The Offer

“Where did she say again?” Greg looked around as he drove up a narrow and twisted path through a beautiful forest. Green overtook the outside of his window; bushes, trees, everywhere, as far as he could see. Same view for his wife as well. Hell, were they even on the trail anymore?

“There!” Dina pointed ahead to an old branchless tree that stood taller than its cousins. It was thick and wide, old and rotted, and not only hard to miss because of its girth but because of the drop only feet away from it. Here, is where they were headed. Fifteen miles from the highway. They parked in front of the ancient tree, stepped out of the car, and waited for the other party.

New parents Greg and Dina were on the hunt for a new home. A place they could grow and stretch their legs because their apartment suffocated them. And with a newborn, a one-bedroom apartment felt a lot like a studio. They wanted a country home. Away from the city noise and unpredictable violence. After four months of searching for the perfect place in their price range, their realtor brought them good news of a two-story, 3-bedroom cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The catch; the listing agent had to show them the property. The listing agent only.

Dina had found the home online, showed Greg, and together they brought it to their realtor’s attention. After making contact with the selling agent, their realtor told them it was irregular, this entire situation. That she’d never heard of the agency, and asked if they wanted to look elsewhere. But to Greg and Dina, they already looked elsewhere…this was it. They wanted to jump on it before someone else snagged it. Dina promised to skype the realtor once they’d made it so she could be there without being there.

Blinded by how close they were to owning their own home, they ignored their realtor’s reservations. The couple waited for the selling agent behind the tree, before the cliff, and shared the wonderful view from the top of the world, they were already sold.

“You must be Greg and Dina.”

“Oh!” Greg yelped as Dina jumped into his arms. They looked back to a woman standing by their car. A short woman with a dark blazer and a short dress wearing heels, attire not made for the woods. Her face was loud with makeup and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail.

“Hi,” Dina waved, nervously chuckling as she stepped away from her husband. “Nice to meet you.”

“Shall we?” the lady asked, welcoming them to follow her down the road, on foot.

They didn’t see another car, only theirs. Were they walking the rest of the way? They didn’t know, but Greg thought it was odd. She looked harmless, maybe a little weird but regular. But as they walked on, Greg had a bad feeling about her. Nevertheless, they followed her deeper into the woods.

“I didn’t dress for a hike today,” Dina joked.

But seriously, where was this woman taking them? To their future home or to a dark cave somewhere filled with critters and creatures and bears?

The further they trekked, the more nervous Greg became. Dina would follow this woman over an active volcano if it meant seeing their new home, he knew. She’d practically told him back in their apartment that this was the house they’re buying. Enough walking, though. He’d had enough and just as he was about to speak up, there it was. Not the house, but a car, parked behind a bush. A golf cart, modified with gigantic wheels. At least they didn’t have to walk anymore.

Dina hopped in the front next to the agent, while Greg had the backseat to himself. The ride was a lot smoother in the cart than in their actual vehicle. The same view, though. Trees and bushes—woods all around them.

The agent wasn’t much of a talker, she nodded and “mhmm-ed” everything Dina said or talked about; mostly about their neighborhood and being newlyweds. Telling this strange lady all of their business.

“We didn’t get your name, ma’am?” Greg asked.

It seemed to catch her off guard as if she didn’t think they were going to ask her such a complex question. The woman stuttered. “Um, you can just call me A.”

“A?” Dina asked.

“Yes. A.”

“And what is A short for?” Greg wondered.

Stuttering again, pausing, thinking… Why is she thinking. “A-gent-a.”

“Agenta?” Dina questioned.

“You’re an agent named Agenta?” Greg side-eyed that. But wait…they were passing that big ugly branchless tree. “Are we going in circles?”

“No, we’re nearly there.”

No way that distinctive tree could be duplicated. The cliff, too. Especially in a forest where, for nearly fifteen miles, all they saw were trees and bushes. Perhaps his wife had the same thoughts as he did, because she didn’t speak for the rest of the trip. Greg became impatient and anxious, shifting in his seat, moving around like a little kid on a road trip. Then they passed the tree again. What the fuck? Same tree. Same cliff. There was no doubt about it but no sign of their vehicle nearby. Maybe it wasn’t the same tree…they parked right in front it. Surely, they’d have seen their car.

“What’s happening?” he said aloud. “Ma’am?”

She didn’t answer. Her eyes remained forward.

“Agent!” He raised his voice. Dina turned and gave her husband that ‘what’s wrong’ look.

“Oh. We’re here,” the agent announced.

There it was, the wide two-story cabin they’d gawked over in pictures. In person, it was even more beautiful.

“Oh my God, babe. Do you see?” Dina walked toward the structure, pointing. Greg pulled his phone out and called their realtor. No signal. He tried to video call her. No signal.

“Dammit,” he blurted out.

Dina returned. “What happened?”

He showed her the phone. “No service.”

“Oh. That.” The agent butted in. “A tower went down over the weekend. But they should have it back up and running in no time.”

“See. No problem.” Dina smiled.

Greg couldn’t smile back. He couldn’t get over this odd meeting; the golfcart ride here; the driving in circles; the bullshit cell phone tower that supposedly went down. It was all suspect to him. He kept his phone out and continued to search for bars as the agent started the tour of the front porch with Dina. 

His wife was mesmerized by the home, and to be a good husband, he put his reservations aside and followed her inside. Then, he fell in love all over again. The pictures did this house an injustice. It was tall and seemed twice as big inside. Wood flooring everywhere, log walls all around. The grand stairway straight ahead from the door that looked like it’d been picked out of a mansion. The spacious floorplan made him want to do a summersault right there in the middle of the foyer.

Before they ventured into another room, “All right, what’s the catch?” Greg joked.

The agent laughed. A good, personable laugh that not only made Greg smile, but comforted him. His phone went into his pocket and his focus was on the home now.

The kitchen was made for a chef, the dining room had to have been built to host every thanksgiving; there was a family and living room on either side of the home that had huge bay windows. Upstairs mirrored the downstairs; three large bedrooms with a master walk-in closet that could have been converted into a fourth bedroom. Dina cried when she went out on the master bedroom deck and checked out the beautiful view. Greg joined her, marveling at how there wasn’t a building in site. Not a gunshot or traffic noise could be heard. Just the trees swaying, the wind blowing, the birds chirping. Greg was sold. He was ready. Where are the papers? Let’s get to signing.

Once the tour of the second floor ended, the agent called them to the dining room to talk numbers. On the way down, Dina tried to get a hold of their realtor once more. If she couldn’t be present for this, she needed to hear what the agent had to say. Greg was last down the steps and as he followed, he looked around, still admiring the home, and saw a door underneath the stairway. There was no knob, and it was painted over in what Greg could only imagine was an attempt to hide it. But the door was cracked open. Enough to see darkness behind it. They’d toured this area already, the hall that led to the guest bathroom. They would’ve noticed a cracked door in the wall.

Thinking it was a closet, Greg walked over, slipped his fingers inside the darkness and grabbed the doorframe. When he opened it, a cold draft tackled his midsection, making him jump back. When the light from the rest of the home shined inside the room, he saw a stairway that led down.

“Hey? There’s a—stairs down here,” he called out. Before he heard a response, he walked in. This wasn’t in the pictures.

He felt around the wall for a switch and when he found it, he flipped it. Nothing. That wouldn’t stop him. He took out his phone, turned on the flashlight and proceeded down the stairway. Each step seemed to creak louder than the last one, and there were many steps. Even with the bright light, it was hard for him to see the end. It was cold down there, and foggy. Growing up in California, he’d never been in a basement. He didn’t imagine it’d be this far down.

“Greg?” Dina called once he made it to the bottom. He turned and flashed the light at the top, but didn’t see her, only a cloud of fog.

“Down here, babe. Come check this out.” He turned the light on the room and saw nothing but cabinets along the walls and old boxes. “And be careful. The steps are old as shit.”

To be tucked away and hidden from buyers, Greg expected more. It was a little underwhelming, but it did give the house some points.

“Babe?” Dina joined him and touched his shoulder. “What is this?”

“A basement.”

“There wasn’t anything about a basement,” she said.

“Look at this,” he flashed the light on one of the walls. Then swung it around to the other. “Get a heater down here, be great for a studio.”

“Or an office.”

The possibilities were endless. She cuddled with him down there as they continued to marvel at the plainness of the basement. The extra square footage made the value of this home jump. Increased their interest. “I think I’m sold, babe,” Greg confessed.

“You were sold upstairs.” They laughed.

He couldn’t see her, but he felt that big smile of hers. That positive energy she maintained the entire trip up here had finally oozed into his senses. “Just wish we had a light down here.”

Then, the lights turned on. The room appeared in front of them. No boxes. No cabinets like before, but…a coffin. Smack dead in the center of the basement. Three people stood behind it, cloaked in black. The walls were further back than the flashlight showed, and were made of dirt…not wood. The ceiling, too.

“The fuck?” Greg took a step back from the coffin as Dina squeezed his arm.

“Babe?” she whined.

Together, they turned to the stairway and the agent stood there, blocking their escape. A scary smile plastered on her face, like it was forced, unhuman-like. She kicked Dina in her chest and sent her falling back in front of the coffin.

“No!” Greg yelled. He went to help her but two of the people rushed around the coffin and grabbed each of his arms. They were bigger than him and stronger; his fight only amounted to his feet kicking and flailing.

As Dina struggled to get up, coughing and holding her chest, the third person came around the coffin and pinned her down.

“Dina!” Greg screamed as he continued to fight for freedom. Then, he saw the agent walk toward her with a knife. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait…wha—wha—what’re you doing?” As he plead, Dina was pinned down. The agent took the knife, grabbed Dina’s wrist and cut it. Not too deep, just a little gash.

