Monthly Archives: November 2019

Gateways: “Cephalophore” By Jim McDoniel, read by Alex B. Reynolds



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Jim McDoniel. Jim McDoniel is a writer of monsters and mirth, not always in that order. He also writes radio plays. He holds a Masters degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University. He is a writer for the podcasts Our Fair City and Unwell. He was a finalist in Deathscribe 10 for his piece, “Monstruos.” and a five time Midnight Audio Theatre Scriptwriting Competition winner. Jim is the author of an amazing novel, An Unattractive Vampire available from Sword and Laser publishing. This is “Cephalophore”

 

Content Note: This story features a frank depiction of death and a person being ostracized. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

Pain.

I’m not supposed to feel it. This death is meant to be quick, instantaneous. A modern,

humane way to die. I was assured I would not feel a thing.

And yet I do. I feel it all. The falling blade breaking the skin. Then the bone. Then the meat. The blood leaking out from the muscle like a sponge wrung dry. I am ripping away from myself. Falling, somersaulting forward but not as I should, not all of me. I look up hoping to see myself but all I see is steel coming to rest with a thud. It blocks my view, separates me from hope with its sheen of modernity stained crimson. And then blood pours into my eyes and I am swallowed by the darkness of the basket.

Pain. I feel it. Continue to feel it. There at the base of my skull, there where the spine was severed, the throat cut, the esophagus torn away. The nerves scream all at once. They are fire. What blood was pumped into my head before the end rallies to the call and spills away. On the other side of the device, there is an answering cry, the twin to this agony. Two halves that never should have been. I feel this to. I feel it all.

A cheer goes up. My death is celebrated. It is the day’s entertainment. Parents bring their children. Friends greet each other from across the square. Someone is trying to sell his neighbor a horse. A vendor is handing out nuts. The shells plunk off the stage. One bounces off my back.

Seconds pass. Millennia. I am still here in the basket. I am still there on the stage. I have always been here. This is all there is. All there ever was. The fire in my neck turns to pins and needles. Every frayed edge of sinew calls out for attention, for relief, for the sweet blood that is pooling on wood and wicker.

Fingers loop themselves in my hair. A new pain. The darkness of the basket gives way to light. I see them through a haze. They stand on the other side of a veil, the applauding crowd. I squint, try to focus. Someone gasps, another screams. Then laughter. The laughter of those who have seen many executions. The gallows crows know all the tricks, all the little foibles of the dead. The hanged man’s erection, the drowned woman’s gas, the sweet whiff of shit as bowels release.

I blink. The veil remains. I cannot see. But I feel. The hair tugs at my scalp in the

committee man’s grip. His other hand rips a lock free for himself, a memento to treasure or to sell. The breeze blows against my ragged wounds and it is like knives tickling the flesh. A wet, warm pool spreads around my neck and chest. Hands are in my pockets, at my feet, pulling free my shoes, looking for anything the guards didn’t take. I am split. Here and there. Pain in both places. It hurts. It hurts so much. Why doesn’t it stop? WHY DOESN’T IT STOP?

I scream. I cannot scream. The audience jumps in delighted fright. They clap for me. There is no relief. I thrash and kick. A real scream. Somewhere behind me, where I am. I flail. I punch. I bite. Again, applause. I am putting on quite the show. My fingernails tear into skin, wet and warm. Someone else is in pain now. It does not help but it is the only thing I can do. The only way I can tell them I am still here. Tell them what I feel.

Bodies pull against me. Footsteps clatter off the wooden stage. There are more screams. The man holding me turns and for a moment I see myself, see the other half, the stump begging to be made whole. I am clear, unveiled, beautiful, and hurting. But then I fall. The world blurs before it slams to a halt. My skull cracks. A splinter lodges itself in the skin next to my left eye. More wounds to add to my collection.

Hands everywhere. Hands pull at me. They try to hold me back, pin me down. I tear at them. Their screams join the chorus and then go quiet. But I go on. Why do I go on? A call to aim, a crack of gunfire. I am pierced one after another. The little lead balls,

flying through me. Ribs crack. My stomach bursts open. Acid and bile spill into my gut. It

BURNS. And then they come, the sharp blades of the bayonets thrust into me, less chaotic than the mess of the round shot, the metal slices with merely a whiff and whisper of suffering. All save one. He thrusts his stock against me, against where I should be. My collarbone splinters, the shards separate the skin. There is no blood left to spill.

They scream. I scream. The world screams. Screams are all there is. It is deafening.

The world has become a sliver of veil between my blood-matted hair and the wooden stage. I see a tall blur holding a smaller blur to its chest, hurrying to safety. The small one stares back at me. Its eyes become clear. His eyes. Brown. I try to tell the eyes, tell them I’m still here. Tell them I’m in pain. Tell them to help, find help, get help. Help. It hurts! God, please. The eyes shut and are gone. The blurs disappear into the world beyond me.

I am near. I feel myself. The footsteps shake my world. Hands—wet and warm but gentle, familiar—are at my cheek. I am lifted, am lifting myself. I see the wreck of myself even as I feel the lightness of what is left of me. We try to put the pieces back together, to make the halves whole. But the pain persists and we remain we.

They are gone. All of them. Even the most devout of the gallows crows who stayed to watch the show fled when they saw there was no anonymous throng to hide in. We are all that is left in this fading world. We walk. Off the blood-soaked stage. Into the barren streets. All doors closed to us. We walk.

There is nowhere to go. No vengeance to seek, no sermon to give, no message to herald. There is only us and the pain. And we both go on and on and on.

 

Alex B Reynolds began acting as Sherlock Holmes in the second grade. Since then, they have played Shere Khan, Gandalf, Iggy Pop, numerous zombies, Jason Voorhees, Luigi, and Skeletor. Character acting is kind of their wheelhouse. Their voice can be heard on the Filmthusiast Final Cut podcast and the Meet/Cute sitcom podcast. 


Gateways: “Focus on the Job” by Allison Manley, read by Kate Akerboom



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Allison Manley. Allison is currently an MFA in writing candidate at Queens University Charlotte. She received her Bachelor’s in English with writing concentration & honors in 2012. She published one short story in the Chicago Reader and has performed at readings in Chicago with Unreal (monthly open mic night) and the Deep Dish Speculative Literature Foundation reading series. This is “Focus on the Job”

Content Note: This story features sexual harassment and bugs. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

The interview was great, so I was surprised at how different my first day was. Everyone was so friendly when I applied, but when I actually started, all I got was a company-branded mousepad and a series of sad smiles from my new coworkers. After a day of dull trainings and strained introductions, 5pm came. Everyone left so quickly that you could have seen the little cartoon sprint lines trailing after them. Maybe this was what working life was like, I thought. It was my first job out of school—all my other jobs had been part-time through the school’s work study program. I stayed behind, tacking some photos into my secluded cubicle, trying to take in my new space and make it my own so that the next morning, I’d be able to focus on the job.

“Are you the new hire?” I heard someone ask. I looked up and saw Mr. Peterson,

standing over the edge of my cubicle. I recognized his tan face and coiffed hair that he seemed to have in all of his company profiles.

“Yes,” I said, holding out my hand. “Hi Mr. Peterson. It’s nice to meet you.”

