Erin Ritch

Writer, Blogger, Mom

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Category: horror

Short Story Collection Volume I – published!

Yay! After much compiling, formatting, and proofing…my first collection of short stories is finally published!

Ta da!

I am so excited to have these stories out. I am a lover of short fiction, my first story ever published online was a piece of flash fiction. As the description says, they are “tales of fantasy, science fiction, and the obscure.” Some of the work has appeared previously on this blog over the years, while other stories are new and unpublished.

For the cover design, I wanted to incorporate the new-and-improved No Wyverns Publishing logo. The background text is a loop of the titles of the twenty-two stories contained in this book. I plan to publish more anthologies of short fiction in the future that will use this same layout…eventually becoming a box set! (Oh, the plans…the plans…)

 

Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite stories included, “The Last Machinist.”

I have searched countless years, scouring the globe for an object that probably doesn’t even exist.

Jen-Li stared at the wrinkled page of her sister’s last journal entry. It trembled in the whipping wind that invaded the abandoned living quarters, howling as it broke through the cracked windows. The room was so cold. Bitter and lonely, as though resentful for being left in such a state. A thin layer of dust covered the overturned furniture and broken dishes like downy, providing just enough protection against the raging elements outside.  Removing her gloves, Jen-Li traced the sentence with her finger, leaving a muddled smear of letters in its wake. She wiped it again for the last time so that it would belong to her alone. So that this idea that her sister pondered became nothing but a blur, just like the stain of runny ink on her fingertips that would eventually wash away.

“What does it say?” Terra asked from the doorway. Her small frame was swallowed by her heavy coat, transforming her into a bulky, short stump of a ten-year-old. Her blue eyes shone fiercely from the depths of her fur-lined hood. She could read her mother’s body language too well.

Whisking the withered journal in her arms, Jen-Li closed it with a loud clap. A cloud of dust sauntered up to her face, burning her freckled nose as she hacked on the taste. The sound seemed to startle the frozen room as another wave of dust trickled from the ceiling and into her damp auburn hair.

“I wanted you to stay in the mech,” she said, peering out the frosted window glass as she replaced her gloves. Her mech was still there, motionless and protected beneath the ancient fir tree on the edge of the abandoned drive. She looked up at the splitting beams of her sister’s last known dwelling place. “This place is falling apart.”

“Did Aunt Nina find it?” Terra pressed. Her voice sounded on the precipice of panic.

“I don’t know,” Jen-Li replied sharply before she caught herself, realizing that her own voice sounded strained. That was not her job, not her duty as Terra’s mother, to sound afraid. That was not who she was. That was not the tone of this journey that had taken them from the warmth of home to this wasteland. Jen-Li recovered and joined her daughter in the entryway.  “But we will find out.”

 

Intrigued? I hope so! The e-book is priced at only .99 and the print version at $4.99 – both available at Amazon!

Dark Cupcakes…eat them if you dare.

dark-cupcakes
Happy October 1st! Autumn is by far my favorite season – I love the crisp air, the layered sweaters, and…Halloween! It reminds me of one of my favorite short stories that I released last year and today felt like the perfect time to resurrect it.
So pour yourself a hot a drink and enjoy Dark Cupcakes…I just don’t recommend eating them.

The crisp, fall air made Amanda feel like baking something special. Something really special. Standing at the kitchen counter, she brushes her dark curls out of her face and sips on a steaming mug of coffee. Outside, the cool winds are stirring. She contemplates her ingredient list. She had almost everything, except for that one last ingredient that had to be at its freshest in order to make the recipe complete.

 

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Eggs
  • Salt
  • Chocolate
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice
  • Blood

 

Nothing made her happier than baking. Her eight to five job paid the bills, but as she drives home at night over the damp, dead leaves, she dreams of the hushed lights of her kitchen. Her neighbors found her a bit strange. There were pots clanking at all hours of the night and the smell of burnt sugar emanating through the open windows. Sometimes they called the landlord, complaining of the smoke detector going off for hours at a time. As if she didn’t even hear it. And in fact, Amanda usually didn’t. Because for her, baking was like casting a spell and nothing could distract her from that.

