Marian

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

First published in SEEDS, T. Wood – Wild Wood Books, 2021


It wasn’t the clack of her designer heels drumming the hardwood floor that alerted Marian to her boss’ presence, but the unusual, slightly musky aroma that always heralded her arrival. She could never place exactly what it was; maybe the scent of the hand cream Phyllis was always rubbing into her palms, or perhaps the remnants of an expensive, favourite perfume bought so many years ago that it had degraded and expired. Whatever it was, it made her sinuses ache like a rotten tooth might throb with decay. 

The smell grew stronger as Phyllis entered the tiny office and paused in front of Marian’s desk.

“How are you getting on?” she asked. 

Marian gave a despondent wave at the cardboard files piled around her. “There’s still a heck of a lot to do.”

Phyllis tutted in commiseration. “These last-minute accounts always come flooding in before the new tax year begins. I don’t know why people never learn.” 

Marian grimaced. It wasn’t simply the clients who left things to the last minute; Phyllis did a lot of that herself. Fourteen years in this role and not much had improved from the very first year she had begun. Names and faces and roles had changed, as people had come and gone, but the systemic disorganisation stayed the same. Despite that, the job was decent, and the pay was satisfactory. 

Better the devil you know, Marian thought, than trying to find something new at my age. 

“Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Phyllis asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied. 

Phyllis cleared her throat and perched gingerly on the only available free space on the desk. Marian knew immediately what was coming. 

“Rupert is back in the country with his family—that’s my eldest son, you know—and Patricia, his eldest, is going to study Anthropology at the university here. Can you imagine? Anyway, I thought we might all go out for dinner…”

“Do you want me to stay later?” 

Phyllis let out a sigh of relief. “Would you, Marian? I’d appreciate that a great deal. If you can get the Avalon account in order, it would help us out a lot.” 

Marian checked her wristwatch and chewed the inside of her lip. There were three invoice-stuffed box files set aside for Avalon. It meant another couple of hours of work, at least. 

She looked up at Phyllis’s hopeful face. Her smell was almost overpowering.

“Sure, I can do that. But you owe me,” she said with a forced, jovial smile, trying to mask her frustration.

“Thank you, Marian,” Phyllis said, rising and straightening her blouse. “You’ll be paid overtime, of course!” 

Like that’ll ever happen, Marian thought, but she kept smiling until her cheeks began to hurt. 

Phyllis said goodbye and swept out of the office, leaving her scent to linger. Marian switched on her desktop fan and ushered the cloying odour out the door. She tapped a message on her phone to George, her husband, telling him she would be home late, then scrolled through her favourite playlist and turned up the volume full blast. The small speaker blared electro-industrial music around the beige, bland office, and she sang along as the lyrics began. What would Phyllis think?she wondered. A respectable accountant in a dress suit and blonde bob, rocking out to the goth bands of her youth. 

It was past nine o’clock when she rubbed the crick out of her neck and stretched the tension from her shoulders. If she locked up now, she could catch the 9:20 bus home. If she missed that, it would be a half-hour walk. 

She’d dealt with the Avalon account as best as she could, but it had raised questions only Phyllis could answer. She powered down her laptop and tidied her desk. The rest was a job for Future Marian to deal with on Monday morning. 

The sky was dark and the air thick with drizzle as she stepped out into the alley. The premises were a far cry from the image used on the firm’s website, one that depicted an impressive redbrick facade. With the bulk of their clients finding them online, a classy website and PO Box was all that was needed. The offices themselves were above a Chinese takeaway, and the delicious smell of fresh noodles and stir-fried meat made her stomach grumble in yearning. 

No time for that if she wanted to catch the bus. She locked the door and slipped the keys into her bag. 

The food smells faded, replaced by something putrid; an acrid mixture like stale urine mixed with rotten tomatoes. She turned to the dumpster at the back of the alley, expecting to see its lid left open, but it was firmly closed. Besides, the stench seemed to emanate from somewhere behind her. Somewhere near her right shoulder…

The leather straps cut into the top of her arm as her handbag was yanked from her grasp. She yelped and tried to stop it, catching a strap in one hand. The smell was so powerful it made her eyes water, and she could barely see her assailant through her tears. It was a man, she could determine that much; early twenties, slightly built, shaved head, and matching chin. Jeans, T-shirt, casual but plain. A regular, normal guy. 

“Give me the fucking bag!” he demanded. “Come on, you stupid bitch. I’ve got a knife!” 

She had no reason to doubt him, but despite her fear, she couldn’t bear to let go. The bag contained many irreplaceable items that she always carried around with her. Photos, notes, little trinkets and favours, even her powder compact had a story. She couldn’t let this foul-smelling thief get his hands all over them. Things he would tip into the filthy gutter as he searched for her cash and phone. Her shock and fear turned to anger. Indignation that he’d thought she was an easy mark. 

“No! Leave me alone!” she yelled back at him and wrenched the bag from his hands. The force made him stumble. She was far stronger than he expected, and he almost slipped on the damp concrete floor. He rallied and came back swinging, burying his fist into her stomach. She groaned and recoiled in agony, but the pain made her even angrier. 

She dropped the bag to the floor and grabbed his throat in her fist, forcing him back against the wall. He squirmed and scrabbled, desperate to get free, as she curled her fingers on either side of his trachea and squeezed as hard as she could. His face flushed purple and his eyeballs bulged as he fought for every breath.

“How dare you,” she hissed at him, her arm locked and outstretched, his toes barely grazing the floor. “How very fucking dare you!” 


The bus had long gone by the time she’d reached the stop. She’d had little choice but to take a sodden walk home. She heard raised voices as she put her key in the lock. Emma and Paul, her two teenaged children, were arguing at the other end of the house. George was fast asleep in front of the TV, mouth agape and snoring, oblivious to the aggravation. She hung her coat and handbag on a hook by the door, kicked off her shoes and called out a greeting. No one bothered to reply. 

There was a pile of used dishes dumped in the kitchen sink, the remnants of a frozen pizza abandoned on the hob. An open bottle of cola was going flat on the worktop, two dirty glasses by its side. She sighed and began loading plates into the dishwasher. George ambled into the kitchen, yawning and wiping drool from his chin. She leaned in towards him and he kissed her on the cheek.

“Hello, love,” he said sleepily. “You’re late back.”

“I texted you to let you know.”

“You did, even so, it’s…” he glanced at the kitchen clock, “almost half-past ten. Have you been working all this time?” 

She opened her mouth to reply, but Paul cut her off before she could answer.

“Mom! Emma has been using my X-Box without asking and she’s deleted all of my saved games!”

“It’s not just yours!” Emma shouted from the hallway. “It’s both of ours! Mum, tell him!” 

“Kids, please,” George intervened. “Your mum’s had a long day. Leave her alone.” 

 “Yes, I’ve had a very long day and you two need to get in here and clean up this mess. I want a shower and I want to go to bed.”

“What about dinner?” George asked and picked up the cold pizza tray. “You want to heat this in the microwave?” 

Marian baulked as her stomach lurched. “No. I’m okay. I’m not hungry.”

“You’ve already eaten?” 

“I… I’m just not hungry. Emma, get your butt in here and help your brother! Any more arguing and the X-Box goes on eBay.” 

She padded down the hall to the bathroom, closed the door and undressed. A livid, purple bruise blossomed beneath her ribcage, and she grimaced both in pain and at the memory. She stripped out of her blouse and saw a dark stain on the cuff, tutted and ran it under the cold tap. 


Sara pressed the button with a pink polished fingernail and the espresso machine gurgled into life. The smell of finely ground and over-priced organic coffee wafted through the impeccable kitchen. 

“So, how are you?” Sara asked, placing a full mug on the breakfast bar. “It feels like weeks since I’ve last seen you.”

Marian took a careful sip before replying. The coffee was strong and very hot. “I think it has been weeks. I’ve been so busy lately. Work, home, the kids, you know? Well, not the kids.” 

Sara was, as she had once put it, ‘deliciously child and husband-free, and absolutely zero regrets.’ Marian wondered if that was why, at fifty-two and almost ten years older than her, her friend still frequently looked ten years younger. Far fewer wrinkles for a start. Not a hint of any grey hairs. 

“Can I ask you a personal question?” 

Sara peered at her over the top of her mug. “Of course you can, darling. Ask away.” 

“How old were you when you started going through the change?”

“The change? You mean menopause?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not a dirty word you know, darling.”

“I know. Sorry. Silly of me.”

Sara put down her mug and knitted her fingers in her lap. “I was forty-six when I first noticed it. My God, I was so tired and slow all the time, I felt like a bloody slug.” She chuckled. “I must have gone through seven or eight cups of coffee a day and I was still utterly exhausted. Then the insomnia hit around the same time and I was lucky if I got four hours of good sleep a night. I think the hot flashes were a comfort, to be honest; I’d convinced myself there must be something terribly wrong with me, that maybe I was dying, but my doctor said it was all perfectly normal. 

“Why do you ask? You’re not there already, are you? You’re only, what? Forty-one?”

“Forty-three,” Marian corrected. “I’m not sure. I definitely feel different.”

“That seems rather early, but then I knew a girl at university who started in her twenties. Mother Nature can be so unkind to some of us. So, what is it? Irregular periods? Boobs hurting more? Oh no, you’re not leaking when you sneeze, are you? ‘Squat, not bend,’ is what I tell all my lady friends. You want to keep your pelvic floor in good shape.”

“No. This is more…” Marian paused, unsure how much to admit. “Well, hair changes, for one.”

“Going grey, you mean?”

“Hair in unusual places, mostly. And a lot of it.”

Sara sipped coffee and nodded sagely. “That’s normal. You should see the length of the ones I pluck out of my chin. It’s like a magician’s handkerchief trick. They just keep on coming!”

“Umm, I can smell things a lot more strongly than I used to. Perfume. Cutlery. People smell different.”

“Also, not unusual. That’s hormones for you.”

“I suppose. But I get so angry sometimes. I mean, irrationally so. Little things set me off and I can’t control myself. And then after, it’s like I can’t even remember what got me so worked up.”

Sara reached out and patted her arm. “Darling, you have to think of this as a second puberty. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but your body is going through some massive changes and not all of them are fun. But think of the freedom you’ll have afterwards.” She wriggled in her seat and grew suddenly animated. “Do you know the best thing about being a woman over forty, Marian?”

“Umm… Better life stability?”

“No! You have no more fucks left to give!” Marian laughed despite herself. It was hard to imagine Sara ever giving any fucks unless she chose to. 

“You can be yourself, Marian,” Sara continued. “Unapologetically. No more squeezing yourself into boxes that don’t fit that someone else has built for you. No more caring if you’re too fat or too thin or if you’re ‘pretty’ enough. You can stop doing all that pointless, time-consuming grooming that society says you should, just so you can be seen as ‘desirable’. Fuck it, I say! Let it all hang out and who cares what anyone else thinks!” Sara pointed at her excitedly. “Let me tell you, darling, women over forty are terrifying. In a good way! We are fierce and vibrant, and we don’t worry about taking up space. Embrace that! Believe me, it’s refreshing.

“Not to mention, sex is so much better when you don’t have to worry about pregnancy anymore.” She winked and Marian blushed. 

“I just have no frame of reference for this stuff.”

“What about your mother? When did she go through it?”

“I’ve no idea. My parents split up around that time and she took herself solo around the world on ‘a journey of self-discovery,’ as she called it.”

“Good for her,” Sara said, and raised her mug as if making a toast. “And what about Grandma?” 

“Similar sort of story. She left Grandpa on his own and went away to take care of her sick sister. I know it’s strange, but I don’t know what experiences they had.” 

“You’ve never talked about it?”

“No. We’re not that kind of family.”

Sara fiddled with her necklace absentmindedly. “Well, maybe it’s time you are. You never know, Mum might have some useful insights.” 


Marian stared at the words on her mobile, trying to make sense of what they said. She’d thought it best to try sending a text first. Her mother had a habit of manipulating telephone calls and steering the conversation how she wanted it. A text had seemed easier. More to the point. 

“Hi Mum. How are you? Sorry it’s been a while,” she’d typed. “I was wondering, can I talk to you about what you went through with the change? I think I might have started it myself.” 

She hadn’t expected such a speedy reply, and certainly not such an odd one. 

