A Random Aquarium at the Pier

~ Joshua Flowers

You stretch your tiny arms past the edge of the pier as an Atlantic wind billows your sundress. Beneath you, waves hit the thick, barnacled pillars of the pier with all their force, yet you feel no shaking. No one atop the busy tourist space seems worried about the sea’s casual wrath.

A finger snaps for your attention, but you don’t respond fast enough. Your mother yanks your hand into hers, her grip too tight, as she scans over the crowd on tiptoes. Her heavy purse dangles at the crook of her bronze elbow. She wears a white sundress similar to yours, but that is an accident. When she bought it for you months ago, she was too tired to notice she bought you a smaller version of something she already owned.

“Fucking place,” she whispers under her breath. You hear the swear but say nothing. Even you, for all your childish faults, can tell your mother needs a moment out of the sour, sweat-soaked air and noisy groupings of tourists. She needs somewhere dark where she can close her eyes, knock her head back, and take a deep shot of breath.

She decides on a destination and drags you. The fingers hooked into your wrist hurt. Not enough to bruise (not yet) but enough to notice. Poor child. You know your mother doesn’t mean it, so you’re trying hard to just be thankful she is spending her one day-off with you. Instead of sleeping, she’s exploring a pier she hates because you once mentioned over diner that you’d like to visit it.

The two of you move towards an uninteresting building laid next to others like a brick laid into a wall. The name escapes you as a pair of women in wide-brim hats obscure the sign above the door. Years later, when you have grown into the shape of your mother, you will tell your story to other girls grown into mothers, and they won’t believe you. You won’t believe you. That’ll drive you a little mad, but that’s alright. That’s what childhood memories are meant to do.

In the present, your mother lets go inside the dimly lit lobby. You find a seat on a bench bathed in neon as she pays for tickets. Your pink sneakers clash against the blue and black swirls of the carpeted floor. Whatever this place is, they regularly vacuum as it’s all too clean for the pier. Mother returns with two tickets: they have ghostly faces stamped above the word “ADMISSION.”

“Where are we?”

“Who knows, but it’s got air conditioning.” Your mother takes a deep breath. The cool lighting is enough to hide her burnt cheeks. She notices your apprehension. “It’ll be fun. Come on.”

You follow her further in. Truthfully, you would have liked to listen to the waves a little longer, but the money is already spent, so you keep your mouth shut. Besides, following at the heels of mothers is what children do.

Through a large pair of doors (one blue, one black) you find a man in a gaudy suit blocking your way. He greets you both with a deep bow and has the air of a theatre villain. A man of big monologues who is killed at the end by a simple kick.

“Welcome,” he says in a deep voice, “To my Aquarium of Horrors!”


First Exhibit—The Phantasmal

Pickled Screams

The tank is bright red and lights you in the color of a blood bath. The guide reads aloud from a notecard he produces from his jacket pocket. “Most screams can be pickled. All you need is the right apparatus, and a tank filled with special soul-absorbing jelly. Screams, being a shed part of the soul, usually dissipate in the air within moments, but the jelly prevents that dull end. If you bring your face close, you can see them bounce from wall to wall.”

With a smile, the guide gestures his white hand to the glass. You crane your neck back at your mother. She is near the entrance, raising an eyebrow at the sight. Her eyes lock with yours, and you can tell she wants to say, “It’s alright hun. You can get close,” but she hesitates. Her phone buzzes, and now that it’s in her hand, you know the words won’t come. She’ll ignore you until she’s ready.

The guide gestures again towards the tank. Mustering a little courage, you step up. The red glow is soft on your eyes. Staring inside is like peering into a massive block of strawberry jelly.

A foggy face presses against the glass in front of you with a soft thump. Their eyes are twisted and mouth wide in a scream. The face pulls away. Somewhere you can’t see, another thump.

You flinch.

You didn’t mean to, but you did. The guide saw.


The Drowned Man

Two spotlights illuminate a phony seafloor of foam. A pale white man is inside, sitting on a cheap fold-out chair. His shirtless body is bloated, and thin weeds of hair float above his mostly bald top.

“Does a drowned man need much explanation?” The guide says with a soft, solitary chuckle.

The drowned man turns towards you, but you can tell he sees nothing. His eyes are foggy white orbs. He’s like dad back when he used to live with you, too drunk to see anything more than shapes. You glance at your mother, wondering if she notices too, but she’s still on her phone. She hasn’t pulled her face up since the screams.


A Prophecy

Lights swirl around the center of the tank, twisting water in a dazzling display that catches your breath. Suddenly this strange trip is worth it.

“Sailors of olde would look for these out at sea. They’d bring their boats beside the churning light and toss a man down. If he came back up, he’d return with a new heading towards glory.”

You step closer, wanting to press your face to the glass like the pickled screams. Inside the light, you think you see yourself but older. The glass keeps you too far away to view clearly. There is so much you can’t tell. Are you beautiful? Are your father and mother nearby, or are you alone? The light gives you no answers. You want to get closer to it. Enveloped by it. Maybe then you would understand.

“Careful,” the guide says. You glance up at him. Something about his over-the-top persona keeps you on edge. “It is easy to get lost in a prophecy of the future. Usually, it’s of such amazing quality, one would forget they had to ever trudge through a less elegant past to reach their revelation.”

From the corner of your eyes, you see your mother finally put away her phone. She still lingers at the edge of the exhibit with a dull-eyed stare. You suspect she wasn’t even listening to the guide. Part of you wants to beg her over, afraid she might miss your dazzling future. Another part of you—the selfish, evil part of you that would wake your poor, overworked, exhausted mother from a nap demanding food and love—says, Keep this for yourself. She doesn’t care. It is a petty kind of revenge. New to you, but one you’ll understand better as you grow older.

When you turn back to the light, you see the specter of yourself walking alone. She is in some kind of large, empty space (for a moment, you think a field), and the moon hangs low in a daylight sky. There is something off about this older you, but the prophecy is too hazy to tell what.

Transfixed, you think about standing in the spot forever, waiting to see the final destination of your future self. Maybe then you’ll finally understand why this vision is so important. Why it grips you so strongly.

“What happens if someone stays in the light too long?” you ask, feeling a sting from your dry eyes. You’ve forgotten to blink.

The guide smiles. “Don’t you remember the last display?”


Second Exhibit­—The Mawcillious Murderers

Congo Teeth Fish

Lime green lights illuminate the rocky tank. Its floor is decorated with plastic gold and toy skulls. Above the gaudy display, rows of teeth swim back and forth on tiny, red fins. Each tooth is the shape of a porcupine quill curved behind the body of the fish. Ironically, you can’t actually see their mouths. The teeth get in the way.

“The Teeth Fish are a rare breed that only exist in one, large lake in the Congo. The locals took great care to preserve the population as they subsist on a very meaty diet. Funnily enough, these hungry fish are not ones for cannibalism. Perhaps they find one another too difficult to chew?” He chuckles then checks his watch. “Look at that. Feeding time.”

A worker tosses hunks of cow into the tank. The clear water turns a messy, transparent red. Teeth swarm the meat and tear it apart in a feast so thorough they lick the blood from the water. In a blink, the tank is clean again like nothing happened. Just a tank full of teeth swimming about.


Maine Knife Lobsters

You ask your mother what she thought of the fish.

“It was a little dark,” she admitted, “But as long as you’re enjoying yourself.”

You say nothing. It takes a few more steps before your mother thinks to ask if you are enjoying yourself instead of presuming like she often does. As you answer, the next display greets you with angry smashes against glass.

You hear them before you see them. Their massive claws are as large as your head with white tips that darken into nightshade shells. The color just barely hides the lobster’s furious, pearl-shaped eyes. There are four in the tank, and when they see you, they go into a frenzy. Their attack is furious as they stab, as they pinch, as they want desperately to rip you down to the marrow of your bones.

The guide pulls out a notecard and starts to speak, but you can’t hear what is said of them over their infuriated drumming. It occurs to you that your mother probably didn’t hear your answer either. She says nothing about it, so you do likewise.