 

Her cup of coffee finished, Amanda was ready for the outdoor chill. She surveyed her mixing bowls and measuring instruments lined up in a row on the counter, ready for that last ingredient. Her coat smelled like pine and she breathed in the aroma heavily, smiling. Remembering the last encounter she had while wearing that coat. Breathless running through the woods, her heart pumping from the thrill. She held up her coat sleeve. But that blood stain really would just not come out.

 

“Morning, Charlie!” she calls to her letter carrier, passing the lanky, shaggy-haired man in the terrace outside her condo.

 

“Ms. Clarke,” Charlie acknowledges. His shifts the bag on his shoulder. This woman and her baking magazines, he couldn’t forget her name even if he wanted to. He pulls out an armful of her mail. “I have your magazines.”

 

Amanda grinned. She steps a bit too close, smelling him. Watching his neck as he swallows. “Wonderful!” she exclaims, reaching over to unlock the front door to her condo. “I’m in a rush, would you mind just dropping those in the kitchen?”

 

Charlie pauses. “Well, that’s not really allowed.” First, it would be dropping off magazines. Then it would be moving furniture. He’d been down this road before.

 

“I’ll make you one of those cupcakes you love you so much,” she whispered, as though if anyone else heard she was making cupcakes then she’d be overwhelmed with requests.

 

Charlie pauses again. “I suppose…”

 

“Thank you so much! Just lock the door behind you. Bye, doll!”

 

Then she was gone, sprinting down the terrace walkway with the rapid clicking of her heels, disappearing out of sight. Charlie sighed and looked down at the dozen magazines he had been carrying around all morning. Sprinkles of rain started to dribble on his head.

 

“Fine,” he said to himself, stepping through the open doorway. He glanced behind himself one more time and quietly shut the door.

 

Sometimes he imagined what the inside of the homes on his route looked like. He got small glimpses into his customer’s lives from the mail they received. Some people were obviously in debt, receiving thick envelopes of credit card statements. Others had shopping addictions, their daily mail riddled with enticing coupons. And then there were the magazine subscribers, like Ms. Amanda Clarke. Old school, overcharged customers who were still willing to pay for the written word and a bunch of pictures. He was about to buy her an iPad just to save himself on his chiropractor bill.

 

Amanda’s house was not much different than he expected. Smelling heavily of perfume, it was a single woman’s paradise filled with candles and wall decals with cute yet inspiring messages like “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Home Is Where The Coffee Is.” Charlie shook his head, stepping into the kitchen. It was impressive, the walls lined with shining stainless steel pots and pans, impeccably organized spices, and a bright red refrigerator. With finality, Charlie drops the stack of magazines on the nearest counter, knocking over a measuring cup and sending a piece of paper fluttering to the floor. He retrieves it and examines the writing beneath the window light. An ingredient list.

 

 

Illuminated by the warm glow from the oven light, Amanda sits on the kitchen floor. She is safe and calm in that little circle of light. The outside world no longer matters or exists. Her legs crossed, she is folded over in her lap, chewing nervously on her stained fingernails. The warm heat from the oven soothes her, tempting her with sleep. But she won’t sleep. She has worked all day for this moment, as the combination of ingredients reacts with the heat and builds a perfect little masterpiece. Or so she hopes. Will it rise? Did she get the ratios right? Her stomach burns with hunger.

 

 

It is better for her to be hungry to do the things she has to do. It raises the stakes and helps with the guilt, she has found. She is a huntress, something out of the storybooks from Amanda’s childhood. Those dark figures in long cloaks looking over their shoulder, half concealed behind a tree high atop a hill. Off to do some no good in which the details were left out. Amanda dares look away from the oven to examine the dried blood on her hands. She is shocked to feel hot tears begin to stream down her face. She wipes them away and presses her face up close to the oven again. There was darkness in the details, sometimes.

 

 

It really was a delicious looking cupcake. Dark and velvety, tiny granules of sugar sparkling in the Monday morning light. Charlie stared at it intently, imagining the cupcake would sprout a heartbeat from the amount of blood probably pumping through its chocolate veins. It sat politely atop the mailbox, wrapped neatly in cellophane that was tied with an orange ribbon. A small piece of card stock was tucked into its depths, with the note “For Charlie”  followed by a winking smiling face. Charlie swallowed hard. He didn’t trust that winking smiling face.

