Black Petals Issue #96, Summer, 2021

Guilt Trip
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Dark Resurrection-Fiction by Michael Hopkins
A Dip in the Pool-Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Far Down in the Credits-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Guilt Trip-Fiction by James Flynn
Ky'thagra's Big Day-Fiction by Devin Marcus
Larger Prey-Fiction by Richard Brown
Lover-Fiction by N. G. Leonetti
Ort's Last Undertaking-Fiction by Taylor Hood
Sail Away-Fiction by Chris Allyne
Sleeping Again-Fiction by Russ Bickerstaff
The Poison Doorway-Fiction by Dionosio Traverso Jr.
The Tick Bite-Fiction by Robb T. White
Bake Sale Inspiration-Flash Fiction by Samantha Carr
Hotel with Full Amenities-Flash Fiction by William Kitcher
Reincarnation Jeopardy-Flash Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Sex Fiend-Flash Fiction by Karen Bayly
Witches' Sabbath-Poem by Mike Collins
Blood-Poem by Mike Collins
Death's Pornography-Poem by Mike Collins
Temptation-Poem by Mike Collins
Painting Light-Poem by Mike Collins
Dark Waltz-Poem by Marilyn Lou Berry
The Last Victim of Vlad the Impaler-Poem by Mehmet Akgonul
The Bravest Ant-Poem by Mehmet Akgonul
Ain't Alien Spores-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Giant Goldfish-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Igopogo-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Megamouth Has Cavities-Poem by Richard Stevenson

bp_96_guilttrip1_mdavis.jpg
Art by Michael D. Davis 2021

Guilt Trip

 

James Flynn

 

 

     Shane sat in the mellow din of the coffee shop, sipping his hot drink as the morning traffic trickled by outside the window. There was work to be done, documents to be edited on his laptop in front of him, but it’d become a morning ritual for him to browse through the newspaper before beginning his daily chores.

     The usual flurry of sensationalist headlines jumped out at him as he flicked through the pages: tax-avoiding politicians, celebrity love affairs, global warming threats, escalating wars, burglaries, murders, and a few crosswords and puzzles thrown in just to balance things out a bit.

     ‘A load of old bloody tosh,’ he muttered, scanning the columns and pictures.

     There was one story, however, that caught his attention: a young woman from Clover Falls had been reported missing. Clover Falls. The name pulled his eyes towards the page like a magnet, drawing him in with its ghastly memories and associations. Clover Falls was a run down town on the western outskirts of Mapharno City, a place that you avoided like the plague if you had any sense. Seeing the name of the place printed in the newspaper, Shane was amazed that it even existed still. He’d been there once or twice during his teenage years if he remembered correctly, just to explore the endless derelict buildings and warehouses that were scattered around there. Shithole was the word that sprang to mind as Shane sifted through his hazy memories of the town, distant memories that’d occurred during a misspent youth several decades ago.

     A photo of a sweet-looking young lady with red hair was attached to the article, and Shane read through it with a morbid interest. According to the reporter, the girl was one of many people who’d gone missing in or around the old town in recent years, and a full-blown investigation was under way. Interviewed workers at a local hospital mentioned an incident a couple of days before the latest disappearance where a “drugged homeless man” was moved on by security after trying to steal medical supplies from one of their storage units, but the link between the two events was yet to be established. An adjoining sub article outlined a brief history of the crumbling town, along with stories from an assortment of citizens who claimed that pets had been going missing there for as long as they could remember.

     ‘Some places never change,’ grumbled Shane, folding the paper up and throwing it down on the table in disgust.

     After gulping down the last mouthful of coffee from his steaming cup, he opened up one of the work documents on his laptop and got to work.

 

*          *          *

 

     It was 3am and the chalky glow of the moon was shining in through Shane’s bedroom window. He’d had a fairly busy day editing documents for his company, and he really should’ve been asleep, but he wasn’t. He was usually a heavy sleeper, one of those people who dozed off minutes after his head touched the pillow, but tonight his mind was like a bulb with too many volts running through it. After jolting awake again he sat up on his bed at a right angle, staring into a gloomy corner while beads of sweat dripped down his back and shoulders.

     He knew.

