Tag Archives: Horror

Gateways: “John Quincy Adams High School Presents “Little Shop of Horrors Junior”!” by Zack Peercy read by Aydan Quinn



Zack Peercy is a legally blind playwright based in Chicago. He has a residency at Three Brothers Theatre, where his play That’s Fucked Up premiered in May 2019. His play Kubrickian was recently presented as part of Intrinsic Theatre Company May Play Podcast reading series. He has placed in a few contests you haven’t heard of and was rejected from all the contests you have heard of. He can be found on instagram and twitter @zackpeercy. His plays can be found on NPX.

First Read-Through 

On the 21st day of the month of September of my Junior year, we met in the auditorium to read through the script of “Little Shop of Horrors Junior”. Everyone formed a circle with the plastic band chairs while Mr. Delaney passed out scripts. In the middle of the circle was an authentic Audrey II puppet that Mr. Delaney had rented. It was used in several regional Broadway productions of Little Shop of Horrors, so we all looked at it with reverence. 

I was cast as Seymour, so I sat on Mr. Delaney’s left. Shea Greene, my long-time crush, was cast as Audrey and sat on Mr. Delaney’s right. As I looked around the circle at the ensemble of actors, I let all of my past roles wash over me: The Second Pig in my fifth grade production of Three Little Pigs, Madame de la Grande Bouche in Beauty and the Beast my freshman year, and Little Red in Into The Woods last year. 

After a transformative summer, it was so validating to my abilities and my identity to see my name next to “Seymour”. But sitting next to Mr. Delaney at the top of the circle with a highlighted script in my hand and a genuine Audrey II puppet staring at me, that felt like something else. That felt like power. I knew we were going to perform the greatest high school production of “Little Shop of Horrors Junior” in the entire state of Delaware. 

Choreography Run 

We were stretching when Mr. Delaney gave us the news. Tommy Pinkus, the freshman cast as Audrey II, had to drop the play due to a family emergency. As the lead actor of the production, I asked if there was anything we could do for Tommy, but Mr. Delaney told us the best thing we could do for him was put on a great show. 

Since Shea Greene and I had most of our choreography together, we spent our breaks speculating about what happened with Tommy Pinkus’s family. She was pretty sure it was a death in the family and we actually had a really deep discussion about death. I told her I thought it’d be cool to be part of the 27 Club because it meant I was like a real artist, but she said I already was a real artist, which was really cool of her. 

We sat on the edge of the stage and watched Jacob Fisk try on the Audrey II costume. He was a football player that was cast in the ensemble, but was now taking over the puppet duties. Considering Audrey II was a perfect fit for little freshman Tommy Pinkus, I had my doubts that linebacker Jacob Fisk was going to be convincing. But the costume fit over him like a glove. Like it had gotten bigger. Like it was a sign from Dionysus that this show was unstoppable. 

Off-Book Date 

I was going over “Suddenly Seymour” with Shea Greene in the band room when Mr. Delaney burst through the doors interrupting our make out session. We had gotten very close with our late night rehearsal sessions, but we were tragically ripped apart when Mr. Delaney announced that Shea Greene would have to step into the role of Aurdey II because Jacob Fisk had a family emergency. As the fall musical Actor Advocate, elected by the John Quincy Adams Drama Society, I tried to set up an appeals meeting with Mr. Delaney on Shea Greene’s behalf, but he didn’t have time because of Parent Teacher conferences. I tried to inquire who would be stepping into the role of Audrey that could match Shea Greene’s range, but Mr. Delaney said I should focus on my range in the Skid Row number. He knew I was sensitive about that part. 

I told myself that this was a blessing in disguise. Seymour had more stage time with Audrey II anyway. But I wouldn’t get to see Shea Greene’s beautiful brown eyes reacting to my nuanced acting. I’d have to stare at the newly sharpened teeth and surprisingly moist felt of a puppet that contained Shea Greene somewhere within. But I knew our passion was more than a showmance. This separation was actually pretty romantic. Like Romeo and Juliet. Or Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Or The Phantom and Christine. 

