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After They’d Gone

Amanda Pica

The third house in the row sat empty, like all the others. Mariya and Leo stood in the side-yard of the stranger’s house, in that part known only by the people intimately connected to a home. Leo called it an in-between place. He slipped his small hand into hers and she held onto him. He’d stopped asking about the people two weeks ago, a few days after they’d all vanished.

A warm breeze ruffled Leo’s dark hair and made the house’s curtains flutter in the open windows. The movement gave an impression of life but it had been long enough now that Mariya knew better. In those first few uncertain days, the alarms and radios and robot vacuum cleaners still obeyed their missing masters and her heart would leap with every noise or motion. The electronics had all joined the silence quicker than she’d expected.

“How many more today, Mommy?”

Mariya squeezed his hand in response. “Only a few.”

“We mustn’t give up hope.” Leo parroted back a familiar phrase she whispered to him at their lowest moments, to keep him focused on what came next and to keep herself from dwelling on what came before. The flatness in his voice had started three days ago. Another worry to stack on top of all the others.

“That’s right, buddy. If we’re still here, who knows who else is.”

“Mrs McCarthy isn’t.” He pronounced his teacher’s name like there was an eff sound in the middle.

Mariya only nodded. The school had been empty, too. A loading dock in the back had been wide open, with a truck partly emptied. A dolly had lain on the ground, boxes toppled in an arc around it.

Leo stared at one of the windows in the empty house, then pointed at it. A terrified house cat peeked over the sill.

“Stay here, buddy.”

Mariya slid a large hunting knife out of her pocket, clicked the blade open, and the cat retreated into the dark house. She slashed the screen to make an opening big enough for the cat to escape. She’d probably never see it again, but at least now it had a choice.

Mariya plastered a too-big smile on her face and spun back around.

“Ready to keep going?”

Leo nodded and took her hand again. Through the landscaped yard, around the back to the next in-between place. They’d got to an expensive part of town with manicured flower beds. Weeks of abandonment left the delicate, careful blooms needing weeding and watering. Nature took back its rightful place with ease as though it had only been biding the time until the humans left.

Another empty house. Leo sighed.

“Want to stay here, in this one? Maybe there’s toys.” Mariya wiggled his hand and raised her eyebrows. It’d be an earlier stop than the pattern they’d established, an arbitrary schedule she’d adopted, but they could both use some rest. He glanced at her.

“Yeah, maybe.”

 After the first couple of days, they’d gone looking for others. They’d both been hesitant to go inside the houses, as though they could violate the private spaces of people who weren’t around to care. It hadn’t taken long for Leo to replace trepidation with wonder, and he explored the new places while Mariya took inventory of supplies. Keeping busy. House to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, taking shelter in the most appealing houses available nearest sunset. They’d tell each other stories as they fell asleep, and Mariya would hold him tight until morning came.

Mariya started toward the front of the house but Leo held her hand firm and didn’t move. She glanced back at him, intending to ask a too-perky question when he cut her off.

“Can we go home?”

Mariya stiffened. Her mouth stretched into a straight line as she tried to shove away the thoughts that came anyway. The painting her mother had given them as a wedding gift. The tiny place where paint had peeled away in the corner of the kitchen in the shape of Italy. The dent on the couch that marked Alex’s favorite spot. Laughing with him at the dining room table over an Uno game. Watching a movie together as a family under a fort made from cushions and blankets. Waking up to a cold bed, thinking he’d left her, only to find the reality was far worse.


She raised her chin and tried walking again and this time, Leo pulled her arm.

“Please, Mommy. I miss my…” he trailed off.

Mariya turned him toward her and squatted down, level with his eyeline. His large eyes, light brown flecked with gold, were wide against his too-still face. His raw grief caught her and tangled her up.

“My brave boy. My little lion.”

Leo’s features wrinkled then collapsed. He tried to talk between his sobs but his words were too wet and mushy to understand. Mariya pulled him close and held him, and he stopped trying to talk. His tears wet her hair and neck, grounding her in what they’d survived. What they’d lost. Her son’s waves of emotion crashed against her tenacity and gave in to the erosion and the thinning of the walls she’d built after they’d gone. She opened herself up to Leo and let him fully into her grief. They only had each other and he deserved all of her.

She sat on the ground with him, flattening some stranger’s grass, and cried.

Author Bio: Amanda Pica is a speculative fiction writer, dog lover, and peanut butter enthusiast. She lives in a state of what if, and loves when life bends around the corners of her expectations.