Coral Dragons

The name stirs a fantastical hope in you. Dragons? Here? They’re real? You feel like the main character of a fantasy book, about to discover the beginnings of a magical adventure.

Your smile fades when you see them. They look like sea horses, but instead of flowery limbs, these dragons have coral spirals shaped like buttercream frosting flowers. The fish don’t swim but hop across the sandy floor in spasmodic jerks. They float from one spot to the next as if pretending to swim and failing.

Nothing in this exhibit captivates you. Your mother stands by a corner, rubbing the dried sweat from her face. She closes her eyes like she’s trying to beckon a quick moment of sleep. You’ve never seen anyone sleep while standing up (like you’ve never seen teeth fish, lobsters, or dragons before today), but if anyone could do it, it’s your mother.

This is the first day off she’s had in weeks. After this, she goes back to work at the midnight shift. You know it’s likely Granma will put you to bed again when you get home, but maybe if you sleep in late, you might wake up with your mother in her bed. You could sneak into her arms. Snuggle beneath them. Pretend she had never left at all.


Third Exhibit—The Horrors

The Dredge

At first, you think it looks like an octopus. A very thin, very sickly-looking octopus. When you count the tentacles, you realize there are too many, then think it resembles more a floating patch of seagrass. In the shaggy, flowing mass, you see something beneath. A boney, withered arm. You blink, and it vanishes in the shuffle of tendrils.

“There are maybe two hundred Dredges in the world. They roam the ocean floor as if searching for something, but no one knows what. In all observation, no one has ever seen them eat, yet they do hunt. A Dredge will grab fish and smash their heads against the nearest rock. They’ll let their dead prey float in the water and move on, perpetually continuing their search. Sometimes unlucky explorers will swim too close to them. They often end up like the fish.”

As you stare, a boney foot like a burned-up skeleton appears before disappearing again. It takes you too long to realize the creature isn’t swimming but walking. In the sand, you can see the marks of the shriveled tentacles dragging behind. There are no footprints.

Your mother steps up behind you. “This one kind of reminds me of your father,” she says as a little joke, but you don’t laugh. This isn’t the one that reminded you of your father. She hadn’t been paying attention for that one. Noticing she has a little more peppiness now that you’re both somewhere cool, you decide to leave that annoyance behind. This is your favorite version of your mother: the one that has the energy to give you attention.

The two of you stare at the Dredge for a long while (to the irritation of the guide who wishes to move onto his next horror), and each of you guesses a thing it might be looking for. Treasure. Friends. Cigarettes. A drink. The principal’s office–you say this one and your mother laughs, remembering the time she needed twenty minutes to find the parent-teacher meeting. Family.

Both your jokes die off from boredom as you realize the Dredge has been simply walking in circles this entire time.


The Discarded Warrior

They look like a knight but not. They’re a fish. Kind of? It has a thick tail and two arms, both poking out a round shell. The shape is awkward as if it’s hunched inside. You can’t tell if it has a human head or fish head beneath. Somehow it sees you then swims to a corner. You hear crying as if someone was sobbing right by your shoulder.

“What you see is a thing from an ancient race that took up war against an even older enemy. Unsurprisingly, they lost. Their war had been needless and futile, ending in a defeat so thoroughly gruesome, each subsequent generation only knew how to cower.”

The thing breaks off a sharp shard from a corner of its shell and tries to stab itself through the chest, but the shell blocks the blow. The crying intensifies, and you realize you’ve never seen something so large cry. Not an adult. Not your mother nor father. After a certain age, you expect people to forget how. This unhealthy notion will be reinforced when your Granma passes and your mother will be too proud to show her tears. That will be hard, but not nearly as hard as when your father swerves into a canal. For that death, your mother will dance with revelry.

At the display, your mother is bothered by the stabbing. You can see her hand twitch to shield your eyes but stop because she knows you’ve already seen too much. Trying to protect you now would be silly.

Once the shard of shell shatters in the creature’s hand, it tumbles over the sand to get to the other corner. It breaks off a new piece and returns to attacking itself.

The guide shakes his head. “It’s all for show. If it truly wanted to end things, it would. Even the most pitiful of us can think of at least one way to the grave.”


The Visitor

They dance the way only things that swim can. Six fins entwined within one another push the creature up to the top of the tank before it spins above—showing off dazzling, orange scales—then dives down. With a twirl, it stops itself from smashing against the steel floor. They hadn’t bothered to put up any flourishes in the tank. No illusions to distract from the fact this is a beautiful thing inside a cage.

The guide tells you he knows nothing of the Visitor, just that they aren’t from your world. You think he’s lying. The fish appears normal albeit strange. It’s like a giant goldfish, a size between you and your mother. The size of an older sibling.

As you move, The Visitor follows, dragging itself against the glass to get closer to you. You put a hand where its body would be, and it spins in delight. Your mother pulls out her phone to get a video, but the guide blocks her. He reminds her that there are no pictures or recordings allowed in his aquarium.

They both look away as The Visitor folds its fins over the glass where your hand touches. You think the fins resemble the ribbons on your school’s maypole piled atop the ground. You can see something stir beneath.

It stings your palm through the glass, and you jump back. Neither the guide nor your mother notice, still arguing about the picture policy. You shake out your hand, and the pain vanishes. There is no mark on the glass. Your palm appears fine. The orange thing dances excitedly as you move on. All the while, your mother complains about being unable to capture the memory.


Special Exhibit

The hallway curves as if you’ve reached the end, yet the guide brings you to one last thing: a rickety, steel plate cage dangling from a chain above a pit. He opens it and gestures inside. “We have a special exhibit under construction, though considering what wonderful guests you’ve been, I thought you might enjoy a glimpse.”

Your mother places both hands on your shoulder as if ready to pick you up and carry you away. The guide sees this but doesn’t take it personally. To show you it’s safe, he steps inside the cage first then twists around the empty space.

Still unsure, your mother looks to you, lets you decide. Deep inside your soul, something beckons you to see what’s next in a language you don’t know but think you could pronounce if you tried. A meeting that almost feels like fate. A name half-noticed further down the page by a wandering eye.

You shrug, and your mother takes this as affirmation for one last horror. The two of you step into the cage with the guide. The door shuts on its own, and the cage lurches downward like an elevator. The soft neon that had accompanied you the entire time fades as you sink into a pit of shadows. The cage drops fast enough for you to feel it in your stomach. It’s tough to keep your pink sneakers steady.

The cage slows and gently settles atop a bed of sand in a pitch-black room. You can’t see the edges of the walls or ceiling. Only dark abyss. The cage opens, and the guide shows you out.

“Don’t wander away. We wouldn’t want you two getting lost.”



The guide says nothing more. He stands with his hands behind his back, gazing at the distance. You stare too yet see nothing. A long time passes, and your mother asks if maybe you should leave. You ask for five more minutes. After coming this far, you want to see this last thing.

Six glowing eyes open in the air a great distance away, and you realize you’re not in a room. What exists around you is a sky without stars and a horizon that never knew light. The six blue-light eyes, positioned like a spider’s, don’t illuminate its own body well. The head is like a sea-rotted cube that has eaten off its own corners atop a too-thin neck that disappears into the abyss. The lights face you. Stare back at you. For minutes, you try to decipher the rest of its body through the dark but cannot. In a blink, the eyes inch closer.

“We should go,” your mother says, a rattle in her voice. You and her look back. The guide is gone. The opened cage remains.

When you check on the eyes, they are far too close. They loom like a set of blue suns. You still can’t see what kind of body the neck leads to. Your mother grabs you by the wrist and drags you back into the cage.

The door shuts.

The cage goes up.

Your mother shifts her hands over yours then squeezes.

As you fly away, the eyes follow. They keep pace. Between the two, you worry the cage is slower even though your guts strain from its momentum. You expect a shadow drenched limb to appear from the darkness to smash you apart.

Despite your fears, you see nothing. Only the eyes.

