Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our August submission window here.
The theme for July’s submissions was “Sundown in a Tumbleweed Town”: stories centred around the Old, the Wild, and the Weird West or other untamed, dangerous locales; tales of the odd and the macabre, of wildernesses and the savagery they might (or did) contain, or similar horror stories along these lines. Our seventh month launches this evening with “Cathouse Communion”, a sinister slice of karmic splatter-Western in which an unpleasant character is served his just deserts, brought to us by writer Kacey Rayburn. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
The train rolled in at midnight with a stab of smoke and a thud of iron. Rosalita wasn’t on the train, but she loved to hear the lonesome whistle. From a distance, Rawhide looked like any other ghost town. Wild horses washed in blue sky. Prairie grass caked in golden sun. Nothing and no one for miles and miles, but it was a terrible trick of the light. Rawhide had many secrets, and Rosalita was one of them.
This morning, old roper Ray plucked a sealed letter from his wagon and handed it to Rosalita. Her heart hammered as she tore it open. In big, scratchy letters, it read: One sweetmeat for your pleasure. You know where, at midnight. It was another invitation from Fanny, the third one this year, and it was only February. Her lips twisted into a wicked smile.
When the clock struck eleven, Rosalita saddled up, mounted her horse, and hightailed it to the cathouse. She gazed up at the skinny moon, a pale fingernail against a black sky. Coyotes howled in the canyon. Sagebrush whipped in the wind. Rattlesnakes slept underground.
On the ride to town, Rosalita passed a puny campfire. A band of sidewinders were up to no good, bustin’ skulls and raisin’ sand. One was already on his way to the bone orchard, a brutal wound to his head.
‘Come join us, darlin’. We got whiskey and holy pokers to go ‘round.’ They yapped like hounds, bending her over her with their bloodshot eyes.
She smelled the wild on them, and she knew it was dangerous to pussyfoot around with hungry men, so she pointed her six-shooter at them. Held it firm and sure in her hand. Set her sights on the tallest man and blew the hat off his head.
Right quick, they let her pass, and she went on her merry way.
Once in Rawhide, she dismounted her horse and made her way to the cathouse. It was always filled with unsavoury souls and ungodly commotion, but she came prepared.
A soiled dove peeped out the window. It was Amaryllis in her white gown, shining like an angel. She hollered at Rosalita, raving like a madwoman.
Amaryllis was no virgin and neither was Rosalita, but every time she came to the cathouse, it felt like a pilgrimage. Besides, men never seemed to know the difference. All that mattered was a pair of long legs and lace stockings underneath rag proper.
Rosalita rang the bell in the parlour and waited for Fanny. She stretched out on the fainting couch and perused the horizontal refreshments. Much to her satisfaction, a vulgar menu was spread wide-open on the table.
Backdoor Hound, Rise and Shine, Old-Fashioned Shuck Off, Lick the Honeypot, Virgin Tickle, Suck and Soak, Lap Hop, Nose Paint Pie, The More the Merrier, Cheap Thrill, and Horns and Lace, which was Rosalita’s favourite.
Aroused and amused, she burst into laughter. Her thighs awash, her blossom atingle. She plucked a fan from the table and waved it in front of her.
When her senses returned, she poked around the dimly lit parlour and paid her respects to the handsome bison. Sadly, the most dignified creature in the cathouse was mounted on a wall above the sputtering fire. It was a terrible injustice. He should be alive and well, his hooves thundering through the prairie, his nostrils smoking on cold mornings.
Rosalita grabbed a stool and hoisted herself to his level. She pressed her eye to his. Saw what he saw. Felt what he felt. Her mother had taught her how to commune with animals. To run on all fours. To howl at the moon. To hunt at the break of dawn. To bathe in the river.
Rosalita closed her eyes. Whispered a prayer in his ear. Licked his rough horns. Stroked his fuzzy hair. The bison deserved a proper burial, sweet words spoken in his honour. He belonged six feet under, not hanging like a trophy in the cathouse.
A pair of footsteps shot through the dark, followed by a dreadful whistle. Rosalita jumped off the stool and peered into the shadows. There, he was, in the flesh: Heck Cash. The same man she saw at the saloon a few days ago, turnin’ tables and makin’ trouble for Jed and Willa.
She cringed at the sight of him: a red-haired devil, short and squirrely with a frizzy mop on his head. Everything about him was putrid. The leather of his skin. The jangle of his spurs. The swell of his crotch. The tip of his hat a hollow gesture. She had a good notion to shoot it right off his lopsided head.
Heck never turned down a brawl, though he seldom won, and the dent in his head was proof of his stupidity. He sucked on his cigar, curls of smoke billowing from his thin, little lips. ‘Give me a lap-hop, sweetcheeks. What do you say? I can pay. I’ve got a tin of wad,’ he slurred, undressing her with his eyes.
