She wondered if – after you were dead – you ever dreamed of Earth?
Her papers whirled through the scanner, giving her a few moments to think. It was usually too hectic to think. But while the machine gave her the opportunity, she looked outside the big office window. It was 5 pm and the commuters were hurrying home. The sky was periwinkle, large cotton ball clouds assaulted by the heavy orange light of the setting sun.
There was a smell of autumn in the air, thick wet leaves falling from the oaks. She had been very upset recently, stress from work, from relationships, from impending holidays. And then she remembered: her father’s last consciousness had been in autumn. Before the cancer had claimed him. Mind, body, spirit.
She had dreamed the night before, her father appearing to her in the dream, speaking comfort and giving her the most reassuring hug she had in years. They say that when you dream of a dead loved one, they are in Heaven thinking about you.
She wondered if the dead remembered the smell of autumn, the wind brushing dead leaves from the trees, the autumn sky becoming heavy with the setting sun. Did the dead dream of the living?
The scanner stopped, its task complete. The world swallowed her again.
Laura Campbell lives and writes in Houston, Texas. She is an internationally published author, with over two dozen short stories published in the dark fiction, horror, and science fiction genres. She also has two novels (Blue Team One and Five Houses) currently in publication. In 2008 she won the James Award for her short science fiction story 416175. Her husband, Patrick, and children, Alexander and Samantha, support and encourage her daily in her writing.
The annual ritual always left Saint Nick shaken and exhausted. That’s why he used the workshop. This necessary act was not to be seen.
“I’ll clean up, sir. You get some rest,” Chief Elf Elroy said.
Most people thought the reindeer were born with their special abilities. If only that were true. Santa’s magic elixir gave them the power to fly, the stamina to travel the world in one night. But that potion carried a hefty price: madness at sunrise. And only a blow from Santa’s ax could prevent that transformation from taking place.
“Thank you, El. I’m going to the house.”
Mrs. Claus was waiting at the front door with hot chocolate and a tray of cookies. Bless her heart, she had no idea how every Christmas night came to an end.
“Welcome home, Papa.”
Santa kissed her warmly on the cheek.
“How was your night?” he asked.
“Oh, fine. After all these years, I still don’t know how to pass the time while you’re away. So I finally tried some of that concoction you always make. Can’t say I cared for it.”
Santa stood dumbstruck. Dawn was breaking over the horizon, and his eyes shifted toward the workshop.
Michael Balletti lives in New Jersey. By day, he’s a copy editor for a marketing research company, and by night, he tries to write as much as time permits. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Theme of Absence, The Last Line, Postcard Shorts, Sanitarium Magazine, Illumen, Black Satellite, MindMares and The Threshold.
The Christmas Key
He held out an unwrapped present that rattled like a pocketful of quarters. “Thirty seconds.”
She threw back the lid and plunged her hands into the familiar box. There were a hundred silver keys inside, maybe more.
Their first Christmas together, she’d taken too long to decide. She’d thought it was a joke and wound up empty-handed. That seemed so long ago.
He let her keep the keys that didn’t fit, and she spent the year studying them, learning which patterns were wrong.
She seized on two that could be right, neither had the same pattern as her pile of rejects. But which one was right? Were there multiples in the box? Decoys?
Was the right key even in there?
She held them up to compare. The left key had a thinner larger first tooth. Was that wrong?
She dropped it. Heart pounding, she scrabbled for the lock fastening her ankle chain to the furnace pipe. Her chosen key slid in.
She cranked her wrist to unleash freedom.
The key didn’t budge.
With a moan, she collapsed backward, striking her head hard on the cellar floor.
“Zero.” He clapped the box shut with a sigh. “Ah, well. You tried. Better luck next Christmas.”
Johnny dragged a chair away from the kitchen table, as quietly as he could. His father’s snores came from the bedroom down the hall, and every time the sound trailed out, Johnny paused, heart racing. Finally, the chair bumped against the kitchen counter. He clambered up and stretched on his tiptoes, just barely able to slide out the largest blade from the knife block.
