Writings by author Paul D. Dail

Flash Fiction

The five flash fiction pieces on this page are all under 1000 words.  

You can read them below or download the collection, Free Five, which includes a "250 word introduction" and author afterwords for each story explaining how the story originated.

Since its publication in 2012, Free Five has spent over a year in the top 50 Kindle Horror Short Stories category.

Click below to download your preferred format:

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You can also find Free Five at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Another Oldie but Goodie

 

Margaret Daniels awoke in the night to music that only she could hear.  She sighed and wondered if she could go through with her plan, even though she knew she didn’t have a choice.  The singing was only getting louder. 

At being close enough to ninety that she didn’t bother counting anymore, Margaret was supposed to be finally allowed some peace, but she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since first hearing the music almost a month ago.

The Brookfield Retirement Home wasn’t much to write home about, even if one of the residents still had kids who cared to hear from them.  The walls were paper thin, and Margaret could swear she knew more about her neighbors’ kids than she knew about her own.  Consequently, the first night she woke to the muffled sounds, she blamed Barbara Young.  Barbara’s husband had recently passed.  Margaret assumed the music was part of her mourning, but after three nights, she complained to The Management.  Barbara claimed innocence, and Margaret had been further infuriated when The Management told her (rather smugly) there hadn’t been any other complaints. 

It wasn’t until she started hearing the music elsewhere-- still very distant and muffled but somehow familiar-- that she got nervous.  She even considered talking to the Resident Quack, but when the song grew loud enough to finally discern the tune, and when Margaret finally looked at a calendar, she discovered what no doctor would be able to decipher.  Except for maybe one of them voodoo doctors. 

As a teenager, Margaret had loved the song “You Are My Sunshine.”  What girl hadn’t?  But the song took on new meaning when Herbert (God rest his soul) sang it to her on the night he proposed.  Ray Charles had released his version that year, and when Herbert took the stage in a packed jazz club, it was in Ray’s style that he sang before asking for her hand.

Margaret had already been through one bad marriage and wasn’t necessarily ready for another, but she agreed.  Herbert sang “You Are My Sunshine” again on their wedding day.  He bought her the record for Christmas.  And on their first anniversary, Margaret awoke to find her bed covered in daisies and Herbert serenading her, dancing around in his boxer shorts, as smooth as if he had been back in that jazz club. 

There hadn’t been a second anniversary.

But now, almost 48 years since his death, Herbert was singing Margaret’s song once again.  The first night she awoke marked exactly 49 years since Herbert had proposed.  And tonight would’ve been their 49th anniversary.

Margaret climbed out of bed and got dressed.  After making sure she had everything, she slung on her oversized shoulder bag, grabbed her cane and crept out of her room.  She found Bobby The Intern asleep on one of the chairs in the lounge.  

She prodded his leg with her cane.  “Do you have everything in your truck?” she asked.

Bobby cracked one eye.  “That depends,” he said.  “You got my cash?”  Bobby The Intern was a lazy slob, but like most lazy slobs, it only took the right amount of money for them to do something most others wouldn’t. 

Margaret pulled out a wad of bills and waited impatiently while Bobby counted.  Satisfied, he smiled.  “Let’s go.”

As they drove, the song grew louder in Margaret’s head.  “I’m coming, dear,” she murmured, ignoring Bobby’s sideways glances.

When they arrived at the cemetery, Margaret told Bobby to wait in the truck.  She shouldered her bag and climbed out, shuffling slowly through the headstones until she came to Herbert’s.  As if on cue, a hand broke through the soil.  As if keeping time, the fingers snapped while Herbert used his other hand to claw out of his grave.

Margaret had come to expect this, but she hadn’t planned on Herbert looking as handsome as the day he died.  She dropped her cane and walked up to Herbert.  He engulfed her in his arms and they kissed.  The singing finally stopped in her head.

Then the stench hit Margaret.  Worse than the time her daddy’s dog hid all those dead rats under the house.  When she pulled back, she found Herbert looking more as she had imagined he would, the way someone should look after being embalmed for nearly 50 years.  And exposure to the air wasn’t helping.  He was decomposing more by the second… until she barely recognized him.  Only the eyes bulging from their sockets were familiar.

