.”

“I’m not sure what you saw, but no one needed emergency medical attention on that floor that day. Except perhaps you.” His words sting, and while they seem almost playfully sarcastic, there is an oddly soft undertone as he tries to sound compassionate.

“I don’t understand. They were there! I saw them. I almost slipped in that man’s blood!”

He ignores my outburst, rising from his seat. “I think it’s time to get you some professional help.”

“No!” I shriek, suddenly incensed and desperate. “No, I am not my grandmother! I am not seeing things! They were there. You have to believe me.”

He stretches his hand toward me in what I imagine is supposed to be a comforting gesture, but I burst from the room and dash down the hall. I don’t wait for the elevator and instead bolt for the stairs. The climb is a long way up and I’m heaving by the time I reach the top. Winded, I sluggishly jog to the boarding rooms. And there he is once again, lying comatose on the floor, blood spilling onto the tile and staining those baby blue scrubs. I scream, the sound ripping from my throat like the call of a banshee, high and blood-curdling. Tentatively, I lean down to check him. I am frightened, but even more so I am bemused. I look up wildly and see his assailant, the distraught young woman, rushing toward us in a panic. Instinctively, I shoot up to block her path, to protect him from this insane lady.

My blood chills in my veins, every hair standing upright, a cold sweat dewing on my skin. Her body passed through mine, a frigid presence mingling with mine for the briefest moment, knocking the air from my lungs. I stood there, gasping in frozen fear as I turned to watch her kneel and weep over his lifeless body.

The elevator dings just as the scene dissipates before my eyes. I sink to my knees as security surrounds me. I can feel my body expelling energy, my lips parted and my lungs straining with the effort of my screaming, but I can no longer hear anything but the ringing in my ears. I succumb to their attempt to subdue me.

It’s over.

 

I sit in the common room, working studiously on a puzzle. My focus, however, is truly held by the frail old woman across the room. She rocks in her chair next to the windows, pretending to be working on her knitting, an orderly watching the needles cautiously from the seat next to. But really she is watching me as I am watching her. I shudder at the toothless grin that stretches her wrinkled face when she catches me staring. I shoot her a heated glare of pure hatred and return to my puzzle. But still I can feel her smilingly at me. That’s all she does since I arrived here. I see it in my dreams, amongst other chilling things. But mostly I see that smile.

Always that smile.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

By Caelyn Shaner

I close my eyes and let the world around me melt away. Even the darkness hiding behind my lids, sheltered by thin and unextraordinary lashes, seeps out of my field of vision like a tub whose plug has been pulled, water leaking from its container and slipping down the drain like it was never there at all. In its place burns a bright, unearthly white. It doesn’t glow so much as it sears my retinas, as if I had soaked my eyeballs in bleach. My skin stings, as I imagine it being scrubbed raw and doused in disinfectant. A scorching vapor claws its way into my nose, my mouth, and down my throat, leaving my lungs charred and blistered; breathing deeply, I inhale the mist of sanitizing spray.

“Next!” the robust woman hollers, shattering my concentration.

The white, sterile paradise around me splinters apart and escapes down the drain, lost to the sewers of my mind. A toothy Cheshire grin stretches her thin lips over her crooked chompers. Her eyes are too small for her pocked, lumpy face; their deadened emptiness threaten to swallow me like a void. My stomach churns at the crumbs from her lunch resting like ornaments on her half-exposed cleavage.

“Here you are, sweetie!” the troll woman greets me, her syrupy voice sickly, thickly sweet with a sour aftertaste.

My knees lock, my feet grinding to a halt against the scummy tile; the noise of the rubber skidding on the floor sends out a desperate shriek of panic. I think to run, to flee from the line of other patients all unhappily waiting their turn. I know, however, that the orderlies’ eyes are pinned to me. And I know that if I am caught skipping this part of my daily routine – and there is no doubt they will catch me – then I will not be permitted to prepare my own meal tonight at dinner, hand-washing every bit of produce and cooking everything longer than I was taught to in order to kill anything living in it. A special privilege awarded to me by my therapist until I “improve”  to his standards. I never seem to improve, though, and I can sense his growing frustration in our weekly sessions.

The force of the orderly’s hand hits me directly between the shoulder blades. He is quicker to shove me tonight; his patience must also be growing thin from my lack of improvement, from my persistent behavior, from our daily scuffles. He doesn’t wait as long as usual to intervene now as I stop just shy of the window. He is stronger than I am, as always, and with only his hand he easily overpowers my resistance. My torso leans forward suddenly and precariously, my locked knees buckling, and my firmly planted feet stuttering across the tile. My forearm slams into the outcropping corner of the counter at the window and I yelp out from the unexpected pain, “No!”

