Tag Archives: Body Horror

Gateways: “Utopia Ain’t What it’s Cut Out To Be” by Hadley Frost read by Rachel Granda-Gluski



Hadley Frost (they/them) is a TTRPG and Visual Story Telling creative writer and producer. He is currently personally studying creative writing. WIth little professional experience, he hopes to grow his portfolio in both a professional setting and novel writing. He is currently developing a visual story tell festival to take place in 2021. Hadley Frost lives in Boise, Idaho.

“Welcome to Eden Sister. Let me show you around, there is so much to see! Once you’re finished, I’ll show you to your new home.”

How did I fall for something so obvious?

I had heard rumors of Eden but never thought it was anything more than a fever dream thought up by Sam down at the pub before he disappeared. I mean, who really believes in a community without problems? No crime? No fear? Maybe in the old days but things have changed. That’s what I had thought until Alice mentioned a new companion she was head over heels for.

Alice babbled on about her new sweetheart who was going to whisk her away to Eden and bring her salvation. When I asked his name, her eyes went wide with excitement. I’d be happy to introduce you! Almost as soon as I’d mentioned him, Alice stood me up and ran me to the old church building. It looked like no one had set foot in it for over a decade. Its decrepit frame barely held the cracked clay tiles that covered the gambrel roof. Stepping inside was like walking into a different universe. Where the exterior of the chapel appears aged and overgrown, the interior stands timeless. The white marble floors unmarked, the stained glass windows immaculate detail maintained, and even the mahogany pews stood. The hall stood empty before Alice and I except for a gentleman sitting quietly amongst the stalls.

He introduced himself as Vizier Anthony “But please, call me Anthony.” Every question I asked him seemed to slide off like a raindrop off a windshield. ‘Who are you’ turned into ‘How can I help’. ‘How’d you meet Alice’ changed to ‘Let me buy you a drink’. We soon left the chapel and returned to the pub, leaving Alice to go home. With a pint in my hand, he started to ask about me. What I wanted, what I dreamed of. Soon all my questions were forgotten to cups as he pried my story out of me as if I was a novel he plucked off a library shelf.

The weeks to follow all seem like a blur. I would bump into Anthony every once in a while. We’d chat and share a smile and maybe invite me out. He took me to the bar, out for walks, just simple things. Quickly, I started to enjoy his company, and soon after that I almost longed for his voice in the silence of the night. Why couldn’t I get him out of my mind?

One evening, I thought I was being clever and I changed the game up. Rather than waiting for Anthony, I went to him. I had assumed he would be back at the chapel where we had met, but Anthony wasn’t anywhere to be seen. A group of people sat in the chapel. When I entered several of them turned to face me with a fever in their eyes. They ran at me with ravings of the apocalypse soon to come. They screamed to forget what we have, soon we’ll be lost. Nervous and unsettled I ran from the steeple and back home. Almost like he knew I would be there, Anthony was waiting.

“It’s time to go, it’s not safe here anymore. Let me take you to Eden.”

Anthony then went on to describe a town with no disease, no crime. It’s the perfect place. “It’s a place I can keep you safe.”

The very next day, we loaded a carriage and began our trek across this new city, Eden. Anthony further described how fruit slipped from the heavens for all to eat and the waters are as pure as diamonds. I told him I’d believe it when I saw it.

But sure enough, just like Anthony described. Boardwalk pathways that lead over crystal clear streams and through the cobblestone streets where horse drawn carriages carried man, mother, and child alike. The building stood tall and strong with a seamless construction of wood and stone fused together in a beautiful chaos. Greek pillars morphed into elegant archways stabled an overhead garden filled with different fruits. It was all like  it was taken out of a dream. “You’ll be free to live as you please without worry here Sister” his words laced with ecstasy. “Come now, I’ll show you your new home.”

Anthony guided me through the winding streets of Eden waving to passers-by and greeting some by name, and on occasion Anthony would introduce me. “This is our newest Sister, I’m helping her get a proper introduction with the city” Each and every meeting was greeted with a smile and a bold Welcome to Eden Sister.