“I’m here to take you with me, my sunshine,” he gurgled.

“I know you are, dear.”  He tried to pull her back toward him, but Margaret reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a chef’s knife.  In what was probably the fastest she’d moved in months, she slashed through Herbert’s neck.  His head lolled back, splintering his brittle spine, then the corpse dropped to the ground, and the head rolled back into the hole.

“Maybe you’ll stay dead this time,” Margaret said and spat.

Bobby walked up carrying a shovel in one hand and holding a vinyl 45 record, still in its paper sleeve, in the other.  “Sweet Jesus,” he said when he saw Herbert.

“I told you to wait in the truck.”  Margaret shook her head and sighed.  “Well, quit lookin’ stupid,” she said.  “You knew this was part of the deal.”

Bobby stared at her, and she could tell he was considering giving her back the money and returning to the retirement home, maybe without her.  Then he must’ve remembered what he could do with that money, and he shrugged.  “Whatcha want this old record for?” he asked.  “You want me to bury him with it?” 

“That was the plan.”  Margaret took the record and pulled it out of the sleeve.  It was Ray Charles’ You are My Sunshine.  She flipped it up in the air, and it spun a couple times before landing on Herbert’s chest.  The B-side was facing up.  Hank Williams. 

Your Cheatin’ Heart.

 

I Spy, with My Little Eye

Anthony Monsano stood at the bar, staring at the round, wooden box on the counter.  About the size of a hatbox, except Tony knew it was no hat inside this particular box.  He would’ve smiled at this thought had a fire not taken the elasticity from his face just six months earlier. 

But he was sure as hell smiling on the inside.  Not even the fact that his oldest friend, Danny Blaylock, lay in a bloody crumpled mess on the floor next to Tony’s boots could take away the satisfaction at finally having found the box. 

Besides, Danny was in good company.  All the men who were either dead or dying in the bar (and even some of the women) had fought bravely.  And Tony had to respect their conviction in the cause.  They had all been willing to die for this prize.  And with the exception of Tony and Esmeralda, that’s exactly what they had done.

Where was Esmi anyway?  She was so damned quiet.  Probably collecting mementos.  She was a weird kid, but Tony knew he needed to keep her around.

He returned his attention to the round box on the bar, but still he didn’t touch it.  Until today, he had only seen rough sketches of the box, the same sketches currently folded in his coat pocket.  And while there had been inconsistencies, this was no doubt the item he had sought for years.   

Most seekers agreed that the box dated back over two millennia.  Some even speculated that it was carved out of the wood from the cross used to crucify Jesus, with any of the steel parts of the box forged from the spears used by the Roman soldiers.  But Tony didn’t buy that.  It just didn’t make sense.  Especially considering what the box was supposed to contain.

The gargantuan man Tony killed just minutes earlier to get the box had a Norwegian accent, but the script carved into the wood looked closer to Arabic, the symbols closer to Egyptian.  The old steel lock on the box was shaped like a skull, a skull that looked like it had taken a severe beating from various implements trying to break into the box over the centuries.

“My God,” he whispered, “the thousands of miles this box has traveled.”  He held his fingers just above the box, tracing the air in the shape of the symbols.  He longed to touch it.  “If you’re done, you can come in now!” he shouted. 

A young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, with dark skin and long black hair came through a door marked “Employees Only.”  Her white dress was spotless, but her right arm was smeared red and she clutched something that Tony didn’t want to try and identify.  She barely glanced at the bodies on the floor.  “Did he have it?” Esmeralda asked.

“Of course,” Tony said.  “So you can read this writing?”

She nodded, and Tony had to turn away when she slipped the bloody morsel into her mouth.  Hopefully he wouldn’t need her around for much longer.

He pulled out the sketches of the box.  The more fragile ones, drawn by ancient hands on tissue-thin parchment, had been left in a safe place, but he had copies.  He spread them out over the bar.  The greatest mystery for Tony had been the fact that each sketch had been missing some little detail, but looking at the box in front of him was like seeing the puzzle completely assembled.  So why the inconsistencies?  He would’ve furrowed his brow if it weren’t for the scar tissue.