Affording me no time to nurse my fresh wound, he grabs the little paper cup from the ogre-like nurse at the window and shoves it in my hand, then forces my hand toward my mouth. I fight not to swallow the chalky pills, gratefully gagging on them without water.

It’s then that he reaches for the water cup on the counter. I stare at it, gripped in my reluctant fist as I involuntarily raise it to my lips. Bubbles dot the top layer, shifting across the surface and popping only to be replaced, new soldiers to fill in the ranks of the fallen. They almost appear to squirm inside the liquid, wriggling like tiny little insects. Crawling up the sides of the paper walls, their struggling bodies fighting to the surface for air. Legs extending from their round bodies, antennae rising from their bug-eyed little faces. They stare at me from the container. How long until they escape, climbing over the lip and up my arm?

A single drop falls from the rim and lands on my thumb.

The scream bursts from my lungs, loud and piercing. I feel hands grasping at me, rough, almost violent; so many orderlies have appeared out of nowhere all at once. But they can’t protect me; it’s too late. The commotion has sent the water splashing from the paper cup; it covers me, sending the mites with it. Little legs creep along my skin, tickling my flesh in a horrific way. Sharp teeth bite into me, making me cry out in pain and terror. They begin to burrow into my flesh, ripping open my skin to make a home inside the meat. I can practically feel them laying eggs, ensuring their existence lasts long after their hard little exoskeletons have decayed in my muscle tissue.

I buck and kick vigorously to free myself from the orderlies holding me back. I can see my target, my cure just down the hallway.

In my struggle, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window glass and wail in agonized, hysterical revulsion. A spider the size of a child’s fist stretches its long, gangly leg out of the corner of my mouth and pulls itself off my tongue and onto my chin. I watch as ants begin to file out of my ears in a single line, then side by side, then explode in a barrage of tiny black monsters. As I sob – great, fat tears now streaming from my eyes – thin, white, diseased-looking worms slither out from under my lids. They slip down my cheeks inside my tears like they’re on a waterslide, followed by their comrades, which grow bigger with every new addition.

My balled fists and flailing feet connect, and suddenly I crash to the floor, undeterred by my captors. In a fit of desperation, I rush away, unbalanced but still able to elude their restraining hands. Eternal seconds pass, filthy insects tearing into me, ripping apart my flesh selfishly and ruthlessly. Throwing myself against the wheeled cart, I push the resident maid out of my way. I battle with the cap on the bottle I’ve snatched, so acutely aware of my limited timeframe. It twists off with a little scraping pop sound. My mouth is open before I’ve finished lifting the bottle. I pour it from its surprisingly wide opening; it washes over my face, down my chin, drenching my clothes and coating my skin. I swallow quickly again and again, not giving myself to really taste it.

The bottle is ripped from my shaking hands. I don’t have time to fend them off before I collapse to the floor, vomit gushing past my lips unrepentantly. I’m lost in it, in the stench, the taste, the fiery pain, the disgust, the fear. I’m don’t recall an end to the vomit before I pass out. But it’s not blackness that greets me as my lids fall heavily over my eyes. It’s white all around, nothing but blinding white.

Clean, scorching white.

Waiting

by Caelyn Shaner

I hear her cooing from her swing, a tiny voice sweet and crisp as an apple, tinkling and fresh as only an infant’s can be. It brings a wide smile to my lips and I can almost taste its sweetness. How I could be blessed with such an angel baffles me. Miniscule ringlets of golden white hair, feathery and bright, cover her little head. Her soft, chubby body is warm and almost electric with new life, the rich scent novel and enchanting. I beam at her as her sapphire eyes sparkle, her rosy cheeks and plump lips stretching into a little grin as she giggles.

I turn from my adorable little distraction, still enraptured but ultimately determined. My bright yellow gloves don’t come quite up to my elbows and pinch my fingers – damn that store for being out of my size – and my arms are slathered in warm suds. My dress is splotched with haphazard damp spots, and the hem is drenched as I kneel in a puddle in a dip in the floor. The muscles in my arms ache from hours of scrubbing. My fingers cramp up so I can hardly keep my grip on the toothbrush in my hand.