 

Glancing up, Amanda catches his eye, watching him from her kitchen window. She nods and acknowledges him with a grin and raise of her coffee cup. She motions for him to take the cupcake and waves, disappearing into the shadows of her house. Charlie picks up the cupcake, being careful not to crinkle the perfectly smooth cellophane. He has just enough room in his pack to nestle the cupcake in between some outgoing mail. He avoids looking at the kitchen window again and tucks his head down, darting into a whirlwind of swirling leaves.

 
Charlie carried around the cupcake in his pack all day. The last time Amanda made him a treat, he consumed it immediately. In fact, he had consumed many of Amanda’s thoughtfully baked goods and he felt sick at the thought of it. He had been contemplating that ingredient list all day Sunday. Of course, it could have been a joke. Or an early Halloween prop. Or even just a list of random words. He unwrapped the cupcake that evening in the safety of his apartment and sniffed it. There was definitely something else there. And he didn’t want to know why Amanda was sharing it with him.

 

 

“Blood?”

 

“Yes, it was on the ingredient list,” Charlie nodded. He brushed his disheveled hair out of his face. He hadn’t slept all night, he imagined that cupcake staring at him through the walls. He began to think he heard it clanking around the kitchen in the midnight hours.

 

Charlie’s friend, Dan, takes a quick sip of his espresso. He stares at the velvety cupcake sitting in front of him on the coffee shop table. He leans in carefully for a quick sniff.

 

“I don’t smell anything except chocolate and pumpkin. Did you try it?” Dan asks, taking another sip. He can’t help but smile.

 

“Of course not!” Charlie exclaimed. He looks around and tucks the cupcake back into his coat pocket.

 

“You realize carrying a cupcake around in your pocket looks strange. Right?”

 

“I might need it for evidence.”

 

“And that’s even stranger,” Dan adds. He sits up in his seat. “Look, if you’re that worried about this chick, just ask to change your delivery route.”

 

“I’m more worried about where this blood came from,” Charlie whispers, tapping the table for emphasis.

 

“You don’t even know if there’s blood in there!” Dan shouts. He looks around at the other concerned patrons and lowers his voice. “This is stupid, just toss it.”

 

“I’m trusting my gut here,” Charlie stands up from the table with a loud screech of his chair.

 

“Interesting choice of words,” Dan laughs. “And where are you going? I thought we were going to the movies!”

 

“Can’t,” Charlie zips up his jacket and pulls his hood over his face. Outside, a storm is banging against the coffee shop windows. “If you don’t hear from me in a few days, call the police.”

 

“Wow,” Dan shakes his head. “I might just call the loony bin and reserve you a spot right now.”

 

 

It was a cold and wet evening. A very, very cold and wet evening. Charlie’s cotton jacket was soaked through and it had been for several hours. The cupcake pressed against his chest, it was melting in his pocket from heat and dampness. Perched in a Rhododendron in the terrace outside Amanda’s condo, Charlie couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a creeper. He had been watching Amanda since she came home from work. He began to doubt his judgment of her. In that warm glow of the kitchen, she looked like a perfectly sweet girl, her dark curls falling in her face as she laughed on the phone or sang to herself.

 

For hours, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. She cooked herself some dinner then disappeared for awhile, coming back to clean the dishes. Then she left again and for another hour, all Charlie could see was the faint flicker of a TV screen in the window reflection. Finally, he got sick of being soaking wet and decided to go home. He felt like a paranoid idiot, what a waste of time. He’d have to be up early for work the next morning and he was really going to regret this. Taking off his jacket to ring out the rain water, he noticed a huge stain on his jacket.

 

“The cupcake. Damn…” he sighed, examining the stain left by the melting cupcake. He grabbed the cupcake and tossed it into the mud beneath his feet. He brushed the remaining crumbles of cupcake off his hands and paused. In the dim light from the terrace, Charlie could see his hands were stained red. Cautiously, he holds up his jacket up to smell the stain. Unmistakably blood.
He starts running, leaving his jacket behind. He runs almost blindly, his hair in his face from the heavy rain. Charlie felt fear, real fear, for the first time in a long time. Was he being chased? He imagines he hears the clicking of Amanda’s heels behind him. Finally, he stops to catch his breath on a street corner, buckled over as he tries to calm the rushing in his head. He jumps as two booted feet appear in front of him.