‘I think you mean a wad of tin,’ Rosalita sneered, tossing her black braid over her shoulder. ‘But I reckon it doesn’t matter, cause you couldn’t have me for all the tin in the world. I’m here to see Fanny Ketchum, and then I’ll be on my way.’ She glared.
‘Don’t be a dry riverbed, darlin’. If you give me a chance, you’ll be rainin’ tomorrow.’ Swacked on whiskey, he gave her a toothy smile.
Rosalita loped on by him, hips swaying, boots clicking. She hoped to high heaven Heck was the reason Fanny sent the letter, but she’d just have to wait and see. When a letter came, Rosalita never knew the particulars, but she trusted Fanny had a good reason to call on her.
Heck stumbled over to the piano. ‘A serenade for my senorita,’ he muddled. Then he stripped off his blue bandana, threw it at her, and thrust his bulge against the piano. The white keys screeched, sending her to purgatory.
Rosalita sucked on a honeydrop, looking right through him as she would a ghost who wasn’t really there. She stared, long and hard, at the bison on the wall, considering how unfair it was. That a man like Heck ran wild and free while a brave bison hung on the wall like a trophy.
‘I’ve got five beans in the wheel, Heck. Unless you wanna meet your maker, you better make yourself scarce,’ Fanny hissed, stepping into the light and drawing her six-shooter. Fanny towered over him with a clenched jaw and broad shoulders. In her shadow, he looked like an elf: slit eyes, pointy ears, short arms, stubby fingers. ‘Did you hear I killed a man last summer? Dragged his corpse outside and flung him under the lantern, and he was twice your size. Everyone in Rawhide knows a man will pay the price if he makes trouble for Fanny and her doves, so you better watch yourself,’ Fanny warned, wheezing on her cigar.
Heck stood there, slack-jawed and ugly. He tipped his hat again, another hollow gesture.
‘You’ve had enough whiskey to sink a ship,’ Fanny scolded, yanking the mug from his hand. ‘I think it’s high time you sleep it off. Clarabelle is waiting for you upstairs.’
Heck scurried away, his tail between his legs.
‘Rosalita, my sweet,’ Fanny swooned.
‘The one and only.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘Starving.’ Rosalita gleamed, licking her lips, bright as a berry.
They climbed the narrow staircase. With each step, the air grew thicker, brasher. Rosalita spied an open door in the middle of the hallway. She peeked inside and saw a stark-naked man on top of Pearl, tickling her ivories. Benji had the biggest holy poker Pearl had ever seen, or so she screamed. Rosalita pinched her nose, a welcome reprieve from the stench of sour sheets and whiskey.
‘Close the damn door, you blasted animals!’ Fanny hollered, kicking it shut with the heel of her boot. ‘My apologies,’ Fanny said ruefully, her feathered hat bobbling on her head.
Rosalita snickered. Since her mama died, she’d come to love these roughnecks. They were her family now.
‘Come on in,’ Fanny invited, pushing through the batwing doors that gave way to a large bedroom. It was private, under lock and key, reserved for bizarre pleasures. Cathouse communion, they called it. A sacred feast for women.
The bedroom was gloomy, save a lone candelabra. The velvet curtains hung heavy from the bone. The blood-slick wallpaper was deliciously maddening. Amaryllis was already inside, burning sage and preparing the bed.
Along came Pearl. She tiptoed into the room, wiping the sweat from her brow. ‘Benji just left. I’m a free woman again.’
‘Who’s joining us tonight?’ Rosalita asked, her curiosity running wild.
‘Heck Cash, the red-haired devil who was ogling you in the parlour. He’s been a thorn in my side since he rode into town a few weeks ago. First, he beat Jessamine black and blue. Then he stole from Jed and Willa, and when he was here last summer, he left my brother for dead,’ Fanny hissed.
‘Ain’t that a hell of a note,’ Pearl said.
‘I heard he tried to frisk little Minnie, and God only knows the awful things he did before he got here.’ Amaryllis shuddered.
‘He’ll be hittin’ the dusty trail at dawn, so we’ll give him the bad medicine tonight,’ Fanny bade.
Suddenly, the doorknob rattled, and Rosalita hid in the shadows.
‘They’re here,’ Amaryllis quivered.
Hand in hand, Clarabelle led Heck into the bedroom. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ she whispered.
Heck looked ‘round the room, his eyes locking on Fanny, Pearl, and Amaryllis. ‘I didn’t ask for “the more, the merrier”. Believe it or not, I’m a one-woman kind of cowboy.’