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Feeding the Dark

Joshua Grasso

Angelica hung on her mother’s arm as they walked down the cobblestone road, each one in matching knee-length jackets, though she wore blue stockings and t-bar flats to her mother’s more sober dress and heels. Her mother carried an old-world style basket with three loaves of fresh-baked bread, which she kept stealing glances at, but could never reach. Angelica hummed a tuneless melody as she watched her feet drum against the street, louder than was strictly polite, but her mother ignored it.

Something caught her eye, a strange man approaching across the street. He looked—oh God, look what he looked like! She had never seen someone like that before; only in movies, and then just for a jump-scare or surprise reveal. But never like this, just walking there, so anyone could stare at him or sell him bread.

“Momma! Momma!” Angelica whispered, tugging on her mother’s arm. “What is that?”

Her mother quickly looked up, then away, an awkward smile hiding her mistake.

“Dearest, don’t stare, it isn’t polite.”

Angelica made a squinty-eyed grimace of displeasure, unable to look away or stop asking questions.

“But momma…why does he look like that?”

“Lower your voice, please. A lot of people used to look like that when I was a child. It’s just how it was.”

“Like that?” she said, freezing in place.

“Come along, don’t just stand there,” her mother said, tugging her along.

Angelica resumed her steps, but slowly, eyes locked on his flopping hat, his baggy sleeves.

“But why, momma? Couldn’t they do something about it?”

 “People did try, dearest, but it wasn’t so easy to fix, not like today. They often treated it in other ways…ways that made it even worse.”

“But how does he look into the mirror? Isn’t he scared?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” she said, increasing her stride. “Besides, who are we to judge? Some people actually preferred to live like that. They felt it was normal. Even we didn’t change overnight. It took time, education. There are people who still don’t agree.”

Angelica digested this statement as the man veered even closer, closer enough to see his face (long and unshaven), the baggy clothes which hid all the rest. Now revulsion gave way to fear, and she wondered what he would smell like, and what he might say to her if he saw her staring at him…and didn’t like it.

 “Momma, do you think…could I give him some bread?”

 “I suppose so, but do it quickly,” she said, retrieving the smallest loaf.

Angelica took it and let her fingers sink into the warm, soft crust. Then she let go of her mother’s hand and skipped across the road to the stranger, stopping a few feet shy of him just in case.

“Excuse me, sir…I just thought…we had an extra one…if you wanted it,” she said.

The man gave a look of surprise, as if he had just seen a little girl for the first time in his life. She couldn’t help noticing all the bites (and all the blood).

“Oh! Why, thank you, I certainly would. I was just thinking how wonderful bread always tastes in the morning with a cup of coffee. Do you drink coffee?”

She shook her head, suddenly terrified of all the eyes taking stock of her, waking up.

“I didn’t either at your age. But give it a few years—you’ll see.”

As he tore the bread, the creatures that snaked around his body swarmed and slithered to grab it. Their small arms snatched the pieces and crammed them into dark mouths lined with innumerable fangs. Each one was a different color, and some were spotted, while others were striped. They all ignored her, fighting for each scrap of bread and tearing them into halves and quarters. Often they missed and tore at the man’s flesh, creating fresh wounds, dark blood. Angelica almost cried out, but knew that her mother expected more of her; after all, this was her idea.

As the loaf disappeared, the creatures—she counted no less than seven—each scampered off with a piece into the man’s pockets and sleeves. He had only a tiny scrap left for himself, which he popped into his mouth and chewed contentedly.

“Well, I can see your mother is waiting for you. Have a nice day,” he said.

Angelica ran back to her mother, her hands shaking now, her feet unsteady. Her mother set the basket on the ground and dug through her purse for Angelica’s pills. Though they usually followed right after breakfast, after such a scare and her daughter’s nerves, always fragile at best…

“Momma, why does he have so many?” she asked.

“Because he didn’t take his pills, dearest. Here you go: two now, and two when we get home.”

 It wasn’t a very satisfying answer, but Angelica was too rattled to argue. She chewed the pills and felt an explosion of grape against her tongue. Once finished, her mother picked up her basket and took Angelica’s hand in the other, giving it a firm squeeze. Angelica’s thoughts quickly trailed away to other thoughts and sensations before they stopped altogether. As the bus arrived, she suddenly looked up at her mother and asked, “momma, what were we talking about just now?”