     That name, Clover Falls, had rattled him earlier on during the day, but at the time he didn’t really know why. But now he did. Now he knew. He knew why the name of that rotten place had sent a shiver up his middle-aged spine. The nightmare he’d just woken up from had pieced the puzzle together, clicked the segments into place, and now the memory was there in his head as clear as a highly-polished pane of glass. Clover Falls. Damn right he’d been there before, he’d been there more than once during his troubled adolescence, but there was really only one single time that was relevant to his current state of panic.

     Sitting there in the stuffy darkness, his naked body a clammy sack of damp meat, he relived the entire memory again in all its hilarious splendour. And it was hilarious, too. At least it was at the time...

 

     It’d happened thirty years ago; three long decades. Shane was a seventeen-year-old tearaway who spent most of his days loitering around the local skatepark, getting into mischief with Vaughn, his partner in crime. They were referred to as the Deadly Duo by some, Double Trouble by others, and the other names that were thrown their way by disgruntled enemies were enough to make your ears bleed. They were skaters, they were drinkers, they were louts, they were thugs, and they were college dropouts with absolutely no direction and no future plans whatsoever other than to get wasted and have a laugh at somebody’s expense.

     On this particular night in question, the two of them were in the company of a local skater named Roland. They’d met Roland a week earlier on the mini ramp, drinking cheap cider and puffing away on roll-up cigarettes. Roland wasn’t like most of the other boys at the park. He came from a well-to-do family in one of the nicer neighbourhoods, and unlike Shane and Vaughn he actually had plans in life. His weekend drinking and loitering at the skatepark was more of a temporary rebellious stage for young Roland, a passing fad before moving on to university to embark on a meaningful career.

     Or at least it should’ve been.

     Roland’s father was a pathologist, a specialist in his field, and there was pressure on Roland to attend medical school and follow in his footsteps. This was rarely brought up by young Roland, unless he was really drunk or stoned, but most of the other kids knew about it.

     On this boozy, mischievous night at the skate park, Shane had managed to get hold of a rare delicacy: a jar of LSD. This stuff was in liquid form, complete with a pipette. A local hoodlum who owed Shane money had given it to him as a form of payment, and he’d accepted it gratefully. Armed with this potent psychedelic, the plan for the evening’s festivities had been simple: drink some beer, drop some acid, and then head over to Clover Falls to explore the derelict buildings.

     There was always some kind of derelict building over at Clover Falls. Being the official toilet of Mapharno City, it was home to a wide array of crumbling factories, shops and warehouses even back then. The latest addition to the rotting landscape, however, was a college. A few of the other kids had been over there a few days before, and tales of workshops full of tools, a gymnasium kitted out with sports equipment, and deserted classrooms and offices with discarded furniture ignited the adventurous spirits of all those around.

     They weren’t going there to steal anything, they were just going there to get high and explore the recently-vacated facility in all its decadent glory.

     And that’s exactly what they did.

 

     They all dropped the acid before they even arrived in Clover Falls, so by the time they got there they were pretty spaced out. They were giggling, wide-eyed, and seeing things through a lens of comical surrealism, walking along the empty streets like a group of aliens seeing planet Earth for the very first time. With the hallucinogen working its way around their bodies and distorting their vision, the empty college building looked like a cartoon funhouse as it appeared on the near horizon, its various sections and floors leaning and swaying in a wind that wasn’t there.

     All three of them were feeling the effects of the drug as they awkwardly stumbled across a messy field towards the college, but Roland was especially feeling them. Unlike Shane and Vaughn, he’d only gone as far as alcohol and cannabis in the past, and this strange trippy feeling taking over his senses was a completely new experience for him.

     Entering the college was easy enough. The last group of teenage trespassers had busted the padlock on the main entrance doors, so they all walked in without any trouble. The electric hadn’t been disconnected, so Shane flicked on every light switch that he passed, gulping down mouthfuls of beer as he led the way through the silent building. Graffiti already marked the walls and doors but Vaughn added some more with a pen he brought along with him, with Shane climbing and hopping over the desks that’d been dragged out into the corridors. Roland was more apprehensive, tagging along a few metres behind them both while scanning the rooms through dilated pupils.