‘Perhaps we made a mistake. What’s your pleasure?’ Fanny asked, though she already knew the answer.
‘I hope it’s Backdoor Hound, at least then we can stare at the wall and dream of a real cowboy,’ Pearl giggled.
Clarabelle waved the pleasure bid over her head.
Amaryllis grabbed it out of her hand. ‘Heck’s hungry for Horns and Lace,’ she tittered, raising her eyebrows.
‘It’s your lucky night, darlin’. Horns and Lace is Rosalita’s specialty, and we all know you fancy her,’ Clarabelle smirked.
In one fell swoop, Rosalita bit through the shadows. Without objection or invitation, she strutted over to him, stripped off her clothes, and roped her arms around him. She whispered dark little magic in his ear, touched the swell of his desire, then tore off his tattered britches.
Heck had wanted Rosalita from the first time he saw her straddling her horse, her thighs clenched up and shaking, her black braid flying like a raven.
And now she was in his arms, nothing between them but lace and bone. His hands roved over peaks and valleys, velvet moss, and pink steeples. The world went dizzy like a long day in the desert sun.
It felt good, better than anything ever had before, but it was strange having Fanny and the soiled doves watching them. It wasn’t natural.
‘How about some privacy? Don’t you have other men to pleasure?’ Heck barked.
‘No, just you,’ the soiled doves cooed in unison.
Fanny padded over to him to get a closer look. ‘That’s all you’ve got under there? So much for the big dipper,’ she taunted.
Blazin’ mad, Heck grabbed Rosalita by the braid and slammed her against the bed. She yelped in pain.
‘Touch her again, and I’ll blow a hole through that dent in your head,’ Fanny shouted, six-shooter in hand. ‘Fly, my doves. You know what to do.’
In a flash, the soiled doves lassoed him quicker than any cowboy ever could. Rosalita just stood there, licking and grinning.
‘I haven’t done anything to you, Rosalita,’ Heck whimpered, his body tangled up in rope.
‘But you’ve done something to someone. Haven’t you? You stole from Jed and Willa. You beat Jessamine black and blue. You tried to frisk little Minnie. You left Fanny’s brother for dead last summer.’
‘Yeah, so what’s it to you?’ He snarled, spitting the words at her.
‘You think you own the world. You think you can take whatever you want and call it your own. You may as well be the man who killed my mama and stole our horses. But tonight, I’m gonna wipe the smug off your face. I’m gonna take what I want, and then you’ll know how bad it feels.’ She winked at him, low-down and dirty, then reached under the bed and slipped the bison skull over her head.
Something was happening. He didn’t know what, but he knew it was something terrible. His body trembled. His heart hammered. His hair stood on end.
The soiled doves screeched, feet off the ground, flying like white owls in their gowns.
Rosalita snorted. Blew her beastly breath in his face. Reared her fuzzy head. Gored him with her horns. First his belly, then his chest, then his head. Blood sprayed, ripe-red.
Heck wailed, grabbing the hole in his belly. Nothing but bare ribs and warm guts. Flaps of meat hung from his face, an eye where his nose should be.
Rosalita bellowed, thundered around the room on all fours. Then she charged at him. Stomped his legs into mush. The room was alive with sounds. The snap of muscle. The tear of tendon. The crush of bone.
Terrified, and at death’s door, Heck throttled back to the land of the living.
‘A doctor, please,’ he gurgled, his mouth a river of blood.
‘Nonsense. We can’t wake old sawbones at this hour. He should save his energy for the good souls of Rawhide,’ Fanny jeered.
‘A preacher then, please.’
‘The time for a preacher is long gone. Tonight, there’s only you and me!’ Rosalita roared, ramming her horns into his neck.
His body jerked and thrashed. One eye rolled back in his skull. The other bobbled on the smudge of his nose. Then he rattled his last breath and was gone.
‘What a fine heap of sweetmeat,’ Amaryllis squealed.
‘Is it time yet?’ Clarabelle cooed like a child begging for pudding.
Fanny sparked her cigar. Took a long drag. Watched the smoke rise like a burnt offering. ‘Let’s feast,’ she said, grinning.
Cathouse communion was a sight to behold, on a cold winter’s night, snow falling out the window. Fanny had never seen anything prettier. Her doves ‘round the bed, floating like angels. Rosalita painted red, horns on her head, rolling around in the splatter.
About the Author
KACEY RAYBURN grew up in the Appalachian Mountains. Born into a family of granny witches and gravediggers, she enjoys long walks in the cemetery. She has a sweet fang for chai tea and folk horror. Sing Our Bones Eternal is her debut novel, releasing in March 2023. Find her on Instagram @finsandfables and learn more about her at www.kaceyrayburn.com.
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