“So today was day one, huh?” he said, grabbing my hand and shaking it a little too hard. “How do you like it so far?”

“I like it!” I said, trying to seem eager. “I’m excited to be part of the team.”

He started looking at the photos I had tacked up and he walked over to stand right next to me at my desk. He grabbed the stack of photos I hadn’t put up yet. “Nice pictures,” he said, fingering through them so quickly they were getting bent at the edges. My head started to hurt. “Is your boyfriend in any of these?”

I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I didn’t think that was a good thing to point out. “I’m sure he’s in one of those,” I mumbled, pretending to straighten the photos that were already up. The pain in my head grew stronger.

“That’s too bad,” Mr. Peterson said. He grew closer to me, and, standing directly behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders, pinning me back to my chair. “Well, if there’s ever a night you’re not working so late, you should come over to my place and discuss the position further.” He pressed his fingers into my shoulders. “We’re really excited you’re here.”

“I—I—thank you,” I said, in shock.

“Happy to help,” he said. “I always love mentoring young professionals as they start their careers.” After what felt like hours, he released his grip and walked to the front of my cubicle. Then, he turned around and winked at me. “Looking forward to working with you,” he said, and walked away.

When I got home, I tried watching TV, but I couldn’t stop crying. I went to my bedroom and stuffed my face into my pillow. At first I cried because of how terrible the day had ended—would it be like this every time I saw him? Could I quit my first job after the first day? I had heard of worse things happening to women at work—much, much worse things—so should I be grateful that it wasn’t like those times? Why didn’t I, I don’t know, do something?

My crying turned into… something else. My head throbbed, more than it had earlier, and I turned on my back so I could put my hand on my forehead. It felt fine, so I put my hand on my temples and rubbed, the way you do when you’re frustrated with something. As my hand brushed up against my ear, I felt… wetness. I inspected my hand. My fingers were coated with a thick yellow goo. I put my hand closer to my ears this time, right near the earlobe, and I felt more of the stuff leaving my ear, seeping into my pillowcase.

I didn’t even have a chance to grab my phone when the pain got worse, worse than I ever thought I could feel, and I felt something within my head tear. I froze on the bed, desperately asking myself what was happening but not getting any answers, and then I felt something else. Movement. It wasn’t just throbbing anymore—it was pulsing. Something was coming out of my ear, slowly and painfully. Razor-sharp spikes ripped through my ear canal as the pulsing continued. I think I was screaming—I couldn’t hear because both ears were blocked now, and I couldn’t feel anything other than the agonizing pain. My hand moved to pull the things out of me, and when I pressed down to grab them, it felt like I had wrapped my hand around a ball of needles. Not only did my hand hurt, but the pain in my head got worse when I tried to get rid of the thing. For a brief moment, I couldn’t feel it anymore—the pain, the pulsing sensation, the tearing was all done—but then, a few seconds later, it started again. I passed out from the pain, but with my last moments of consciousness, I could feel the things still making their way out onto my pillow, crawling out of my brain.

I woke up hours later and looked at my clock—it was around the time I got up for

work—and then at my pillow. I snapped my fingers to check if I could still hear, and despite the trauma from yesterday, they still seemed to hear OK. There were trails leading from where my years were to a spot on my desk. There they were—the things from last night. There were maybe a dozen or so of them, thick little wormy snakes, each the size of a pencil, all covered in the yellowish ooze and the sharp, tiny spikes that split my ears apart. My heart was racing, but I had to take a closer look at them—and when I did, I saw they had tiny feet, almost like centipede legs, covering the length of their bodies. And when I looked at their faces—it looked like they

were looking at me. Looking at me with their disgusting, yellow eyes.

I ran to the door, and they shifted their heads in my direction. I was covered in sweat and blood and the stuff that was in my ears the night before, but it didn’t hurt anymore. I moved to different parts of the room and still they looked in my direction. I got closer to them again.

“What are you?” I asked, not to them but to myself. These worms came from me—from my head—and were now looking up at me, almost like they recognized me.

They started inching their way towards me, like caterpillars might move on a plant stem, and I recoiled. They stopped, as if they sensed my fear. I tried something. “Come to me,” I said, and they inched their way again, leaving a trail of yellow sludge behind them. I waited until they got a few inches closer. “Stop,” I said, and they did, all at once, never looking away from me. “Go to the door,” I said, and they turned. They were doing it, I realized—they were doing what I asked them to do.

I held out my hand to one of them, and it walked on me. Its little legs were sticky, and it I thought about last night, and how Mr. Peterson had offered to invite me to drinks with him; and I thought about the pain I felt, how my muscles froze and I couldn’t move, and how later, these things tore through me. I looked each worm in the eye, one by one, and asked, “You came out of my ears,” I said, as they continued to stare at me. “But can you go into someone’s Ear?”

The worms all stood on their back legs, looking like they were sergeants-at-arms, ready for their battle orders.

“Do you think you can you do it without him noticing, like while he’s asleep?”

The creatures stood still, which I took as a yes.

“And then… can you make it as painful for him as it was for me?”

They pulled their lips back and reared their teeth.

“Good,” I said. I grabbed my purse and put it on the desk. They started crawling,

marching into my bag. I imagined Mr. Peterson waking up one day, or stopping an important meeting, screaming, worms emerging from his skull, tearing up his flesh, goo and blood gushing from his ears, making him freeze in terror like I did the night before. “Let’s get to work,” I said, and we left for the office.

Kate Akerboom is a multi-creative individual living in Chicago. When she’s not talking about animals at Shedd Aquarium or playing with her beagle, Willie, you can find her performing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire or hear her talking about crime history on her podcast Scofflaws: a History of Law and Disorder. Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kate is a proud graduate of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, possessing degrees in Theatre Performance and History with an emphasis in museum studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public History through Southern New Hampshire University.


Gateways: “Pumpkin Spice” by Mike Danovich, read by Alex B. Reynolds



TRASNSCRIPT: This story is written by Mike Danovich. Mike could not be happier to be returning to Gateways. His previous short stories Just Once More and But There Was Time were both read out loud in front of real people for previous Gateways iterations. Mike is also an actor/playwright/director as well as a company member of Otherworld Theatre. You can currently see in performing in Otherworld’s production of Countess Dracula. This is “Pumpkin Spice”.
Content Note: This story does feature some self harm. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

Tuesday, October 1st
Just when you thought you were safe, it’s your girl Jacque B., coming at you live from the Windy City. It is officially fall and I am LOVING it. Just grabbed my first PSL of the season and, mmm mmm mmm, it was worth the wait. I take it back; it wasn’t worth the wait as Gwarbucks could offer it throughout the entire year instead, but I’ll take what I can get. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss plans for the season: where to go, what to do, best places to get those sweet discounts on decorations, and as a special treat, we’ll have our list of spoopy films to watch every day in October, getting you in the mood for that day of days: Halloween
This is Good Gourd! With Jacque B.
As you might now know, I’m a local podcaster who loves anything and everything based around fall. I mean, my parents even named me Autumn (ok, it’s my middle name, but still). I’m still up and coming on the podcaster scene, but it could be worse. I make enough to not struggle to pay rent, although my parents still help me out. They’ve been nothing but supportive of me since I moved here. But enough about me, let’s find out where to go and what to do here in Chicago to get you in the mood for Halloween. Folks, I know you have opinions (especially if the internet is any indication). Make sure to call in and let the public where the best spots are. Let’s take a few calls and hit you up with that delicious list. You know the number, listeners.