After walking for nearly 30 minutes we came into a new district of Eden. Where the hanging gardens stood in the previous areas, there stood tall statues carved of angelic white marble depicting a variety of people who seemed to invite you into a courtyard before a cathedral-like building. Inside was just as fantastic as the rest of the city. Lavish rugs covered the floor, brilliant paintings decorated the walls, and a mosaic depicting a fruitful vineyard enriched the ceiling. A long, ornate conference table took over most of the space within the entrance hall. “Have a seat. It’s time to add your name to the family.”

As I sat down he placed a large tome in front of me. Gently he opened the book to nearly the end where a large line of names was inscribed. “Simply sign your name in the book and you are the newest Sister to our town” the words almost crawled from Anthony’s lips as he placed an inkwell to my right. Quickly I sign my name below the last name Alice. Excited to know what was next I turned back to Anthony expecting some sort of praise, but no congratulation awaited me.

Where a kind mask sat before, Anthony’s grin was less of an invitation, but more of a demand. “Finally, you’re one of us” he said clamping a metal band around my wrist. Inscribed on the band was the number 503. “There’s just one more thing we have to do.” 

 

Without another word Anthony led me by the wrist past the conference table and deeper into the halls. Confused and worried I questioned what was happening but got no reply and any attempt to pull away was only met with Anthony tightening his grip. Crashing into a dimly lit room he sat me down in a tall strapped chair and buckled me in.

As if to himself, Anthony began to ramble while pulling open drawers looking for something. “You see it now? Soon we’ll all be together. Soon we’ll all be free. I envy you. You get the blessing so soon.” Any questions I asked fell on deff ears as he scrambled around for different materials. After what felt like an eternity he found what he was looking for and turned back to me. He was sewing a doll, one that looked strangely like me. “The last touch, something personal”. As he said this he plucked a single hair from my head and tied it into the yarn hair of the doll. 

“Welcome to Eden Sister” With those words I felt a strong wind blow over me and everything went dark. When I finally came to I wasn’t in the chair anymore, nor was I even in the same room. I was sitting on a shelf somehow, and I couldn’t move. Across the room from me a window showed a glimpse of the outside world where I could see Anthony standing next to someone… Standing next to me.

I’ve been sitting on this shelf long enough I’ve lost track of the days. Occasionally Anthony will walk in with a grin and another doll.

I guess Utopia isn’t what some say it is.

Rachel Granda Gluski is a Chicago based voice actor and movement professional. She currently enjoys working with radio play company Starlight Radio Dreams. She also performs every summer with the Bristol Renaissance faire. When she’s not performing she enjoys being a huge nerd and hanging out with her cats.


Gateways: “A Story in Which Nothing Happens” by Michael Jachowicz read by Kate Akerboom



TRANSCRIPT: Michael Jachowicz has written sketches and comedy scripts for podcasts as well as some comic strips. You can hear some of his scripts with Starlight Radio Dreams, a Chicago based comedy podcast. He tells us, “I found a quarter today, and I’m just happy to be here.” 

Content Warning: This story depicts drug use. Please care for yourself while listening to this piece of fiction.

The crowded subway car was a cacophony of life, but Arabella could only hear the sound of her heart beating wildly in her chest. She tugged at the cuffs of the oversized club jacket she had found thrift shopping with Celeste. Celeste had told Arabella that a baggier jacket would look good on her. In fact, the more Arabella thought about it she realized that Celeste had essentially picked out the entirety of her outfit. Even the beat up, old Chuck Taylors she bought back in high school were only to match with Celeste. Arabella was looking forward to seeing Celeste tonight; she was almost shaking. She was going to make tonight count, she was gonna get something out of tonight. No, she was gonna get everything.

Arabella bit the inside of her bottom lip- which she often did whenever she was deep in thought. She thought back over all the years she had known Celeste, playing back the memories in her mind like a movie- well, not really so much like a movie. More like a music video set to some pop punk song she would listen to in jr. high, probably something by My Chemical Romance or some Nightcore remix of a Jimmy Eat World song. The memories of Celeste and her began to flow and shift, one leading to another in no particular order until they landed on a specific memory, the memory.

It was when they were both in highschool theater. Arabella and Celeste went out for the same role and against all odds, Arabella got it. It was one of the proudest moments of her life, but then Celeste cornered her backstage after school. Celeste convinced Arabella to give up the part she wanted and go back to stage crew. Arabella was happy to do it. Celeste’s attention was everything to Arabella.