“Oh, dear. I’d hoped it would skip you.”

She’d replied straight away, “What do you mean?” 

Five minutes passed, but no response. With shaking hands, although she wasn’t sure why, she pulled up her mother’s number and pressed dial. The line rang and rang but remained unanswered. 

“Damn it! What are you playing at, Mum?”

“Call me, please,” she messaged back, before tucking the phone into a sports belt at her waist and pushing her headphones into her ears. It was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon. A run would help clear her mind.

She pulled on her sneakers, tied the laces tight and adjusted the hems of her leggings. The local park was only ten minutes away; she could take a brisk walk through suburbia and then run laps on the green. Five K to begin, maybe push it to ten if she still had something left in the tank. Her usual weekend exercise.

Lately, though, even ten K had felt easy. Her body felt stronger and more capable of being pushed to harder limits. She was curious just how long could she keep going. Before it felt even close to a challenge. 

She called out a goodbye to Emma and Paul and pulled the front door closed. All she had seen of George since she’d returned from Sara’s was his feet underneath the family SUV. He had grunted a half-hearted greeting and then sworn as he dropped his spanner. It had seemed best to leave him to it. 

Her walk had warmed her body up nicely by the time she reached the park gates. Surprisingly for such a lovely day, the green was almost empty. An older couple were walking together, and a young woman was doing timed sprints. She chose her favourite playlist on her phone, hit play, and began to run.

She was three laps down when she noticed him. A movement in the corner of her left eye.

He was running, not quite beside her, trying to match her pace. She was faster than he was with an easy rhythm, but him being so close made her wary. She sped up to increase the distance between them. He faltered for a second before doing the same, and she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. As she ran, she scanned the park for other people. The older couple were over on the other side now, and the woman appeared to have left. She glanced to her side to see his mouth move and realised he was trying to talk to her. She gestured to her headphones and shook her head, not even breaking her stride. Even this didn’t dissuade him. 

He was younger than her, mid-thirties, she supposed. Stocky and broad-shouldered, with long, blonde hair scraped back into a messy topknot. He wore a black singlet and baggy shorts, both of which showed off his impressive physique. 

A gym rat, she guessed, from his bulging muscles. Biceps and quadriceps gained from lifting weights, not from running laps. Nonetheless, he was clearly a capable runner, and eager to make her acquaintance. 

A few meters from the gate, she slowed and stopped, hoping he would carry on without her. Instead, he stopped too and carried on talking, standing far closer than she was comfortable. She yanked the headphones from her ears, felt her body tremble with adrenaline. 

“Step back!” she ordered him.

He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “—because your form is amazing and—” 

“I said, step back!” she repeated, holding out her arm. This time he reacted. 

“Woah, hold on. I was just…”

“I don’t care what you were doing. I was running and you got in my space. This park is massive, and you had no reason to do that. Now leave me alone and let me run in peace.”

“Jesus, lady. What’s wrong with you? I was complimenting you.”

“Yeah. I don’t need your compliments, thanks.”

She saw the change in his eyes, in his posture.

“Whatever. Fucking bitch.” He leaned forward and spat a glob of white foam. She watched as it arced, almost in slow motion, before coming to rest on her shoe. 

She couldn’t hear what it was he said after that over the shrill ringing that filled her ears. 

A red wave of rage rose and surged, filling her every muscle and sinew. Her heart boomed a heavy, hollow echo, deep inside her chest. She clenched her fists and tensed her jaw. All involuntary, uncontrollable reactions. Her skin felt taut, like a too-small jacket, restricting her every move. She longed to peel it off.

She could smell the stink of him filling the air, a heady mixture of musk and sweat. And something else, something rancid and overpowering. A scent that triggered startling emotions. Urges that she didn’t expect. 

“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” she growled, trying to keep her voice steady. There was no one else in the park now. Only him and her, alone. “I wish you’d just stepped back.” 


George and Paul had gone out to the hardware store by the time Marian returned home. Emma was engrossed in a teen drama on the TV and hardly bothered to acknowledge her presence. She hurried to the kitchen and flung open the fridge, ripping at the first packet she found. The cellophane tore and she bit into the contents; the juices dribbling down her chin. She sank to her knees and sprawled on the floor, chewing loudly, and groaning with pleasure. A noise from the doorway made her jump.

“Mum? Are you okay? Is that…?”

She realised, as if for the first time, what she was holding. Beefsteak. Bloody and completely raw, almost entirely devoured.

“Don’t worry, Emma,” she replied, her mouth crammed with chunks of unswallowed meat. “This happened when I was pregnant too. It’s just the change, you know? It’s just hormones.”


The alley by her office was cordoned off with yellow police tape when she arrived at work on Monday. Phyllis had texted to warn her, to tell her to use the back entrance through the takeaway. She held her breath as she walked; the stench of old oil made her feel sick. Phyllis greeted her at the door to the office. Her boss smelled even stronger than usual. 

“What happened out there?” Marian asked.

“Oh, it’s terrible. They found a body in the dumpster in the alley. The Sergeant said they’d probably been there all weekend. He wants us to make a statement in case we saw anything.” She paused, peering intently at Marian. “Did you see anything? When you left on Friday?”

“No. Nothing,” Marian lied, feeling the guilt rush to her cheeks. “So, what do they think? Drug addict? Homeless person? There’s a lot of both in this area.”

Phyllis’ face fell deadly serious. “They think it’s a murder.”

“A murder?” Marian put her handbag on the edge of her desk. “Gosh. What makes them think that?”

“Whoever it was, had been ripped to shreds. Deep cuts all over their face and neck. Their throat torn out as if by a wild animal. I saw fingers on the floor, bitten off at the knuckles. Black holes where their eyes should have been.” 

Marian squirmed uncomfortably. “How do you know all this?”

“I found the remains of them earlier this morning before I called it in. Anonymously, of course.”

“Oh, Phyllis! That must have been awful. Are you alright?”

“Of course I am. I’ve seen far worse.” 

“You’ve seen…” Marian trailed off as Phyllis took her hand in hers. 

“It’s okay, Marian. Whatever it was he did to you, I’m sure he deserved everything he got.”

“I don’t understand…” Marian began.

“Believe me, it took me by surprise too when it happened, but I can assure you, it gets better.”

“What gets better?” 

“The change, Marian! It happens to us all one way or another. Just for some of us, it’s a little more intense.” Phyllis stared at her. “Didn’t your mother talk to you about all this?”

Marian sighed. “No. She won’t even talk to me about it now.”

“Fourteen years you’ve been here, Marian, and I have loved every single moment of working with you. I suspected, of course, when I first met you. Your distinctive smell for a start.”

“My smell?” Marian parroted, incredulously. 

Phyllis smiled slowly and wafted a hand under her nose. “Breath in,” she said. Marian inhaled. There was that unmistakable musky aroma that she always noticed when Phyllis was around. Only now she recognised what it was. What it meant to her.

“Oh. You’re…” Marian began, and Phyllis nodded. 

“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s sit down together and have a nice cup of tea. It can be so difficult, going through this stage of life. Especially alone. I think it’s time someone told you the truth.” 

Bite-sized chunks of positivity

At the beginning of the year, much like a lot of other people I suspect, I made some resolutions. Small ones, that were attainable and non-stressful. More like mini-goals to be honest. The previous two years have been a bit of a challenge, to say the least. Last year I published a grand total of zero new stories, and this is the first year in five years I have nothing to put forward to be nominated for an award. That feels strange but also not completely unwelcome. As much as I would have preferred it to be via my own choice, I did need a break. So when it came to resolutions, I decided to keep things manageable and in bite-sized chunks. One of those little nibbles was to write a blog post at least once a month… I guess I’m just squeaking in there with that one! 

When I was trying to figure out what to write this blog post about, I found myself with lots of ideas but very little motivation. I wanted to write some essays again, maybe a short story or poem, but my brain is still a little unwell from everything that happened to it last year (TL/DR version: medical negligence via the dental profession, lots of pain, lots of trauma) and I am struggling to encourage it to “make the words good” right now. That will change, I am positive about it, but I do need to be kind to myself and be mindful of my limits. 

One thing I did find easy to do was get back into doing a Life Journal, which I actually started doing in 2020, and I credit it with keeping me grounded through the pandemic. In my Life Journal, I keep track of my moods, my sleep and my motivation levels. I set myself monthly goals and create bingo squares for certain skills. I permit myself to mess it up and be as rough and haphazard as I want to, so I don’t worry about keeping it neat and perfect. Perfection is the enemy of good, and in the past, I have been so anxious about “mucking it up” that I’ve ended up not writing anything. There are no rules for my Life Journal except one: check in every day. That check-in can be as simple as colouring a box to show how I am feeling and how much sleep I got the previous night, or it can be a long-form diary entry where I write and draw much more. Keeping it small and simple means I’m more likely to keep it up. And so far, for this month anyway, I have. 

It can be hard to get back into the swing of things that used to be so easy but have now become difficult. Hard to reclaim who we are after we have lost a part of ourselves. I spent a lot of time feeling sad and angry about what I’d lost, and the worst part of that was feeling like I couldn’t write anymore. I felt like something that really made me who I am had been taken away, and it terrified me. Especially as I was no longer sure about who I was. Giving myself that tiniest nudge to just scribble down a few thoughts and ideas, or make goals that mean I have to think beyond the immediate and believe in a future, has helped my brain feel so relieved. I know now a lot of the loss and despair was the trauma talking, and while that’s okay, being able to see what lay beyond that was important too. 

Although I haven’t written much, I have been keeping busy creatively in other ways. I discovered metal stamping last year and made a lot of cool bangles. I drew and painted (I even illustrated some book covers for other people), I decorated my writing room, I read a lot, walked even more, and took myself outside as much as I could. I’ve kept my body busy in the hope it would also exercise my mind, and I think that much is true. Something I did very recently, just this month, was to figure out how to make a pair of custom vampire dentures. It was a project I’d wanted to do for a while, and also helped me reclaim something from the trauma I went through. Also, they look fantastic!

My writing goals for 2024 are small and tentative. I really hope to finish Rabbit, and I have a few other shorts that have been buzzing around my brain for a while. I feel like it would be quite appropriate to put together a toothy horror collection, although I’m not sure how many people would actually be interested in that! (Although Little Teeth did get a very good reaction when it was released.) I’m not stressing about it though, in fact, I’m actually quite interested in seeing where things will lead me, even if that is not at all in the direction I was aiming for. If the past two years have taught me anything it’s to just keep going. I can stop, and I can (and should!) rest, but I won’t ever give up.

Here’s to the future, and hopefully a lot more “making the words good”!

A message to my future (present) self regarding the removal of all my adult teeth.

<Note: on the 9th November 2023 I had surgery to remove all my remaining adult teeth and replace them with dentures. This was due to the pain and trauma I had experienced over a period of 18 months at the hands of a dentist who removed a tooth in such a way that I experienced nerve damage, and carried out treatment on others that left me in so much pain they also had to be removed. The dentist then moved away from New Zealand, leaving me with some hefty dental bills, many other dental issues to resolve, and PTSD. I was subsequently let down by four other dentists before I eventually managed to find an amazing one who did his absolute best to fix all my issues. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the decision was made for a full plate clearance. I could write volumes about everything that has happened in 2022/2023, but I think it best not to dwell on that, and to round off the experience with this short, cathartic letter to myself.>

Dearest T,

You’re going to worry about this. A lot. Even when you don’t realise that you are, the thoughts will be buzzing around your brain almost constantly in the weeks running up to the surgery. You find out the date around six weeks before it is due to happen, which feels both far too long to wait and hardly any time at all. You’re in a lot of pain, especially in teeth that have had some recent (traumatic… failed…) work done. The only way to fix them is to take them out. The dentist asks you if you want to do it before the others, but you can’t face it then. Somehow it feels easier to just keep taking the painkillers like you have been for months, and know that the end is coming. 

You have a lot of email conversations with ACC who tell you they can’t pay for all of the surgery, the sedation and the dentures. You start a Givealittle page. You are completely blown away by the kindness of friends and strangers who raise over $2000 dollars so you can pay for your new teeth.

You cry a lot. But that’s not new. You’ve been crying a lot for a long time now. Just a few more weeks to go.

