Toto’s Tale—by Ken MacGregor


Toto—eyes haunted, fur more gray than black—takes a long pull and looks into the camera. “Tin Man’s heart, Scarecrow’s brain, Lion’s courage, Dorothy’s trip home … Nobody ever asked me what I wanted.”

The interviewer checks her notes. “There was that one farmer, just west of the Emerald City. He asked you.”

Toto crushes his cigarette out in the ashtray. There’s barely room for it among all the spent butts. “The guy with the bum leg. Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that. He did ask, but by the time I’d figured out what I wanted to say, the conversation had moved on to another topic and I was ignored again.”

“Did Dorothy … did any of them know you could talk?”

Toto shakes his furry head. “I doubt it. You’d think, right? Being surrounded by talking animals, impossible creatures, and magical shit happening all the time, you’d think somebody would’ve thought to check and see if the dog could talk. But no. Nobody wanted to hear what I had to say.”

“Why didn’t you ever speak up?”

Toto lights a fresh cigarette, takes a drag, and coughs out the smoke. He inhales some more. “A couple times, I tried. I was about to, you know? But Dorothy had already been through so much—the kid seemed pretty emotionally fragile most of the time. I figured she needed one thing that was normal in her life. So that was me. A little slice of Kansas. And her little dog, too.”

The interviewer smiles. “You’ve seen the movie?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Do you mind if I open the window?” She asks. “The smoke is kind of getting to me.”

Toto shrugs his tiny shoulders. “It’s a free country.”

She breathes in the fresh air for a few seconds and sits back down at the table. “Thank you. My father smoked for years—I’ve never much cared for it. It eventually killed him. Emphysema.”

“Yeah, well. We all gotta die sometime.”

The interviewer shoots him a look. “Um. Sorry. That was insensitive as hell, wasn’t it? I didn’t mean your dad. I’m just … I am a bad dog.”

She gently pats his paw. “You’re not. You’re a good boy.”

Toto’s stubby tail wags. “You know, clichéd as it is, I never get tired of hearing that. Thanks. And I’m truly sorry about your father. That sucks.”

“Thank you.” She consults her notes. “Let’s talk about Oz some more.”

“If we must.”

“When you first got there—when the house fell on the Wicked Witch of the West—what was going through your mind?”

“Oh, man. Can you imagine? I mean, my whole life—which, I admit, had only been about a year-and-a-half in the making at that point—I’d lived in a flat, gray place where the only joy came from a little girl’s laughter. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by all these crazy smells: flowers and exotic foods, Munchkin body odor (let me tell you, those people do not bathe very often!), lush green grass, ripe fruit about to drop from the branch, and stuff I couldn’t even hope to identify. It was overwhelming, but in a good way, mostly.”

He lights a fresh cigarette from the coals of the last. “I mean, of course, since I’m a dog, everything still looked gray, but my nose was having a field day!”

“You adapted pretty quickly, though, right?”

“Well, sure. It’s amazing what you can get used to. It helped to have Dorothy setting the emotional tone, you know? Kids, they just roll with whatever’s going on. Nothing fazes ‘em. Tornado picks up your house, somehow avoids smashing it to pieces, transports you to a magical land, you kill somebody, and you’re just like, ‘oh, okay, cool, what’s next?’, you know? Crazy.”

“So, not too long after you arrived, you met the first of your travelling companions.”

“Yeah. Scarecrow.” Toto looks off into the distance. “He was a good guy, you know? Smart, too. From the get-go, I mean. Oz didn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. That’s true for the whole crew. He knew it, too, the old swindler. It was all sleight-of-hand. But I guess that’s the point, huh? None of us think we’ve got it together until somebody shows us our own strengths.”

“I suppose that’s true. Let’s talk about Oz for a minute. You were there. You unmasked the humbug, showed him to be the great imposter. The story goes, you were frightened by the Lion’s roar and accidentally knocked down the screen. You want to tell your version now?”

“Ha! Yeah. That’s not even remotely how it happened. You see, like the Munchkins, ol’ Mr. Oz didn’t bathe too regularly. I could smell him as soon as I walked in the room. The Lion could, too, I’m sure, but he was too chicken to say anything. This was before he got his ‘courage’, so he was convinced he was still a giant scaredy-cat. I got tired of all the bluster and knocked over the screen so my friends could see it was all smoke and mirrors.”

He smiles. “You should’ve seen the old man’s face. Priceless.”

“Okay, so, getting back to the Scarecrow. You liked him well enough. He was smarter than he gave himself credit for. Anything else?”

“Well, I mean, yeah. I can’t tell you how many times he laid down his own life for us. Guy would take a bullet for his friends in a heartbeat. Not that a bullet would hurt him. Hell, nothing hurt this guy. Except fire. You bring a match near the Scarecrow and he loses all sense of bravery and cool. Otherwise, though, he’d sacrifice himself all day long.”

“And the Tin Man?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart. Pun intended. This guy wouldn’t hurt a fly. Literally. Wouldn’t kill bugs. The most compassionate person I’ve ever known. Again, Oz didn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. This guy was already all heart. The Winkies traded up big time when they made him their king.”

Toto pours himself a glass of water and takes a long drink. He seems lost in thought, and the interviewer waits patiently.

“The Lion, now … I honestly thought I was gonna die that day.”

“Right. He came out of the woods and was going to eat you. Dorothy saved your life.”

Toto snort-laughs. “Yeah. I guess she did. She also exposed him for a coward. I often wonder if he really would’ve killed and eaten me if she hadn’t intervened. I guess he probably would have. I mean, he’s a carnivore—and animals gotta eat. It’s messed up to think about that. But we got to be pretty good friends, the Lion and me. Used to curl up together for warmth when we slept. Crazy to think he might have eaten me that day in the forest. I guess you never know where life’s going to take you, you know?”

“He’s another good example of already possessing the quality he thought he had to get from Oz.”

“Yeah. It’s ridiculous. The Lion was the bravest guy I know. Faced all kinds of threats to protect us. I mean, that’s the definition of courage, right? Being scared and doing it anyway? That’s him in a nutshell.”

The interviewer looks over her notes. “Okay. So, all these crazy adventures in the land of Oz, and the close friends you made along the way, and the wild smells of this wondrous place. We’ve talked about so many things, but you haven’t answered the question that started the conversation.”