They don’t shrink as if you’ve outrun them but blink out one by one. You and your mother are in pure, total, heavy darkness for but a moment before the cage pulls itself back up into an aquarium flooded by neon.

You’re at the end, and a nice teenager in a booth thanks you for stopping by then points at the gift shop. Inside are some cheap stickers, poorly made stuffed animals, and shirts. On a shelf, you learn the creature with six eyes is called Ortro and priced at nineteen ninety-nine as a black threaded ball with six felt dots stitched into it. The rest of the selection is equally disappointing, but your mother encourages you to pick something out.

“You want to remember today, right?”

You do. After all, it was a day spent with your mother. You pick out a t-shirt with “The Aquarium of Horror” printed on the front. The font choice is dull, and there are no pictures to add visual flair, but it fits over your white dress. A few months later, you’ll lose the shirt and forget the name of the place as the memory nestles alongside forgotten dreams.

A few steps, and you’re back on the hot pier. The air-conditioning had become so natural that you forgot how sweltering it is outside. To fight against the heat, your mother buys ice cream. The two of you sit on a bench as waves of people pass by. Some chocolate drips onto the shirt, but the dark blue fabric makes it impossible to notice.

The two of you chat about the aquarium, and she asks if you liked it. You said you did, and it’s true. Listening, your mother nods. She asks what your favorite display was. You say the prophecy. The swirl of lights and the shadow of your future self still linger in the back of your mind. You hope to dream of it like you sometimes do of when your mother and father got along.

In fact, you will dream again of it. Much, much later, after the prophesied event had already occurred. You’ll wake from the dream, covered in sweat as your own child lays nestled beside you. Memories of the aquarium will feel so clear you’d think you’ve read it in a story. The difference being, you finally understand the prophecy as if submerged in it like a sailor of olde.

The light tried to tell you of a disastrous family diner. Your mother will say something of your then dead father, and you’ll explode on her. The first time in years. It will be an awful fight that ends in you fleeing with tears. On the drive back home, you’ll think of your childhood because what else has your mother left you to think about? Intrusive thoughts will hit one after the other, and the small space of your car will start to suffocate.

You’ll stop beside a random field, get out, and walk through it as if hoping to vanish into the distant tree line. Each step through overgrown grass will bring a new memory, and soon you’ll traverse through the long history of quiet moments that made up your life. Not just the bad, but the good too. Like the day your mother took you to a random aquarium on the pier. You’ll remember the shirt you lost, and feel a pang in your heart knowing it’s gone forever.

In that field, you’ll reflect, and it will be one of the most important moments of your life. It’ll be when you accept how hard your childhood was for both you and your mother. You’ll appreciate how much work your Granma put in to making a home, how tough the long hours had to have been for your mother who surely wanted to spend more days at piers with you, and how despite the massive love for your father, he was never a perfect man. That will also be when you allow yourself to hurt, to recognize the pain of wishing your mother had more to give, and that wishing for attention never made you selfish.

You will stand beneath a ghostly moon lurking in the shifting twilight, and despite the conflicting feelings of love and pain, you’ll decide to forgive your mother. In forgiveness, you’ll find a new, strange, horrifying, mesmerizing, beautiful peace you’ll have never thought possible before.

But that moment is in the future. There is no forgiveness in you now because you’re just beginning to recognize the pain.

As you two talk, the heat beats down on you. You watch the energy melt from your mother. You try to ask about her favorite part of the aquarium, but she gives vague answers. Some passersby step on her toes. Her face gets angry and red, blending with the sunburn set into her cheeks. Sweat soaks through the dress, making your new shirt heavy.

Your mother checks the time and accidentally lets out a sigh. You pretend not to notice, but your mother panics. She yanks you by the wrists to haul you to another attraction. Somewhere away from the heat and bitter guilt that swims behind both your heels.

Ten of Coins


Joshua Flowers is a graduate of the University of Maine Farmington and has lived in Maine for over a decade despite a tumultuous history with snow and ice. His work has been seen in All Worlds Wayfarer and Flash Fiction Magazine.

He tweets his existential crises @FlowersisBrit.

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

The Ducks Opened the Hostilities

~ Mattia Ravasi

The ducks opened the hostilities by murdering my cat.

I’d seen them loitering around the edge of my back garden all week. The fence along the right side had sunk in the mud during Winter; there were several spots along the bottom where the pests could squeeze through. A handyman was supposed to come look at the fence in April, but then the dreadful business with the virus occurred, and no one showed up.

I was leaning over the breakfast counter, sipping my coffee and scrolling through emails on my laptop. I looked out between a message and the next, checking on Kipfel. His back was straight and low to the ground, and he was staring at the trees at the back of the garden. I thought he’d found a vole. He loved gutting the little things, but couldn’t manage it without getting scratched and bitten, and moaning for me to take him to the vet.

I didn’t register what was happening—I was reading an email from my manager, badgering me to start using the latest ghastly software the company had purchased to “speed up our march to modernization,” and make our jobs easier to outsource—until I heard Kipfel hiss. Perhaps that was how he roared. Perhaps he was already in pain.

When I looked up, he had a duck in his claws. Four other birds had their beaks on his tail and hind legs. His tail was shaven—he’d had eczema recently—and must have been very sensitive. He gave up easily.

They hammered away, pecking wherever they could reach, not leaving him enough air to hiss again. I could hear this wet piercing noise all the way through the double glazing. The attack put me in mind of a scene from one of those very serious, very violent American dramas my colleagues were always raving about, one that I’d started watching during lockdown. This tall fat Mexican is crossing a prison cafeteria, when suddenly four skinheads surround him, and start puncturing him with shivs made from sharpened toothbrushes.

Shiv shiv shiv, made the toothbrushes in the Mexican’s guts, going in and out like a sewing machine through a skirt.

Shiv shiv shiv made the beaks into Kipfel.

I stood, horrified, howling noiselessly, looking not quite at the massacre but just to the side of it. I said to myself that it was too late to intervene, although this was perhaps a lie, told in self-defense or out of cowardice.

They didn’t eat him. When I could force myself to walk outside, I saw that his fur was matted with blood, but he was otherwise intact. He was an old cat. Perhaps his heart stopped from fear alone.

The ducks had disappeared into the trees. There’s supposed to be a fence at the back of those, too, and that one isn’t sunken or torn, to my knowledge, but I didn’t have the guts to go and check.


I called the handyman to see if we could schedule a new date for repairing the fence. He didn’t pick up. I tried again over the next few days, to no avail.


I told Peter about it when I next emailed him. Discussing the event, however briefly, helped me process my grief and fear. I asked him if the ducks’ behavior was normal: he’s supposed to know a lot about poultry.

He replied somewhat prissily that what I had were probably mallards. If I were there, Deborah, I would fix that fence, he concluded. I would protect you.

I have had my share of gentlemen pining after me. I was once considered, if not a great beauty, at least “a fit bird,” as a hirsute Geordie once described me to his mates in the Trout pub. In my experience, the most romantic men are also the most predatorial. They will jump on any chance to make their feelings known, however cowardly and obliquely, and will reiterate their existence at every turn. You can’t tell them about your mauled cat without them proposing they move in with you.


I think what made me such a fit bird was a certain degree of exoticism. My family moved to England from a Bayern town called Deggendorf in 1963, when I was eight. Apparently, I took the move badly: I resented leaving the cozy microcosm of our tiny town, with toy stores, boutiques, and bakeries just downstairs from our apartment, in favor of the empty countryside outside Oxford. My parents used to relish their memories of my childish angst, but I remember nothing of Deggendorf at all.

How exotic could you be as a West German in England, you may ask. Quite a bit. There weren’t many non-English families around, not in 1970 Yarnton. Oxford itself had a faint claim to cosmopolitanism—nothing like what it is today—but the foreigners there all belonged to the university, which made them as untouchable as their English blokes. They weren’t Australian or Mexican: they belonged to the egalitarian nation of the posh.