     After around fifteen minutes or so of messing around, they sat down to smoke some cigarettes in what looked like an old carpentry workshop.

     ‘I’m gettin some mad visuals here,’ laughed Shane, gazing around at the metal vices and files as they took on bizarre, mutated forms. ‘Can you see that? I swear it’s a robot or something.’

     ‘It’s a clamp,’ chuckled Vaughn. ‘You’re just tripping. Mind you, can you see that sculpture over there? Is it a sculpture? Or is it a coat stand?’

     ‘You idiot!’ said Shane. ‘That’s a...well, hang on. What actually is it?’

     ‘I think it’s a sculpture, but I’m not sure. Roland, what do you think that is? That wooden thing over in the corner?’

     Shane and Vaughn both turned their heads towards Roland, then simultaneously cracked up with laughter as they saw that at some point he’d slid underneath the teacher’s desk with his feet protruding out and pointing towards the ceiling. He was lying on his back under the desk, staring up at the underside of it which was about ten inches away from his face.

     ‘Roland, what—’

     ‘There’s so much room under here!’ he cried, staring up at the bottom panel of the desk. ‘You could...You could build a house under here!’

     Shane and Vaughn were in stitches. Holding their stomachs, they rolled around in fits of laughter, howling and crying at how wasted their young friend was.

     ‘Build a house?’ grinned Shane. ‘There’s more room than that! You could easily build a block of flats or something, if you ask me!’

     Another roar of laughter erupted between them, echoing slightly around the dusty workshop.

     ‘He’s wasted!’ said Vaughn. ‘Totally wasted!’

     ‘It’s OK, this’ll sober him up a bit,’ quipped Shane, leaning over towards Roland’s beer can by the side of the desk.

     ‘What are you doing?’ whispered Vaughn, noticing that Shane had one hand dipped in the pocket of his coat.

     Without answering, Shane pulled the jar of acid from his pocket and squeezed several large drops into the hole in the top of the beer can using the pipette, a hyena’s grin spread across his face the whole time. 

     ‘No!’ whispered Vaughn. ‘He’s out of it already! He can’t have any more!’

     ‘Calm down Mr Square. It’s just a bit of acid.’

     ‘You bastard,’ giggled Vaughn. ‘You total bastard.’

     Shane pocketed the LSD and straightened himself up. ‘Hey, Roland. Let’s go and explore a bit more. And drink up! Your beer’s gettin flat!’

     They both rose to their feet, taking in the moving walls and shadows all around them, waiting for Roland to get up from under the desk.

     ‘Come on, Roland. Let’s go for a walk. There are two other floors we haven’t seen yet.’

     ‘This desk is breathing,’ said Roland. ‘I’m sure it is.’

     ‘Come on,’ said Shane, under his breath. ‘Let’s just leave him to it. He’ll be alright.’

     Vaughn took one last look at Roland’s feet hanging out from under the desk, then shook his head and followed Shane out of the room.

 

     ‘I wonder why this place went under,’ said Shane, as the two of them wandered along the college’s littered walkways.

     ‘I don’t know,’ Vaughn answered, dizzyingly. ‘They sure had a lot of facilities.’

     And it was true. Roaming around the old building, they’d seen textile workshops, a lecture hall, a gymnasium, and now they were confronted with a large drama theatre. To Shane and Vaughn’s hallucinating brains, the place looked like a relic from another world. The big curtains flanking the stage resembled tall cloaked guards watching them silently, and the array of dusty, frayed costumes lying about on the floor appeared to them as mutated slugs slivering this way and that.

     ‘This place is crazy,’ muttered Vaughn, the expression on his pale face one of wonder and fear.

     ‘What’s that up there?’ asked Shane, gesturing towards the rear of the elevated stage.

     ‘Only one way to find out,’ replied Vaughn. ‘Let’s have a look.’

     With awkward, drug-addled movements they climbed up onto the big stage, stepped around the bundles of clothes, shoes and costumes, then peeked behind one of the big curtains.

     ‘Oh shit!’ they cried, in unison.