I glance around the kitchen from my perch on the slick linoleum, desperate to stop and relax. Instead of seeing the gleaming knobs on all the cupboard doors, the shining appliances on the counters, or the spotless steel of the faucets, however, I am only capable of seeing all the work still left to do. The windows need washed, the wooden dining table polished, the insides of the cabinets wiped down…

He will be here tonight, I tell myself. He’s coming home, and everything will be perfect. Not a speck of dust in sight. My hair will be immaculate, my make-up unblemished, and my dress without a single wrinkle. Our darling little girl, so well-behaved, will be in her best dress as well, and the cute little patent leather shoes I bought for her. I will tell him they were given to her and hide the receipt. He will never buy that the steaks I’m preparing for dinner were items at the food pantry. I’ll have to tell him I ran extra errands this week for our neighbor and earned enough for a small splurge. Perhaps he will believe it.

I scrub harder, throwing my back into it. My pretty little girl begins to grow restless. It’s time to feed her, I’m sure she’s hungry, but I’m almost done. Just a few more unfinished tasks…

Her whimpering turns to small little cries of dissatisfaction and discomfort. “Shhh,” I murmur to her as I fix a stray hair in my otherwise perfect reflection, my diamond necklace he purchased for our anniversary winking mischievously at my neck. “Daddy will be home soon. We must be on our best behavior.”

Just a little longer, I think, as I juggle her squirming body in one arm and the tray of hors d’oeuvres in the other hand as I try to slide them into the oven. She is wailing now, pealing and hellish in its fervor. She is demanding attention. Just a bit longer. Just let me finish setting the table.

I am running late, I realize in horror, but then so is he. The clock on the wall ticks on as the candles burning on the table slowly melt.

“We must be patient,” I try to soothe her. “Daddy is coming and he expects a good little girl. Not a little brat that won’t shut up.”

The light from the windows begins to disappear, slowly fading to black. I glance at the clock. He’s late, as usual. Perhaps later than usual, though. Has something happened? Is he safe? I begin to worry.

The clock strikes twelve, and in defeat and concern, I blow out the candles and carry her upstairs to her nursery. I settle into the rocker, her heavy little form nestled in my arms, and I rock her to sleep. She’s exhausted, as am I. I thank the heavens that she’s too young to feel the overwhelming hurt of abandonment.

“He’s coming,” I whisper softly into her blonde curls. “He’ll be home anytime now, and he’ll be so happy to see us.” It’s almost a prayer, a passionate plea, but I can barely admit that to myself, let alone her. “He’ll be so proud to see all my hard work. He’ll love us, I promise. He just has to come home and see us. And he is. He’s coming.”

I slow the rocking chair just a bit, realizing as she begins to stir that I might have been too forceful in my movements.

Closing my eyes, I hold on to my hope, because it’s all I have left. “He’s coming.”

 

 

“What’s she muttering about?” an orderly says to another as they watch her rocking back and forth with nearly enough force to break the fold-out chair she’s sitting on.

The other shakes his head sadly, somewhat disgusted. “She’s waiting for her husband to come home. She putters around all day talking about how he’s away on a business trip and he’ll be returning soon. She’s harmless but completely delusional,” he sighs.

“And the bundle of blankets she’s always carrying around? She never puts it down.”

Another gust of air whooshes out of the senior orderly’s mouth, his shoulders heavy with the burden of his job. “She thinks it’s her baby daughter.”

“But she’s seventy-four!”

“Doesn’t matter when you’re that wrapped up in your own fantasy. From what I’ve pieced together, her husband left her after a midlife crisis. They were unable to have any children, and she got it into her head that if she’d been able to give him a baby he might have stayed. So she locked herself in her own house, convincing herself that he was just away on business, creating a baby for him to love and care for. She waited for him for months. By the time they found her and brought her here, the place was covered in dust and growing mold, and she wouldn’t let go of that bundle. She insisted she take it with her when they took her away. We forced her to let us wash it at least. She damned near killed a man when we did that, and spent the rest of the day locked in her own room sobbing. She was perfectly fine when we gave it back. We make sure to wash it at night now.”

Saddened, the younger man frowned as he watched her rock her imaginary baby. “She seems sweet, though.”

“Oh, she is. Most of the residents usually are. But there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.”

The youth nodded, this thought making perfect sense to him. “Always a reason.”

The elderly woman shot them a look, smiling but seemingly distrustful. “Don’t listen to the funny men,” she whispered, kissing her daughter’s sweet little forehead. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. Daddy will be home any minute now. Just you wait. He’s coming home.”

He’s coming home.

