I force myself to meet the cleaning staff’s bemused gaze. “If I were you,” I say, “I’d go home, climb into bed, and not emerge for a week.”
I don’t tell them the banknotes I’ve handed out will have no value come dawn.
Picking up a half empty bottle from a confetti strewn table, I totter from the Ballroom, Mia following in my wake.
In the empty corridor, Mia wraps her arms around me as I shudder and quake, buffeted by memories of what is about to happen.
“Why do you stay with me?” I ask, “Why not try and change your fate?”
She kisses my forehead. “You are my fate,” she says. “You’ve convinced me of that much.” She glances towards the Ballroom, the scene of such recent joy, celebrations of a New Year. “Do you—does your advice—save any of them?”
Stale air claws at my throat. “I don’t know. After… there are no records, no traces.”
“Yet still you try,” she nods. “Where to now?”
I wish I could share her serenity, wish I didn’t know her future. “To Parliament Hill,” I say, “We watch it burn, you and I.”
“Come then.” She plucks the warm bottle from my grasp, takes a sip and grimaces. “But let’s leave this behind.”
Liam is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League. He was a finalist in Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2015 and has had work published at DailyScienceFiction and in Sci-Phi Journal. More via http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/.
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.
The little tree sat out, overhead light reflecting off its shiny, plastic, needles. There were boxes packed full of dishes and clothes, being donated before their departure, but the fake tree didn’t have a destination. Jenny caught her wife looking at it and asked, again, if there was a reason it was still in the living room.
“It was ours,” Sarah said, again. “Everything else is just stuff, but Christmas was ours.” Jenny sat next to her, and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “We can still have holidays in space, baby.” “If we’re assigned to the same ship. If we don’t blow up leaving orbit.”
“That’s the plan, Sarah. We’ll be together.”
“But we won’t have our tree.” Jenny smiled a little, and pulled Sarah into a hug. “I will find you a new tree.”
“You’re going to find me a Christmas tree. In space.”
“If that’s what you need to feel better about going, yes, yes I will.”
They both smiled at that, and Sarah relaxed, leaning in toward Jenny.
“Goodbye, Christmas tree,” Sarah said. “Take care of the Earth for us while we’re gone.”
Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, college student, and geek. In her spare time she works toward a degree in Creative Writing, listens to music, watches indie films, cooks everything, reads voraciously, and sometimes gets enough sleep. Find her online at @CarrieCuinn or at http://carriecuinn.com.
The great ephemeral skin lies splayed out inside the Psi Morgue. Black on the outside and likewise on the inside, not red or white. It must be burning degree six. I consider the minutes before burning degree zero: supple skin pressed against supple skin—warmth given and taken, adrenaline rushing, the moments spent caressing, kissing, suckling of pores, and the kindling of passion, rising and rising upward—the triggering of that unheard of sparkle from the base of spine.
“Tox screen confirms hypercarbic vessels and high alcohol level in the system of the male victim. GI report confirms overly gaseous intestine.”
“Aided by ethyl alcohol and gasses of the male, passion lit up kundalini. Female victim, having sustained burns degree four, could’ve escaped from her lover’s embrace but for male’s upper limb burn contractures. A singular twin case of spontaneous combustion—male source of flame himself, female source of flame male.”
“Ephemeral skin lies…”
“William Zahida. Paranormal Sleuthing, Inc. Case one.
“My olfaction traces no fuels of any kind, only the whiff of burnt fat. Suspect Kamadeva hypoxyphilia. No visual trace of cigarette butts or electric dildo. Suspect Libido-blocking Agents. I see lovers lying smoked up, Gods charred and embraced.”
Ahimaz Rajessh has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions, Flapperhouse, The Fractured Nuance, 7×20, unFold, Pidgeonholes, and 200 CCs. His writing is forthcoming in Cuento, Milkfist, theEEEL, and Strange Horizons.
I regain consciousness in a room that smells of bleach. I’m lost, with no name, remembering Geraldine, needing only her. Behind my closed eyes, she stands with her back to me. Her dress is green. Geraldine in green: it sounds like a song, in archive footage of the Soul Music days. Synchronised guys with Afros and satin suits, sway and swirl, click their fingers, and sing of Nadine, Renee, and Geraldine.