Friday, October 4th
Can you feel the spirits in the air? Welcome back, faithful listeners, to another episode of Good Gourd! I’m your host Jacque B and let me tell you: you’re in for a real treat today, no tricks. We area wrapping up this week of the list of places to visit that you, our fanbase, submitted. Yesterday’s locale was pretty sweet and hard to beat – The Spirit Realm. Sounds scary, but I promise it’s only a pop up bar over on Goose Island. The name alone is enough to give me goosebumps. We won’t go into details (you can listen to yesterday’s episode for that), so let’s talk about the final spot on our list. Today’s spot is billed as Chicago’s top spot for spooky thrills and autumn chills – Paranormal Snacktivity. Many of you submitted this one stating that it’s your favorite place and you never miss it. They serve candy corn flavored everything; and as gross as that sounds, you don’t want to miss it. I’ll play it safe and go for something like the candy corn flavored pancakes, but I’m heading there this weekend and will give you my thoughts come Monday.

Monday, October 7th
‘K folks, I’m skipping the intro this week and need to talk about my experience from this weekend. I took your advice and hit up Paranormal Snacktivity on Saturday. It. Was. Wonderful. I have never been so spooked while hitting up such a campy spot. The hour-long wait wasn’t terribly exciting, but the atmosphere they set up was brilliant. The restaurant is hidden in an abandoned warehouse near the train yard and the line out the door circles the entire block. They literally hired actors to come scare folks while they waited. One actor walked past us, dressed in a nice black and orange suit, stared at me for a couple minutes (what dedication), and whispered something creepy in my ear while the line slowly moved along. Must have recognized me from the show and made sure I had a lovely time. Also, the pancakes were ridiculously sweet but definitely worth the wait. Ugh, I may have to go back next weekend. It was a great pick. Honestly folks, you’re the real MVPs. I think I’ll open the phone lines once again to get more submissions if you’re going to offer up great spots like that.

Tuesday, October 8th
Oh my god, listeners, we need to chat for a second. Multiple people called in yesterday to tell me that Paranormal Snacktivity doesn’t hire actors to walk the crowds. I guess the man I thought was an actor from this weekend was just some random guy and the police have been notified. I am honestly frightened. If anyone sees him, he’s about six feet tall, white, a little on the older side, and wore a silly black and orange suit. Now that it’s been revealed that this guy was a fraud, I am outraged. Full disclosure: I’ve had a killer headache since Saturday. Part of it is the rage at this man, probably most of it from the sugar special I ingested that day, but I’m not going to let a little throbbin’ in my noggin get in the way of this wonderous season. Enough about my woes, let’s get to today’s agenda: ten straight hours of Purple People Eater. Don’t touch that dial; I know where you live.

Friday, October 11th
Late Tuesday night, I ended up in the emergency room. That headache I had from last week knocked me right out at the conclusion of our song marathon. My parents found me on the floor and rushed me to the hospital. No known cause yet, but I’m going to mark it down in my book as a “sugar crash”. I thought about that guy again. I don’t remember what he said to me, but there’s been a phrase stuck in my head on repeat for days – “Caput A Cucurbita. Quaestiones?” I’ve never heard it before in my life, at least I don’t think I have. I think I need to do a little research.

Monday, October 14th
And I ended up back in the hospital this past weekend. That headache returned with a vengeance. I swear I didn’t go back and get those pancakes this time. I just can’t get that weird guy out of my mind. All I can think about is pumpkins. Hundreds and hundreds of pumpkins. Sitting in a patch, praying to one large pumpkin in the center. All hail the Pumpkin King.
No no no, I have no idea where that came from. That is not me. All right Jacque, back to the show. In today’s segment, we’ll be discussing the perfect candy for trick or treating: pumpkins. Wait. Not pumpkins. The perfect candy is pumpkins. King size pumpkin. The king of pumpkins. All hail the—I’m so sorry. I’m not feeling well. That headache has come back. I need to lie down.

Thursday, October 17th
This week has really tried to test me, faithful listeners. I haven’t felt like myself lately. My head has started to swell up and someone with their head up their own ass at the grocery store this morning made a comment about I looked a little more burnt sienna than usual. Like who tells someone that while they ring up your groceries? It’s true I’ve been at the tanning salon a few more times this month; I needed the relaxation. The episode will probably be a little shorter than normal. It’s taking a lot of energy to record today, so bear with me. On another note, I think I saw that man again. I’m not quite sure if it was him, but it felt like he was watching me. Staring at me with that creepy smile. That smile. No, it was definitely him. Does he know me? Does he know where I live? Oh god, I have some things I need to do.

Wednesday, October 23rd
Even though I may not have been here much lately, you’re still in my heart, listeners. It’s a new day and this headache can’t keep me from sharing updates with you. My head is still ridiculously swollen. It’s now twice its normal size (and my head used to be on the smaller side, thank you). Doctors still don’t know the reason behind it. They considered jaundice for a while, considering my skin has changed color as well, but that doesn’t usually cause swelling in your extremities (and this has been some extreme swelling). To say that I still have some pain in my head would be an understatement. But I have returned and am ready to go. In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss more pumpkins: nothing but pumpkins. Short ones. Fat ones. Silly ones. Dead ones. Kill them. Kill them all. Spread the seeds of…hold on, let me gather my thoughts. That’s not…I didn’t mean to say that. It’s just…he’s always in my head. Staring back at me. Smiling that creepy smile. I can’t shut him out. The pain. It’s too much.

Wednesday, October 30th.
R
eal talk, listeners, it’s hard to keep going. I can’t feel my face anymore; I feel like I’m about to pop. The images in my head are also making it real hard to see. I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced something like this, but I would not recommend it. The phrase has been playing in my mind nonstop all month – “Caput A Cucurbita. Quaestiones?” I need to make it stop. Make it stop. Make it…huh. I understand it now. He shall be appeased. I shall shape myself in his image. The pain shall be released. In the name of the Pumpkin King, I dedicate my spirit to you. 

Thursday, October 31st
News today as local podcast host Jacque B. was found dead in her recording studio early this morning. Sources state that her head had turned into a pumpkin and she was found, carving knife in hand, with chunks of her own face removed. Listeners were concerned over the past few weeks that she was acting erratic. At this time, foul play is not suspected. This has been a tragic loss for the community and podcast world. Surely, she will be missed. Up next, are your kids safe enough to trick or treat this evening? David, back to you.

ALex B Reynolds began acting as Sherlock Holmes in the second grade. Since then, they have played Shere Khan, Gandalf, Iggy Pop, numerous zombies, Jason Voorhees, Luigi, and Skeletor. Character acting is kind of their wheelhouse. Their voice can be heard on the Filmthusiast Final Cut podcast and the Meet/Cute sitcom podcast.


Gateways: “Emotional Labor” by Rachel A. Schrock, read by Karolyn Blake



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Rachel A. Schrock. Rachel is a Chicago-based writer, actress, comedian, and musician. You can check her out on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, all @Razmatini. This is “Emotional Labor”

Content Note: This story features violence, some of which is of a sexual nature; blood and death. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

When I was thirteen years old, I got my first period. As I frantically scrubbed at the blood on my skirt, my head started to ache, and later I found out it wasn’t for the reason I suspected.