“You’re going to have to remind me,” Toto says, lighting another smoke. “I forget.”

She reads from the first page. “‘Tin Man’s heart, Scarecrow’s brain, Lion’s courage. Dorothy’s trip home … Nobody ever asked me what I want.’ What do you want, Toto?”

The little dog smokes in silence for a while. Outside, a chickadee trills its song and a car toots one quick beep. Overhead, a thick cloud of cigarette smoke drifts around the ceiling while the camera silently takes it all in. He meets her eyes and sighs.

“I wanted to be the hero of the story, you know? I was always the sidekick. Almost a damn prop. I wanted to be the protagonist for once. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

The interviewer smiles. “I think you would have made a great protagonist.” She closes the leather-bound notebook and slides the pen into a jacket pocket. She shakes his paw, turns off the camera and packs everything up. “You plan on any more adventures? Maybe go to Neverland—or take a trip through the looking glass?”

Toto chuckles. “Nah. You kidding me? I’m an old dog, lady. I have zero interest in learning any new tricks. If you see them, though—Dorothy and the rest—tell them I said hi. Tell them I miss their dumb faces. Say it just like that, too.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you for your time and your honesty. I’m glad you agreed to meet with me. You really are a good boy.”

Toto wags his tail. She leaves, and he leans back in his chair and puts his back paws, crossed at the ankles, on the table; his old joints ache in that position but he holds it anyway because he’s cool like that. “I am a good boy, aren’t I?”

Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave —by Richard Thomas

10B1E657-280B-44B9-8639-79D5A6802857Because in the beginning it was the right thing to do, staying with her, comforting and holding her, while inside I was cold and numb, everything on the surface an act just for her.

Because I couldn’t go outside, trapped in the empty expanse of rooms that made me twitch, echoes of his voice under the eaves and in the rafters.

Because she still hid razorblades all over the house.

Because I wasn’t ready to bare myself to the world, willing to pour more salt into the wounds.

Because of the dolls and the way she held them to her bare breasts; the way she laughed and carried on, two dull orbs filling her sockets, lipstick on her face, hair done up, but the rest of her like marble to go with her porcelain children that watched from his bed, defiling it, making a joke of it all.

Because at one point in our past she saved me from myself, the simple act of showing up. Lasagna filled my apartment with garlic and promise, when all I could do was fall into a bottle.

Because I kept hoping he would walk in the door, backpack flung over his shoulder, eager to show me his homework; the worlds he had created with a handful of crayons.

Because it was my fault, the accident, and we both knew it.

Because if she was going to die a death of a thousand cuts, one of them wouldn’t be mine.

Because tripping over a Matchbox car, I found myself hours later curled up in a ball, muttering and listening for his response.

Because she asked me to, and I hadn’t learned to say no to her yet.

Because she wanted to live in any time but this time, jumping from one era to another, bonnets and hoop skirts, wigs and parasols, and I allowed it.

Because when I held her in the black void that was our bedroom, pressing my body up against hers, part of me believed I was a sponge, soaking up her pain. It was a fake voodoo, but it was all I had.

Because I had no love left for anyone in the world.

Because I didn’t want to go.

Because it was still my home, and not simply a house yet.

Because I wasn’t done talking to my son, asking him for forgiveness.

Because I didn’t believe we were done; that our love had withered, collapsed and fallen into his casket, wrapping around his broken bones, covering his empty eyes.

Because I didn’t hate her enough to leave.

Because I didn’t love her enough to leave.

Because every time she looked at me, she saw him, our son, that generous boy, and it was another gut punch bending her over, another parting of her flesh, and I was one of the thousand, and my gift to her now was my echo.





Copyright Richard Thomas

Photo: Kristen Primrose Gold

Originally published at Metazen

You can find Richard’s Amazon page here:


The Backwards Path to the Limbus —by Betty Rocksteady


If he kept slurping like that, Miranda would kill him. She’d have to. Between the dead fruit stench of the tea and his incessant old man noises, if she sat here one more fucking minute she’d scream. She wouldn’t be able to help it. Frustration bubbled in her throat but instead she bit down until she tasted blood.

Just one night. She’d sit here patiently until the old widow up front got things started, and then she’d wait and wait and wait and she would get a taxi and listen to the radio while rain pounded against the windows and then she would lay on her dead son’s bed and she would scream for as long as she fucking wanted.

Dr. Hopskin was right about a lot of things, but not this. She had never been a people person. Yeah, she had liked to read, but reading didn’t mean she liked being surrounded by a dozen people she had nothing in common with, listening to the noises they made, and waiting, endlessly waiting while they small-talked and sipped tea and it was already quarter after six and they hadn’t even started talking about the fucking book yet. The group leader, Carrie, had been standing there fucking around with her notebook since Miranda had walked in, underlining passages and adding post-its and highlighting sections with an agonizing precision. As if any of this could take her mind off Riley.

She would never come back. Fuck Dr. Hopskin —and fuck all these people.

The woman sitting beside her grabbed her knee and Miranda jumped, sloshing her third cup of tea over the rim. She gritted her teeth, managed not to snap at the woman, and smiled instead.

“What did you think of the story?” The sad-eyed woman smiled, her lips drawn thin. Miranda shrugged. “It was okay.”

No, it wasn’t. Literary fiction or something. Reading should be for pleasure. Beach books. She would never have picked this one up by choice. The Backwards Path to the Limbus. It was just endless meandering that put her to sleep. A protagonist —never named or gendered— walked a labyrinth. Overwrought description of the path, the sounds of the sky, the bones underfoot. She had forced herself to read it, to be prepared, but she fell asleep more often than not, with twisted dreams of pathways opening up to her and spiralling down, down, down. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman assured her.

“I doubt I’ll read it again.”

The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times. You’d be surprised at what you see on a second and third reading.”

“Or a twenty-eighth.” That was Carrie. Everyone laughed. Miranda tried a smile but it felt wrong on her face. Jesus, who the hell read any book twenty-eight times? Not to mention one as boring as this. Maybe she just didn’t have the attention span anymore. But at least Carrie had tuned in to them and maybe now the meeting would start so it could end. Dr. Hopskin would just have to set her up with another activity. One without so much talking.