On the day of the surgery you feel worn out, mostly from lack of sleep and stress. The dentist, his assistant, and the anaesthetist are all truly lovely. They do everything they can to put you at ease. You explain you are more worried about the sedation than the procedure. They tell you that’s normal and to relax as much as possible. The anaesthetist puts the cannula in your arm and a pulse monitor on your finger. She adds the sedation medication and you can feel it flowing in your arm; cold and slightly painful, but it doesn’t last. She says, “you might be feeling some effects now,” and you can’t remember if you reply or not as suddenly the time has jumped and you’re aware of the dentist doing his job, but you don’t care in the slightest. You feel calm and relaxed and in no pain, and almost as soon as you realise you are in no pain it is time to get up as the procedure is over. 

The anaesthetist hands you two paracetamol and you dribble water all down yourself trying to take them, as you have no control over your jaw. You can feel the new dentures pressing on your gums. They feel huge and you’re not sure you can close your mouth properly. It doesn’t hurt much, but it does throb. You can feel your pulse in your non-existent teeth. Dave, your husband, drives you home. You lie on the sofa, too wired to rest, still in some sort of dazed state. You see yourself for the first time in the bathroom mirror, and you’re shocked at how swollen your face is. You don’t look like you. The teeth seem too big. You worry that you’ve made a mistake.

Week 1 you take so many painkillers you don’t remember most of what happens. You also take so many selfies, trying to get used to how you now look. You lie in the bath and smile at the camera and wonder who this person is on the screen. Your family say they can hardly see any difference, but to you, your reflection is alien. 

You see the dentist the day after the surgery so he can see how things are going. He asks you if you’re happy with how things look, and you tell him, to be honest, no. But everything is healing nicely and the dentures fit really well, so you have to trust that things will settle and improve. That you won’t feel this way forever. You feel cautiously optimistic, and relieved that the worst is over, but you’re also high a lot of the time, and thinking about anything is too hard. 

Week 2, the pain is different. It’s not like what you’ve been through in the last 18 months. It’s pain from a wound that is healing. It feels like it has an end. The dentures rub sore spots and ulcers, which drive you to distraction. It is normal, and you knew to expect it, but it’s difficult to endure. The dentist takes some of the plastic away, grinding it with a tool. It helps, but it’s still tiring. You feel sad, mostly. Exhausted. You question your choices and decisions. It’s hard to know what to eat, how to sleep. You can’t bear to look at your healing mouth, but you can feel hard lumps with your tongue. The dentist says it’s bone coming through. You choose to leave it as the gums might grow over it, the other option being to have it removed, and you can’t face that right now.

You have a call with your boss as you’ve decided to leave your job. She makes a comment on how you look and speak differently and you just laugh it off, but the words hit deep and it bothers you. Codeine is your friend still; it helps you sleep, helps you cope, helps you not lose your mind. The crying starts again.

Week 3 the bone is still coming through the gum. The dentist says it will be more comfortable to remove it, you agree, but you’re not quite prepared for the process. He uses bone cutters to remove the spurs. You get through the appointment and then fall apart. You can’t seem to control your moods. As always, the dentist is lovely and completely understands. But you’re tired of crying and feeling so weak. You wish you were stronger, more capable. 

A good friend reminds you of how much you’ve been through and the kindness you need to show yourself. Crying is not a weakness, they tell you, it is an honest expression of how you’re feeling. How you’re processing everything that has happened. You remind yourself of how you got through the worst of this last year, by reframing the situation. The events that led up to this decision are the result of someone else’s actions and mistakes. You have to think of it like a car accident, and the injuries are not your fault. You cannot control what has happened, but you can control how you go forwards now. 

You cut your hair and put on some makeup. You mess about with the clothes in your wardrobe. You take more selfies, and they seem better this time. The swelling has almost gone down. You look more like how you remember yourself, just with better teeth than you’ve ever had in your life. 

Week 4 and things are easing. You take less painkillers, and your gums are almost healed. You have a routine of washing and wearing the dentures, and you use denture paste to relieve the sore spots. You make a big bowl of pasta with grated cheese and you eat it while watching a comedy program. It is only after you’ve finished you realise you have eaten for the first time in the past few weeks without your whole focus being on eating. It still feels wrong sometimes, the dentures make some movements of your mouth unnatural and they often feel cumbersome and strange, but you’re getting more used to how they fit, and how you need to use the muscles of your jaw. 

You smile more and laugh easier. You make a joke in the pharmacy when she can’t understand you, and it feels okay, a little daft but not sad. You sneeze one morning and the top ones almost fly across the kitchen. Two weeks ago this would have made you miserable, now you just have to laugh. Bone spurs work their way out the gums and you don’t feel as shocked as you used to. It feels like someone has turned the difficulty down. You’re not playing on ‘hard mode’ anymore.  

One month exactly from the surgery date. It’s hard. Really hard. You still have off-days where you’re frustrated and unsure, and the dentures cause pain and you’re tired. But you’re coping. You’re adjusting. You’re winning. You don’t regret the decision you made, even if you wish you hadn’t had to make it. 

An online friend posts a quote from The Lord of the Rings, and it hits you right in the heart.

Frodo says, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

You know very deeply how Frodo feels, but also understand Gandalf‘s response. You’ve been given more time than you thought you had. Time that is pain and trauma free. You thought at one point this would have no end, that you would have to endure the aftermath forever. You thought you would hate the dentist who did this to you always… and you will! But you will also learn to let that hatred go and live a good life. He’s not important to your story anymore. 

There is still a lot to overcome and get used to. Gum heals quickly, in a matter of weeks, bone takes many months. Your mind may take much longer still. But that’s okay. Just keep going. You’re doing so, so well, and I’m really proud of you.  

“Little Teeth” (short story, body horror)

First published in Twisted Anatomy, Sci-Fi & Scary, 2021 
https://www.amazon.com.au/Twisted-Anatomy-Body-Horror-Anthology-ebook/dp/B08TGCND39

Republished in Reflections, Wild Wood Books, 2022

eBook free to download at:
BookFunnel: BookHip.com/HCZWBQW
Smashwords: bit.ly/TWreflections

Content warnings: depicts body horror, dental trauma and self-harm, profane language


Her tongue finds it first, by accident, as she runs it, absentminded, across her gums. It feels massive, a gigantic protrusion. An unexpected fresh addition in her mouth, nestled behind her front tooth. 

She turns to the mirror, wide and backlit by an array of high-strength bulbs. She opens her mouth and leans back, back. So far, it feels uncomfortable. But even at this angle, she can’t see. She rummages in her handbag for her powder compact, puts the second mirror to her mouth, and tilts it to forty-five degrees. She peers at her reflection; searching, intent. Then she spots it. A tiny, white pustule, no bigger than a pinhead, poking through the pink skin of her palate. She picks at it with a fingernail, curious but perturbed. It’s something new. Something wrong. Something… alien.

“Katy, what the hell are you doing in there?” A shout of frustration is echoed by a thump, an assault on the hardwood of the door. “Damn it, Katy. You’re already late. Come on!” 

Daniel, her long-time assistant and onetime bed-fellow. Much more than a lover, but not quite a true friend. Their relationship is complicated by work. He is diligent and useful but always so anxious. Such a slave to the clock and calendar. She suspects that he’s in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. She can’t bring herself to lower her boundaries. To give someone else her trust. 

She grimaces and presses her lips tight together, then closes her eyes and exhales. She will take exactly as long as she needs. She can’t be late, it’s simply impossible. The show cannot start without its star. 

She brushes an imaginary speck off her pantsuit and checks the line of her scarlet lipstick. She runs her fingers through her dyed blonde hair, and flicks her head so it cascades around her shoulders. These are meaningless gestures, of course. She looks totally fine, perfect even. The flawless, gorgeous face of ‘Petals and Pearls’ cosmetics. Well… ex-face. Now, the inimitable Katy du Campos; talk show host, actress, television producer and celebrity. 

“Katy! Get out, now!”

She unlocks the door and opens it and is greeted by a raised fist. Daniel yelps and pulls back mid-knock, thrusts his palms to his sides.

“Darling!” she says, with saccharine sweetness, laced with a deliberate smile. “Whatever are you so wound up about? I’m right here.”

Daniel groans and waves a piece of paper in her face.

“D’Nae is waiting onstage already. Tarah Johnson, the writer, is next, and then you’ve got a heart-to-heart interview with…”

“With Sir Robert Flanagan. Yes, darling. I know my schedule.” She sweeps past him in a wave of warm scent and soft fabric and pauses before she heads to the stage door. “Oh, Daniel, could you be a dear and book me in to see Frederick as soon as possible?” 

Daniel stalls, his expression blank. She sighs. 

“My dentist, Daniel. Thank you.” Then she turns and struts away down the hallway. 

The strange lump is not bothersome, at least, it doesn’t hurt in any way, but she finds herself frequently pressing on it with the flat part of her tongue. It feels so much bigger than she knows it is, an intrusion in her personal space.

Daniel does his job and arranges an appointment, but Frederick Wahls is enjoying fine weather further south on his favourite golf course. There is a wait; five days. She is enraged. 

“God damn it, Daniel! Five days? Five fucking days!”

“He’s in another State, Katy. What do you expect me to do? Demand he cuts his vacation short just for you?” 

“I expected you to express the urgency, Daniel. To do your damn job! Not blithely assume that five days is an acceptable delay. For God’s sake…” 

“I’m sorry…” he begins, but she raises her palm as well as her eyebrows and he falls into a guilty silence. 

“Enough. I suppose I shall simply have to wait, won’t I? No thanks to you.” She waves to the door, dismissing him. Doesn’t even watch him leave. 

She pours herself a glass of neat Scotch, sips it, and runs her tongue around her mouth. The lump has grown, almost pea-sized now, and appears to be echoed by a second. Tiny, yet solid. A faint swelling behind her incisor.  

At least it’s hidden inside, she thinks, as she drains the glass in one deep swallow. No one else can see that it’s there. Nobody knows but me.

Three days until her appointment and she knows she can’t wait any longer. Five lumps of various shapes and sizes crowd together on the roof of her mouth. It’s too much. She cannot bear it. 

Daniel calls the practice again for her. There is another dentist she can see as an emergency patient. To hell with the cost. She accepts the appointment, and in a few hours, she is lying backwards in a black, vinyl chair. 

The dentist, Erin, is young and pretty. Barely a few years older than Katy’s own daughter. Around the same age as her ex-husband’s new wife. Her teeth are so perfect and so blindingly white, they look almost unreal. Katy hears the snap of latex gloves, prepares herself for their touch. She’s always detested the feel of them. Clammy without being wet. When they catch her lips and brush her cheeks, it sets her teeth on edge. It’s a visceral feeling she can’t control. It makes her want to vomit. 

“Okay, Katy, if you can just relax and open up a little wider for me?” The dentist rubs her fingers across the nodules. Katy breathes deeply and tries not to recoil. Resists the urge to bite down. Next comes a succession of lights and mirrors, of tools and more exploratory touch. Finally, satisfied, Erin rights the chair and brings Katy up to her level. She removes the gloves and tosses them in the trash, then flashes her sparkling grin. 

“Well, Katy, the good news is I don’t think this is anything to worry about. It appears you are experiencing some kind of hyperdontia.” She sees Katy’s confusion and explains. “It’s when you grow some extra teeth. But these aren’t real teeth. These are more what we would call microdonts. They share some physical similarities with fully formed teeth, but they don’t have quite the same root structure. We’ll take an X-ray just to be sure, and I suspect the next step will be a simple extraction.”

Katy listens, but the words confuse her. Erin’s voice seems odd and unclear, like she’s speaking from the bottom of the ocean. New teeth. Growing new teeth. She fumbles for the words she needs. 

“How is this even possible?” she asks. “I’m forty-seven, for Heaven’s sake. I’m far too old to be growing teeth!” 

Erin chuckles. “Not at all. There are quite a few reasons why it might occur. Do you have any underlying conditions? Any genetic disorders or the like?”

Now it’s Katy’s turn to laugh as she says, “Good God, no. Absolutely not.” She’s in fine health. There’s nothing underlying in her.

The dentist’s expression turns suddenly strange, like she’s swallowed something distasteful. Katy wonders what she’s said that could have possibly offended her. But it passes swiftly, and the girl smiles again.