My hair was a different blonde than the other girls’. I had wider cheekbones, and I was taller. The recent crimes of my nation fascinated people, who looked at me with great curiosity, pondering the ungaugable depths of human evil.

Melvin was the first boyfriend who didn’t study my face that way. Some days he watched me in adoration. Other times he barely glanced my way, especially when Tottenham was playing. All my life I have been plagued by the most uncomfortable thoughts, and one that used to bring me great misery was a suspicion that perhaps my love of Melvin was founded on this basic fact: that he took me for granted, and never thought of me as special.

The fear has gone now, as all my fears, no matter how rancid, eventually do. Looking back on them is always a sorry business. I contemplate the anxiety and sadness they caused me, and weep for all that lost serenity. So what if that’s why I loved him? As if we can even figure out the mechanics of such a maddening thing as love.

After we got married, Melvin and I bought a house in Binsey, where I still live. It’s a small village perched just beyond the marshy fields of Port Meadow, a half-hour walk from Oxford city center. Not that I go into town much these days, what with the plague and all.


Two days after Kipfel died I put my mixing bowl on the scale and measured out 750 grams of strong baking flour. I mixed in yeast, salt, a tablespoon of sugar, and a bottle of rat poison. I poured in half a liter of water, lukewarm from the kettle, and kneaded the mixture till it got plump and stretchy, slamming and slapping and folding it on the floured table. Baking is hard work, if you do it properly. I covered the dough with a cloth and left it to raise for an hour in the cupboard by the boiler.

This course of action caused me great distress. I wasn’t facing any moral dilemma (one way or another, the ducks must go), but the plan required me to sacrifice an awful lot of flour. These days, that stuff is worth its weight in gold. It disappeared altogether from supermarket shelves early during the national lockdown. The local mills, from which I shop, all had to close down, unable to cope with demand. (One of them, in Islip, published a confusing post on their archaic website, rambling about a “raid” they had been subjected to.) The luxury delis, which abound around Oxford, only stock extravagant varieties, like seitan or stone-milled quinoa, going for ten, twelve pounds a kilo.

Not that I had any first-hand experience of empty aisles and cut-throat delis. I only knew about it from my colleagues’ chitchat, and from their increasingly worried updates during the Team Tea Breaks we were forced to attend remotely every Wednesday afternoon, to Foster Corporate Camaraderie and Keep In Touch.

I scoured the table with cleaning products while my poison loaf was in the oven. I left it in longer than needed, to make it extra crusty. I let it cool until the evening, then smashed it into crumbs.

I turned the garden lights on and scattered the crumbs in piles all around. I was terrified. I’d been studying the garden through an upstairs window, peeping from behind the curtain to make sure the coast was clear, but my mind still latched onto every stretch of darkness, those draped between the trees and the vast endlessness beyond the fence, transforming them into the contours of dripping, probing, pustulent monstrosities, lashing out to torment me.

The final pile of crumbs I left just under the trees at the back of the garden. It was the furthest I’d been from the house since the beginning of lockdown. All my groceries had been delivered by exhausted Sainsbury’s drivers, the apples and bananas carefully picked for maximum bruises.


I work in academic publishing. I assist the editors of scholarly journals, make sure we publish the occasional issue to schedule, and that we don’t go too crazy with the page budget. I follow the directives of the manic-depressives in our editorial department, whose job, as I understand it, is to go on two-week work retreats to Scotland, and to strike publishing deals that we will never be able to honor over drinks and blow in SoHo clubs.

The academic editors I work with vary greatly in personality, from the exquisite to the oblivious to the violently abusive. Many of them work in academia because they lack the basic survival skills that would ensure their success in any normal field of employment. Had they been born in Barnsley, they would be pushing tinned tomatoes across the bottom shelves in Aldi—assuming Barnsley’s Aldis, unlike the local ones, are still well-stocked and operating—but because they aced the parent lottery, they became the deans of All Souls instead.

Peter sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He’s imperious and curt, intolerant of mistakes although frequently blundering himself, prone to panicking if his emails aren’t instantly acknowledged. Yet he is in love with me, which dulls his sharper edges, and gives him a certain drippy niceness.

I only met him once, at an editor meeting in 1989. He was annoyed about certain late issues, and I don’t think he looked me in the eye throughout the meeting. At the time, our correspondence was all handled via post and fax: article proofs would be mailed, corrections returned in incomprehensible scribbles I would then transliterate and forward to our typesetter. Maximum chances for error at every step. Then, sometime in the mid-00s, email became our medium of choice, we transferred all our data into cranky, byzantine tracking software, until finally, in 2016, the company cut back on office space, and introduced its semi-forced homeworking policy. They were years ahead of the curve, it turned out.

Peter’s feelings became clear around that time, first through veiled hints I could still choose to disregard, later via blatant declarations worded carefully enough not to hold up in court, in case I reported him for harassment. All these years I’ve never known what brought along the change in him. Perhaps my email personality is different from my handwritten one. My hands get cramped easily, and I never stretch a letter longer than I must, but I’m very wordy on a keyboard. Perhaps emailing editors from my kitchen and living room collapsed that professional distance that existed when I was still commuting into my depressing cubicle, where decorations were only allowed if they bore the company logo. I might have become friendlier in my greetings and farewells, and certain men—I don’t assume Peter has had much experience with the ladies in his six decades on Earth—latch onto any kindness that is shown to them as an excuse to fall in love, and give the misery of their life the sexy sheen of unrequited passion. Perhaps Peter has loved me since 1989, and that’s why he couldn’t meet my eye during that meeting: the heat of my gorgeousness would scorch his eyes, and wet his pants, if he witnessed it directly. He had been waiting ever since, and only made his first move a respectful few years after my husband passed away in 2014.

I’ve been dying to ask him, but it would be too cruel. Showing any interest would only stoke his hope.


I don’t love Peter back by the way, bless him. I don’t wish him any harm, but he’s a bit of a twat.


When I woke up the next morning I looked into the garden, and saw dead magpies close to two of the crumb mounds. No sign of the ducks.

I let out a very crass German expletive when I walked into the kitchen. I’d thought I could hear sounds in the night, but I’d imagined them to be rooted in my dreams, and there was no way anyway that I would leave my locked bedroom while it was dark.

I saw muddy prints all around the floor. The cupboard door under the counter had been pulled open. The food inside had been strewn all around, but most of it seemed uneaten: potatoes, carrots, a sad withered leek. Then I noticed that my biscuit tin had been opened. I bake shortbread every Sunday afternoon, to have with my crime novels on the couch before going to bed. There had been five days’ worth of biscuits in that tin. The intruders vacuumed them all up, leaving no crumb behind.

The prints all converged on the cat flap in the kitchen door.

I sealed the flap shut using an entire roll of duct tape. Duck tape? Ha. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m completely sane.

Then again, haven’t I always?


I baked a loaf of bread for my dinner that afternoon. I spent the entire night on the loo. I was certain that my putrefied body would be found on the bathroom floor seven months from now, calcified waste still crusting the toilet bowl, testifying to the agony of my final moments.

I suppose some traces of rat poison must have lingered in the oven, and that I ate them with my bread. Smashing. If my oven was out, I wasn’t sure how long I’d survive. I didn’t have much food around the house, except for those bags of strong flour, and I doubted I’d be able to get a food delivery. All that my colleagues seemed to talk about these days was how hard it had gotten to book a delivery slot.

At the apex of my agony, when it felt like the cramps were tearing a hole through my gut, I dialed 999. I waited an eternity with my phone pressed to my ear. These days my joints are so sore even holding the phone to my face is painful, but the distress was a welcome distraction from the harsher burning in my bowels. Nobody answered. This is preposterous, I thought. How bad can this virus be, that they can’t spare a nurse to answer 999 calls? I blamed the Conservative and proto-Conservative governments that had stripped the National Health Service of its resources. I blamed the 999 operator, which I imagined as a chavvy young woman posting pictures of herself on whatever ghastly app was popular this week, ignoring the LEDs flashing red on her terminal. I blamed the ducks.