 

“You alright, son?” It’s a security guard for the liquor store down the street. His slicker is shining from the rain but it might as well be a gleaming suit of armor for all Charlie cares.

 

“Oh, thank God. I thought – “

 

Charlie stops as he sees the security guard staring at the red stain on his shirt. Then down to the red liquid streaming from his hands down his arms.

 

“What have you been into?” the guard asks warily, his right hand reaching under his rain slicker.

 

“It was… a… cupcake,” Charlie whispers breathlessly.

 

Suddenly, a knife appears in the gray rain. Before Charlie can react, an arm wraps around the security guard’s neck and cuts across without hesitation. The man gasps and grabs his neck, falling into the road. Behind him, stands Amanda with a kitchen knife in one hand and Charlie’s jacket in the other. She smiles at him and winks.

 

“Hello, Charlie.”

Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC BY 3.0

Complete the Story…”The Gray Man’s Street”

Now that Myth is locked in and launches in LESS THAN A WEEK (*breathe*), I’m allowing myself some time to actually watch TV and not feel guilty about it. I used to follow many, many shows but now it seems the only ones I make time for is Game of Thrones or Big Brother. (I feel this sentence sums me up very well.)

Then I learned about a Netflix series called Stranger Things. It quickly became my latest obsession, it reminds me of The X-Files and Twin Peaks with all sorts of paranormal goodness. And it’s set in the 80’s?? You have me hooked, Netflix. Hooked. I may only be three episodes in, but I love the story and style of the show in general.

image2

 

 

It got me inspired to try one of the story prompts from Complete The Story, a gift from my husband for my birthday, intended for moments precisely like this where I want to write a quick, easy story. I wanted to write a story that happens in the world (or world similar to) that of Stranger Things.

 

 

 

Erin Scribble

 

 

This is a really fun book, there are literally (tee hee) story prompts for every situation you can think of, with only a single page commitment.Unless you’re like myself, that is, and quickly spilled over into three additional pieces of paper.

 

 

 

 

 

So I hope you enjoy…and if you love the paranormal and haven’t watched Stranger Things yet…go watch it!

 

THE GRAY MAN’S STREET

(Words in bold are taken from Complete the Story)

They were safe, for the time being. But it was no time to let their guard down. Slowly, Samuel opened the car door, trying his best not to make a sound. He looked both ways down the street. All he could see was darkness with occasional pools of light beneath the bleary street lights. He returned inside and locked the door, checking it twice.

“Did you see it?” Melanie whispered. A small trickle of blood traveled down the side of her face. She had experienced the worst of the impact, her light frame tossed like a rag doll as they spun across the street.

Samuel wiped his hair out of his face. He became aware of the condensation building on the windshield. He hoped it wouldn’t draw attention.

“Nothing,” he said finally. “I don’t know what direction it took off in. It was so…fast.”

“Let’s keep going! Please!” Melanie begged.

“Shh!” Samuel snapped. “We can’t! The engine, I’m not sure it will start. I’m not willing to risk-“

“I see it!” Melanie squealed, sobbing into her hands.

A figure appeared at the end of the dim headlights, crawling on its belly towards the car. It was the creature that hit their car, a flash of gray that forced them into a spiral. They had injured it, too. Samuel knew from the cry it made at impact. He fumbled with the keys and tried the ignition. It ticked but failed to spark to life.

“C’mon…” Samuel urged, pumping the limp accelerator.

The figure crawled closer. It wasn’t an animal. It wasn’t a man. But it had eyes and it met Samuel’s gaze without flinching. And without fear.

“Get it in the back seat,” Samuel shouted, unbuckling Melanie’s seatbelt  and helping her over the seat. “Stay down!”

“What are you going to do? Shouldn’t we run?” she sobbed.

Samuel tore through the contents of the glove box, watching as the creature bumped against the headlights. He saw a glimpse of slimy gray skin, stained red with blood. Dark eyes drew up to meet Samuel’s gaze as it thumped atop the hood of the car.