“Okay, well, let’s do an X-ray and we can get a better idea of what’s going on.” She holds out a small metal pan and gestures to the diamonds in Katy’s ears. “I’m going to need you to remove your jewellery, please.”

“Oh,” Katy says, and puts her hands to the studs. “I’ve never had to take them out before.”

“That’s probably because you only had bite-wing X-rays previously. I’d like to do a full, extra-oral one to check out your whole jaw. I’m afraid your earrings might affect the results. They could hide things we need to see.”

Katy plucks at the backs with nervous fingers. These adornments aren’t just any old studs, they are valued antiques. Her ex had gifted them to her on their third wedding anniversary. Two carat princess-cut diamonds set in fourteen carat white gold. Twelve thousand dollars’ worth of sophistication and style. He’d wanted them back in the messy divorce, but Judge Henson had overruled him. It was an amusing, joyous win for her, and a slap in the face for him. She is reticent to remove them, and she certainly won’t entrust them to a stranger. Sticky fingers might be tempted to touch what’s not theirs. Lessons learned from leaving items in old dressing rooms. 

“I’d rather keep them in.”

“I’m concerned we might not get a clear picture. You can hold on to them yourself if you prefer?”

“No. They stay in,” she says resolutely, and glares at Erin, daring the girl to counter her decision. It’s the principle of the thing that matters to her. The dentist nods, tight-lipped. 

“Okay. That’s your choice,” she says. “Now, if you’d follow me to the X-ray room?” 

They walk together down the corridor. Erin moves faster, a few paces ahead. The radiography machine is much larger than Katy is expecting. She is required to stand in front of it while its structure surrounds her head. It feels ridiculous and more than a little claustrophobic. 

“You said you were forty-seven?” Erin asks her.

“Yes.”

“So, no chance of pregnancy?” The question stings, although Katy isn’t sure if it’s meant to. You’re old, it says. Washed up and infertile. No room in that womb for new life. More than that, it’s a sharp reminder that she’s never had that experience, and now she never will. Too posh to push, but a mother nonetheless. Mellie was born via a surrogate. She’s often wondered if that’s why they’d struggled to connect. Why the girl always seemed to prefer her father. 

“No,” she replies through gritted teeth. “I’m not pregnant.” Erin nods and moves her gently closer to the machine.

“Stay still,” she says, and Katy hears the low hum of what she assumes is the machine powering up. Then Erin leaves the room and there’s a heavy clunk and more noise, but this time it’s like a haze of sound. She’s disoriented for a moment, feels pressure in her head, then Erin’s cupped hands on her shoulders.

“Katy? Miss du Campos? Are you okay?” 

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” The dentist’s face seems somewhat pale. Her tone is different. Concerned.

“Come on back to my room, Katy,” she says quietly. “We need to discuss your X-ray.”

Daniel arrives in a private car, not one sent by the studio. She called him, not knowing who else to trust. Hysteria makes her voice sound shrill. He’s never heard her unravel quite like this, and he comes as quickly as he can. He runs red lights and pushes the speed limit. Skids as he takes corners in the rain. 

She is waiting down the street from the dental clinic, sheltered from the weather beneath an awning, and smoking a menthol cigarette. She flicks the end with a nervous thumbnail, and a grey snake of ash falls to the ground. 

“I thought you’d quit?” Daniel comments.

“I thought I had too,” she replies, and puts herself in the passenger side of the car. He is surprised. She usually prefers the back seat. “Come on,” she urges, and he joins her, taking his place behind the wheel. 

They drive in silence but for the swish of the wipers sweeping away the drizzle off the glass. He finds the quiet disconcerting. She’s never normally lost for words. He clears his throat and attempts a conversation.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” he asks.

“About what?” she replies and averts her gaze. 

“Whatever it is, that’s got you so upset.”

“I’m not upset. Why would you say I’m upset?”

“Katy, please. I know you. Just… Know that I’m listening, okay?” 

She chews a hangnail absentmindedly. Yelps when she pulls it too close to the quick. He can see the tension in her shoulders. The muscles in her jaw pulse and twitch. 

“Katy…?”

“I’m fine, Daniel. Really.” 

The rainfall grows heavier, leaving patterns on the windows as the droplets race down the glass. She watches the rivulets run into one another, like the thin tears rolling down her cheeks. 

She remembers the image the dentist had shown her. The shock and surprise in her voice. The X-ray, which Katy could scarcely believe was real, let alone belonging to her. It was like something from a freak show in a carnival. From an Internet hoax, intended to disturb. From the very worst horror movie she’d ever seen. So grotesque, it couldn’t possibly be true. 

The image; her jaw in black and white, teeming with unusual white space. Rows upon rows of tiny tooth buds scattered inside her skull. Clusters layered within her jaw. Circling both nasal cavities. They were there, in her bones, waiting to erupt. Like parasites buried in her head. 

The house is quiet when she enters, made dark and still by the storm. Hestia and Artemis, her two Blue Pointed Siamese, are curled up asleep in their basket, oblivious to her return. She sent Daniel away as soon as she could. Not ready to talk. To remember.

Her smartwatch vibrates on her wrist and she flinches, but it’s just a reminder alarm. Time for her daily vitamins. An attempt to stay healthy and well. 

Mellie always said that they were useless. A waste of money. A con. 

“Eat less crap, and move your body more,” she’d said scornfully. “That’s the key to a good life, Mother. Not these stupid, expensive placebos.” But Mellie was still in her twenties, and for her, looking good was almost effortless. Such careless ease was just a memory to Katy. Good genes could only go so far. It took piles of money and lots of hard work to maintain her flawless appearance. 

 A well-meaning acquaintance at the studio had found her this particular brand. Only the purest organic ingredients. The best supplement money could buy. High in calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. All essential for women her age. But the real beauty, the woman had told her, was their secret, unique formula; an elixir that could regenerate old bone. And the proof certainly seemed to be in the pudding. The woman’s hair was thick, shiny and lustrous, and her skin was so clear and dewy it almost seemed to glow. She was lithe and supple, her movements graceful. She didn’t make any of those strange, strangled noises like Katy often did when she stood up after she’d been sitting for too long. 

Katy had been immediately envious. She knew the woman had eight years on her but could easily pass for ten younger. She’d bought the entire selection, taken double the recommended dose. She’d been far too gullible, too trusting. Impatient to reap the rewards. 

And now? Could they be the cause of her misery? She regards the two pink pills in her palm and tips them back into the bottle. She takes her phone from her handbag and scrolls through her contacts. Finds the one she needs. The line rings and rings but doesn’t connect. An automated voicemail springs to life, and she speaks as requested after the beep.

“Helen? Hi! This is Katy. Katy du Campos. We met at the studio. I’m just…” she trails off. Just what? 

Just calling to see if those pills we’re both taking have turned you into a medical anomaly? A freak of nature? A monster? 

No. 

Just wanted to know if you knew the risks? Or if maybe you lied to me and sold me down the river, you washed-up, jealous, old bitch? 

Definitely not. 

“Never mind. Call me.” She says. She puts the phone down on the breakfast bar and tries to will her heartbeat to slow down. Around and around her gums, her tongue goes, and she feels the irregularities in her skin. Counts them… One… Two… Five… Thirteen… Some tiny, some not so much. 

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Erin had said. Complex odontoma. Teratomas. A monstrous tumour. Then the C word no one ever wants to hear. Finally, talk of an operation. Of removal. Of some further study. And she had practically run from the clinic right then. The hideous image of the X-ray burned in her mind. 

She pours a drink and runs her fingers through her hair. Tries to smooth away some of her tension. Her left eye feels scratchy, as if irritated by an eyelash. She rubs it with a fingertip and freezes. In the corner, near the tear duct, she feels something solid. She screams like her life is in danger.

Daniel tries to call her multiple times through the evening and across the following two days. She doesn’t pick up. She can’t pick up. She spends the hours drowning in alcohol.

The dental clinic calls her too. They leave many messages that she won’t listen to. She deletes each one as they come in. She is terrified of what they might say. They’ll want to break her open, she knows. To cut into her face. 

She is startled in the morning by a buzz at the gate. She sees Daniel outside on the security camera feed, waving at the house.

“Go away,” she tells him over the intercom. “I want to be left alone.” But he refuses.

“If you won’t let me in, I’ll find a way to gain access, whether you like it or not,” he says. She doesn’t doubt it. He can be as stubborn as she is. 

He finds her in the dark with all the house blinds closed. A scarf has been thrown over the oversize mirror mounted in the open hallway. She has draped another over her head. She looks utterly ridiculous, he thinks. He notes the open and empty bottles, the cigarette butts crushed in a crystal bowl. He sees a metal toolbox on the floor by the fireplace. Open and spewing its contents. A hammer. Some pliers. A drill. There’s a pile of towels dumped on the floor too. Brown stains. Is that coffee? Or blood? 

“What the hell’s been going on, Katy? Why aren’t you answering your phone? I’ve had Stuart Valliant from the network breathing down my damn neck all of yesterday, and I had no idea what to tell him. I really hope you’ve got a good explanation!”

She makes her usual hand-raised gesture, demanding his silence and attention. He’s too angry, too confused, too tired to care. He’s had enough of her theatrics.

“And what the fuck is with the scarf on your face?” He goes to grab the material, to pluck it from her head, and she shies away from his touch. Her hip collides with the breakfast bar, and she grunts and stumbles before steadying herself. 

“Don’t,” she says, and her voice sounds strange. Muffled by the fabric, and something else. She sounds like his young nephew does when he sucks on a giant gobstopper. The candy too large for his mouth. 

“Are you sick?” He asks her, a little calmer. “Is that what’s wrong?” She nods and lets out a strangled cry.  

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” 

She shakes her head and wrings her hands. “It won’t help,” she garbles. “It’s too late.” 

She removes a Marlboro from the carton with shaking fingers and goes to put it to her lips. But she forgets about the scarf that’s in the way. A silken barrier that denies her her craving. She throws the cigarette to the floor, enraged. 

“Katy,” Daniel says slowly. “I’m worried about you. Take the scarf off, please. Let me see?” She replies with a furious shake of her head and backs away from him, arms outstretched. “Come on, Katy! How bad can it be?”

“I wanted to take them out myself,” she mumbles. “I couldn’t bear it, you know? Them being there. All of them under my skin. And the itching and the pressure… Oh!” She grows more agitated as she speaks, paces back and forth. “I tried, Daniel. I really tried. But I can’t… I got one. Just one. But there’s so many more!”

“What is? What are you talking about?”

She picks up a glass and upends it. Tips something into her hand. She passes it to him, something small and hard. A tiny round shape in his palm.  

“Will you help me, Daniel? To get them all out?” And then he realises what she’s given him.

“A tooth? You took out a tooth?” But this is too small for an adult tooth. Perhaps it’s one of Mellie’s baby teeth she’s kept. But why? Is this a prank?

“What is this?” He demands. “What the fuck’s going on?” And she sighs deeply and pulls at the corner of the scarf. The material ripples and flows like water, revealing the horrors beneath. 

From every orifice, and across both of her cheeks, pale pustules erupt and spread. Her eyes are swollen, her lips malformed. Her nostrils are wide and stretched. What skin remains is pinched and torn, freckled by tiny, white dots. 

‘Will you help me?” she asks him a second time. Her jaw is crammed with lumps of enamel. Her tongue encrusted with pearls. 

A wave of uncontrollable nausea hits him. He vomits on the floor. On his shoes. 

“How?” he begins, but he can’t go on.

“The dentist, that new girl, she X-rayed me. I thought she was lying. I wanted her to be lying. Oh God, Daniel! If the press gets hold of that picture… You know I can’t let anyone see me like this. These things, they’re in here,” she says, pointing to her skull. “They’re growing. And I don’t know why!” 

She scurries to the fireplace and picks up the drill, proffers it to him with a misshapen smile. One eye is closed, the eyeball obscured, both lids weighted down and distended. He sees buds of ivory peek through her hair, a broad line of sharp points at her scalp. There’s a ragged hole in the lower part of her cheek, plugged with blood that has dried almost black. It looks like a grotesque beauty mark. A dark chasm from which her sanity has fled.  

“Help me, Daniel,” she pleads. “There’s just so many. I can’t… Please?” And he takes the drill from her hands. 