The subway screeched abruptly to a halt. Arabella was snapped out of her thoughts and into her surroundings. She looked up to see what stop they had pulled into, but it didn’t look like they had even made it to a stop. Outside the window of the subway she only saw the tunnel walls. As she was looking out the window she happened to make fleeting eye contact with the man sitting across from her. He seemed disheveled and panicked which, to be fair, wasn’t all together uncommon for folk in the city. However this guy seemed really shaky, his eyes kept darting to the door next to Arabella. She followed the man’s gaze to the door and as if on cue the door opened. A police android with the Synthetic Taskforce walked in.

The android stood motionless for what felt like an eternity, then it’s electric yellow eyes began to glow bright as it silently and methodically scanned the subway car. Arabella clutched her jacket closed, trying to hide from the imposing officer. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but she couldn’t help herself, something about the police androids unsettled her. Maybe it was how you could see their robotic skeleton underneath their translucent navy blue skin. Watching the false flesh twist and stretch over the artificial man just reminded Arabella how fake they were, no matter how close to real the state tried to make them.

Suddenly the officer’s head jerked towards the man across from Arabella. “Henry Gordolski, you have been charged with possession of illegal substances including narcotics and Stemsplicers with intent to use and or distribute. Come with me.” The android’s voice was calming and had the cadence of human speech, but was distinctly digital, nothing more than an advanced simulation of a human’s voice.

The man sitting across from Arabella was sweating profusely, his eyes whipping frantically around the subway car. Arabella made sure she was staring at the floor, feeling her feet tremble. The man across from Arabella stood up slowly and shuffled towards the police android. As he got close he pushed the artificial officer which caused the blue automaton to stumble back a few steps. The man reached in his pocket with blinding inhuman speed and pulled out a knife. In one fluid motion the man struck at the machine, like a cobra striking its prey.

“GET FUCKED YOU POPO-ROID! YOU STUP-AAUUUGGHH” The man was cut off as the android caught his knife wielding hand midway through the stabbing motion and swiftly broke his hand. Then the android grabbed the man by the neck and squeezed. There was a loud crack then silence.

“Thank you for your cooperation. Have a great rest of the day!” The android spoke genuinely, however it’s words rang hollow as it dragged it’s victim off the train. The doors closed behind it and the subway began to move again.

In recent years the state had really started to crack down on Stemsplicing, it was unpredictable and hard to control. Using Stemsplicers, people could rewrite their DNA to make themselves into anything.

Of course as with anything that powerful, Stemsplicing had major negative consequences with prolonged use. That’s why the state created the Synthetic Taskforce, to combat the Stemsplicer threat. What had just happened to Stemsplicers like Henry Gordolski wasn’t uncommon in the city, in fact it was the new normal, but still… The car was silent for the rest of the ride.

Arabella was so relieved to step off the subway she actually ran to the nearest pillar and hugged it. She took out her phone to see where she was supposed to go to meet up with Celeste.

“It’ll be good to be with friends after all that.” Arabella thought to herself when she heard someone call out to her. She turned to see Celeste waving at her with a big smile on her face. Celeste was standing with a couple that Arabella didn’t recognize, but she hardly noticed. She was drawn to Celeste, her bright blue eyes and her curly blonde hair were so inviting and innocent. Arabella felt a smile force its way onto her face as it pushed past all the shit that happened on the subway. Including digging up the memory from high school.

“It’s in the past,” Arabella thought “None of that matters now.” The two friends embraced in the middle of the near empty subway station. Celeste took Arabella by the hand and brought her to meet the two people she was with. One was just Teph, a burn out Celeste and Arabela went to school with. Arabella said hi to Teph who just kinda widened their eyes at her. Teph was already strung out on something or other. They had always been a pothead, but that turned into a full blown drug habit after high school. Arabella had even heard that Teph dealt Stemsplicers.

The other person Arabella didn’t know. She was tall and thin with strong features. She had white facial tattoos that contrasted elegantly with her ebony skin. Arabella wanted to ask if the tattoos meant anything, but then the woman looked at her and Arabella forgot how to make the words do the word thing with her mouth.

“Is this everyone?” Said the tall woman, her voice low and powerful. Celeste nodded and in her usual bubbly way started talking about how great Arabella was and how she was like a sister to her and that they were family. Arabella couldn’t help but be a little hurt by that description of their relationship. The tall woman held up her hand to signal to Celeste to stop talking, her open palm turned into a finger pointing down the subway tunnel, meaning to head that way.