Tech 

On the day of our tech run, Shea Greene wouldn’t speak to me. I know we didn’t have to say our lines while the techies did… whatever they did, but she couldn’t even muster a “Feed Me”. She just sat at the center of that overgrown sweaty puppet, surrounded by new vines, making it look like it was breathing. 

I knew for a fact that I didn’t do anything wrong, so I reasoned that this must be her attempt to help me be Method and hate Audrey II as much as Seymour did. I usually don’t gravitate towards that approach, but it really helped me dig into the character. I made a lot of important discoveries, which was awesome considering it was just a useless tech day. 

Unfortunately I found out at the end of the rehearsal that I was dead wrong. Shea Greene hadn’t even been in the Audrey II puppet. She had to quit the show because of a family emergency. No one had been in the Audrey II puppet all day. That’s when it all clicked for me: Shea Greene didn’t even send me a courtesy text to let me know she had to drop the show! 

Opening Night 

I was warming up alone in the band room when Mr. Delaney found me. I tried to project an air of professionalism, even though I was freaking out that we were ten minutes to curtain and the rest of the cast wasn’t here yet. I told Mr. Delaney I was ready and willing to perform Seymour’s numbers cabaret-style, but he shushed me and told me that I was now cast in the role of Audrey II. I tried to explain how much work I put into Seymour, but Mr. Delaney shushed me again. He told me he wanted to show me something and brought me backstage. 

It was humid behind the curtain and I could hear the audience chatter with anticipation, dying for the show to start. Taking up a majority of the stage and bursting through the sets was the Audrey II puppet. Mr. Delaney beamed and explained that the show would go on. The show would always go on. He complimented my acting ability, which I was grateful for, and offered me the chance to tour the regional stages of the upper-Mid-Atlantic in “Little Shop of Horrors”. I was skeptical because I understand that a career in the arts is never guaranteed, but asked him to explain further. 

He sat me down and explained that this Audrey II puppet fed on high schools to extend the longevity of the success of Little Shop of Horrors. There was no “Little Shop of Horrors Junior”, not really. It was just an excuse to feed so there would be more regional productions. Everyone in the cast, Tommy Pinkus, Jacob Fisk, Shea Greene, and even the stage manager What’s Her Name were all part of the puppet now. And Mr. Delaney was telling me I could be part of the puppet too. It already had enough to go for a long while, but there was always room for another. As the only surviving member of the Student Coalition of Performing Arts Awareness and Inclusion, the decision was mine to make. 

I had to choose between a potential million-to-one shot of Starring Roles or a guaranteed lifetime of Ensemble Work. 

And that is why, with a heavy heart, I had to resign from my role as Seymour from the John Quincy Adams High School production of “Little Shop of Horrors Junior”. My heart goes out to the dedicated cast and crew as they transition to a new plane of existence, but I just couldn’t deprive the world’s stages of my presence.

Aydan Quinn is a Chicago actor, improviser, and traveling Renfaire entertainer. They practice Ving Tsun, yoga, and game (video/table) in their free time. Their personality alignment is chaotic neutral, they are a Slytherdor, and their daemon is a Shade.


Gateways: “Shangri-La” By Isaac Rathbone read by Keenan Odenkirk



TRANSCRIPT: Isaac Rathbone is mostly a playwright and also has a few short films under his belt. He tells us he is always searching for challenging environments for great characters to grow in and is a stickler for creating the right dialogue. His work has been featured at Paragon Fest and you can find examples on newplayexchange.org. This is “Shangri-la”.

They called him “Doc” in the service, but no one knew exactly what branch he served or if he was even a medic. On a flag pole above his trailer flew the black POW-MIA flag. But no stars and stripes. Most days when I went to drop his mail, I’d find him wandering his yard, muttering to old friends and perceived enemies. The term yard may not be the right word for individuals of certain standards. Nestled in the tangles of over grown vegetation sat the shell of an old Pontiac, a rusted out water softener, some TV dinner trays and two long de-commissioned riding mowers. Covering these artifacts of America’s Industrial Spirit grew vines, shrubs, saplings and flowers of exotic appearance. No one had bothered to come identify them as members of the local Horticulture Club rarely made special visits to the Shangri-La Trailer Park. 