Tea with Honey

By Emily McGuff 

It had been months, even years since someone last visited me in here. My lungs drew in a great breath, trying to quiet the pounding of my exhilarated heart. Today is different.

The orange chair creaked, revealing its age. Dingy cream stuffing peaked from a grinning rip beneath my right leg and a wayward spring threatened to break through the tender ribbons of fabric. I wiggled, trying to redistribute my weight, but only succeeded in digging the rusty spring further into my nether regions.

They tried to sell this place as a retreat, somewhere you’d willingly go. But most of the people here, including myself, had been checked in by forces beyond our control. “Moonlight” in a name didn’t exactly lend itself to the bright, shining image of smiling faces sitting beneath a grove of trees, sun rays peaking between the leaves, as plastered on their advertising signs.

Before me, I had painstakingly set up a checkers game. In this place, finding a game with all the pieces still intact was a miracle. About a third of the pieces were scrounged from various couch cushions and forgotten drawers. A few buttons and a scrabble tile filled out the reds’ ranks, while about 35 cents in change completed the black side.

I remember when my grandfather taught me the game. It was only a year before my mother had lodged me in this place, her eyes brimming with salt-soaked drops and ringed with blue and burgundy coils. Grandfather’s hands were creased with years of labor, and yet lifted the circled checker pieces with delicate care. Despite the fond recollections I held in the recesses of my mind, my memories of him always seemed to be tinged in a red light, as if I were wearing blood-tinted glasses.

My eyes glanced to the ticking hands with impatience, willing the caged clock to move to 2:00. You see it was Sunday – visiting day – and my grandfather was finally coming.

A soft knock sounded at the door and I jumped excitedly, but was met with disappointment: it was only Harold, the sweet-voiced nurse who worked my ward on the weekends.

“You… expecting someone?” He asked, his eyes drawing up in a bit of confusion.

I smiled, glancing down at the table. “Yes. My grandfather.”

“Your… grandfather?” The wrinkles between his eyebrows deepened becoming ravines that could house rivers.

“Yes. I haven’t seen him in years. I wonder if he still likes tea,” I began to ramble, contemplating all of the things he used to adore. Simple Pleasures he called them. “Can we get some tea? And some milk and sugar too?”

“For… your grandfather?” His voice drew up an octave and the normally warm, red hue that adorned his cheeks drained as if it had been sucked up by a demented vacuum.

“Yes sir. And if my memory serves me, I’m pretty sure he just loved these biscuit cookies. Like they weren’t soft or chocolate or anything, but he dipped them in his tea.”

“Biscuit cookie?” Why was he just repeating me? Was there something wrong with him? He never seemed to be the brightest, but he normally had something original in that oddly shaped head of his.

“Yes.” I drew out the word a bit, wondering if he had been hit on the noggin one too many times.

“I’ll ask the kitchen,” he finally muttered after a solid minute of just standing there, staring at me mutely.

“Thank you, Harold. It is quite appreciated.” I looked back to my lap, smoothing the wrinkles on the worn gray skirt. Tufts of fabric puckered where Joanie, another nurse, had offered to darn it. I wish they’d just give me a needle and thread – that lady had no idea what she was doing, though her heart was in the right place.

“You going to offer me some tea or what?” A gruff and yet sugary voice sounded before me, only a few steps away. It was like chocolate in the front, so sweet and smooth, and followed by a burning liquor as it whisked down your esophagus.

“Grandpa!” I yelped, smiling widely. His appearance had caught me by surprise – I’d never even heard the door creak open on its oil-lacking hinges. I looked around wildly, wishing I had something more to offer him than a lukewarm bottle of water. “Harold said he was coming with tea. I’m sure it will be piping hot. With some milk and sugar of course. He’ll be back soon I think,” I glanced nervously at the door, not wanting to displease my grandfather when he had only just arrived.

“Don’t worry about it, honey. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” He nodded slowly and I was transfixed by the skin as it stretched taut over crackling bones. Deep-set wrinkles reminded me just how ancient he really was. My mom had been an old maid when she had me – almost 40. The last birthday I remembered celebrating for my grandfather was when I was 15 – he had turned 75 and a colorful gravestone had jokingly been set in the middle of his cake.

“Yes, of course. How have you been?” I asked, my eyes subverting themselves as was habit around him.

“Well, I’ve missed you,” he hummed, reaching his hand to settle on my wrist.

“Thank you. I’m so glad to have you here.” With my free hand I flipped one of the blacks’ ranks coins between my fingers, threading it through with flicks of my knuckles.