Love Song for the Dead

(First published The Dead Inside, 2022)


I put your letters in the closet 

with my old school shoes,

eleven years and seven moons ago.

I vowed to keep them hidden, 

pushed as far back as they could go,

boxed up with the memories they held.

But memory finds me waiting, 

poised to act in haste and fear, and 

memory is a poison in my blood.

Like an infection in a wound 

that took too long to fully heal,

a kiss was all it took to make it spread.

A scorpion’s sting of devilry,

you found a chink and took the plunge,

pierced my armoured heart until I wept.

O, deliver me from evil. Scrub this stain,

sins of my past. Where am I now?

A million miles from where you left me. 

Abandoned at the roadside, 

tossed aside, dumped at the curb,

you ran alone and ran away. I couldn’t follow.

While you were hounded from your home

I held my tongue and closed my eyes, although…

the taste of you still lingered on my lips.

And shamed, I confessed all, 

to black ink pools, and shadowed graves.

I howled into the wind and cursed the night.

My pockets full of rocks, a weight that pressed, 

and I, undressed, prepared to walk, 

and send my bones beneath. But stalled.

Now, hush…

These secrets sewn in lips that lied, 

like I laid down beside you, 

I swiped the tears away and washed you clean.

Those faded scars upon my flesh –

a map that led me home again –

I built my dreams on stories that weren’t mine.

And he, with hands of stone and blood, 

became the wall around me, stood as a

protection and a curse; a hidden bruise.

I paid the toll with white lace hems, 

a hundred guests caught in pretence 

I held my breath and caged my wicked truth.

He hammered nails into my chest, 

my bed was made, and so I gave

my all as it was ever asked of me. 

He. Took. My. Very. Soul. From. Me.

Carved up, dug in, spooned out and hollowed,

Pumpkin, sweetie, honey pie…

“Bring me another beer. Bitch.”


And I, lost in my pain, looked up 

to find you come upon my step,

star-swaddled, haloed by a half-draped moon.

You took my hand and whispered,

“Run…” 

God knows I’ve made enough mistakes. But this?

Bar lights, Coors Lights, bright neon signs, 

flashing like a firework and a pulse inside my head, 

with a warmth upon my skin that spreads like oil.

A shark-toothed smile, a tilted head. 

But that’s not who I am now, did you forget?

You left me here to rot. 

And if he knows, if he finds out, 

it won’t be bruises, but hot copper in my mouth.

And fire burst between my legs, 

as he pummels all his hatred and

six drinks down, I know it’s time to 

Stop!

For all the words would ruin me,

and all the sins would burn me,

and God will never, ever take me back. 

Your dimples, crinkles, gold-flecked eyes,

Like hazel drowned in chocolate, I

yearn for that forbidden, shameful taste. 

You always brought such drama, and

I was drawn to the despair

The tragedy you craved a centre stage for.

You dressed everything in fantasy, 

I was just your Page,

but soft, you know full well how this must end.

“We won’t look back?” I ask you, 

and your answer strips me raw,

we leave that place united, star-crossed lovers evermore.

See now, a mouth filled with surprise 

and questions left unanswered. 

A blade is buried in the flesh, 

clear water blessed with blood.

In black ink pools, a shadowed grave, 

a body buried under.

Like letters hidden, tucked away, 

boxed up and bound with tape,

my old school shoes are long gone now

sunk deep beneath the lake.

Sir Julius Vogel Awards—finalist!

I was delighted to receive an email this afternoon to let me know that I am a Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist for the 4th year running!

This year I have been successful in two categories:

Best Collected Work: Reflections

Best Fan Writing: “No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary”

The finalists will be voted on by members of SFFANZ and the winners announced at a ceremony later this year.

This also means that all of my self-published collections are SJV finalists!

REFLECTIONS, a new ebook

It’s been a very strange year. I definitely did not think I would manage to get *anything* done, let alone actually put out another collection. Plans and goalposts have been moved around and cancelled, and I almost gave up completely after my laptop ate my WIP!

Despite all that, REFLECTIONS has been born, and I have decided to release it for free to whoever is interested. This is my present to you, my dear readers, for sticking with me even though I have been very much M.I.A. this year.

You can download an ePub, Mobi or PDF via BookFunnel at: https://BookHip.com/HCZWBQW

Or an ePub via Smashwords at: https://bit.ly/TWreflections where you can, if you wish to, Pay What You Want.

Happy holidays, and thank you for your support. ~ TLWood.

Short Story: “Long Drop”

To celebrate SEEDS receiving its (amazing!) third award nomination of the year, this time from the Ladies of Horror Fiction for Best Collection, I have decided to make one of the most talked about and much-loved stories in the collection free-to-read for a limited time.

Edit: this story was also selected at the very end of 2022 as a finalist for the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award for Disability in Speculative Fiction. https://file770.com/announcing-the-emeka-walter-dinjos-memorial-award-for-disability-in-speculative-fiction/

Described by author and editor Steve Dillon, who first published it in 2020 as “strange but beautiful,” “Long Drop” had been in my head for a while before I wrote it down, probably since I first visited New Zealand and experienced using these terrifying outside toilets myself. While it does indeed include some scary monsters, the story itself is about resilience, family and fresh starts—finding strength in dark times (literally and mentally) and overcoming your greatest fears. 

Content warnings:

  • Traumatic childhood experiences 
  • Divorce and parental guilt 

© Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2021
This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.

First published in Outback Horrors Down Under, Things in the Well Press, 2020
Reprinted in SEEDS, Wild Wood Books, 2021


Many hours have passed since we first set out, yet we have a long journey still ahead of us. The sun has shrunk and slipped down past our backs, letting twilight take over as our guide. We have travelled a labyrinth of unknown roads. Blue lines on the map like swollen veins as Aotearoa pulls us closer to its heart. I’ve been driving too long, overdue for a break. I pull over by the edge of the highway.

Away from the car, I breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of the earth. The air sings softly in a rolling sigh, high notes of the summer’s end. Here, Mother Nature swaddles the countryside in a blanket of her own making. Her patchwork pieces are bound and sewn, pulled tight with living threads. Every tree and leaf is a fevered stitch, embroidered on the tapestry of the land.

I am at peace here. I belong. I—

“Mummy! I need a wee!”

I am snatched from my moment of blissful calm and plunged back into reality. My stomach lurches and sinks to my groin. I feel tired, as I have for so long now. A tiredness that resides in the marrow of my bones and cannot be relieved by sleep. A painful, ever constant knot of anxiety grips my stomach with a million claws. It feels like a tiny demon, desperate to be freed.

I look back to the car. I can see her wriggling in frustration, enraged by the restraints of her seat. She grumbles and moans as she plucks at the straps. Her mouth is ringed with melted chocolate, a pink slash in a thick, brown smear. It was a mistake for me to leave her unattended.

She pushes the fingers of one chubby hand through the open gap in the window and starts tugging on the edge of the glass. She is small but determined, and her anger makes her stronger. I take a final drag on my cigarette before stamping it out in the dirt. I give the view one last wistful, loving glance, trying to hold it like a snapshot in my mind, and trudge back to the car.

Be grateful for the little things. Remember these moments. Don’t take anything for granted.

My grandmama’s words. A storyteller, just like I used to be. Always seeking out a fairy tale, hearing whispers on the wind.

I press the button on the key fob to unlock the car doors. I join her on the back seat and start cleaning her face with a wet wipe.

“Hi, sweetie,” I begin, trying to keep my tone soft, as mellow as I can. “You know, we’re out in the middle of nowhere here. You’ll have to go in the bushes, I’m afraid.”

She begins to whine, just as I feared she would. 

“No, Mummy! I can’t! You know I can’t do it outside!”

“I’m sorry, my love, but there’s not much choice. Not unless you can hold on and I can drive a bit further? Maybe we can find a toilet somewhere?”

She glares, swallows a giant gulp of air and holds it defiantly. Her cheeks puff out and her face turns bright red. I hate it when she does this. Her way of protesting when I do something she doesn’t like. Of holding me to ransom until I surrender to her demands. I need to intervene, and quickly. I bring up the maps app on my phone, use my thumb to scroll around the local area.

“Look, honey, there’s a look-out point a little further along this road. Overlooking a waterfall. There might be something you can use there. How does that sound?”

She flares her nostrils and her eyeballs bulge. I know she is only moments from a full meltdown.

Keep calm. Keep calm. Breathe…

“Come on, sweetie,” I plead. “You’re a big girl now. You can hold on a little while longer, can’t you?”

She locks eyes with me and narrows the lids. It is a competition now, to see who can be the most stubborn. She knows that if she digs her heels in, I will have little choice but to acquiesce. Alternatively, if she agrees to my suggestion, she will lose this battle, but will not have to suffer the gross indignity of urinating outside. I am grateful that she seems to have grown out of deliberately wetting herself to punish me. Even for her, that was a step too far.

I watch her. Thinking. Eventually, she exhales and breathes normally again. Her cheeks return to their usual colour.

“Okay, Mummy. Fine,” she huffs. “But you need to drive quick. Really, really quick!”

I nod and smile and strap myself in. I avoid looking at her in the rear-view mirror for fear my fake smile might betray me. That I might show the frustration and despair I feel. I don’t tell her the public convenience is most likely to be a long drop all the way out here. A pit toilet. Nothing more than a deep hole dug in the ground connected to a U-shaped seat. I know she won’t like it any more than doing her business amongst nature. I hope I can distract her. I pray I can keep her calm.

I start to drive. I can hear her humming to herself, the same tune over and over again. Some nonsensical ditty about a baby shark. I recognise it as a song from a TV show, watched on repeat until I felt like screaming. Felt like it, but never did. I would swear she knew, I would see it in her eyes, watching my reactions and the changes in my face. Jonah had always told me to ignore such behaviour. He made me feel like I should be grateful. At least those insipid videos kept her from flying into a rage. Her frequent, violent outbursts. Not that he ever experienced them as I did. No, for him she’d been a Golden Child. A perfect Daddy’s girl. She’d always been so very well behaved when he was around. It makes me sad he isn’t anymore.

I wonder if he’d believed me when I told him about the things she did.

“I fell in love with you for your imagination,” he said, not long before he left. “But you have to embellish everything. You can’t ever just let things be.”

It was easier for him to call me a liar. So much harder to face the truth.

My eyes mist over with emotion. This road is twisty and unfamiliar to me, and I blink and try to focus up ahead. I spy the brown sign as I guide the car around another corner:

Scenic lookout 400m on left.

I slow down and indicate. There’s nothing behind me. Not a single vehicle has passed us in over thirty minutes, but ten years of city driving has ensured the habit is ingrained.

“Not much longer now, baby. Are you okay?”

She ignores me completely and carries on humming, perhaps a little louder. I glance into the rear-view mirror; her eyes are closed, her head tilted back. She appears oblivious to everything around her, unaware even of me.

I take the slip road and head for the rough gravel carpark. It’s empty like the highway. The car skids a little on the loose stones as the tyres lose their grip. I see a wooden shack at the end of the path. A blue sign mounted on the side confirms it as a toilet, and I park as close to it as I can. She is surprisingly heavy for her small size. I won’t be able to carry her far.

I kill the engine, get out, and open the rear side door. She pulls at the seatbelt and jiggles impatiently as I unclip her and lean inside. I slip one arm underneath her legs, the other around her shoulders. I breathe heavily as I struggle to lift her to my chest. She could help me, make this farce a little easier, but she never does. Instead, she lets herself become dead weight, her face so blank it might as well be wooden.

There is nothing physically wrong with her. She could walk quite well if she chose to. She has simply chosen not to.

Every doctor Jonah and I approached declared her fit and healthy. No underlying cause or problems with her legs. She had merely decided one grey, wind-swept morning, at age three and a half, that she would no longer walk. Not just that, she would not crawl, roll, or otherwise move herself anywhere. Instead, she screamed and raged and thrashed around until someone picked her up and carried her to wherever she wanted to be. Someone being me.

That was almost three years ago. I’ve been carrying her ever since.

Jonah bought her a wheelchair, perhaps hoping it might spark some surge of independence, but she refused to use it unless he was there too, and it was not possible for him to be there all the time. 

Things changed. The myriad of life’s pressures ground our relationship to dust. He fell in and then out of love. We are not his only family now.