Doc’s Daughter gave me a wink and sometimes a delightful wave any time I came to drop off. She was younger than I was, but old enough to know what she was doing. She still keeps that hair shoulder length and blonde. She has the presence of someone you don’t bet against in a donnybrook and the beauty that takes the sting out of a hangover. 

I talked to an Old Letter Carrier about it at The Six-Pointer, a local hunting bar where we enjoyed post-route beers. These summers were harsh on him, as he was sweating more than our chilled bottles. He used to have my route until his transfer. He needed to stay in his truck more as his gout made the walk down and back into the trailer park too much. He knew all about Doc’s Daughter. “You stay away from that girl. She’s the type that’s got trouble tattooed on her backside. Hmmmph. Gonna go piss.” 

I watched him gingerly slide off the bar stool with a wince. His right foot was no doubt on fire. His drinking was killing him, a fact that was causing him to drink more. I watched my future, overweight and empty, hobble through the restroom door labeled “Bucks.” 

The next morning, I parked my truck on the shoulder of Route Twelve. The dirt roadways of a trailer park are not easily navigable by large vehicles. The gravel arteries are pocked with divots, holes and loose stones. Not to mention the roaming stray animals and diaper-clad daredevils cruising around on mini plastic hot-rods. The entrance into the park is a steep slope. My predecessor’s Mount Everest. Walking down and in, I was to deliver the coupon books and catalogues to folks who either didn’t have

the chance or the desire to participate in the free market. But glossy pictures are the best fodder for daydreams here. 

My last delivery was always Doc’s place. It’s tucked in the back of the park and closest to the river that everyone’s Grandpa remembers flooding. This morning, I didn’t see the old man wandering through his maze of shrubbery, rust and cracked rubber tires. Doc sat on his porch, causing the graying particle board to smile between the two cinderblocks. I handed off his bundle and he gave me a smile of his own. A chill shot up along the back of my body. There’s something about a mouth full of gums that sows distrust. Call it prejudice if you will. I turned to make a swift exit, but standing in my way was Doc’s Daughter. Her gaze made me forget all about her father’s orthodontics. The soft breeze delivered her smell of menthol and what I assumed was a fruity shampoo. The flowers and plants seemed to bend and bow to her passing figure. She stood at the doorway and gave me one last wink and a smile that struck me in the chest like a Whaler’s Harpoon. 

That first Saturday was a lazy summer day. The kind where even folks who don’t have steady work feel the need to take a load off. There was no sign of Doc on the premises. Their residence had no proper box, so it was in through the doggie door, which I had never noticed before that day. Nor had I ever seen a dog. I was on all fours slipping the parcels through the flap when the door opened. Doc’s Daughter’s bare ankles stood inches from my face. I climbed skyward, noticing her loose fitting athletic shorts and a bright green tank top on my way up. Her hair was in a rope-like braid and her red lipstick and dark eyeliner were crisp. Perhaps recently applied. I asked about Doc, which was met with a laugh. Her fingertips, ignoring the bundle I held out, smoothed over the wrinkles of my government issued shirt. With the sudden grasp of a predator, she yanked me into the trailer and kissed me with a mouthful of menthol and that fruity scent. The door closed loudly behind me. 

