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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven BLOODBATH ACADEMY



aren’s head hammered at her to wake the hell up and fight. Consternation and confusion marbled her memory into a red blur. Something about a man: attractive, but if she’d consented to anything, it wasn’t to this. Karen knew better. She tried to place the smells and sounds, to get a feel for the chance of making a run for it with her wrists bound. No way to see until she did some gymnastics and got the damn blindfold off. Karen listened. No traffic. Outside of the city, then. Quiet. Too quiet. Karen breathed clean air and juniper, firewood, and fish bait. The paradox of comforting, familiar scents and the danger of captivity compounded a hallucinatory substance in her mind as she assessed the darkness.

Karen’s senses lied to her that she was in a safe spot. Scenes flickered across her unseeing eyes: Ben and his cabin from high school, the fake bloodstain on the floor, the secrecy of the forest where they’d sequestered on spring break. Adolescent reveries lulled her out of the present threat, seducing her with nostalgia. She wondered if she was stuck in a time capsule. Did she hear success calling her name from the future? Were the obstacles overcome by her younger self inverted, poised, and ready once again for her to attain? Karen, as an ambitious teenager, came out of the past and monopolized the spotlight. Intervening decades cowered backstage, a lifetime of experiences and memories consigned to shadow.

“Rise and shine.”

The power of suggestion so strong, Karen thought she heard Ben’s voice. Then some clicks, a mechanical whirring noise, and the voice persisted inane, cloying and impossible. “You hungry? Want some eggs?”

The currents of his breath and motion, the smell of the outdoors on a man, the intimacy of lichen and trees: all these were evidence that history didn’t fly ahead of her and chase its own tail. Ben’s voice was real, and he was in this room. If her impression of his family cabin was right, Karen knew which road led to the nearest town. Nothing made sense, but Karen hoped she was on familiar ground. She spoke with authority to hide her shock and doubt: “Ben. Ben Shelton.”

The man made a low grunting noise. Karen recognized it as some sort of laugh. She waited for affirmation or dissent.

“You got it, girl.”

Ben’s humid drawl was born from the stagnant calm of the swamp. His declaration of love their senior year had been murky, and in conversation, Ben’s submerged cadence betrayed few clues to his emotion or intent. Karen recalled how Ben’s life, like his speech, seemed always to move at its own unreadable pace. As Ben’s grandma said to Karen after serving up her specialty, an unbearably sweet iced tea, Hon, that boy ain’t got but one speed. Karen was the high school valedictorian, on the fast track to Berkeley Law, while Ben plodded through the task of showing each week’s new release at the drive-in. Ben didn’t need the job. He came from Texas oil money. The monotonous performance satisfied some need in him more personal, more obscure.

What need did the blindfold satisfy, Karen wondered, since Ben didn’t try to conceal his identity? She’d been fond of him; well, more than fond, but kept her feelings hidden from her friends. Ben didn’t fit in with her peers or plans. He didn’t bond with any clique, kept quiet in class, and didn’t compete on any teams. How well had she really known him?

Karen sorted through memories, clues. Testimony to his odd nature, at eighteen years old, Ben had volunteered for trial makeup and test shots for the final film sequel of the slasher series “Bloodbath Academy.” He was a horror fan. He said it was a stroke of luck he’d met location scouts at a diner on his way up north, and even better luck they accepted when he offered the use of the family cabin. It seemed an unlikely coincidence to Karen, even as a teenager hearing Ben brag. At school, Ben passed around his prized memento: a Polaroid of his face, blood-spattered, in full prosthetic gore, with a long-handled felling axe stuck in the center of his skull. Guys high-fived him, girls squealed, and Karen shook her head. After the display, Ben folded the photograph and slid it back into his wallet.

Bound in that same cabin, Karen imagined the Polaroid still warming in Ben’s back pocket as the faded denim rectangle in his jeans unraveled into a net of holes. The stiff paper stock inside the wallet softened to the ragged texture of fabric. An aging crease through the center of the picture redacted Ben’s mouth with a white gash. Flecks of black and red emulsion shed out of it with each brittle folding and unfolding. Ben’s face was deformed in Karen’s memory by gratuitous makeup, the instability of fading dyes, and the smudged fingerprints of a senior class long ago dispersed.