“Tea now?” He asked, gesturing toward the steaming pot on the table before us.

“Where did that come from?” I wondered aloud, glancing around the room. I didn’t remember Howard returning with either biscuits or tea, but I also didn’t want to make grandfather wait any longer.

He held his cup aloft and I skittered to fill it. Quivering hands took over my arms as I lifted the kettle from the crooked table, attempting not to spill a drop on the tiny plate in which the cup rested. He hated when I did that. Bitterly hated how clumsy I could be.

Swallowing forcefully, I moved once more to poor the tea into his waiting cup, but my breath caught like a hook in my lungs. Reeling me in, my eyes struggled to comprehend the wound steadily growing on my grandfather’s hand.

“What,” I began breathily, “is that?” My breaths were shallow and my spit felt like peanut butter clinging to the roof of my mouth. The spreading rash on his arm was pink, puckering flesh. At the center it was bright red and I was sure I glimpsed a sliver of white. Bone? The welt smiled, glistening in a pool of yellowing pus and watery blood.

“Oh that? It’s nothing,” he purred. “Biscuit?” In his fingers, he delicately held the biscuit, dipping it slowly into his tea and letting the liquid soak in. Drops of pus splattered against the teacup plate, settling in haphazard spheres around the edges.

“Sha…sure,” I stuttered, tearing my eyes away from the lingering drip-drop. My fingers still clung to the handle of the teapot, knuckles white against the shining obsidian.

Terror grew in the pit of my stomach as I stretched my hand toward the plate of biscuits. From my grandfather’s thigh a black sheath grew – with a clarity I could not explain, I knew it was attached to a blade. A serrated thin blade – like I might use to cut open an avocado.

“How did…” My thoughts trailed off as I shoved myself back from the table. Uneven table legs shook with the thrust. The checker pieces scattered, some clattering to the floor with clacks and tings. Biscuits cracked and crumbs rained. But the worst thing, the thing that set my teeth chattering, were the drops of tea that splattered against the table’s off-white surface.

“You…” He growled, low in his gut, “You always ruin everything.” My eyes widened as I began to reverse, reaching blindly to remove the encumbrances.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” I stammered. His heavy boots slammed the tiled floor as he rose to gargantuan height, towering over me by an easy eight inches. When I hit the wall with my outstretched palm, I knew there was nowhere I could go. No way to escape his wrath.

“Help,” I called, my voice hoarse and quiet.

“No one can hear you.” His eyes matched his voice now, growing blacker by the moment. Tiny red demons danced in his pupils, turning pirouettes quicker and quicker to mimic the beats of my heart.

“This is your FAULT!” He roared, shoving the table aside as easily as a lion tosses back his head to swallow his fresh, dripping kill.

My hands were pressed into the wall, back flattened as much as my body would allow against the flower-coiling pattern of the decades old wallpaper. He approached slowly, menacingly, and I stayed glued to the spot. The cushioned soles of my socks suctioned to the tile.

I gaped at the figure still advancing – and then he froze. Ice seemed to fill his bones and from within his chest sprouted the knife – the same knife that had been thrusting from his leg only moments before.

His eyes turned the same color as the teapot: black as a moonless midnight. Although his feet were motionless, his entire body began to quake, phasing in and out with his surroundings like a radio station attempting to maintain its signal. Blood leaked from his shivering lips in thick, clotted clumps. His skin stretched further still until it began to crack, split, showing his skull being birthed from the opening. Somehow his eyes grew darker still then – a black hole sucking my soul from my body.

Curling in on myself, I crouched against the wall. My arms wrapped tightly around my cranium, begging my eyes to unsee. But trickling from my own gnawed fingernails were pearls of burgundy. A scream bellowed from my core, calling for anyone, everyone, no one.

Somewhere to my right, I heard a crumpling crash as another being burst into the room.

“Ava! AVA!” Hands grasped my shoulders, shaking me to a different rhythm than I already shivered. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I shook my head, refusing to move, sure Howard would see what I had done. To the man who I once called grandfather.

“No. No. No. Nonononono.” Rocking, I clutched my hands to my eyes, causing tiny spasms of pain to ricochet from my fingertips. “The tea…” My vocal chords abandoned the thought midway through,

Slowly, gently, he peeled my fingers away from my face, pushing me to lean on him, raise myself from the ball I had become on the grimy floor. He led me to the bed, but I refused to open my eyes. I couldn’t bear to see him. The man who had helped to raise me. The man who had taught me right from wrong. The man who had put his hands on me when I needed help learning.