I grunt with exertion as I slide her across the seat and towards the open door. She is still humming, but at least her eyes are open now. She fixes me with a dead-eyed stare and does nothing to help me at all. Her arms flop, fishlike, against her sides and I have to pull them around my shoulders as if manhandling an oversize rag doll. I feel my muscles scream as my back is jarred and my neck is twisted to one side.

Give me strength, I mutter. Please, God. Give me strength.

At last, I get her out of the car, and she holds on to me, albeit half-heartedly. I dropped her once by accident, and it surprised us both. She was unhurt, although the fury she unleashed might have suggested otherwise. Ever since, she loops both arms around my neck and locks the fingers of both hands together, just like the long-limbed plush monkey she has, with Velcro patches on its paws. She tries to make it seem like she is indifferent, but I know that’s not true. She doesn’t trust me not to let her fall again. I understand. Sometimes I’m not so sure I trust myself.

I step backwards and push the door closed with my hip. The key fob is buried deep in my pocket and I struggle to lock the car. It’s illogical, I know. We are the only ones here. But we have all our luggage stuffed in the boot and spread across the back seats. Our whole life is crammed in this shiny blue Mazda, and I don’t want to take any chances. My therapist tells me I worry too much, but I don’t know how else to be.

Jonah is in Auckland, at the top of the North Island. He’s found us a brand-new house. It’s a mere three minutes away from where his new wife lives with their newborn twins. I don’t blame him for leaving us. We could never have been what he wanted, but I couldn’t let him just walk away. She’s his daughter too.

A new house is only part of the deal. He has promised me help, and regular respite. Something he never gave me before. It is a fresh start and a brand-new life. Of course, there were bound to be obstacles.

She refused to fly. There was absolutely no way I could get her on a plane without resorting to some level of sedation. As tempting as that initially seemed, I could not bring myself to do it. She would know what I’d done, and I feared the repercussions. I doubt I could have handled my guilt. Instead, we compromised; Jonah agreed to hire a car, and I agreed to drive. Six hundred and fifty kilometres. Over eight hours on the road. I could have broken it up, stayed a night in a motel, but that wouldn’t have gone smoothly either.

We set off at eight this morning. We still have a long way to go. It is already getting dark, thanks to the clocks going back. I have no choice, I’ll have to drive through the night.

Like an awkward, unsteady Madonna with child, I stumble slightly as my feet slip on the gravel. Her humming skips a beat. Perhaps she is fearful of another imminent tumble, but I remain upright and head slowly towards the shack. The air feels heavy, just like her. I wheeze with each step as I walk. I shouldn’t smoke so much, I know. Another mess Jonah got me into.

A skittering and rustling is coming from the bushes, an animal of some sort, I assume. A possum perhaps, or a large, native bird, back late to its nesting spot. The leaves part briefly and then snap closed. I can see nothing further in the half-light.

We reach the wooden building and I use my foot to push open the door. It creaks a little, and offers some resistance, as if it were being pushed back on from the inside. I kick it harder and it swings free. There is no light inside. It takes a moment for my eyes to get used to the gloom and confirm what I suspected. A long drop. Not a bad one, however, with a decent seat and a reasonable supply of toilet paper. It could be so much worse.

“Okay, sweetie. Here we are. I’m going to put you down now and we can get you sorted.” I bend slightly and set her feet on the floor in front of the toilet. I feel her weight shift as she lets go. She wobbles slightly but stands upright. Her legs are weak, but they are not useless. They can still bear her weight.

She would often sneak around our old apartment when she thought I was asleep. I would lie in bed and listen to the muted rustle of her slippered tread scuffing the laminate floor. I could have caught her out, but why bother? Far less stressful for me to let her believe she had the upper hand.

I take my phone out of my pocket, switch on its torch and balance it on the toilet paper holder. Immediately, the shack is smothered in shadows. The tiny light is far too weak to fill the space. She stands motionless, watching me for a moment, before twisting her head to look behind her. I try to catch her cheek with my fingers, to stop her before she sees the drop, but I’m too slow. She starts to whine.

“No, Mummy! No!” she begins. I make soft hushing noises and use my open palms to stroke down the length of her bare arms. A soothing technique her therapist showed me. My futile attempt to keep her calm.

“I know, honey. It’s not ideal. But it’ll be okay. There is a seat and paper, and I can hold on to you until you’re done so you won’t fall. Just do what you need to do and we can get back on the road, huh? We can carry on with our journey to Daddy. You do want to see Daddy, don’t you?”

Her whine intensifies in both volume and pitch. I know from experience how loud she can get. How long she can go on for. I sigh. I don’t have time for this today. I squat down in front of her and take her hands in mine.

“Sweetie, it’s okay. Really it is. Look, I’ll go first and I’ll show you, okay?”

I move her to the side so I have access to the toilet seat. The toilet door rattles impatiently. I freeze and my heart thumps a scattered rhythm in my chest.

“It’s occupied,” I call to the darkness. “We won’t be long.” There comes no answer, only the echoes of the wind. I listen closely but hear nothing more. Satisfied that we’re alone, I unbutton my jeans and fumble with the zipper. I pull the denim down across my thighs and hook my thumbs over the sides of my underwear. She doesn’t watch. Her eyes are closed, her body rigid. She wails. A sustained, high-pitched tone that makes me want to cry out too. To moan and howl like a lonely wolf, my fragile heart broken into a thousand shards.

Sometimes I wonder, how does she maintain this noise? How does she manage to breathe and scream, seemingly at the same time? I raise my voice, hoping she can hear me.

“Look, honey. Watch what I do. It’s all fine.”

I squat over the seat. My thighs groan at the movement. I used to run up mountains when I was younger. Now I feel exhausted merely walking upstairs. I relax. The urine leaves me as a dribble at first, then follows in a steaming rush.

I’m not quite finished when I feel the clammy hands reach up and grab a hold of me.

I yell and shriek and lunge myself forwards. I stumble and bang one knee on the floor, both legs entangled in my clothes. I yank my underwear back over my hips, not caring that they are soiled. I pull my jeans up after them. I don’t have time to re-fasten the zipper before I see them; green, skeletal, crêpe-skinned fingers curling like fat spiders’ legs over the edge of the seat.

She stops wailing. She stands transfixed. Her eyes are painted black by shadows, open as wide as they can go.

I hear grunting and shuffling from inside the pit. The fingers move forwards and reveal blue-veined hands. Long, scrawny arms follow, then bony shoulders, until finally, a head appears. I smell something putrid, an assault on my senses, like a mixture of methane and stale sweat. I retch in response to the stench.

I want to run, but I cannot move. Rooted and made solid by fear.

The creature hauls itself out of the hole and stands astride the seat. It is no bigger than a large house cat, but its proportions are all so wrong. Its head is smooth and perfectly round, like that of a bowling ball. Its ears are elfin, thin and pointed, adorned with strands of brown hair. Its eyes are enormous, like dinner plates. They are wet and shiny and amphibious. It has no nose that I can see, merely two nostrils covered by pale flaps of skin that rhythmically open and close. I don’t know if it is breathing or inhaling my scent. It fixes me with those huge, damp eyes and blinks once. Twice. Then tilts its head to the right-hand side. It sees her behind me, and it grins.

Its smile is utterly terrifying and devoid of any humour. A whole third of its face seems to crack open and twist itself into a wide grimace. Its mouth is filled with row upon row of thin and needle-sharp teeth. They are rotten, black and decaying. It flicks its tongue in the air like a whip, snake-like and scored with a deep groove.

I move in front of her. My body is a shield between her and it. She stays silent. She doesn’t even whimper. The creature shifts its weight and moves its head, trying desperately to see past me. It chitters and makes a noise like a tūī bird does before it sings; a sound like it is clearing its throat.

I hear the spattering noise of urine as it dribbles onto the floor. I smell the hot scent behind me. She has wet herself. I am not in the least bit surprised.

The creature chirrups once again, its nose flaps moving faster now. It tilts its head back and inhales. It breathes in the musk of her accident. It stares at me, poised, slightly crouched as it balances on the toilet seat, and it lets out a deep, guttural roar.

The sound is deafening in such a small space. I wince in pain as it hurts my ears, but it finally spurs me to act. Free from my paralysis, I grab her arm and haul her in my wake. I wrench open the wooden door, hear it slam against the side of the hut. I pull and push her almost simultaneously, catapulting her out into the carpark. She stumbles and her legs buckle, and she almost falls to the ground, but she catches herself at the last second. I hear the creature jump from the toilet behind me, and I run towards my exit. Sharp claws catch the back of my jacket, and I feel the fabric stretch and tear.

The beast is much stronger than it looks; it pulls me backwards, back into the hut. I grab the door frame, holding on to the edge as tight as I can. The creature scrabbles up the length of my legs. It clambers onto my shoulders and entwines its fingers in my hair. I slam my back against the wall, hear it shriek as it is pinned. My left ear explodes in a surge of hot pain.

It’s bitten me. The little bastard has bitten me! Two can play that game…

I reach behind me, grab one of its legs, and pull it as hard as I can. It loses its grip just slightly, but enough so that I can turn my head and sink my teeth into a scrawny limb. It screams again. I bite down harder. It tastes bitter and rotten, like sour milk, but I don’t let go. Not even when I pierce its skin and a rancid liquid seeps from the wound and makes me want to vomit. It stings my lips and makes my gums ache. I pray it isn’t toxic.

I feel it relax its grip again and I slam it hard into the sharp edge of the frame. Its fingers flex, in pain or shock, and it tumbles from my back. It lands, legs akimbo, sprawled out on the ground like an upturned slater bug.

I don’t hang around to see it get back up.

I dash out of the hut and slam the door. She is standing shakily, looking back to the car. She sees me but doesn’t say a word. I go to grab her arm again, to pull her along with me, but she flinches and stiffens before whispering, “Stop.” I follow her worried gaze.

The sun has almost disappeared over the edge of the horizon. The carpark is in darkness, a shroud of pale grey. I hear them before I see them. A chittering and chirruping and scraping of sharp claws. There is movement in the trees and bushes around us. The leaves writhe and shiver as the creatures move amongst them. I see quick flashes of light in the black, as the dying sun reflects in their huge eyes.

A story comes to me unexpectedly, one Grandmama used to tell. Her tales were inspired by legends but embellished with her own savage twists. It is ridiculous, I know this, but still…

She spoke of moon-pale goblins with gigantic eyes like pools of molten tar. They lived hidden in a land beneath deep water and returned to the shore at night. Child-stealing gremlins that shunned the touch of the sun, for fear it would scorch their skin. They would creep out under cover of darkness, she said, and snatch babies to take back to their lairs.

“What they did with them after was anyone’s guess,” she’d cackled gleefully, as I’d cowered in my bed. “Some stories said that they ate them whole after they’d peeled them from their skins. Others said they enchanted them, changed the infants into beings like them. Whatever they did, they took revenge against the humans who had driven them away.”

These are stories, nothing more. Tall tales to tell small children to encourage them to behave. There is no such thing as goblins. My grandmama simply knew how to spin a good yarn. Yet, I look at these creatures and I wonder: how many of her stories were pure fantasy, and how much did she know to be true?

The noises grow louder and closer. The distance between us and the car seems to stretch like an eternity. There is no way we can run to it before these creatures catch us. If she will even run with me. If she chooses not to and expects me to carry her, we are surely doomed.

I reach for her hand. She takes it and I pull her close to me. I hear more rustling in the undergrowth from all sides, surrounding us completely. I stroke her hair and murmur softly. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’ll be okay.” 

She nuzzles into me, wraps her arms around me and squeezes me in a tight embrace. I gasp in shocked surprise. She never hugs me of her own volition. Often stiffens if I try to touch her first. She holds me for a moment before releasing her grip and starts rummaging in my jacket pockets. I am confused. I don’t know what she is doing. And then she presses something cold and hard into my palm.

My lighter.

Jonah gave it to me the first Christmas after we got together. We weren’t married then, but we knew we would be one day. He’d had it engraved with a message. I run my thumbnail over the letters. I don’t need to see to read the words. I know well what they say.

Anna, you light up my life. Love always, Jonah.

How ironic then that this flame still burned, but he had left me cold. He had given all his love to another, but I couldn’t quite let go of mine. I can’t hate him, even if I wanted to. I understand why he left. He couldn’t cope. Would not adapt. He was so much weaker than I.