They lifted her to her feet and held her, much like they held Greg. Then, the three people, with the agent, started chanting something in a foreign language. Greg and Dina looked at each other, crying, struggling to break loose and escape but these people were unnaturally strong. The chanting was so loud, Greg couldn’t hear himself and he couldn’t hear his wife’s cries.

Once the chanting stopped, the top of the coffin busted open. The lid smashed into the ceiling like a bomb went off from within. A figure rose from the tomb and turned their way. It was a man, a young man, naked and pale. He jumped out of the death bed, landing on his bare feet with such a grace and elegance that the anger inside Greg shriveled away. He looked at this man in awe, his fight to be free completely stopped. That is, until the young man took sight of Dina’s wrist.

“No, no, no,” Greg begged as the young man crept toward her. He stopped all cries, speeches and pleads when the young man growled and barked at him. The young man then returned his sights to Dina and opened his mouth to fangs, not teeth. Fucking fangs!

The young man darted over to his wife’s wrist in a flash and ate her arm. Dina screamed.

Greg looked on in horror. He choked on fear, unable to speak, almost gagging as he leaned his head forward to stop what the monster was doing to his wife. But nothing came out. As the man continued to eat his wife’s arm, Greg was carried to the box and tossed inside.

Still pinned down so he wouldn’t fight, his view was limited to the dirt ceiling. But he could hear his wife screaming and crying. Could hear the monster chomping at her.

It was colder in the coffin than out there. He could see fog shooting from his mouth as he panted. Then, the agent appeared between the two people holding him down. “Your blood offer to the owner of the home has been accepted. Thank you.”

As the agent disappeared from his view, the lid came closing him in the box. Keeping him there, storing him, until it was his turn.

© 2022 M. Sydnor Jr.

The Glitterbox

The three kids had always visited their grandmother’s house on the last weekend of the month; a long two days of junk food, games and storytelling. But with her sickness, she had to move in with their uncle Ray. It wouldn’t break their tradition but it was a home they’d never been to, and with Ray at work and grandma sicker than they’d realized, they had to fend for themselves.

Thirteen-year-old Jalen helped their grandma mostly. Twelve-year-old Denise planted herself in front of the bookshelf, scanning for a book to read. Keisha, the six-year-old, explored.

Keisha looked throughout the home as if she were searching for gold. Curious and weird were just some of the names students and teachers had called her at school. The girl had a strange addiction to hand lotion. She used to eat it when she was a baby; got sent to the ER a few times for it, too. These days, she’d rub it over her hands three to four times a day. Girl was a slippery one, had thick skin, too; she’d laugh along when the kids called her names.

The second floor was boring. Mostly under construction. One of the bedrooms had only one doorknob on the inside. She wasn’t excited about staying the weekend. In one of the rooms, she walked to the window and looked down. Boards and about a hundred bags of trash were scattered all over the yard. Immediately, she wanted to leave. There’d be nowhere for her to play. She pouted and stomped back down the steps to get a better look at the first floor. The family room had been transformed into a mini-library but no kid-friendly books. The kitchen was huge, twice the size of theirs back home, but no snacks. Eventually, she went to see her grandmother to hear a story. That was the only thing to save this disaster of a weekend, but she was already asleep and Jalen said she’d be too weak to tell them any stories.

Keisha pouted and dragged her feet down the hallway. How was she to survive the weekend with nothing to do? Before she made it to the kitchen, a draft tickled her ankle. She turned to the door that she assumed was a closet, and opened it. The room was black, with no light from the hallway or kitchen to support what she wanted to see. So, she stepped in and reached on the sides for a switch. Nothing. The draft crawled up her legs and settled around her stomach and chest. A loud screeching from the door’s rusty hinges sounded like nails on a chalkboard. She turned and stuck her foot in between the door and frame to stop it from closing and in doing so, her head rubbed against a dangling string.

She reached for the chain, grabbed it and pulled. A single bulb above her lit up, illuminating the steps a few feet ahead of her. A basement! Keisha had never been in a basement before but knew all about them. It’s where people keep their secrets.

She removed her foot, allowed the door to close and her smile lifted into this big great cheese-a-thon. If it weren’t for the darkness returning at the bottom of the stairway, she would’ve run down, but there was another light to be searched for. A hunt that she was on board for. Trying her best to ignore a foul stench, she reached for another dangling cord, turning it all into a game. She kicked boxes in her search, a few bags, even tripped over one but nothing was going to stop her from this light-hunt. Minutes of fun turned to boredom, there were no chains hanging from the ceiling and she headed back to the light shining from the top of the stairway. Feeling on the wall, near the steps, she felt a switch. She flipped it and voila.

Lights that were stretched along the ceilings and walls illuminated the room, as wide as the house itself. Her gaze took her in circles and what started off as excitement and smiles turned into disappointment and frowns.

Like the backyard, it was a mess. Boxes and trash bags everywhere like her uncle had just moved in, but she knew he’d been here longer than she’d been alive. The basement was big, but felt like the walls were closing in on her. It was dirty and with her curiosity sinking, that smell from before took control of her senses. She covered her face and prepared to leave.

This was not at all what she’d imagined; a basement was supposed to be for treasure, not trash. As she returned to the stairway, a stack of boxes behind the steps caught her attention. They looked like the others, sloppily stacked and put together with no type of method. Yet, she felt drawn to these boxes.

Something drew her around those steps to that stack. She didn’t fight it, she allowed whatever mysterious thing that was happening to her. It wasn’t the boxes at all, it was what was behind them. She pushed the stack out of her way and focused on the corner of the brick wall. She pulled loose bricks out of the wall and found a hole. That curiosity in her returned in full force and without a thought, she reached in and fished around for something…anything.

What’s that?

She grabbed on to it and pulled it out; a metal cube with glowing glitter all over it. She placed it in her lap as she rested against the wall. She tried to open it but her hands were so slippery that she couldn’t get a good grip. A wipe of her hands on her shirt couldn’t help, but God help her, Keisha wouldn’t quit. She tried and tried, rubbing all over the box. Then she cut herself on the corner of the cube. She didn’t scream out until she saw the blood squirting from her palm. “Jalen!” she cried out.

Her brother came rushing down the steps, looking for her. “Keisha?”

She shoved the cube back into the hole and pulled a box in front of it to hide.

He hopped down the last couple steps and looked. Found her crouched down in the middle of boxes. “What—how—what’re you doing down here?” She held in her tears as best she could but her hand was throbbing. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She nodded first, but quickly covered that with a fierce shaking of her head. “No, no. I cut myself.” The pain wasn’t that bad, but she didn’t want her brother to see the cube.

Jalen took a look at her hand, then lifted her into his arms and carried her up the steps. He patched her hand and made it all better.

***

With their grandmother sick in bed, Jalen fixed dinner; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips and chocolate milk. It was the only thing in the kitchen he could make, Denise and Keisha didn’t complain. 

After dinner, they sat in the family room together as Jalen tried to get the tv to work but all he got was static. “Let’s have grandma tell us a story,” Denise suggested.

“No, no. She’s asleep. Maybe she’ll tell us one tomorrow when she’s feeling better,” Jalen said, giving up on the old television.

“Well, what’re we going to do? It’s too early to go to sleep.” Denise reached for a book and opened it up.

“I have a story,” Keisha said.

Denise laughed. “You? A story?”

Keisha looked at Jalen and he smiled. “Yeah? Tell us.”

“Please, Jay. I don’t want to hear no kindergarten crap.” Denise rolled her eyes.

“Then don’t listen. She can tell me.” Jalen sat on the floor as Keisha sat across from him. Denise remained on the sofa with her legs rested on the arm, her face buried in the pages of a book.

Keisha jumped right into the story. “In the 1840’s there was an evil man by the name of Butch Ridder. He robbed people, killed them and ate their body parts—”

“Whoa—whoa—wait.” Jalen held his hands up.

“What? You said I could tell a story,” Keisha pouted.

“Yeah, but…this—where did you hear this?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Can’t remember.” Keisha shrugged. “But can I finish?”

Jalen didn’t answer. Denise was looking up from her book now. “What are you…scared of your little sister’s story, Jay?”

“Of course not. It’s just—if mom knew she were—”

“God! Mom’s not here. Let her finish the story.”

“Fine,” he said.

Denise closed the book and shifted in her seat to hear the rest.

Keisha continued. “Before he ate his victims, he’d always say ‘Butch sho’ like some of that flesh’.” Keisha mimicked the voice in a thick western tongue that had Denise grinning and her brother covering his mouth. “Butch terrorized the state for ten years. One night, he followed a young woman to her house, attacked her once she went inside, and tied her to a chair. Then, he searched the home for anything valuable. All he found were weird dolls and necklaces. So, he decided to just eat her. ‘Butch sho’ like some of that flesh’ he said as he looked at her neck. But as he lunged for it, something stopped him. He was frozen in place and couldn’t move. Suddenly, ropes flew from the woman, the chair blew away and she levitated.

“He begged for mercy, realizing the woman was a witch. She wasn’t so merciful. A stick from the corner of the room flew into her hands and she beat Butch so bad with it that blood covered his entire face. She ripped out his tongue with her hand and fed it to her rats in the cage. She gouged out his eyeball, crushed it with her teeth and spit it out at his chest. But she did not kill him. All of this was part of her ritual…a spell… and she banished him to The Glitterbox forever. The end.” Keisha clasped her hands together and smiled.

“What the fuck?” Jalen blurted.

“Ooooohh. I’m telling mommy.” Denise pointed at him.

“Oh crap. No. Don’t.”

Denise chuckled, but then turned to her sister. “Who told you that story, Keisha? What’s The Glitterbox?” she asked.

All Keisha did was shrug. Then, she yawned. “I’m sleepy.”

Her brother and sister stared at her, dumbfounded. Keisha stared back with slow-blinking lids. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Jalen was at a loss for words.