From that day on, I was cursed. From that day on, I felt others’ feelings as if they were my own. 

You feel things very strongly when you are thirteen, but only because, at that age, you have never felt anything else. When your parents tell you that you can’t go to the mall with your friends, it feels like the worst thing in the world. Compared to everything you’ve experienced of the world thus far, it is.

This is a gift. Because as you grow, as you are exposed to more and more heartache, every small moment of sadness is a layer of armor against what is to come.

When I was thirteen years old, my older brother was in a car accident. He died instantly. I was sad in the way a thirteen-year-old could be sad. It was the worst thing in my world— a world that did not contain the thrill and fear of pregnancy, the miracle of new life, the sleepless nights, the joys of your baby’s milestones, the bond between parent and child.

My mother’s world did contain those things.

When I was thirteen years old, I felt emotions a thirteen-year-old was never meant to feel.

I am an incredibly average-looking woman. You are an incredibly average-looking man with the confidence of a much more handsome one. Over our appetizers, I tell you about my brother. You stoically recount your best friend’s tragic passing. (Your grief tells me you were never that close to him.) I lean forward, take your hand, say, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” You think you have me wrapped around your finger.

Over dinner, I do not tell you about my mother. You talk about yours. “She never understood me,” you lament. Your anger is petulant, immature. I bat my eyelashes and apologize on her behalf for not believing you could have made the next “Fight Club.”

After dessert, I ask you if you want to walk back to my place. I feel your relief that the evening wasn’t wasted, and your eagerness to get me alone.

I hold your hand because I think you will like it. You don’t care. I hold it anyway.

I always hold their hands.

Cities teem with emotion— giddy excitement from tourists; grating frustration from commuters; desperation from beggars; bursts of joy or sorrow tucked into the private anonymity of a crowd.

I feel it all. I absorb very little.

The sum total of all these emotions is a blunt sort of melancholy. It’s a strong desire to cry, and the complete inability to do so. It’s nothing in the way that hunger is nothing; it is the lack of something. It’s not pleasant, but it never changes.

I like that.

I lead you up the stairs to my apartment. I close the door behind us, and you immediately press me up against it. I let you kiss me for a moment. You’re sure you are a good kisser; you’re okay. 

Your self-satisfaction distracts you enough for me to take out my knife. I get you in the side—enough to hurt, but not to kill— and spin you around, pushing you to the floor behind me. The shock silences you, but I feel your confusion, your fear.

It’s delicious.

“Don’t scream. No one will hear you.”

You scream. No one hears you. I smile as your panic creeps up our veins. We start to cry.

“What do you want? I’ll give it to you. Whatever you want.” You try to stand. I stab your thigh. We cry harder.

I sink to my knees, pinning you at the waist. I kiss you. As I hold your head steady, the knife cuts a thin, red line against your cheek. Our hands shake.

“I won’t tell anyone, I swear, just let me go. Please, please.”

Feelings are never wrong, are they? They are an automatic response to your surroundings; how could they be wrong?

Right?

What you need to understand is that feeling is based on belief.

You’re only afraid of bees because you believe they will do you harm. You’re only angry at the waitress who forgot to offer you extra napkins because you believe you are entitled to that courtesy. You only love a certain person because you believe you can (or should) love them.

When you tell someone that their feelings are right, you are telling them that they believe the right things.

I don’t know what I believe anymore.

When I was thirteen years old, I carried a sadness that nearly incapacitated my mother. She stayed in bed for a whole week— she couldn’t even wash her hair for the funeral. And I felt everything else, too— the disgust and irritation at my mother that somehow sat side-by-side with my father’s grief, and the pity from our neighbors, and my classmates’ awkwardness about talking to a dead kid’s sister. It all piled up in my head.

Since then, there’s never been enough room up there for me.

It’s amazing, how many times a person can be stabbed before they die. I can toy with you for hours, if I want to. But I can’t help it— I’m addicted to your fear.

You cry. I cry. I laugh.

Finally, you realize that you won’t make it out of this alive. You’re of no use to me now.

I slit your throat and watch you die.

I feel nothing.

Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.


Gateways: “The Hum” by Mikey Strange, read by Josh Ballard



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Mikey Strange. Michael was born a storyteller. His strength is in telling a story verbally and he has risen to the challenge of translating his skill to the page. Tonight, we are thrilled to take his writing and give it back to voice. This is This is This is “The Hum”

For the longest time, I thought cancer was as bad as it got. Objectively, I know there are more terrible things in the world by comparison, like genocide and sex trafficking, but those evils felt more like figments to me, like barely-audible ghosts that only stalked news outlets and human rights blogs. To me they were no more real than all the other depressing and violent shit I saw daily; it was just background.

But cancer, that shit was real. I saw my dad waste away from the inside out. In six months, he went from the vibrant spaz of a high school math teacher trying to get kids excited about algebra to a gray husk barely able to feed himself. By the end of it, when the cancer finally took him under, I just stared at his body in the hospital room until they took it away. He didn’t even look real; he looked like a latex rendering–like some cheap Halloween store body. His eyes were the worst part, though. They had always been this very specific shade of hazel I had never seen anywhere else. The instant his life left him, those eyes changed into empty globes staring listlessly up at the popcorn ceiling. They seemed almost black, and they didn’t sparkle. After that day nothing sparkled.

Soon everything became cancer. Pain in my back–probably cancer. The strange-looking mole my hip–definitely cancer. Anything and everything was probably, most certainly, cancer. I spent my nights obsessing over articles and books, convinced that if I didn’t know all the signs, all the rarest forms, and how it snuck into you, I’d end up vanishing too.

I became a hypochondriac, like, full-on crazy. I saw my doctor nearly every week, and four times I had actually convinced him to run me through a series of CAT scans for various imagined emergencies. The scans always came back negative, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before the black, bloating cells that drifted through my fears caught up with me.

When I woke up to the hum I knew that that time had finally come. All the other times I’d rushed to the doctors, I knew that on some level I was being unreasonable. I mean, I wasn’t pretending; I just spiraled out. I obsessed about something until the only way to put my mind at ease was to know for sure. The hum was completely different though–it was this low-frequency rattle that started somewhere at the base of my spine. Throughout the day, it worked its way up, so that when I tried to sleep, I could feel it pulsing right between my eyes.

I didn’t even wait to get an appointment with my doctor. That’s how certain I was that this was the end. I lied to the emergency room nurse and said I fell off a ladder and knocked myself out. Shit like that always prompts a fast response.

Sitting in that bed while the magnetic coils whirled around me was probably the most agonizing forty minutes of my life, and I’m including the six months I dealt with my dad. The worst thing though wasn’t the fear; it was the thought that once I knew that I was going to die, I really didn’t have anyone to tell. I didn’t have a girlfriend or really anyone close to me. My family was estranged for various reasons, and the only people I really associated with were a few friends from college who I would occasionally catch the game with. I didn’t even have a pet to tell that I was going to die. Suddenly I could feel my body begin to panic. No one would care when I was gone. Once I had died, when I had turned all gray and collapsed into myself, the world would go on just as if I were never here. I broke down once I got out. Sitting in the waiting room, I just ugly-cried.

