John Gabriel Adkins ~ Peter Baltensperger
Christa Carmen ~ Abby Sheaffer
John Gabriel Adkins
They told us they'd escaped, all fifty-three of them, from a prison camp operated by the United States Militia of Heaven. But none of them had been beaten, none tortured. They described elaborate weaving circles, mandatory guidance counseling, polyphonic renditions of "Kumbaya". The Militia had, since it last roved Central North America, become impossibly more barbaric.
It was a yellow August evening, hot-winded, with horseflies in the haze. The river was low, brown. We could see the dark mass of the Militia cresting the hill, banners high, rippling. Soon they would be upon us. We had hidden the prisoners individually, separating children from mothers, wives from husbands, in basements and rotting garden sheds. Most would be found. Against the cicadas, a cappella, one-thousand-strong, a familiar melody began to hum and wash down into the valley.
John Gabriel Adkins is a Pushcart-nominated writer of microfiction, antistories and other oddities. A member of the Still Eating Oranges arts collective, he has published with The Escapist, Gone Lawn, Squawk Back, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and Apocrypha & Abstractions.
What Never Dies
The sun was blinding bright, bouncing off glass and steel, still water. A lake could easily have disappeared, or a bullfinch twittered. Somewhere far off, at the precipice of a dream, an ominous bomber hovered high above a city, as if fused to the sky. Darius Quinlan zigzagged across a desolate landscape, making complex decisions at every corner to escape the dread. He kept careful track of the changes in direction so as not to lose himself in intricacies. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes a road curved, like his thoughts on calmer days.
A bus came screeching around a corner and sucked him up. He anchored himself between two seats at the center of the bus and juggled ideas like oranges, like flaming swords. He was about to formulate a universal truth when the bus screeched to a halt and he tumbled out through the door. He wished he could have just gone to the nearest apartment building and found his suite without any further complications. The buildings looked all the same in the blinding sun. He looked through his pockets for the number of his suite to end the nightmare, only to be sucked into another bus.
He found a labyrinth out in the countryside and walked slowly into the maze. He knew that a labyrinth needed much more than bright sunlight. There had to be shadows, sudden revelations, a light breeze, but he made do with what he had. A woman in a uniform stood at the center of the labyrinth, directing traffic. He took off her clothes and held her up to the sun, but the bomber never moved. He could have counted to a hundred and back, although he didn’t think he would get that far with a naked woman in his arms.
They lost themselves among the hedges, even without the shadows, and listened to the sky. A massive freight train thundered past, vibrating the ground, sending shivers of delight through the labyrinth. There were fireworks and crescendos, a wedge of honking geese, hot skin, the tolling of a distant bell, and then the silence of the afternoon. The sun began to lose its brightness as it rolled towards its natural conclusion. The waning daylight seemed enough to illuminate whatever else there needed to be known.
He took the woman home with him without telling her about the bomber. She had her own nocturnal insecurities. She screamed once in her sleep, even though she was curled into his arms. He lay awake, thinking about solutions, probabilities, conjuring up shadows in the darkness of his mind, calculating distances, plotting directions. Later, much later in the darkest depth of night, the nightmare finally broke and the bombs began to fall out of the sky.
Peter Baltensperger writes from Ontario, Canada.
Not all ghosts have chains that rattle.
Her chains were silent, but still they weighed her down. Slowed her pace to a painful, dread-filled crawl. She had been dead for one year, four months, six days, and six-and-a- half hours. Towing those silent chains. Pulling the boundless, ceaseless weight.
Like any good ghost, she was practically see-through. Her body, semi-transparent in its paleness, her aura, a swirling fog of blackness and despair. She weighed just about nothing; her bare feet did not disturb the soft grass of the graveyard when she walked, and no twig snapped beneath her.
In death, her body preserved the previously inflicted self-mutilations; the sores and gashes, the scratches and scrapes. She was hungry. She was always hungry, but for the very thing she could not have. The thing that perpetually eluded her. Even if she had been in possession of that essential earthly sustenance, it would not satiate. It would never pacify the burning emptiness.