“How about we sleep together tonight?” Denise suggested.

“Yeah, good idea,” Jalen agreed.

“But I wanted to sleep upstairs in that middle room,” Keisha protested.

“No,” Jalen demanded. “We sleep together. We don’t know this house that well, okay? Plus, we’ll be close to grandma if she wakes up and needs anything.”

“Fine,” Keisha pouted and crossed her arms.

“Cool.” Jalen stood. “I’ll get the sheets and stuff.”

***

It was midnight when Uncle Ray came home. He’d seen Jalen and Denise asleep in the middle of the room and smiled. But where was the little one? Keisha? He ventured down the hall to his mother’s room and saw her fast asleep, but no sign of the young girl. He walked up the steps, turned on the hall light and checked the rooms, saving the middle room for last; the one under construction with only the doorknob on the inside. He pushed it open, walked in and found an empty room. Just as he left it, but he heard someone breathing. “Hello? Keisha, you in here?” No answer.

The breathing continued and as he turned to leave the room, the door slammed shut. The fuck?

He hustled to open it but his hands kept slipping on the knob. “What is this?” He kept trying and trying, but his hands kept on slipping.

All the light he had in the room was from the neighboring house. It shined like a spotlight on the door, turning the room into a bright hallway with black walls. The breathing intensified, stronger, man-like. He knew it wasn’t his niece and he stopped trying with the door and turned to put up his fists to an intruder. “Who’s there? Show yourself?”

Then, from the shadows, came his little niece Keisha. He felt the weight of a thousand dumbbells roll off his shoulders and he dropped his fist. “Oh God, girl. You scared the living crap out of me.”

Keisha stood in front of the window, looking up at him.

“What’re you doing up here? You okay?” He stepped forward. Then came that breathing again, followed by a grunt.

“Butch sho’ like some of that flesh.” He saw her mouth move but the voice, that deep-toned accent, stopped him from moving any closer.

“What’d you just say?”

“Butch sho’ like some of that flesh,” she said again. Then, she took a step toward him.

He turned and tried the knob but God dammit it was still slippery. Then, a small hand grabbed his wrist and squeezed so hard that it crippled him. The last thing he felt was her tiny teeth chomping at his neck.

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.

Life in the Alien Hills

Their world was dying and they needed a new one. They came, not to just rebuild, but to conquer and destroy. But the size of the human being overwhelmed them. The strength. The intelligence. The population. The Brax were centuries ahead in technology, one would look at it as magic, but they were not ready for war with the human. It would’ve meant the end of their species. So, they used that technology to hide, expand and plot.

As they carved out a world of their own in the mountains using their magic to hide from the humans, a kingdom was formed. And in the hundred years of that kingdom, the Brax fell prey to the very thing that destroyed their world. Civil war. One king, two civilizations.

This was the story all the Serfs knew in Braxia, and they prayed daily for its destruction.

These days, Odell led those prayers. The oldest of the Serfs. The only human who had remembered Earth. Taken at age seven, he’d been plucked from the street as he walked home and brought to this magical land. That seemed a lifetime ago. The others, taken as babies, all came to him for stories of what the Earth looked like, what other humans were like. They had to meet in secret to talk of such things.

Now-a-days Odell could hardly remember his old home, his parents’ faces. The memories were drowned out by the beauty of Braxia. The great waterfall in the middle of the kingdom that changed colors with the season. The glowing fairies that brought cheer to any Brax or Serf when they were feeling down. The short sky that, at night, fully displayed the solar system. The yellow pathways, the green streets, the strange but delicious foods, the plants, the pets, everything about this place was dream-like. Heaven really, if not for the Brax. Millions of beings, half the size of humans with blue skin, pointy ears and red eyes. And mean. The little devils were fast, too – agile, even the oldest of them. Although, a human could take on one alone, the hundred Serfs in Braxia were vastly outnumbered.

Odell could only speak for himself but he was constantly beaten as a Serf. Tormented by old Brax and young. As he overcame the struggles of growing up in an alien world as a human punching bag, he was considered the most famous and respected Serf of all time. Through those hardships, as a reward, or a deterrent to prevent an uprising from the humans, the general of the Braxian army made Odell his personal serf.

Odell was loyal to the bone, but it stopped at his soul. In those brutal moments of childhood, he forgave the Brax for what they had done to him, but he never forgot.

Civil War in Braxia.

It was official. The General had the north on his side, including the army, while the King, his brother, had everywhere and everyone else. More importantly, the crown. The magical crown that gave the King supernatural power. Power which the old Brax King had never used. Some on the General’s side would say he couldn’t. Was not worthy for the crown.

In one last attempt for peace, the two had a dinner at the General’s palace. With the King, his wife and two young children joining the General, his wife and their son, this would be just a holiday family gathering. But the tension in Braxia had gone on for five long years, and the two families, other than the brothers, hardly knew one another.

“This is dark powder. It grows our trees, powers our homes, it shows you the universe in the sky at night. It is what you Serf call magic. It is the very thing that keeps us hidden from the human world. You sprinkle this on the King’s food, in his drink and he is dead within the hour. Do you understand?”

The General gave Odell the bag of dark powder.

“No need to involve his wife and kids. They will follow in line once he is gone.”

“Understood.” Odell nodded and shuffled to the kitchen to prepare the food.

The King arrived with his family and personal escort, ten of his personal guardsmen who’d stayed by his side. The other twenty stayed behind to protect the castle.

Odell couldn’t hear much of what was happening in the dining area, but it was calm. Maybe he wanted the first battle of the war to begin right then, let them destroy each other without involving any other Brax or, God forbid, Serf. But it was peaceful. He’d even heard laughing.

Still, he peeked into the dining room and made eye contact with the General. The Brax gave him a slight nod, then he returned to the plan. Odell’s plan.

He sprinkled the dark powder into the King’s drink, stirred it and mixed it with the food on his plate. Then, Odell sprinkled the powder into the drinks and plates of the King’s wife and children.

The Serf didn’t stop there.

He sprinkled the powder into the General’s drink and plate of food. The same for his wife and his son.

“Dinner is ready,” he announced as he entered the dining room with a cart that held all seven plates and drinks. Then, he served them to everyone.

The General gave his serf a wink. Odell returned to the kitchen and waited.

An hour later, he heard one of the children scream. One of the wives gasped and a strange commotion followed. When Odell returned to the dining room, all seven Brax were lying dead on the floor. Their blue skin had turned red. Their red eyes had turned black. And white foam spilled out of their mouths.

The Brax guard for both the General and the King faced off from opposite sides of the table, confused, sad, angry, pointing their speared weapons at one another. Ignoring the human’s conniving approach toward the dead King.

Odell grabbed the crown from the Old Brax’s head and placed it on his own. That is when both factions of the Brax guard turned their spears on him.

The magical crown expanded to fit his human skull and a jolt of energy pulsed throughout his body. The man’s skin even turned blue. His sight changed, filtered the world into this light red color. He could only imagine what his ears looked like but he didn’t touch them because he worried that he’d lose his height with this unforeseen transformation. The short moment of regret passed when he didn’t shrink, he looked down at the Brax and they looked up at him.

He waved the small army of Brax off, and they dropped their weapons. Was it loyalty to the crown they had? Or was it pure control over them? He wasn’t sure yet, but he loved the feeling.

Immediately, Odell left the General’s palace and marched through Braxia, the guards shadowing him. The guards outside did the same. The Brax left their homes and followed the gathering. The Serf celebrated.

Once Odell, the human king, approached the castle with the Brax and Serf by his side, he turned to the cliffs and looked out into the ocean. The beautiful blue ocean. At the edge, he touched the barrier that blocked the human world from theirs. That hid Braxia in the mountains.

By touching it, he broke that barrier forever. And the view of the ocean, a simulation, transformed into a city with bright lights and loud noises.

Odell with his magical crown and little blue army descended the Alien hills and entered the world.

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.

Fire and Gold

“You forgot one, boy.”

“Pa?”                                                                                                  

“Chair, over yonder. In the corner collecting shadow creatures and what have you.”

Junior saw the loner chair, hiding in the corner by the front window, and he skipped over to grab it.

Someone must’ve put it there for the lovely view of misery. A deserted town that had once tried to be more but fell a little short. Okay, a lot short. One could look out the window of Morris’ Saloon and see the three other rotted cob-webbed buildings of Nothingville, USA.

Morris prayed to God every evening to reach His big hand out of the clouds and grab him and his boy and take them somewhere where they could live in peace and happiness. But life choices led him to hide in the middle of nowhere, stuck between the jagged terrains of the tallest mountains in the southwest. The Saloon had occasional patrons, no doubt about that, but the same crop of hard men that he was already acquainted with. Some would ride all day just for the booze or the stories from the retired gunslinger. But most days it was just Morris and his boy.

“Someone’s coming, Pa,” Junior said as he grabbed the chair from the corner, dragging it to one of the four tables. “No horse.”

This time of night? On foot? Here? In the butthole of the world?

Someone coming when it was dark was unusual. On foot was downright insane. That someone would have to be settling up for the night, hoping to sleep alongside Morris and his boy in the shack out back. And that someone would be outside of his mind to think that.

“Come around here, son.”

“One of your old rivals?” the boy asked.

“Your dad’s rivals are long gone, Junior.”

“And dead men don’t walk,” his son recited, almost as if he’d heard it before.

That brought a slight smirk to Morris’ face and when the boy came around the counter with him, he gave his hair a good ruffling.

Maybe someone hoping to make a name for themselves by taking him out, Morris thought. Some poor chap hoping to get famous quick. A fogy feller thinking that retired meant incompetent. Morris went from one side of the counter to the other, where his rifle hung underneath. From here, he could point it at anyone he didn’t like, anywhere in the saloon. He grabbed the stock, his finger scratching near the trigger.