When the doctor said there was nothing wrong with me, I became furious, I mean, like irrationally mad. I argued with him and regurgitated all of the articles I had ever read. I demanded to see the labs and the scans. I took them home and posted them on chat forums and medical advice sites. I even paid a private doctor to look them over just to see if anything had been missed. But everything was normal–actually, I was better than normal. With the exception of a higher-than-average BMI, I was as healthy as an ox. There was no explanation for the hum–I just kept getting worse. I burned through all of my sick leave and vacation days searching for some sort of explanation.

Over the course of a month, I spent thousands of dollars talking to specialists. Each of them gave me a handful of different plausible explanations, and all of those plausible explanations branched off into other paths, to other hospitals, to other specialists, like some sort of fucked-up fractal.

While I was busy worrying about the hum, the world around me was changing. Toward the end of my four weeks in utter hell, the news broke out about a high school student named Samantha Gill. She had been an amateur blogger–you know, a wannabe YouTube influencer, like everyone her age. She had gotten fame alright, but not from her videos. Some drone enthusiast had happened to capture her death on film. We really don’t even know anything about who they were, just that they uploaded the video of her death to the Internet and let the millions upon millions of retweets and re-blogs do their work.

Immediately the predictable parade of denial started. News outlets, prodded by government agencies, claimed the video was a fake. Some special effects guys in New York City even tried to take credit for it, but the cat was already out of the bag. As soon as the video hit the Web, every right-wing conspiracy-theorist nutjob swarmed Samantha’s YouTube page to grab her videos before they got taken down, trying desperately to find some explanation for what had happened.

Like everyone else in the modern world, I, too, watched the video, and like everyone else, I knew it wasn’t fake. No CGI or shitty after-effects could capture what happened on that video. But ultimately it wasn’t the video of her death that I became obsessed with—well, not at first; it was her last couple of vlog posts.

She had called it the “buzz,” but every symptom she described was identical to my “hum.” She talked about how it moved up her spine, how by the end of the night it settled right between her eyes, pulsating in her sinuses like a fucking sonar. She talked about how she couldn’t sleep, how the buzz was the only thing she could think about. That was when I understood that what was happening to me couldn’t be explained by science, that I would end up dying just as she had.

If you haven’t seen the video, you really should, but I’ll do my best to describe it. It starts with some generic drone footage, you know, like all trees and hills and shitty houses. But approaching the three-minute mark, the video zeroes in on this skinny teenager in jean shorts kneeling in the middle of a park. For just a moment in the video, you can see she’s clutching at her head. There’s no sound, but you can see she’s screaming, and the drone only gets fractionally closer before the explosion.

I say ‘explosion,’ because there’s not really a word to describe what happens next. There’s no fire, no impact; there’s just this sudden circle of color. It’s as if someone took a firehose and just went to town, spraying down everything within an eighty-foot radius in a perfect sphere of green paint. But that doesn’t even really capture it. It wasn’t just one solid color but a million shades of green, most hues of which I’ve seen neither before nor since—shades of green that still keep me up at night.

Most people focus on the color, on the phenomenon, on what it means, on what caused it. But I focused on what happened to Samantha. In those few seconds before the drone footage goes out, I watched this awkward teenage girl become that color. It’s like God reached down and just stretched her apart. Everything she was, everything that made up her soul had simply burst out like the vivid arterial spray of the Earth.

After people caught on and stopped treating it like a hoax, “going color” suddenly became an act of terrorism–bio-weaponry–and it didn’t stop with Samantha. All over the world, people were just…disappearing into color. A CCTV camera in Mumbai caught Kumar Srinivasan going blue in the center of Crawford Market. The footage leaked online, and it’s nearly identical to Samantha’s: he’s there and then suddenly everything around him goes blue. You can’t really see in the video what happens to Kumar, but you do get to see what happens to the other people. It’s like some wave, like radiation or something holy. All at once everything around him–cars, buildings, traffic signs–fold into variegated lapis lazuli, royal and terrifying. People don’t evaporate or implode, they just abruptly become color, like emotions given form.

I don’t want to die, but I know it’s coming. It’s the way it starts, with the hum. But there’s this clarity that comes with knowing it’s going to happen. It’s like all that anxiety, all that fear I struggled with was just the uncertainty of how it would end. All the other fears attached themselves to that uncertainty and fed off of it, but now for the first time in my life, I’m sure of something, even if that thing is terrible, even if it means there will be nothing left of me to bury. I almost prefer that. I won’t be a void like my father. I won’t be some sickly wax sculpture pushed into the crematorium.

The only thing that really makes me sad is the thought that I might not get to see my own color. What will my insides look like? How will my soul look splattered across the fourth dimension? I hope it’s hazel, that impossibly elusive shade I never saw after my dad shut his eyes for the last time. That would make me happy. It would make me happy to share that color with the world.

Josh Ballard’s work has been seen all over the Chicagoland area for the past 11 years. From Ren Faires to radio, pantos to photoshoots, he is an actor that can, and will, do anything. A grad of Columbia College Chicago, Josh is excited to be a part of this unique series with one of the fastest growing theatre companies in Chicago!


Gateways: “The Competition” by Brendan Detzner. Read by Josh Ballard



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Brendan Detzner. Brendan Detzner’s work has appeared in Chizine, Pseudopod, Edge of Propinquity, Ruthless Peoples, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, and the Book of Dead Things and Exigencies anthologies, as well as elsewhere. Brendan has also been featured at Gumbo Fiction Salon, and Reading Under The Influence, and Twilight Tales reading series in Chicago and runs the Bad Grammar Theater reading series. You can keep track of what he’s up to at brendandetzner.com. This is “The Competition”.

Content Note: This story features some body horror. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. It is an honor to have you here today.”

It was ten o’clock at night. It had been a journey for Alice to get here. Twenty minutes on the bus to the Metra stop, an hour on a commuter train with dark orange-red plastic on the seats and tinted green windows. Most of the other passengers had been gone by the time the train arrived at Alice’s stop. She’d stepped onto the platform, smiled and thanked the man in the uniform with the blue hat, gotten nervous when he hadn’t smiled back, called a Lyft, gotten more nervous waiting for it to show up, and had tried to relax as she got in and was driven to the O’Connor mansion.

She’d asked to use the rear view mirror to check her makeup, and the driver had been nice enough to let her do it. She reminded herself that she was a doctor. Not Alice. Dr. Caldwell. Dr. Alice Caldwell on her letterhead, Dr. Caldwell in person. She could do this. 

The Lyft car had dropped her off at the gate of the mansion. She’d been early, but apparently not as early as the others. A man the size of a refrigerator in a tuxedo had met her at the gate and escorted through the giant oak front doors of the main house. The giant dining room table she’d seen in pictures had been removed, in favor of seven chairs, arranged in a half-circle facing the fireplace.

She’d been the last person to arrive, and she’d been given a seat on the far left.

“Welcome to my home. You have been invited to join me here because of the great expertise and talent you possess in your various disciplines. You have demonstrated excellence. I respect excellence. I respect knowledge. Finally, and most importantly, I respect daring and endeavor, which you have all demonstrated by choosing to join me tonight to test your skills in the purifying forge of competition.”