Esmi stepped beside him.  “It’s because something new is added to the box with each user,” she said, as if she had read his mind.  Tony had long since stopped wondering how she did it. 

“So what do we need to do?” he asked.

“You need to think about whether or not you want to do this.”

Not this again, Tony thought.  “And after that?” he asked.

“Today, you need to think about it again.”

From the corner of the room, a man groaned.  The groan turned to a raspy cough.  Then there was silence again.

“Listen, kid,” Tony said.  “I didn’t get you out of that South American death camp to get your opinion.  You’re here to do a job.”

“If that’s what you want,” Esmi said.  She climbed up onto a bar stool.  In different circumstances, someone might’ve said it would’ve made a cute picture.  She reached out and touched the box.  A shiver went through her body, then she began to trace the symbols, leaving little streaks of blood which the wood of the box seemed to absorb.  At the same time, she started to sing in a soft, wispy voice.  But even with all of his studies, Tony didn’t recognize the words she sang.  And yet in a way, he recognized all of them somehow, like it was a mix of every language he had studied.

But the song didn’t last long.  Tony only saw her trace twelve of the marks, and then she was done.  She stopped singing, took her hand from the box, and turned on the stool to face Tony.

“That’s it?” he asked.  He had expected something a little more grandiose.  But no sooner had he spoken the words than he heard a heavy click and the bottom of the skull lock swung open.  “I can touch it now?”

The girl nodded.

Tony pulled the box over, unhinged the lock and lifted off the lid.  He had to stand on the tips of his boots to see inside, but when he did, his face tightened around his lips.  Whether it was a smile or a grimace was unclear, and the look in his eyes could’ve been elation or terror.  Then he dropped to the floor next to his best friend.  Less bloody, but just as dead. 

Esmeralda hopped off the barstool, hefted the round box off the bar, and walked out.

 

 

The Death He Expected

 

There’s power in superstition.  I’ve never been too superstitious, but I can tell these three kids out hiking in the middle of the night got a strong streak of it running through ‘em.  Why else would they be going out to the mesa on a full moon? 

Well, for one, they’re hiking out there to try and scare the new kid.  But I can tell that in each of ‘em there’s some small sense of belief.  And a little bit of fear.  They’re a little high off it.  Even the redheaded one who likes to whisper for effect.  He says not to be too loud if they don’t want the dead to hear them.  I like this kid.

Hiking through the sagebrush, the new kid catches his foot on something and stumbles forward into the tall kid. 

“Get off me, man,” the tall kid says.  “You tryin’ to feel me up or something?”

“You wish,” the new kid says.

“Personally, I think you both wish,” the red-headed kid says.  “Now shut up.  We’re gettin’ close.” 

“Sorry, Jake,” the tall kid whispers.

“This is stupid,” the new kid says, but I can tell he doesn’t think it’s stupid at all.  “How do you even know it’s a person up there?  You dig it up or something?”

“It’s under a pile of rocks, idiot,” Jake says.  “You think I’m gonna start pulling out rocks and stick my hand in a pile of rotten flesh?  I just know, okay?”

“Well, who is it?” the new kid asks.

“I heard it was some Indian,” the tall kid says.  “The Big Chief or somethin’.”

“There it is,” Jake whispers and points to the small mesa rising out of the earth about a hundred yards in front of them.

Funny thing about the full moon.  Everything’s real bright, but nothin’s real clear.  It’s easy to pick out the five-foot pile of stones on top of the mesa, but the black granite side they’ll have to climb up is shrouded in shadows.

Seeing this shuts up the new kid.  I can tell he’s scared.  Got a little Indian blood himself, but he hasn’t told anyone. 

Them Indians got lots of superstitions.  You want to see superstition in action, go see an Indian.  They’ll show you its power.  That belief can make things happen.  And you don’t need no full moon, either. 

When they start walking again, the new kid doesn’t say anything, because he’s got that belief that puttin’ words to something gives it power, like speaking it aloud will bring it to life.

As they climb the rocky slope, I’m tempted to take at least one of them.  It’d be so simple.  A misstep on loose rock, a shoelace caught on some scrub brush.  All this sharp granite. 