“Back!” Samuel shouted, pointing his father’s flashlight in the creature’s eyes. It howled and dropped to the side, scratching and fumbling with the locked door. Samuel held onto the door. “No!”

Then there was nothing. The air was so quiet that Samuel could hear the far off bark of his dog, probably watching for him from the living room window. Melanie tried to muffle her sobs from the floor of the backseat. Samuel carefully lifted his fingers from the door, one at a time. In a breath, the door was ripped from the vehicle and thrown into the woods.

Samuel!”

“This song is the best! The absolute best, turn it up!”

Todd nodded and increased the volume of the car radio. He accelerated, trying to keep up with the beat of the music. Tiffany hummed with the music, settling back into her seat. She watched the twilight treetops flash by, a blur in her sleepy state.

“Is that Samuel’s dad’s car?” Todd shouted as he turned down the music. He pointed to the vehicle ahead of them, overturned on the side of the road.

“Oh my gosh…” Tiffany gasped, sitting up. “It totally is! And I bet you Melanie is with him, too.”

“Should we stop or something?” Todd asked with a shrug.

“Are you crazy? That’s all on them.”

“But maybe we should help-“

“Just let the Gray Man do its thing,” Tiffany yawned, settling back into her seat. “And turn the music back up!”

“Candy Cane Lane”

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 Image credit Taryn

‘Tis the season for giving…or else.

“Seriously? A donation box?”

Mark pulled the parking brake on his family’s minivan. He scrubbed away the condensation that had gathered on his window. Through the foggy streaks, the Christmas lights of Candy Cane Lane shined brightly. He squinted his eyes at the donation box outside one of the most decorated houses, the grandest and most majestic of them all. There was a crowd at the donation box as other Christmas light searchers dutifully dropped a few dollars inside and went on their way. A man dressed in a Santa costume stood beside the box, jollily ringing a bell and ho ho ho’ing.

“Don’t be on the naughty list. Please help us pay Santa’s electric bill. Merry Christmas,” Mark read aloud the sign next to the donation box. He shook his head. “Oh, come on.”

“Santa? Lives here?” Three year old Tyler shouted from the back of the minivan. He squirmed to be released from his car seat.

“Don’t be silly. He wouldn’t live in a dump like this,” Sarah corrected from beside her younger brother.

Lucy unbuckled her seat belt to get a better view, stretching across her husband’s lap. “You can’t really blame them. Look at this place! It must’ve taken them forever to decorate it!” she exclaimed, the lights reflecting in her glasses.

Mark snorted. “I doubt anyone is forcing them to do this. They bring this mess on themselves.” He motioned to the traffic jam of cars and pedestrians crossing the crowded street. Other cars tried to slowly fight their way through the sea of people, their headlights turned off so as not to ruin the ambiance.

“And yet, here we are…right outside their house,” Lucy replied with a large grin and a wink. She turned around in her seat. “Okay, kids! Who’s ready for some Christmas lights?”

Tyler and Sarah cheered in unison. After locking the minivan and securing coats, hats and gloves, the family started down the hill of Candy Cane Lane.

“Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!” the Santa at the donation box exclaimed. His dark eyes shone brightly from behind his thick white beard. He motioned his large gloved hand to the house behind him. “Behold my beautiful abode, decorated just for your delight! Donations are appreciated! Ho ho ho!” He patted the donation box and then his belly.

“It’s so pretty…” Tyler whispered, staring in awe at the light displays, statues, inflatable slides and animatronic characters. The hum of thousands of Christmas lights crackled across the evening air, reverberating in their ears.

“Great work…let’s get going,” Mark grumbled, urging his family forward.

“Ho ho ho! Santa is going to have quite the utility bill, I hope he can afford it!” the Santa of Candy Cane Lane encouraged loudly.

“Dad!” Tyler whined. “We have to help Santa!”

Lucy started to rummage through her purse for spare change. Mark shook his head and motioned for her to keep going.

“No, Tyler – Santa is doing just fine,” Mark replied loudly, looking over his shoulder at the overflowing donation box of cash.

