The hollow-eyed priestess led Calamachus to a deep cleft in a rocky outcropping three stadia away from the temple. No altar or statue denoted the unremarkable opening to the underworld. A stack of crude torches and a paltry fire-pit were the only indication that people came there at all. The wind was still and Calamachus, though battle-hardened, shifted uncomfortably in the silence. They said the priestess did not eat, that she lived on wine and visions from the Gods. The silent woman did indeed seem to peer into his soul but she needed no magic to divine the grief of the man in front of her. Calamachus was pale, eyes rimmed in red — broken.
Just ten days before, he stood with his sacred troop of warriors covered in sweat overlooking a battlefield littered with Spartans. The iron reek of their enemy’s blood was a testament to the prowess of Thebes. Celebration was wine-gloried and robust. Ecthion was by his side, their hands clasped, breath hot and quick, their rough bedding a place of complete union. Neither of them gave any thought to a slash on boy’s foot — the perils of battle. But the Fates wove their web of illness around Ecthion until they strangled his life and Calamachus’ heart along with it. He could not accept it. He would not accept it.
He would face death and bring Ecthion back from that dark country.
With trembling hands and a clenched jaw, Calamachus offered the priestess a flask of wine in the purse that dangled from his belt. She shook her head, bowed graciously and retreated toward her hut. He was alone on the grim mountainside. His sandals creaked. His tunic, though light and simple, felt smothering. Calamachus took a deep breath, plucked a small torch from the meager pile nearby, lit it and then squeezed into the rough slash of the cave’s opening. He was greeted with a cool shot of fetid air from the decomposing bodies of sacrificed boars, chickens and lambs. His eyes watered from the stench as he limped down the uneven path and into the earth.
There was a scuttling sound, quick and sinister and Calamachus gripped the short sword strapped to his waist. The beetle was larger than he could have imagined. A stray piece of rotting flesh dangled from its clicking pincers as it rushed towards him. He parried and the monster missed its target, giving the Theban time to counter and drive his blade through the soft flesh below its truncated neck. A black puddle formed on the ground as the beetle struggled fruitlessly for its ugly life. Calamachus sheathed his sword and spat, thanking Athena for his victory — a good omen.
He pressed on, meter after meter, his skin thrashed by unexpected corners while the echoing of his footfalls pursued him like a phantom hunter. Above, clusters of shuddering bats clung to the rock and waited for nightfall.
Calamachus arrived at a thick river where Charon, the ferryman of the dead, stared at him from under a hood. He steadied himself and approached the grinning skeleton with lightless eyes, a gold coin at the ready. Charon’s frigid, gray hand snatched the coin and flung it contemptuously into the depths; he would accept no payment from a living man. He pointed Calamachus toward a decrepit raft moored nearby. He would have to cross the River Styx himself.
The current was unforgiving and Calamachus battled to prevent being swept far downstream by the surging, serpent-infested water. He arrived at the foggy, far shore winded but grateful to be one step closer. He braced himself and bravely plunged into the mist, thinking of his vows. Their vows.
He and Ecthion were bonded on the boy’s 20th birthday by the glow of firelight at the temple of Iolaus. They had been growing in affection for a year and in the strange closeness of training for war, found themselves holding the other’s gaze for long moments. Now, two years later, with blood and love between them, Calamachus stood on the knife’s edge of glory and grief.
The mist thinned but it failed to prevent him from tripping over a massive pile of fur — one of the four paws of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that stood between the worlds of the living and the dead. Calamachus quivered as the fog retreated, revealing a grizzled, fanged beast of extraordinary proportions, its golden eyes alight with anger. The warrior slowly reached for the traditional offering, a honey cake he had kept in his pouch for this very moment — but he never presented it. Cerberus, enraged at the weakened but still living man before him, issued a growl that shook the earth and hurled himself toward his prey. Calamachus stumbled but managed to slash the foreleg of the beast as it lunged toward him. It was a useless wound; unfazed, Cerberus had pinned him to the ground. All Calamachus could see were teeth and all he could feel was shame. He had failed.