Something brushed against her leg and she flinched. Mercifully, it wasn’t Harold or any of the other weirdos here. A small calico cat wound through the crowd and darted beneath a chair. “Is there supposed to be a cat here?” It seemed unsanitary somehow, but it was a bookstore, not a restaurant. Still …

“Oh yes,” said Carrie. “Every bookstore has a cat. Or had a cat. Or will someday have a cat.” The group laughed as if she’d told a joke, and the animal darted off somewhere behind the shelves. What a weird fucking thing to say; it could hardly be true. But the group looked at her like they wanted a response, so Miranda smiled and pictured stabbing a knife straight through the woman’s chest.

Fuck this place.

Carrie smiled back and shuffled the books on her desk until she had The Backwards Path to the Limbus in front of her. Miranda noticed the ragged line of a scar snaking down the woman’s wrist as her sleeve shifted. Dr. Hopskin had mentioned that most of the members had been patients of his at one point. Did they all carry around the same sort of pain as hers? It was hard to believe, looking at them now, with their bland faces and casual conversation.

“Well, I guess we’re ready to get started,” Carrie said.

Instead of feeling relieved that things were finally getting underway, Miranda felt the next endless expanse of time stretching out in front of her. Every time she’d tried to read the book, a headache had pierced through a deep part of her brain, triggering endless dreams of trudging an eternal path, the walls getting tighter and tighter as she spiralled ever inwards. She had muddled through, but she certainly didn’t have anything to say about it, at least not anything they would want to hear.

“Miranda, would you like to start us off?”

“Uh… no, just do things however you usually do them.” All eyes were on her, all these other social rejects stuffing down their pain to come to a bookstore and make small talk about boring books as though this was a reason to be alive, to keep on going.

Carrie smiled at her. Her smile was too wide in a way that made her look a little crazy. “We’ve all read this book before, it’d be nice to hear a new take on it.” She waved the thin volume in front of her face, as if it would jog Miranda’s memory. “You read the whole first section, yes?”

“Yeah, I read it.” And she had felt every moment of it, too. The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones. Kinda morbid maybe, but not even in an interesting way. It took her forever to read, as though she had to experience every single step he took, forcing herself to read each word, one at a time.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t like it. Nothing happened.” The group kept their eyes on her, chewing their lips as they waited for more. “Maybe I didn’t really get it? I used to read a lot of thrillers and stuff, but this was kind of … literary?” She felt like she was rambling, but she had nothing to say that was of any substance. “It was written cool, I guess.” She didn’t really think that, but being stared at was driving her nuts. She had to keep talking so they could move on to the next person and stop fucking looking at her. “Like, the rhythm of it, if that makes sense? The words felt like they rhymed, even if they didn’t.”

It had agitated her, actually, and the words had echoed through her dreams, and then she had been walking the path, the bones crunching beneath her feet. “It was weird to have the author focus on the mundane for so long. I spent the whole section just … waiting for something to happen. The author described every detail of the footsteps but there was nothing to really anchor the story, to let me know where it was happening, or why.”

“You’d be surprised how much you’ll get out of it when you read it again. What did you make of it this time? What did it mean? We’ll talk about some of our own theories later.” Carrie leaned forward, as if Miranda’s opinion of this stupid book were the most fascinating thing in the world.

“I don’t really know … I even looked it up online, and I couldn’t find anything about it.” That was weird, too. She had checked Amazon for reviews, to give her a hint at what she was supposed to be getting out of it, but the book hadn’t been listed. “Not even anything about the author.”

“Oh, that’s a pen name. Not all authors want you knowing who they are.” Everyone laughed again, and the sound was grating.

“What did you think of the bones?” Harold asked eagerly. “Did you work out what kind of bones they were?”

The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.

To her absolute horror, her eyes began filling with tears. She didn’t want these people to see her cry, oh God, that would lead to sympathetic looks and soft voices and a whole event she just couldn’t take right now. And would her doctor hear about it? Somehow, she believed he would.

Miranda stood up. “Is there a bathroom here?”

“Yes, just down the back.” Carrie gestured to the rows of bookshelves criss-crossing behind her, in a way that made Miranda slightly dizzy. Still, better to wander lost among books than be stuck with these people for another five minutes.

The bookstore went back farther than she’d expected. She just needed to breathe, to get back to herself. She stumbled deeper in, her pulse pounding hot in her head. What had she been thinking coming here, among these strangers, trying to heal herself?

As if they could ever understand.

The place was old; it had been here since she was a kid. She had visited once or twice with her parents, but they had hurried her out quickly and she’d never had the opportunity to properly explore.

She had never brought Riley here. He hadn’t been much of a bookstore kid. He was busy, so busy, always wanting to be outside. She had become that sort of person for him. And after the disease struck, well, books were the last thing on her mind.

The tightly-packed bookshelves insulated the sounds of the others talking, as if they were farther away than they really were. She was grateful for this moment of quiet.

She strummed a finger against the spine of a hefty set of children’s dictionaries. Something was moving behind the shelves. Footsteps, Riley’s footsteps, as he stumbled from his bed to the bathroom to vomit blood into the toilet. No—probably the cat. Her throat felt thick and pasty. Had they mentioned the cat’s name? She couldn’t remember. “Kitty?”

She could still picture Riley, his beautiful eyes gone flat as he gazed up at her over the toilet seat, changed, as if he had vomited out some essential part of himself and she had no choice but to flush it away. It nagged at her. She needed to see the cat, to prove to herself she was crazy, to prove to herself Riley wasn’t hiding just around the corner. Her head spun with the kind of paranoia usually reserved for the darkest moments of the early morning. She took a left turn around the shelves, away from the bathroom and towards the noise.

The cat sprinted away, so light on its feet it could have been floating. Then it peered back around the shelf right at her and she stifled a scream.

Its eyes. The cat had Riley’s eyes. Not the dead eyes that haunted her every night, nor the eyes of the last few months when everything that had made him her son was drained out of him and he lay limp and unmoving in the hospital bed. No. These were the bright blue eyes of his childhood, when he had been his real self. And they had seen her. Known her.