I crouched over the bed frame putting the dusty boots back on my feet. I rose to buckle up my government issued shorts that now wouldn’t itch in this heat. I wandered the inside of the double- wide. A photo hung on the wall, featuring a group of Army officers in front of a drab office building. The structure was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and a sign with Japanese characters. Doc was in the crowd, with a full head of hair and full set of teeth. In front of the television slumped a couch that looked like a large person in a hospital gown who’s numb to the bad news. There was no easy chair. Throughout the inside were more plants and flowers. Quite an array of them, too. Seedlings, aloes, cactuses sat on the sills and counters. Their containers ranged from the standard terra cotta to paint cans and Fast Food cups. Doc’s Daughter stood in the bathroom, re-applying her lipstick in the mirror. After a quick self-inspection, her soft feet delicately tapped the linoleum floor and she opened the door, showing me the way out. 

That way my Saturday ritual. Doc would be out. She let me in. I would forget I was supposed to be on my route. One afternoon looking at the old photo, I swear there were some flowers growing on the barbed wire that now grew outside. But the black and white didn’t help. Each Saturday she showed me out and each Saturday I longed to stay. I stopped drinking at the Six-Pointer. Sitting in a dark room when the sun was out made me sick. I hated being in my mail truck, so I walked as much as I could. Even in the rain. Especially in the rain. I was taking longer showers, but a cold soaking downpour from Mother Nature made me come alive. Almost as much as being with her. It ate at me every time I had to leave. One Saturday morning she opened the door and I asked if there was ever a possibility for us to spend more time together. 

“Soon enough,” was her sweet reply. My last Saturday, she was waiting outside, sitting on the busted seat of one of the old mowers. Her bare legs surged out of a pair of jean cut-offs that were made of more frayed threads then denim. She grabbed my collar and pulled me in close, like always. My fears of being out in front of everyone were gone. The simple desire of putting down roots here with Doc’s Daughter swelled in my stomach. I dropped my mailbag. Letters and magazines fluttered away, with some most likely ending up in that beautiful creek with its raging and pure waters. The longer she kissed me, the more the earth pulled at my feet. She stopped and bent over to gather my un-needed Government issued clothes. All I could think was…soon enough. That was August 22nd, 1987. I’ve grown here in Doc’s Yard for many summers. The hot sun is all I have to gauge time. Grow, wither, freeze and grow again. I haven’t seen my reflection, so I don’t know what genus I am. New carriers have come and gone on my route. Hell, I even saw the old timer sub in once or twice way back. Oh, to shout out to him and say that he was wise. He hobbled right past me in that garden prison. Doc wandered the grounds for many years, chatting it up with those of us outside. This was a method he came up with to hold and move prisoners in wartimes. He says there’s nothing he can do for us. Since the state took away his license, he can’t drive to get us the antidote. So he says. He died some time ago. But she’s still here. She still takes men in. All ages, races, occupations. I recognized the Dog Warden from Hoover county. He’s a few yards away from me, a patch of yellow flowers. Some stay in the house. Others are out here. But here were are. Where we always wanted to be. In this little part of Shangri-La.

Keenan Odenkirk is a Chicago based actor originally from Tucson, AZ. He grew up with a deep love for fantasy and sci-fi, favorites being the Martian Chronicles, Harry Potter, Eragon, Hyperion, and Shakespeare’s more fantastical plays. I am an ensemble member of Quicksilver Shakespeare Co. and most recently appeared in the Valiant Theatre New Works Festival.


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: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne read by Ansel Burch Pt 3



This is part two of a special three part reading of the classic short story Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is one of the first ever speculative fiction stories to be published in English and has shades of some characters you may recognize from the pop culture of today. This story is a fascinating look into the fiction of the mid-nineteenth century as well a wonderful mirror to use for looking at the stories we still tell today.

You can find the full text of the story here.

As we come to the close of the story, let’s discuss how the story relates to the ones we still tell today of people gifted with power and the challenges they face. This story is, of course a tragedy. One in which the viewpoint character makes a terrible mistake and in who he trusts and who he blames. 

Do you think Baglioni was manipulating him as part of his rivalry with Rappacini?
Why would Rappacini do this to his daughter?
What do you think Giovanni did after the story ended?

More importantly, this story has a serious problem at its center. Beatrice is given almost no dialogue until the end and her main character trait is “purity”. How would you re-tell this story to account for Beatrice’s choices, viewpoint and options? If you wrote this story from her point of view without changing the ending, how would it be different.