She left the graveyard. Travelled to her folks’ house, the last place in which she’d known love. She screamed ‘Boo!’ at them, screeched like a Banshee, pulled every horrific, ghostly trick she knew to have worked in the past. But they only sat and stared, unmoving. Unable to perceive her, or unwilling. They would not be frightened of her again.
She floated on, stopping at a house with all the lights off, save one. Perhaps she could frighten a stranger, receive what she needed through force. In through an open window, for even ghosts like to take the path of least resistance, she saw that a family lived there, through photos on the wall.
Through the living room and up the stairs, silent. The mother and father were sleeping. She did not wake them. She found the children down the hall, two girls, two double beds pushed together to read scary stories under the covers with a flashlight. They saw her and made as if to scream.
She held a finger up to shush them. Angry, she took the piggybank off the dresser and rattled it at them before flipping the porcelain creature over and dumping the coins into her almost non-existent hand. I have chains to rattle after all.
She left. She took the coins and nothing else. She wandered, aimless, the gravel and dirt sticking to the bottoms of her feet.
Ghosts can collect debris, too.
A pasture. A dark expanse of grass, a postage stamp on the surface of the Earth, but this envelope belonged to the Devil, not to God. A horse, alone in the pasture. She clucked her tongue at him.
Ghosts could make sounds other than ‘Boo’s’ and rattles.
The horse whickered. She wondered if she’d made a friend before remembering that ghosts did not have friends. But she could admire him a moment longer, and so that is what she did. In the dark. In the moonlight. On the side of the road. In feet as bare as her soul.
The horse whinnied and dropped to its knees. The ghost-girl gasped. The horse rolled onto its back, hooves kicking like a beetle’s, overturned by a garden shear. The ghost-girl laughed. The sound of the laughter startled her. It was an alien sound, the tinkling of it coarse, like a captured parrot that’s decided to sing behind the bars.
The first rays of sunlight were beginning to orange the horizon. The thought of the impending morning scared her. It was easier to be a ghost at night. Less judgment. The hunger would be worse in the daytime, too. The hunger, and the sorrow.
She wandered to a house she’d lived in once before. Hid in the bushes for fear of the dwelling harboring other, unknown, ghosts. Watched real, living women trickle in and out. Healthy women, their flesh rounded out. Vibrant. They laughed. Not a one-time laugh at a horse in a pasture at night, but peals of laughter. Torrents of laughter. Belly-laughter.
She watched as they walked to work. She watched as they walked to breakfast. To the movies. To friends’ houses. To funerals.
She was jealous. And yet, resigned.
She was about to leave when she spotted her. Another ghost. A known ghost. Wretched and malnourished. Frozen in the never-ending pain, like she was.
I have something, the other ghost said. I have something to assuage the hunger.
Here, the ghost said. This will make you human again.
She took it, greedy. Floated back to the pasture. Anxious to see if her horse-friend, her one-friend, would be there. Not as anxious as she was for the potion she held. But close.
But the horse, perhaps galloping down a footpath or sidling up to the feeding trough, was not there. She went on quiet feet to the fencepost. Leaned back against it. Sunk to the ground. Prepared her cure.
She thought about being dead. Having nothing to live for but this.
The thought dissipated, displaced by the yearning to be free.
And for one brief, beautiful moment, she was.
* * *
The horse found her, slumped against the fencepost. He wished she had been there to enjoy the sunrise, but dead is dead, and there’s no such thing as ghosts.
He regarded his former friend, and his strong heart hurt for her. He knew that when the police and emergency medical technicians arrived, they would not see what he had seen. They would not see a girl, a ghost of her former self, who’d lost everything. Who was infinitely empty and infinitely transparent. They’d see but one thing only. A junkie. A waste of life. A merciful death.