Even in person, Martin O’Connor looked remarkably like he did on his Instagram profile. His hair and mustache were as black as coal and reflected the light from the fireplace, and his suit, tailored to wrap around his body like a second skin, had so many little pockets and sharp creases that it would have looked like a costume on a less confident man.

The one thing that was different about Martin O’Connor’s appearance, the thing that immediately attracted the attention of everyone else in the room, was the eighteen-inch piece of steel rebar piercing his skull. The bar entered his head near his left temple and emerged just behind his right ear. Given the size of the object and the angle of penetration, there was no possibility whatsoever that it had not skewered his brain. Either end of the wound had been neatly wrapped in white cotton.

“We have in this room representatives from the mainstream medical community…” 

He gestured at the chairs furthest from Alice.

“Traditional Chinese medicine…” He bowed politely to a woman in the front row in a dark purple robe.

“The storied discipline of Homeopathy…” 

He smiled at Alice.

“…and finally representatives of the magical traditions of Alchemy and Witchcraft.”

He turned back towards the center of the room. In the middle two chairs were a tall, completely bald man whose left ear was overloaded with silver jewelry and a slender woman in black, who Alice could only see enough of to admire her long neck and calm demeanor in the face of what was going on five feet in front of her.

“The contest begins now,” Martin O’Connor said. “I have a headache. Tell me why, and recommend a course of treatment. I will judge the merits of each argument and select a victor. We will begin with you, Dr. Caldwell.”

He waited for Alice to speak. She felt completely frozen in place, and could feel the rush of incoming middle-school feelings of humiliation, but was saved by an interruption from the other side of the room.

One of the doctors stood up.

“Mr. O’Connor, you have a serious, life threatening injury and need to get to a hospital. You’re incredibly fortunate to be alive. I’ll give you a ride to the emergency room myself. We need to go now.”

Martin O’Connor smiled rakishly. “A strong opening, Dr. Smith, but you know the rules. You must wait your turn.” 

A second doctor stood up.

“No one with a soul is going to sit here and have a tea party with you looking like that. You have a piece of metal shish-kababing your brain. Look in a fucking mirror.”

Martin O’Connor kept smiling. “A compelling argument, and not implausible given the recent mishap in the metalworking shop. I’m afraid I’m not presently able to look in the mirror, for fear of releasing spiritual energy related to the topic of a previous symposium. It has a great deal to do with the astral plane and I’d be happy to discuss it over drinks later this evening, after the day’s business has come to an end. For now, I’m forced to remind you that you are also speaking out of turn.”

He turned back towards Alice. Dr. Caldwell, she reminded herself. She was a professional. “They’re right. You are very badly hurt.”

“Let us suppose that you are right,” Martin O’Connor said. “How would you use your skills to address my situation?”

“No, I’m sorry. This goes… no. I could use homeopathic remedies to help facilitate your recovery, but that…” 

The right side of the room stood up, all of them at about the same time. They quietly left, leaving the right side of the room empty.

Alice cleared her throat and tried to keep talking. Nothing came. 

“I… I think… I don’t think…”

“I think you’ve made your point,” Martin O’Connor said. He stood up, and the speed with which Alice lost his attention made her feel like a sinking ship.

“I’m afraid I must ask for a brief intermission while I check on my guests. I’m concerned I may have offended them. Mr. Bellview, please bring those remaining any food or drink they ask for in my absence.”

Martin O’Connor left the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, the bald man with the elaborate ear jewelry stood up and pointed at the servant in the tuxedo.

“You. You’re in the will, aren’t you?” 

The servant in the tuxedo did not react in any way. The bald man turned towards the other guests.

“Look, everyone in the room right now thinks everyone else is crazy or stupid, but we all got into doing what we do so that we could help people. I mean, I didn’t, I got into alchemy mostly to get laid, but even I would feel guilty if I just let that guy walk around with that thing stuck in his head. We’ve got to present a united front. If everyone just refuses to play his game and tells him to go to the hospital, maybe he’ll get a clue. Do we all agree?”

Martin O’Connor walked back into the room.

“It seems as though traditional, western medicine will not be represented at our symposium this evening. No matter.”

The bald man cleared his throat, but Martin O’Connor raised a finger to silence him. “No need for a speech, my dear friend. I heard what you had to say. Do we have a unanimous decision, then? Is this the best course of action any of you can think of, with all of your education and practical experience?”

“Yes,” the bald man said.

“Absolutely,” said the woman in the purple robe.

“Please get help right now,” said the witch.

Something in Alice unfroze. She thought about the way that she’d felt when Martin O’Connor had turned away from her. She thought about all the shit her cousin had had to say when she’d said she was going into Homeopathy, and again when she’d gotten her degree. She thought about the papers she’d stayed up until two o’clock in the morning to finish, the debt she’d be in for years.

“None of these other people know what they’re talking about,” Dr. Alice Caldwell said.

Martin O’Connor turned to her, still smiling. At this point, his expression seemed less like a poker face and more like rictus.

“It will take a long time and require a great deal of expensive personalized attention, but I can fix your headaches. Only me. Everything these other people have to say is a pack of lies meant to take advantage of you.”

Martin O’Connor’s expression didn’t change, but as he regarded Alice, his eyes twinkled.

Mr. Bellview escorted the others from the grounds while Alice followed Martin to the den. It was decorated with hunting trophies. She could feel the black marble eyes of several endangered species watching them as Martin poured two glasses of brandy.

“A toast,” he said. “To the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

They touched glasses. As Martin withdrew his glass, he suddenly froze in place, stiff like the animals around him. His eyes did not blink. 

Alice wondered if he was dead. She wasn’t sure. She took a sip of her drink while she waited to see what would happen next.

 

Josh Ballard’s work has been seen all over the Chicagoland area for the past 11 years.  From Ren Faires to radio, pantos to photoshoots, he is an actor that can, and will, do anything.  A grad of Columbia College Chicago, Josh is excited to be a part of this unique series with one of the fastest growing theatre companies in Chicago! 


Gateways: “Big Cheese” by John Harden. Read by Kate Akerboom



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by John Harden. John Harden is a screenwriter and director whose work has screened & garnered awards at top-tier festivals around the world. John’s work is informed by his love of speculative fiction and his background in visual arts, graphic design, journalism and marketing. He is a San Francisco Bay Area native and lives in Santa Rosa, CA. This is “Big Cheese”

Content Note: This story features sexual harassment. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

 

It’s not standard procedure, but for First Contact Captain Steinberger took the tender down to the planet surface alone. He’s always been a glory hog. But if he’d had a translator on his away team — if he’d had an away team — none of this would have happened. I’m just saying.

Before the Captain flew down for his ill-fated little dinner party, we’d only talked to the Yttivari via radio transmission. My psychic abilities only work face-to-face, so we’d been relying on computer translation. Up until the incident, I’ll even admit the computer had been doing a pretty good job of it. Pretty good.

 

When Captain S. does think to bring me on a mission, he calls me “psi-girl.” That’s because he thinks it’s funny, and because it’s also condescending, and also because he can’t be troubled to remember my name. No big deal, but it sets a tone, and many of the crew adopt it. To be fair, I’m not the most popular gal onboard any ship, mostly because people assume I’m always reading their thoughts – fair enough, I probably am. The captain on the other hand doesn’t mind if I read his thoughts, because he thinks it’s a damn privilege. But I don’t fall into the Captain’s bang-able column, so for him I barely exist. That’s not a supposition on my part. I read minds. 