“It’s warm in here,” Karen said. In truth she thought it was stuffy.

Ben said, “M-hm.”

“Is the fire lit?” Karen asked, searching for a harmless topic.

“Oh, no,” Ben said. “No ma’am.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Passed out, more like it,” Ben said.

Karen didn’t like the sound of that. She pushed. “It’s been awhile? It’s very dark.”


“How long?”

“Pretty good spell.”

Karen cracked. She didn’t mean to yell, but it came out that way. “What the hell is this backwoods yokel talk? Answer me.”

Something sharpened the soft edges of Ben’s drawl. “You can holler all you want. We’re a ways away from town.” The metallic buzzing noise she’d heard earlier repeated and droned, emphasizing his point, and then clicked into silence. Karen wanted to resist making a mental picture of the source of the sound. The idea suggested to Karen by the buzzing grind of small machinery was almost laughable if it wasn’t so real. The pure idiocy of the situation, of being captive in a cliché, curtailed Karen’s rage. Losing control only increased her risk. Let her be a victim of violence if violence was the course she must take. She refused to be a victim of the absurd.

Absurd was how Karen dismissed her interest in Ben when questioned by her high school friends. She kept the real story to herself. Two days before the official premiere of “Bloodbath Academy: Dead Week,” Ben hosted a private midnight screening at the drive-in where he worked. Not long after her arrival, Karen realized she was the only guest. Dubious about the reticent loner and hardly enthralled by the idea of sitting through a horror movie, Karen came up with an excuse to leave.

Then the light in the sky changed. An undertow of star-light suffused the clouds. Without any sound, the atmosphere split into a million soft tatters and sent wisps of cloud spinning down. It was the first heavy snow Karen had ever seen. Travel wasn’t within her family’s means, and vacations had been little more than day trips to the beach or a nearby park. That night at the drive-in, Northern California transformed before Karen’s eyes into the stage set for a sparkling winter fairy tale. Ben charmed her. He looked different outside of class: striking, lively, and yet somehow more relaxed. The roads weren’t safe to drive, and the movie was free. Karen decided to stay.

Framed by a glimmering shroud, the fifty-foot screen dwarfed Karen and Ben as they huddled together in the projection booth. Frost imbued the film with a mysterious aura. Edges blurred. Repetitious killings pounded out a bizarre rhythm of esoteric beats. The empty car lot shifted from black to white, as Ben and Karen witnessed the bloody slaughter of their symbolic peers. Poor aesthetics and wooden dialogue invoked the certainty of a ceremony, the inescapable fate of Puritan predetermination, the forgotten visceral logic of some pre-human cult. Each superficial character, a body, divested of emotion, an effigy of light, ended in murder. Tracing the oblique arc from one ritual death to the next, a quiet apocalypse dawned.

Karen and Ben were the last two people alive on earth. After the end of the movie, after imperative sex and languid calm, Karen offered Ben her condolences. Like the snow that didn’t stick, Ben’s death scene didn’t make the final cut.

Ben lost out on his fifteen minutes of gore. He tried not to lose Karen. She gave him an ultimatum: “It’s me or the drive-in. You can’t have both.”

He didn’t answer fast enough.

Karen said, “Why horror? The world has horror enough. Auschwitz, Jim Jones. Can’t you turn on the news and see enough? Reagan’s putting nuclear bombs in space. Your slasher is faceless so you can project your infantile rage, but the real sadists of the world are running it right in front of our eyes. The camera makes you a perpetrator. Why do you want that?” Karen pulled on her boots with a fierce stumble and flew through the room, trying to find her shirt. “Media is masturbation. Don’t you want to make a difference in the world, do something meaningful with your life?”

