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“The River” by Matthew Penwell

“This place is beautiful,” Roger said.

     “I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid. It was,” Anna shrugged, “a place for me to get away.” A hurtful grimace crossed her face. She walked to the riverbank and sat down. Even at the deepest point, the water didn’t reach half a foot. The water-polished rocked gleamed in the evening sun. Memories that hadn’t crossed her mind for years surged. She remembered the first time she had stumbled upon the small river. Back then she didn’t know the secrets. In a way, the river was haunted. More than that, cursed!

     “Roger,” Anna said over her shoulder. He turned away from a furry caterpillar. “Want to hear a ghost story?” She smiled slyly.

     He raised both eyebrows. She had his attention. He sat down next to her, drawing his legs to his chest. He slung one arm around Anna’s shoulder, pulled her against him. Her bleach blonde hair smelled like warm apples.

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     “Haunted, hmm?”

     “Believe it or not.”

     “Guess every town has to have a haunted place. It’s an American tradition. Shouldn’t have built on the burial grounds of Native Americans, I say!” He mocked. Anna elbowed him gently in the ribs.

     “I’m being serious! I saw the ghost once.”

     “Now I know you’re pulling my leg.”

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     “Roger Best! I am ashamed in you. Since when have you known me to lie?”

     “Never ever. Unless it’s on the nights I cook and you say it’s good.”

     Anna laughed. “So what. Maybe I’ve not liked it as much as I said.”

     “What was it, the veggie pizza? The pumpkin spice cake?”

     Anna wrinkled her nose. “The pizza was pretty bad.”

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     “I always knew you didn’t like it!”

     “I still ate it, didn’t I?”

     “At the cost of hurting my feelings.”

     “The taste of cardboard covered in pizza sauce was worth it.”

     “Ouch.” Roger pulled her closer. No hard feelings. She nuzzled into his shoulder. “So tell me about this river. I’ve never seen an actual haunted place.”

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     “It’s not really haunted.”

     “So you do lie!”

     “No. Shh. Let me tell the story. It’s not haunted,” she coughed, cleared her throat. The floor was hers. “It’s cursed. Never take anything from here. Not a stone. Not a flower. Not even a blade of grass.”

     “Okay?”

     “I’m trying to set up the story. Will you be quiet for five minutes?” Anna said hotly. A few seconds of silence passed. “Thank you. As the story goes, a long time ago, a witch lived along the river. The shack actually stood for another hundred years after her death, until lightning struck it on the eve of her two hundredth birthday.”

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     “Man, you know a lot about this.” Roger looked at Anna dumbfoundedly.

     “It’s hard not to, growing up in town. This river is the only claim to fame we have. The story was always brought up around Halloween. I did a report on it in high school. Ms. Gordon-Waits gave me an A-plus on it. I still have it around, somewhere.”

     “You’ll let me read it?”

     “Maybe. Let me continue. June Shobin was her name. She was still in her mother’s stomach when she came to America. The reasons why her mother left England is unknown. Some say it’s because she knew what was growing inside her. She knew the baby was one with the devil. After all, there is no father anywhere in the picture.”

     “She could have left because she didn’t know who the father was. That was frowned down upon.”

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     Anna sucked in a deep breath. “I swear to Jesus, one more peep out of you and you’re sleeping on the couch.”

     Roger opened his mouth.

     “Try me.”

     Roger closed his mouth and shook his head.

     “That’s what I thought. Not another peep. And as a reminder, dad’s stomach is all jacked up and he farts like there’s no tomorrow. He always sleeps with the door open. And you know where the couch is. You would hear the farts.” Roger shook his head and poutted out his bottom lip. “I have your attention now? Just remember, babe. Pfttttttt.

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     “Okay. Where was I? La. La… Oh yeah. No father in the picture. So it was hard for the family to make a living. After the move there is no telling where they settled. They don’t show in Dasia until June is in her early teens. And then a virus swept through the town.

     “It started with a girl in town, Hannah Williams, who got deathly sick overnight. It’s still unknown what Hannah came down with, probably the Flu, but it came on so suddenly people thought it could only be the work of black magic. Lynn Jackson came forward, claiming she’d seen Hannah and June playing. Without much evidence, they stormed the house.

     “Not only was June put under arrest, but so was her mother. They were both accused of witchcraft. The trial lasted two days. As you probably know, they were innocent. By the time the trial ended, Hannah had recovered. And it’s claimed she even told her father she hadn’t been anywhere around June, as Lynn had claimed. The damage was already done.”

     “So they killed them?” Roger asked.

     “You’re sleeping on the couch.” Anna snapped. “But yes. They hung them. You know most of the Salem witches were hung. There isn’t any evidence that a single person was ‘burned at the stake.’ It’s all hearsay. Hanging the innocent women didn’t do much for the town. Maybe restored a little bit of Heaven that they had. But it did more bad than good. The tree, or so it has been said, suddenly started claiming the lives of the townsfolk. Over twenty people took their lives in that tree before it was cut down.