When Johnny had asked for a super soaker last Christmas, what had he gotten? A duck, that’s what. A crappy wooden duck. Still optimistic in those days, he had brought it in for show and tell. The other kids in preschool had laughed at him, and laughed even harder when he ran to the teacher, crying.
Johnny shook off the memory. This was no time for weakness. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and flashed merrily, reflecting off the cool, smooth metal in his hand. He waited patiently by the fireplace until he heard jingling bells and heavy footsteps on the roof, and then he hefted the blade.
Boy, was Johnny ready for him. This time… this time, the fat man would pay.
Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and three daughters. She has over forty publications, including stories and poems in Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex and Once Upon a Scream. She writes book reviews at www.bewilderingstories.com, blogs at alisonmcbain.com and tweets @AlisonMcBain.
by Jen Gniadecki
A low growl on the other side of the oak door catches her attention. She sighs and thinks how lovely a vacation would be. To get away from all this sorrow gone mad. Caring for them is no problem. They’re lovely, really. Until one can’t take it anymore and goes feral. This is when she doesn’t like her job so much. You cannot expect an elf to work forever, of course, but she had to agree with her husband when he says they should be able to last ten years. They really should be content knowing they give joy to so many children. Yet, the living conditions are awful and there are always going to be weak ones who can’t cope. The growl intensifies and Mrs. Claus knows it is time to act—before he becomes too strong to subdue. She reaches for the cattle prod next to her armchair. It is a shame her husband won’t listen when she suggests a rehabilitation program but he just goes on about the cattle prod and the incinerator. With the abundant supply she can see his point but changes should be made. She raises the cattle prod, turns the doorknob, and vows—as she does every year—to make improvements next season.
Jen Gniadecki enjoys dark stories and strong coffee.
Another Day in the Life
by Holly Schofield
Determined to make today special, Marnie hung dusty tinsel from the mantle at dawn. The Krawn Occupation had ruined the last four Christmases. Cate had spent them huddled in her wheelchair, battle-ruined fingers stroking her empty stocking.
This year, Marnie had found a gift. She slid the pair of shiny knitting needles into Cate’s stocking then slumped on the sofa, exhausted from her predawn excursion digging through the fabric store’s rubble.
The front door banged open. A Krawn, all gleaming armor and claws. “Marnie Greenlove? You are arrested for treason.” One eyestalk glared down at her.
“Who’s there?” Cate’s weak voice from the bedroom.
“Go back to sleep, it’s just me.” Marnie’s shiv was in the kitchen.
“Stand up.” The Krawn touched its holstered laser.
In one motion, Marnie rose and jabbed the knitting needles into the Krawn’s armpit, aiming for that sweet spot between the armor plates. The Krawn sagged, more quickly than if she’d used her knife. She’d have to tell the others about how well knitting needles worked.
She dragged the corpse behind the sofa and tossed the gore-slicked stocking and broken needles on top.
The creak of Cate’s wheelchair made her turn. “Merry Christmas, Marnie dear!”
“Merry Christmas, love.” She settled Cate next to the fire. Just an ordinary day, after all.
Holly Schofield’s stories have appeared in many publications including Lightspeed, Crossed Genres, and Tesseracts. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.
Tied Up With Strings
by Rachel Anna Neff
Joseph worked his way through the crowded mall, ignoring the whispers and stares. Past the three-story Christmas tree, a little girl ran into his leg. She looked up at him, gasped, and pressed a green envelope into his hands. He looked down to see the letter was addressed to “Santa” in the kind of handwriting only a second-grade teacher or parent could love. When he looked back up, he couldn’t find her.
“I don’t want this,” he muttered, looking for a trashcan. He hated being mistaken for Santa. No, he hated being reminded that his grandson Clark loved thinking of him as Santa. His son’s girlfriend had taken off four years ago on New Year’s Eve. With Clark. Without a trace.
His grief was a splinter that dug deeper and deeper each passing holiday. He loved his full, well-groomed white beard. But the recognition as Kris Kringle was too much for the sharp prick he felt in his heart.