As they walked Arabella noticed the woman was holding a steel box. She was about to ask what it was, but before she could the woman stopped. They were at their destination, apparently, an abandoned stretch of tunnel. The tall woman set the steel box down and then took out three syringes.

“This is primer. Inject this, then inject the Stemplicer your friend has brought and enjoy yourselves in The Box.” She said handing out the syringes before standing next to the box like a statue.

“What does she mean?” Arabella asked, sheepishly fiddling with the syringe she was given.

“It’s, like, so cool Bella!” Celeste said, her voice ringing like a bell on a spring day as she shot herself up with the primer, “Teph brought some “Shrimp Sauce” Stemsplicer so we take it and we’ll shrink small enough to party in this totally bitchin’ club!”

Before she could say anything Teph and Celeste were putting the Stemsplicer syringe labelled “Shrimp Sauce” into their arms. Teph looked at Arabella, handed her a syringe and said, “Look The Box has everything. Sex, music, drugs. Everything. Shit’s lit.”

Celeste and Teph began to writhe and their veins began to glow. They both doubled over and Celeste fell to her knees. Arabella rushed to her side, but before she could do anything Celeste began to shrink. Arabella’s eyes went wide, she had heard of the wild effects of Stemsplicers, but she had never seen them in person. She watched as her friend’s bodies contorted in unnatural poses as they grew smaller. There was also this horrid stench, like burning hair, from the energy given off during the transformation.

After what felt like both an instant and an hour Arabella was towering over her two friends who were now no taller than a grain of sand. She watched them march like ants into The Box. Arabella looked to the syringes in her hands then to the tall woman who hadn’t moved during all this. She then looked to The Box. The Box which had swallowed Celeste… Arabella wanted, for so long and so badly, to be noticed by Celeste, but this was insane.

Arabella dropped the syringes, her mind flashing back to the ride down here on the train and how much the man who was killed for this shit reminded her of Teph, how Celeste would never notice her… no that wasn’t it. Arabela’s mind flashed back to the memory and for the first time she saw it, really saw it. Celeste had noticed Arabella, she’d noticed her and decided she could use her. Arabella put her hands in the pocket of her jacket and walked off down the train tunnel. She got nothing out of tonight and that was more than enough for her.

Kate Akerboom is a multi-creative individual living in Chicago. She loves telling stories, especially about the past, and considers it an honor to tell new ones that people come up with. By day, she talks about animals at Shedd aquarium. By night she creates as much as she can. Kate is a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay holding degrees in Theatre Performance and History.


Gateways: “Bloodletter” by Leigh Hellman read by the Gateways Cast



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Leigh Hellman. Leigh is a queer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest.

Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times.

Their debut book, Orbit, is a new adult speculative fiction novel available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the Snowy Wings Publishing anthology Magic at Midnight, and their short fiction piece “the circle of least confusion” was previously featured in the Gateways series.

Leigh is a strong advocate for full-day breakfast menus, all varieties of dark chocolate, building a wardrobe based primarily on bad puns, and bathing in the tears of their enemies.

This is “Bloodletter”.

[The Free Page Sunday Edition, Ads & Obits Section, July 27th]
Human being seeks companionship, has lots of time to spare. Willing to make a trade for genuine commitments. Please contact Gilda on the local Swaps board; thoughtful responses only.

[Local Swaps Board thread, originally posted at 9:47 AM on August 2nd]
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: looking for gilda from the free page ads
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: they were talking about a trade
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: has anyone heard of them? any leads on a connection?? i’m terminal and a timeflip would be a fucking miracle

USER 1 [REDACTED]: hey…I didn’t see this ad but just a word to the wise…there are a lot of scammers out there who set up trades for timeflips and then never show or even worse they run fake flips…I don’t want to discourage you but you should just be careful everyone’s out here trying to get it for themselves…

USER 2 [REDACTED]: I actually got a good flip a few months ago, so there are decent traders out there. I would recommend always meeting in a public place and then booking a joint appointment at a legit clinic. Some people don’t want to pay the fee, but honestly I think it’s worth it for the peace of mind.