A wave of nausea swept through her. Dr. Hopskin wouldn’t like this, she shouldn’t do this, she was imagining things, but her brain was chattering and the impulse could not be controlled. Besides, she wasn’t following the cat because it had Riley’s eyes, of course not, it was to prove that the cat didn’t look like him, that she was imagining it, to confirm just how ridiculous she was being. They aren’t even shaped like cat’s eyes.

She turned a corner and listened for the padding of paws, then turned again. A flicker of a white-tipped tail guided her further. Was it possible to get lost in a bookstore? To become lost among the shelves and never find your way out again? She didn’t see the cat anymore. All the shelves looked the same. They’re probably wondering where I am by now.

The bookshelves stretched to the ceiling, and when she looked back, she wasn’t sure which way she had come. Like the labyrinth, forming tighter and tighter spirals, the walls were closing in, the tiny bones crunching beneath her feet, but now Riley’s eyes peered out from the darkness and she was chasing him through the dimly-lit pathway and—

—this was ridiculous. Time to go back.

Miranda retraced her steps as well as she could remember and stumbled almost immediately upon a dead end. Not exactly a dead end, though, because a narrow door yawned open onto a dark stairwell. A basement? Something dripped, and she heard a strange yowling that could have been a child’s cry but must have been the cat.

The light switch was near the door and as Miranda fumbled for it, the dim light cast a shaky path down the stairs. As though in a dream, her body moving on its own, she found herself descending, each footstep slow and deliberate to avoid tumbling. She reached the dirt floor almost immediately; her neck cramped forward uncomfortably in order to clear the ceiling. The room was small and crammed full of crates spilling books. And in the furthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy. She couldn’t breathe.

Immense relief, overpowering relief, weak jelly-legs that could barely stumble across the floor. She was at his side, this wasn’t real, but it didn’t matter, she had to hold him, pull him as close as she could, feel his warm cheek against her own. She was sleep-talking, words pouring out of her mouth, smearing tears onto his clothes, pushing his hair away from his eyes. He was still and silent, but his breath puffed onto her cheek. His eyes were sharp blue, not the dull grey they had turned before he died.

He let her blubber over him for a moment longer, and then he was speaking, in a soft gravelly voice she had never heard before.

“I need to tell you something.” But she couldn’t stop touching him, his soft cheeks, the tiny hands that moved in hers, and the life that pulsed beneath his skin. He didn’t move, didn’t respond, and something about his frail coldness terrified her.

“Riley, what’s the matter with you?” Her voice was sharper than she intended. “You’re not acting right.”

“Please, stop talking. I need to tell you something and I don’t have long.”

“What do you mean? Why don’t you have long? Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” It wasn’t enough. She wanted to look at him forever, his cowlick sprig of hair, the sprinkle of freckles over his nose. She rained kisses and tears on his brow, but he didn’t move.

“Please …” that voice was so awful and so unlike him that she stopped. He wriggled from her arms and squirmed away, but he let her take his small, cold hand in hers.

“I need to tell you … that time I was really, really little and we went camping. Me and you and dad. We had the tent and we were in that campground near the ocean, but we had to walk that path in the woods to get to the beach and I liked the woods so much more than the beach so we went back there for lunch. There was a picnic table. I ate my sandwich really, really quick, and you guys kept eating, and you said I could go play but not go too far. I had my bucket and I peeled back the bark on some trees and looked at the bugs and put the bugs in the bucket and then I turned over a rock and there were salamanders. And most of them ran away but I grabbed one and put him in my bucket but he didn’t want to eat the bugs.

“I was gonna ask you if I could keep him. I loved him. He was shiny and his eyes were dark and he ran around in the bucket so funny. I’d name him Sal and put him in the old aquarium that my fishes died in and he could be my friend.

“I wanted to put him on my shoulder to show you me and him being friends, and I reached in and grabbed him and he flipped over in my hand and I tried to pet his belly but I pushed too hard and his guts came out, I pushed too hard and I killed him, he made a squishing sound and it all came out his mouth and he was dead and I couldn’t tell you and dad why I was crying because I was a murderer and I didn’t want anyone to know that I killed him, I killed my little friend.”

A thin, bitter fluid filled Miranda’s mouth. “Riley, that’s not true.”

“It kept coming to me forever. Until I died, every time I closed my eyes I saw his guts spurt out and his beady little eyes go dead.” Riley closed his eyes. He looked like he was carved from marble. He didn’t speak again.

Miranda opened her mouth. She didn’t know what she was going to say, but she had to say something. Instead, she gagged. Bitter fluid flooded her mouth and took her breath away. She started coughing and Riley gazed impassively at her, barely blinking. She swallowed and thought the worst was over, but her words dribbled over a thick swelling in her throat.

The stink of panic rose from her armpits when she couldn’t catch her breath, that familiar stink which had kept her awake so many nights. She couldn’t breathe, and her son was just looking at her with those eyes that had haunted her for far too long. She tried to cough and finally something loosened, and then something in her mouth was moving and it was slimy and bitter and she spat, and a salamander, squirming and dead-eyed, raced away. She screamed, and Riley didn’t even flinch.

“Miranda? Where are you?” Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from her son. That old creep Harold was snooping around looking for her. She didn’t want to answer, not now, so she looked back toward her son, but he was gone. The cat sat on the box instead. She blinked normal green eyes at Miranda.

“Miranda?” A female voice now. The cat blinked again, slowly, and hopped off the box and padded up the stairs.

Everything got blurry after that. There was screaming, and there was crying, and there were boxes torn apart in Miranda’s hands. Eventually there were people all around her and she was clawing away from them, screaming his name, pounding her hands against the walls.

Then Carrie was there, stroking her back, intoning something about the labyrinth, her voice low and calm, and the adrenaline spike faded, and Miranda slumped into her arms.

They led her back to the seating area. Someone placed a hot mug in her hands and helped her sit down. It was hard to breathe. All their eyes were on her, their dull brown eyes and dark green eyes and pale blue eyes, but none like Riley’s. None even close.

“Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?” Carrie thumbed her book open, the one with all the post-its and the meeting notes. She had a pen in her hand, like there was going to be an accident report or something.