But I wait.  ‘Cause I got a feeling my time’s gonna come. 

The top of the mesa is narrow, only maybe twenty feet at its widest.  At one end is the mound of stones. 

“What are those for?” The new kids points at two circles of rock on the ground, about eleven feet across, nearly overgrown with time.

“I dunno,” Jake says, and I sense the slightest chink in his confidence.

“I don’t think you wanna step in them circles,” the tall kid says.

“This is stupid,” the new kid says again, but his voice cracks this time, like he’s back in puberty.

“Then you shouldn’t be scared,” Jake says.  “All you gotta do is get three stones off the top of the pile.”

The new kid stares at him a moment, like he’s weighing his options… and his courage.  Finally he starts over to the pile, careful to edge around the rock circles, until he’s at the mound. 

He tries to reach the top stones, but the pile is sloped enough that he can’t lean far enough forward to grasp one.  He’ll have to climb on it.

He puts one foot on the pile, and the stones immediately shift.  He hesitates, one foot still on solid ground, then shifts his weight and pushes forward, getting another foot up.  He gingerly puts one hand down on the rocks and reaches with the other. 

Just as he gets hold of a stone, something jumps up from behind the pile shrieking.  The new kid only gets a glimpse of tangled black hair and a grotesquely deformed face before sliding backward in panic.  He pushes away and falls on his ass, but the thing is moving around that pile quick.  He notices that he has fallen into one of the rock circles and lets out a little whimper before scrambling to his feet. 

He starts to run, but stops when he sees Jake and the tall kid in hysterics.  Then he hears laughter behind him as well and turns to see the monster pull of the mask, revealing a blond kid. 

“You assholes,” the new kid says.

They’re all laughing now, but I’ve been given my opening. For a moment, the new kid truly believed that the dead had come for him.  It was enough to let me in. 

Insects are easiest to control, and I send out a swarm of winged ants that have nested in the rocks, a reddish-black cloud that descends on the other boys.  All except the new kid. 

The ants don’t bite, but having them crawling all over is enough to send the boys into a panic, swinging their arms around, running in circles.  Jake trips over a stone and there’s a loud crack as his head comes down on another rock. 

The new kid can only stare in horror, but I’ve saved the best for last.

There’s nothing special about the Indian buried on that mesa, but I reanimate the corpse, and it starts to drag itself out of the rocks. 

There’s power in superstition.  It can bring things to life… even if that thing is Death.  And now I’m here for the new kid.  And I give him the death he expected.

 

Author’s note:  I’ve actually been to this mesa with my archaeologist father-in-law.  There are petroglyphs on some of the rock faces on the slope.  While he didn’t actually climb to the top with me, the thing with the ants really did happen when I accidentally stepped into one of the circles and neared the pile of stones.  Should I be concerned?  Or am I just giving in to a little superstition. 

The Professional Crier

[Necromancy: the art or practice of supposedly conjuring up the dead, especially in order to obtain from them knowledge of the future]

 

My name is Penny Circe.

If I had any friends, I’d want them to call me P.C.  It would be funny, you know?  ‘Cause I’m not really that politically correct. 

But I don’t have any friends.  Can’t blame ‘em.  I probably wouldn’t be friends with me, either.

My school counselor calls me P.C., but not to my face.  I overheard her once, whispering to the secretary when I was waiting in her office.  “The Professional Crier is back.”  I could detect the exasperation in her voice, like maybe she wanted me to hear her. 

Of course I was back.  After all, Randy Metz, the school quarterback, had died in an ATV accident.  And anytime one of my classmates died, I had to cry. 

Because my tears can bring back the dead.  At least, temporarily.

Don’t get me wrong. I cry out of genuine sadness, too.  How could Mrs. Gants not get that?  After all, I am the only daughter of our town’s only mortician.  (Correction.  I was the only daughter of our town’s only mortician.)  And dying has always been good business in our town.

The mortuary has been in our family for generations.  Literally.  We run it out of the house my great-grandfather built after the Civil War.  The same house we’ve lived in my whole life.  Death has been my playmate ever since I can remember.  Nothing to be afraid of.  But I’ve also seen the grief in the loved ones when he came around to play.