“Turn around,” I call to her. “Let me see you, and the world will reassemble.”
A voice speaks. “The procedure is complete. Open your eyes.” I obey. A white-coated figure holds a mirror, and says, “See for yourself.”
I blink to clear my vision. My heartbeat pounds in my ears, and I feel my ribs expand to accommodate air-filled lungs. The mirror holds a reflection of Geraldine’s face. I remember her image in the Body Catalogue. She had long auburn hair. Now her head is shaven. A row or stitches encircles her skull, indicating where it was lifted like a toffee tin lid. I know the stitches must run down her neck and her back. She would have been opened, so that my brain and spinal cord could be inserted.
The cut will heal. I’ll grow my hair long, and I shall wear green.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales, where they try in vain to evade the onslaught of their children and grandchildren. She has had seventy-two stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets, including ‘Grievous Angel’, ‘Third Flatiron’, Alban Lake’, ‘Mad Scientists Journal’, and ‘Unsettling Wonder’, among others. Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize.
She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales.
She recently retired from a long career with HMRC, and in 2013 she obtained a First Class Honours Degree from the Open University. As well as Literature and History, the Degree included modules in Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing. She achieved a distinction in both.
She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
The Metro can be a boring ride or an underground trip to Mars. Down there, people can be… anomalous. Going down, I was one of two riders and he creeped me right the hell out. While not staring, he kept shooting looks at me.
I focused harder on my phone. Thank God for game apps.
Through my periphery, he began with odd gestures. For the most part, these guys are harmless, but right now, that’s no comfort.
Why does this happen to me? Stay calm, Diana. These things don’t always end badly.
It occurs to me to get off a stop before mine and wait for the next train home. Damn, his gesticulations have become more animated, frantic.
“Mother,” he gurgles.
I’m quick off the train as planned, leaving him riding on. I’m the only one on the platform, what a huge relief. Then, soft footsteps alert me to someone at the far end of the station.
He yells at me, “Mommy, don’t leave me.” His wailing keeps on and on until the train arrives.
Thinking of home, I jump in and pass him by.
Finally, at my stop and stepping off, a woman whispers in my ear a word that makes me sick.
Erick Mancilla works day and night trying to find the door to that Other Dimension. He writes short stories in the hope The Key will be found within one of them. He is a blogger at observationdeck.kinja.com and can also be found @DeapGreanDream.
We were strolling around the cloisters when we first noticed the crow.
It was just perched on the stone wall with its head cocked. It seemed to be watching us.
A black garbed reminder of the legions of dead monks who’d prayed here.
“Shoo.” Mum flapped her hands at it.
Billy chucked a stone. Mum told him off. “Show some respect.”
Wherever we walked in the cathedral grounds the crow came with us. An avian shadow.
It made me feel goose bumpy and a bit sick. Billy of course made a game of it, talking about crow pie for tea.
We wandered inside to gaze at knights’ tombs and jewel like stained glass windows. Which was when I remembered Grandma telling me years ago, “The crows know.”
She’d been dead a little while by then. I had never really understood Gran’s sayings.
The memory grew and ripened though. That night while our little household slept I went to her wooden chest and unearthed her cloak of feathers. It was an heirloom; the birds’ plumages interwoven. Fabulously glossy light catchers.
The crow was waiting for me outside. I perched on the six foot garden wall, wrapped the feathery mantle around me and took flight towards the cathedral spire.
It’s a family tradition.
Alyson originally trained as a teacher/tutor who wrote children’s books/poetry as a hobby. Fast forward to 2016, she now lives near Bronte terrain in Yorkshire. She writes mainly noir Flash Fiction (some of it has been published on line) and spooky tales, and is also writing a Y.A. novel. She lives with her partner, teen son, and 3 rescue cats. Alyson is a confirmed chocoholic and still hopeless at maths.
Her work has appeared on Tubeflash; The Casket of Fictional Delights; Bunbury Press; 101words.org; United Jotters; Paragraph Planet; and won 2nd prize in an ‘On The Premises’ mini flash contest. Flash fiction story appearing in Raging Aardvark’s Twisted Tales anthology in November; winner of Daggerville games monthly FF comp and shortlisted in other comps. Alyson is publishing her children’s book ‘The Runaway Umbrella’ on Kindle in the autumn.