The horse trotted to the far end of the pasture, where the wild daisies grew in abundance. He plucked a mouthful, careful not to tear the blossoms with his powerful teeth. He returned to the girl. In the morning sun, before they came in judgement, the horse scattered the daisies over the cooling body of the girl. Once ghost. Now gone.
Christa Carmen lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and a beagle who rivals her in stubbornness. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master's degree from Boston College in counseling psychology. Christa works for Pfizer in Clinical Trial Packaging, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician. When she's not writing, she is working with one of several volunteer organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern RI and southeastern CT.
Abigail L. Sheaffer
There are always whispers about me, about how I never leave this house. It’s not that I don’t try. It feels as though there is an inexorable vacuum that prevents me.
Still, I go about my day within these walls. I make coffee, I do my work, I bide my time. They continue to whisper about me. No life experience. Life is too short. I hear it all too much.
I see there being nothing wrong with how I do things. I still get dressed in the morning, wash my face, I’m not neglecting myself. It seems to me I’m too smart for my own good, because if I was simple I’d move forward.
I had a lover once. He was just like me, but instead of moving forward he chose to disconnect. I never heard from him again.
I’ve noticed everyone seems bleaker now, last I heard we entered a period of great distress.
It’s not that I don’t want to try, it’s just that I can’t, you see. But everyday is the same: I wake up late, I drink my coffee, I wash my face, I get dressed, I do my work… I stay up too late.
That may be my trouble. Night doesn’t make me feel so strange, it’s how everyone sleeps, I suppose, and I can truly be myself. Sometimes I even glimpse myself in the mirror. I still look as I did when I was 23, when I first moved back here. No wonder no one takes me seriously, As I said, it feels as though the world outside is an inexorable vacuum.
It’s lonely here in the winter. Dust seems to rest heavily over the curtains and in the wood floors. The world outside is still and snowflakes fall peacefully. I’m unable to light the fireplace, but that would be more for ambiance. Once you get used to the chill there’s nothing to it at all.
Do I miss the interaction? Sometimes. But then they always whisper about me.
A spinster. Men are given the title of bachelor while women inherit the term, “spinster”. Well then I’m a spinster recluse. Except my own mother won’t even look at me. I know they began to ignore me three years ago, but this is beginning to bother me. They ended up buying the house in Palm Springs, they left me here, but now I cannot leave.
Still they whisper about me.
Too young, they always say.
At night is when I most feel myself. I can play with the lights, and sometimes I have the will to glimpse myself in the mirror. But I cannot go outside. Sometimes I wonder if life will ever change, I seem to have reduced myself to living in a cycle I can’t get out of.
Every once in a while, an odd pain seizes my neck. Before that, there’s always a sense of hopelessness and dread, like I always know how the rest of my life is going to end up. A strange fire burns in my throat, and I get an uncontrollable sense of vertigo.
Too young, they always murmur. I try to get out of the house, but I seem damned to remain here. They whisper about me, but they never look at me anymore. No one ever sees me. Outside is an inexorable vacuum.
* * *
My parents must have rented the house to someone new, because a woman and her daughter just moved in. The daughter sleeps with her mother every night because she says my room is haunted. The little girl even went so far as to drape a blanket over the mirror, so I can’t see myself anymore. I don’t have the will to lift up the black blanket.
They don’t even look at me, either.
Still they whisper about me.
Too young, they murmur.
Tomorrow won’t be any different. I try to leave the house, it’s just that I can’t. I feel lighter than I ever did, but there is an unbearable heaviness to being this light, this free. It’s because I’m so free that I’m so trapped. I never thought I’d end up being so isolated. Sometimes I have nightmares about what brought me here. I still remember the thin, white rope, the way it clutched at my neck, then the world spinning so fast, and the unbearable vertigo. Blankness. It’s almost as though I relive it.
The little girl’s screams always awaken me.
Abigail Sheaffer is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Literati and The Vignette Review. Her fiction has been published in Bird’s Thumb, Bluestockings, Crab Fat, Danse Macabre, Literary Orphans, and more.