 “Oh, I don’t know…probably about the weather. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

The bus doors hissed open, and she could see the driver smiling behind his sunglasses with a thick mustache.

“Watch your step, dear,” her mother said. 

Angelica was about to follow when she suddenly felt a strange tickling over her arm. So she gave her sleeve a few shakes before stepping in. An orange and black spider flew out and landed on the street, where it scurried into the shadows. She watched it disappear and then followed her mother into the bus, where she promptly forgot all about it.

Author Bio:  Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at a small university in Oklahoma (US), where he teaches courses in British and World Literature, writing, and comics. He holds a PhD from Miami University in 18th c. British Literature, but please don’t hold that against him. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, BFS Horizons, Tales to Terrify, and Penumbric SF, among others. He is still trying to write the perfect short story that combines his two great loves: Conan the Barbarian and Jane Austen (close, but no cigar!). 

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Maura Yzmore

I call him Barry because he reminds me of my uncle. Uncle Barry is a drunk, with a red bulbous nose and some sort of skin condition that makes him look flaky, like a lizard midway through molting.

I don’t know where I caught Barry. It must’ve been during my less-than-stellar highschool swimming career. I was unremarkable, mostly a body needed to fill relay rosters. I never won anything, except Barry. I like to think that Barry came from one of the fast boys who could break state records in difficult strokes, like the butterfly. It gives me comfort to think that something as extraordinary as Barry could happen to me just as it could to these prime athletic specimens. It makes me feel like I belong to the same species they do.  

For the most part, Barry doesn’t bother me. He — I’ve always thought of him as a he, not an it — spends much of his time hidden beneath my white cotton socks, and I feel he knows that he is to remain out of sight, because it isn’t safe to show himself to the world.

At first, I misunderstood what Barry was. He’d withdraw completely for weeks at a time, and I’d start believing that he might be gone for good. When he would reappear, I’d slather him with over-the-counter antifungals, to which he’d grow enraged and spread up my calf all the way to the knee, burning like a motherfucker. In that, too, he reminded me of Uncle Barry, who would transform from an agreeable drunk to a profane, belligerent nuisance whenever my mother tried to cut off his booze at family reunions.

Even after I’d realized what Barry was, I kept treating him, in some ways, like he was just foot fungus. I always wore plastic shoes in the dorm communal showers, telling myself I was trying to be considerate and not give the condition to others. But if I’m being honest, I simply didn’t want to share him. He’s far too valuable.

I first realized Barry was special when my roommate Matt stopped going to class. He wouldn’t get out of bed and wanted me to leave him alone. But I could hear him — I could hear Matt’s mind, at first very softly, then just like someone was playing a video in my head on low volume, somewhat garbled, but they were his words, his thoughts, and they were dark and sticky, like tar. I could see him being dragged down into their depths, and I could feel his despair, his helplessness as he got swallowed, sinking deeper and deeper, with no way out. After that, I contacted Student Services, who got ahold of Matt’s parents, who then promptly came and took him away. I hear he’s at a hospital now but should be OK. His mom keeps sending me baked goods, thanking me for saving her son’s life, but it was all Barry.

I’d never been great around girls, not in high school, not now in college. Until Barry. He knew when I really liked someone, and when I pursued them for the wrong reasons. My foot burned and itched when I was about to approach a girl only because she seemed lonely or a little more desperate than her friends. The foot would get pleasantly warm, almost erotic, when I thought about a person who really appealed to me. Best of all, Barry would let me know if the girl really liked me back. I could hear the whisper of her thoughts, feel the beating of her heart, sense the arousal coursing through her veins.

Barry is why I now have Amy, and I swear I’ve never been happier.

But I am kept awake at night by the images of her feet getting red and flaky, of deep invisible tendrils growing throughout her body and burrowing into her brain, and I can feel a small part of me screaming in agony, a part so tiny and crying from someplace so far away, hidden so deep within me, that it almost feels like it isn’t a part of me anymore… As I finally drift asleep, the unsettling pictures escape the grasp of my mind, and instead I envelop a sleeping Amy, feeling deeply content, and I throw my leg over hers, my red pulsing toes aligned with her still pale ones, and I rejoice for a little while at the gift that we will soon share.

Author Bio:  Maura Yzmore writes short fiction and long equations somewhere in the American Midwest. Her speculative flash has appeared in Flash Fiction OnlineThe ArcanistUtopia Science Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com or on Twitter @MauraYzmore.

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