The next morning I reported the whole accident to my colleagues in a long, somewhat rambling email. (I’m not usually one for reaching out to colleagues, be it for comfort, support, God forbid chitchat.) I left out the turbodiarrhea, but stressed my indignation at the lack of response from the emergency services.

I must have shocked them, I thought around noon, when I saw that nobody had replied yet. But nobody ever replied to that email.


That the world was still there I could testify by climbing the ladder to the attic—no small feat, let me tell you—and looking through the tiny round window up there, which overlooks the neighbor’s houses and the hedge-lined fields beyond, and gives me a view, very far in the distance, of the tiniest segment of the A34 speedway. I could see vehicles driving up and down. Trucks, mostly, with the occasional car.


Those thoughts I mentioned, which used to cause me such a great deal of pain, remained a terrifying mystery to me until the day I attended a 10 am editor meeting in a drab, dark pub just outside Paddington Station. I was meeting the chair of some psychology society, trying to persuade them to keep publishing their journal with my company.

It was clear from the start that I would make no progress, and that the bloke was only meeting me as a professional courtesy. I didn’t resent him. I always considered my company cheap and unprofessional, and my opinion of him instantly improved when I realized he was abandoning us.

I had traveled all the way to London, and going back too early would mean having to spend the afternoon in the office. Even though we had no deal to strike, I asked the bloke if he wanted to join me for lunch. On me: a farewell gift from his old publisher.

We ate fish and chips—back then it still tasted proper, none of this modern gastropub beastliness—and had a very nice chat. He was a reserved man, with a kinky beard and stupidly small glasses. Great listener. I’d had a drink or two, and he wasn’t saying much, so eventually I started talking about my problems. Maybe he’d be able to assist me, seeing how he belonged to the psychiatric profession. “Psychology,” he corrected me, while nodding somewhat tiredly. I was guarded and euphemistic at first, but the gates had been opened, and soon it was all gushing out. All my life, I said, I’d been plagued by the most horrendously disjointed spontaneous thoughts. There were days where every flab of cloth brought to mind breasts and genitalia. Times when I couldn’t clap eyes on another human without thinking of cannibalism. Not to mention the tangled grottiness of the putrid sexual images that sometimes plagued me.

What I found devastating weren’t the thoughts per se. Those were, after all, just thoughts. The horrid thing was the fear that accompanied them: a terrible dread that they might be a symptom of some hidden impulse. That they betrayed an evil nested within me, like a snake coiled around my organs.

The man kept nodding through my explanation. “Sounds like obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he said once I was finished. That struck me as preposterous. I thought that the term only applied to those blokes who need to put away their Monopoly with all the houses and hotels precisely right in the box. “The mind fixates on things,” he continued, “and associates images, often of a violent or repulsive nature, with certain stimuli. In cases of obsessive disorder, these correlations can become calcified in place, and cause great distress. If you find them bothersome, talk to your GP. They’ll recommend therapy or anxiolytics.”

And that was it. All those years I’d been carrying that worry inside me, and this silly sod came along and put a name to it, and explained it away. It staggers me that we all walk around with the solution to each other’s problems stored away within us, in our experiences and in the lessons we’ve learned, and yet we have not come up with any efficient system for sharing this knowledge. Except for books, I suppose. And who reads books these days?


I lived off tea for two days. When I felt that I could hold it down, I made a soup out of those carrots and potatoes in the cupboard. (The leek had sprouted a yellow beard, and I thought it best to avoid it.) It was thin and bland, but it tasted like life. I struggle to remember a meal I enjoyed more in recent years. Perhaps the last time Melvin and I ate out, at a sausage pub in Jericho called The Big Bang, his favorite place in the world. (They closed shortly after he died, his frequent patronage the only thing keeping them afloat.) We had some marvelous turnip mash, milky and velvety, with salt crystals peppered across its surface to pack a little burst of flavor with every forkful. We laughed, we joked, we ate to our bursting point. It was a good night.

It took all my self-control not to devour all the soup in one sitting. I poured two thirds of it in plastic containers, and stored them in the fridge for tomorrow’s meals. This felt so cruel that I ended up sulking at my own wisdom.

All through the day I’d been scouring the oven with my most aggressive cleaning products, breathing in their toxic vapors, determined to erase all traces of poison. When I woke up the next morning I sighed, took out the flour, and baked the tiniest loaf of my life. I had a quarter of it for lunch. My bowels did not liquefy.

I finished the loaf that night with the second portion of soup. I slept like a baby, and woke up feeling rejuvenated. My oven was back in business. Everything would be all right.


I walked out into the garden to deal with the dead magpies. I shouldn’t have left it so long, but I was hoping a fox would take them out of my hands. I guess foxes are too clever to eat poisoned birds. Or perhaps they all went wherever it is that 999 has gone.

I pulled on my thick plastic gloves and stuffed the slimy birds in a binbag. Not that my bins had been emptied at any time in the recent past. Kipfel was still in there, a disturbing and potentially dangerous fact I was doing a great job of ignoring. (A fun fact about the human mind: legitimate concerns are so much easier to dismiss than irrational fears.)

When I got up, with some difficulty, from leaning forward over the second bird, I saw a line of ducks, seven or eight of them, staring at me from beyond the fence.

My eyes darted to the door, and I saw that the outside of the cat flap, which I’d taped shut, was covered in scratches and dents. Beak marks.

I charged at the ducks, who scattered around the field, quacking indignantly as they took off. I took the dead magpies out of the binbag and threw them at the enemy. I missed. The magpies are still out there, by now little more than untroubled tufts of feathers and bones.


I asked Peter how dangerous ducks could be. He said that duck farmers contract salmonella a few times a year as a matter of course. When I pressed him for more information—how did they fare in conventional warfare?—he got unpleasant, and evasive.

Peter is the editor of the International Review of Poultry Studies. You’d think he should know about ducks. But his area of expertise is geese.

Academics, in my experience, tend to embrace the view that their superior knowledge of their field of study, the fact that they’re such valuable members of society, excuses them from adhering to most societal norms—of politeness, responsiveness, punctuality. But for all that they’re such geniuses they can’t even tell you how actually dangerous a sodding duck can be.


The day after our confrontation in the garden, the ducks came into my house again.

I heard a scuttling noise at dawn, too loud for me to pretend it was outside. I made my way down the stairs, and saw muddy prints along the hall. They headed, unsurprisingly, into the kitchen, but I followed them the other way, to their source. The ducks had pushed up one of the sash windows in Carl’s bedroom, and trailed mud across the bed and carpet.

I lost it. I ran into the kitchen, where three ducks were tearing at the half loaf I’d left under a cloth on the counter. I picked up the cloth from the floor and whipped them, forgetting the old wisdom about cornered animals.

They took flight, brushing past me on their way out. I covered my face. My arms got scratched. I’m not sure if they attacked me deliberately, or if their feet simply grazed me as they went by.

They flew down the hall and out the window, which I slammed closed, and locked. I collapsed on Carl’s muddy bed, and spent a long time studying my scratches.


Carl was our son. He always had a strong sense of justice, and he was passionate about music. He was in a band in high school that only played covers of this rock group called the Stiff Little Fingers, a name I always found enormously rude, even though it actually isn’t. Melvin used to give him a hard time about that band. “Your songs are terrible,” he would say, “and they’re not even yours.”

Carl had a few girlfriends, held a few jobs, but never anything serious. He had a car accident during a trip to Italy when he was thirty, and died.

I think about Carl the same way I think about my neuroses. It’s all part of life. I say to myself that thirty years on Earth are not nothing: that during that time, Carl was loved, and frequently happy. But it’s like telling myself that my anxieties are a condition, unfortunate but documented, endurable. It makes it bearable, most of the time; but the sorrow never goes away.


Melvin was never cruel to me, never actively nasty, but a couple of times, when I was trying to explain the nature of my anxieties to him—the obstinacy of my morbid thoughts—he replied in a way that wounded me deeply. “You Germans,” he said, too exasperated by his own impossible problems to know how to deal with mine. “Always obsessed with cruelty.”


