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The Theatre Phantasmagoriaโ€”Clean Up, by Lucy Zhang

“๐˜š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ฌ๐˜ด ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ง๐˜ถ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฐ ๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ฏ ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ง๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ช๐˜ณ ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฐ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด, ๐˜ด๐˜ถ๐˜ณ๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ช๐˜ณ ๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ต๐˜ด ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ด๐˜ฑ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด, ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ญ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ช๐˜ณ ๐˜ค๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ต ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ ๐˜ด๐˜ฌ๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต๐˜ด ๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ด๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ญ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด. ๐˜•๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ด ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ. ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ฅ๐˜ช๐˜ฅ๐˜ฏโ€™๐˜ต ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ข ๐˜ค๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜ฆ. ๐˜‹๐˜ข๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ถ๐˜ด ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ญ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ญ ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ ๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜ญ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜จ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ญ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฆ๐˜ง๐˜ง๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜บ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ข ๐˜ค๐˜บ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ-๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ข๐˜ญ ๐˜ด๐˜บ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ฎ.”

Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!

A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novelsโ€™ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridaysโ€”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 โ€œwrap-upโ€ 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 September submission window here.

The theme for Augustโ€™s submissions wasย โ€œInnocence Lostโ€: horror-themed coming-of-age tales set during those long summer months of childhood, young adult-grade stories that explore the universally-relatable trials and tribulations of those transformative years, or similar horror stories along these lines. We dove into our eighth month last Friday with A. R. Frederiksenโ€™s โ€œIt Flutters in the Familyโ€, an original approach to the coming-of-age narrative that married maturation rites with Lepidoptera. In tonightโ€™s story โ€œClean Upโ€, Lucy Zhang explores the importance of familial bonds and the havoc and horrors wrought by technology gone haywire. 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