A conversation thread will be going on our facebook page at facebook.com/GatewaysOtherworld/. You can also leave your thoughts on this story in the comments on the shows homepage at https://otherworld.blubrry.net/.

This story is read by our series curator, Ansel Burch. Ansel also produces and hosts for the comedy variety show podcast Starlight Radio Dreams which performs and records live every month here in Chicago. Check it out at http://www.starlightradiodreams.com


Gateways: New Blood by Brendan Connelly read by Alex B. Reynolds



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Brendon Connelly. This story is written by Brendon Connelly. [Brendon Connelly is a scriptwriter from Norwich in the UK. He was a film journalist and blogger for over 20 years, met Kermit the Frog three times – and only fainted one of those times, and graduated from the University of Oxford with a first in Creative Writing. It also happens to be his 47th birthday on the date of recording! This is “New Blood.”

I should start by explaining how the Flavivirus first came into my community. Sure, this is an anecdote and not, you know, hard science, but I guess most people would say the exact same thing about me. Let’s just say, be sceptical about my stories at your peril. 

You can get the Flavivirus through the air, if somebody sneezes on you, or even just breathes on you. You can get it from touching a surface where the virus will live for at least 24 hours. Don’t ever forget to sanitise your hands when you get off the bus. And, of course, you can get it through blood. So take one guess as to exactly how one of my kind first caught it. 

There was this kid called Jasper. He’d only joined us a few years back. He was just a whippersnapper, really. Jasper drank a guy down in the packing district and – whoom! Jasper was sick before the human’s neck had left his lips. 

None of us are doctors, biologists or any kind of expert in disease – we don’t have the resources let alone the knowledge – but just watching what goes down when one of us gets hit with the Flavivirus, it’s immediately obvious that we handle it a whole lot worse than you guys do. Poor little Jasper didn’t even make it through the day. He hit the dirt just before dawn and was nothing but a pile of ashes by sundown. You, however, don’t even show symptoms for days. It must be our metabolism. Remember – we live fast, stay young forever, leave no kind of corpse at all, but our metabolic clocks are in permanent overdrive. 

The irony is, in many ways, my kind should have been in a very good place with this virus. We don’t breathe, it takes a hell of a lot to make us sneeze, and we wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus or train. But of course, we’re completely screwed because, unlike you, we can catch the virus from our food. 

Jasper was dust for only a few hours when the Flavivirus first showed up in your newspapers. I never read your papers, not personally. I don’t need to. I’m not sure if you know why…? 

I lose track of what you know about us and what you don’t. The garlic thing, for example, that’s not quite right. We definitely don’t like garlic. It’s fucking disgusting. But it doesn’t hurt us. And crucifixes? We’re pretty sure that’s just empty propaganda, and not on our behalf. 

But I don’t need to read your papers because, well, they’re boring. That’s mostly it, but also, as long as one of us reads them, we may as well all have. You guys sometimes talk about being on the same wavelength or being in tune with one another, or you say, “Great minds think alike,” though, really, you’ve got no idea. Things leak back and forth between our minds. It never takes long for us to come to a consensus which is really rather convenient. 

Except, of course, when it leads to absolute hysteria. 

We were lucky to be asleep when the virus took hold of Jasper. Had we been awake, we would have all felt his cells catch fire but, by the grace of who can say, he was asleep, and so we just shared his dreams. All I remember are flashes, but it seemed to be the usual stuff of our nightmares. Something ancient, something we never talk about. We dreamt flashes of glowing eyes, narrowing to pin-sharp dots of cruel white in the dark. There was the beating of broken wings. Then a sense of confusion that sank under waves of oily, black hopelessness. After that, just the teeth, sharp and silent, and their tiny punctures, deep into the soul and rotten, changing everything forever in a single bite. 

After this, we all woke up. Except Jasper, poor thing. We will remember him. 