And I’ve seen the bodies left behind.  And I’ve cried over them, just like I did with Randy Metz.  But it never does any good.  They never stay. 

Sitting on my bed in the dark, I can only hope it works tonight.  It hadn’t worked with Randy last Fall, and I haven’t tried it since.

The trick is to get to the bodies before the mortician.  My father had a curious ritual when someone brought him a body to prepare.  After a few minutes alone with the deceased, he would leave the house without saying a word.  I never knew where he went, but I have a few guesses.  He was never gone more than an hour, but it provided the time I needed.  You have to get to them before the eyelids are glued shut or the jaw sewn together. 

I learned this early on.

After they had “delivered” Randy Metz and my dad had left, I went down to the parlor.  Randy wasn’t the cutest boy in school.  But he wasn’t bad looking.  He had even looked at me a couple of times.  Most people just ignore me. 

He didn’t look so good that day.  Kind of grayish-blue.  Scraped up pretty bad, and his neck was one big bruise where the four-wheeler landed on him. 

The tears came then.  I can’t really control them, but at least I finally I figured out what I can do with them. 

As with every classmate who made their next-to-last stop here, after I had wiped my tears on his face, Randy opened his eyes in shock.  And just like every other time, I thought I had done it… brought someone back from the dead. 

Some, like Randy, would even sit up and look at me.  Color would seep back into their flesh.  After the initial shock, there would usually be a look of placid calm.  Relief, maybe.  But before they could say a word, they would get that terrified look again.  Their eyes would return to a hazy, milky color as they seemed to look right through me, wide-eyed and staring at something I couldn’t see. 

My old playmate probably. 

And then Death would take them.  Again.  And I would cry.  Again.  But this time because I had failed.

But I can’t fail tonight.  Tonight is more important than any other time.  Tonight it’s my daddy.

I found him just after midnight.  I had awoken from a particularly nasty nightmare and gone to his room.  It had been a year since the last time this happened, but I knew he would still let me climb into bed next to him.  But the bed was cold, even when I curled up alongside him. 

I came back to my room and sat on my bed.  But I haven’t cried, even though I really want to.  I have to save my tears. I have to try one more time. 

Daddy lost a lot of weight over the past year, so I’m able to carry him downstairs.  His cosmetic effects are all there.   And the cold steel table, scalpel, and tools for removing the blood.

I lay him on the table.  Finally I let myself cry.  Harder than ever. Puddles of tears fill my palms, and I rub them across my daddy’s face.      

He opens his eyes. 

But there is no shock.  He smiles as color rushes back into his cheeks.  He pushes himself into a sitting position.  “My sweet Penny,” he says.  My breath catches in my chest. 

He spoke. 

He reaches out a hand and wipes my tears away with his thumb.  “I have the answers you have been seeking.”

Then it hits me.  Hard.  Like a book-filled backpack “accidentally” swung in your direction in a crowded hallway. 

Suddenly I realize that I haven’t been trying to beat death all these years.  I wasn’t reanimating my classmates because I loved them or anything (well, Randy Metz…)  It wasn’t about them.  It was about me.  I’ve been wanting answers… to know what they discovered.  Was there an end to this pain?  Or would it be better if I just ended it myself? 

Now here was my answer.

But all I want is my daddy back. 

But before he can say another word, he gets that terrified look.  His handsome blue eyes turn milky and hazy, and he looks right through me, wide-eyed and staring at something behind me. 

My old playmate probably.

When he drops back on the table, I reach for the scalpel.

 

Run, Rabbit. Run

 

There was something about jackrabbits that always creeped out Pete Cantrell.  Something about the way they moved.  More gangly than their cuter cousins, they loped along when they walked, as if evolution got stuck somewhere between a cottontail and coyote. 

Not long after Pete and his wife Wendy moved into their house in the middle of twenty undeveloped acres, Pete had a nightmare in which the world was a scarred apocalyptic landscape.  The only humans that had survived were distorted into twisted creatures scouring the wasteland on all fours.  In the nightmare, these aberrations loped, and they had the same glassy, lifeless marbled eyes of the jackrabbit.

Ever since, it seemed like whenever Pete went outside, there was one standing there.  Staring at him.  Watching him with those glassy, lifeless marbled eyes.