     Behind the curtain, just off stage, a dozen faces peered up at them from the gloom. It was a terrifying sight, intensified by the tricks both of their minds were playing on them, but after a few seconds the reality of the situation became clear to them. They’d found a collection of mannequins piled up in a heap, with arms, legs, torsos and heads all jutting out from the dust at random angles and configurations. The sight was so shocking to their intoxicated minds that even after they’d established the bodies weren’t real, they still kept their distance from them and spoke tentatively.

     ‘Props,’ said Shane, clearing his throat.

     ‘Huh?’

     ‘They’re props. They must’ve been used in plays, and stuff.’

     ‘Oh, yeah,’ stammered Vaughn, peering down at the smooth, life-like features of the dolls.

     ‘Hey, I’ve just had an idea.’

     ‘What?’

     ‘Let’s tell Roland that they’re medical examiners,’ grinned Shane.

     ‘Tell him what?’

     ‘He’s studying to become a pathologist. Let’s arrange the mannequins to look like university professors or something, then tell him that they’re here to assess his skills.’

     ‘Get real, will you! He’s not going to believe that.’

     ‘Isn’t he? He was talking about building a house under a bloody desk earlier. This’ll be mild compared to that.’

     ‘Yeah, but as soon as he walks in here he’ll know that it’s a drama theatre.’

     ‘We’ll move them to the lecture hall, then. Dress them up in some of these old costumes.’

     Vaughn was now grinning like a Cheshire Cat. ‘Come on, then. Let’s do it.’

     Giggling again like a couple of schoolgirls, they proceeded to carry the six-foot mannequins over to the lecture hall, along with a few bundles of clothes and costumes.

     The plan was coming together.

 

     ‘Hey, Roland, you’ll never guess wh—’

     Shane and Vaughn paused by the doorway of the carpentry workshop, stunned and stupefied by the sight that confronted them. Roland was standing upright, facing them, with one arm extended outwards as though he’d been paused mid-stride. The strange position he was in was unsettling enough, but it was his eyes that were truly alarming. They were like two pearly marbles bulging out of his face, displaying a look of insanity that bordered on being caricature.

     An empty beer can lay on its side by his feet.

     ‘What are you doing, Roland?’ asked Shane.

     ‘Don’t come near me! Don’t...Don’t come near me!’ he wailed, through the side of his tight mouth. ‘And don’t touch me!’

     ‘What’s the matter?’

     ‘I’m made of glass! I’m made of fucking glass! Don’t touch me! If you touch me I’ll break!’

     Noticing the empty beer can on the floor, Shane burst out laughing. Vaughn followed suit shortly afterwards, although his laughter was more hesitant. There was a trace of concern etched across his face, too, as though he could sense things were going a little too far.

     ‘Come on, Roland!’ shouted Shane. ‘You can’t mess around like this all night, you need to pull yourself together! It’s time for your big exam!’

     ‘Wh...What?’ squirmed Roland, with the careful lip movements of a professional ventriloquist.

     ‘It’s your big chance! Have you forgotten? There’s a group of medical examiners waiting for you upstairs! They’re here to assess your operational skills!’

     Poor Roland looked like he was going to burst from stress and panic. His teeth were chattering, his shoulders were shaking, and his legs were quivering like a dog preparing to defecate. ‘Uhh! Uhn! No! No! Not now! I can’t do it now! Not...Not like this!’

     ‘You’ll be fine,’ smiled Shane, walking towards him with a sardonic grin. ‘Don’t worry, we believe in you. Don’t we, Vaughn?’

     Vaughn didn’t say anything at first, but after a few moments he loosened up and went along with the ploy. ‘Yes. We believe in you, Roland. We know you can do it.’

     Roland was so off his face he didn’t even look real. His pasty features were stuck in an open expression, gaping at the air like a sick fish, a cartoon character who’d seen a ghost. Shane took another step towards him.

     ‘Don’t touch me! I’m...I’m telling you, I’ll shatter into a million pieces! I’ll—’

     ‘Come on now, Roland. You’re being a bit silly. The most important exam of your whole entire life will begin in a few minutes, and you’re rambling on about being made of glass. Snap out of it.’

     After a little coaxing Shane eventually managed to grab hold of Roland, and he shook him free of his psychosomatic glass illusion.

     Vaughn silently watched on from the doorway, biting his nails.