I heard Howard leave. His receding footsteps scraped against the floor: swish-swish… swish-swish. Hesitantly, I opened my clenched eyelids. Taking a moment to adjust to the light, my eyes scrunched as instinct demanded. My throat was still raw from my screams, but the threat had dissipated as smoke from a smoldering cigar.

No one was there.

No knife.

No blood.

Not even a teapot.

  1. Was. Alone.

Again.

Always.

More Than Meets The Eye

by Caelyn Shaner

“Wouldn’t you be afraid if you were locked up in a place like this?” I hear one orderly ask another somewhere close behind me.

“That’s not my point,” a deeper voice argues. “All the others have ticks and triggers. Obsessions and behavioral patterns. But she just acts terrified all the time, of everything. She doesn’t chant or rock or scream or babble or act like someone she’s not. She’s not violent…”

“Not our job to decide why she’s nuts,” the first one chastises. “They threw her in here for a reason. Now shut up and keep your eyes open. Mrs. Barry likes to sneak pudding cups back to her room.”

I feel a chill snake down my spine and curl its icy fingers around my stomach. They’re talking about me. Why are they talking about me? I never misbehave, I never lash out. I don’t speak unless spoken to, I practice good hygiene and keep my room neat. I try so hard to be as unremarkable as possible. An institution full of truly psychotic people, and somehow they’ve noticed me? What did I do wrong?

I slide further down in my seat, staring with unwavering intensity at my lunch tray. I study the unappetizing mystery casserole, gelatin, and milk carton, keeping my eyes from roaming and a single muscle from moving. I feel my face burn red against my will, so I shift my head almost imperceptibly so that my hair covers as much of it as possible.

I sit like that, frozen and burning, suffocating in my own terror and self-loathing. I don’t know how long I’ve been stuck like this, like a wind-up toy that lost momentum. Or worse, like a cold-blooded fish frozen in the ice in suspended animation, waiting for spring to thaw it back to life. I don’t even realize I’ve stopped functioning until the guard on duty yells for us to return our trays and exit the cafeteria.

A new wave of horror washes over me. I feel hyper-aware of every inch of my body – every strand of hair brushing my cheek, every place the fabric of my clothes touches my skin, every stale muscle that slowly and stiffly starts to unkink as I push myself away from the table and pick up my tray. And yet, a numbness has set in that makes my limbs feel heavy and clumsy. I focus on every small, deliberate step on my way to the waste bin.

My toes catch on the floor and I stumble, and it’s like I’ve short-circuited. My legs lock up and suddenly my lungs stop working. I start to get dizzy as my brain craves oxygen.

I am drawing attention to myself, and this strikes a new sense of fear into my heart. Eternal minute by eternal minute I force myself to reanimate. My eyes are the first to move, then my head begins to lift at a glacial pace. Finally, my feet begin to move forward. My face is feverish while the rest of me is frigid. I tremble so violently I can hear the plastic-ware clatter on the tray in my hands. I imagine everyone watching me, judging, laughing, sneering in disgust at how pathetic I am. I don’t dare look up to confirm this though. Finally reaching the garbage can, I go to dump my trash and wasted food, but I am shaking too hard and lose my grip. The plastic tray falls from my hands and tumbles into the bin. I want to leave it there. I want to run. But I can’t. The orderlies are watching, I know. So I watch my own hand stretch in slow motion into the rubbish and retrieve the stupid thing. I move as quickly as I am able and place it on the return counter, but it feels like my arms are filled with lead. It takes all of my strength not to cry as I hurry out of the room and into the hall.

A body slams into me and I bite my tongue, trying not to scream. I taste the blood as it fills my mouth; I have no option except to swallow it. I glance up to see who I’ve unintentionally attacked. But instead of just one person, I am staring in horror at a sea of onlookers.

I suddenly don’t know if they are real or if my panic has gotten the best of me. They all look familiar – other patients who had been filing out of the mess hall ahead of me. I notice, however, that they all have the same eyes. A rotting sort of yellow that almost glows, with blood-red pupils. They are all staring at me with their wide, searing eyes. One of them smiles at me as if to comfort me but I see the pointed teeth, the sinister curl to their lips. I move just an inch to back away, and they all begin to bare their sharp, gleaming teeth. The creases in the folds of their skin – wrinkles inside of putrid green-brown wrinkles – reveal dark purple bags beneath those wretched eyes. The begin to almost vibrate, growing and shrinking, as if my vision is pulsating in my fearful state. They are swimming in front of my eyes, rolling like waves, like a flag in the wind.