Santa stopped ringing his bell. He repositioned his large belly and announced, “Ho ho ho, Tyler’s dad is on the naughty list, it seems!”

Dad!” Tyler gasped in horror.

“Hey Santa, you have a nice evening, alright? Merry freaking Christmas,” Mark called back, waving dismissively.

“And you as well, Mark Hanson and family!”

Mark stopped. Lucy paused and studied his face.

“Did he just say your full name? Do you know him?” she whispered. Mark shook his head.

“And Sarah! I hope your dad hasn’t ruined your chance at that bike!” Santa continued happily, nodding at passerby’s who dutifully dropped change in the donation box. He rang his bell rhythmically, his head bopping along with the Christmas tunes playing in the background.

Sarah’s mouth dropped open. Her eyes began to well with tears as she stuttered wordlessly. Lucy knelt down to hold her daughter. She turned to Mark with eyes on fire. “Fix this. Now,” she commanded.

Mark sighed and turned around. He walked back to Santa, who was now avoiding eye contact. “Look, I see what you’ve got going on here. Nice little scam. Maybe I’ll put up a few lights in my yard next year and see if I can make a few bucks. But you don’t need to get dirty about it. Apologize to my kid, alright?”

“Ho ho ho! I hope you have a house to go back to!” Santa bellowed happily.

“What…did you just say?”

“Accidents can happen, you know! Just ask Rudolph!”

“Oh, drop the act – “

“Would be a shame for something terrible to happen! And right before Christmas!”

Mark straightened his coat. “Are you threatening my family?” he said quietly.

Santa’s beady eyes turned back to Mark. He stopped ringing his bell. “Last year, December’s electric bill was almost four hundred dollars!” he shouted. “Ho ho HO!”

“Alright…alright,” Mark huffed, grabbing his wallet from his coat. He muttered to himself as he shuffled through the bills, holding up several dollars in front of Santa’s face, then stuffing them inside the bulging donation box. He returned back to his family and ushered them further down Candy Cane Lane.

“Thatta boy, Mark! And…Merry Christmas!”

THE END

Editor’s note:

Any Santa portrayed in this story is purely fictional. The real Santa would never be so lame.

And I do sincerely wish you a wonderful, very merry Christmas!

“Dark Cupcakes” by Erin Ritch

 
The crisp, fall air made Amanda feel like baking something special. Something really special. Standing at the kitchen counter, she brushes her dark curls out of her face and sips on a steaming mug of coffee. Outside, the autumn winds are stirring. She contemplates her ingredient list. She had almost everything, except for that one last ingredient that had to be at its freshest in order to make the recipe complete.
 
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Eggs
  • Salt
  • Chocolate
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice
  • Blood
Nothing made her happier than baking. Her eight to five job paid the bills, but as she drives home at night over the damp, dead leaves, she dreams of the hushed lights of her kitchen. Her neighbors found her a bit strange. There were pots clanking at all hours of the night and the smell of burnt sugar emanating through the open windows. Sometimes they called the landlord, complaining of the smoke detector going off for hours at a time. As if she didn’t even hear it. And in fact, Amanda usually didn’t. Because for her, baking was like casting a spell and nothing could distract her from that.
 
Her cup of coffee finished, Amanda was ready for the outdoor chill. She surveyed her mixing bowls and measuring instruments lined up in a row on the counter, ready for that last ingredient. Her coat smelled like pine and she breathed in the aroma heavily, smiling. Remembering the last encounter she had while wearing that coat. Breathless running through the woods, her heart pumping from the thrill. She held up her coat sleeve. But that blood stain really would just not come out.
 
“Morning, Charlie!” she calls to her letter carrier, passing the lanky, shaggy-haired man in the terrace outside her condo.
 
“Ms. Clarke,” Charlie acknowledges. His shifts the bag on his shoulder. This woman and her baking magazines, he couldn’t forget her name even if he wanted to. He pulls out an armful of her mail. “I have your magazines.”
 
Amanda grinned. She steps a bit too close, smelling him. Watching his neck as he swallows. “Wonderful!” she exclaims, reaching over to unlock the front door to her condo. “I’m in a rush, would you mind just dropping those in the kitchen?”
 