He was sure the warmth on his neck was a torrent of his own blood mingled with the hot, menacing breath of the monster but when he opened his eyes, Calamachus saw the sun. He was standing in field of poppies that stretched toward the horizon, their bright, red petals nodding in the breeze. A hand on his back made him swivel, his fear still piqued. In front of him though, stood Ecthion, his tumbling curls and bright smile lit with a radiance that exceeded even his lover’s glorified memory. Ecthion was warm to the touch, his presence a balm for the senses.
“We are not shadows?” Calamachus wondered aloud.
“Mortal life is the true shadow, “ Ecthion said. “And you are a ghost no more.”
The smell of flowers, the hum of honeybees, the touch of understanding skin: perfection in fact, not theory. Eternity lay before them, the cruel losses and vicious desires of men lay behind — the nectar of the gods made manifest. They kissed.
Kevin Thomas Conroy is an aspiring writer living in Los Angeles. By day, he sells antiques and fine art. By night, he thinks about things that make him shiver then writes them down.
Adam woke up late, putting him an hour behind his usual schedule. He put on his designated work shirt and pants, and noticed a trail of brown splatter on the collar. He shrugged. He was an art lecturer, it came with the territory.
He turned to Sarah, who was sleeping soundly on her side, facing him. Her long, golden hair lay neatly covering her ear down to the side of her arm. “I’m sorry I can’t have breakfast with you today. I’ll see you tonight,” whispered Adam as he blew her a kiss before leaving for work.
The traffic was astonishingly smooth this morning. Adam reached the art academy with ample time to prepare for his first class. As he was gathering his materials, a sense of guilt overcame him. He flumped onto his chair and brooded.
He hated missing breakfast with Sarah. They had just moved here a month ago, and she was still adjusting to the new place. Adam knew that relocating would be unnerving for her, but circumstances made it impossible for them to stay. He had made the mistake of welcoming a student into his home, which triggered an internal investigation at his previous university, putting him at risk of losing Sarah. He could never allow that.
Adam was living in inconsolable loneliness until Sarah came along. She fulfilled his every desire and never once criticised his eccentricity. When she first appeared before him, he knew she was born to love him.
She had a nice cozy corner at their old house, where she could be found reading in her favourite purple chair. Now the chair looked different under a new light. It didn’t blend well with the olive green walls in the living area, nor the saffron walls in the bedroom. He wanted to give her a new chair, but he wasn’t sure if erasing her most familiar possession would be wise. It didn’t help that Sarah was also a homebody. She never wandered out of the house. She feared the sun might dull her skin, and Adam shared her concern. He loved her glowing yellow complexion. It was a hue hard to achieve.
He sensed that she had been restless and nervous lately. Last week, she was a redhead. Yesterday, she became a blonde. Her random changes troubled him. He remembered reading somewhere that women tend to experiment with their hair when they are adapting to or desire change. He didn’t want the new environment to change his wife. Also, a Chinese woman looks ridiculous with blonde hair. Adam sighed. He must take control of the situation. He would make her change her hair back to black.
“Hey, Adam, it’s 9 o’clock. Your students are waiting,” said Connie, another art lecturer on her way to her class.
“Oh God!” exclaimed Adam as he scrambled to his feet.
“Are you okay? You look troubled,” asked Connie.
“I’m just a bit scattered today. I was running late and I missed breakfast with my wife. I’m worried she might be upset,” said Adam with sincere concern on his face.
Connie raised her eyebrows wonderingly. “Why would it upset her? She knows you have a job to go to. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Adam didn’t respond. His face lined with increasing worry.
“Look, I think you’re over-thinking this. I doubt your wife is as fragile as you painted her to be. She’ll be fine eating one breakfast alone. Now go to class.” Connie turned and left.