The man busted into the saloon, a cloud of dust trailing him like he’d been rolling around in the sand out there. He was breathing fast, and pacing with more energy than he should’ve had, being out here in the hub of nowhere, this time of night.

“Just closing up, sir,” Morris told the young man.

“Help!” he gasped between breaths. “Help me. I need help. Th-the-there’s something out there.”

Morris took his finger away from the trigger, retracted his hand from the stock and put both palms on the counter. Harmless looking feller seemed as misplaced in the world as Morris was in his own mind. He couldn’t see any weapons on the stranger, just a dirty shirt under a dirty coat with dirty britches and boots that looked like they’d been through hell. He held a brown sack in his right hand that seemed to be weighing the skinny man to the side. “What’s out there, friend? Besides dirt and darkness.”

The traffic in the Morris Saloon was an unofficial exclusive club. Men and sometimes women that Morris knew from his old life. He’d never seen this man before. Figured he got lost, his horse got dead, and he found the bar. Or, this stranger was crazier than a headless goat.

“Monster out there,” the man claimed. “A fucking monster.”

“Ah—ah!” The boy scrambled around the corner and pointed to a shelf with a clear jar sitting on it, labeled ‘swear box’. “You owe me,” the little whippersnapper claimed.

“Sorry,” the stranger hobbled to the bar counter, looking at the wall.

“No profanity in the saloon.” Junior crossed his arms over his chest.

The man smirked at the young boy and sat in one of the stools. “Just a drink then, and I’ll be on my way.” He looked up at Morris.

“Pay the boy, first. Rules is rules.” Morris looked down at his son, who stood firm in his stance, tightening his arms across his body, lifting his chin up.

The stranger glanced at the box, then plopped his bag on the counter and it clinked. Morris recognized that sound, the shape of the bag and assumed its contents. He suspected this man meant trouble. Or if he wasn’t, trouble was coming. He reached into the bag, shielding the inside from Morris’ view and pulled out a gold coin. Showcasing it, smiling, the look in his eyes showed a man proud of what he’d been through, despite some tales of monsters. “I reckon this should cover that swear cup over there and a lifetime of drinks. Yeah?” He placed it on the counter and pushed it forward.

Morris just stared at it. Didn’t budge or reach for it. Didn’t plan on it, either.

“We can’t change that.” Junior in all his innocent ignorance reached for the coin. Morris grabbed his wrist before he touched it. “Finish your cleaning.”

The boy snatched his hand back and eyed the stranger, then stomped away, grabbed a rag and went to clean tables. “Wiping old dust to make room for better dust,” Junior muttered.

Morris shook his head as he poured the stranger a shot a whiskey.

“Snappy little thing, that boy of yours.” The stranger grabbed the glass and dispensed the liquor down his throat. Slamming the glass, the man pointed from the cup to the bottle. “Keep em coming, friend.”

As good a time as any to remind the stranger of closing time, but then another man entered the saloon. He didn’t have to tell his boy to come around the corner, Junior rushed back to him all on his own. A tall, dark, rugged man, dressed for the weather and trek, a visible gun on his hip. He stood in the doorway, taking stock of the establishment. Morris saw a horse outside through the window. Unlike the first stranger, this man didn’t look lost.

The skinny man at the bar barely glanced over his shoulder before turning back to the front, grabbing his sack of coins, and placing it in his lap, shielding it best he could with his coat. For all he knew, this was the normal in Morris’ Saloon. Strange men showing up randomly after the sun dropped.

“Closed for the evening,” Morris announced.

The second man didn’t respond, just helped himself to a chair by the door. The metal on his hip clinked as he walked over. A clacking sound came from his boots as he ambled over the wooden floorboards. He even sat loudly, sighing as he dropped into the chair. Grabbing a cigar from his front shirt pocket, his gaze went to the stranger at the bar.

Morris knew that look all too well. A look that meant danger. He moved out of the way and shielded his boy from the line of fire that was sure to come. A stranger in Morris’ Saloon in the middle of fuck, after godly hours? Rare. But two strangers? Impossible.

This was no regular evening. This had to be about that sack there. And Morris was good not to touch that coin on the counter.

The stranger looked at the empty cup, waiting perhaps for his second shot. “Craziest thing I ever saw, that monster out there. Up in the mountains.” He grabbed the cup, and started fiddling with it, completely oblivious to the man sitting behind him. “I know bears, I know wolves, but this was something different, I tell you. Something different altogether. Barely got out of there with my life. Damn horse started to slow me down. Guessing after I put Bessie out of her misery, she became food and slowed it down, I don’t know. I don’t know—hey, sir, another one.” He raised the cup.

“Like I said before, friend. It’s time to go.” Morris pointed to the door.

“Okay, okay, big guy.” He stood and pointed to the coin on the counter. “You save that, you hear? I’ll be back for my second drink.”

The stranger had a complete change of attitude than when he had entered. Morris noticed how he stood with his chin up and his chest out. With as much confidence as a wolf walking through a deer region. Clutching that sack tightly to his hip as if it were an extra limb. That moment lasted a second because as soon as he turned around, a bullet entered his skull. The sack dropped quicker than the body.

Rich in his last moments, poor for eternity.

Morris didn’t blink an eye. Saw it coming from the moment the tall man walked into his saloon. The pull of the gun, the quickness of the trigger, the man reminded him of himself. Junior, brave boy, stayed close to him, but didn’t yelp, didn’t flinch, as if it were a normal thing. He hadn’t been around violence much, but he’d heard plenty of stories about his father’s encounters.

“Sorry for the mess,” the man tipped his hat to Morris and his son, then stashed the weapon in his holster. “This man is a wanted outlaw and I come to bring him in, dead or alive,” he announced as if he were a law man. But Morris didn’t see a badge and he knew all the sheriff’s men. The old man had always traveled with a gang every time he came to the Saloon. This man, was not one of them.

No matter if he knew him or not, he didn’t have quarrels with this tall…gunslinger. Yeah, gunslinger, the professional kind. Going from town to town, looking for fights, picking fights, when jobs were scarce. Morris knew the type. Hell, he was the type.

With that deliberate hard walk, from the front of the place to the counter where the blood was staining the floors, the man looked at the gold coin on the counter, and his eyes lit up like a full moon. Then, his gaze dropped to the man and he picked up the sack that lay next to him. When he opened it, his eyes just about left his body. “I-I-I’ll be back for the body,” he twisted the top of the sack closed and stuffed it in the side of his britches. He had to hold it against himself to keep it from falling.

As he stood to leave the saloon, the thundering noise of a herd of horses echoed in the air. Hoofing and neighing with shouts of direction from a few men, dust rolling in over the windows on either side of the door. Day or night, the saloon had never been as busy as it was now. The sound stopped the gunslinger in his tracks. And he took a step back toward the body.

Next, men stormed the saloon. Men Morris knew; the Sheriff and three of his deputies. Likely there were more outside. When coming this far outside of town, the Sheriff always came with a posse.

The Sheriff had decades on everyone in the room, well past his days in the field, but the power over people became his drug. As a retired gunslinger, a saloon owner and a wanted criminal in four states as far as he knew, the Sheriff had given Morris refuge here in the mountains. In this God-forsaken deserted town that never had a name. A place where men could come and drink and bring their women for fun. A place of illegal activity where the Sheriff could unwind and be his true corrupt self because he had a moral reputation to uphold in the town he ran. Ironically, Morris was a good man now. And he was raising Junior in the same light. Whatever evils he’d done in the past, he’d make up for in the future. A process he was still trying to figure out. The Sheriff and his bad apples stood in his way, but at the same time, kept him surviving with their silence and money. He didn’t want to survive anymore; he’d done plenty of that in his dangerous days. Morris wanted to live.

“Evening,” the Sheriff tipped his hat to Morris and the boy behind the counter before focusing his attention on the gunslinger.

“Howdy, Sheriff. Got your man right here.” The gunslinger pointed to the dead stranger, standing crookedly.

Two of the three deputies split off from the front, and they walked up and stopped on either side of the gunslinger.  

Surrounded now, the man looked from side to side, taking another step back. If he were smart, he’d have another.

“Good, good, good,” Sheriff replied. Then, he took a step, just a step, and peeked over at the counter where that single gold coin lay. Nodding and smiling. Then he surveyed the body. “Imagine it was an easy kill for ya. Cooper was never a good gunner.”

“Pot shot,” the gunslinger replied. His tone softened, the tension in his stance breaking. “This one’s on the house, Sheriff. No need for a reward. It was good practice.”

“Oh?”

“Yup. I’ll just, uhh, be on my way.” The gunslinger wobbled toward the door, as the Sheriff walked to the counter, passing each other. The old man looked at the body some more as he got closer, then looked at the coin on the counter, then at Morris and the boy. “Just one more thing.”

The gunslinger stopped at the door, facing the single deputy that stood in his way.

“He have anything on him? Papers, tobacco, cash? Gold?”

The gunslinger straightened, lifted his head and that hand…Morris paid close attention to that right hand hovering over his holster. In seconds, the gunslinger pulled his gun, and disarmed the deputy guarding the door. He turned and aimed at the sheriff with one gun, and he used the unarmed deputy as a shield, pressing the second gun in his neck. The other two on either side of the room pulled their weapons out and aimed. Average shooters, Morris guessed, by the way they handled the guns. In all of this, the sack fell to the floor, clinking near the gunslinger’s feet.

The Sheriff shook his head, and smacked his teeth.

“Let me walk out of here, Sheriff, and no one’ll get dead,” the gunslinger said. “You got your boy right there under ya. Keep your reward and I’ll be on my way.”

“And what’s that there?” the Sheriff pointed at the sack.

“Just some snacks. For my horse.”