     

*          *          *

 

     ‘Do medical students even have to do this?’ Vaughn whispered, walking a few paces behind Roland as they all made their way towards the lecture hall.

     ‘I don’t know, probably not. Mind you, there must be some kind of hands-on examination for a trainee pathologist at some point along the line. We’re doing him a favour, really,’ chuckled Shane. ‘We’re giving him a bit of practical experience.’

     ‘Yeah,’ said Vaughn, looking down towards his feet. ‘Practical experience.’

     The truth was that it didn’t matter one iota how realistic this phony exam was, because Roland was so high he would’ve believed anything. He was way up there with the fairies, flying in ga-ga land, sailing along in another dimension. Every single drop of LSD that Shane had squeezed into his beer was now swimming through his bloodstream, swirling around his brain, and wreaking havoc with his perception of reality. It’d taken a full five minutes to get him properly moving again, and since then he’d claimed to be sinking in mud, melting into lava, growing extra fingers, and stuck in a giant cobweb that only he could see.

     He was well and truly gone.

     ‘OK, this is it, Roland,’ said Shane, putting on his sensible voice. ‘The examiners are waiting in there,’ he said, pointing to the closed doors of the lecture hall. ‘But don’t go in yet. You’re scheduled for 11.30pm, and the time now is 11.25pm. If you go in too early, it won’t look good.’

     Roland lingered outside the big doors like a condemned man waiting to be led into a gas chamber. His bulbous eyes darted left and right continuously. ‘I...I can’t do this! I’m...I’m not ready! I’m not prepared!’

     ‘Hey!’ said Shane, pointing a finger at him sternly. ‘What have I told you about this kind of talk? Me and Vaughn have complete faith in you. Don’t let us down by having silly little doubts about yourself.’ Then, after waiting a moment, he added, ‘And what will your father say if you mess this up? Have you thought about that?’

     Roland looked so distraught that Vaughn had to turn and walk away.

     ‘Anyway,’ said Shane, noticing Vaughn’s departure, ‘we’ll leave you to it. Good luck! You can tell us all about it later on.’

     And just like that, Roland was left standing outside the doors of the lecture hall on his own, searching his spangled brain for the medical procedures and technicalities that he knew. Meanwhile, Shane and Vaughn sneaked around a corner towards a rear door that led into the lecture hall from the back. They then quietly entered the large room and sat down between two wigged, clothed mannequins in the back row of seats.

 

     The lecture hall was as silent as a tomb, with the dozen or so “examiners” rigidly perched on their seats, waiting for their student to enter the room. The lectern had been taken away and replaced with a table, and upon the table lay the cadaver: a naked female mannequin with starchy red hair and pinky-red lips. An assortment of kitchen knives from the canteen were carefully positioned around her, complete with a tattered pair of rubber gloves.

     Despite having set the whole thing up, Shane and Vaughn felt very tense and unsettled as they sat there observing the fruits of their labour. It felt a little bit too real, a little bit too elaborate, and there was a sense that the joke had morphed into something else. In fact, Vaughn actually leaned over towards Shane to voice his concerns and tell him that things had gotten out of hand, but just as he opened his mouth to speak the big entrance doors began to creak open.

 

*          *          *

 

     ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ said Vaughn. ‘I’m going.’

     The two of them had been sitting in an awkward, guilty silence for what seemed like an hour, watching their stupid prank unfold into a cruel nightmare. Roland was still up there on the stage, speaking to the rows of examiners with exaggerated courtesy and politeness as he hacked away at the plastic mannequin. He was shaking like a leaf, his fingers trembling as he nervously guided the sea of onlookers through his procedure.

     It was never supposed to go this far. They’d expected a few minutes of silly fun, followed by a transgression into some other joke or adventure in another section of the building. But there was nothing funny about what they were seeing. They were witnessing a traumatic breakdown in slow motion, a tragic loss of dignity, a disintegration of a young man’s soul.

     And he was still as high as a kite.

     Shane and Vaughn were beginning to come down from their trips a little bit, sobriety returning to them as the night wore on, but young Roland was still lost in a chemical haze. His irises were completely consumed by his ever-growing pupils, his jaw was permanently clenched, and his entire being jittered and trembled with a malignant otherworldliness. Watching young Roland relentlessly skittering about on the platform with his inhuman eyes focused on the blades, a terrifying suspicion dawned on both Shane and Vaughn, but it was too hideous for either of them to mention.