She pulls on my sleeve and looks up at me. It is too dark to make out her expression, but her features are imprinted in my memory. I know every millimetre of her face. Her green eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Her skin so pale it looks almost porcelain, sprinkled with a galaxy of freckles. Rosebud lips and a delicate nose. A twisted mess of ginger curls tumbling down past her cheeks. Hers is a face I’d watched fall asleep every night by my side for six years. A child who screams and shrieks and whines. Who hates to be held and deplores being kissed. An awkward, difficult, cantankerous being. As fickle and as unpredictable as a storm. I will love her fiercely every day of my life, without compromise or any exceptions. With never a second thought.

Old friends now long gone used to ask me, “How can you stand it? How do you cope?” I am her mother. She is my daughter. She is my blood and my kin. Why even ask me such stupid questions? I would never dignify them with a response. 

I lean over to kiss the top of her head. She pulls me close and whispers in my ear. 

“You can burn them, Mummy,” she hisses, her young voice soft yet furious. “You can kill them all.”

I feel the hint of a smile play on my lips. Yes, she is my daughter for sure.

I flick the lid. I press my thumb hard on the spark wheel. I strike the flint. A burst of flame erupts in my hands, and the air reeks with the tang of naphtha.

The creatures growl and snarl in fear. They shrink back from the fire and bare their sharp teeth. I scan the carpark, looking for something, anything I can use. I see a broken branch encrusted with dried leaves a few steps to my left. I sidle towards it and snatch it from the ground. As I touch the flame to the crackling leaves, they spit sparks as the heat engulfs them. They burn quickly, and then go out.

I hear the goblins moving closer, emboldened by the death of the fire. I need to think fast. I take the key fob out of my jacket pocket and press the silver button. There is a beep and a click as the car doors unlock. I thrust it back into my jeans then wriggle out of my torn jacket, wrapping it as tightly as I can around the charred end of the branch. I summon the fire from the lighter again and press it to the sleeve. It is a polyester-cotton mix. Cheap and cheerful from a discount store. It ignites swiftly and with gusto.

Her emerald eyes reflect in the light. Tiny flames flicker in her irises. I nod and smile, inviting her to take the lighter from me. She reaches out and takes it, enthralled by the bright colours and shapes. I pass my power on to her.

A surge of old images flare like the fire, reminders of my mother’s death. A mother who was equal parts absent and cruel. Who nursed bottles of cheap gin as if they were bairns. The glass felt more love than I.

Then Grandmama’s stories swimming in my head. And she, a white knight, come to my rescue. Yet her supposed kindness was often poisoned by spite. A victory in a war I was a pawn in. Apples and trees. Frying pans and fires. My whole life was a rollercoaster of emotions, like waves across a changeable sea.

Much later, lit cigarettes and freak accidents. Apologies and crocodile tears. Decisions made by old men wearing black robes. Fresh starts. New beginnings and a glorious birth. And finally, I remember who I am.

Take the fire, my child. Receive and rejoice. This weapon is yours now to wield.

The forest is filled with the deafening roar of a scourge of furious beasts. They scratch at the trees and the soil at their feet, venting their frustration on the land. The flaming torch is hot and unwieldy, but it keeps the terror at bay. I curl my arm underneath her shoulders and nudge her gently forwards. She wobbles and shakes on unsteady legs and thrusts the lighter straight out in front of her as if wielding a flaming sword. She holds on to me with her other hand, and we move as one to the car.

She walks with me. My God, she actually walks with me! It is as if the weight of everything has lifted. All the fear and doubt and indecision which ground me down and squashed my soul has gone. Spirited away. No longer a husk scraped dry and barren, a pale reflection of myself. I reclaim all that I was and welcome new strength. I am Mother. The Protector. A Warrior.

When we reach the car I close the lighter and push her inside up front in the passenger seat. I can see the creatures’ reflections in the glass of the car windows. Hundreds of them spitting and chittering behind me. I hear a low growl in the distance. The hut door opens and slams into the side wall. The one from the long drop is coming.

I shut her in and dash to the driver’s side. I go to open the door, then pause. What will they do when we try to leave? Will they let us go or try to stop us? Will they lay in wait for someone else? Someone too weak to fight them?

Jonah used to say to me, in our younger and wilder days, when we both hustled pool in backwoods bars: “You don’t have to go looking for trouble, babe. But if it finds you, don’t be frightened to finish it.”

The torch tip flickers like a wagging finger. There is something I know I must do.

~

I can see the flames from the highway as we drive away into the night. Great hands of yellow and orange and red, reaching up to touch the sky. It makes my heart ache, this destruction, but I know I can’t keep looking back. The land will survive, I am sure of it. It will grow back, out of the ashes. Something new. Out of the darkness, a phoenix will rise. I can feel it already rising in me.

She plays with the lighter but doesn’t ignite it, merely opens and closes the lid. Each rhythmic clink as the metal slides tallies with the beat of my heart. I am surprised to feel so calm.

I notice she is humming again, but much quieter this time. I don’t mind. It is strangely comforting.

“I love you, sweetie,” I tell her.

She doesn’t stop humming, but she smiles. 

No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary

An essay about horror and identity written for Pride in Horror, June 2022

The doctor calls my name in the waiting room and I take just a little too long to respond. The name she calls out is not the one I use anymore in my daily life, but is still my official title, the one my parents chose for me. I realise, rise, smile, and apologise, but offer no explanation for my delayed reaction. For that name serves as an uncomfortable reminder that who I am now is not who I was.

My real name, the one I chose for myself, is T, and who I am, amongst an assortment of many things, is a horror writer. I am also queer/pansexual and nonbinary/gender nonconforming. If those words are unfamiliar to you now, don’t worry. I will explain them in a little while. 

Right now, I am surrounded by countless other reminders; this is a “Woman’s Clinic” (the words are emblazoned in 6-inch letters on the wall) and I am here to discuss a “woman’s issue”. That I no longer consider myself to be a woman, is irrelevant to my appointment. In fact, to bring it up now might adversely affect the care I receive. Safety is paramount to those who live outside of gender norms, and such safety can be difficult to assess. So I stay quiet, despite my discomfort. I watch how her mouth moves as she says my old name, notice how strange it feels hearing it used to address me. It is not anger, disgust or even sadness I feel, merely an unusual sense of disconnect. An awareness of the assumptions this stranger has made about me, and how very, very wrong they are. 

* * *

The nonbinary flag

I do not know, and never have known, what being female means to me, only that I have never felt like it applied to me very much, not even as a young child. Equally, I have felt no actual disgust at my physical form other than an occasional musing that, had I been born a cis male, certain things would surely have been a lot easier for me. (This is not any indication of transness, by the way, more, a pervasive effect of a patriarchal society. A lot of cis women I know feel the same.) My physical body serves to assist me in moving my consciousness from A to B. As a creative and expressive individual, I also know I can dress up however I want and present any image I desire. I can effectively manipulate how others see me, and “read” me based on their own gender expectations. My skin is a canvass ripe for decoration, and I can paint it any way I choose. 

The outdated, narrow definition of being transgender implied a movement across the gender binary: from female to male or vice versa. Modern definitions now also include individuals, such as myself, who have stepped completely outside the gender binary or move fluidly from one to another. (Note: I am cautious about identifying as transgender, preferring instead to use nonbinary or gender nonconforming. While the word applies to me, and I can claim it, I feel that those who have fought much harder to use it than I have more right to it than I do.) 

Binary means to have two parts—when we consider the “gender binary”, we mean male and female. Nonbinary or genderqueer is an umbrella term for gender identities that are outside the binary. It took me a while to realise that while I had shrugged off the mantle of “woman” and I definitely wasn’t “man,” I also didn’t feel like I simply fell somewhere in the middle. 

Some people are nonbinary in a no gender or androgynous way. Others, like myself, are nonbinary in a way that embraces many varieties of gender. Some are both or something else entirely. I like to refer to myself as “Fifteen Genders in a Trench Coat,” a.k.a. a Pokémon-type nonbinary in that I, “gotta catch ‘em all.” I believe the most accurate descriptor might be pangender or even omnigender. In all honesty, the label is far less important to me than it seems to be to others. Those of you who have seen Schitt’s Creek may be familiar with David’s assertion, “I like the wine, not the label.” He uses this analogy to describe his sexual orientation (pansexual) but it works equally well for me to describe my gender identity. The label is insignificant. It’s what’s inside the bottle that matters most.

Still of FREAKY FRIDAY (2003)

Perhaps that’s why body horror has always fascinated me, even when I didn’t fully realise it. As a kid, I found the 80s body-swap movies like FREAKY FRIDAY, VICE VERSA and BIG to be uniquely riveting, as I considered how it might feel to find yourself in another body. I didn’t find it frightening or disconcerting, but curious and exciting. I was drawn to lycanthrope (werewolf) mythology for very similar reasons. How empowering it must be to embrace a fierce second self, unbeknown to even your closest friends. At thirteen, when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, I wished there was a potion I could drink to experience another part of me, and to be someone else; someone new. I joke with my family that on some days I, “cosplay as a girl”. Like Jekyll and Hyde, I can change how I present myself as I see fit.

The first “proper” body horror I remember watching was TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. I was eighteen, and my then boyfriend showed me to it, I suspect intending to gross me out. Such intentions backfired; it utterly fascinated me. Of course, I had already seen movies such as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, CANDYMAN and ALIENS, but I hadn’t really considered how they fit into the body horror genre. The visceral intensity of TETSUO sparked something in me and I sought as many flesh-rending and face-melting movies as I could. Like many other body horror enthusiasts have done before me, I turned to the “Baron of Blood” himself, David Cronenberg.

I exhausted Cronenberg’s back catalogue at the time (to wit: SHIVERS, RABID, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME, THE FLY, DEAD RINGERS and EXISTENZ) before I realised I mostly preferred more a more subtle style over movies that went all out on the gore. I was drawn to an understated, creeping kind of body horror, one that relied on a loss or transition of identity rather than extreme violence and bodily trauma. Films like JACOB’S LADDER and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, NIGHTBREED and ROSEMARY’S BABY. 

For many of us, horror as a genre is as comforting as it is confronting. It awakens our hidden fears and desires and shows us where the boundaries are between feeling safe and being scared. Horror scholar Linda Williams suggests in her essay, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess that horror, like pornography, is a genre of excess that looks at the limits and the transformative capabilities of the human body. Fictional horror allows us space to recall our own personal, traumatic experiences, enabling us with the tools to explore—or find peace with—our uncomfortable feelings safely. In this way, horror can often be beneficial to our mental health, particularly when we are looking inwards for answers to questions we don’t yet know how to ask.

Joe Koch (author of THE WINGSPAN OF SEVERED HANDS and CONVULSIVE) begins his essay, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks at Lovecraft with, “If we speculate that all horror is body horror—and we may because the emotional energy experienced interacting with horror arises physiologically in the body,” then I want to continue what Koch begins by asking, what does body horror do that other horror can’t? As horror echoes in our bodies, body horror is obsessed with the flesh. 

Still from TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

Body horror is: invasion, contagion, mutation and transformation. It’s mutilation, distortion, violence and disease. It is viruses, infections, parasites and deformities. It is growths and tumours, and trauma of the flesh. It normalises horrific things and allows us to make peace with the discomforts we might feel. By doing all this, body horror reinforces humanity and what it means to have a physical body, a vessel that can be disfigured, malformed, destroyed and infected. It highlights how disturbing and disorientating it can feel for your body to be alien to you and yet still retain what makes it human. 

While most horror focuses on the body being destroyed, body horror looks instead at how it can be transformed. It relies on changes or transformations to elicit revulsion and traverses broad spectrums of extremes. It delights in embracing gore and powerful visuals, and can be extreme in concept and presentation. Yet, it can also be subtle, a slow creeping dread, wrapped in layers of subtext and metaphor. It redefines boundaries and expectations by transmuting the familiar into something terrifying. 

Equally, although body horror often focuses on things being done to the subject—usually against their will—some stories explore the wilful acceptance of transformation as empowering and something to be embraced. With this physical change comes an emotional confidence, a “leveling up” of a sort. The adjustments to the physical form may be excruciating to experience, but the power gained can be worth the pain. Likewise, what changes occur on the outside are not necessarily reflected within. What others perceive as monstrous can be euphoric, even beautiful, to the subject. 