The Sheriff laughed, then looked at the two deputies on his side, who forced their laughter.

“Don’t see how you plan on walking out of this town, friend. You may get us,” the Sheriff raised his arms and walked forward, “but I got a dozen men out there.” His deputies inching closer as well. “You’re good. I’ll give you that, but not that good.”

“Let me be, Sheriff,” The gunslinger talked like he wanted to live but looked as if he weren’t afraid to die. Either the will to live, ego, or overconfidence in his skill forced him to take his next action.

The deputies went first; the one by the door, got a bullet to his neck. As he dropped, the two others received bullets to the head. Poor bastards couldn’t even get a shot off.

And that gunslinger, as good as the Sheriff had claimed seconds before, wasn’t fast enough to get to him. A bullet pierced the gunslinger’s skull, entering right between the eyes and he fell back, and thumped hard on the wood floor like a sack of potatoes.

Wasn’t the Sheriff, but he looked back as if he knew. Morris, held a smoking pistol in his hand, temporarily out of retirement.

The dozen men stormed the saloon with guns drawn, aimed at Morris, who still stood with the pistol drawn.

“Hold on. Hold on,” the Sheriff stopped them from killing his savior. “You slow sons a’ bitches, Morris here saved my life. Now put ’em down.”

Morris could take them if he had to. All twelve of them, thirteen counting the Sheriff. Wasn’t a will to live or ego on his part, just fact. 

They lowered their weapons, and Morris lowered his. The men, some deputies, most just regular town folk who worshipped the Sheriff as if he were a king, looked around at the massacre before them. As the men crowded the doorway, some stepping on the gunslinger, trying to squeeze in to see what was happening, the horses outside neighed.

“Get out there and tend to them ’fore they get loose and lost.”

The twelve deputies exited, leaving the Sheriff in there with Morris and his boy.

The old man turned to Morris with a slick smile, as if he owned him. Like, Morris treated him the same as the rest of the clowns from town. He dealt with the Sheriff only to keep the world off his trail. “I see you hadn’t forgotten our deal.”

Morris clicked his teeth and stashed the gun in his hip. He, then, turned away to grab a rag to wipe the long bar counter from the blood splatter.

As the horses continued their whiney racket that increased by the second, the Sheriff ignored it and reached into the stranger’s pockets. Empty. “What happened ’fore I got here, Morris?” He then walked over to the dead gunslinger by the door and checked his pockets. Also, empty. But he grabbed the sack from the ground. “Whoa nelly!” he said, laughing, struggling to stand with it. He walked back to the counter, holding the sack like a baby, smiling as if he already knew the contents.

As the Sheriff plopped it on the wooden counter, it clanked and boomed across the saloon. He sat on the stool and opened the sack. That smile on the Sheriff’s face turned to awe. The horses outside were screaming at this point. “Goddamn fucking beasts. Shut them the hell up,” the Sheriff screamed over his shoulder.

Junior cleared his throat.

The Sheriff looked at him, then the swear box on the wall. “Ah, yes, yes. The jar.”

He reached in and pulled out a coin from the sack, thinking. Then, he grabbed a money clip from his pocket and tossed it to the young man. “For a lifetime pass of fucks.” Junior caught it and ran away with it. Grinning and counting it.

The Sheriff kissed the coin he pulled out, “This be my retirement, Morris. Might even buy this shitty town and turn it into something. You’d like that, would—” he noticed the single coin from before. The loner…the gift from the stranger, resting on the counter. He put the other coin back and reached for it.

“Sir,” one of the men entered the saloon, nearly tripped over the gunslinger before catching himself.

The Sheriff pulled his hand back from the coin and turned. Angrily. Hiding the sack in his lap. “I told you to wait outside.”

“Sir, something’s got the horses riled up.”

“I can hear that.”

“Two of them already ran off.”

“Cuz the moon’s gone and we’re in the middle of nowhere, don’t you see. Now, get out there and feed ’em some crackers and take a bottle of booze with you to settle ’em down. I’m sure Morris won’t mind.” The Sheriff looked back at Morris who nodded.

Then, the horses stopped crying, but that awful noise from the animals was replaced by the rest of the men outside. They were arguing or discussing something in a distressed manner.

Before the other deputy or the Sheriff could investigate, gunfire erupted. They each pulled their sidearms. The sheriff stood, holding that sack close to his body. Morris and his boy remained behind the counter.

A minute later, once the gunfire ceased, something out there roared, louder than any bear. The saloon shook, the windows rattled, Morris’ heart jumped. He’d been truly scared only two times in his entire life; when he killed his first man at the age of ten and when his wife died in childbirth. This horrible sound had him thinking of the stranger and his talk about a monster in the mountains. He snatched the rifle from its resting place under the counter.

“What in the blazes?” The Sheriff spoke for everyone.

Outside, the men started shouting. Perhaps, they could answer that question.

Then came another roar from whatever the hell that was, and the windows on each side of the door lit up. A blaze that blanketed the view.

Morris stuck his boy under the counter to hide as curiosity pulled him from around the safest spot in the place, rifle in hand. The saloon didn’t catch the fire, but the other buildings in the town did. And the men outside, the deputies, were on fire too. Running wild.

“Get out there,” the Sheriff ordered the last deputy.

The man turned and shook his head. “No way in hell.”

The Sheriff pointed his gun at him and said, “Either you fight out there or you die in here.”

Processing the decision, or still disobeying his boss, the man stood there. Biding his time. His last moments in the world. Poor son of a bitch. His choices were die out there or die in here. Die by fire or die by bullet. 

The front of the saloon creaked and cracked. In seconds, the roof was torn off like a tornado had touched down. But it wasn’t wild winds that caused this fire and destruction – it was a hand, a claw. With fingernails as tall as Morris and razer sharp nails as long as Junior. The deputy and Sheriff shot their pistols at the thing as if their guns were superior than the weapons wielded by their burned compatriots outside. After the roof was snatched off, the front of the building was next. It tore away from the building much like Morris used to snatch wanted posters of himself from posts. And with the front wall and door and windows being ripped away, the deputy went with it, screaming and shooting, until he was pulled so far into the darkness, the sounds of his cries and gunfire faded.

After the fire settled into ash and smoke, once the Sheriff tucked that sack under his arm and readied himself for an escape, the source of the fire and giant claws returned.

A head as big as the saloon – a pointy head, with a mouth and snout reaching out, opening up to razor sharp teeth that would pierce a man harder than any bullet could. It looked like a lizard, a giant lizard, until Morris saw the rest of it. A hollow chest with orange light beaming and glowing up toward the neck. A scaly body too dark to tell its color, but bright enough to see that it was just as the stranger had said. A monster.

Perhaps the same curiosity that pulled Morris to the window, grabbed hold of the Sheriff and forced him to the edge of the Saloon. The Sheriff and the creature made eye contact, staring each other down. Somehow Morris knew that sack had something to do with that thing. And that thing was going to—

The orange in its throat lit up, and fire blew from its mouth and burned the Sheriff where he stood. Morris was smart enough not to fire a shot, quick enough to rush back behind the counter with his boy. The fire reduced the old corrupt Sheriff to ash. The sack burned as well and all the gold coins that filled it, fell into the ash pile. Amongst the coins was an egg. A golden egg.

Morris crouched down, gawking, as his boy grabbed onto his torso. There was no point in running from the giant fire-throwing beast. They wouldn’t make it half-a-mile. Hell, they wouldn’t make it to their shack. And if they did, bye-bye, shack. The monster leaned its head into the roofless saloon and Morris, grabbing his boy, stumbled backwards against the door that led to the back. It looked at the father and son. The breath of the beast was so strong that it felt like a windy day inside the bar. It sniffed them, then stared at the single coin on the counter that Morris and his boy hadn’t touched.

Morris didn’t know what this beast was. Didn’t even want to guess. But somehow, he knew that the monster was going to let them live. And let them keep the coin. The monster did as much, nodding its head at the coin before retreating from the counter.

It took the golden egg in its mouth and returned to the mountains with a light, soothing screech.

Ten minutes later, once the sound of the beast was gone, and the fire had settled down, Morris walked over and looked at his broken saloon. Devastation hit him until he grabbed the coin left on the counter by the stranger. From the sky that sprawled above where his ceiling used to be, to the smoke in the street ahead that replaced his front wall, door and windows, the saloon was done. Then his gaze went to the sheriff’s remains and the hundreds of gold coins left by the generous monster.

Morris looked to the heavens and spat. Then he marched over to the coins, knelt down and grabbed as many as he could in his palms. Years of ignored prayers, answered by a monster. “No God here. Only Fire and Gold.”

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.

Fade

The kids loved the card tricks, the floating wand and they went crazy over the bunny coming out of the hat. The parents grew bored and returned to the house while the kids stayed. “More, more, more,” they yelled.

“All right, kids. All right,” Hal the magician said. “One last one.”

He leaned forward, peeked around the side of the home to make sure the parents were gone. As the hyperactive kids cheered, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold necklace. The chain was skinny, hardly noticeable but the pendant was thick and it shined bright with help from the sun. But Hal disguised it all with some showmanship, to distract the kids from what he was doing, up until he slickly placed it around his neck.

The first time he had tried this was in his bathroom; his reflection had disappeared in the mirror but he could still see himself if he looked down. No matter, this was the greatest discovery, not only in the magician community, but the history of the world.

The kids didn’t know it, but this was a trial run before he performed the greatest show on Earth this coming weekend, The Disappearing Man.

He stopped the nonsensical hand movement and prepared to show them the trick. “Don’t be afraid, children.” Some of the eight-year-olds scoffed at the implication.

Then, he began. “Ala Kazaam, Ala Kazoo, watch me disappear right in front of you.” Then, under his breath, he whispered, “Fade.”