That night we fed hastily, rampant, greedy and fearful. We stalked every shadow across town, hunting and desperate. If we didn’t eat now, we feared, the virus would take hold of you all, and we’d starve. You’d be polluted. You’d be wasted, and then we would die. 

Some of us were scared to feed at all, but most of us were afraid to wait any longer. Majority rules when your ideas and desires tend to run together in one dirty pool, especially when fear gets the upper hand. Thirty four humans vanished that night. We drank them all. We took their bodies down under the ground with us and buried them there. It was our hungriest, most desperate night in a thousand years. It was reckless and dangerous, and I knew that if we did it again, there would be a real chance you’d come looking for us, not even knowing what you were looking for. 

And because I knew it, slowly, everybody knew it. 

We slept well the morning after the feast, all of our hearts feeling fat and sated, but it was obvious that we would have to find another solution fast. As we dreamt, I let my ideas run like blood into water, hoping we would all wake up and look for an answer together. 

We knew that any one of you could be carrying the virus, and there was no way of telling which. Your newspapers and the TV told us that the virus was spreading faster than expected, and unpredictably. We learned that your weakest would easily succumb but also that your strongest would survive. Given time, your healthy immune systems would normally be enough to defeat the virus, and slowly but surely, you’d return to your prime, rich and and alive as if you had never been sick. 

So if we could wait it out, sooner or later, you’d all be safe to drink again. We didn’t know exactly how long we’d have to wait, but thankfully, this was all just a matter of time. I may have only been on this earth for 55 years, but many of us have walked through your night times for millennia. Time is something we are not about to run out of. 

Of course, our knowing this is not the same as feeling it. Patience, you may say, is not one of our virtues. 

Still, we agreed to abstain from feeding. We tried to sleep longer, and to distract ourselves with whatever small business we could make. We read books and watched television and we went on walks underneath the city. We got together like in the old days, to just sit and talk. These meetings were so unlike the slow seeping of ideas from one mind to another, rather more vibrant, much more exciting. Our banter was fast and snappy, and we laughed, and we flirted, and sometimes even fought. I wondered why we hadn’t done more of this, and vowed to keep it up once the virus had gone and everything returned to the old ways. 

And woven through all of us, we were trying hard to wait. But while we tried to look away from our true nature, the hunger kept growing, and creeping closer and, slowly but inevitably, we all started to share the thoughts that we wouldn’t speak out loud. Together, we knew that we could only wait for so long. 

Your papers told us all about your own fears and the plans you were making. Drugs were being developed, if slowly. Plans were being cancelled and large group meetings outlawed. Special quarantine centres were being set up across the land. You were working to slow the virus and protect yourselves, and for once, we found ourselves deeply invested in your safety and success. 

But the virus had given itself a head start. By living silently in your bodies before showing any symptoms, Flavivirus managed to spread itself farther and faster than any of us had expected. And soon, your quarantine centres took on a second, unexpected purpose. 

Because while your people were isolated in those centres, they were safe from the virus. In our local quarantine centre, one of your people became sick and died, and the other 18 people… they didn’t become sick at all. Instead, they simply found themselves walled-off, protected from the spread of virus. The world outside was diseased, but the quarantine centre, against expectation and design, became the safe place. Your plans had turned inside out. 

I woke up the next night with an idea. It came from something I half-remembered from when I had once been alive, and half-learned from another of my kind. I knew that what we needed was clean blood, so if there was a supply of this blood being perfectly protected in the quarantine centres, then we should help ourselves to it. We needed to carry out a heist. 

We met so that I could explain my plan, as well as I could. I explained that, at least the way a heist was usually done, we’d get weapons and storm the quarantine centre. Two small bonuses to our particular situation, I explained, were that a) your video camera security systems were all but blind to us, and that b) the quarantine centre’s security guards were armed with guns, not wooden stakes. We’d undoubtedly leave a hell of a mess, much more than we’d ever allowed ourselves to make in one of your cities, but that would be a small risk to raise if it meant the survival of our kind. 