I baked a fresh loaf. I locked all the windows except for one, in the living room.

Two days later, at the first light of dawn, I heard the ducks push that window up and drop onto the floor. They were stealthier this time, and made very little noise as they waddled down the hall.

I left my hiding spot on top of the stairs and sneaked toward the kitchen. I found them clustered around my bread, which they’d dragged to the floor.

I lunged forward and closed my hand around a duck’s neck. A female. She thrashed her wings and paddled with her feet in the air, trying perhaps to tear at my skin. Her resistance only increased my determination, making it easier to be forceful with her. I clutched her under my arm, immobilizing her, and took the kitchen knife out of my robe’s pocket.

Her companions had stopped eating and were quacking furiously at me. They seemed paralyzed between flight and violence. I looked down at them with great hate, and they looked up at me with whatever they had inside them—duck faces always seem to express blunt annoyance.

I have to do it, I thought. These pests need to go. They’ll give me salmonella. Steal all my bread. The first step of my extermination plan was a few millimeters away: the tip of my knife was resting on the duck’s breast, and she was struggling less frantically every second, perhaps because I was squeezing her too hard.

And yet my mind was at work with a lucidity I’d never known before. I was trying desperately to come up with a solution that did not involve bloodshed. How ironic, after a lifetime plagued by violent and repulsive thoughts, to find out I was incapable of inflicting harm—and by ironic I mean sodding preposterous.

These ducks are hungry, I thought. They must have gotten addicted to carbs from all the bread they were fed when people were still allowed outside their house. I had flour. I had bread. I could keep it all to myself, sure: but what for? To keep living indefinitely in my inescapable house, seeing the world around me shut down bit by bit, carrying on throughout it all with my irrelevant, menial job?

I dropped my prisoner. She was flying before she’d even touched the floor. I didn’t try to cover my face, but nobody scratched me on their way out.


Things got weird after that.

It wasn’t the following day, and to be honest I couldn’t say exactly how long after our confrontation this was—my mind was sluggish for a few days, probably as a comedown from that adrenaline burst in the kitchen—but eventually the ducks appeared again. They sat in a wonky semicircle outside my front door.

They must have seen that I was a softie. I baked a loaf, crumbled it up, and brought it out. How they knew this one wasn’t poisoned is beyond me.

There are two encampments around my house, one in the back garden, one on the front lawn. I tried to count the ducks in both, and reached a total of fifteen, but the figure is insignificant, as ducks come and go, and the camps seem to swell some days, and to be nearly abandoned on others.

I bake a loaf every two days, and hand it out in the morning. You’d think the ducks would have figured the schedule out, and perhaps they have, but either way they stay out there all the time, even on non-feeding days.

I’m well aware they might simply be keeping an eye on me. Making sure I do not leave.

How in the world, you may ask, do you still have enough flour to feed all these ducks. That’s the weirdest part. I was running low on strong flour, and would have soon been forced to use plain flour for my bread (civilization truly is collapsing) when one night, after sunset, the ducks on my front lawn started quacking very loud.

I got out and showed them my bare hands—no bread until tomorrow morning!—but they turned around and started walking down the street. Once they reached the corner, they turned and called again.

There are only a handful of houses and cottages in Binsey, plus a pub, The Perch, whose late-night crowds of posh revelers used to be the bane of my sleep. The ducks led me past my neighbors’ homes. We were violating quarantine—well, I was—but there was no one around to rat me out.

We got to a house painted peach and white, with a half-timbered first floor. Fancy. The ducks quacked for me to swing open the gate in the picket fence, and they guided me to the back garden.

The kitchen window had been opened, doubtlessly with the same burglary skills I’d already witnessed. It was close enough to the back door that I could reach my arm in, turn the key in the lock, and walk inside. Nobody was home, and there was no car in the driveway. I remembered two ghastly BMWs, and assumed that the owners must have fled to some even grander manor, deeper into the countryside.

The ducks tapped the cupboard under the sink with their beaks. Inside, I found a dozen 1.5 kg bags of stockpiled flour. Organic and local: the good stuff.

Most of the food in the fridge had spoiled, but I shopped freely from the cupboards. I left the backdoor open on my way out. Let the squirrels go crazy.


The cars still drive along the A34 whenever I go into my attic to check. (Have there been fewer of them recently? Hard to tell.) Peter still replies to my emails, although with less gusto and grease than before. Some of my colleagues have started showing up at the virtual tea breaks again. The ducks are hungry. I don’t feel lonely.

Ten of Coins


Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy, and lives and works in Oxford. He has written for The Millions, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Submarine. His stories have appeared in independent magazines, most recently in the Wilderness House Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Planet Scumm. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, The Bookchemist.

 [ issue 7 : summer 202 ]

Ten and Gone

~ Christopher Hawkins

Two hits with the bump key and the door popped open like it had never been locked. It was a cheap Connor entry set, the kind that contractors bought in bulk. It was a best-case scenario, better than Marcus had dared to hope for. He straightened, adopting the air that he had every right to be there, on this stranger’s porch in the middle of the night, lockpick in hand and a flashlight on his belt. He listened for the beeping of an alarm that he knew would never come. They always installed the alarms later, if they installed them at all, and this place was new, so new that he could smell the fresh paint as he stepped in over the threshold.


The subdivision had come up quick, a tidy little enclave of McMansions built to sell for two-and-a-half, maybe three million each. Marcus had been watching the site for weeks and even prowled around it a time or two after dark, hunting for stray power tools. Most of them were half-finished with bare studs and plastic undersiding still showing, but not this one. No, with this one he’d hit the jackpot. The place was finished all the way down to the custom brass light switches and lit up like a Christmas tree with all the new owners’ possessions stacked in neatly labeled boxes.

It would be a quick score, maybe even a good score if he was lucky enough to find a safe that hadn’t been bolted to the floor, or a jewelry box tucked away in the corner of the master bedroom. He needed a good score now, maybe more than he ever had. A beefy custom stereo or a box of Louboutin shoes. If it was here, he’d find it, and he’d find it fast. Ten minutes was all he’d ever needed in a house. His internal clock was as good as a stopwatch. Ten minutes to grab the best stuff and get out. Ten minutes and he’d be gone.

He crossed the foyer and took the steps of the central staircase two at a time, paying no mind to the way his heavy footsteps rang against the rough tile and crunched on the carpeting. Most of the best stuff was sure to be on the first floor, but if there was something that the new owners held especially dear, they would have moved it upstairs before anything else. He’d passed a few boxes in the foyer marked “baby toys” in big, cartoon bubble-letters, and made a mental note to check them on the way out for anything that he might be able to bring back to Trina as a peace offering. Maybe a teddy bear or one of those little stuffed dogs with the big heads and the sad eyes that she used to collect back in high school. If he came back with one of those for the baby, she might leave the chain off the door when she talked to him. She might even let him back inside to share the bed again.

He paused at the top of the stairs to get his bearings. Wide landing. Short hallway to either side. Master suite on one end. Two, maybe three bedrooms on the other. He’d take the big room first and sweep through the others on his way back. There were paintings on the walls, and he took a few seconds to eyeball each one. He didn’t know art, but could usually make a fair guess and pick one that would sell. None of these were it though, just blurry figures rendered in clumsy brushstrokes, like out-of-focus photographs. Amateur work set in ornate frames to make them look valuable. The wife was a painter, he guessed, which meant they could afford for her to be a painter. It boded well for his chances of finding jewelry in the bedroom. He might even be able to offload a few of the frames once he’d ditched the paintings inside. One of them was already empty, just hanging crooked in the center of the landing like a wide-open window.


He strode toward the master suite, wondering, not for the first time, what kind of job someone had to have to afford a place like this one, with its high ceilings and its light fixtures that looked like they’d come straight out of a palace. Something a damn sight better than anything he’d ever been able to hold down, and probably a lot cushier, too. The problem with guys who had jobs like that, and places like this, was that they never appreciated them. He’d bet this whole take that the guy was on some shrink’s couch every week whining about how rough he had it, never knowing that someone like Marcus was waiting out there, just waiting for the right time to bump his lock open and take everything that wasn’t nailed down. With any luck the guy would have plenty to talk about at his next appointment.