The pendant dangling from his neck shined and vibrated; he felt it, saw the light bounce off him and spread across the backyard. The kids had no change of expression as their little faces glowed gold. Then, his body convulsed, that part got their attention. And he forgot how much it’d pained his chest in the beginning; the throbbing, the tightness, like the pendant was digging into his skin, his soul, trying to merge with his heart. And perhaps, that’s what it was doing, he didn’t fully understand it, yet. But he survived the other seven times. He’d survive it now. All for the glory of entertainment. The joy of seeing the amused, confused, shocked faces of his audience. All for the trick. It was worth killing for, so it was worth dying for, as well.

But he was fine, he’d gotten through another transformation and blended within the world. Camouflaged with the air. The young kids didn’t know how to react, some screamed and ran inside, others stood and cried. A few walked toward him with awe, trying to feel around, actively searching if he were still there.

Before the parents could come outside to investigate the noise, he grabbed his pack from the wall and it, too, disappeared with him. Then, he fled the backyard and the home until he was safe in his apartment.

When Hal pulled the necklace off, the glowing had stopped and he became visible, again. His heart was pounding and his adrenaline continued to rise. Not from the transformation, no-no, he was used to that now, but the rush he got from presenting the trick to an audience. Adults, kids, didn’t matter, the reaction was everything to him. He lived for that. Obsessed over the clout that’d follow once he performed in front of the world. This was his one chance, his one shot to make something of his mediocre career as a magician’s assistant. He’d spent all of his money to reserve this spot and naming the event “The Disappearing Man” would likely gather a large audience with a massive media presence. From card and hat tricks to invisibility. It wasn’t tricks anymore, not magic, but dark magic. Sorcery. Whatever. I’d be the greatest in the world once they witness.

The walls of his home were still riddled with maps of the amazon rainforest he’d visited a week ago. Barely a speck of the drywall in sight. Parts of it were newspaper clippings of his upcoming event in two days. He didn’t sleep, didn’t eat much, only prepped. He’d always been hailed as a decent trickster but a terrible showman. No way could he just walk out there and disappear. There had to be build up, anticipation. So, he worked on that for the rest of the evening, well into the early morning until he passed out on the sofa. 

He was never much of a coffee drinker, but Hal had consumed more of it this week than his entire life. Trying so hard, so desperately to keep from sleeping, from dreaming. The nightmares from his trip would haunt him for the rest of his days. And once his eyes closed, he’d be thrown back in the amazon with his team.

He didn’t have the energy to get up and make a cup, but before he dozed into a deep slumber, a knock at the door saved him from that hell. He jumped from the sofa; panting, sweating, trying to push that horrific memory out of his mind, and waddled over to the peephole, looking through. After seeing the visitor, he dropped his head and sighed. Perhaps he should’ve stayed in the dream. But he couldn’t just not answer it, that’d be too suspicious. Best deal with it now, get it out of the way and be free to move on to better things; the event. So, he fixed his face in a gloomy way and opened the door. “Mrs. Donovan,” he greeted the old lady on the other side.

She mirrored that same expression as he did and raised her arms for a hug.

They embraced. Longer than usual. And when they released, he remained in the doorway, blocking a path into his home. “I’m so sorry.” His eyes watered up. If this magician thing didn’t work out, the man had a knack for acting.

Mrs. Donovan sniffled and grabbed a tissue from her purse, wiping her face, just staring at him.

He broke the silence. “I would’ve come by sooner, but,” he stammered. “But I—I didn’t know how to face you.”

“It’s okay, dear,” she responded.

“If it weren’t for your son,” he paused to catch his breath to keep the act going. “If it weren’t for Charlie, I’d be dead somewhere by now. His friendship saved my life. I just wish I could’ve saved his.”

“He’s not dead, Hal. Just missing. We’ll find him soon. You must have faith,” she said.

Hal nodded. Once he saw that she was done, about to walk away, he retreated into the home.

“One last thing,” she mentioned. “Did you guys find what you were looking for? You, Charlie and the others? Before he left, he was so excited to explore the amazon but more to find some lost treasure. I told the boy he was chasing ghosts.” She chuckled through her misery.

But, was it misery, though? To Hal, it didn’t look like it anymore. More like disappointment and this seemed like an interrogation than anything. Maybe, he was just paranoid or anxious about the event tomorrow. Or both.

He held on to the phony performance a little longer and shook his head. “No, ma’am. We didn’t find anything. Just ghosts, like you said.”

She stood there, studying him seemed like. Then her straight, teary face lifted into a smile. “All right, Hal. Keep in touch.” She waved goodbye and walked away.

He closed the door, slammed his back into it and heaved a huge breath of relief that made him slither down to his butt. Still, that paranoia didn’t leave him until he saw her drive out of the parking lot from his living room window. But why the short visit? Does she know what happened? Does she know what he did? Impossible.

Every time he tried to focus on his upcoming event, a negative thought of Mrs. Donovan would sprout. That led to the tragic journey he and his friends had embarked on. But some good came from it. The treasure. The pendant. And he justified his actions, their sacrifice, for the sake of entertainment. It helped him move on to positive thoughts.

Hal entered the theater from the alleyway and by his request, minimal staff was present. Just a security team at the exits. It was a maze of hallways backstage, with arrows on the walls to lead him to the stage. The closer he got, the faster his heart beat, the more his clothing absorbed his sweat.

The last hallway, a short one, led to the curtains, and he peeked through and saw the most people he’d ever seen. Not an empty seat in the house.

The heartbeat continued with the sweat, but he was ready. He forced himself to follow through with this, if he backed out now, nothing would justify what he did back in the amazon.

They didn’t give him a backstage room; he didn’t need it. He had plenty of practice this past week, at home, in the bathroom, at the kids’ birthday party, and on his long walk to the theater. Passing citizens, a ghost to the world, invisible. No one knew him today. But tomorrow, everyone in the world would know his name.

“Hal The Magnificent, everyone,” an announcer introduced him to the stage.

He touched over his shirt and rubbed the pendant dangling underneath it, then took a deep breath and welcomed his future. “Here we go.”

Before he could walk through the curtains, a hand gripped his shoulder and turned him away from the stage.

First thing he saw was the rage in Mrs. Donovan’s eyes. Then, he felt a sharp pain in his belly. A throbbing that spread around his waist and up his chest. He looked away from the old woman’s eyes, and saw her hand plunged into him, the handle of a knife stopping her from digging deeper.

In the background, he heard a thunderous applause and the announcer said his name again. But that sound faded away as Mrs. Donovan’s voice took control.

“They found my boy, Hal. Barely held together. Clinging to life. And with his last breath, he told the authorities what happened out there. What you did to him and the others.” Her rage descended into sorrow as tears flooded her eyes and fell down her cheeks. “You took the only family I had left in the world. And for what? A toy.”

He wanted, so badly, to tell her that it was more than a toy. It was actual treasure. Something that’d change the world forever. But only blood filled his mouth when he opened it. Everything was garbled.

She twisted the blade and he groaned, wanting to fall, but the woman held him up with the knife. She had unnatural strength for her age. “I couldn’t even say goodbye. He didn’t say goodbye.”

Then, she released her grip on the knife and he fell with it still plunged into his belly. She walked over him, reached under his shirt and snatched the pendant off his chest.

“You don’t deserve this.” Then, she put the pendant in her purse and spat on him before she walked away.

The backstage ceiling transitioned into the forest. The Amazon. And in his dying moments, he was thrust into that nightmare that he’d been forced to relive every night since it’d happened.

Hal, Charlie, and three others trekked into the amazon on a six-day trip after Charlie discovered a map of treasure leading to ancient sorcery. Hal, Charlie’s apprentice, followed along, and their three friends tagged along. Took them three days through rugged terrain and deadly rapids that took two of their friends out before they found the cave that housed the special pendant. It revealed that whoever touched it, would be invisible to the eye. Charlie’s obsession with the treasure was superseded by Hal’s greed. Not for money, but power. The power to entertain. He saw that path with the pendant. But with Charlie alive, he would only be the helper, the unknown apprentice. So, he pushed his best friend off the cliff of the cave into the roaring rapids. And he bludgeoned the other friend with a rock until he stopped moving. He, too, followed Charlie off the cliff into the river.

Hal’s eyes were still open when that nightmare ended. People all around him, wondering what had happened, calling for help, but it was too late. Hal felt himself fading away.  

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.

Dorothy’s Daycare

“How ‘bout Jessica?” Chris asked his mom.

“She has to work.”

“Pete?”

“Out of town.”

“Andre or Shannon? I know they’re at home and they don’t have jobs.”

“Boy! Andre is thirteen and Shannon is eleven. Their parents may be okay with them watching themselves but I am certainly not okay with them watching you.”

“You don’t trust me?” Chris sighed.

“I can’t do this with you right now. I’m already late and I don’t know where the hell… this place… is.” Chris’ mother paused as she checked the GPS on her phone.

He continued to huff and puff, but he knew that wouldn’t work with his mother. Too late for that. If she would’ve given him more time, he might’ve made a better case for staying home alone, watching himself, fending for himself. But she brought this news to him last night of her returning to work.

Doesn’t hurt to keep trying, though. “But I’m ten!”

“You’re nine.”

“For a couple more weeks.”

She scoffed.

“Mom, please. Pleeeeeeeeeaaaaase!”

“Enough! You got your tablet?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Got your mask?”

He fished around the front pocket of his bookbag, then pulled it out. “Yes.”

“All right, put it on. We’re here.” She parked on the curb, left the car running, and hopped out.

Reluctant, still… to the very end, he remained in his seat. Arms crossed and frowning.

She opened the door for him and gave him that ‘You better stop playing with me’ look. So, he jumped out of his seat.