“No, it’s not … my son was down there.” Panic erupted in her chest again and she started to stand up. She had to find him. The group shifted and looked at each other. “You don’t understand. He’s dead. My son is dead.”

Carrie jotted something down in her book, then peered closer at Miranda. “What color were his eyes?”

That bitter taste rose in her mouth again. “Blue. They were his eyes. They were blue.”

“I knew it!” Harold said, “I had a feeling they would be, we haven’t had blue in a while.” Carrie was furiously flipping through the notebook, marking things with highlighter. Her brow was furrowed in concentration but her mouth hinted at a smile. “You’re right, it’s been nearly six months.”

“What are you talking about?” Murmured concentration went on around her. Carrie ignored her and flipped back to a new page. “Did he say anything?”

Miranda stood up, but her knees wouldn’t hold her. She slumped back into her chair. “What the fuck is going on here?” Tears streamed from her eyes, beyond her control. “I don’t feel right …” Shelves blurred and twisted in her peripheries and she had to close her eyes to control the dizziness.

“It’s fine. Please. What did he say?”

“He told me this story about a salamander. It wasn’t true. Riley never lied, but this wasn’t true.” She opened her eyes to more of those simpering smiles, but felt too tired to be mad. “He never met his father. We never went camping. Why would he say those things?”

“Oh no, honey, it’s not meant to be literal.” Harold patted her knee.

“Camping and a salamander,” Carrie was still writing. “Any other themes?”

“What do you mean, themes? He told me he killed a salamander and he couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Carrie flipped through the book. “I think we’ve had salamanders before, haven’t we?”

“What do you think it means?” Harold asked. He wasn’t talking to Miranda. He was looking at Carrie. A dribble of drool shone on his lips.

“What does it mean?” asked Miranda. “What does any of this mean?” Something deep inside her wanted to scream but everyone was so calm, and the tea was sweet and strange and instead she stifled a yawn. Idly, she wondered if she could retrace those steps through the shelves. She wondered about the book they had read and if she mapped out that path, and mapped out her own and sat one on the top of the other, how closely would they line up?

Everyone kept talking incessantly around her and she caught fragments of the conversation; cross-referencing, and codes and riddles and how things came together, piece-by-piece-by-piece.

She remembered her son’s face. The first one, the fresh one, the one full of promise. She remembered how it had fallen away, day by day, and morphed into his dying face, the one with hollow cheeks and holes for eyes. That dead face was the one she saw when she closed her eyes now, his eyes gone flat and dark. His new face, the one she saw today, was better, even if those blue eyes wouldn’t quite look at her.

“Miranda?” Her eyes shot open. They were all looking at her again. The book had new flags and notes. She wanted to read it, to see what secrets it could possibly hold. “Can we expect you back next week?”

“Oh, yes. Absolutely. Yes.”  








Artwork by Coco

What are you Doing Hanging ‘Round? -by Jessica McHugh

Unitil you entered Mexico last week, your grasp of Spanish was limited to señorita and cerveza. Now, with the tips of your toes scraping the footstool and the noose doing its life’s work, you know the word muerte all too well.

You spent weeks bragging about all the women you’d meet in Tijuana, how they would drip at the mere whiff of your Texan sweat, but the moment you clamped eyes on Carmela, you forgot about the hundreds of women fated to be yours. Like a tall Tequila Sunrise, her refreshing beauty made your mouth water. With one slender hand clamped to a popped hip, her scarlet fingernails digging into her olive skin, she smiled at you as if to say, “You could dig in, too, baby. You could leave your own impressions on my hips. You could leave scratches down my back. Just don’t leave me wanting.”

She twisted her raven hair up off her neck and pinned it to the top of her head, but tendrils broke free of the clip, cascading back to her shoulders like corkscrew waterfalls. She was more woman than any you’d seen in San Antonio—maybe anywhere—and, with a single glance, she changed every plan you’d ever made.

She couldn’t have been much older than eighteen, a naive girl still wondering what amazing experiences lay ahead. Sitting down in her section of the Restaurante Lorca patio, you decided you had to be the first. Her nametag read Carmela, but if her blouse hadn’t been so low-cut you might not have noticed. She had the kind of breasts that put push-up bras to shame, her comely cleavage making propositions you hoped she would fulfill.

She took your order without a word, probably because she assumed you wouldn’t understand her anyway. You told yourself she didn’t think you were stupid; she’d just heard too many Americans fumble over food names like Champiñones Sacromonte, which your brain pronounced as “Champion’s Sacramento.”

What a darling she was to cut you a break.

Your drink came first, a crisp smack of lime accenting the watery beer, followed by a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. She was too busy to linger at your table, but as she sashayed around the patio you realized how often her gaze slipped back, and how little her labor inspired it. Desire glimmered in those glances, and who could blame her? At the center of the circular patio, you appeared an ivory statue for idolaters, and Carmela was the doting maiden willing to sacrifice her virginity to your prowess. You’d come to Tijuana for an affair just like this, and she knew it. Your shared fate was as easily detected as the cumin boldly perfuming the restaurant.

After she set down your enchilada, you grabbed her wrist. Not violently, just hard enough to let her know the kind of take-charge man you were. Fear seized her, and she tried to pull away, but you didn’t allow it. It was a bold move, maybe overzealous, but beauty like hers demanded urgency. You weren’t about to let another man snatch her up.

“Baby, you don’t gotta be scared ‘round me,” you said. “I don’t wanna hurt you. I just wanna—” You loosened your grip and gave her a soft smile, confident it would sell her on your charm. And if it didn’t, finishing your sentence with, “I wanna worship you” was sure to do the trick. Her lips parted before the corners curled, and her olive cheeks blushed with infatuation. Jackpot.

“What are you doing hanging ‘round here? A girl as beautiful as you?” Tilting your head, you said, “I could take you away from this place. Would you like that?” Carmela looked down at her manicured toes, but her giggle was your go-ahead. “What time you off work, baby?”

Excitement was evident in your voice. Elsewhere, too, which is why you dropped your napkin onto your lap when she bent over. Her breasts fell farther out of her blouse, so close to complete exposure that your imagination easily filled in the blanks.