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     “This entire area is tainted in bad mojo. June. Her mother. The people who felt the need to repeat June’s hanging by their own hands. There’s an energy here. It’s woven its way into everything along the river. People who’ve taken things from it have found themselves with the worst of luck. It’s cursed.”

     Anna stopped talking. She watched the water cascade off the small cliff. The sound was enough to lull anyone to sleep. She sighed. Roger kissed her forehead.

     “You can talk now.”

     “I have permission? No farts? No couch?”

     “You’re already sleeping on the couch.” Anna smile.

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     “First things first: you believe the story, don’t you?”

     Anna scoffed. “Well yeah. There’s bad luck all throughout the town. Failed breaks on brand new cars. The time Mr. Hanscomb nephew, I forgot his name, nailed his hand to the wall of a barn. He didn’t even remember what or how it’d happened. Umm. There are an unusual amount of suicide by hanging. Go back through the old news paper. There was at least three a week during the Depression. The town nearly died, literally, off. The boiler at the wood mill exploded in the ‘50’s. There was even a fuckin’ cult in this town, in the early 80’s. Nine members, believe it or not, hung themselves. Take a guess where? Along the river.” She didn’t give Roger a chance to speak. “This place has seen a lot of bad times.” Anna pulled herself away from Roger and pushed herself to her feet. She dusted off the seat of her pants. “We should head back.” Anna fished out her cell. “It’s almost seven.”

     “Seven? How? We haven’t been out here for three hours.”

     “Told you, bad mojo around here. What did Pascow say in Pet Sematary? ‘The ground is sour’. Or something like that. That’s this place. Sour ground.”

     “Why did you spend so much time here, if you’re so scared of it?”

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     “I’m not scared of it, Roger.” She said hotly. “I spent time here because three hours passed like ten minutes. Time jumped here. It helped me get through my days.”

     Roger’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset you, babe.” He pushed himself to his feet and wrapped his arms around Anna. She allowed it. He yawned. “Lead the way, Clarke.”

     “To the great Beyond, Lewis!” Anna shouted, pointing to the sky.

     “How was the river?” Mr. Woods asked Roger. He sipped at his can of Pepsi.

     “It was beautiful.”

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     “Didn’t take anything, did you?” He laughed.

     “No.”

     “Good. Out of towners don’t believe the story. Hell. I wouldn’t either. But I have seen bad things happen to good people with my very eyes. Things that couldn’t possibly happen without some sort of interference. I took a flower from there once. The next day I tripped in a hole and not only broke my ankle but I fell at such the right angle that I broke both wrists. What’s the possibility of that?”

     “Did you take the flower back?”

     “My mother did. She freaked. She was an ole’timer. I thought she was going to kill me when I told her.” Mr. Woods laughed again and yanked off a hunk of buttery biscuit. “She returned it to the river. Nothing like that fall has happened to me in the last thirty years. It was because I took that flower. I’ll never change my mind on the subject..”

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     The phone rang in the middle of the night like the howling of a wolf. Mr. Woods stumbled through the darkness of his room, out into the dimly lit living room, to the blinking phone. He brought the receiver to his ear.

     “Dad,” Anna blurted. “Dad.”

     “Anna, you ‘right?” He was suddenly more awake than he’d ever felt in his life. “What happened?”

     “We were in a car wreck. We’re both okay. For the most part. Roger is more banged up than I am. But the car is a total loss. I’m just.” Her voice hitched. “I was scared and didn’t know who else to call.”

     Mr. Woods exhaled his soul. “Calm down, love. You’re all right. Roger is all right. That’s all that matters. Where are you now?”

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     “At the hospital. Roger’s leg is totally messed up. He’s in surgery.” Anna dropped her voice to a whisper.

     “Anna, what’s wrong?”

     “He swerved to miss a bear in the middle of the road. You know how uncommon that is?”

     Mr. Woods got the hint. “You know how uncommon it is for a kid to nail his hand to a bar, or for a kid to break three bones in such a fashion as I did? Very.”

     “I didn’t get a scratch on me. All of the damage to the car is on Roger’s side.”

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     Mr. Woods chuckled his famous hearty, belly jiggling laugh. “You tried to tell him.”

     “I shouldn’t have showed…”

     “Hey. Not your fault. You tried to warn him. He should have listened.”

     “I guess you were right.” She spat. “It has me thinking, though.” She hesitated. “If he’ll lie to you about taking something from the river, what would he lie to me about?”

This author has not provided a photo.

Matthew lives in a small Tennessee town. He has one previous publication, and another on the way, in April.