I clamp down harder on my half-severed tongue and fold my arms around myself, the only form of protection I have. I try to be as small as I can, to take up as little space as possible. Keeping my eyes on the floor and away from the horrible creatures that have me surrounded, I hold my breath and my heart hammers wildly inside my rib cage. I charge wordlessly in terror through the crowd in front of me, breaking their lines and bursting through to the other side. As I pass them, they each dissipate into a cloud of noxious black smoke. I see them disappear one by one, but I do not stop fleeing until I reach my room. I immediately throw myself onto my bed, burying my face in the linen.

What an idiot.

The voice is too familiar. My voice, but somehow twisted, demented, dark. It is soft and faint in my mind, but its echoes reverberate off the walls of my skull, booming and cracking like thunder. The sounds of it drowns out everything else.

“Shut up,” I whisper so meekly I can hardly hear it myself.

The voice – my voice – snickers menacingly. You’re so stupid you can’t walk like a normal person. You can’t even eat on your own.

“That’s not true,” I murmur weakly.

You’re so psycho you freak out at the tiniest things. Those orderlies probably weren’t even talking about you. And if they were, who cares? Oh right, you do. You’re so conceited, thinking everything is about you. It’s not! Regular people don’t have time for your petty little dramas. You should just get over yourself.

“You think I want to be this way? That I like it?”

You just want attention. You want everyone to feel sorry for you because you’re sick. Anyone with a knife and a couple of wrists can garner someone’s sympathy. But you’re too cowardly and selfish to even do that. You should just spare everyone the trouble and release them from the burden that you are.

That’s not healthy! I fire back silently, too tired and beaten to keep fighting. I shouldn’t think that way. I try to ignore it, tune it out. I finger the scars instead, to remind me how much I’ve endured. Fingernail marks on the back of my neck under my hair, on the underside of my arms, on the sides of my abdomen. Pale, long lines high on my upper thighs, just past the edge of my panties, where I dug a knife deep into my skin where no one would see.

Oh look at me, I’m so sad and helpless! it mocks in its whiniest tone. Is that why you lost it at the office? So many sorry years crying when no one was looking. So many pointless panic attacks. What a sorry excuse for an employee! Everyone was probably glad when you finally snapped and went catatonic when your boss ripped into you that one last time. I bet they threw a party when you rode away in that ambulance!

“Shut up!” I sob into the pillow, wondering if I had the willpower to smother myself in it. “Be quiet. I don’t want to hear your lies.”

But they’re not lies, you know. It’s all true. Can’t you feel it, deep down in your soul? Everyone hates you and thinks you’re stupid. Just a worthless waste of space.

“Shut up!” I cry one final time before giving into the darkness rising up to swallow me. My teeth sink into the fleshy part of my hand, almost like an infant sucking its thumb for comfort. Essentially, I think to myself, that’s really what I’m doing. The physical pain is a punishment I commit upon myself to satisfy the voice. It grows quiet – smug and ever-present, but finally quiet – as I devote this offering to it. It also distracts me somewhat from the pain exploding in my heart, threatening to choke me. I am not good enough, and the voice knows it, and it knows I know it too. The blood dripping down my forearm feels better than that pain. I’ll take it over the voice any day.

Later I will have to explain my injury to the authorities, and it will make me feel stupid and inadequate all over again. But that is a battle for later. Now, I simply find solace in the crimson blood staining my sheets.

Pry, Pry, Pry Again

by Emily McGuff 

A spider web crack spread across the vintage mirror in my room. Tiny tendrils reached toward the barred window like weeds searching for the sun. Even in its diminished state, the reflective glass still called to me, beckoned me into its web of deceit. I couldn’t bear to stand before it. Its power over me had always been so complete.

A tattered green and blue quilt was spread below me, worn by love and use: the one item they let me bring into this place. My feet dangled off the tiny twin bed, hovering about an inch from the anguished stains of previous tenants melted to the floor.

“What were their demons?” I wondered aloud, interrogating the tarnished tiles. It wasn’t without cause that one entered the realm of Moonlight Mental Sanatorium. Although I had once kept a running tally of my days here on the cement wall behind my dresser, I had long ago run out of space and patience for such a task. What did it matter? They would never let me leave. This was my sanctuary. My future. My hell.

With aching feet, I traced the worn path leading to the wilting window. Why the hell my feet hurt, I couldn’t tell you as I was barely permitted to pace the 8×8 confines of my cell… I mean room.