The door to the bedroom was open, but he paused there out of habit, listening for anyone who might be inside, calculating the time it would take to get back down the stairs if he heard a voice. But there was no one here. He’d watched the place for hours, sitting up the road in his white van, looking for warning signs and finding none. The only odd thing had been the light, shining out of every window, almost too bright. No doubt they’d wanted to make it look like someone was home, but without a car in the driveway or any motion inside at all, it might as well have been a beacon.

The bedroom was big, too big for Marcus’ taste, with an ornate, king-sized bed and carpet so plush that his feet sank into it as he walked. Who needed this much space just to sleep? It was almost enough to make him mad, especially when he thought about Trina and the baby in that ratty little one-bedroom apartment. But that was okay. Being mad quieted down that nagging little voice that told him he ought to feel guilty for being here. Being mad made it easier.

The bed was made, and it struck him as odd how finished it seemed, but not so odd that he let it slow him down. It was the closet he was after, and it did not disappoint. It was big enough to be a bedroom all on its own and lined with his stuff on one side and hers on the other two. Nice shoes. Expensive shoes. A few of the Loubatins he’d been after. Manolos and Jimmy Choos, too. Enough to make this trip worthwhile all by themselves. He yanked the cover off the bed and piled them all in the center of it, trying not to smile too much, trying not to get ahead of himself when there was still so much left to be done.


He’d been hoping for jewelry, or maybe a laptop or two, but no such luck. He had the shoes bundled in the sheet, which he slung over his shoulder like a bargain basement Santa Claus as he bounded down the stairs, but that was all. Not even the clothes had been worth taking. They looked expensive, but were cheap to the touch and slippery like cut-rate vinyl. It didn’t matter. He still had the rest of the house, and now that he had the lay of the place he was starting to map out his route in his head. Upstairs again first. Two, three minutes, tops. Then a quick sweep through the dining room to find the box that held the silver and China plates. Grab the TV from the living room and anything else worth having along the way.

He dropped the shoes in the foyer, where he’d decided to make a staging area, and started back up the stairs. His initial shot of adrenaline was starting to wear off. If something was going to go wrong, it would have happened by now. But he was in the clear with almost eight minutes left and didn’t have to rush. Still, he took the steps two at a time. He must have stepped in something sticky along the way, because he could feel the way his boots clung to the carpet as he went. Insurance would pay for the carpet, he knew. Insurance would pay for all of it, the lucky bastards. He’d never had insurance, never had anything worth insuring. Not until now, anyway. Maybe he’d get enough from this score to make this time the last time. Maybe—

He froze two steps from the top. His adrenaline surged. There was a box on the landing. It hadn’t been there before. He was sure of it. It was right in the middle of his path and he would have had to have stepped right over it. There was no way he could have missed it, either on the way up or on the way back down. And yet, there it was, a squat little cube of cardboard with the flaps hanging loose. Scrawled across its front in unsteady black letters were the words GOOD STUFF.


He stood statue-still, listening to the quiet as the clock ticked down in his head. Someone had put the box there, which meant that there was someone here, inside the house with him. And yet, he heard nothing but the sound of his own breath and the thudding of his pulse in his ears. If someone was here, he should have been able to feel it, the same way that you could feel when someone was trying to sneak up behind you in a quiet room. But there was no one. The doors had not moved and everything down to the paintings on the walls was exactly as he had left it. Everything except for this new box, this box ofGOOD STUFF.

He crept his way up the last two steps, breathing shallow and quiet, wincing at the sticky sound of his boots as they pulled at the carpet. Something glinted beneath the loose flaps of the box, and he crouched low to get a closer look. If this was a trap, this was when it would spring. A woman with a baseball bat over her shoulder. A policeman with his pistol drawn. But there was nothing in the stillness but empty air. He reached out and the flaps fell aside, limp and heavy, like wet leaves.

He let out a low whistle, forgetting all caution as he got a look at what was inside. Here was the jewelry he had been hoping for, great tangles of it, heaped together like a jumble of old electrical cords. Gold chains caught the light from the chandelier as he turned them over in his hands. Diamonds and sapphires gleamed along their lengths like drops of morning dew. He scooped it up like water from a river, and there was more of it than he could hold with both hands.

It couldn’t be real. There was too much of it, and it was too haphazardly jumbled in the box to be anything but cheap, costume stuff. And yet, the weight of it was right, and the stones were bright and clear. He wasn’t an expert, but he knew glass gems when he saw them. These were not glass gems, and even the stingiest fence, at pennies on the dollar, would trade them for more money than he had ever seen in his life. It would be enough money to get him and Trina out of that crappy apartment, enough to get the baby a room of her own with flowers on the walls and a crib full of toys and a mobile strung with tiny bears to watch over her while she slept.


He gathered up the box. It was warm to the touch and it came up from the carpet with the same sticky tearing sound that his boots had made on the stairs. All by itself, the box made this a better job than any he had done before, and though six minutes were left on his internal clock there was no need for him to stick around any longer. He bounded back down to the foyer. With each step he cradled the box closer and cared less where it had come from. It could have been on the landing the whole time. In his haste he might have stepped right past it. It was odd, true, but he had seen enough odd things in this business to know that odd things happened every day. But this was it. He was done, and maybe for good. He’d bundle the box and the shoes into the van and drive away. He’d drive away and never come back, not to this place, not to any other place he had to break his way into. He’d go back to Trina and find a way to make her listen, to tell her all the things he’d never been able to find words for. She’d take him back and he’d be done, once and for all.

He paused at the bottom of the stairs as he sensed a change in the air, a shift in pressure like a door being opened in a distant room. With it came a familiar sound, a high, hitching wail that drifted down from the second story hallway.

It was the sound of a baby crying.

He froze, the box heavy in his arms, as he waited for the soft pad of footsteps on the carpet, for the answering words of a mother, perhaps a father. If he was lucky, those footsteps would come from the second floor, and he’d have time to reach his van with the box still in his hands, time to be away from this place before they even knew he was here. If he was unlucky, the footsteps would come from this floor, from just around the corner. And what would he do then? Would he fight? Would he take the box and try to run? Now that he had it, he couldn’t imagine letting go of the little box and the jumble of treasure inside. He would fight for it. He would have to fight, or he would lose everything.

But the footsteps never came. He held his breath and watched through the entryways for shadows on the far walls, but there was no one there. There was only the child, the sound of its cries rising and falling, only to rise again more urgently, over and over again.


He made up his mind then to go. All he needed was the box. He could leave the shoes behind. He could leave the whole place behind, with its odd paintings and the strange smell in the air. But his feet would not move. The baby was still crying and no one was coming for it. At once he thought that the child had been left there on purpose, but the thought seemed absurd. No one moved into a brand new house only to abandon a baby. But then, no one jumbled a fortune’s worth of jewelry into a cardboard box and labeled it GOOD STUFF. All the rules he was used to didn’t seem to apply to this place. The baby cried and no one came for it, even though someone had to be there, had to have set this box in his way. The baby cried, and with each breath it sounded more and more like the baby that he and Trina had made.

Before he could stop himself he was climbing up the stairs. His steps felt heavy, the soles of his boots so sticky that he thought he might bring the carpet up with him as he moved. The baby’s wailing grew louder as he drew near. He was convinced now that it was a little girl, no more than a few weeks old. In his mind he could see her with her fists balled, her face scrunched and red. He crept across the landing toward the sound, past the strange and blurry paintings. They seemed less blurry now, and in one of them he could see familiar outlines, two people posing for their portrait. He’d thought that one of those frames had been empty, but he must have been mistaken.

The door to the bedroom was ajar. He could hear the child’s frantic howling just beyond it, growing louder and more urgent by the second. He pushed the door aside by inches, moving slow as if he was wading through water. The door was warm to the touch and it swung aside without a sound.