USER 2 [REDACTED]: Oh, and get ready for the kickback. I only had it for a day or two after, but I’ve heard of some people who felt it for weeks. Just make sure you don’t sleep too much because of that, since it drains the flip faster than it’d usually go.

USER 3 [REDACTED]: I think ur talking about GILDIANANGEL

USER 3 [REDACTED]: shes old school like that

USER 3 [REDACTED]: u should message her tho

USER 3 [REDACTED]: I never see her on threads nemore

[Private Message, sent at 3:32 PM on August 2nd]
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: hello, i think your name is gilda? that’s what folks on the boards said anyway. if you aren’t gilda (or you’re not THIS gilda) you can just ignore this message. my name is quinn and i’m terminal. i got the diagnosis about 3 months ago but i’ve been trying to figure out a plan b because i’ve got things left to do. nothing really important—i’m not some big shot out there—but things i’d like to see done before i go, you know? my doctor (well he’s not really my doctor he’s more like my second opinion) told me about timeflips. i’d heard about them before but i thought they were still really restricted after all those lawsuits. but then i saw your ad in the free page, if you’re the right gilda, and i thought “hey, nothing to lose” so that’s why i’m messaging you here. all my commitments are genuine, until my time’s up. i’d be happy for the company while the clock runs down.

[E-mail, sent at 10:04 AM on October 15th]
From the Office of Dr. Ratner, General Internist
PATIENT: Arbore, Gilda

Please be aware that, based on your most recent comprehensive scans, we strongly advise that you not participate in any activities that may further weaken or damage your systems. Your results indicate repetitive Progressive Vital Siphoning or PVS (commonly referred to as “timeflipping”) which has aged your internal organs by approximately 20-30 years. Studies have shown that repeated PVS cycling can have compounded effects, with each cycle increasing the damage to the donor at exponential rates. If you have any questions about these results, or if you need help in managing your health concerns, please feel free to schedule a follow-up appointment during standard business hours.

[Chat log, from January 21st]
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: yeah man it’s crazy
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i still can’t believe it

USER 4 [REDACTED]: u sure it’s not a scam?

ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: nah she just wants attention i guess
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: or like someone to talk to
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i thought it was gonna be something freaky
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: like weird sex stuff
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: but it’s just like getting lunch and going to the movies and shit like that
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: she doesn’t even try to hold my hand

USER 4 [REDACTED]: and how much u gettin?

ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: a month for every session
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i got like 2 years already
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: if anyone’s getting scammed it’s her hahaha

[Timeflippers Anonymous Board, originally posted at 11:19 PM on March 10th]
USER 5 [REDACTED]: EXPERIENCES FROM FLIPPER TO FLIPEE?

I’ve done a few flips with a few different flippers and I’ve had totally different experiences! Some of them are really cool and just do the trade and you can go your separate ways…but some of them get so needy! Like I get that I’m taking like part of their life time from them but…they asked for it! They agreed to it! So it feels like a trick when they get super attached and act like I owe them and should be their new best friend or something afterwards!

IDK…am I being a jerk about this? Has anyone else had this kind of experience, or do I just have bad luck with flippers?

[Private Message, sent at 1:07 PM on May 9th]
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: hey gilda sorry for the late message i just had something come up a family emergency that i gotta go out of the city for so i can’t make our session this afternoon
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i know we did the flip last weekend so i definitely owe you
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: we’ll reschedule once i get back i promise
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: thanks for being so cool, g

[E-mail, sent at 8:35 AM on June 18th]
From the Office of Dr. Ratner, General Internist
PATIENT: Arbore, Gilda

Please be aware that, based on your most recent comprehensive scans, we have upgraded your condition from degenerative to terminal. We do not have the facilities to offer end-of-life care management, and therefore we strongly advise that you begin seeking out a hospice service for your anticipated needs. Our list of recommended providers is available upon request.

As you start your care management transition, we want to remind you that we remain committed to your health and can continue to provide standard services in the interim. If your diagnosis is downgraded in the future, we hope that you will consider returning as our valued customer and patient.

[Chat log, from June 30th]
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: the clinic said that i’m in remission
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: they downgraded me from terminal
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i’m fucking stoked

USER 4 [REDACTED]: thats awesome! u gonna do somethin??

ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: yeah i was thinking about a party like the old days
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: “congrats on telling death to fuck off” hahaha

USER 4 [REDACTED]: u gonna invite the whole crew? what about ur flipper?

ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: hell yeah to the crew
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i don’t know about gilda though
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: it’d be awkward right?
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: everybody would be asking “who’s this?” and i’d have to be like “oh she’s the recluse who sold her time to me for friend dates”
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: and she doesn’t even know any of you guys
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: nah, i don’t want to put her in an uncomfortable position
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i’ll hit her up later for a thank you coffee
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: she’d like that better anyway

[Private Message, sent at 5:59 PM on July 14th]
GILDIANANGEL: I haven’t heard from you in a while, Quinn. How’re you doing?
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: oh man sorry for the radio silence, life’s been nuts and i’ve just been all over the place
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: but i’m doing pretty good
GILDIANANGEL: I’m glad to hear that. Would you want to schedule another session, or maybe just get some food sometime?
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: yeah i’d definitely be up for that sometime but unfortunately i’m just so swamped right now, you know how it is
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: i can let you know when i’m free once stuff clears up?
GILDIANANGEL: Sure.
ANDTIDEWAITFORNOMAN: cool cool, you’re the best!

[Timeflippers Anonymous Board, originally posted at 2:44 AM on July 23rd]

GILDIANANGEL: WAS IT WORTH IT?

Longtime flipper here, just thinking about priorities. A lot of folks say that they started flipping for money, but it was never about that for me. Back when I started, it felt like I had the conveyer belt of a lifetime churning out in front of me and it didn’t matter if I sliced off a month here or a few weeks there. It felt like I was tapping in to something bigger out there, like I was threading myself into the lives of my fellow humans and they were threading themselves into my life too. It felt like I was weaving myself into a cosmic tapestry so that—even when I was by myself—I’d never really be alone.

I guess I was looking for that “greater than myself”; not sure if I ever found it.

[The Free Page Sunday Edition, Ads & Obits Section, July 27th]
Gilda Arbore—“She’s gone too young,” said everyone who outlived her. 

 

Kate Akerboom is a multi-creative individual living in Chicago. She loves telling stories, especially about the past, and considers it an honor to tell new ones that people come up with. By day, she talks about animals at Shedd aquarium. By night she creates as much as she can. Kate is a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay holding degrees in Theatre Performance and History.

 

Molly Southgate is 12 years old. According to her IMDB page, she has performed in 5 films, 1 industrial documentary, 9 Chicago plays, 4 Chicago stage readings, an Iron & Wine music video, multiple commercials, and she has hosted or guested on over 500  podcast episodes. Molly is also a food blogger on Instagram and has Somehow found the time to act in Super Richard World III right here at Otherworld Theatre.

 

Gaby Fernandez is the Special Events Manager at Otherworld Theatre. She has been an ensemble member since 2018, and loves creating, performing, and discovering new works with such a diverse and unique company. She has been professionally acting since she arrived in Chicago over 4 years ago, and fell in love with the Chicago storefront theatre scene.

 

Alex B Reynolds began their acting career as Sherlock Holmes in the second grade, and has since been seen around Chicago in such roles as Gandalf the Grey, Luigi Mario, and Skeletor. They are so grateful to return to the Gateways Reading Series, and can otherwise be heard on the “Meet/Cute” sitcom podcast, the Filmthusiast “Final Cut” podcast, and on whatever customer support line is paying their bills this month.

 

Rob Southgate is a professional actor in commercials and films, a professional podcaster, and a professional public speaker. He is currently preparing the debut of his first book and busily booking a national tour of the SMG Podcast Marathon. Rob loves sharing ideas with others and creating opportunities for his creative associates. Along with his wife, Martha, Rob started Southgate Media Group as a creative outlet and a way to incorporate all of their interests and their past experiences. SMG is home to over 100 podcasts, blogs, and video channels. If you think Rob has a lot going on, ask him about his amazing daughter, Molly. 

 

Kim Fukawa has been seen all around Chicago. Most recently she has worked with The House Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, and Babes With Blades Theatre Company. She is an artistic affiliate and occasional fight choreographer with Babes With Blades.

 

Jasmin Tomlins has been making noises with her mouth for 33 years, most recently as a determined vintner on the streets of the Bristol Renaissance Faire and here at Gateways. She is grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these stories, and to receive the meaning that stories give voices.

 

 

 


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: “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!