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. A slight change to our regular scheduling again this week: instead of a Friday posting, we have a weekend double-bill to close out July’s offerings. Two tales of terror, one from a returning contributor and one from a new addition to the theatre’s cast!
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 launched with “Cathouse Communion”, a sinister slice of karmic splatter-Western brought to us by Kacey Rayburn. Next, Elle Vigilante introduced us to the twisted town of T or C, where Jude Salem learned that you can never outrun past sins in “Truth or Consequences”. Last Friday saw rancher Leonard Croster get more than he bargained for in a chilling trip “Down the Mountain” from Brett Tharp. Tonight, Nikki R. Leigh returns to the theatre’s stage with “From the Bog with Bated Breath”, a creepy, skin-crawling tale of dark deeds and wicked schemes enacted around an accursed bog. 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
I feel the eyes of the bog crawling along my back.
There’s a couple dozen in there—pairs of eyes, that is—and they all have their gaze on me, waiting for me to leave my post.
I watch the bog, make sure the dead don’t rise or that the wrong people don’t come lookin’ for them. It’s hard to know these days what exactly I’m watching and waiting for. Although tonight, like so many nights in the past week, I’m certain the bog is watching me.
I tip my hat towards the wetlands. Give an extra prayer to the section where I know the bodies live. Show ‘em my respect.
Surreptitious footsteps approach, and I feel a warmth that I know radiates from my beloved.
‘Dana Shaw, lookin’ as fine as the light of the moon on the bare ass of a dame.’
I turn, face the smirk on Vinya’s face. Her dark features are as heavenly as always, her hat pinched between her fingertips, head dipped in my direction.
She continues her greeting. ‘Mind shucking your drawers so I can a catch a peek of that aforementioned sight?’
I laugh. ‘Not in front of the dead, Vinya. We can rendezvous a little later behind the bar, just like always. Still another few hours in my post.’
‘They ain’t come through yet?’ Her eyes glow with mischief, and I wonder how I got so lucky as to steal her heart. It wasn’t easy for me to be hanging on the arm of the only lady lawfolk in town. And it sure wasn’t going to get easier for either of us when my brother came back round these parts.
‘Not yet. Wonder if tonight’s going to be the night,’ I say. The bog feels full, ready to burst with the bodies that’ve been thrown into her depths.
We started throwin’ them in the swamp when the jail got too crowded. Sheriff couldn’t keep all the thieves and murderers at bay behind those cells, so he demanded their … untimely deaths at the hands of nature. Nature took them all, of course, with the help of a little throat-slittin’ from the cruel knife of the Sheriff’s men. That knife gleamed so heavenly in the moonlight, held in their greasy palms.
Never let me dirty my hands, though. Said a woman could work for the law, but couldn’t dare get her soul too tarnished by the plights of others. I’ve never slit a throat yet, but there sure were a few I’d like to try my hand on.
Instead, I watch. Stick to my post from sundown to sunrise each night at the bog. Make sure no one comes looking too closely, trying to rob the waters of her meal.
Vinya’s been staring a hole into my forehead, probably wondering where my thoughts have run off to.
I hear a rustling from the path behind me, and sure as shit, the lawmen come tumbling ‘round the corner, three men and two women in tow. They’ve got quite a bounty tonight. Vinya’s hand drops from mine when the lawmen come into view.
The sound of shuffling feet slows to a stop as the prisoners come into the clearing. The prisoners are tied together with rope thicker than they use on the gallows. One eye on that bubbling bog, churning with hatred, and I know just why they tie ‘em so tight.
‘Dana, Vinya,’ Marcus, the oldest deputy, greets us. ‘Go on,’ he barks at the offenders. Thieves who were probably just a little too hungry. They tumble into the light of my lantern, and my stomach flips just a little when I see the third man’s face grow bright under the flicker.
My brother’s come back into town, which means things are about to get ugly.
He was on a special mission, and if he managed to steal just the right kind of gem, and if he ingested just the right kind of herbs …
Marcus pushes the prisoners closer to the bog. The buzz and chirps of the cicadas are singing the bog’s favourite tune. She always seems to shine extra bright under the midnight sun, like she’s smiling for God with every soul she takes into her throat.
‘Found these lot on the outskirts of town. Few of ‘em thieved their way here tonight. Mayor wants ‘em dead for taking from his private quarters. But your brother here, well, it’s been a long time comin’ for him.’
My brother’s eyes meet mine, and I see the faintest of smiles on his lips.
Marcus continues. ‘Trust this won’t have you revolting or nothin’, right Dana?’ I shake my head. ‘Good,’ he says, spitting tobacco towards the bog. I don’t think she likes that much, the bog. Maybe she can show him just how much she hates that tainting her waters soon.
Marcus waves his hand towards the other deputies, who push the prisoners forward. The lawmen break them at their knees, bending them to ground.
Marcus crouches in front of them each, making sure to stare them into their eyes, hoping to extinguish any last ounce of fire they have. ‘The jail’s just a little too good for you lot. We trust you’ll have a comfortable stay here, all the same.’ He chuckles an evil thing before taking a straight razor from his pocket.
It only takes moments for the women and two men I don’t know the names of to lose their life. Their necks are opened like a ripe melon, and their blood spills silently from gurgling throats. The deputies throw them into the bog unceremoniously. Can’t even see the blood dyeing the marsh in the low light, but I know she’s coloured by their lives.