She hadn’t answered your question then. Instead, she’d slipped a note in with your check. “Twenty minutes. Out back,” the note instructed. Although she hadn’t spoken a word, her grasp of English titillated you; it was somehow sexier seeing how her hand made words before her lips could. You were happy for your napkin’s placement when you beheld her flirty note, as well as the flourish she’d drawn around the postscript, “In the garden.”


How slyly you snuck around the side of the restaurant to the lush garden out back. How mysterious and compelling you must have looked to anyone who spotted you—not that anyone could have; you were too stealthy for that.

When you penetrated the gated labyrinth of greenery, Carmela was already there, sitting on the edge of a fountain. You joined her on the stone lip, not even trying to conceal how deeply you were breathing her in. Touching your thigh, she’d giggled like a teenager. With a smirk, she leaned back and loosed her ebony hair. The silken waves bounced and tumbled down her shoulders. Fixing her eyes on yours, she licked her lips as if starving for your kiss.

You were about to grab her, to pull her into a monumental embrace that would quench her longing, but she bent to the water before you could. Submerging her hand, Carmela looked back at you, winking when she withdrew a chalice from the water. Out of respect, you fought against recoiling from the cup she held to your lips. You had no intention of partaking. You’d heard enough stories about Mexico to know you shouldn’t drink the water, especially from some random stone tub behind a restaurant.

“No es agua,” she said. “No es agua. Son mis bebés.”

God…her voice. You had to admit the gossamer sound rolling off her tongue made you dizzy. And how she called you baby—you recalled never swooning in your life until that moment.

“I think you’re great, too, baby,” you’d said, touching her leg. “But I’m not thirsty.”

Carmela pouted. What kind of magic was it that made her more beautiful when she was sad, and how could you resist it? Wincing, you figured the prize was worth the pain and took the chalice from her hands. Examining the water, you found it was clean, but gave it a subtle sniff. Detecting a pleasant floral scent, you tilted the chalice against your lips.

Neither water nor wine had ever quenched so many hidden thirsts. You felt every inch of its chilly passage to your stomach, but your body flushed hot when Carmela crushed her lips against yours. If the fountain had tasted like heaven, Carmela tasted like God. It was appropriate considering how she handled you, pushing and pulling your body, making you stand and kneel at her command. A woman had never treated you like that, and you found it somewhat emasculating until she exposed your manhood with a grateful gasp.

She was yours then. Forget other women. Forget seeing the sights. Shaded by topiary hedges in a Tijuana September sun, all you needed was to spend the afternoon inside a beautiful girl named Carmela.

The next six afternoons, actually.

One round of lovemaking was all it took to hook you. After setting up another date, you returned to your motel room where you thought only of her.

It surprised you how fast withdrawal set in. You’d never acquired a taste for woman like you had for her, so intense your body revolted against any other sustenance. That first night without her brought shivers. You huddled under the scaly motel blanket and imagined yourself beside her, stroking her thigh, kissing her throat. It wasn’t until your shivers became cold sweats that you eventually drifted into a tortured sleep.

Facing a drawn complexion come morning, you worried only of Carmela’s reaction to your appearance. But when you met her the next day, she didn’t call attention to it. No, if possible, her hands moved over your body with greater passion. Like wanton children in the garden, you drank from the fountain and made love until sunset. She didn’t speak much, just called you “baby” and other pet names, but she didn’t have to speak her love for you to know it. Her kisses touched the core of you, a place no one before had even tried to reach. She had awoken something in you. For the first time, you felt the vitality of being part of something greater than yourself—until you left Carmela’s arms.

You spent the second night in the motel struggling to breathe. Your lungs felt like paper, every haggard breath a flint. You were too weak to walk, even to go vomit. As it spilled over the bedside, the regurgitated enchilada too closely resembled what you’d been served the previous night, but thinking of the dish made you think of her, and those thoughts filled you with energy enough to get up the next morning.

The third tryst breathed new life into you. The fountain water tasted even better after sex, cooling your sweat to a soothing frost as the waitress’s kisses radiated pleasure throughout your body. It was a stark contrast to the sensation that struck when you returned to the motel that night. The pain wasn’t so bad when your left ear peeled from your face. It hurt more to clamp it back on. Cinching the necktie around your head, you knew how deep you’d sunk—and how much it terrified you.

You steadied yourself with thoughts of love and warmth—and none ventured close to home. As much as you’d told yourself you were destined to be a great Texan, staring at your ravaged reflection made you realize you hadn’t even grazed greatness in San Antonio. As hard as you exercised, as regimented as you were about hygiene, you weren’t nearly as special there as Carmela made you feel in the fountain. Your health had declined since meeting her, but as long as she joined you in the garden and covered your face with kisses, how could you care about losing one measly ear?

The more you fell apart, the more time you spent with her. She was the only one who didn’t recoil at your deterioration, which suited you fine; you didn’t want any other gaze. Although Carmela couldn’t restore your ear, or the thick panel of flesh that sloughed from your face during your fourth night at the motel, she gave you a totality you’d never felt when your body was intact.

By the fifth morning, you weren’t sure your creaking knees would last the walk to the Restaurante Lorca, but your heart urged you on. When you collapsed at Carmela’s feet in the garden, she pulled you into her embrace, kissing your emaciated cheeks as she helped you into the water.

Making love in the fountain made you feel immortal, rewriting the destiny you’d long believed rooted in Texas. You’d come to Mexico for a love like hers, to escape a world spinning further from your grasp with each passing year. No matter who you bribed, bowed to, or banged in San Antonio, you couldn’t find happiness there—you just hadn’t realized it until your brittle bones cracked in Carmela’s arms. In Mexico, in freedom, in a beautiful stranger, you touched a joy you’d long forgotten.

That desire is still written on your face. Even sloppily piled in the motel sink, your face tells the sad story of the man who used to wear it. Carmela knew that sorrowful longing the moment she saw you—and likewise, knew you were just the man to house her gestating baby.

So why have you come to this, hanging yourself in a motel closet? The pain of decomposition is extreme, but it’s not worth ending your life—or the life growing inside you. You shouldn’t feel like a rube. How could you know the fountain’s powers of fertilization? If you’re honest, you know this work is better than anything you’ve ever done. Like thousands before you, your body will serve a greater purpose. By nourishing Carmela’s child, you’ll show her the utmost love a person can for another.

So what if you’ll probably go blind soon, and it hurts to breathe? Why should you care if you’ve lost four fingers to accelerated gangrene, or your throat feels like acidic cottage cheese? Carmela’s love is that valuable.

What are you doing hanging ‘round here? You should take the noose from your neck, lower yourself to the footstool, and go see her. Drink from the fountain just one more time, and your suffering will end. With one more sip, I won’t be just a voice in your head. I will reach full strength and break free of this human cocoon.

Go to the garden. Go love Carmela one last time. It’s better to hang on a woman than a noose, even if the result is the same.

Slipping the rope from your neck, you know you’ve made the right choice. Even when you hear a pop, and a chunk of spongy bone falls from your forehead, you shuffle on. The spiky antenna now protruding from your cranium might worry some men, but not one as strong and smart as you. Shuddering through the new pain, you think of your prized señorita and know the best course of action.

Accepting the sacrifice of parenthood, you cover your head with a sombrero and limp from your soggy motel room. It’s better this way, Father. I only regret you won’t live to hear my first gracias.


The End


Jessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in ten years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at

BLUE KARI – by Martin Reaves


Kari is gone. It’s the only thing Rebekah knows for sure and the only thing that really matters; because the world absent of Kari is Rebekah absent of cause, devoid of sensation and the basic human need to feel…anything.

Rebekah’s eyes attempt to blink away the dryness of staring long at nothing and she wonders again if she killed her love, if the paintbrush in her hand might be the murder weapon. There is small comfort in the realization that it does not matter what device stole Kari from the present; be it sickness or madness, she is simply not here.

Rebekah blinks again, focuses on the empty canvas before her, and questions whether she has what it takes to conjure her friend. This easel—holding a different canvas, filled with liquid blue longing—is the last place she saw Kari. That canvas is gone now, but she remembers its detail: Kari’s lips wanting to smile for her, and that awful resigned sadness in her eyes; a rendering of a blue Kari standing in a blue field under a blue sky, painted while Kari lay on the futon in the living room of the apartment they’d shared, two months past the date when her wasted legs decided they could no longer carry her.

If Rebekah is able to bring her back, what will she say? Will she be able to say anything at all? What could possibly be appropriate? 

She looks at the palette with its swirls of blue and darker blue and wonders again if she might be losing her mind.

Kari died of a disease, she thinks. It had nothing to do with me.

If only she could believe that. If only she’d been able to talk to her after that last long sigh.

If only she had never learned to paint. Her skill is something she doesn’t understand. The ability to reproduce images is a product of long practice and detailed instruction, but it is her use of color that sets the images apart. Maybe it’s because she uses so little color, but to such great effect, working primarily with blue and purple, although rarely in the same picture. Her paintings are technically of one color, though with many different hues. Her purples always dark but never depressing; there is somehow an upbeat tone when she paints with purple. Her blues seem to whisper a quiet melancholy, but rarely fail to inspire calm. Whether purple or blue, she uses only black and white to mix and create the variations. She doesn’t know how she achieves her ends, merely that the color is right when it’s right.

And the color was right the day she decided to paint Kari, nearly ten years after the day they first met.

Rebekah was nine, Kari eight, both struggling with watercolors at summer camp. Kari had a way of slinging paint that may have ensured a career in modern art if the disease hadn’t begun that same year to eat away at her muscle tissue. Rebekah loved Kari from that first summer, the progressive illness only intensifying her desire to protect and nurture her younger friend.

Later, when Kari’s walking became limited to short stretches at a time, Rebekah broke her piggy bank and purchased a wagon to pull her in. They managed adolescence together, dated together, and—after a singularly unpleasant double-date—broke up with their boyfriends only minutes apart, flipping a coin to see who would go first. After that, boys had seemed pointless.

For a while Kari’s deterioration seemed to slow, not enough to hope for recovery, but enough to pretend. But it was merely hiatus, and one short year later they were attempting to hold each other’s tears at bay, Kari somehow the stronger of the two, as the doctor gently explained that Rebekah should take her home and try to make her comfortable. Make her comfortable—a benign phrase and yet…final.

The days ran together; seamless stretches of time defined only by shifting patterns of light at the windows. Rebekah quit her job. The living room became Kari’s dying room. They played every card game they knew, making up variations on old games as that limited knowledge played out; finally the cards were set aside when Kari’s fingers could no longer manage the burden. So it was television and music, and a kind of dreamy conversation that diminished with Kari’s decreasing ability to draw breath. Then it was simply waiting…Rebekah watching Kari fade and begging time to stop.

Until the night when an emaciated whisper caused Rebekah to look up from the blurred page of a magazine.

She laid the magazine aside and gently sat next to Kari on the day bed. “What was that, sweetie?”

Kari took Rebekah’s hand and pressed the fingertips against her dry lips. “You haven’t painted in a long time. I miss watching you paint.”

* * *

Rebekah lifts the brush, thick with paint, from the palette and holds it before her eyes. She makes a small stroke in the bottom corner of the canvas and feels the familiar calm settle over her—the color is right. It is the only thing that has ever mattered in her art, getting the color right, this moment always a little unnerving because she lacks a formula for her colors, has no recipe for her shades. She wonders if the day will come when the color balance eludes her. It might; she has no way of knowing. But this time it’s right, and this time it must be right. This is to be the final and enduring Kari. She begins to paint, calling not on her fingers and hands to create the image, but her heart; and the sense memory of how Kari felt and smelled and sounded. The image after all is already there, in the color. Blue on blue on blue.

* * *

That night, not so long ago, Rebekah picked up her brushes, her paints and palette, and settled before the canvas. She looked at her precious friend and said, “What should I paint?”

“Paint,” Kari said, pausing to draw a breath that seemed a long time in coming. “Paint something you love.”

Rebekah smiled, remembering. It was what Kari used to say when Rebekah was stuck for an idea, when the blank canvas mocked any attempt she made. Paint what you love, sweetie, it’s the only thing that matters.

She began mixing blues. “I’m going to paint you, girl.”

Kari’s lips formed the tiniest of smiles. “That will be nice.” Her voice was almost gone.