     Responding to Vaughn’s comment, Shane said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. This is getting too weird.’

     As slowly and discreetly as possible, they both rose from their seats and crept out of the rear door of the lecture hall, leaving Roland to his incessant cutting, slicing, and dissecting of the red-haired female on the table. Within minutes they were hurling themselves down the staircase towards the ground floor, and charging out of the building into the cold night air.

     Retreating across the wispy field on which the college stood, they turned their heads and gazed up at the lecture hall window from a distance. A series of elongated shadows danced and bobbed across the visible sections of wall and ceiling as the sole occupant tirelessly entertained his inanimate crowd, trapped all alone in a seamless bubble of fear and delusion.

 

*          *          *

 

     Over thirty years had passed since that awful night, and now, sitting in the gloom of his bedroom in the early hours of the morning, Shane remembered it all in vivid detail. Young Roland’s drugged face rose up into his consciousness every time he thought about the newspaper article, the details of the case too coincidental to ignore. Had he, in a moment of childish mischief three decades ago, created a killer? The article mentioned nothing of murder, but his intuition was filling in the gaps.

 

     He never did get back to sleep that night, nor did he sleep properly for the next few weeks. The press continued to report missing people in and around the western outskirts of Mapharno City, and every time Shane read through the details of the cases he became more and more convinced that he knew who the culprit was.

     But it couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t be. It was too ridiculous to even contemplate. Three long decades had come and gone, the world was a different place, and Shane was now a middle-aged man with a balding head and a bloated gut. The prank had occurred in the distant past, during the pre-mobile phone and pre-internet era, a time when there were only a handful of TV stations to choose from. Could young Roland still be... The very thought chilled Shane to the bone, but he couldn’t shake it off.

     What should he do? Go to the police? Maybe. But his story was just too tenuous to share with anyone, especially the boys in blue. Contacting Vaughn was also out of the question, because Shane had no idea where he lived or whether he was even still alive. Contact between the two of them had fizzled out not long after the night in Clover Falls, and he had no real way of tracking him down.

     How Shane dearly hoped that he was wrong. Pacing around his apartment week after week as more and more victims went missing, there was nothing that would’ve satisfied him more than a discovery that the perpetrator of the crimes was someone else entirely, proving his theory to be nothing other than a paranoid delusion.

     But would that discovery ever come?

 

*          *          *

 

     It had to be done. For the sake of his mental health, it had to be done. If he ever wanted to get a decent night’s sleep again, it had to be done.

     He had to visit Clover Falls.

     The purpose of the trip was to put his mind at rest. He’d go there, find the old college building—if it even still existed—discover it was empty, then return home with a clear conscience, ready to get on with the rest of his life and put these stupid thoughts behind him.

     That was the plan.

 

     Finding the old town was trickier than he thought it’d be. Everything looked so different. A train took him to the outskirts of the city, but there were no functional stations within a five mile radius of Clover Falls. After getting off the train he walked through a series of rough neighbourhoods, with slack-jawed simpletons and poverty-stricken children watching him from doorsteps, then crossed a number of overgrown fields littered with burnt tyres and plastic.

     Clover Falls was little more than a sparsely populated rubbish tip, but to Shane’s surprise some of the old buildings were still visible on the near horizon, including the college. The very sight of the old college building, now almost ancient in its antiquity, was like a cold hand gripping Shane’s heart, its mouldy exterior injecting him with ice.

     A visible pathway extended across the field to the college’s entrance.

     This pathway was mainly visible due to the setting sun that shone from the west, throwing a warm hazy light over the trampled grass. Following the trail, Shane took his chances with the main entrance doors. They were filthy and covered in grime, but they opened up with a sturdy push.

     After a quick look around, he stepped inside.

 

     The lower floor of the building instantly brought it all back, flashbacks of his younger self jumping over desks and goofing around. The layout of the place was the same but dust and rubble coated everything, and a stagnant, stale musk hung in the air.