Adam remained standing at his desk, pondering what his colleague had just said. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was worrying unnecessarily. But Connie didn’t know his wife. Sarah couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without him. She was totally dependent on him. He decided that he would make it up to her with a romantic dinner tonight. He would pick up a bottle of red wine and a tube of black hair dye on the way home. Feeling satisfied, he collected his things and headed to his class.
That evening, Sarah, in her favourite blue sundress and her hair tied up in a pony tail, sat perched on her usual barstool, smiling as she watched him cook. He told her about his day at work and expressed his concern for her. He apologised again for the relocation; for erasing everything she was and had at the old place, and expecting her to start anew inside these unfamiliar walls without complaint. As he continued the conversation, Sarah offered no response. She stayed in the same position as when he first entered the kitchen, never wandered away from the barstool, and her expression remained unchanged. Adam accepted her smile as her forgiveness and winked at her as he went to set the table, after removing some unfinished canvases from the dining chairs.
As Adam approached the dining area, Sarah, adorned in her finest white dress and her hair elegantly coiffed, was already there, rooted to her chair. He filled his plate with his favourite meatball pasta and poured his wine glass to the brim. The table wobbled when he sat down, so he pushed it forward, making sure the opposite end was firmly pressed against the wall, placing Sarah’s empty plate just an inch from it. He raised his glass to her and said, “To you, my perfect wife.”
Sarah’s glass was empty and remained unmoved on the table. She didn’t reply. She never replied. She couldn’t reply. She had lived a life of silence since conception. Her lips always curled into a perfect smile, made to please his eyes, not his ears. She never shed a tear. Her eyes never blinked. Not a wrinkle creased her face. She never aged. She was an immaculate beauty. She was his greatest creation, the face of the murals that graced the walls in every room of his house.
Malaysian-born Michelle Chan has tried her hand at journalism, and is now exploring the realm of fiction as an outlet for her overactive imagination. Her short stories have been published on Many Stories Matter, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She is currently writing her first novel, which she hopes will one day see the light of your bedside table.
I never wanted to visit the Wall. For years Vietnam veterans had only each other; as a memorial the Wall seemed too little, too late. Besides, there were so many names — so many memories. I often dream of one night in August, 1968.
All was black. I rubbed sweat from my eyes. Under the wavering light of a parachute flare squat bunkers and tangles of concertina wire emerged. I smelled blood, hot weapons, burned powder. My back was against a sandbag wall. Someone hunkered down beside me.
“Hey, Teach, I hear the bastards got a piece of you.” It was Doc Wills, platoon medic. He drew a knife and slit my trouser leg. “Hold still.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Hurts like all hell when I move.”
“Don’t move then. Damn, Teach. I gotta get a tourniquet on this.”
My head ached. Gingerly I checked it out. Warm blood coated my fingers. “What about my head, Doc?”
He glanced up. “Later. That one ain’t gonna kill you.”
A dull roar filled my head. I drifted into a black tunnel. Sharp pain drew me back.
Wills let go of my shirt. “Don’t drop out on me, man!”
I tried to concentrate. “How bad — we get hit?”
“Danforth took a direct hit from an RPG. Lieutenant Burns got killed. Riley. Miller.”
“Miller? Jesus, he was about to go home.”
“Yeah. Ain’t that the shits?”
Riley was in my platoon. Doc moved my leg. I jerked. “Jesus Christ! That hurts!”
He grinned. “You got one fucked up leg. Surgeons will fix you right up.” He started rigging a blood bag. “I’ll give you some morphine when I get this going.”
I gripped his arm. “I don’t wanna die, Doc.”
“You ain’t gonna die.” He shoved me back against the sandbags. “Get that through your thick head. I ain’t gonna let you die.”
He wiped blood off my face and scalp. “Just a nick, Teach.” Deft fingers secured a bandage. “Relax. Evac choppers are inbound.”
The pain seemed less. He must have injected morphine when I wasn’t looking. “I ain’t gonna die?”