They marched up a walkway that looked like it had been hit by an Earthquake. Cement tiles out of shape, broken, dirt all over it, grass sprouting up and around it. Mom was more careful not to mess up her heels. The wrecked path led to a tall skinny home that didn’t appear much better. Cracks in the wall, vines swallowing the first floor, mold consuming the second. On either side was another house with a foot of space between them, and those were nicer. In fact, as Chris turned around, the entire area seemed brand-new. Like they had constructed this neighborhood around this ancient home that he was about to enter. Mom didn’t notice or she was blind to it.

The home might have been white back in the day, now it was sun-faded, dirty beige. And the door was red, with a banner above it that read, Dorothy’s Daycare. Before, Chris wanted to stay home because he felt he didn’t need a sitter. Now, he wanted to get away from this place, and go anywhere else. But too late… she’d already knocked on the door.

“Don’t screw this up, boy. This is the only daycare in the area that would even take kids your age.”

“So, there are kids my age, too? Not just babies?” He didn’t feel so bad anymore.

“I would imagine, so. Put your mask on.” She gave him a light shove.

As he placed the mask over his nose and mouth, the door unlocked. It took forever for the red door to open; creaking, exposing a darkness, releasing a bit of cold air. It gave Chris chills. Then, an older woman showed herself, peeking around, like she was playing a game of hide and seek or something. Even with her mask on – by her eyes, her skin, she looked a hundred-years-old. Instinctively, he took a step back.

Mom, of course, blinded by the creepy house, was also ignorant to the old lady, apparently in charge of the daycare, unless, a younger person was back there somewhere. But nothing, no one, just quiet. Not even sounds of screaming kids.

“Mom?” he questioned, pulling at her shirt tail.

“Good morning,” the old lady said.

“Hi, I’m Teresa.” His mother gave the old lady her hand.

The old woman raised her hands and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m over seventy and you know what they say about the elderly and this virus.” She smiled.

Says the woman running a daycare.

And, seventy my ass.

Chris was a smartass. Old for his age. The young boy definitely could’ve watched himself.

“Oh. Yeah.” Teresa retracted her hand. “Forgot.”

“Well then…My name is Dorothy, and this must be Christopher.”

“Yes. Christopher.” She bumped him in the shoulder. “Say hi.”

Chris did no such thing.

“I’m so sorry. But I have to get to work.” Teresa kissed her son on the forward and backed away down the broken path.

Chris turned his back to the old woman and watched his mother. He desperately wanted to yell out to her to come back, but his words hadn’t worked in his favor all morning. Maybe his eyes would. And he tried his best, in that final moment, to conjure up some tears. But nothing.

“He has snacks in his bag and I assure you, he’ll be on his best behavior.” Then, she turned to the car.

“We’ll take good care of him.”

Chris only turned around when his mother was down the street and around the corner. The old woman stood there in the doorway and stuck her hand out. “Welcome,” she said.

He looked at her hand, confused when she just said… whatever… he was brought up to respect elders, no matter how old, no matter how creepy. So, he shook it, then followed her inside.

Only when the door slammed shut did he hear the faint sounds of children playing.

The hallway was clean, no furniture, just an old shaggy carpet. The walls were plain, no pictures, no decorations. At the end of the hall was a floor to ceiling mirror and to the left was the living room with five children playing. Babies. And no other adults.

“Welcome to the madness,” she joked.

He chuckled nervously. Chris thought about asking the question about other kids being there, specifically kids his age, but feared he wouldn’t like the answer. So, he just stood there, looked at his watch and prayed these eight hours would fly by. The entire living room was as long as the hallway, and the kids were loud as shit. He figured the hallway must’ve drowned out most of the noise.

The old woman dragged herself to a rocking chair and picked up a needle and thread from an end table next to her. Also, on the table, was a stack of hay or straws, Chris couldn’t be sure, but he knew it was weird. Like, everything else going on here.

She started rocking, and humming a tune as the kids played. “Come, boy. Have a seat and join in on the fun.”

Chris turned around and looked across the hall to the other room. The dining room. “Can I…umm…go in there, ma’am?”

“Eh, suit yourself.” She shooed him away.

The dining room was much smaller than the living room. But a hell of a lot quieter. And more decorative; a massive dresser lined the wall and had jars of stuff and glass statues on them. As he’d guessed, the walls drowned out those kids and he barely heard any of them. After the dining room, he assumed was the kitchen, and after the kitchen he saw the stairs. How big is this house? Just as he thought it, he didn’t care to know. As far as he was concerned, this would be his last time here.

He dropped his bookbag on the floor, grabbed a chair at the dining table, his back to the kitchen, and pulled out his tablet. He double-checked to make sure he brought his charger because this would likely be his entertainment for the day.

Chris pulled up his video game on the tablet and started playing. It didn’t take long for the game to consume him, bring him into that world and forget about his unfortunate reality. Only in between levels, did he remember where he was. And he scoffed. As the game loaded up for another, he lifted his head and saw the mirror on the back wall of the hallway, the old woman in her rocking chair; rocking, knitting and staring at him. He watched for a second, to see if she was actually looking at him, and she didn’t turn away, smile, wave, or say anything. The woman didn’t even blink. Just kept her gaze locked on him through that mirror.

He shifted in his chair, his back to the side wall now, facing the dresser of antiques, and started the next level. But he couldn’t focus like before. He was weirded out. And he abandoned his only source of entertainment, focusing on the dresser with the glass statues. One of them with a powerful reflection, and through that, he saw the mirror in the hallway, and the old woman, still staring.

Now, he was creeped out. He’d much rather get in trouble with his mother than stay in this house any longer. So, he turned his tablet off, packed it in his bag, threw the bag over his shoulder, and started to walk out, desperately avoiding looking in that mirror. As soon as he reached the hallway, he planned to sprint to the door. She can’t catch me.

Before he started, though, he saw a figure in his peripheral, from the dining room doorway into the kitchen. He stepped to the side and saw a girl. She had to have been his age and she waved and smiled. Chris smiled back. Then she ran away, giggling before she disappeared behind the stairs.

Maybe there are older kids here.

With the bookbag still on his back, he went to see where the girl went. Out of the dining room, through the kitchen and into this other room, the stair-room is the best way he could describe it. She didn’t go up the steps, but behind, and around the other side was another set of steps, going down into a basement.

As he walked down the steps, he tried hard to listen for sounds, a group of kids his age, laughing, playing, something. But it was quiet and the cold air he had felt when that red door opened; he felt it here.

That chill spiraled up his legs, around his waist and across his chest. As he was about to abandon this stupid idea to come down here, he saw the girl again. So, he jogged down the steps.

It looked like a tunnel more than a basement, it stretched well beyond the length of this skinny home. The ceiling was concrete but the floor and walls were dirt.

“Hi!” Chris waved to the girl.

“Hey,” she said back.

“What’re you doing down here?”

“Messing around,” Then, she giggled and ran into a side room.

The girl had a warm voice, a nice giggle and other than this basement, the old woman, the skinny house, and the weird kids, this young girl seemed the only thing normal about this place. So, he followed her. Where the dim light came from that illuminated the tunnel? He didn’t know.

There was no door to the room she went in, and as he entered it, he saw no signs of her. The room was the size of a closet with no other exit points. In the middle of the room stood a large sculpture, made of straw. He didn’t know how he missed it. He definitely wouldn’t have entered if he’d seen it from the hall. But he didn’t and here he was, a foot away, looking at this figurine that probably was bigger than him. It was on its knees, head bowed, hands pressed together. From Chris’ point of view, it looked like the thing was worshipping him. And as the videogame from his tablet had consumed him, this thing did that and more.

It owned his focus, drained his energy, and Chris could not look away from it. The young girl left his mind, the old lady was forgotten about, the house he was in, his mother, his life. The world, in fact. All he knew was this strawman kneeling before him.

The only thing to pull him out of this was a hand gripping his shoulder. Scared him half to death. Jolting out of this trance, he saw the old woman standing in front of him. Suddenly, he was back in the dining room, on his way into the hallway, on his way out the door. Back to the moment before he saw the girl.

“Time to go, young man. Your mother is here,” the old woman said with a smirk.

She’s here? Couldn’t be. He looked at his watch, and sure enough, it was time. That chill would not leave his body and he went down the hall toward the red door. He opened it and saw his mother outside waiting in the car. He looked back at the old woman.

“I’ll see you soon, Christopher,” she said, then crept behind the door as it screeched closed.

His mother talked his ear off in the car, but he couldn’t focus on her words. Just shook his head and Mhmm-ed in response. He didn’t eat that night, either, and couldn’t fall asleep if his life depended on it. All he could think of was the strawman in that basement. He couldn’t have imagined it. The young girl, too. It was real. Too real. He had to know. Had to find out or else he’d go mad from sleeplessness.

It was after midnight when he snuck out of his home. He grabbed his bike and pedaled. He was never good with direction, and didn’t pay attention when his mother took him to the daycare that morning, but he knew in his bones exactly where he was going.

When he arrived at the skinny home, the door was wide open as if he were expected. He dropped his bike on the broken path and went inside. Obsessed with knowing, he walked down the hall like he belonged and stopped before the mirror. On his left, in the living room, those same five kids were there. In the same spot as before, playing with the same toys. The rocking chair was rocking, but no one was sitting in it.

Chris shrugged, turned the other way into the dining room, went through that, past the kitchen, past the stairs, around the stairs and down the steps, into the basement—er, tunnel.

At the bottom, in the same place he’d seen the young girl, the old lady was standing. Giggling, smiling, waving him over to come join her. So, he walked over, and it was the only time in the night where he was cautious. Seemed like he was returning back to normal, but why now? He’d come so far to find out. But he was starting to reach his senses, like part of his consciousness was telling him to stop, go back. But it wasn’t strong enough. He needed to know more.

“He’s waiting for you,” the old lady said as he approached her. And she pointed to the room for him to go.