Ben gave it a week. Karen was busy enough that she didn’t need to avoid him. She volunteered at the shelter, studied when the library was open late and audited classes at the university to get ready for the competition that awaited her in college. She had two strikes against her: being female and being poor. She was not going to let the bastards grind her down, and she carried a bookmark that said so in Latin. Ben’s obsessions were not her concern, but Karen worried what might become of him. He was smarter than people thought. She missed the intimacy of his body. When he approached her again, she felt wary and hopeful. He started off by confessing to Karen that he was a Buddhist. He said, please don’t tell his dad. Karen was completely baffled. She said, “Okay.”

Then Ben said, “I need to ask you a question.”

Caught between amusement and dread, Karen said, “Yes?”

Ben took a deep breath. “Maybe we’re animals who got to fight and hunt. Maybe we got it in our DNA, like that virus keeps changing, so it keeps killing. Maybe we got to kill to keep alive. Like to evolve. So it’s good when we play out a hunt, like church, doing it regular each week. Isn’t masturbation better than another Auschwitz?”

Karen wasn’t squeamish. She didn’t look away when the killer raised his knife, and the other victims cowered and screamed. She said, “If I follow your argument, you’re advocating organized societal violence. We sacrifice a virgin every Christmas or rip the heart out of the quarterback after the Super Bowl to keep the crime rate down. Is that what you mean?”

Ben said, “No, I mean it’s okay if it’s pretend. Keeps it out of the real world.”

“It’s called catharsis and it’s debatable whether it eliminates or exacerbates violence. You need to read a book once in a while.”

“Like what book?”

“Freud, Jung, read some psychology. That’s what you’re talking about.”

“I’ll do that,” Ben said. “You got to understand, when my daddy taught me to shoot, and when he took me out to get my first deer, I didn’t do it. Never seen him so disgusted. Then I thought about it a lot and stopped eating meat, and he pretty much quit talking to me for a bit. All that’s real, you know? Movies are just for fun, like a game.”

Karen’s emotions twisted around the puzzle he presented to her. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. I think the problem is you don’t understand what kind of game you’re playing when you watch that stuff. Teaching yourself bodies are props. It’s like pornography.”

“It’s not like that,” Ben said.

“You know I’m not a prude.”

Ben’s hands settled on top of hers, and she stiffened now in the cabin as she had back then in high school. Calluses caught Karen’s tender skin as Ben’s adult hand circled in a pattern Karen couldn’t identify as hesitation or malice, or some other unknowable emotion hidden behind the obfuscation of the blindfold. Karen imagined the man must have lived alone with the company of his fantasies too long to carry on any semblance of normal interaction or behavior. She didn’t want to risk arousing his rage in her current vulnerable state.

Karen attempted a soothing tone. “I’m so sorry I raised my voice,” she said, coddling. “I guess I was shocked to see you. It’s been such a long time.”

The whirring mechanical noise started again and stopped again quickly between a few clicks. Ben’s proximity made Karen flinch when he leaned close to her ear. “No, it hasn’t. It hasn’t been long at all.”

Karen cringed at his heavy masculine nearness. His body still seemed familiar, yet the texture of the packed air between them was too thick, too encompassing. Nothing like the boy. As a jilted teen, Ben bore his disappointment with equanimity. He had a light touch.

The boy’s hands were smooth. These new hands belonged to a laborer, pitted and scarred like the bark that armors a sapling after years of abuse have weathered and thickened the trunk. Greenwood that bends with the elements while soft and young hardens to rigid resistance over time. A power struggle with a man rooted in unspoken psychopathy was as futile as a tug of war with an old tree. Karen reached out to Ben with her bound hands, the knots around her wrists, forcing her gesture into a simulation of prayer. She didn’t stop until her fingers felt the fabric of his shirt. Flannel. A cloth that spoke of firesides and sing-alongs and safety. Karen pressed her plea into the worn and sturdy weave of Ben’s shirt.

“Would it be too much to ask?” Karen pulled back and spread her fingers wide. Ben thought it looked like Karen was trying to make a shadow puppet of a bird’s wings, which was, he thought, pretty much appropriate to the situation.