“You ain’t gonna die. Okay? Concentrate on one fucking thing: Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
Next thing I remember was looking up at the interior of a Huey. A door gunner knelt over me. He held a bag of blood.
“Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
“Sounds like a good fucking deal.” Dark splotches stained the gunner’s flight suit. He handed the blood bag to a wounded man sitting on a web seat. “Don’t fucking drop it.”
The guy clutched the bag to his chest. “I got it, Teach.” I didn’t recognize him. A field dressing covered half his face.
Engines screamed. Door gunners raked the slope as we took off. Rotor blades pounded a frantic beat. I faded into the dark and awoke to find a man who looked as if he hadn’t slept in a month standing over me.
“Doc Wills promised I wouldn’t die.”
He glanced at me then went back to reading a tag tied to my shirt. “Hold on to that thought.”
They saved my leg, but the muscle damage was permanent. I didn’t see Doc again.
In 2008 my wife persuaded me to attend a unit reunion. In the process of swapping lies, I met the guy who held my blood bag. Hansen was his name. He was a rifleman in third platoon. He told me about Doc Wills.
“I was back with the company about a month after you were hit,” he said. “They gave me a squad.” He paused to sip his beer. “A few weeks later we got into it with an NVA regiment. On the second day we were in a treeline exchanging fire with some bad guys in an abandoned village. You know how it was.”
I did know.
“We started taking mortar fire. One of the new guys got hit. Doc headed down that way. Four or five more rounds came in.” Hansen paused and stared down at the bar. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans. “Doc was kneeling beside the wounded guy. A round hit a couple feet away. He was killed instantly.”
“Damn.” For a long moment we sat in silence.
Hansen coughed. “The reunion committee worked up a list of unit KIA.” He handed me two printed pages. The list had Wall panel numbers beside each name.
A few months later my wife and I went to Washington for a week and toured the usual sites for five days. The morning of the sixth day she handed me the creased casualty list. “We leave tomorrow. If you want to visit the Wall…”
It was time to confront those tall black panels — and all those names. Doc Wills. Riley. I owed them that much. “Yeah. I been thinking about it.” I opened my suitcase. “Couple things I got to take.”
Half a dozen gray-haired men moved along the path below me. Two wore faded boonie hats. One had on an equally worn field jacket. The others wore black Vietnam Veteran caps. For the first time in over forty years I felt out of uniform.
My wife joined two women standing near some statues. Black granite drew me down into the shadows of my past. Panel height increased as I descended the path. A dark weight lodged in my chest.
The panel I sought was near the lowest part of the Wall. High up on the slab I found Burns, Danforth, Miller, and Riley. Doc’s name occupied part of a line halfway down. I touched it, reliving our last conversation.
People leave things at the Wall. Flowers, letters, medals, guilt. I placed a unit patch and one of my dog tags at the base of the slab. “Thanks, Doc.”
Stepping back, I saluted smartly. My old drill sergeant would have been proud.
Then my wife came down and held me while I cried.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.
A blind passenger in a speeding car would figure out in about ten seconds why they called this stretch of road “Suicide Alley,” yet the old guy strolling along with the aid of a walker, a bottle of oxygen dangling from a hanger on its side, navigated pot holes and iron plates unfazed. It’d been thirty years since my last LSD flashback, so I was pretty certain the madman was real. Six a.m., a persistent drizzle, the road would turn into a sheet of ice if the temperature dropped another degree. I pulled up next to him, rolled down my window. Before I even opened my mouth, he shouted, “What are you fucking crazy? Pull over before someone rear-ends you!” Then he pulled the plastic tube from his nose, placed an index finger on a nostril and blasted a foot-long snot rocket in my direction.
I veered toward the curb about thirty feet up the road, got out and watched in disbelief. The crusty old buzzard steered his walker through the trenches like he had a GPS implanted in his noggin. He looked at me for the first time. “What can I do for you, Sonny?”
“Need a ride?”
“Do I look like I need a ride?”