Chris made sure to look this time, and the praying strawman was not there. Still, he went all the way in, looked around, checked the corners. Nothing. Just an empty room. But when he turned back to the doorway, there it was. But the figure was standing this time, sheathing the entryway. He couldn’t see the tunnel anymore, nor the old lady. Just this monstrous strawman, looking down on him now rather than bowing as it did before.

The young man pee’d his pants. Then, that chill in his chest returned violently, and it settled around his heart where it tightened. He felt like he’d been stabbed, but he couldn’t look down to check, because he was captivated by this sight. This horrific sight.

Then the strawman roared, like a bear, and its mouth opened so wide that the darkness down the thing’s throat was all Chris saw. Next thing he felt were his legs being clamped. Or chomped. It hurt enough for him to scream out and he yelled for help, but who would hear him? All he saw was darkness. And through the pain, he felt a gooey substance covering him as he slid down, what he assumed was the things throat. The discomfort and agony in his legs eventually went away but he continued to slide for what seemed like hours. Like, he was on an endless waterslide of torture, and he feared what awaited him at the end of this ride.

It wasn’t water, but rather, a road. A yellow brick road. Full of kids his age, standing in rows. Hundreds of them. He turned around and saw more kids and to the right of him, the young girl from before.

Ahead of the rows of many, many kids, was a giant clock in the sky. Above it, read Apocalypse. And it counted down from sixty days. He looked over to the girl, and whispered. “Hey?”

“Hey back.”

“What is this?” Christopher asked. “Where are we?”

“Kansas. The end of the world club.”

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr. (_Jan. 2020_)

If you enjoyed this, check out my book of short stories, Nothing is Natural.

Strawberry Cheesecake

“Gary, party of two,” he said to the hostess.

The young woman looked at the monitor, scanned the screen, then grabbed two menus. “Right this way,” she said and led him to his table.

Gary rubbed his arms, elbows and wrists as he followed the young lady through the busy eatery. He felt an itch near his crotch, too, but fought the urge to scratch.

“Here you are.”

Thank God, a booth.

She sat the menus on the table. “Your waiter will be right with you. Can I get you started—”

“It’ll be a sec… still waiting on someone.”

“No problem.” She smiled and walked away.

As soon as he sat in the four-person booth, he slid down and scratched his inner thigh. Forget about his arms, he had to deal with this below the belt issue. It felt good killing those itches but it deeply concerned him. Sort of disturbed him. What the fuck? Did something bite me? When the itching in his crotch went away, he started on his arms. Rubbing them more than scratching, assuming it was the restaurant’s breeze bringing a chill to his arm.

He looked up and around and admired the décor of this place. The fanciness of it. If reserving an hour ahead of time wasn’t enough to convince him…the patrons, the attire of the waiters and waitresses, the damn prices on the menus screamed ‘You can’t afford this!’ But he wanted to make an immediate impression on his date. Kamilia. The one that got away. His high school crush and one-time lover before she’d left the country for school. Gary had dressed the part tonight, but the man way outside his element.

“Can I get you started with a drink, sir?” A waiter appeared from behind him.

Startled, he grabbed one of the menus in the middle of the table. “A few more minutes please.”

As the waiter left, he turned his sights to the menu, but something caught his attention. Out of the corner of his eye, on his arm, something moved. He was sure of it. It felt cold but this was no chill bump. More like a mountain, alive and well, popping up and down whenever it felt like it. He slapped the spot on his forearm so hard, so loud, that he felt everyone looking at him. When he lifted his hand to see, it was nothing. Poor guy still felt the itching though and continued rubbing up and down his arms.

“You cold?” A sweet voice whispered in his ear.

He turned and saw her. Kamilia. The chill this woman gave him wiped away the uncomfortable feeling in his arms. “Kami!” He jumped out of his seat, stepped out of the booth, and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her from the ground.

“Whoa there,” she said, slapping his shoulders and back. “Good to see you, too.”

“My bad.” He released her and she moved to the side across from him, then he sat.

The waiter came immediately after and they both asked for water. The waiter left and they stared at each other, smiling. “So, you’re back?”

“I’m back… for good this time.”

“Good thing you found me on my page, I was just about to delete my account.” He snickered.

“Fuck outta here, dude. You know good and well you’ve been stalking me for months. Liking all my pics and videos. You just finally had the balls to message me.”

Cat caught his tongue with that one. He’d forgotten how quick and sharp she was. “Damn, you haven’t changed a bit.”

Kamilia grabbed a menu and scanned the page. “Man, I hope you brought cash, I’d hate for your card to get declined here. That’d be embarrassing for you.”

He shook his head. Damn right I brought cash. The waiter came with the waters and they ordered their meals. A steak and salad for him. Some pasta and bread for her.

The evening was going well. Better than he’d expected and they picked up right where they left off ten years ago. She laughed at his corny jokes and he tried not to choke on his food every time she’d say something. Kamilia was the funniest person he’d ever met, and the most beautiful.

Once they finished their meals, he leaned back and patted his belly like he was stuffed. But he wasn’t really, just felt the need to do it. The waiter stopped by… “And your dessert, ma’am.” He presented Kamilia with a piece of double-fudge chocolate cake. She rubbed her hands together, grabbed her fork and went to town. She offered him a piece and he shook his head.

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and kept on eating.

On the last few bites, she damn near forced him to try some. Still, he declined. But explained why…kind of.

“I already had my dessert for the day.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Strawberry Cheesecake. Leftovers from a work party yesterday. Didn’t eat my piece so I took it home and ate it today. Well…some of it.”

“And that’s why you don’t want a piece of my cake because you already had dessert? I seriously doubt you’re watching your weight, homie…not with those love-handles.”

He almost spit up his water, giggling. She had that affect. Kamilia was an open-minded woman who spoke her mind and never truly judged a person. But how would she react if he told her why.

“Spit it out,” she demanded as she took small bites of her cake.

“All right. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You didn’t warn me, but whatever. Let’s have it.” She dropped her fork and leaned back in her seat. Now, she was the one rubbing on her belly.

“So, I woke up craving something sweet and grabbed the cheesecake on the counter. I’d forgotten to put it in the fridge, that was the problem. But it didn’t occur to me that something had happened to it. So, I took a fork, opened the box and just went crazy. It was hella good, like, best cheesecake I’d ever eaten. But halfway through, one of the strawberries dropped from my fork and landed on the table. As soon as I went to pick it up, the damn strawberry moved. I jumped back, but then it fucking transformed into this black thing and scurried away. I looked in the box and all the little strawberries were changing from red to black, moving, eating the rest of the cheesecake. Fucking roaches, Kami. Roaches in the cheesecake.” He waited for her to do something. Say something. But she just stared at him. “So, that was my day today and I swear before God, I will never eat another sweet thing again.”

Then, she busted into a great big laughter that caught everyone’s attention. Waiters stopped and turned, surrounding couples ceased their chatter and looked at them. Kami couldn’t help herself. She was almost reduced to tears.

Gary smiled but he didn’t find it funny.

“That’s good, yo. That’s really good.”

“What? True story.”

“You haven’t seen me, the girl of your dreams, in ten years and you tell me about roaches living in your apartment? Fucking transforming alien roaches?”

He looked around, wanting her to keep her voice down. “I don’t have roaches,” he whispered. “They were already in the cheesecake. I guess you can say, I brought them home.”

She found it all amusing and she was still giggling about it. “Did you toss them. I mean…outside your place?”

“Of course.”

“Well, it’s not like I’ll be coming over anymore.”

“Wait. You were going to come over?”

“I planned on it until you said you’d never taste anything sweet again.”

He choked that time, started coughing and nearly gagged.

That only increased her amusement. “You good, dude?”

“Yeah.” He grabbed his glass of water and took a sip.

“Yo, what if you ate some?”

“Huh?”

“Roaches. You said you ate about half the cheesecake before you noticed them. What if you ate some of those things?”

Fuck no! “Shut up.”

She shrugged and sipped her water as he sat there, overthinking it.

“You’re fucking crazy, Gary. Thank you. Thank you for that laugh.”

“I’ll be right back. Gonna head to the bathroom.”

“Leave your phone,” she said.

“My phone?”

“Yep. And your keys. Leave ‘em on the table. Don’t want your ass skipping out on the bill.”

He thought that was the funniest thing and it made him smile and forget all about the terror he’d gone through earlier in the day. “Fine,” he reached in his pocket and grabbed his keys and phone, tossing them on the table. Then, he went to the bathroom.

On his way there, the itching returned, more intense and spread out. Now it was on his neck and the middle of his back, dead center where he couldn’t reach it. He hurried to the restrooms and kicked the door open. He scurried to an open stall, locked it, and started panting.

“What is happening?” He didn’t care if anyone heard him. This was serious. He took his polo shirt off and stood there in his tank top. He looked up and down his arms and saw bumps moving up and down like a water wave. “What the fu—what the fuck is this?” He scratched them, same with his legs, crotch too. He plopped his butt onto the seat of the toilet, and pulled his pantlegs up. If he’d had nails, he’d gladly claw his skin off to get to this evil force terrorizing him from the inside out.

He ignored his legs, his arms and started grabbing at his throat. It swelled up and he gagged. Then, he vomited. Steak and blood all over his clothes, all over the bathroom floor. Seconds later, more came spewing out his mouth like a faucet. Only blood this time. In clumps.

Suddenly, a pain in his wrist became more unbearable than the swelling in his throat and he looked down. From his wrists, a wave bowled up until it reached his fingertips and a baby roach pushed the fingernail off. Same thing with the other four fingers.

Poor guy tried to scream, but only choked more. He fell to the ground, in a puddle of steak, blood and roaches.

He must’ve seen and felt a hundred of the things crawl out of every part of his body until he checked out permanently.

© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr.