ISSUE 23, June 2018



Cover Art by 


*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

Smoke Out
By M A Smith

It wasn’t the dragons that were the problem, it was the unicorns.  Sure enough, the dragons weren’t easy. They leaked out hot streams of copper alloy piss as they undulated in the air above the town, which spattered down on the houses below to start the odd conflagration, to cause the odd scald.  This calescent incontinence was more of an inconvenience than their propensity to breathe flame. After all, they only belched a bonfire when they were really riled, and even then, purely as a last resort. Vomiting fire drained the creatures, and their innards’ embers would be cool for many days afterwards, rendering them weak, docile even.  
The dragons swarmed now and again, as wasps do: usually in the autumn when they were getting in the mood to hibernate. Children were ushered inside, and pale faces watched the skies from half shuttered windows.  But as long as they were let be, they didn’t cause us too much trouble, and blackthorn smoke warded them off if things looked like they were getting out of hand.
We’d leave out a few goats in a field south of town, occasionally the odd criminal, too, and they would mostly just take those and head on back to the mountains, their shadows rippling across the grasslands, the smell of blood and metal diminishing with their departure.  Then we would clear up the cooled and stinking clag of their urine, patch up damaged thatch, bind the occasional burn, and get on with things. We needed them, you see. They could be dangerous, but their dung was a miracle mineral manure that we collected and spread over our farmed fields; our crops grew ten times the size they rightly should, and in half the time.  Our town had known dragons since its incorporation way back in the blurred and distant past, and had never known want, or famine, or even the smallest hint of hunger.
But the unicorns were something else.  Terrible creatures, thrice the size of a shire horse, with a razor sharp run of plates along their backs that marched up their thick necks to culminate in a wickedly serrated horn.  From between piggy eyes, this barbed protuberance rose, the barbs poisonous. If you didn’t die of the initial goring and subsequent voiding of your intestines, you’d be cut down by a lung liquefying toxin.  
The unicorns were less predictable than the dragons, too, and entirely immune to appeasement.  More intelligent. They came for the first time one winter, ten years back. Our stores were fat with grain and salted meat, and, as with the heartbeat of the countryside around us, the pulse of town life had slowed with the dropping temperatures.  Folk stayed by their fires, content and nodding and waiting for spring. The dragons were asleep, too, and the fields were covered in an opalescent blanket that, from time to time, was whipped into a misty aerial froth that hung in the air for hours.
They came at dusk, with the purpling of the horizon, when the trees were black shapes against an ice-cream sky and the last rooks were circling.  I became aware of an oscillating judder, felt in my feet; this pounding syncopation quickly spreading so that I felt its jarring beat in my legs, my hips, in the push and pull of my own heartbeat. I was on the verge of pulling up the floorboard for my blade when the town siren began its long scream. By then, that seemingly subterranean thunder had resolved into the almighty pounding of hooves, and then the first scream came.  God help me, I took one look outside my cottage and retreated, pulling up that floorboard after all. Not to retrieve my weapon, but to lie alongside it in the crawlspace, pulling the board back atop me so that I lay in a webby tomb, listening to the deaths of my neighbours and the awful rampaging of the monsters I had so briefly seen outside.
When I emerged just before dawn the next day, the town was slick with blood and shit.  The survivors told their tales and at the fading of the sun, those of us who remained, sought refuge in the crypt beneath the church, where we huddled in a cloud of our own rimy breath until daybreak.  But the unicorns didn’t return that year, and we never knew what they wanted, other than gore and grief, for our stores went unmolested, our barned cattle unharmed.
It has been said since that it is our dread that feeds them, but I think that is just old-world nonsense.  More like, they do not come to us out of hunger – their bellies seemed pretty full to me, what little I saw of them – for I believe their prey lies elsewhere.  I think they come to us for sport, in the wintertime, when whatever doorway leads to us opens and they are allowed brief access. I had a brother once who ventured west, way beyond the smoking lakes and the crystalline passes that mark the northern border of our principality.  He went to hunt the mountain lions, and he returned many months later with a sackful of pelts and stories of his many trails. I asked him how they had tasted, those mountain lions that he had snared. He told me they had tasted awful; he had subsisted happily on fish and berries.  His joy in their killing was not the base jubilation of the survivor who knows his empty stomach will be filled, but a narrower pleasure – to my mind, a hollow euphoria. Perhaps it is this these horned terrors feel in what passes for their brains when they come to hunt us.
They came again one winter dusk the following year, putting to smoking ruin our hopes that their previous visit had been a one-off aberration.  They sensed the traps we had laid. Their leathery hides proved impervious to blade or bow. They leapt our ditches with brutal grace. Blood spattered bright on our frost-scummed streets once more.
And so, as the last of the next year’s leaves shivered and fell, I shouldered on a pack and left for the mountains.  I knew that I would probably not survive. No dragons had been sighted for a week, and we presumed they had begun their hibernation, though no one knew for sure.  And autumn was always dicey when it came to dealing with dragons: they were sleepy and slow and angry as their blood cooled and the heat in their bellies banked to low embers.  It was only during this season that we in the town would be wary when their bulging shadows fluttered over our streets and squares.
Even so, should I have encountered a dragon in my trek towards their home in the stony fastness, I fully expected a charry death.  A quick one, if I was lucky.
And yet, as I clambered higher into the foothills, the skies remained clear and blue, free of cloud and beast. The quality of the air was so crisp and sharp that, looking back, I could easily make out the small details of the distant town:  the flag topped turrets of the Elders’ Seat, the jostle and push of the market square, the gloomy squat of the town jail.
I surged on upwards and, after a day’s travelling, I finally reached the yawning hole in the rock-face where we believed the dragons slept through the winter.  As I approached, a hot metallic smell assailed me, filling my lungs, so that I used a rag to cover my mouth and nose as I came closer. Piles of half molten dragon dung still steamed and hissed all around the cave mouth, and from deep within that hellish hole, I thought I could make out the distant huff and wheeze of the sleeping beasts.
Here I stopped, and putting my bound pack down on the snow scrimmed ground, I set up a rudimentary camp to wait.  Hours passed, and days, and the weather drew in close and cold as I huddled beneath my furs and chewed on strips of salted meat.  The nights were long and bitter, and many were the times, come dawn, that my entire body was without sensation, and I watched as the first blooms of frostbite flowered on my toes and fingers.  I watched the town, always. Sometimes it appeared to float on a scrappy cloud of mist, sometimes it was a lone patch of mute colour amid a sea of hoar. And sometimes it disappeared entirely. Those times were the worst.
But there finally came an indigo dusk when the grasslands beyond the town’s borders sparkled with a half frozen, diamond dew that winked and glittered at me across the miles to where I lay, well beyond shivering, outside the dragons’ cave.  A sharp prickling innervated the muscles of my back and neck, and I was up and standing, insensible to my blackened feet, even before I saw the herd of unicorns materialize out of the murk of the forest that flanked the town.
I struck my tinder and set its spark to the stacked pile of blackthorn that I had kept covered and dry during the many days of my watch, and saw how the barbed wood took the flame and gobbled it, as if it were the wood eating the fire, and not the other way around.  The first screams rose thin and distant from the town as I kicked the conflagration, trailing blackthorn barbs, into the coaly blackness of the cave. I heard the wood skitter and woof as it slid into the great hole, thick gouts of pungent smoke trailing behind it in ragged flags.
I could not bear to look down at the town, so I watched the entrance to the cave instead.  At first, there was nothing. And then there was. A chorus of enraged, damp screams split the twilight, and wasp-like, a swarm of dragons, woken by the blackthorn smoke and utterly enraged, flew out into the winter night.  They were clearly confused, flying haphazardly, snuffling sparks, and murderous. In their semi-sentient state, they did not notice me at all, lying prone on the ground, but instead began to coalesce together with more purpose, and flocked as one towards the town, desiring only destruction.
Townsfolk died that night, to be sure, and many as the result of my actions.  But I have learned to live with that. For the dragons, alive to some ancient instinct, perhaps, wiped out every single last unicorn that winter evening.  They swooped down on them, tearing and terrible, with a ferocity that we had never seen directed against our own kind. They breathed what fire they could, and the stink of roasted flesh reached me up on my rocky perch. They did not cease until the final horned monster was destroyed, even as its dying struggles mortally gored the dragon it fought.  I cannot describe to you the noise that the unicorns made as they perished: hearing it near drove me mad.
    It is winter again now, and the tale I have told you concerns events ten years past, and in all that time, we have never been troubled by another unicorn.  Nor by the dragons, either, who flew away that night and did not return come spring. The crops we grow now are of the standard size, and on occasion, they fail, so that we know what it is to feel the pinch of hunger when the days diminish, and the fields freeze.  And I would be remiss if I did not record that many of us here still watch the skies as the land wakes again each year, and listen, with something like longing, for the drag and waft of great wings overhead.

M A Smith

M A Smith writes from Gloucestershire, UK.  Her fiction has appeared in publications including Dark Moon Digest, Swords and Sorcery Magazine and Gathering Storm, and her novella ‘Severance’ will appear in  May 2018, courtesy of Fantasia Divinity Publishing. Find out more at masmithwriting.com.



The Royal Forest
By Eddie D. Moore

“After I introduce you to the king, I will return to my post here.” The guard stepped menacingly closer, his expression deadly serious. “You will show the king the respect he is due, or you’ll answer to me, woodsman.”
Jarin ignored the finger the guard jabbed roughly into his chest and held the guard’s gaze. “Like I said before, I’m seeking permission to trap in the Royal Forest. I have no intention of disrespecting him.”
A tense moment passed before the guard relaxed and glanced at the throne room door. “If you like your head attached to your shoulders, see that you don’t.” The guard turned, whispered to someone on the other side of the door, and then pushed the door open.
The door closed behind him as Jarin stepped into the throne room, and his footsteps echoed off the stone walls as he approached the throne. The king appeared younger than he had expected, and an elderly gentleman wearing a coat with elaborate golden embroidery stood beside the dais staring at the back wall. Jarin didn’t expect his audience with the king to be private, and he felt a cold sweat forming on his forehead. He resisted the urge to wipe the sweat away and stopped before the throne with a deep bow.
“Your Majesty, Lord Tybalt hired me to track and trap a dragon hatchling for his personal collection of…”
The king interrupted ecstatically, “I like dragons.”
Jarin blinked in confusion. The king’s voice held a slight drawl as if he was slow of mind. He glanced to the servant standing by the dais, but the man refused eye contact and kept his gaze on the back wall.
Cautiously, Jarin continued. “Dragons are very majestic and dangerous creatures, Your Majesty. Lord Tybalt thought the dragon’s lair was on his estates. However, I’ve tracked the dragon far enough to know with certainty that the lair is actually in the Royal Forest. I’m here today to request your permission…”
“Dragons!” The king stood and searched about the room excitedly. “There’s a dragon in the Royal Forest!”
Jarin’s eyes widened at the unexpected outburst, and he turned to see the guardsman open the throne room door. The guard glared at Jarin a moment and then slowly closed the door again. The servant by the dais stood completely motionless, as if the king’s ravings were completely normal. He watched slack-jawed as the king ran about the throne room, hunting and hiding from a dragon only he could see.
The fact that the king was an odd man was no secret. He spent most of his time away from the common people, but now Jarin wondered if he was kept away from the common people. Was the kingdom ruled by a regent?
Breathing heavily, the king returned to his throne and sat up straight. “How many men do you need to kill this dragon?”
“I… I don’t want to fight it, sire.”
The king’s tone turned more serious. “Gold, then, is it? How much to rid the kingdom of the beast?”
“I only desire permission to trap the hatchling, sire.” Frustrated, Jarin tried to catch the eye of the servant by the dais, but the man continued to stare at the back wall with a serious expression on his face.
The king leaned forward on his throne. “Do you play games?”
“What kind of games?”
The king grinned. “I’ll be the king, and you’ll be the headless woodsman.” Cupping a hand over his mouth, the king shouted. “Danack, has the headsman sharpened his axe today?”
The guard opened the door and stuck his head inside, grinning from ear to ear. “Yes, sire, he’s ready when you are.”
Jarin swallowed hard and cleared his throat. The servant by the dais smirked as if he was on the edge of laughter, and Jarin wondered if a good kick in the knee would wipe the smirk off the man’s face. He noticed a game table sitting under a nearby window, and he quickly walked over to it.
“Sire, how about a game of Castles and Surfs?”
The king sighed and approached the table. “Okay, but if I get bored, I get to pick the next game because I’m king.”
Jarin nodded eagerly and placed the pieces on the board while hoping that winning would be enough to keep the king entertained. After the king took his seat, he studied the board for a long second and then moved two pieces at once, and he moved them both incorrectly.
The king looked up with a triumphant smile and said, “Ha! I’m going to beat you good.”
Moving a surf forward two squares, Jarin replied, “I’m shaking with fear, sire. I believe that I’m completely outmatched.”
A few moves later, the king declared himself the winner, and Jarin acquiesced with a smile. “Well done, sire.”
“I told you I’d beat you.”
“It was a very good game, sire.” Jarin cleared his throat. “I hate to bring up the subject again, but if the king desires a fee, to gain permission to trap in the Royal Forest, I came prepared to pay.”
The king glanced at the servant still standing by the dais and thought for a moment. “I like pie. Would you like a piece of pie?” Jarin inclined his head, and the king clapped his hands once. “Danack, do you want pie?”
The guard stuck his head inside once more. “Oh, no, sir, I’m on duty.”
The king snapped his fingers and glanced at the servant by the dais again. “Bring us pie.”
The servant stepped forward, took off his coat, and rested a hand on the king’s shoulder. “Marcus, there is pie waiting in the kitchens. Go get your own pie. I’m sure Joel will be glad to see you.”
Jarin’s eyes followed Marcus until he left the room, and the servant sat down on the other end of the table. When Jarin turned to face him, he swallowed the lump growing in his throat and waited for the other man to speak.
“My nephew seems to like you.”
Realization suddenly snapped inside Jarin’s mind, and he inhaled deeply. “You’re the king.”
The real king smiled widely and winked. “He rather enjoys pretending to be king, and I enjoy seeing people’s reactions when he does. It also gives me a chance to see the person’s character. You’d be surprised how many would’ve tried to take advantage of the situation.”
“Did I pass your test?”    
“With flying colors. You didn’t jump at the offer for men or gold, and you even offered to pay the fees for hunting in the Royal Forest. I can tell that you are a man of upstanding character.” The king snapped his fingers and three servants entered the room. One of the servants handed the king a small scroll and a pen. He quickly scrawled his name at the bottom of the parchment, rolled it up, and handed it to Jarin. “This gives you permission to trap your hatchling. I’ll waive the fee with two conditions.”
Jarin tucked the scroll into a pocket and asked, “What do you desire, sire?”
“After you’ve delivered the hatchling to Lord Nine and a Half Fingers, return here so that we can discuss terms for trapping the hatchling’s mother.”
“Lord Nine and a Half Fingers?”
The king laughed. “Ah, you haven’t met him yet?”
“No, sire, he sent a representative to acquire my services.”
“One of his large cats bit off half of his right forefinger a couple years back. I think he now loves that cat more than he did before. He jokes about it and says that the cat is a part of him now.”
Jarin nodded slowly. “If he isn’t careful with the hatchling, you may end up calling him Lord One Hand. Dragons are vicious creatures, especially the adults. Why would you wish to capture the adult?”
“She’s been ravaging local sheep flocks, which are costing me a small fortune in reimbursements, and many of the villagers no longer feel safe.”
Jarin nodded. “And your second condition?”
The king glanced at the game board. “That you do your best to beat me at a game. I despise it when people let me win.”

Eddie D. Moore

Eddie D. Moore’s job requires extensive traveling, and he spends much of that time listening to audio books. His stories have been published by Jouth Webzine, The Flash Fiction Press, Every Day Fiction, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Magazine, and the Centum Press. Find out more on his blog at: https://eddiedmoore.wordpress.com/.





Can't Fight the Darkness
By Gabie Yang

                He waited in the darkness of the alleyway, his breathing heavy as his hunger grew. His enhanced vision started to turn red, and his sharp fangs threatened to protrude in the spaces his mouth made. His lust swelled as the other vampire stood above him.
                “Come on, Lucas. I know you’re hungry. Besides, you don’t want to disappoint Ethan, do you?” His whisper was like a knife sliding over stone.
                Lucas’s body froze.
                “N-No, I don’t,” Lucas rasped.
                “Then take a bite. No one will notice they’re gone. Humans are practically disposable,” Eli said.
                Lucas knew the creature looming above him was right. He was hungry, and no one would notice if one measly human was gone, but Lucas also knew that it was his bloodlust confirming his thought. It was selfish, and he hated that selfishness was a part of his nature now. He tried keeping the human part of his existence alive, but he knew all too well that his humanity had died when he’d woken up with red eyes, fangs, and cold skin.
                “Go away, Eli,” Lucas growled.
                Eli scoffed before he let out a dark laugh.
                “Poor, innocent Lucas,” Eli said with a tsk. “We both know what’ll happen if I let Ethan’s prized possession get away. Besides, I have to help you catch your first meal; Ethan’s orders. We know what’ll happen if you don’t feed tonight.”
Lucas was informed that, if he didn’t feed, he would die for the second time, which he didn’t mind at all since he didn’t want to be where he currently was.
“I know how much you want to die, but I think we both know how much Ethan cares for you. He’d be devastated if you took the alternative route,” Eli scowled.
Lucas’s breath  caught in his throat. “What... What can I do to make him happy?”
                “All you have to do is feed,” Eli said.
Lucas hesitantly nodded then crept towards the street, sniffing, catching the different scents of people that walked past the alleyway. It was hard to catch the aroma of someone he wanted, as the toxicity of alcohol plugged his nose, but eventually, he smelled someone irresistibly good. As the unknowing human walked closer, the more their sweet and delectable scent filled his nose, causing his senses to spike. His craving became unbearable, and Lucas hated thinking that he had to have a taste.
“Go ahead,” Eli whispered. “No one will miss them. Besides, you’re hungry, aren’t you?”
Lucas nodded and growled. With quick precision, he reached out and grabbed the human from the street and held them against the wall. He tried not to look at the defining features that would haunt his dreams if he looked too long.
“N-No,” Lucas whispered. “I... I can’t do this,”
“You want to make Ethan happy, don’t you?” Eli asked.
“I... I do.”
“Then you’ll do it.”
Lucas looked up at his victim and saw wide brown eyes looking back at him. Every fiber of his being screamed feed, but his mind told him you can’t.
But what about Ethan? You want to please Ethan, don’t you?
“Y-Yes, I d-do,” Lucas whispered to himself.
After a moment, Lucas’s breathes became shaky. He allowed his fangs to grow in; his irises became red and his pupils miotic.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
And with that, he leaned into the human’s neck and pierced the skin with his fangs. The person let out a scream that was instantly muffled by Lucas’ hand. The warm blood coursed through his veins, electrifying his senses and his mind. For the first time since waking up, he felt alive. His grip on the human tightened as he continued to drink from the puncture wounds.
Lucas’ conscience told him to stop. Once he did, he released the human and watched as they fell to the ground, their blue hoodie stained with Lucas’s own blood. Lucas could barely hear the human’s heartbeat, but it didn’t matter to him anymore. He wiped the blood from his lips with his thumb and licked it off, feeling only a dull spark. He thought of the satisfying sensation of the human’s blood as it rushed through his veins, and knew he needed to feel that over and over again.
 “I need more,” Lucas demanded.
“Anything for Ethan’s angel,” Eli replied with a smirk. “There’s plenty more to choose from.”
Lucas’s eyes turned into a darker red as he allowed his mind to become clouded with his bloodlust.
You can’t.
I don’t care.
He smelled another human walk his way, and without hesitation, swept them off the street. He pinned them against the wall of the bloody alleyway and fed his desire once more.


Gabie Yang

Gabie Yang was born in Maplewood, Minnesota and currently resides in Forest Lake, Minnesota. She attends Concordia University - St. Paul, where she is studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing.





Creature Comforts
By Tim Dadswell

Jimmy slipped past a delivery truck in the middle of the zoo’s main entrance. Although he knew most of the zookeepers, at the first enclosure he spotted a new face.
Surrounded by a group of children, a young woman in a tan uniform fed a new-born alpaca milk from a baby’s bottle. The sun shone through a row of silver birch trees, bathing her in a soft glow.
“You greedy thing!” she chuckled to the animal. Looking up, she caught Jimmy’s gaze and smiled, her eyes flickering with curiosity.
Jimmy was like a nomad, finding a town where his pent-up desires might be met. If only he could stay longer, strike up a conversation. But in this family-oriented place, he was a single man who had not even bought a ticket. Judging by the lack of other visitors, it looked like a slow day. Could he be more conspicuous?
Yet as he strode away, along the path leading to the back of the reptile house, her face lingered in his mind.
***
In his trailer the next morning, Jimmy woke earlier than usual. After breakfast, he shaved, dragged a comb through his hair, and put on a clean blue shirt. He grinned with satisfaction at his reflection in the mirror.
After a brief call at a gas station, he found her again at the zoo, alone in the llama enclosure.
“They love you,” he said, as three of the animals gathered round her.
“I love them, too. This is the only job I ever wanted.”
“My name’s Jimmy.”
“Alison.”
“I saw you yesterday and can’t stop thinking about you.” His arm swung from behind his back, revealing a mixed bunch of flowers. “Can I give you these?”
“Thanks, they’re beautiful. I don’t know what to say.” Alison averted her eyes.
“Say you’ll come for a drink tonight,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“Oh, I’m not sure.” She gazed into the distance.
“You can trust me. We won’t go to the same bar as my mates. Afterwards, we can say goodbye, or I can walk you home.”
Alison hesitated, studying his hopeful grin with narrowed eyes as if assessing him. She seemed to approve of  what she saw. “Okay, meet me by the entrance at six, after I finish. But I need to be home before dark.”
“Like Sleeping Beauty?”
She giggled. “You mean Cinderella.”
A full-grown llama reared up, knocking her to the ground.
“Easy, Pedro!” she cried, an arm raised in defense. With a glance at Jimmy, she added, “He does this sometimes.”
Jimmy hurled his wiry body over the low railing, gripped the llama by the neck and whispered into its ear.
“There, you won’t have any more trouble from him. I’ll see you later,” he said with a confident smile.
Alison watched him leave. She ambled down an alleyway towards a staff entrance.
“Hey, Ally! Come, join us for a kickabout,” cried a familiar voice.
Alison sniffed Jimmy’s flowers.
“No thanks, Don. Not today.”
***
The evening was balmy as Jimmy and Alison wandered back from the bar.
Alison stopped to use an inhaler. She read Jimmy’s expression.
“Haven’t you seen one of these before?”
“I must have.”
“I have asthma. This gives relief. My life’s quite normal,” she soothed. 
Jimmy wanted to put his arm around her, steal a kiss, but decided it was too soon.
On the edge of town, they stopped outside a TV showroom. Jimmy had not yet seen the grainy black and white images of Neil Armstrong, gamboling over the lunar surface like a schoolboy in a sandpit.
“Those men will be gods when they get back,” he said grudgingly.
“Yes, but I doubt they could subdue a frisky llama.”
Jimmy smiled. “Dad taught me. I thought a llama would respond the same way as a stallion. I just make friendly sounds. I’m not Dr. Doolittle.”
“Thanks for the confession,” Alison giggled. “But you haven’t told me about your job,” she said.
“I’m a carny. I do a bit of this, a bit of that.”
“So, you’re adaptable, that’s good.”
They continued walking in silence.
***
Standing in a zoo enclosure, Alison watched a crowd disperse. She bent down to pick up litter. If an alpaca ate some and fell ill, she would never forgive herself.
On their date, she had expected Jimmy to make a move. Part of her was disappointed he hadn’t. What would his kiss be like? Warm and sensual (as she hoped) or cold and insistent? He had a few rough edges, but was a welcome contrast to her last boyfriend, who had dumped her for no reason. She wondered why Jimmy was evasive about his job. She imagined him handing a prize to a delighted child or supervising a test-your-strength machine. Nothing to be ashamed of there. Still, before seeing him again, she had to know more.
As evening fell, she bought a ticket at the carnival entrance. Immediately, she felt the contrast to the nurturing environment of the zoo. Low clouds hastened the darkness and gave the artificial lights extra glare. Blaring rock music, coming from all sides, made it hard to think. The enticing aromas of corn dogs and cotton candy vied for her attention, while the toad-eyed owner of a shooting gallery leered at her.
She reached a tangled mass of electrical cables running across the grass. Here, the music was less oppressive. Jimmy’s voice drew her to the back of a small crowd in front of a raised platform.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Come closer and witness feats of amazing strength from the smallest performers in the world!”
Jimmy held a coin in his hand, which flipped over, as if by magic.
There was a shriek in the crowd. Two girls hurried away.
Jimmy opened a metal case containing a miniature circus. A chariot wheeled around an eight-inch ring, bright yellow, with a blue star in its center.
“Now watch as the Mighty Atlas spins a ball a hundred times his own size.”
As the red and white striped rubber sphere moved, Alison heard a couple whisper to each other.
“Isn’t it amazing, Rob? How does he train them to do it?”
“Jeez, they’re not real fleas. Beats me why he bothers.”
Alison pulled up the hood of her coat. As more people left, the remainder became restless.
Jimmy moved to the side of the platform. Tugging a red curtain, he revealed three cages. People shuffled towards them.
“Come see the dog with two heads and the Abominable Snowman’s pet leopard - a real man-eater! See the deadly jungle snake with four legs - never witnessed before in Nature!”
A lad began to hurl abuse. Jimmy jumped down and joined him in a shouting match.
Alison’s jaw tightened. Jimmy’s animals looked sluggish and unhealthy. She recognized one. Another zookeeper had told her a Burmese python had died. But here it was, with legs attached - made of crudely painted papier-mâché, she guessed.
She hurried towards the exit. Outside, she bent over the gutter as a wave of nausea hit. It passed, yet angry tears burned her eyes.
At a telephone kiosk, she called her brother.
“Is that you, Jake?” she asked, as the line crackled.
“Hi Ally, what’s up? You sound upset.”
His voice brought her back to her senses.
“I am. I’ve seen a horrible sight. We’ve got to do something. Let’s get together.”
***
The following day, Jimmy helped with a variety of menial jobs. The way the audience for his sideshow was shrinking, this might become his sole meal ticket.
He allowed his mind to fly. Could he leave, hold down a conventional job? There were plenty of riding stables, where he might find a niche. Could he put down roots? There was a lot to be said for a life of pipe and slippers, far less for a series of fleeting sexual encounters. Warm and easy-going, he saw Alison as ideal. Didn’t he deserve to be as well-loved as other men? If astronauts were conquering other worlds, why couldn’t he?
In the evening, he went to the bar with his mates but left alone. In two days, the carnival would be leaving town. He had no idea what to say to Alison, but was determined not to lose her.
As he reached the cages behind his trailer, he noticed something was wrong. The tarpaulins were missing. On the far side, were fresh tire tracks.
He blinked in disbelief, but it was true. The cages were empty.
Inside one was a collection of headless flower stems, tied together with a handwritten note.
“Jimmy, I’ve seen you at work. I could never be with a man like you. Your animals have been taken to a place where they’ll be cared for properly. My friends wanted to torch your trailer, but I persuaded them not to. Don’t try to contact me, otherwise, I don’t know what they might do. Alison.”
Jimmy entered his trailer, fell on his bed and closed his eyes. Barely did the full meaning of Alison’s note have time to sink in, before the alcohol in his bloodstream did its work.
At first, he dreamed he was standing by a wire fence. In a paddock, two stable hands were trying in vain to grab the reins of a spirited ebony stallion. The stallion broke away and ran towards him. As it got closer, it morphed into the swamp he had fallen into as a boy. Struggling to free himself made him sink further, until the mud covered his shoulders, his neck, his mouth.
This time, he could not hear his father’s voice. There was no rope, no sign of a rescue.

Tim Dadswell

Tim Dadswell is a former civil servant living in Norfolk, England. He has had work published in The Literary Hatchet, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Cocktails with Miss Austen. He can be reached on Twitter: @Tim26595882.


The Suitor Sorter
By Sara Codair

“Can I really only pick two?” Julia frowned at the line up.
“You’re not choosing two now. You are showing me two types you like so I am able to create a better list of real suitors for you,” replied the automaton that was guiding Julia through the selection process. Its lips didn’t move as it spoke. No air filled its chest even though it made noises that sounded like breathing. Its owners had clothed it in the long dress and hat of a proper lady, but they hadn’t bothered to hide its mechanical face.
“Numbers 65 and 89 are my favorites in this lineup.” Julia straightened her corset, wishing she were as lungless as the automaton. Every time she inhaled, her ribs strained against the unyielding material. Julia’s maid, Colleen, had laced up the corset with painful efficiency before placing a kiss on her cheek and wishing Julia good luck with the Suitor Sorter.
The automaton reached out with one robotic hand, removed two images from the pulley, and placed them on a corkboard. It pulled a series of copper levers so swiftly that Julia couldn’t see its hand move. It hit a red button. Gears grinded and steam bellowed from the processors’ engine. Another lineup of likeness appeared.
“Choose two from the list,” said the automaton. Its voice was soft enough to be recognized as female, but the grating metallic hiss that was not fully muffled by its clothing reminded Julia it was anything but human.
“105,” she said without hesitation. He had a feminine chin and a mischievous glint in his green eyes.
“And your second choice?” asked the automaton.
Julia bit her lip. 108 and 115 were both handsome with delicate jaws and perfect teeth, but their eyes were dull and dead. 116 had fiery red hair that made Julia blush, and 124 had the cutest nose.  She closed her eyes, trying to imagine walking through the park with any of them. She suspected 108 and 115 would be boring, and walking with 124 might make her feel like a nanny.
“116,” she said, hoping she made the right choice.
“Make two more selections,” said the automaton as it wrapped up its rapid-fire mechanical dance with the levers.
A new group of photographs appeared on the cord. This was going to be the hardest choice yet. All the boys had hair that if a tenth of an inch longer, would not be considered respectable, and none of them were blonds. They were all smiling, looking alive and bright even though it was fashionable to appear gloomy in photographs.
Julia had to work harder to make her selection, looking for subtleties around their eyes and mouths that reminded her of a man she needed to appear on her list. Number 137 came across as lively at first, but after closer inspection, she could tell from the lack of creases around his mouth that the smile was not an expression he wore often. On the contrary, Number 140 had soft lines around his mouth that indicated in spite of the youthfulness of his rosy cheeks, he spent so much time smiling that it was leaving a dent in his face.
She stared at the pictures longer, chewing her lip and furrowing her brows even though Mother claimed it would make her skin wrinkle prematurely. She wished the photos were not all taken on the same blank background. Seeing the place where the young men elected to be photographed would tell her so much more about them.
“Have you made your choices? You have one minute before you must vacate the room or be charged extra.”
Julia harrumphed. Father had plenty of money to pay the fees, but he was a stingy miser unwilling to spare any dime that wasn’t wrenched from his grip by the cold hand of necessity. She considered drawing out the time just to force him to part with his precious coins, but thought better of it. Her father did have to approve any suitors before they could court her, and if she vexed him, he might just deny her the one she wanted.
“Thirty seconds,” said the automaton.
Julia narrowed her eyes. Her heart raced. She reminded herself these weren’t the actual suitors, just likenesses that the automaton would use to calculate a list of matches, men who she would be “happy” with and likely to produce children with. This list would be passed onto her father.
“140 and 143,” she said with ten seconds to spare.
“Proceed to the printing room,” said the automaton as the steel doors slid open.
Julia walked towards them allowing another automaton, one dressed in the traditional garb of a butler, to take her arm and escort her across a steel walkway towards another big door.
Despite the thickness of its coat, Julia still felt the chill of metal and vibrations from the gears churning inside it. She wanted to close her eyes and pretend it was human, but she feared she would misstep, pulling them both off the catwalk into the clicking maw of cams and gears below them.
The inner workings of the Suitor Sorter were like the offspring of a giant clock and a printing press. Some parts wound and ticked while others pumped steam like hearts and lungs. Papers flew above them on a wire pulley, rattling in the moist breeze like pigeons being forced through a sauna. It made the suitors in the photos look like they were sweating laborers stumbling out of a jungle, not respectable gentlemen.
The most handsome face was not one on any of the pages. Amidst all the steam, machinery and paper, there was one young man, frantically running about in dark pants and a rumpled shirt. Fiery ringlets framed a delicate face as they tumbled down to his shoulders with feminine grace. Sweat made him glisten like an angel. Julia supposed if she had to bed a man, one who looked like that might be tolerable.
The doors opened with a heinous screech, and Julia was greeted by a refreshing wave of cool, dry air. As the doors slammed shut behind her, the machine’s noise vanished.
Her father waited for her, sitting perfectly postured in a high-backed armchair covered in an avalanche of pink flowers. Her mother sat across from him in an identical chair, as rigid as the automaton. Julia sat in the third chair. She wished it was the soft kind that she could sink into as she curled up with a book, but this one felt more like sitting on stone.
“What did you think of the Suitor Sorter?” asked her father.
“It’s truly a marvel,” said Julia, praying that was an appropriate response.
“Indeed,” said Father. “Whoever made is was a genius.”
“He certainly was.” Julia let out a slow sigh, relieved she was allowed to appreciate the machine’s ingenuity. Her and father had not been getting on well lately, but right now, it was more important than ever to appear as his complacent, obedient daughter.
“The results should be in shortly.” Father stared at a slot in the middle of the room. Once the machine finished processing both her selections and his, it would vomit a packet of possible suitors.
They waited in silence. It wasn’t proper for ladies to strike up conversation in a room with a man, and father was not inclined to start one himself. Julia wondered if he remained silent just to torment her and Mother.
The tiny clock on the wall ticked. Mother breathed once for every two times father did. Julia had yet to perfect her Mother’s slow, deep corset breathing, so her breaths were quick and shallow, leaving her dizzy with want for the days before puberty when no one cared how thin her waistline was.
Finally, a whooshing hum filled the room and a neat stack of papers shot out of the slot. Julia wanted to reach for them and sort through them to make sure a certain eligible gentleman was included, but Father would think that unseemly.
She waited with her hands folded so tightly she thought her knuckles might just pop out of her skin. She bit down on her tongue and curled her toes so as not to tap her feet, refusing to look at Father and give him the satisfaction of seeing the impatience in her eyes. After what felt like another eternity, he leaned forward and began leafing through the papers.
“Make three piles on the coffee table,” he said as he handed her the first dossier. “’Yes’ on the green dot, ‘maybe’ on the yellow and ‘no’ on the red.”
“Yes, Father,” she said meekly, trying not to cringe as she looked at the sheaf of paper. Donald Burton was a rich, blond blockhead who was as rigid and miserly as her father. She pretended to scan his list of titles and accomplishments while Father took his precious time perusing the next dossier. He appeared to have read it three times before passing it on to Julia, who promptly put Donald on the red dot.
Father looked at the dossier, and then made eye contact. “Donald is a fine young man; you are lucky to have the sorter select him as a potential suitor.”
“He did not seem kind when we met him at the Gallandhill’s Christmas Ball,” said Julia as meekly as she could.
“Kind doesn’t count much in the real world.” Father slid the folder onto the maybe pile and gave Julia a stern look that told her it would be a mistake to deem any profile her father allowed her to view as a definite no. She offered a slight nod to acknowledge she understood and took the next folder he handed her.
Richard Dunstable was no better than the previous match.  Julia had met him once at a garden party. His arrogance had vexed her to the point of pretending to faint, so she could knock him into a fountain. She longed to place on the red ‘no’, but she did not dare. He joined Donald as soon as the proper amount of time had passed.
She expected Father to pass another page to her, but instead, he tossed the one he had just finished reading into a dustbin without even letting her see it. She bit her tongue so she wouldn’t roll her eyes and passed the time by looking at her empty shell of a mother.
The esteemed Mrs. Highfield had less life in her than the automatons. Breathing slow, she sat perfectly still, staring straight ahead, blinking just once for every ten blinks of Julia’s. She didn’t speak unless Father addressed her, and then, she used as few words as possible. Her face had two expressions: blank and fake smile.
“Julia, spacing out is not ladylike,” said Father with his hand outstretched. Julia took the paper finding another horrid bachelor staring back at her.
“Elise Blanche would be horribly jealous if she knew the Sorter matched Thompson but not her,” said Julia, praying it was the kind of comment her father wanted to her.
The slight grin cracking across his stone confirmed it was. The next thirty minutes made Julia want to storm out of the room and throw herself off the catwalk into the garden of gears to be ground up into tiny bits. All the dossiers that Father passed onto her were suitors that had to have been based on his preferences, and a majority of the folders went into the dustbin before she was allowed to even glance at them. She didn’t care if 99% off the suitors were his choices. Julia had been trying to manipulate her selections so one specific man would wind up in the pile, and she was praying with all her heart and soul that he was waiting for her in the thinning pile of dossiers her father had yet to look at, not the ones that were filling the dustbin by his chair.
If milk maids, stable boys, their passed notes and secret signs could be trusted, then last month, when the young men visited the Suitor Sorter, Alastair Somersworth had carefully engineered his preferences so that he could come up in the searches of a girl like her. Julia had little more contact with Alastair than the other men on the list, but he had something the others all lacked. The machine had to have seen them as a potential pair. However, that would not guarantee a union between the two. Father had the final say in who Julia would marry. Alastair’s flamboyant, libertine lifestyle tarnished his reputation, but if Father valued financial stability above all else, then Alastair’s seemingly endless wealth could sway him.
“I knew these machines were too good to be true,” said Father, shaking his head at one of the last dossiers.
“Why do you say that?” asked Julia, hoping her question wasn’t too bold.
“I should burn this file before you get any ideas.” Father stared at the folder for a long time. “The rumors about him are horrendous, but he is the richest eligible bachelor in the country.”
Shaking his head, Father passed the page to Julia and picked up the next profile. Julia turned her back to him and grinned at Alastair’s likeness. With a large nose and sharp chin, he wasn’t the most handsome man, but he was rich, owned sprawling estates, and if Colleen’s sources could be trusted, he was willing to permit her something no other man would allow, as long as she would do the same for him.
She placed his photo into the ‘yes’ pile and made a show of seriously reading the last three dossiers, placing them all in the maybe pile. Father stood, stretched, and looked at Julia’s disproportionate selections. His lip curled. His mustache twitched. “Your ‘yes’ pile is rather slim.”
    Julia knew she should apologize. Silence would be the next best thing if she couldn’t muster an apology. She looked at her mother’s hollow eyes and frail hands, at her father’s towering posture and blind arrogance. Standing, Julia made eye contact with a man that would see her smothered until she was nothing more than a pile of well-oiled parts. She wanted to smack him with the folders until his face turned red and he submitted to her, but she could barely walk in her corset, let alone fight.
She raised her chin high and squared her shoulders like Father did when he bullied people. “I want to marry Alastair and am confident that he will make me an offer.”
Father snorted before he could stop himself. “What you want does not matter.”
“Then why are we even here?” Julia inhaled as deep as her corset would allow and puffed out her chest.
The mustache hairs twitched above Father’s lips. “To find a list of men who may be interested in you, and to make sure they are capable of getting you with respectable children.”
Fury burned Julia’s cheeks, but she bit down and swallowed the words she longed to say. “Shall we be going home?”
Father’s face turned as red as hers. “Our time here is nearly up. Come, Lidia.”
Mother rose and mechanically joined arms with Father. He stepped on a foot pedal. Slots opened and sucked the papers away at the same time the metal doors opened, revealing the mechanical butler waiting to lead them to the exit. Father grabbed Julia by the arm and pawned her off to the arm of the automaton as they passed it.
They didn’t return to the room where Julia first reviewed images; they went under it, walking down a winding set of stairs until they finally reached another set of steel doors. When these opened, Julia was all but blinded by a flash of sunlight. She stumbled forward, free from the robotic arm, into a brilliant spring afternoon. Birds were singing loud enough to be heard over the steam car’s grumbling engine.
Sucking in the fleeting aroma of mud and blooming flowers, Julia allowed a human butler to help her climb into the rear passenger seat while Father helped Mother into the front. The butler gestured for Father to sit beside Julia, but he shook his head, slammed the door, and stomped to the front. He pulled the cord to start the steam engine and sped off, leaving the butler to find his own way home.
Julia made a mental note to have Colleen send one of the stable boys out to get him then took advantage of being out of her parent’s sight. She slouched. Tension poured out of her shoulders and spine. She kept her eyes closed but remained vigilant that the rhythmic chugging and puffing of the engine didn’t lull her to sleep.
“May I please retire to my room?” she asked as she stepped out of the car and started walking towards the family home.
“Yes,” said Father. “I imagine the Suitor Sorter would be tiring for one such as yourself. A nap will do wonders for your temperament.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Julia.
Each step towards the pink, shingled house made her feel lighter. She could see Colleen watching from the round bedroom window. The sight of her dark skin and flaming hair made Julia’s heart race and her cheeks heat up.
She took the stairs two at a time, even though the effort nearly made her faint. She brushed passed the butler as he opened the door, and climbed the mahogany stairs even faster than she had climbed the porch stairs. She didn’t slow until she was in her own room with the doors safely shut behind her.
“How’d it go,” asked Colleen.
Julia fell into Colleen’s arms, breathing in the scent of powder and chicken soup. “Terribly. I hope I never have to endure it again.”
“Was Alastair among the suitors?” Colleen’s nimble fingers were already working the knots in Julia’s dress.
“Yes, but I’m not sure what Father thinks of him,” said Julia between greedy lungfuls of blessed air.
“That’s wonderful news,” said Colleen as she pulled Julia’s dress off with ease.
Julia gulped more air, barely stopping herself from falling to her knees and worshiping it. “Perhaps. Do you really think he will propose at the debutante ball?”
“Of course. I don’t know of any other society ladies that would share her dresses with her husband and permit him to have male lovers in private,” said Colleen, helping Julia step out of the dress’ hoop.
Julia rubbed her aching ribs. “I hope you’re right. Because I don’t know of any other men who’d allow an Irish-African house maid to move in as his wife’s lover.”
Colleen massaged Julia’s bare shoulders and placed a small kiss on her neck. “I only wish I could marry you and not have to pretend to be your servant forever. Jimmy doesn’t want to remain a stable master anymore than I want to be house maid.”
Julia turned around and held Colleen at arm’s length. “It’s not ideal, but once Alastair and I are wed, we won’t have to fear our parents. We can join those who speak out for change.”
Colleen frowned. “Do you think society could ever accept a woman loving a woman or a man loving a man?”
“I don’t know, but I hope they will.” Julia leaned in and kissed Colleen on the head. Society was a stubborn machine, but even the most well-oiled gears rusted in time.

Sara Codair

Sara Codair lives in a world of words. Writing is like breathing; they can’t live without it. Sara teaches and tutors writing at a Northern Essex Community College. They live with a cat named Goose who likes to “edit” their work by deleting entire pages and a dog who limits their screen time. Their short stories were published in places like Unnerving Magazine, Alternative Truths, and Once Upon a Rainbow II. Their debut novel, Power Surge, will be published by NineStar Press on Oct. 1, 2018. Find Sara online at https://saracodair.com/.


About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson is a nighttime fiction writer with a penchant for horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. When she's not editing for Fantasia Divinity Magazine, she divides her creative time between writing short stories and working on the creations of two very different novels; a mystery/horror called Wolves Hollow, and a medieval fantasy she hopes to make into a series, called The First Blood. She has a Bachelor’s degree and lives in Northern Kentucky with her husband and two little boys, who keep her feet on the ground even while her head is in the clouds. To learn more, visit https://ambermsimpson.wordpress.com.