 

Anyhow. Two hours into the away mission, we lost voice contact with the Captain. The Yttivari weren’t talking to us either. We were about to scramble a rescue mission when a proximity alert informed us that the Captain’s tender was out there, on approach for docking.

We were getting telemetry from the tender but no voice contact, despite repeated hails. We guessed (hoped) it was some kind of general radio interference, affecting multiple systems. Still, it was unnerving watching that ship silently get closer and closer. 

It was a standard approach, textbook-perfect. Whoever was piloting punched in all the right clearance codes, too, so we let it dock. But First Officer Khromar went down to the airlocks with an armed security detail, just in case we were wrong. I’m sure they fully expected to see the Captain walk out, pissed off and ready to ream anyone and everyone in sight for the comm fuckup.

That’s not what happened, and that’s when they called me. 

 

As soon as I showed up on deck it walked right up to me. “It” was about five feet tall, and looked less like a man than an abstracted sculpture of a man, assembled from blocks of moldy cheese. 

All the blasters in the room were pointed at it, but it wasn’t doing anything threatening. It wasn’t doing anything, really. Just standing there, facing me. Like it knew I was the one person it might have a shot at communicating with. I would have said it was staring at me, but it had no discernible eyes.

That was when my head started to hurt. At first I thought it was some kind of PSI attack, or attempt to block me from reading it. Then it dawned on me that he just had a headache, too. Not it, he. He was a he, for sure, and he was very upset. When his voice came into my mind it was loud and clear. And familiar.

“You gotta help me, Denise.” It was the Captain.

 

“It was a big ceremony. They had head-dresses, and played drums, and made a big presentation of handing me a cup. So I drank. They said, ‘you’re one of us now.’”

When I relayed that last part, everyone in the room kind of groaned. Captain S. got a little defensive: “Damn it, who wouldn’t assume that was a metaphor?!”

“A psychic,” I wanted to say. I kept my mouth shut. Everyone was thinking it anyway. The security guards standing behind him were actually smirking.

 

First stop for us was the infirmary. Doctor Lee ran all the scans. The whole time saying “huh” and exhaling loudly through her nose.

“Definitely some weird proteins,” she finally ventured.

“Meaning?” I said, on behalf of myself and Captain S.

“Meaning his body has fundamentally changed.”

“Captain says, ‘no kidding.’”

“Not just on the outside. I can’t detect any internal organs to speak of. There is some kind of fibrous network running through it, that might might be a nervous system. Maybe. You’re the first and only example of Yttivarian biology we’ve ever seen. And you’re hardly a typical specimen.”

After the Doc had basically thrown up her hands, I walked Captain S. to his cabin. He didn’t ask me to but he didn’t object, either. He was pretty quiet on the way down. It was probably starting to sink in that there might be no way to reverse this.

We got to his door and he couldn’t get in because biometrics. No voice, no fingerprints, no retinas. I mentally kicked myself for not anticipating the problem while I commed the First Officer for an override.

We finally got in and he sagged down onto the bed. Even with no face I could tell he was feeling pretty anxious and defeated. He kept wringing his fat cube-y little cheese-hands together. Captain S. isn’t my favorite, but seeing him so helpless even my cold heart went out to him a little.

 

He tried pressing some buttons on his desk. They all buzzed an error sound at him.

“I can’t even make a log entry about this.”

“I’ll talk to Singh, he can probably reprogram the ship’s computer to recognize you as captain.”

“What about the crew? Will they still recognize me as their captain?”

“Of course, sir. Nothing’s really changed. These things happen.”

That was stupid. Nothing like this had ever happened.

He got up and faced the mirror.

“I was handsome.”

“We all lose our looks eventually.”

He looked at me. “This is kind of a special case, don’t you think?! Anyway, what would she know about it?”

That last nasty bit wasn’t meant for me to hear, which is why he couched it as “she” and not “you.” But I heard it. He didn’t know I did.

“I’m thinking,” I said, in my most helpful and sincere voice. “You know who’s onboard you might still have a shot with? Patel. He’s not just a xenobiologist, he’s also a xenophile. He was shacked up with a Thorvaxian for a while.

“I’m straight.”

“So’s Patel; the Thorvaxian was a female. But my point is, he’s got an open mind. Maybe you should too. And Thorvaxians have exoskeletons, so Patel might be craving something with a little more give, if you know what I mean.” I poked him in the arm to make my point. My finger sank in a lot further than I expected and I actually got a little queasy for a second.

“You gotta help me, Denise.” There it was again, my real name.

“You gotta go down there and talk to them.”

“I guess I’m the only one who can,” I said. I let that linger in the air a bit. Then:

“Okay Captain. I’ll talk to them. You know, it’s probably just a misunderstanding. Maybe it’s like, a prank they pull on newcomers. Or maybe they think they were doing you a favor.”

“Do you think there’s an antidote?

“Hard to say. I guess I can ask.”

“I would be so grateful.”

“Special Commendation grateful?”

“Uh? Oh, yes, that’s totally appropriate.”

“Awarded at an assembly in front of the whole crew?”

“Y-yes.”

“Also you have to stop calling me psi-girl.”

“That’s fair.”

“Okay then. I’ll ask Officer Khromar to prep the tender.”

I stood up. He stood up with me.

“Well played, Denise,” he said. “You know, I really respect you.” I felt like he actually meant it. Then he started massaging my shoulder with his lumpy hand. I pushed it away. 

“Not happening, cheese-boy.”

.

Kate Akerboom is a multi-creative individual living in Chicago. When she’s not talking about animals at Shedd Aquarium or playing with her beagle, Willie, you can find her performing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire or hear her talking about crime history on her podcast Scofflaws: a History of Law and Disorder. Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kate is a proud graduate of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, possessing degrees in Theatre Performance and History with an emphasis in museum studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public History through Southern New Hampshire University.


Gateways: “Rosie O’Riley- The Case of the Cutthroat Cupid” by Ruby Fink. Read by Karolyn Blake



This story is written by Ruby Fink. Ruby Fink is a writer and audiobook producer from Los Angeles, California. Since 2016, her audiobook company, Faux Fiction Audio has produced seven audiobooks, and two audio shows from various authors. Ruby is also a member of IPNE in Boston and the associate editor of Fictional Cafe, an online magazine for artists. This is “Rosie O’Riley- The Case of the Cutthroat Cupid”.