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Original Creations

Dirty Clean Sweep, a Short Story by Jennifer Weigel

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Wendell was a germophobe. His obsessions with cleanliness extended far beyond the reach of OCD and even hypochondria, because for all that he was totally infatuated with his own mortality and utterly convinced that he was sick, it was his peculiar obsession with germs that eventually drove him to an insanity that doomed the world to an unexpected and dire destruction. For Wendell was the reason for the Clean Sweep.

When the COVID pandemic happened, it only increased Wendell’s fear, and his germophobia worsened significantly. He started meticulously waxing all of the hair off of his body, even his eyebrows, and would shower several times per day, using an abrasive pumice to slough off any dead skin that might otherwise accumulate and attract mites. As his manners and habits surrounding cleanliness became more and more rigid and involved, he left his house less and less for any reason whatsoever. He began to treat his home environment like a hospital or chemical facility and reworked everything to minimize debris, personally installing air filtration systems that rivaled some of the most sterile industry environments and cleaning everything constantly (he had once worked in HVAC and now no longer trusted anyone else to be involved in his efforts).

He took advantage of all of the delivery services, with packages coming to his back porch once weekly. He had everything on video camera and would scream at anyone who didn’t follow his explicit instructions through a small speaker in the ceiling. If a delivery-person didn’t first sanitize their hands with the supplied wipes and then put on latex gloves and booties before turning the door handle to drop their package on the specified table, they were yelled at and reported, and a bad review was left for whatever service had sent them.

Dirty Clean hand sanitizer out and about
Dirty Clean…

Wendell only order packaged foods, simple soups and cereals that would not come in contact with the world outside of their factory packaged settings. He meticulously researched processing plants to determine what he could and could not consume according to his own standards of cleanliness. When a parcel was delivered, he would leave it where it sat for two to three days time depending on the weather, all the while monitoring it. He would eventually suit up in a tyvek jumpsuit, goggled and gloved, and brave the porch himself in order to extract his needed food and hygiene supplies. Whilst there, he would spray and wipe down the porch, replenish the hand sanitizing wipes and latex gloves, and take everything that might have come into contact with the outside world out with his trash. The cycle would then repeat again a few days later. Every delivery included yet more gear to perpetuate his clean infatuation. More latex gloves, more wipes, more sprays, more tyvek suits… And every time his labors increased…

While Wendell continued to go about his business, ordering life necessities like soap and soup online, a slow and subtle change to his environment began to take over. It wasn’t obvious and, as he never put any distance between himself and his bubble world, he was unaware of the shift. It began because of a spore, well more of an anti-spore like blossoming of suddenly self-aware sterilization. No one really knows where it came from, or how it managed to get such a strong foothold, but perhaps it was because of Wendell’s meticulous cleaning habits. For this strange and unusual being, or beings as it were (for it was hard to tell whether there was a single individual or a number of them all acting under one consciousness), though unaffected by cleaning reagents and the like, had once been highly susceptible to bacteria and rarely survived at length when competing for resources with other species previous to its evolution in Wendell’s abode. But the bereft home was the perfect outpost for it to thrive, and it finally managed to gain a foothold. It grew rapidly and had soon infiltrated most every corner.

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As mentioned, Wendell didn’t notice, or perhaps he welcomed the change. For this strange surface skimmer actually looked even cleaner than its surroundings, appearing as an even brighter less dingy white that almost seemed to glow. It embodied cleanliness, at least insofar as we have come to perceive the concept. And the more that it acclimated to its habitat, the more resilient it became, learning to alter its own surroundings to its gain by killing off any and all other life forms that stood in its way. When a small quantity of some bacteria or mite or other single-celled threat was introduced, say on a box surface or embedded in the cardboard, the newly evolved clean critter would attack and annihilate them almost as if it were itself composed of harsh cleansers like bleach and ammonia. It seemed to develop a memory for different organisms and found a way to destroy most everything. It steadily increased in size and became stronger and stronger.

Clean Dirty hand sanitizer out and about
Clean Dirty…

Finally, one day, it had grown large enough to determine that Wendell himself was a threat, for no matter how clean his environment or person was, he still harbored a myriad of organisms required to keep a human healthy and fully functioning. He was inherently dirty and had to be eliminated. And so the creature he had fostered at length, by providing a nearly sterile environment for its incubation, rose up and destroyed him. It did so while he was sleeping and so he had no awareness of what had happened; had he realized a blanket of seemingly sudsy foam was suffocating him he would have panicked thinking it was some sort of bacterial infection or the like. But he blissfully slept through his untimely death, and the aggressive new organism worked to dispel all of the unclean bits and detritus of his being.