This was never going to feel natural to Ben no matter how many times he did it. He tried to stick to the script: “Three questions. Get them right.”

Karen’s face itched beneath the fabric of the blindfold, and her wrists rubbed together with uncomfortable heat. She forced herself to smile at Ben. She knew she had a winning smile, and she knew how to use it. “Could you perhaps loosen this?”

“After. You take your time and answer right.”

Karen tilted her head, feigning feminine compliance. “I’ll do my best.”

“How did we meet?” asked Ben.

Easy enough, Karen thought. She said, “You were assigned to my group in Chemistry.” She left out the part about Mr. Sandoval, implying the new student from out of town was a bit slow, and she must bring him up to speed. Karen resented getting saddled with Ben but refused to let one slacker ruin her group project grade. They came through with an A-minus.

Ben said, “That’s right. You rode me so hard.” Karen heard the smile in his voice. “Not as hard as yourself, though. Next question: What year did you pass the bar?”

Nothing came to mind.

Karen called upon her memory and found a vast shadow. Of course, she passed the bar exam, law school was always her plan: she must be an attorney or a judge by now. But all of this was an idea. Karen had no concrete knowledge of her own life after high school.

“Take your time,” Ben said.

Panic spread its black wings and rose out of the empty gulf before her. Facing nothingness, Karen noticed its texture was similar to déjà vu: a sensation of a membrane about to burst, a suspicion of tremulous questions she didn’t want answered. Regardless of what nightmare had robbed her mind of its memories, Karen concentrated on the present threat and told her panic to wait. She did some math in her head. Yes, she pushed herself hard. She’d have gotten through college in less than four years, and she’d have planned in advance and gone to law school right after. How long did it take to get bar results, she wondered? Maybe six months?

“Nineteen ninety-three,” Karen said.

“Damn, girl. You got this.” Ben took Karen’s hands again. His warmth left her nauseated and clammy. “I saved you the easy one for last. Where did we get married?”

Holy Christ, Karen thought, I am stuck in his sick fantasy. Now she knew exactly what she was dealing with: a sad little boy who never grew up, a man capable of enough violence to torture her into a black fugue. If she answered the way Ben wanted, she might be able to play his game long enough to get control and get out. Karen considered the question with a sense of calm that surprised her. Though the choices at first seemed infinite, only one location captured the morbid logic of Ben’s unhealthy imagination and explained Karen’s kidnapping and captivity.

“Right here,” Karen said. “In the cabin.”

Ben unbound her wrists and encircled her in his arms. “Girl, it’s good to get you back.” His voice choked on its own joy as he rocked her. Karen stiffly tried to reciprocate, and her knee bumped something made of cold metal near Ben’s leg. She stretched out her hand to grab it as she thought Oh God a gun and tried to pull it away from his side. The metal held fast, curving downward as part of some bigger structure. Karen reached up and touched something plastic, a sort of armrest with a joystick, and she thought what a weird chair as she realized it was a wheelchair. She’d heard the whirring motor and Ben’s movements earlier, not some ridiculous redneck torture device.

Karen stood up and tugged at the scarf over her eyes.

“Hold up,” Ben said. “You ready for that?”

Karen pulled away the loops of white silk until they fell around her shoulders. She dropped the scarf on the floor and rubbed her eyes. No moonlight or stars penetrated the cabin. It was utterly black. Karen squinted and blinked and massaged her prickling forehead, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The blindfold must have been on for a long time. Her skin felt textured and raw.

Karen said, “Turn on the lights.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said. “I can’t. Don’t you know?”

“I can hear you move,” Karen said. “Stay away.”

“Whoa, listen up--”

“Shut up,” said Karen.

Inching backwards, Karen’s hands sought a light source. She listened for the clack of a safety on a rifle or the rush of displaced air from a bludgeon or knife. Karen heard nothing but Ben’s voice saying, “Careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”

“Stay back,” Karen said.

Karen abandoned caution and barreled through the room, grappling for a window, a lamp, a light switch, anything. Ben circled in, and she beat him back, striking blindly. He didn’t try to fight. He tried to talk, but she was not interested. Panting and groping the wall, Karen located a switch plate. She turned it on and off and on and off again, but it made no difference. The black wall of darkness surrounding her held fast.