Content Note: This story features violence, predatory behavior and human trafficking. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

The name’s O’Riley. Rosie O’Riley. I’m a gumshoe, a shamus, a Private Eye;
which is a rarity I suppose, since the first thing most clients say when they walk through
my door is, “you’re a girl.”
Maybe I should add “Girl Detective” to my moniker, just so that bit of useless
chatter is cut to the quick before clients walk through the door. Of course, I could just as
easily add “Lady Detective” to my title, but I’m no lady. I never went to any finishing
school and the farthest thing from my mind is to wait at home for some rich man to marry me. And while I do get a lot of men wearing out the path to my office door, but that’s just business, and once I’ve snooped around and found out whether their wife was cheating or their partner was stealing, they usually beat a path out of my door just as quick.
Most women of the genteel persuasion would not know what to do with
themselves if they woke up with a headache brought on by half a bottle of scotch and
handcuffed to a chair. But that’s just Thursday for me.
Waking up in handcuffs usually means one of two things: Either I’m in trouble
because of a client, or my date decided to get adventurous. Once or twice it’s been both, but today did not seem to be one of those days. For one thing, the headache I had was starting to feel less like a hangover and more like a sap to the head. And unless I had picked up a man who was a butcher, I was probably in an abandoned slaughterhouse down by the docks.
The only constant variable in the equation seemed to be the handcuffs, but then
again, it’s hard to mistake the feel of cold steel on your wrists. Considering I was in and
out of bracelets more than Houdini, I should just save everyone the effort and make them part of my daily wardrobe. (Which, at the moment happened to be a wine-red cocktail dress that showed plenty of leg, my special three-inch heels with a hidden blade, and the holster for a .22-pistol strapped to my thigh.) The holster was feeling a little empty at the moment, another good hint that I was in trouble. Most dates prefer leaving the gun on.
Someone shook me on the shoulder, gave me a rough pat on the face.
“Come on, Lady. You’ve slept long enough.”
Rude. The headache intensified, but I obediently opened my baby blues, blinking
them open to the glare of a ceiling light overhead, and the dusty, shadowy warehouse
beyond. Despite the dim lighting, I could see the place was stacked wall-to-wall with
wooden shipping crates, most four to five feet tall and labeled, fragile.
The slaughterhouse had the stink of dust and rot, with an underlying stench that
reminded me of a barnyard. Except I knew there weren’t animals in those crates.
“Hey, Lady-“
“Do I look like a lady to you, Yates?” I asked, finally turning to face the scruffy
man across from me. He smirked with a mouth of rotting teeth, all the while keeping my
.22 pointed at my chest.
“You look like a nosy peeper poking her nose where it don’t belong.”
“There’s been a rash of girls going missing in this area, “ I answered with a shrug.
“My client’s daughter happened to be one of them. He mentioned she’d been seeing some new fellow a few weeks before she disappeared.”
“So?” Yates asked.
“A fellow that matched the description given by two other witnesses who saw him
with two other missing girls before they disappeared.”
“I’ll say it again, so?”
“A fellow that looks an awful lot like a certain low-life smuggler in his younger
days.” I continued, my temper rising. “How long have you and your son been in the white slavery business, Yates?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Please, I’m not stupid,” I snapped. “I got into three of the missing girl’s
apartments and found the newspaper ad you and your son placed: Lonely Man Looking
for Soulmate, does that sound familiar? I have love letters sent to the victims every day,
full of flattery, asking for personal information about her family, does she have any close
friends, does she live alone, and after a week or so, there are requests to meet her in
person. You both make sure that you pick women with little or no family, of low-income, who live alone, that no one would miss until it was too late. Your son seduces them on a few dates, gains their trust and then you abduct them and take them here where they are packed into crates like sardines and smuggled to your client overseas who sells them to the highest bidder. And for every innocent girl that is sold into slavery, you get a
percentage.” I spit out the last word in disgust.
“You still seem pretty stupid to me.” Yates snarled, fingering my .22. “You answered the ad yourself and now you’re in over your head.”
“It seemed like the easiest way to find which abandoned waterfront factory was
yours. “ I retorted. “It saved me a lot of legwork, and I even got a free dinner before I got
bashed in the head.”
“The last good meal you will ever have, my dear.” Said a smooth, seductive voice
from behind me.
Charlie Yates, his handsome face twisted into a sneer, stepped into the light.
“Well, hello gorgeous,” I replied, craning my head to look at him. “You looked a
lot better in a suit. When I said I wanted you out of it, dirty coveralls were not what I had
in mind. By the way, I would warn you, I sent all my evidence to the police and the
newspapers. So even if I don’t get out of this alive, your little racket is basically over. No
one will reply to your ads now.”
His retort was a backhand that hit me so hard I was knocked out of my chair and
onto the ground. My headache sang even louder, but I was more alarmed by the smell
that seemed steeped in the floorboards, mingled in with the stench of rot and mold. The
smell of fresh blood.
“You nosy bitch.” Charlie snarled, kicking me hard in the ribs. I doubled up,
gasping for breath. “Why couldn’t you stay at home and breed like you’re supposed to?”
His raised his foot to kick me again.
“Wait, Charlie!” his father put a restraining hand on his arm. “If this is our last
haul, we shouldn’t damage the merchandise.”
“Your client cares if I get a few bruises? That’s so sweet,” I wheeze. Both men
turn toward me.
“On the contrary, my dear, it’s not strictly your body we’re concerned with.”
Charlie said with a chilling smile. “You see, there are two venues of the black market that
we cater exclusively to. The first, is slavery, as you discovered, but the second is…organ donors.” The smile widened now, took on more of a feral leer. “The more compliant girls we take and sell to our overseas clients, but the ones who have more of a…rebellious streak we tend to…salvage for parts. Waste not, want not, wouldn’t you say? And of course, it does the other girls some good to see what happens if they don’t behave.”
“You’re sick,” I gasp, feeling nauseous. Charlie shrugs.
“Everything has its price, and your death will be extremely profitable for me.”
“You mean for us.” Yates interjected, and Charlie turned a bland smile in his
father’s direction.
“Well yes Dad, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, but since this racket is
no longer working out-“ He calmly slashing his father across the throat with a hidden
knife, splattering his coveralls with a spray of fresh blood. “I don’t need your dead
Weight.”
Yates collapsed like a discarded rag doll, my pistol clattering out of his hands.
Charlie picked it up and turned, smiling his devilish smile at me.
“It’s your turn, my dear,” He said, pointing the gun at me.
Before he could fire I had shoved my 3-inch heel between his legs, the tiny,
needle-like blade hidden in the shoe piercing through cloth and into flesh. Charlie
screamed and fired, the bullet chipping the concrete an inch from my head. I pulled back and stabbed again, this time burying the knife in his thigh. Blood trickled down my leg, staining my stockings. The gun dropped from Charlie’s hand and he sagged weakly to the ground.
“You bitch…” he whispered, and his fingers scrabbled frantically for the gun,
trying to pick it up. I kicked at him again, the blade puncturing his eye, and he screamed
as blood and gel-like ooze ran down his face in a river of gore. I stabbed at him again,
and again, until he stopped screaming, he stopped twitching and just lay there, staring at me sightlessly through his remaining eye.
It took ten minutes for me to crawl across the floor, fish the keys out of his pocket
and free myself from the handcuffs.
Then I found a crowbar and pried open the crates, one by one. They were full of
girls, in various stages of starvation and dehydration, all clinging together for comfort.
They stared at me with terrified eyes, unsure of whether I was friend or foe.
A call to the police alerted them of my location and I was limping off before the
first sirens could be heard. They would find the bodies and the girls, come to their own
conclusions of what had happened there.
As for me, I was free to go home, nurse my aching head and ribs, and catch up on some well-deserved sleep. After all, there would be more creeps and crooks to deal with tomorrow, and as soon as I got my beauty sleep, Rosie O’Riley was ready for the next challenge.

Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.