After finally taking over the whole of the house, this new creature began to spread, much like a fungus or a rot, dismantling all in its path in order to leave a wake of clean sterile nothingness. Although it has been said that nature abhors a vacuum, somehow this void had become powerful enough to negate that and continued on its path of complete and utter destruction, leaving nothing living in its path. Before too long it had absorbed the two neighboring houses, and then the houses just beyond those, in a sort of reverse infection that defied logical explanation. The local health department and center for disease control were perplexed; these spaces seemed too clean to harbor such a deadly silent killer and yet something was slowly annihilating everything in its path on a microscopic level. It almost acted like a slow progressing chemical spill but yet there was no evidence of such either.

Before long, word had gotten out and samples had been taken and distributed across the globe. One of those samples was eventually leaked intentionally, as a weapon of mass destruction, and was unable to later be contained. The Clean Sweep was upon all and the world began to be disinfected wholly as it spread. Life was literally in the balance, slated to be eradicated and left to a sort of shiny surface devoid of substance. All was being cleansed, slowly but surely. What started with Wendell, whom would never be known or acknowledged as the source of this new terror, had grown to be much larger.

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.
Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

If you enjoyed this tale, here is another creepy story about cleanliness. Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.

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Original Creations

More Nail Polish Paintings by Jennifer Weigel

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Well, seems I’m at it again, with more nail polish paintings into found thrift store art. Why so many flowers this time…? Well a friend sent them and I just couldn’t help myself. They are so perfect for creepy fairy paintings. And for those of you who think fairies aren’t scary, you haven’t read much about the fey now have you?

More Revisitations nail polish paintings by Jennifer Weigel
More Revisitations nail polish paintings by Jennifer Weigel

Top left: Blue Fairy, originally painted by M Wadorf

Top right: Pegasus, originally painted by Edie Babb

Bottom left: Unicorn, originally painted by R Lovelace (After I painted this I realized I missed the opportunity to do a troll with a bridge and so I hope to do another along those lines in the future.)

Bottom middle: Fairy, originally painted by SD Janz

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Bottom right: Dragon, original signed FZ, very sparkly with black-light sensitive eyes

And the most horrific of the bunch this time is this mermaid, who started as a weird bucket painting by Helen Miller… So, what’s in the bucket, Helen? Body parts? Fish? Plants not yet in bloom? I envisioned a trapped mermaid waiting to ensnare some unsuspecting land-goer, because no one would expect to find a mermaid there…

Mermaid in bucket, original by Helen Miller
Is this mermaid trapped in need of help or just trying to lure you close?

So I broke down and redid the unicorn to a troll. Apparently the troll was hungry… Anyway, here is the result. I am happier with it now.

Troll with toll bridge, original by R Lovelace
Hungry troll wants bridge tolls after eating innocent unicorn.

You can find more of my Revisitations art on Haunted MTL here, including links to even more nail polish paintings…

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.
Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.

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Original Creations

Bloody Mary or More Doll Costuming by Jennifer Weigel

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So I came upon a Liv doll with no wig and decided to make her a mourning ensemble. The result was so reminiscent of this Bloody Mary music video based on the Lady Gaga song, by Ruben Samuel Cortez for his film school final (not the Wednesday TikTok remix, though that is also fun) that I simply had to share.

Costumed Liv doll to Bloody Mary by Jennifer Weigel
Costumed Liv doll to Bloody Mary by Jennifer Weigel

The outfit is made up of really fancy thick black lace leftover from a skirt I decorated for a party and an old translucent black handkerchief. It really reminds me of the table dancers in the music video but black instead of white (though it also alludes to some of the other outfits too, and Wednesday’s dress from the TikTok remake).

Close up of Bloody Mary doll's face
Close up of Bloody Mary doll’s face

I love the detail on the eyes on these Liv dolls, which are embedded and not painted on.

Closer still...
Closer still…

The Liv dolls’ eyes are just so lifelike. I think this is what attracts me to the Rainbow High dolls too, and why I had to turn the Makeover Failfix 2Dreami into Lady Amalthea of The Last Unicorn…

Failfix 2Dreami as Lady Amalthea from The Last Unicorn (not scary but one of my all time fave movies and I love how this doll turned out so I'm posting her here anyway)
Failfix 2Dreami as Lady Amalthea from The Last Unicorn (not scary but one of my all time fave movies and I love how this doll turned out so I’m posting her here anyway)

If you want to check out more of my altered dolls, I have posted several to Haunted MTL here:

Fashion Zombies

Heartbreak Hotel

Mummy Dearest

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Catharsis

Fairy Wands

She Wolf

Queen of Everything

More Altered Dolls

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Krampus

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.
Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.

Oh and here’s a bonus photo of the skirt that I got the lace for originally, titled Kiss My A$$.

Portrait of the artist, dressed for a Blue Jeans and Bling party
Portrait of the artist, dressed for a Blue Jeans and Bling party

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