     Gravitating towards the first floor, he found himself outside a large room that he believed to be the carpentry workshop. Putting his hand on the door handle, he closed his eyes for a second and hoped that the old room was empty. He hoped to see nothing but splintered wooden desks and rusty vices, the innocent remnants of a class full of aspiring apprentices.

     His hope was in vain.

     As soon as the door opened a gassy stench hit his nostrils like a jack hammer, a putrid scent that made him gag and double over. And then, once his eyes had stopped watering, he saw the carnage laid out before him. The rows of carpentry worktops were covered in fleshy mounds piled on top of each other, all buzzing with flies and maggots. An assortment of anatomical parts littered the desks and tabletops: calves, hands, forearms, feet, and even heads. Blood-stained saws sat amongst the decaying clumps of tissue and bone, their serrated edges matted with powdered bone fragments and pus. Cracked skulls with mouldy skin peeling from them were wedged in the steel vices, and buckets of sloppy organs and intestines lined the walls.

     Shane had experienced several nightmares over the last few weeks, but none of them were as gruesome as the scene that confronted him right now.

     A noise sounded off from somewhere overhead.

     It was a muffled sound, a bit like a vibration or a voice. Someone was talking, or… No, it can’t be! thought Shane.

     The voice got progressively louder as he climbed the grimy stairs, the words vibrating around the flaking walls and peeling handrails. Upstairs, the lecture hall doors appeared in the distance like an entrance to hell. He was drawn towards them like a moth towards a flame, his footsteps carrying him towards the horror that he knew was waiting for him.

     The doors were ajar, and he peered inside.

     The lecture hall seats were all occupied, smiling faces beaming up towards the stage. The figures sat with their stiff arms folded on their laps, and wild mops of hair springing out from their plastic scalps. Dust motes covered the shoulder pads of their retro outfits, cobwebs stretched across the creases of their ears, and their shiny features were cracked and dulled by time. Shane recognised them all, their joyous, comical expressions appearing to him as long-lost acquaintances.

     One face he didn’t recognise, however, was the one up on the stage.

     It was only after a certain amount of gaping and squinting that Shane was able to confirm to himself that it was Roland up there. He had matted grey hair that clung to his head in greasy knots, a hunched back resulting from the countless hours bent over the examination table, and lines and wrinkles on his skin that were deeper than a seabed. The voice that rang out from his chattering mouth sounded like an untuned, damaged wind instrument, and then...

     And then there was his stare.

     From a short distance away, Roland’s eyes looked like holes in the ground. Exhausted and spent through years of chemical stupor and insomnia, his entire countenance had a terminal look to it. There was a rot to his gaze, his wide pupils sitting over a network of red scraggly veins, psychosis oozing from every watery corner. The tortured stare of a zoo animal locked in a cage and forgotten about for three decades would’ve been something for him to aspire to, such was the decay of his stare.

     But what concentration and focus!

     Hunched over the table in front of him, he delicately peeled away layer after layer of skin and tissue from the slab of meat, cutting and slicing deftly as the dust-covered examiners smiled and watched from their crumbling seats. Slab of meat. That’s what it looked like at first glance, anyway. It was only when he noticed the locks of red hair falling down the sides of the table that Shane consciously realised who—or what—was on it.

     Oh, Roland! What have you done? Now that the shock and terror of it all was beginning to subside, a sense of intense tragedy and despair washed over Shane as he secretly watched from the doorway. The blood, the mess, the horror, it was all...his fault. What have you done? That was not the correct question, he decided. The correct question was: what have I done? It was all his doing, all of it. He was to blame. Him and his stupid prank.

     ‘Me,’ he whispered through his own quivering lips. ‘It’s all because of me.’

     Staggering back from the doors of the lecture hall, he gulped a few lungfuls of air and tried to get his wits about him. A tremendous weight was pressing down upon him, the weight of guilt and responsibility. He wanted to leave, to run away and once again forget that any of it had ever happened, but he was tethered to the horrific affair by his guilt and culpability.

     It took a while for Shane to work out what he needed to do, but eventually the idea came to him like a crystalline epiphany, a ray of light that promised to make amends.