Charlie pauses. “Well, that’s not really allowed.” First it would be dropping off magazines. Then it would be moving furniture. He’d been down this road before.
 
“I’ll make you one of those cupcakes you love you so much,” she whispered, as though if anyone else heard she was making cupcakes then she’d be overwhelmed with requests.
 
Charlie pauses again. “I suppose…”
 
“Thank you so much! Just lock the door behind you. Bye, doll!”
 
Then she was gone, sprinting down the terrace walkway with a rapid clicking of her heels, disappearing out of sight. Charlie sighed and looked down at the dozen or so magazines he had been carrying around all morning. Sprinkles of rain started to dribble on his head.
 
“Alright,” he said to himself, stepping through the open doorway. He glanced behind himself one more time and quietly shut the door.
 
Sometimes he imagined what the inside of the homes on his route looked like. He got small glimpses into his customer’s lives from the mail they received. Some people were obviously in debt, receiving thick envelopes of credit card statements. Others had shopping addictions, their daily mail riddled with enticing coupons. And then there were the magazine subscribers, like Ms. Amanda Clarke. Old school, overcharged customers who were still willing to pay for the written word and a bunch of pictures. He was about to buy her an iPad just to save himself on his chiropractor bill.
 
Amanda’s house was not much different than he expected. Smelling heavily of perfume, it was a single woman’s paradise filled with candles and wall decals with cute yet inspiring messages like “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Home Is Where The Coffee Is.” Charlie shook his head, stepping into the kitchen. It was impressive, the walls lined with shining stainless steel pots and pans, impeccably organized spices and a bright red refrigerator. With finality, Charlie drops the stack of magazines on the nearest counter, knocking over a measuring cup and sending a piece of paper fluttering to the floor. He retrieves it and examines the writing beneath the window light. An ingredient list.


Illuminated by the warm glow from the oven light, Amanda sits on the kitchen floor. She is safe and calm in that little circle of light. The outside world no longer matters or exists. Her legs crossed, she is folded over in her lap, chewing nervously on her stained fingernails. The warm heat from the oven soothes her, tempting her with sleep. But she won’t sleep. She has worked all day for this moment, as the combination of ingredients reacts with the heat and builds a perfect little masterpiece. Or so she hopes. Will it rise? Did she get the ratios right? Her stomach burns with hunger.


It is better for her to be hungry to do the things she had to do. It raises the stakes and helps with the guilt, she has found. She is a huntress, something out of the storybooks from Amanda’s childhood. Those dark figures in long cloaks looking over their shoulder, half concealed behind a tree high atop a hill. Off to do some no good in which the details were left out. Amanda dares look away from the oven to examine the dried blood on her hands. She is shocked to feel hot tears begin to stream down her face. She wipes them away and presses her face up close to the oven again. There was darkness in the details, sometimes.

It really was a delicious looking cupcake. Dark and velvety, tiny granules of sugar sparkling in the Monday morning light. Charlie stared at it intently, imagining the cupcake would sprout a heartbeat from the amount of blood probably pumping through its chocolate veins. It sat politely atop the mailbox, wrapped neatly in cellophane that was tied with an orange ribbon. A small piece of card stock was tucked into its depths, with the note “For Charlie”  followed by a winking smiling face. Charlie swallowed hard. He didn’t trust that winking smiling face.

Glancing up, Amanda catches his eye, watching him from her kitchen window. She nods and acknowledges him with a grin and raise of her coffee cup. She motions for him to take the cupcake and waves, disappearing into the shadows of her house. Charlie picks up the cupcake, being careful not to crinkle the perfectly smooth cellophane. He has just enough room in his pack to nestle the cupcake in between some outgoing mail. He avoids looking at the kitchen window again and tucks his head down, darting into a whirlwind of swirling leaves.

Charlie carried around the cupcake in his pack all day. The last time Amanda made him a treat, he consumed it immediately. In fact, he had consumed many of Amanda’s thoughtfully baked goods and he felt sick at the thought of it. He had been contemplating that ingredient list all day Sunday. Of course, it could have been a joke. Or an early Halloween prop. Or even just a list of random words. He unwrapped the cupcake that evening in the safety of his apartment and sniffed it. There was definitely something else there. And he didn’t want to know why Amanda was sharing it with him.
“Blood?”