I tilted my head back, opened my mouth and caught a few drops of sleet. “Doesn’t look like this shit’s gonna stop any time soon.”
“All you goddamn young people are wimps.”
Initially I thought I’d help the guy out; now I wanted to see if he was the real deal. “I’m going that way.”
He made a face like he had a mouthful of watermelon seeds he was about to spit out. “Well, if you’re going that way.” He motioned his head toward the walker. “Whatta we do with this thing?”
I opened the tailgate. “Throw it in.”
He smiled revealing three yellow teeth. “Cool.”
It was the first time I felt a smile. I opened the passenger door for him, and he said, “We going on a fucking date?”
“Guys don’t open car doors for guys. You ain’t queer, are you?”
I shut the door, walked around and hopped behind the wheel. I turned and faced him. The right lens in his glasses had a corner-to-corner crack, like a stock market chart. “Where you headed?”
“Down the road. Past that U-haul place.”
I squinted, didn’t see a U-haul sign. “How far?”
“I never measured it.”
I checked my rear-view mirror.
“You’re clear,” he said.
I pulled out onto the road.
“What kind of car is this?”
“How is it in the snow?”
“Excellent. It’s got four-wheel drive.”
“How’s that work?” he asked.
“All four wheels rotate in unison. No matter how deep the snow is, you rise on top of it and go.”
“Unison, huh? You an engineer or something?”
I didn’t follow his logic. “No.”
“I’m a welder.”
“You’re pretty smart.”
“You’re the first one to ever tell me that.” Figures it’d come from a crazy old man, I thought.
He looked straight ahead, forehead furrowed. “Listen to me, Sonny. You are what you believe, not what people label you. Titles and positions don’t mean shit.”
It was hard to believe the words came from the same guy I’d picked up on the side of the road — Tom Waits reincarnated to the Dalai Lama. Then he really blew my mind. “You ever get asked about four-wheel drive again you should explain about wheel differentials and torque.” So much for the crazy old man assumption.
“So, where’s this U-haul joint?”
“Going to a cigar shop in the strip mall with the U-haul joint.”
“Cigar shop? You got an oxygen tank!”
“I take it off when I smoke, idiot.” Tom Waits again. “A cigar a day — my number one secret to living a long life. It’s gotten me this far.”
“How far is that?”
“Eighty-two, and going strong.”
I couldn’t wait to tell my buddies about the old dude with a walker, oxygen tube in his nostrils, strolling to a cigar shop in the sleet, telling me the secret to live a long life. “I still don’t see the U-haul sign.”
“I’m thinking we talked our way right past it,” he said, slapping his knee and laughing. He was so ridiculous it was contagious.
I threw a U-be and headed back in the direction we just came from.
“There’s the U-haul sign, Einstein,” he said, pointing out the front window.
“Guess you were right. We talked our way past it.”
“Ain’t that a pisser.”
I turned into the parking lot and pulled up to Cigar World. The old man reached into his pocket and he pulled out a wad of cash. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“For your trouble.”
“I ought to give you a few bucks for the entertainment.”
I looked at the shop door. “Says it doesn’t open till ten. What are you gonna do until then?”
I thought he was playing me until he leaned back, closed his eyes, and drifted into another dimension. “Ohmmmmmm.” His expression softened the seat cushioning, the dashboard veneer sparkled. Sleet turned to snow. I reclined my backrest, and drifted thinking about labels, torque and differentials.
The next thing I knew a car door shut, voices chattered, people walked across the parking lot. I looked over just as the old man stepped out of the Jeep. He turned and leaned back in. “I hang out at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Cheltenham Avenue. Stop by sometime. We’ll go for a walk, smoke a cigar.” He paused, then added, “And maybe, just maybe …” He climbed out without finishing his thought.
“Maybe what?” I asked.
He shut the door, lowered his head in the window. “Maybe I’ll tell you secret number two,” he said, and winked.
After he disappeared into Cigar World I pulled a pencil out of the glove compartment and scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, Guru — Dunkin’ Donuts — Cheltenham Avenue.