“Dye it red, then,” his wife, Edna, had decreed. “I don’t want to hear you complain about this for the next twenty Christmases. You think I don’t miss him too?”
He found a trashcan and set the envelope on top.
Rachel Anna Neff has written poetry since elementary school and has notebooks full of half-written novels. She earned her doctorate in Spanish literature and recently completed her MFA. Her work has been published in anthologies, Dirty Chai magazine and Crab Fat Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @celloandbow or check out her editing venture at www.exceptionaleditorial.com.
by Mary Casey
The bishop has done it before.
This year’s soul is dressed in a sagging red and white costume and sporting a soiled beard. The bearded man is standing over a black kettle while ringing a bell as though he is calling for heaven’s notice. He approaches the man and slips a ten dollar bill into the kettle.
“Don’t do it,” he whispers to the man. “Think of your children finding out what you are planning to do. Remember why you ring the bell and who it is for. It will work out. Trust me.”
He smiles and pats the man on his skinny back and walks off into the crowd.
The bearded man calls out. “Wait! It is because of my children I need to do this!”
The bishop stops and turns. “Trust your better nature. Merry Christmas to you, son.”
The bearded man feels a lump in his pocket. He pulls out a wad of cash, exactly the amount he needs to buy his children Christmas presents. Tears fill his eyes and he picks up the bell. “Bless you!” he calls. “What is your name?”
A deep chuckle sounds through the parking lot. “Nicholas,” he answers. “You may call me Nick.”
Mary Casey writes from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she is inspired by her surroundings and two Tibetan Spaniels.
Peace on Earth
by Vaughan Stanger
On Christmas Day 2019, billions of Hildreth fell like snowflakes from their orbiting bauble-ships. Summoned from their homes, most of Earth’s population floated up into the sky without saying farewell. Abandoned by his wife and daughters, Bill Dennison contemplated a life as vacant as the chairs
surrounding his dining table.
One year on and Christmas Day delivered sporadic gunfire, also a knock at Bill’s door. Lonely enough to accept the risk, he tugged back the bolts. Three Hildreth stood on the doorstep: the tallest chin-high to him, its companions identically shorter. Golden skin notwithstanding, the trio resembled his family closely enough to make him shudder. “Merry Christmas!” echoed in his skull as he slammed the door. He dismissed subsequent visitations from the sanctuary of his armchair.
On the fifth anniversary of his family’s departure, Bill noted the lack of gunfire and his depleted stock of food. The knock came. He heaved a sigh and opened the door.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
The twins’ smiles set off fireworks in his head.
“Please come in.”
Bill began spooning beans onto biscuits.
The twins spoke in unison. “We’ve something for you, Daddy!”
Hearing another knock, Bill shuffled to the door with tears prickling his eyes. He knew what to expect.
Finally, it was his turn.
Formerly an astronomer and more recently a research project manager in an aerospace company, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction for a living. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, Nature Futures and Interzone, amongst others. He has recently released a new collection of short stories as a Kindle ebook: Sons of the Earth. You can follow Vaughan’s writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com or @VaughanStanger.
Mambo is outside, talking to my kids about going back to school or getting his GED. “I drop out, they gotta let me drop in.”
I nod at his reasoning and cut another slice of cheese. There’s a nick in the blade, each piece has a ragged line. Mambo won’t care. Last week he said, “Doesn’t affect the taste none.”
Jonah, my youngest, tells a joke. I can tell because no one answers right and when he says the punchline, he is the only one laughing. Paula’s next words drip with sarcasm. I want to smack that mouth of hers sometimes. It sounds just like my own, and I know what pain it caused.
I toss some crackers on the plate and go out to the porch. They swoop in like bees to a bloom. Mambo, a bumblebee; mine hungry wasps.
“Damn, this is good, Missus J.” Mambo’s thanks is better than a cat call back in my tight ass high tit days.
“Glad you like it.” I look across the street, a similar after-school connection is being done over there, using Cheetos instead, the easy way.
I say, “You kids got homework?” They shift, moan, go upstairs.
I take Mambo back to my room. We start with orals; he earns his bachelor’s degree.