               

*          *          *

 

     The shaky, manic voice that rattled through the lecture hall was punctuated by sickly wet cutting sounds as more and more sections of the cadaver were dissected. A stuttered commentary was given to the examiners as each organ and piece of muscle was lifted away, a brief explanation for each slice and cut. The examiners, for their part, were watching the student’s performance in silence, giving off an air of detached professionalism. The student had no idea how long he’d been up there for. Minutes blended into minutes, hours blended into hours, and his mind as usual was a continuous fog of shapes and colours. The examiners never spoke, the examiners never moved, but he knew that they always watched him intensely.

     Then something changed.

     About two rows down, there was some movement. One of the examiners cleared his throat, then rose slowly from his seat. Raising a hand in the air, he halted the student’s presentation.

     ‘That’s enough, young man. That’ll be all. Well done, you’ve passed.’

     Frozen in motion, the student gazed out towards the lines of medical examiners, his jaw hanging loose like a slack door hinge. His red, bulbous eyes surveyed the room with the controlled intensity of a tightrope walker tip-toeing on piano wire, then, with his pained, piercing voice, he said, ‘OK, sir. Thank you very much,’ before placing a dripping kidney back down inside the gaping hole in the corpse’s stomach, and walking gingerly out of the room.

 

*          *          *

 

     A fleet of police cars and a sizeable crowd of curious locals and press reporters were gathered outside the cordon of the college grounds, and an air of excitement resonated amongst everyone. After the local constabulary received a call from a man claiming to be behind the spate of disappearances in the area, word soon spread and details were passed around. They all watched on as armed officers charged across the field towards the crumbling building, ready to make their arrest.

     And they didn’t have to wait very long for them to return. Within five minutes a cluster of people could be seen emerging from the old college, pushing a cuffed man in front of them.

     ‘We got him,’ they announced, as they drew nearer. ‘We’ve got our man.’

     ‘Stand back please!’ shouted another officer, who was in charge of controlling the crowd. ‘Stand back and make way!’

     Most of the locals obeyed the order, but the press reporters moved closer to the action like hungry flies buzzing around shit.

     ‘What’s his name?’ called one of them, holding a microphone.

     ‘Are any of the victims still alive?’ yelled another, with a chunky camera in his hands.

     Once the detainee was safely secured in the back of one of the cars, the officer in charge of crowd control tucked a loose part of her shirt back in, straightened her belt, then addressed the assemblage of people.

     ‘We’re not in a position to disclose any information at this point, but please rest assured there’ll be an official announcement at some point over the next couple of days.’

     ‘How many victims are in there?’ asked a reporter.

     ‘I really can’t say right now. Sorry.’

     ‘How long has...he been in there for?’ asked a local, leaning over a cameraman’s shoulder.

     ‘Please, all of your questions will be answered in due course,’ replied the officer. ‘The forensics examiners need to go in there and check the scene for—’

     ‘The examiners are already in there,’ came a jumpy voice from the crowd.

     The officer, momentarily stumped and confused after being interrupted by such a random comment, scanned the bustling crowd to try and locate the person who’d said it. But there were too many people there by this point, too many jostling heads, and she gave up after a few seconds. Clearing her throat and gathering her thoughts, she carefully continued: ‘The...The examiners are not here yet. But they will arrive shortly, and so we need you all to move on and clear the area for them. Please return to your homes. Thank you.’

 

     The crowd dispersed, people breaking up and going off in their own directions. The reporters got back in their cars and sped off with their photos and recordings, the locals returned to their doorsteps and living rooms, and a couple of the police cars drove back towards the local station.

     A little further out, however, along the main avenue that led to the district hospital, a lone figure walked proudly off into the sunset. A wide, satisfied grin lit up his twisted face, illuminating his aged features. All of his hard work had paid off. He’d done it.

     He’d passed the assessment.




James Flynn grew up in the suburbs of South East London. 

His ultimate dream as an author is to cause a reader to be sectioned under the mental health act and confined within the walls of an asylum after reading one of his stories, although he admits that this is a bit optimistic.

James's work has appeared in Black Petals Magazine, Yellow Mama Magazine, The Scare Room Podcast, Patty’s Short Stax anthology, and the Local Haunts anthology. 

His books, The Hand That Pulls You Under, Conservation, The Edge of Insanity, and Swarm can all be found at www.jamesflynn.org



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