“Yes, it was on the ingredient list,” Charlie nodded. He brushed his disheveled hair out of his face. He hadn’t slept all night, he imagined that cupcake staring at him through the walls. He began to think he heard it clanking around the kitchen in the midnight hours.


Charlie’s friend, Dan, takes a quick sip of his espresso. He stares at the velvety cupcake sitting in front of him on the coffee shop table. He leans in carefully for a quick sniff.


“I don’t smell anything except chocolate and pumpkin. Did you try it?” Dan asks, taking another sip. He can’t help but smile.


“Of course not!” Charlie exclaimed. He looks around and tucks the cupcake back into his coat pocket.


“You realize carrying a cupcake around in your pocket looks strange. Right?”


“I might need it for evidence.”


“And that’s even stranger,” Dan adds. He sits up in his seat. “Look, if you’re that worried about this chick, just ask to change your delivery route.”


“I’m more worried about where this blood came from,” Charlie whispers, tapping the table for emphasis.


“You don’t even know if there’s blood in there!” Dan shouts. He looks around at the other concerned patrons and lowers his voice. “This is stupid, just toss it.”


“I’m trusting my gut here,” Charlie stands up from the table with a loud screech of his chair.


“Interesting choice of words,” Dan laughs. “And where are you going? I thought we were going to the movies!”


“Can’t,” Charlie zips up his jacket and pulls his hood over his face. Outside, a storm is banging against the coffee shop windows. “If you don’t hear from me in a few days, call the police.”


“Wow,” Dan shakes his head. “I might just call the loony bin and reserve you a spot right now.”
It was a cold and wet evening. A very, very cold and wet evening. Charlie’s cotton jacket was soaked through and it had been for several hours. The cupcake pressed against his chest, it was melting in his pocket simultaneously from heat and dampness. Perched in a Rhododendron in the terrace outside Amanda’s condo, Charlie couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a creeper. He had been watching Amanda since she came home from work. He began to doubt his judgement of her. In that warm glow of the kitchen, she looked like a perfectly sweet girl, her dark curls falling in her face as she laughed on the phone or sang to herself.


For hours, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. She cooked herself some dinner then disappeared for awhile, coming back to clean the dishes. Then she left again and for another hour, all Charlie could see was the faint flicker of a TV screen in the window reflection. Finally, he got sick of being soaking wet and decided to go home. He felt like a paranoid idiot, what a waste of time. He’d have to be up early for work the next morning and he was really going to regret this. Taking off his jacket to ring out the rain water, he noticed a huge stain on his jacket.


“The cupcake. Damn…” he sighed, examining the stain left by the melting cupcake. He grabbed the cupcake and tossed it into the mud beneath his feet. He brushed the remaining crumbles of cupcake off his hands and paused. In the dim light from the terrace, Charlie could see his hands were stained red. Cautiously, he holds up his jacket up to smell the stain. Unmistakably blood.

He starts running, leaving his jacket behind. He runs almost blindly, his hair in his face from the heavy rain. Charlie felt fear, real fear, for the first time in a long time. Was he being chased? He imagines he hears the clicking of Amanda’s heels behind him. Finally, he stops to catch his breath on a street corner, buckled over as he tries to calm the rushing in his head. He jumps as two booted feet appear in front of him.


“You alright, son?” It’s a security guard for the liquor store down the street. His slicker is shining from the rain but it might as well be a gleaming suit of armor for all Charlie cares.


“Oh, thank God. I thought – “


Charlie stops as he sees the security guard staring at the red stain on his shirt. Then down to the red liquid streaming from his hands down his arms.


“What have you been into?” the guard asks warily, his right hand reaching under his rain slicker.


“It was… a… cupcake,” Charlie whispers breathlessly.


Suddenly, a knife appears in the gray rain. Before Charlie can react, an arm wraps around the security guard’s neck and cuts across without hesitation. The man gasps and grabs his neck, falling into the road. Behind him, stands Amanda with a kitchen knife in one hand and Charlie’s jacket in the other. She smiles at him and winks.


“Hello, Charlie.”

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