T. L. Sherwood is the Assistant Editor of r.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Journal. At Literary Orphans, she serves as a fiction reader, book reviewer, and interviewer. She is the 2015 Gover Prize winner and her blog can be found here: http://tlsherwood.wordpress.com/
This is the moment I want to remember kissing you. We’re standing in the parking lot in the middle of an ice storm. You have on your Evil Dead sweatshirt with the hood up, your bangs struggling out of the pulled drawstring. We’re saying goodbye as things freeze around us and this is the moment I want to remember it happening.
Not after we’ve talked it over a thousand times. Not after we’ve decided that it is wrong but that it just might be worth it after all. Not after we’ve convinced ourselves that nothing will happen even though we already know that something unstoppable already has. Not after we’ve decided on any course of action.
I want to remember it happening now. You start to get into your car and stop, looking back up at me. It’s a purely filmic moment, a scripted event; framed and lit by the concentric glows of streetlights reflecting a sheen over everything, everything iced over. I want to remember it happening now because it has to happen. Now. Before everything changes. Before this moment passes into the next and we’re nothing but opposing glares of headlight over ice-glazed streets, two beacons leading away from each other. Before this moment is over. Now. Like this.
C.C. Russell lives in Casper, Wyoming with his wife and daughter. His writing has recently appeared in such places as Tahoma Literary Review, Word Riot, Rattle, and The Colorado Review. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net. He has held jobs in a wide range of vocations—everything from graveyard shift convenience store clerk to retail management with stops along the way as dive bar dj and swimming pool maintenance. He has also lived in New York and Ohio. He can be found on Twitter @c_c_russell.
Her hand dipped into the icy cold Atlantic. By reflex, she raised her arms above the surface, as the seawater rose higher up her legs—a form of escape, of avoiding—stupid, she thought, still not letting go, after all that has happened.
Her searching feet found the rocks that tried to trip her; had she not snatched up her track shoes at the last moment, the barnacles would have ripped her bare soles raw. The irritant sand between toes fell subordinate to the Atlantic cold.
The water licked her stomach, an invasion of modesty of her own choosing. The tide now surged between the soon-to-be-submerged rock islets, swinging her wet shift to one side, making the fabric cling form-fitting on the other.
Slow and careful stepping brought her closer to the small lighthouse. If he were there, she would survive this. The edifice of his will would be enough. And if the lighthouse lay empty, then at least she would be safe. For now.
Unless her father found a boat.
Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer whose stories have been published or accepted for publication in Queen Anne’s Revenge, The Opening Line Literary ‘Zine, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, and in anthologies published by Main Street Rag, Zimbell House, and Horrified Press. Read his blogs on writing at www.garthpettersen.com or follow him on twitter @garpet011.
One night, when seas were high, a bright red crab was washed upon the shoreline of a giant city.
At first the crab was angry at being swept from his home and friends, but then, whilst scuttling back into the surf, he looked above the tide and saw the moon. Awestruck the crab stayed onshore till morning when the pale orb was replaced by a garish sun. He wept.
The night after seas were high and again the crab was swept ashore. This time, however, he was not angry. On the morrow seas were calm but the crab found himself on the beach anyway.
Friends noticed his absence and pondered where he kept going every night. But the crab was a jealous fellow and kept his midnight wanderings secret.
Many tides and moons later, the crab being old and weak-sighted now, he snuck ashore. Having lost his once excellent sense of direction, for the first time, he accidentally faced east—not west—at the ocean. Startled he beheld many moons, countless bright lights, and what’s more they were low, within reach.
Immediately he scuttled sidewise towards them, uncertain whether he’d reach one, but thinking the risk worth it for a closer look at the unattainable.
Sean Mulroy lives in Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously been published in Oblong, Every Day Fiction, and WitchWorks, among other venues.
Plying the warm waters of a shadowed Sea, speckled with spits of froth and reflected starlight, we ride the ferry for the lost and found. Our crowded cots, tiered across an open deck, pitch and roll, lifting our smell as one, from stem to stern. Legs akimbo with slippered feet, grow across the tiny aisles, bodies hidden by the sacks that haul our life.