Rebekah’s paintings usually took a couple hours to complete. Blue Kari took two days. She became hypnotized by the process of glancing to Kari on the futon and back to the canvas, to Kari, to the canvas. It was automatic and the brush never stopped moving. She did not stop to eat, although there was a dim memory of feeding Kari and helping her with the indignity of the bedpan.

From the first couple brush strokes she knew something was different. Despite the intuitive method of mixing color, she was a literal painter. If her subject sat in a chair, she painted a picture of that person sitting in a chair. It was the striking, sometimes alarming use of a single, multi-hued color that set her work apart. But this time something odd was happening. Kari lay on the futon, mostly asleep, but Rebekah’s brush revealed her as she would be if she were standing in a cerulean field with a light breeze lifting her hair. The memory of a smile disturbed her pale lips, her eyes round and leaking a cobalt sadness so profound Rebekah could not look on them for more than a few seconds at a time.

As Rebekah glanced from canvas to couch, the figure lying there began to seem insubstantial, a shade of the sapphire Kari coming to life at her hands. She felt as though she were racing time, overwhelmed with the sense that she would lose Kari before the portrait was done. As the hours passed, the world became a dark azure swirl, no sound save the whisper of brush on canvas and the occasional whispered moan from Kari.

And then, the painting nearly complete, Rebekah did something she’d never done before: she got too much paint on the brush and touched it to the canvas where she had almost finished the shading around Kari’s haunted eyes. The thick glob began to run in a slow rivulet.

From the futon, Kari cried out softly.

Rebekah couldn’t believe what she’d done. She could fix it, but it would change the picture—an altered painting was not a true painting.

From a hundred miles away: “Bekah?”

Rebekah began to cry. She’d ruined it.

“Bekah, are you there?”

Something in Kari’s withered voice broke through and Rebekah looked to her friend. Her eyes were wide and staring.

Kari’s voice fluttered like the wings of dying moth. “Bekah…please answer me…I’m scared. Why…is it so dark?”

No. Please, God.

Full daylight streamed through the windows of the tiny apartment. Rebekah lowered herself to Kari’s side and tenderly stroked her forehead. “I’m right here, baby.”

Kari shifted her vacant gaze as Rebekah sat next to her. Her voice was rice paper-thin. “I so…wanted to see my painting.” The corner of her mouth twitched in what might have been an imitation of the smile on canvas had she been able to see it. “Thank you…for being my friend.” Then she frowned and her sightless eyes closed. “I don’t…”

Rebekah waited, her breath stalled and useless, her eyes filling with the truth of the moment. “What, baby? You don’t what?”

Kari’s eye’s shifted slowly beneath the lids, as if at the end of a dream. “I…don’t…think I’m much here…anymore,” she whispered, and Rebekah watched as a single indigo tear rolled down her cheek. “…miss you,” Kari said, and released a sigh that seemed to go on and on. Rebekah wasn’t sure when it stopped because her own cry of anguish overlapped and carried her into unconsciousness.

* * *

She stops before beginning the eye detail on the new Kari. She remembers the blue tear and doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. But she knows it is not within her power to deny it if the tear belongs there. She dips her brush again and watches her wrist twist of its own accord, dabbing the excess. She smiles. Maybe this Kari is done with sadness. She takes a slow breath, her hand poised, and waits for the eyes to come to her.

* * *

When Rebekah awoke, her mother was there. She was in the hospital.

“Where’s Kari?” It hurt to speak, as though her vocal chords had been long unused.

Her mother ran the pad of a thumb across Rebekah’s forehead. “She’s gone, darlin’.”

Rebekah knew that. She’d known from the moment the blue tear ran down Kari’s cheek. “I killed her,” she said.

“No, Bek. She probably lasted longer because of you. There’s nothing you could have done.”

Rebekah explained about the painting, and the blue tear.

“Darlin’, you’re just confused. Kari was lying very peaceful. There was no paint on her face.”

“It wasn’t paint. It was a tear.”

Her mother tried to explain how Rebekah, malnourished and sleep-deprived, had gone into a shock-induced coma after finding Kari dead. The coma had held her for the better part of a week. She’d missed the funeral. Her mother offered to take her to the cemetery to see where she lay. But Rebekah didn’t want to go. There was no point. Kari was gone.

Under strict instructions to rest and eat her way slowly back to strength, the doctor allowed her to go home. It was two days before Rebekah was able to convince her mother that what she need more than anything was to be alone.

The apartment’s living area was dominated by a sense of loss, the feeling intensified by the weeping Kari on canvas. Rebekah’s legs led her to the futon, where she sat to study the painting from what had been Kari’s final perspective before her eyes gave up.

“Why are you so sad,” she whispered.

Blue Kari just watched her, crying her single tear. The image became watery and indistinct as tears filled Rebekah’s eyes. She drew her legs up onto the small couch and laid her head on the pillow that had so long held that of her dear friend. She buried her face into the pillow, inhaling the last vestiges of Kari’s sickness, and watched the picture until she began to drift off.

I miss you, sweet Bekah.”

She started awake and found herself staring, not at the painting, but at the small blue dot on the pillow. She touched it with the tip of her finger. It was dry, but felt almost…alive. It seemed she could feel a light breeze as she touched the dried tear.

And from the painting: a soft voice singing.

Kari was watching her.

And then the only thing she could hear was her own tired wailing and the tearing of the canvas.

* * *

She is finished. And it is better than before. She smiles as she remembers shredding the old Kari. She was afraid then; she is not afraid now.

That Kari is dead anyway.

She steps back for a fuller perspective, looking away then looking back. So much better. No tears. This Kari is not sad.

She leans nearer, closes her eyes and inhales the fragrance of her lost friend. She hears the faintest whisper: “Thank you.”

She opens her eyes and settles back in the chair. To the palette she adds just the tiniest bit of white. Kari is finished, but there is so much empty space next to her on the canvas. Rebekah shifts slightly to better view the full-length mirror she has placed next to the easel. Her reflection is smiling. A finger guides the hair on the left side of her face behind the ear—Kari likes it better that way.

Rebekah adjusts the mirror, locks the final image in her mind. “I’ll see you soon, sweet Kari,” she says and touches brush to canvas.

The End



Martin “Mott” Reaves