Marcus leaves my brother for last. Nate’s eyes are still alight with glee. ‘What are you smiling about, boy?’ Marcus asks, his voice full of phlegm. Nate merely shakes his head. ‘All the same to me.’ Marcus turns around, his neck craned to meet my gaze. ‘You don’t have to watch, Dana.’
I keep my voice even, ready for our plan to truly begin. ‘He broke the law, Marcus. You know where I stand.’
Marcus spits another wad of tobacco at the bog. Spittle lands on Nate’s face, to which he only continues his soft smile, wearing the vile liquid like a badge.
‘Let it be, boy,’ Marcus says, grunting as he takes Nate’s head in his meaty hand.
One fell swoop of the blade takes my brother’s neck to pieces. Vinya gasps beside me, and I stifle a chuckle at her act. Ever the shocked babe, she is.
The deputies haul Nate’s body to his feet, his legs dangling, lifeless, scraping against the ground. He joins the others in the bog with a splash that sounds every bit the breach it is.
Marcus squints at the night sky, growing lighter in the distance.
‘Just a couple more hours, Dana. Guard the post with extra vigilance tonight. The moon’s almost full.’
And he leaves me, his fellow lawmen in tow. They don’t spare a second glance for the jailer who’s just seen the end of her brother. If their hearts feel anything, they take great care to keep it as buried as the bodies in the marsh.
When they are out of earshot and I can hear their footsteps no more, I grab Vinya’s hand and let out a breath I’d held for too long.
‘Step one,’ I say. She laughs in response, just loud enough for me to find comfort in her joy.
I nod, my hat slipping to cup the top edge of my vision. I can just barely make out the nearly full moon on the horizon of the bog beginning to give way to the sun.
The next night, the air is crisp despite the humid day we had. I wonder if the full moon has dried out the sky. I wonder if the wind blows in reverence to the bog.
I wonder if the rest of the plan will go as smoothly as the moon’s face, perfectly bright and round like a pearl wrested from the sea.
I take my post, hip resting next to the barrel that holds my lantern on top. Not much in the ways of amenities out here. I know my place.
Vinya takes her place by my side a few hours later when the midnight hour approaches. I can tell from the moon’s position in the sky that we must be getting close to showtime. I can only hope Nate did his part correctly.
Vinya and I exchange no words. Just a few shared kisses under the light of the moon, the breeze at our cheeks. We know this will be our last respite before certain chaos.
The hour passes, and the first bubble appears on the bog’s surface. It bursts, loudly and rudely, the stench of death on its breath. Vinya and I stand more erect at the bog’s side, and I squeeze her hand when the next bubble rises.
More and more, the air rises to the surface, the mossy, murky lid on the marsh breaking apart to reveal viscous mush underneath. It boils, sounding off like muted cannons for at least twenty long minutes.
Then, the first hand appears. I recognise that hand by the ring—my parent’s wedding ring—on its bloated finger. A few breaths pass and Nate’s head breaks the surface, the same grin he died wearing still plastered on his face.
His throat, cut wide open bubbles with the same froth of the bog. I know the earthy muck has entered his lungs and guts and needs to find its way out.
‘Dana,’ he says, his voice a slice of air that wheezes through broken cords.
I dare not enter the bog to help him out. Don’t want to step on the other rising bodies within. Instead, I wait for him to fully emerge, his clothes stained with his blood and wet with fresh peat.
I offer him a hand, and he takes it. Starts whistling a jaunty tune, the same I remember him harmonising when we were kids eating scraps left by the noble in the town. Vinya still has my other hand.
The three of us, bound by our desire to take the town for our own.
Just like every night, nearly midnight on the dot, the deputies come rustling through the reeds to drop off the unlucky at the bog’s mouth.
Marcus rumbles as he approaches, his throat clogged with mucus. ‘Dana, got one more here. Things been quiet tonight? Bought to get a little—’ Marcus stops in his tracks when he catches sight of three of us.
‘I fucking killed you,’ he says, his voice trembling just the slightest in Nate’s ghastly presence.
‘You did,’ Nate hisses.
The bog continues to bubble, and finally, more hands and heads breach the surface. Marcus stares past Nate and into the marsh, rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
‘Christ almighty. I killed all you,’ he says. He backs up, a cornered man, bumping into the other deputies and their single prey for the night who have just come round the bend.
‘What the fuck,’ one of the deputies says, his shrill voice ringing through the night like an alarm bell. And if there’s one thing you can’t do, it’s unring a bell. That shriek is all the bog people need to command their steps.
One by one they lurch from the depths of the swamp, reeking of death and sullied dreams. I sense that tint of hope from them, though, knowing that maybe they can take in death what they wished they had in life.
I know my own dreams are about to come true.
We were born with nothing, but we sure as shit won’t die that way. We come from the bog with bated breath, ready to lead us all to the salvation we deserve.
About the Author
NIKKI R. LEIGH is a queer, forever-90s-kid wallowing in all things horror. When not writing horror fiction and poetry, she can be found creating custom horror-inspired toys, making comics, and hunting vintage paperbacks. She reads her stories to her partner and her cat, one of which gets scared very easily. Find Nikki on Instagram @spinetinglers, and on Twitter @fivexxfive.
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