On the move, going from crumb to crumb, visions of better fare, or to only home somewhere, our nods of passage show, as the knocking screw calls the tune. Sometimes we wander to the rail and stare beyond. If a light of life be seen, suspicions of how its table fairs, or what its bed beholds, float among our spray. Looking along the rail, another’s eye to see, table or bed is quick to know.
With dawn and a port that calls, we rise like Jack’s stalk, among the humps of baggage, mount our loads, as if super ants we be, and string along the plank, to melt into the life we know. Crumb by crumb, visions of a knocking lullaby safely tucked away.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others.
It took three beers to smell the sweet grass burning in the pool room of the Pembina Motor Hotel, five to hear the murmur of Cree. One night in December a trucker from Trois-Rivières kept buying rounds. I got so shitfaced I finally saw the ghosts.
I looked up from my shot and a woman stood over the far pocket. She stared at me through the torn curtain of her wet hair; muddy water bubbled out of her mouth and trickled down her chin. At the table behind her, beneath the flickering Molson Canadian sign, an old man sat smoking Players Menthol. The pack lay in front of him, the foil quivering in the furnace breeze. There were no eyes in his gaping orbits. Sallow skin hung from his cheeks, stained as boarding house sheets.
“Come along with me, boy,” the trucker shouted. “You can see the world. We’ll stop in Thunder Bay. I know a whore there who can make her pussy talk: not whole sentences but words.”
Outside the traffic swept down the highway and through the dreaming suburbs. The dead woman began to sob.
“Are you man or maman? Come on!”
“I think I’ll stay,” I said.
William Squirrell is a Canadian writer living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Blue Monday Review, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review and other venues. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.blogspot.com
The night decided it had grown tired of the moon and wandered over to the outer edge of the atmosphere dejectedly. The moon didn’t mind. It was used to the turbulent nature of the night. Characterised by random sparks of dying light. Beautiful in its transience.
Sometimes the moon would try to cheer it up. Beaming right at it. So bright and loud it would be impossible not to hear. But other times, it would slip behind a darkened shroud. Hiding from dejection. So the night may not see its starstruck tears, flying through the dark with a burning, raging passion, before fading into black.
They always, however, seemed beautiful, to the funny people down below. They visited once or twice, but never stayed long. Those of them far enough away from their vitriolic light could bare witness to the moon and the night’s tragic waltz. Sometimes the moon would notice, and point this out to the night, and they would smile, if only for a moment in time. If only for just a moment.
Nicholas Antoniak is an 18 year old emerging Australian writer. He writes both creative fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. In July he will commence a bachelor of arts majoring in philosophy and sociology and hopes one day to become an author/poet/philosopher.
“Sweetie, I have to.” My daughter’s fingernails left crescent moons tattooed into my skin.
“We’ve talked about this. Why does Mommy have to go?”
“To protect me.”
“And all the other little children.”
“Like Maggie from kindergarten?” Ice tinkled inside her sippy cup. “But not Ellen. She hogs the crayons.”
“Even Ellen, honey.”
She seemed to weigh whether my departure was worth protecting her nemesis. “Will you bring me back a teddy bear?”
“I don’t think they have teddy bears there, but I’ll find something.”
“Let’s make it a surprise. We don’t need a holiday to give a gift sometimes.”
A horn beeped outside. Cinderella’s carriage waited. If only a prince was the prize, and not another tour overseas in a desert far, far away. I slid my feet into my boots, and swung my bag over my shoulder. How long until my hands—which had softened from washing dishes and playing teatime—hugged a rifle’s trigger with ease?
“Be nice to Daddy, okay?” I kissed her, breathing in the aroma of baby powder and freshly cut grass.
She stood with her thumb in her mouth. No smile, no hug.
The taxi drove halfway down the street before the ice inside me cracked, and the tears poured.
Jessica Walker is a writer who uses fiction to make sense of the world. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Eye Contact, and Corvus Review. Her best work happens with a cup of coffee in hand.