Just as all horror holds up a mirror to people, so they can look more closely at themselves, body horror gives us an opportunity to shine that mirror back on ourselves. It allows us space to see beyond the confines of the flesh and understand that what we see in the mirror does not always reflect how we feel inside. In subjects involving gender dysphoria, body horror allows a safe space to explore any uncomfortable feelings and embrace them. It toys with distortions of the human body, and plays with gender in ways that challenge how we think about it by blurring the lines of what is acceptable. In this way, body horror acknowledges the complicated relationships many of us have with our bodies. 

I grew up in a small town where pretty much everyone knows who you are, and everyone knows everybody else. If you feel like you fit in, that sense of safety, community, and local identity wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. But if you don’t fit in, grow tired of the smallness, or want out, that same blanket grows smothering and heavy. There is a sense that others have already predetermined who you are and what you are capable of. Such attitudes may push you to move away, to find an escape from the past and Past You. Like every angst-filled, rebellious, and misunderstood BREAKFAST CLUB teen, you long to scream, “You don’t know me!” as you slam the door behind you.

I can practically hear my mother’s voice in my head as I type this. “You always were very dramatic…” 

Being labelled as a “Woman in Horror” filled me with the same existential unease and confusion I always felt while spending time in my hometown. I wanted so badly to embrace it and endorse it, to be a part of that wonderful crowd, but it felt so dishonest. Seeing my name added to lists alongside other talented, creative women, I knew deep down I was an imposter amongst them. I became obsessed with writing stories about menstruation as biological horror, filled with (what I thought at the time to be) an irrational rage at the injustice of having to endure such a messy and painful imposition every month. I channelled my anger into almost everything I wrote. Hell, I even won an award for an essay exploring menstruation in horror fiction (published, ironically, for Women In Horror Month). And as the years marched on, I embraced every hot flush, change in my cycle and debilitating monthly pain as a delightful reminder that menopause was surely coming and with it, freedom from the horrors of blood. But rather than being cathartic, writing about it was an ugly reminder of how I constantly felt like my “female” body was taunting me every bloody month. (Pun very much intended.)

TWISTED ANATOMY cover

I rarely set out to write a body horror story. In fact, it took a good friend of mine to point out just how many of my published works fall into that category. When I was considering sending something to TWISTED ANATOMY, a body horror charity anthology, I bemoaned that there was no way I could write something suitable. 

“I just don’t write body horror,” I said. 
“What are you talking about?” my friend replied. “You’re always writing body horror!” 

On inspection, well over fifty percent of what I write can be classified as body horror. Looking back on older stories with fresh eyes and a new lens, knowing now what to look for, I can see the desperation and longing in my words. The search for something that made sense, being very clear about what I was not without knowing exactly what I was. Through fiction, I scratched an itch of discovery, exploring themes of identity and transformation in a safe space without ever realising I was writing about myself. Every author knows that peculiar feeling when re-reading old works. The resounding question of, “who was I when I wrote this?” coupled with, “I hardly recognise myself in these words.” 

“Little Teeth” ended up in the anthology as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of vanity and aging. Of pinning your entire identity on the way you look, and of hiding the inevitable truth. 

How very cliché. 

Myles Hughes says in The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying, “The fear [from body horror] comes from the notion that while the specifics of a given plot may be allegorical, the core truths about the ways our bodies can be taken over and manipulated by internal or external forces feels all too real.” 

“Butterfly” was the second story I ever sold. It is an exploration of body horror and disability, of a body remade after trauma and described as “Lovecraftian” as the editor. But it misses the mark. I was writing from a place of confusion and resentment. I was still cookie dough and not fully cooked. In the tale, the father believes he can remake the daughter, just as she is coming to terms with her disfigurement. I hadn’t considered the message I might be sending to others, or, worse, what I was saying about myself. I was unaware of my own unresolved personal struggles with disability and gender and how I thought others saw me. It is a religious allegory (as many of my stories are, but that’s a separate essay!) in which the father believes that death and rebirth can heal his daughter through metamorphosis. 

“Butterfly” is the first true body horror I can attribute to my confusion with gender and I express the horror through the experience of living with disability and the judgement of our peers. It is a story about outside forces meddling with things they have no business with. The daughter did not need to be “cured” and the father is no saviour. As a mirror for how I was feeling then, it works extremely well, showing the confusion I was experiencing, thanks to messages from others—particularly my extended family—about who I “should” be. The trauma I had internalised about what was acceptable and “feminine,” what was appropriate behaviour as a woman.

It was all bullshit.  

I tell my kids, “Don’t make yourself small to make other people comfortable” and, “Never let anyone else tell you who you are.” Somewhere along the line, I forgot to take my own advice. But I didn’t have a grand awakening. I didn’t burst out of the closet in a moment of euphoric realisation, more vaguely saunter in a different direction without fully knowing where I was headed. The name I used when I introduced myself went from seven letters, to five, to one. I experimented with different pronouns to see how they felt until eventually I decided I didn’t much care (she/her/they/them/T are all fine, just FYI.). And then Lana Wachowski went and gut punched me.  

Publicity image for MATRIX: RESURRECTIONS (2021)

More proficient writers than myself have talked about the concept of transness in THE MATRIX (and of course, the more recent addition to the franchise …RESURRECTIONS) but while THE MATRIX is marketed as science-fiction, it often fails to acknowledge the massive amount of body horror it also exhibits, specifically the eradication of identity and the Self. It shows a hairless body kept alive in a pod or an egg (and many transgender individuals know the symbolism of “cracking the egg”) attached with tubes to a nutrition system, fed with the liquified recycled remains of others that you too will also become. As the System regurgitates who they are into who you are, your entire existence becomes dependent on the biological feedback of others, your body nothing more than an energy source, while you are destined to do the very same to each following generation of pod people. 

Heavy thoughts, huh? Put like that, who wouldn’t want to crack that egg? Shatter it into a thousand pieces and grind the shell into dust with your heel.

And the gut punch? It was while watching THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS I felt the sudden realisation that I’d been holding in all these thoughts, all these feelings, all these questions and insecurities for easily thirty years (maybe more!). I’d been writing about gender, reading about gender, figuring out how it all fit together in my head like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the lid, but never actually going all the way to embrace the reality. There was no egg encasing me anymore, just like for Neo, there was no spoon.  

* * *

Back home, after my appointment, I take off every layer of clothing, remove my jewellery and scrub the makeup from my face. I remove my “girl cosplay” and return to my true self. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and examine every bump and crevice, every pimple, scar and bruise. I regard the skin as if it were yet another piece of clothing, which some days I wish I could unzip and shake myself out of. Not because I dislike it. No, most of the time I am simply ambivalent about it. It is skin and bone, blood and sinew. It is a vessel for my consciousness and a canvas I can paint, not much more. But if I could change it? If I could peel off certain parts of me and replace them with others, as easily as trying on a new coat? I would. Of course I would. 

As Koch so beautifully explains: 

“The common term for what drives us to change is gender euphoria. When we are addressed using correct names and pronouns, and when we see ourselves represented in the body and external world as we know ourselves in our minds, we experience gender euphoria. Our motivation is not hatred, but joy. We simply want to feel at home in our bodies, which I think is a very reasonable human wish.”

Why am I drawn to, and write, body horror? To push the boundaries of extreme fiction to elicit reaction? To explore my (complex) feelings about gender? To tap into my insecurities, my impermanence and mortality? Even aging is utilised as a form of body horror, particularly that of the feminine body. Hagsploitation exists to portray the aging female form as repulsive and shocking; an Othering based on failing fertility, of desire tied to sexual youth. My journey into menopause serves as a reminder of that. 

Body horror author and aficionado Lor Gislason says in their essay, An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror “[one of the] strengths of horror: [is] using it to open discussions of deeper issues in a safe and interesting way. … For body horror, it’s often confronting the inevitability of death or the limitations of our physical selves. The human body is both one of the most incredible and complicated systems and extremely fragile.” 

Body horror lets me see past my own skin. I no longer feel like I have to drape it around my shoulders, wearing it like someone else’s castoff—a hand-me-down from my parents, ex-boyfriends, or past friends. Writing about the body through horrific narratives lets me explore my identity in fluid and nuanced ways. Through body horror, I can remake the familiar into something terrifying, something empowering, or both. I can transcend the limitations of the flesh to stimulate euphoria through dread. It was through finally understanding the power of transformation, of putting that into words, that helped me make peace with who I am. 

When I write body horror, that sense of peace is what I appreciate the most. 


NO HORROR WITHOUT THE BODY.  

Addendum: A note from the author

A selfie taken before a Wellington Pride event, 2019, the first time I ever went to Pride.

I originally wrote this essay for Pride in Horror to bring awareness about gender identity and horror. It was accepted for publication by a wonderful website, for which I was deeply grateful. However, almost as soon as I sent off the email, I started to feel a great deal of anxiety. For some inexplicable reason I didn’t feel fully comfortable about someone else publishing the piece, and I wasn’t sure why.

As is often the case for marginalised people who identify outside the gender binary, there are people in my life—friends and family— who are still unaware of my true identity. People like me are often forced into a corner by circumstances beyond our control. Often we stay quiet and we stay small. Sometimes we hope by doing so we will be left alone and will stay safe. Except such safety is never guaranteed. Those who seek to hurt us will also seek us out. Our silence might be seen as complicity or cowardice, when it is most certainly neither; it is for safety. I’ve never been the sort of person to stay quiet about something important just because it might upset someone else. That’s why, over the years, I have been so vocal on my blog and social media about issues such as: mental health, suicide, PTSD, autism and ADHD, family trauma, and body autonomy.

In the past, I have experienced intolerance and hate, sometimes from complete strangers, across multiple social media platforms and in physical spaces, likely linked to my gender-expression. In this essay I make it very clear that I will never let anyone tell me who I am, nor will I make myself small for the comfort of others. Likewise, I will fight for every other person like myself to ensure their right to body autonomy is upheld. It took me a great deal of time thinking about and sitting with my feelings to understand that although I was fully comfortable sending these words/this content out into the world, they were also deeply personal. I was exposing some parts of myself that I had not spoken about in public before. For all of these reasons, I decided it was more appropriate to put this piece on my own author website.

Thank you for reading.


Articles referenced:

Gislson, Lor An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror (February 2022)

https://www.hearusscream.com/editorials/an-ode-to-flesh-my-love-of-body-horror

Hughes, Myles The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying (December 2019)


https://horrorobsessive.com/2019/12/03/the-body-horror-genre-our-meat-machines-are-terrifying/

Koch, Joe, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft (February 2022)

Williams, Linda  Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess (Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, 1991)

http://faculty.las.illinois.edu/rrushing/470j/ewExternalFiles/Williams—Film%20Bodies.pdf


Some of my favourite body horror movies:

ALIEN | ALIENS | AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON | DISTRICT 9 | EVENT HORIZON | GINGER SNAPS | HORNS | IDLE HANDS | INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS | JACOB’S LADDER | HELLRAISER | NIGHTBREED | REANIMATOR | ROSEMARY’S BABY | SAW | SCANNERS | SLITHER | THE FACULTY | THE THING | TUSK | US | VIDEODROME

Featherston Booktown

I am delighted to announce that was recently asked to write a scary story for the CAMPFIRE TALES segment of Featherston Booktown, an annual book-focused festival taking place this year from 8th to 12th June. My creepy, urban-legend inspired tale, “The Bobbin Man” will be performed on two evenings and included as part of the free zine.

I was also extremely proud to provide the event poster graphics and interior black and white artwork.


From the official website:

11:00 PM – LATE, The Royal Hotel. $20

Come warm your bones by the fire, very late at the Royal Hotel, as we chill you with a selection of original sinister tales written especially for this event by Kiwi horror authors, including Cassie Hart, Denver Grenell, Tabatha Wood and Daniel Eady.

Take home a free zine with stories from the event. Hot chocolate and mulled wine will be available to wet your whistle, adding to the sensory experience.

Performed by Denver Grenell, Erin Banks and Ricky Dey from Beware the Moon Productions and made possible with the support of the Creative Communities Scheme.

Tickets are $20 each. Buy them at Eventfinda here. Includes a free zine, a glass of mulled wine or hot chocolate.