Jim Brennan writes fiction he calls Blue-Collar Lit from Philadelphia, PA. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Fringe, Still Crazy Lit, Salon.com, Runner’s World and many others. His memoir Twenty-Four Years to Boston was published by St. Johann Press and is available on Amazon, Kindle Store and Nook Books. Jim is a member of the Liars Club. His website is www.jimbrennansr.com and he blogs at www.rite2run.wordpress.com.
Wally shouldn’t have gotten the first tattoo. Soon enough he was covered – sleeves, neck, legs, and torso. He shaved his head and had a glorious bear skin rug image applied to his skull so that even if he went bald, he would be decorated.
He decided to go 3D when his cat was on its last legs. He had China’s tail grafted to the top of his coccyx at the same time he put the cat down. He woke up with a gray tail, which, while long for the cat, was dwarfed by Wally’s size. He wore it sticking out of the top of his pants. He was careful not to squish it, and in a few months time, he could even make it sway back and forth with the man-made, cultured muscle tissue that was implanted with it.
For his second enhancement, he took his mother’s hands. Within hours of her death, he had one attached to each side of his ribs, palms forward, so he could always feel her hugs. At first, he wondered if he had done the right thing. The hands lay on him limply and he had to tape them so they wouldn’t flop under his shirt. But, like China’s tail, with time, they grew stronger. Eventually, they squeezed him and even occasionally tickled him.
Within a few months, his father gave him a graft of his chest hair because Wally didn’t have much and he asked. He had the clinic put it above his right nipple. It was in the shape of a heart. The hair fell out at first, but then grew in so thickly, he had to trim it to see the shape.
Then Wally met a girl. She was a blank. Her skin was the color of gesso. He loved her instantly. She had potential.
She found him fascinating. Soon they were inseparable. They had picnics in the park. Took long walks in the woods. They made love with the lights on so that she could see all of him. She loved to rub the four horns on his head that came from the Chousingha he smuggled out of the zoo. He felt a little guilty about killing the small antelope but it was worth it. She liked to grind on the snake body attached to his leg that was at its bulk on his thigh. Her favorite thing was when he used the finger he cut off his friend in a coma and dying of cirrhosis to caress her. She liked to hear the story about how he fought off the nurse to get the finger for her pleasure as he used it to lightly make circles on her skin. She wasn’t too into his mom’s hands at first, but she got over it.
He imagined his ink flowing into her, coloring her. He imagined her with horns and snakes and fingers.
He wanted to be the one to give her the first tattoo. He told her, over and over.
Over and over, she said, “No. That’s not me. I like the way I am. I like the way you look at me with longing. If I let you tattoo me, you’d get tired of me.”
For their six-month anniversary, he planned a great surprise. He told her to meet him at the clinic. When she got there, he gave her his pinky toe, on ice. He said she could put it next to hers. She left the clinic and him, crying.
He stopped going to work. Instead, he followed her. He watched her as she went to the grocery store, got her hair cut, went to and from her office. He watched her go to nightclubs with friends and alone. He called her every day, begging “I need you to see me!” Every day she patiently replied, “Wally, it’s over. Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
He didn’t feel soothed by his mom’s hands; the cat’s tail was no longer a comfort. He rubbed the hair over his heart and tears squeezed from his eyes. He needed more. He needed her. The desire was killing him.
One night, he watched her come out of her house, alone. He approached her. She glared at him. They quarreled and tussled and she fell and hit her head.
He knelt beside her, his extra finger lingering on her skin. He watched her luster, dulling. “I just wanted you to see me.”
“I can’t see anything,” she whispered.
He had never wanted her more.
No one at the clinic was surprised to see Wally come in at dawn, carefully holding a spoon. He said he wanted the eyeball it contained for permanent placement in the middle of his forehead. “Windows to the soul,” he smiled.
Christina Morris lives in Cleveland with her husband and three children. She works as a web developer and writes stories when not distracted.