The Cerebral Panther

Do you believe in ghosts?  Check out our latest curation: a story of the supernatural featuring Australian writer Eddy Chen and Venezuelan illustrator, R. Gilbert.

Maria woke to the rumble of thunder.  Her window rattled and, at any moment, it would shatter into a thousand shards.  She was sure of it.  But was it thunder…or was something outside?  If she drew back the curtains, would a colossal, alien nostril flare in response?

Maria patted blindly for her smartphone.  Her palm brushed against a bottle of sleeping pills – the pills her father had lent her – and its contents spilled out.  She had forgotten to twist the cap back into place.

You prey on the weak; those whose judgment cannot be trusted.  Maria had given that man 36 months imprisonment, one for each tablet in his Ziplock bag.  He had been the first of the four she’d sent to prison the week before self-isolation.

Maria found her phone. 4:23am.  Two more hours before sunrise.  She could take another handful of pills to get her through it…but she shouldn’t.  It was hard enough to stay engaged now that the trials were all held via telephone.

BOOOOM-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE.

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The window rattled once more, and Maria hid deeper within her blanket.  Had she caught a glimpse of her wardrobe shaking too?  Was something trying to get out?

Maria flicked on the lamp, and the sweat on her brow glistened.  Nothing was moving.  She cursed at herself.  Before she packed her suitcase, she had been certain she had outgrown her demons – that they had only attached themselves to the little girl who lay coiled and wide-eyed in this very bed, a lifetime ago.

No.  She wouldn’t curse at herself.  She cursed her scum of a husband.  The creatures of the night may overpower her reason, but no force in any dimension could ever overwhelm her pride.  She would live forever in this house than spend another night with him.

Now the howl of the wind sounded like the cry of ghouls, and the pane of glass that separated them from her seemed to be thinning by the second.  And just like that, the thunder came again.  She couldn’t stay in the room.

Her father.  She should check on him.  Yes.  He fits snugly within the vulnerable demographic.  She ought to check on him.

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Maria swung her feet over the edge of the bed.  They hovered above the floor, above the dark gap from which a hand would shoot out and snatch her by the ankle.

You are consumed by irrational fear, she had told the second prisoner, the model citizen who had been beating his wife behind closed doors.  Tell me, when would she have had the time to cheat on you?  Between looking after you, your children, your parents?  Between her two jobs?  Hm?

The moment her feet touched the floor, she threw off her blanket and ran to the door, swinging it wide open.

BOOOOM-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE.

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Maria ran down the short hallway, her face contorted in terror.  She burst into her father’s room and immediately launched into an explanation for the intrusion.

But the room was lifeless.  As lifeless as if her past two days had only existed in her mind, and she had been alone all that time.  A spike of fear struck her chest and spread outwards.  She sunk against a wall, trembling at the thought of having to descend down the staircase and into the study.  He had to be there.  He always was, at odd hours of the night, nourished by his ever-shifting library.

Maria turned back down the hallway.  The light switch was right beside her.  It would take little energy for her to summon the ingenuity of humankind and disperse the spectres that lingered about.

But her father would return.  She couldn’t let him see the light.  He’s too smart to arrive at the wrong conclusion.

BOOOOM-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE.

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Maria slammed her father’s door shut and ran down the hall.  At least he was hard of hearing.  She froze atop the staircase that led down into eternal darkness.  Standing guard in the middle, affixed to the wall, was the portrait of her late mother.  In the sunlight, her mother looked so strong, so lean, her eyes proud and focused – like Maria’s.

In the dark, lit by the flashes of lightning, she looked gaunt, and sinewy, her eyes determined and hungry.  Maria closed her own and dashed down the stairs, her socks sliding against the lacquered wooden steps that might as well be flawless ice.

This was the most dangerous part.  Her mother’s corpse could pull itself out of the frame and throw itself against her back.  She would tangle and become one with her.  She would hit her head, and her father would discover the two of them in the morning.

There are no such things as ghosts, Maria had told the third, after he failed to attend the court-mandated psychiatric assessment for the last time.  This is for the protection of the community.

Maria’s feet found the landing.  She turned a corner and saw a splash of light at the far end of the house, just outside the study.  She was almost there.

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But the kitchen was in between them.  And the kitchen’s window, with the blinds wide open.

You need to grow up, she had told the last; a young boy convicted of his fourth armed robbery.  And she was sure he would.  Nothing aged a person quicker than prison.

Maria’s sweat-drenched palms were cooled against the tiles of the kitchen floor.  She was just out of view of the window.

What would they think if they saw you now?  The cerebral panther, reduced to a crawling insect.  All her life, she’d been fighting these ridiculous wars.  When they couldn’t fault her mastery of the law, they would turn their attention to her personal life.  But Maria could handle humans.  Humans are easily understood, and easily dismantled.

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She pushed the voices out of her mind, gritting her teeth until her forearms found the carpet of the hallway once more.  She hurried towards the light.

And sure enough, her father sat rigidly with his back to her, on an unadorned wooden chair, under the glow of a single lamp, a book splayed in one hand, mumbling words through half-closed lips.

Maria curled down behind the sofa, in a nook that was as comforting as her father’s embrace.  She could see him.  She could feel the phantom warmth of the lamp light on her skin.  And yet, she could easily retreat into hiding the moment he reaches for his bookmark.  And by then, dawn will have come, and the sunlight would pierce the curtains, and she would be restored once more.

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Eddy is an fledgling Australian writer at night, based in Canberra. Keep an eye out for his novella, Some Vile Deity, and his epic dystopian fantasy, The Brothers’ Embrace.

R. Gilbert is an Venezuelan illustrator, living in Chile. Under the name Strangeforest, he creates artwork focusing on hand-drawn pen and ink illustrations. He often depicts subjects about the duality of Life and Death, Nature as a part of it all, mystery and strange things and surreal scenarios. Check out his amazing work on Instagram.

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