Ophelia stepped over cracks her whole life. She doesn’t remember hearing the rhyme, just knowing it. Quick tippy toes then large leaps, whatever it took.
She questioned herself, others questioned her. Why the stutter step? Why the leap? Saving Momma was all she could answer.
Then one day there was no Momma to save. The thing had eaten her alive. Her screams were still fresh in Ophelia’s mind. No gentle walk. Why didn’t she save Momma from it?
Because she was afraid. Where did the cracks lead? She sat on the sidewalk outside her house. The house. Any house. Empty now.
There was a large crack by the sycamore tree. Its roots pushed up the sidewalk at an angle that said “my roots uproot and your cement cannot see what is meant.” The tree laughed at its own joke. And pushed.
Ophelia bounded onto the crack and went far down. She saw Momma in the clutches of the bad thing and she hid.
Momma’s back was broken. Ophelia strode out into the open and demanded her Momma back. The bad thing roared but Ophelia knew she could make it back down.
She grabbed Momma and pulled her back. Up past the roots and onto the sidewalk.
Momma, your back, said Ophelia, stroking Momma’s back.
Maxine Kollar is a wife and a mother of three. She has a degree in Political Science and intends to save the world as soon as she catches up on laundry.
Her works have appeared in Mamalode, Gravel Mag, Funny in Five Hundred, Rat’s Ass Review and elsewhere.
I don’t know what I miss more: sleeping or waking. Both represent a change, something new and terrifying. Not many people see it that way, but I have a unique perspective.
The last time I went to sleep, I woke up dead.
Caught me off-guard, especially since I still went to work. Christ, that was a bad day. The goddamn computer wouldn’t work and nobody even looked at me. Then I went home and found my body. If I could’ve shit my pants, I probably would’ve.
My ex-wife used to say I’d die before I stopped working, and I guess the bitch was right.
I stretch, watching her as she lies in bed.
Not everyone gets to come back. Just the stubborn ones. The anal ones, Karen would say. The ones who don’t even call off dead.
Karen stirs. When she sees me, she’s going to flip. Then I get to tell her she’s dead. Win.
It sucked being alone when I woke up for the last time, so I made this my job. A man—even the ghost of a man—needs a purpose.
Karen’s spirit gets up. She sees me and glares. Then she sees her body. Then she starts screaming.
Typical Karen—always making a scene.
“When you’re done,” I say, “we need to talk.”
Stephanie is a small-town girl who recently moved to Pittsburgh—and she loves it! Her hobbies include people-watching while stuck in traffic, being overly-opinionated about the aesthetics of bridges, and getting lost in parking garages. She also likes lizards, hockey, and trying craft beer based entirely on the design of its label. Her fiction has appeared in flashquake, Defenstration, The Battered Suitcase, and was Editor’s Choice in Anotherealm.
She was the last one. She witnessed the water evaporating, same as always. She witnessed the rain not falling for years, which was unheard-of. She witnessed the earth turning to sand, under her feet. She witnessed the Earth turning to desert, everywhere she looked. She witnessed wars for water, the death of millions. She witnessed the envy victors, as they died of thirst, felt for the defeated.
She cried. She witnessed her tears forming streams. She witnessed the glorious song of flowing water and her heart sang along. She witnessed the song she expected never to hear again.
She cried of joy. She witnessed when the streams formed rivers and the rivers formed ocean. She witnessed the Death coming to claim her and the fear he felt of her, the fountain of life. She witnessed when something stirred in the ocean.
She was the first. She witnessed as eons passed her by. She witnessed the children giggling in the distance—the children born from her tears.
She cried seeing their naivety. She witnessed their lack of knowledge.
She was the first and the last. She witnessed it happening before. She witnessed that it will happen again.
Born in Meissen, Germany in the winter of 1984, Constantine is currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. He lived and worked in many different places all over the world. When he was six years old, he read The Hobbit for the first time and fell in love with the fantasy. Since then, he had a dream to create his own world. He is working on the series of epic fantasy novels ‘Mindshifter’. You can find his steampunk novel and short stories on Wattpad.