The shades were drawn and the room was dark, but still he could make out the wooden crib that stood at its center. The room was empty but for that crib, and it struck him then that, out of all the rooms in the house, this was the only one where the lights had been left off. He stepped inside, his boots still sticking to the carpet, his eyes adjusting to the dark. There were flowers painted on the walls, and above the crib a circle of little teddy bears dangled from a mobile like hanged men, turning lazily, casting long shadows.


The cries became louder then, so loud that they felt like daggers driving their way into his brain. He pressed his hands to the sides of his head to keep them at bay. Again he fought the urge to run, and might have given in to it if not for the dark shape that moved just beyond the bars of the crib. In his mind he was sure that it would look just like the baby that Trina had once held out to him, the one she had told him was his. He had run away then, but he would not run away now.

His shadow fell across the bars as he stepped toward the crib. The child inside it shifted and rolled with every hitching breath, with every rising cry. He could see it in the shadows cast by the hanging bears, tiny fists silhouetted against the mattress, tiny legs pumping in rage. He stepped closer, close enough to touch the squirming thing, close enough to gather it into his arms, and yet, for the shadows, he could not see its face.

He reached for the little flashlight on his belt, his mind screaming in tandem with the baby, warning him that he should not be there, that his time was running out, that he should run from this place and not look back. Still, he had to look. He had to know whether this baby was his. He had to look into its tear-filled eyes, to see if there was anything in them of his own.

The flashlight clicked on. He turned its beam on the naked, squirming thing that twitched and writhed in the crib. Where its skin should have been red with anger, it was pale and slick, like an earthworm out in a rainstorm. Stubby fingers stretched as it moved and Marcus could see the translucent web of skin that stretched between them. Where he had expected teary eyes, there were no eyes, no face at all. There was only a mouth, stretched into a boneless circle that gaped and yawned with the sounds of its cries.

He stepped back, stumbling, and the thing rose to follow him, dangling at the end of a long stalk that seemed to stretch out from the mattress of the crib like the lure from some deep-sea angler fish. Its limbs fell limp at its sides, a puppet with its strings cut. He could still hear its crying, but the crying was all around him now, everywhere and nowhere at once. Its lips, if they had ever been lips, pulled taut. In the depths behind them were row upon row of hooked and gleaming teeth.

It lashed out at him, the stalk whipping toward his head like a coiled snake. He scrambled back and fell beneath it. As it passed he could smell Trina’s perfume on the wind it made, perfume and the scent of the clove cigarettes she’d smoked in high school, as if it had been pulled right out of his memories.


The thing drew back, and Marcus scrambled to his feet, hands and boots sticking to the floor. Or was it the floor that was sticking to him? The doorway to the room was closing, not swinging shut, but puckering, growing smaller by inches. He lunged for it, but fell short as something took hold of his leg and wrenched him backward. He looked back to see the fleshy stalk pulled tight, reeling him back toward the crib. The mouth of the baby-thing had clamped onto to the toe of his boot, and worried at it like a dog gnawing at a bone. The infant body had shrunk to little more than a vague shape, vestigial limbs waving as it tugged and pulled.

He kicked out, and his boot slid down the pulsing length of the stalk like it was slipping through mud. The infant wail still rang in his ears, rising and falling like a siren. He kicked again and found the spot where the baby’s eyes should have been. The mouth went slack as the stalk reared back, its plucked-chicken skin gleaming slick in the beam of his dropped flashlight.

Scrambling, he lurched toward the opening. The doorway had been reduced to a tightening circle that grew smaller by the instant. The thing struck out at him once more but he stumbled out of its reach, pulling himself on all fours toward the light of the hallway. He laid a hand on the opening, and it grew teeth beneath his fingers. The infant’s cry had become a scream, a high keen of rage and loss that pierced his brain and drove away all rational thought. He heaved himself out into the light, and as his feet slipped through, the teeth snapped together behind him with a hollow crunch.

Chest heaving, he lay on the floor, unable to move, barely able to breathe. The inhuman screaming had stopped, but the echo of it still rang in his ears, in the pulse that played out a painful beat through his skull. He tried to sit up, but the carpet held him down. Muscles trembling, he managed to pull himself away, tiny barbs clinging to his skin like flypaper to a fly. Around him, the walls were peeling back, melting toward the floor like taffy left out in the sun.


He staggered to his feet, stumbling out of the hallway and onto the landing, pulling himself along the railing as he moved. It stuck to his hands, and as his palms came away they left little beads of blood behind on the painted wood. The portraits were sliding down the walls, but he could see faces in them now. One of those faces was Trina’s and in the painting she held a bundled infant in her arms. A man stood in the shadows behind her with his hands on her shoulders, but he could not tell if it was meant to be him.

The floor tilted and heaved as he stumbled toward the stairs. The walls flowed down around him, and behind them he could see the new-cut wood of the house’s frame, unfinished and skeletal. The only part of this place that’s real, he thought. The only part of it that was made with human hands. Whatever the rest of it was, it would swallow him whole if he wasn’t quick enough.

Something tugged at his foot as he reached the top of the stairs and he half-slid, half-fell to the foyer below. The chandelier and the other lights had retreated into the skin of the thing, coalescing into bluish orbs that pulsed hypnotically in the darkening space. He closed his eyes for fear that he might lose himself in them. He thought of Trina then, and of the baby, the real baby that could only be his own. It gave him the strength to pull himself to his feet. The door, if it had ever been a door at all, was shut tight, but as the walls oozed and shifted around him they made an opening. Beyond it was the night air and the white van that would drive him away from this place. He stepped toward it and felt his ankle give beneath his weight. He winced, but he did not stop.

The letters on the box of GOOD STUFF were just a smear of black now. It rolled on the floor, searching and gnashing, its flaps lined with rows of teeth like curved needles. As the jewelry fell from its mouth it lost its color and fell to ash. He gave no thought to the loss. There was only the opening, the way by which he could finally escape. He lurched toward it, hoping against hope that he still had time.

The opening seemed to sense his approach. Its edges folded together, closing like the mouth of some carnivorous plant. He thrust his hands against its fleshy edges. The house was dark now but for the pulsing blue light, and warm, so warm that he could imagine himself surrendering to it, just letting go and letting the place take him. Still, he fought. His muscles strained until he thought they might snap. He forced the opening wider, wide enough for his head, his shoulders. At last he pushed through. He landed on hard gravel where the concrete porch had been. The skin of the house retreated from its wooden bones as he scrambled away. It collapsed into a sphere that floated in the air, rolling and pulsing like a wet blister in the darkness. It pulsed once more and it was gone, folding in on itself, shrinking down to a single point of light before it disappeared into nothingness.


Marcus staggered to his feet, little hitches of unbidden laughter punctuating every breath. His ankle was broken. It wouldn’t take his weight, so he limped and hopped his way to the white van. He laughed again, high on adrenaline, high on the thought that that thing, whatever it had been, had almost made a meal of him. The idea made him hungry somehow, and he choked back a giggle as he pulled open the driver’s door.

He needed a hospital, but the hospital could wait. No, he had to see Trina. Trina and their baby. He wanted to hold her and gather them both into his arms. He found his keys. The ringing in his ears was fading, the wailing of that phantom child gone. There was only the still of the night air, his breathing calm now, controlled. In that moment all his indecision fell away, and his thoughts coalesced into a moment of perfect clarity. He would leave this place, this life, and build a new one with Trina and the baby. He would leave it and he would never look back.

Ten of Coins


Christopher Hawkins is an award-winning horror author, with short stories appearing in over a dozen magazine and anthologies. He is a former editor of the One Buck Horror anthology series, as well as an avid gamer and collector of curiosities. When he’s not writing, he spends his time exploring old cemeteries, lurking in museums, and searching for a decent cup of tea.

For free stories and news about upcoming projects, visit his website, www.christopher-hawkins.com, or follow him on Twitter @chrishawkins.

 [ issue 3 :  summer 2021 ]