Verve Bot 3.0 (VB3) cleans like my nai nai on steroids. Nai Nai never missed a spot: not the tricky-to-scrub crevasses of the electric grill Dad bought her to make spicy barbecue, not the interior of lamps that accumulated piles of dust. Sheโ€™d make a big scene whenever she found strands of hair dropped onto the bathroom floor. It was best not to be in the house while Nai Nai cleaned, else face a constant stream of nitpicking. Sister and I would postpone returning home, hiding out in the library, waiting until Dad could pick us up on his way back from work. Dadโ€™s work almost always finished late because of meetings or experiments. Heโ€™d bring us Chips Ahoy cookies from his workโ€™s snack stash, and weโ€™d tear into the bags in the car, determined to finish them before Nai Nai could accuse us of trailing crumbs in the kitchen.
Weโ€™ve been running from VB3 ever since VB3 cleaned up our neighbourhood, leaving smooth, flat dirt in place of where houses once stood. Some folks refused to run and fortified their homes with tornado boards, surrounded their lots with spokes, wielded their cast iron skillets like shields. None of the resistors remained. They didnโ€™t stand a chance. Dad told us all the time how manpower will never rival the strength of metal or the efficiency of a cyber-physical system.
Nai Nai used to tell me never to go into engineering because it made you a robot who โ€œate, shit, slept, and repeatโ€. โ€˜Just look at your dad,โ€™ sheโ€™d say. โ€˜No time to be with family, always poking at that computer. I donโ€™t see any miracle inventions popping out of that monitor.โ€™ I was still in high school and Sister had already chosen an electrical engineering track, to Nai Naiโ€™s great disappointment. So Nai Nai would drag me into the kitchen and teach me how to cook: ba bao fan, noodle wraps, red bean buns. Iโ€™d stir premeasured ingredients and lower the bowl into the steaming vessel. โ€˜Careful, the rice must stay even in the water,โ€™ sheโ€™d whisper as though speaking too loudly might imbalance the perfect amalgamation of ingredients. Sister would be in her room studying, Dad in the office tapping at his computer, me half-listening to Nai Nai and the sound of running water trickling down the drain.
Dad worked on a prototype of VB3. Before the prototype of VB3 was revealed in the news, heโ€™d say he was working on โ€œsomething really specialโ€. The week of the reveal, he rattled off every engineering decision heโ€™d made. โ€˜We have to rethink path planning,โ€™ heโ€™d say. โ€˜Itโ€™s not as simple as a gardening robot, where thereโ€™s a set number of obstructions to overcome.โ€™ Sister and I listened to his dinner-time brainstorming but Nai Nai never seemed to pay attention, silently jabbing her chopsticks at the fried egg tofu and ferrying pieces into my bowl. After Dad retreated to his office in the basement and Sister to her room so she could study, Iโ€™d plastic-wrap the unfinished food while Nai Nai tugged on a pair of heavy-duty rubber gloves and began washing the dishes. โ€˜You canโ€™t get stuck into these things,โ€™ she complained to me. โ€˜Itโ€™s not like they can love you back.โ€™
No one is really sure how the VB3s went rogue, mowing down cities like grass, but Dad seems to think itโ€™s because of an algorithmic flaw, an oversight in training data, a rush toward deployment. โ€˜You canโ€™t predict these kinds of things,โ€™ Dad insists. He says it was beyond their wildest imaginations that VB3 would classify and label humanity for cleansing. โ€˜But this is fixable. Iโ€™m sure we can hardcode humanity out of the computation while we identify the real solution.โ€™ Dad speaks confidently even though weโ€™re huddled in the SUV, squished on the ground so we wonโ€™t be detected from the windows.
Nai Nai died from brain cancer two years ago. For all the noise she made in the house, she passed quietly in bed before I woke. I found out first when I discovered the kitchen empty, no heated congee or sliced century eggs waiting on the table. Dad never ate breakfast at home because he claimed carbs made him too sleepy, and Sister left home early for robotics club. The funeral was just the three of us since Nai Naiโ€™s relatives were either across the globe or dead. I assembled a bouquet of daisies to place on her gravestone while Dad and Sister brought a basket of Fuji apples, even though Nai Nai hated Fuji applesโ€”too sickly sweet, too easily mushy. Nai Nai liked daisies because you could find them anywhere.
Dad orders us to stay in the car while he attempts to make it to our home and find his charger. His computer is running low on battery. Training new datasets eats a lot of power. I donโ€™t think heโ€™ll be able to find a charger. Only dirt and mulch and the evergreens that once separated houses like fortresses remain. I protest, convinced heโ€™ll die. โ€˜I should at least die trying,โ€™ Dad says. I wonder when someone will call โ€œcutโ€ and tell him his acting is too cheesy.
โ€˜Iโ€™ll go too,โ€™ Sister says.
โ€˜Then what am I going to do?โ€™ I ask.
โ€˜Watch over the car and our things,โ€™ she says.
Canโ€™t we just drive somewhere Verve Bot 3.0 will never reach? I want to ask. We could live somewhere in the mountains, learn how to grow our own food, cook over a fire, play games without a computer. VB3 can clean up whatever it wants to clean up, and once itโ€™s done, weโ€™ll return home.
โ€˜We canโ€™t just let people die,โ€™ Dad says as they close the door and lock the car. I cross my legs and hold my knees to my chest, wondering if I should join them, or find Nai Nai and laugh with her from the grave.

About the Author

LUCY ZHANG writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Haydenโ€™s Ferry Review, Fireside Magazine, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Find her at or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

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By J.D. Keown | Night Terror Novels

JOSHUA KEOWN lives on the outskirts of the North York Moors with his feral little hound of hell, Lola. Despite his proximity to Whitby and a lifetime aversion to being out in the sun, he would like it to be known that he is definitely not a vampire. Joshua has always been an avid enthusiast of the horror genre in all its forms, and he now writes ghastly, ghoulish stories of his own. His debut short story โ€œKrodhaโ€ can be found in the Wild Violence anthology from Blood Rites Horror, his second short story โ€œWhat Ye Sowโ€ can be found in Issue #X of All Worldโ€™s Wayfarer, and a third titled โ€œWhisper, Whisperโ€ appears in Issue #63 of Dark Dossier. Joshua is also the founder of Night Terror Novels and edited its debut anthology, Ceci nโ€™est pas une histoire dโ€™horreur (This is Not a Horror Story) in 2021. His debut novella, Maggot Brain, is coming soon, for which the full details can be found on the Night Terror Novels website. Joshua can be found prowling almost every corner of the internet in some capacity, but is most easily reached through his business email address,, or via Instagram or Twitter, @JDKAuthor.

2 replies on “The Theatre Phantasmagoriaโ€”Clean Up, by Lucy Zhang”

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