Beneath the paint-peeling pane, the pitter-patter of scurrying animal feet could be seen, but not heard, in the shallow gray-white snow. It seemed not one of them pointed toward my precious haven.

“If I had a choice, I would run far in the other direction as well,” I murmured, my fingers brushing the cool surface of the glass.

The hair on my neck began bristling, and I shook my head to dislodge the whispers wiggling in through my crooked ears.

“Leave me alone,” I grunted. A rumbling filled my chest and from my mouth reverberated a guttural growl.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

You are not.

“Hush!” My neck jerked to the side as I bellowed the word.

Alone.

You are not alone.

My stomach twisted with the same threatening thrusts of a meal about to be jettisoned.

Come. Look.

Closer. You will see.

“I said hush,” I commanded again, rubbing my neck in an attempt to paste the hairs back to my skin.

Come. Look.

Come. Look.

With a cry of anguish, I hurled myself onto my bed. With my face fiercely pressed to the mattress, I blindly reached for the pillow. Alas, even when clutched against my skull, the soft feathers did nothing to drown out the insistent whispers.

Come. Look.

Come. Look.

I knew what it wanted. Where it wanted me to go. That damn mirror.

“I can’t,” I whined, knitting my eyebrows together.

Come.

“No.”

Look.

“Please.”

Come.

A haggard breath shuttered from my supine form.

My limbs quaked and I feared my legs would splay like those of a newborn deer as I rolled slowly from the bed. I knew the voices wouldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop until I obeyed.

Yesssss.

The hissing sound filled my cranium, rolling around to fill every nook and cranny of my throbbing skull.

“Shut up, you fucker. I’m going.”

With a thrust of the arms, I vaulted from the mattress and hastily took the five strides to the glinting mirror. But, with dismay, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to raise my eyes to meet it.

Look.

“I can’t.”

LOOK.

The voice was no longer just insistent. It was pissed.

With great care, I drew a deep breath into my chest. Like blowing up a balloon, the oxygen filled my lungs and continued up my neck to raise my chin.

At first, I saw nothing. Well, nothing of significance. My face remained, little having changed. The same mousy brown hair that I cut with the rusty scissors in my mother’s kitchen drawer, now hanging in uneven, greasy groups about my shoulders. The same thin, muted pink lips that not one boy had found appealing enough to press his own against. The same freckled nose affixed just a touch to the left due to the time my mother broke it when I was in the second grade and called her a bitch for never having time for me.

When I reached the eyes, though, they seemed to shift beneath my gaze, jump even.

I leaned closer, trying to pin the pupils to one spot, examining them with unease flowering in my chest. The unease quickly morphed into dread, and then matured into horror.

The thing was in my right eye. The voice. The man. The iris seemed to vacillate, like curtains being drawn and closed, keeping out unwanted prying eyes.

Bile churned in my gut, slowly crawling up my esophagus with burning intent.

He peeked around my iris again; he seemed to reside within my pupil. A delicate smile played on his lips as he dove again behind the melding blues and grays spiraling my eyeball.

“Get out!” I yelled at the man. How had it gotten within me?

Applying as much pressure as I could bear, I pushed against my eyelid, imagining I was suffocating him.

Opening my eye once more, I saw him. He didn’t bother to hide as he had wanted me to see him. Wanted me to know. With growing terror, I knew this was not just a malevolent spirit.

“Demon, I command you. Remove yourself from me.”

Within my mind, a cackling laughter exploded, echoing in never-decreasing waves.

My breath came in gasps as panic began to take over. This demon would never leave me. It was part of me, dwelling within me.

In a moment of clarity, I knew what I had to do.

“You have not won, Devil Spawn,” I spit.

Slowly and deliberately, I rotated my hand until the bitterly sharp nail of my pointer finger was thrust toward me. Gritting my teeth, I let out a war cry as I tore into my own flesh. I had to remove the eye, pry it from the socket before the Demon was able to fester within my soul.

The nail pierced the outer corner, tugging and torqueing the squishy sphere. With a wet rip, the ocular orbit forfeited its claim to the organ of sight.

I laughed at first.

“I won,” I whispered, disbelief twitching my cheeks.

No.

The Demon had naught the need to say anything else.

With the eyeball still stuck tight to the end of my pointer, the scream clawed its way up my throat with talons dipped in poison.

The screams and laughs expanded, and the cackles crashed against the yells as the ocean waves attack the shore.