But not this morning.  On weekends Pete liked to get up before Wendy and go for a walk out on his property.  He would follow the deer trails through the brush and juniper trees, crossing a wash where the land dropped down, ending at a small copse of junipers, a quiet spot where he liked to go be by himself. 

There was a chill in the air this morning.  Autumn was getting ready to give way to Winter.  It was late enough for the sun to have risen over the mountains, but it was hidden behind gray clouds.  Even the birds were silent as Pete made his way away into the maze of sagebrush. 

As he walked, he kept his eyes down, scanning for arrowheads or fragments of chipped stone from tools that had been worked.  Several hundred years before any white faces found this part of the world, this land had been Fremont Indian hunting grounds.  To date, Pete had only found chipped off pieces, but where there were chips, there were usually tips to be found also.    

He was almost to the clump of trees--his “thinking spot”--when he spotted something metal off to his right.  He stepped over some brush, bent down and picked up a metal lunchbox with pictures from the old Lone Ranger TV show.  It even showed Tonto.

Something shifted inside when he picked it up, and Pete opened it.  “I’ll be damned,” he said, pulling out a plastic baggie.  The lunchbox also contained some cigarette rolling papers and matches. 

Pete hadn’t smoked grass in years, but the familiar scent wafting out of the lunchbox brought back old cravings.  He looked around to see if he could spot anyone.  The closest road was back by his house, probably a half mile, and the next house was at least a mile.  Kids must be going to some pretty great lengths to get high these days.

“Their loss,” he said.  Figuring some teenager must’ve ditched the lunchbox, he continued to the trees where he sat down in the dirt and rolled a joint.  The weed was potent, and it only took a couple puffs to feel the effects.  He was about to lie down on his back when he saw a flash of gray movement not ten feet away behind a clump of sagebrush.  He jumped up, his first thought being, Coyote!  He was ready to make a dash, but before he could, he saw a jackrabbit instead.  Probably the biggest one he had seen, the size of a small mutt.  And almost as mangy. 

Pete’s heart slowed, and he laughed at his previous panic.  The jack just stared at him.  Pete reached down, picked up a rock and threw it at the rabbit, but the rabbit disappeared.  “What the…?”

Tentatively (it wasn’t a coyote, but it was still a wild animal), he stepped toward where it had been.  There was a dark hole in the ground, probably a foot in diameter, like a little cave slanting underground.  Even with all the rabbits in the area, this was the first time Pete had found the entrance to one of their warrens.  It surprised him how big the hole was, and he hesitated before getting much closer.  He didn’t see the jack, but he knew it was down there, probably just out of range of the light.  He raised himself up on his tiptoes to try and see a little further into the hole. 

That’s when he spotted the arrowhead lying in the dirt a few inches past the lip of the hole.  Possibly obsidian.  Black in the center, but like smoky glass at the edges.  Beautiful. Just a few inches into the hole.  Just before the line of shadow. 

Pete broke a dead branch off one of the junipers.  Holding it in one hand like a club, he reached slowly down towards the hole…

* * *

Wendy Cantrell woke with a start. 

Had she heard a scream? 

She dismissed it as a remnant from a nightmare.  She swung her legs off the bed and hopped across the cold hardwood floor to her slippers.  She wrapped herself in her robe before walking into the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee and heading out onto her deck.  Pete was usually back from his morning walks by now, but sometimes he lost track of time.e

Just as she was sitting down, a jackrabbit scrambled out of the sagebrush.  Wendy didn’t hate the jackrabbits like Pete did.  In fact, she sort of liked them.  They were survivors in a world full of predators, including gun-happy rednecks.  But one thing she could agree on was that there was something a little unsettling about their eyes.  Staring, unflinching, cold.

But this one was different.  It appeared more frantic.  Panicked.  It stepped one direction, looked quickly side to side, then started in another direction.  Then it spotted Wendy on the porch and stopped.

For a brief instant, Wendy had a crazy thought. 

Peter?  

But before she could make sense of the thought, a coyote bolted out of the brush in a snarl and tore the jackrabbit off the ground in its maw and disappeared back into the wild.