No. Karen refused to tolerate this nonsense. She pounded the switch with her fist, and her heart pounded in sync as the blackness metamorphosed into a torturing red flame, a searing memory that blinded her with agony: not a flash of light, but a flash of pain. The surreal memory made her catch her breath. A blast of shrieking metal and incendiary gas burned the winning smile off of Karen’s face. No, she thought, as the image of anguish overwhelmed her. No, no, no.

“What have you done to my eyes?” Karen said. Distorted by injury from the car crash, Karen’s voice produced a slobbering wail that only Ben could understand without her prosthesis in place. Ben had thirty years of practice, but for Karen, their marriage was lost in the fire. Since the accident, she dwelled alone in an amnesic netherworld punctuated by confusion and pain.

Karen had no tear ducts, but Ben recognized her shuddering sobs. It was past time for her meds. He got a patch ready and eased in. The face of a monster drooled above him, but Ben saw only Karen, who he loved from the first moment she scoffed at him in class. She demanded more from Ben than he thought he had to offer. She brought out his ambition, he modulated her anxiety, and over the years together, they had learned to listen and laugh. Ben needed to laugh with Karen again. He needed it more than anything in the whole world.

The buzz and click of Ben’s chair told Karen he was close. She quelled her shaking. Ben believed his cure was starting to work.

After the crash, Ben adapted to partial paralysis, refitted the cabin, and made a haven for Karen to heal. He’d been a wilderness therapist. As a professional, Ben refuted the poor prognosis of Karen’s specialists. He had his own theory. Karen was a fighter. She withered without something to fight. The bondage game made her sharp, no matter how much Ben hated it. The proof was that she got more questions right every time.

It was hard work for Ben to be an adversary. What his dad called a real man. He wasn’t much of an aggressor, but he’d learn. Before the disaster, he’d done pretty good. When Karen coaxed Ben into bondage games using the white Tibetan prayer scarf from their wedding, he’d fumbled and apologized at first. He didn’t know how to dominate. Maybe he didn’t like it, maybe he didn’t try. After all, that was only sex. This was survival.

Ben gathered the white scarf onto his lap. The watery feel of the fabric slithering over his hands made his stomach turn. Come on, boy he told himself. You owe her this much. He hesitated in placing the Fentanyl patch. Ben was worried. Karen was getting thin. He had to make sure she ate something substantial soon.

Karen knew the game was survival. There was no other game, and the only option was to win. The mechanized buzzing clicked to a halt near her. Karen smelled the scent of the outdoors hovering near, the scent of a feral outcast moving in for the kill. Her mind pushed back at the encompassing darkness of some half-remembered torture. She remembered enough: the shrieking red light, the flames, the color of agony. Impossible to believe he’d been such a sweet boy, once upon a time.

Karen took a deep breath and estimated Ben’s position. She thrust her knee up and cracked--score!--yes, right into his chin. She heard the snap. Ben cried out. Karen couldn’t see her opponent, so she overcompensated with an adrenalin rush of force. She shoved the wheelchair sideways onto the ground and kicked the body pinned inside. She pummeled and yelled, “Holler all you want!” The chair’s motor clicked, and the wheels turned and then stopped, snagged on some protruding object. Grinding, escalating, the motor strained to set the wheels into forward motion. Karen pounded the body over and over until all words from it waned, and all movements ceased. She fell to her knees, quaking and drained.

She switched off the motor. There was silence, but for cicadas, there was stillness but for the breeze. There was dampness seeping up Karen’s leg from the thing she’d crushed below her, and she was safe, she was free, she was alone.




Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Author of the novella “The Couvade” and other short fiction, their work has been published in journals and anthologies such as Synth, Fable, Honey & Sulphur, and In Darkness Delight: Masters of Midnight. Consume their monstrous musings at horrorsong.blog, twitter.com/horrorsong and amazon.com/Joanna-Koch.

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