We agreed that my plan was a good one. There was only one revision – though I forget who suggested it, if it was anybody in particular – that rather than kill the humans living in the quarantine centre, we should keep them alive and drag them back to our sleeping places below the city. This wasn’t the time to raid the dairy for milk. We were going to need to keep our own cows. 

Several of my kind kept guns, some older, some newer but all lovingly maintained. We found them out, loaded them and checked that they worked. Some of us prefer knives, or swords, and so we armed ourselves with those too. Another of us took a crowbar. Anything, we thought, that could help get us inside, and to deal with the security guards as quickly as possible. 

The quarantine centre had been improvised out of a medical centre on the South Side of the city, on a quiet block where every other building was empty all night long. We met there, then cleared our minds and got in sync – and, moving in perfect union, set about ripping into the building as quickly as we could. 

A crowbar through the window. A security guard came running. He was wearing a respirator mask but his eyes were alight with fear. We shot him in the chest. He dropped to his knees, and while the blood was still pumping, some of us stopped to feed. Another security guard hurtled into the room, and sprinted towards the alarm. We shot him too, in the back. Then we made our way further inside. 

We soon found the corridor between the isolation rooms. Another security guard was waiting there for us. I was first through the door, and so I was the target as he unloaded his pistol. Every shot hit me in the body and they hurt – they always do – and they slowed me down, but they weren’t going to make any real difference. His gun started to click, empty and useless and he threw it our way, and he showed us how little he knew about what he was dealing with. 

But while his gun couldn’t make the tiniest bit of difference, we hadn’t reckoned on what he did next. He squeezed a small switch in his hand and a heavy, thick metal door slammed shut, just inches in front of me. It cut us all off from the corridor – and at the same time, opened all of the doors to the isolation rooms. A siren started sounding and the lights went out. Everything was now bathed only in the blood red glow of emergency lights. 

I pulled myself up to the window in the heavy door and watched as the security guard opened another, matching door at the other end of the corridor. Dazed and confused quarantine patients stumbled from their rooms, and the security guard beckoned them his way, explaining that he was leading them to a secure room. 

We kept thrashing angrily at the door that blocked our way. I watched through its window, the crowbar flailing past me, as the security guard led his people to his inner sanctum. He was stealing our survival from right under our nose. 

The security guard managed to get the last of the patients through the door and swing it shut just before we smashed our way into the corridor. I screamed at him, and wailed. Where had he taken all of our blood? We were going to kill him unless he opened the door. 

He was shaking and sweating but he didn’t take his eyes off me. He told me that we’d just have to kill him. He demanded to know what we wanted. He told me, again and again, that he’d die before he’d give us the passcode to the secure room. Without it, he said, we’d never get through three feet of steel. I couldn’t believe this flimsy little man, believing he was some kind of hero. He was willing to put his life on the line for this passcode, to die for this tiny secret… and maybe to kill us all too? 

We started to panic, but I tried to hold us together. We knew that we could certainly overpower this guy but, thinking together, couldn’t we also out-think him? I dug in and tried to centre my mind. I held on tight and, in a moment of peace, we all came to a standstill. 

There are several ways of executing a heist. One of the easiest and certainly the most common is the smash and grab. That, however, had just gone very wrong for us. So what next? 

Well, I thought, what about giving ourselves a little advantage. What if we had an inside man? 

The idea rippled through us like a wave of relief. 

I can remember now just how it went down for the security guard. There were flashes of glowing eyes as they narrowed to pin-sharp dots of red in the dark. There was the beating of broken wings. And then came the sense of confusion, and the drowning in oily, black hopelessness. After that, just the sharp and silent teeth and their tiny punctures, cutting deep into his soul, changing everything forever in a bite. 

It didn’t take long. It never does. And then, finally, we had what we wanted. The four digit passcode trickled slowly out of our newest mind. I typed them into the door, and we all got ready to eat. 

ANSEL: Thank you, Alex. 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.


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 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!