Episode 1 – Spooky Stories
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Our inaugural episode! Join us for three very spooky stories as we celebrate the first episode of Working Title: A Literary Arts Podcast—just in time for Halloween!
Tonight’s readings by:
Madison Brake — “The Bell”
Celine Pawlack — “Artificial Assistance”
Genevieve Leanne Dominguez — “Yellow Post-it Note”
This is Working Title, A Literary Arts Podcast.
This podcast is a literary citizenship project founded by the fall 2019 cohort candidates in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida.
Our episodes will feature in-studio readings from the UCF literary community, interviews and readings from published faculty and students, craft round-tables, and special events such as public readings and conference reports. Tonight, for our our inaugural episode, we are presenting you with one of our seasonal readings.
Tonight’s episode is “Spooky Stories.”
A man, trapped in a labyrinth with a strange beast, becomes obsessed with the sound of a bell. This is Madison Brake’s “The Bell.”
Death came for Elias laden with the chime of a tiny bell from within a darkened cell.
He didn’t exactly see the beast come for him so much as he felt him. The creature arrived in a wild rush, as if a window had burst open, letting the wind come howling in, bearing with it a sense of darkness that was more than just the absence of light; it was a physical force that threw itself into the chamber. He came at Elias as a shadow made flesh, the long, cruel curve of his claws reaching for Elias’s throat.
Then the beast of the shadows stopped short, halted by the bars of his cage. His claws curled around the old iron, and his pale, feline eyes pierced the young man trembling before him, pinning him in place. Around the creature’s neck, a silver bell danced with a light chime.
“My, oh my,” said the beast. His voice was smooth and silken. He spoke like a man, and seemed to stand like one, although Elias could not see the beast’s legs in the dark of the prison. “What do I find upon my doorstep today?”
Elias realized he was pressed against the crumbling wall of the labyrinth, but he didn’t remember throwing himself there. His heart beat like a frantic bird trying to escape its cage. He gulped down deep breaths and tried to take in the creature before him despite the darkness. The beast’s hands were thin and stretched into cat-like claws. He was all shadow, save for his luminous, cunning eyes.
The cage itself was old, with rust beginning to show itself at the base of the bars, and Elias knew that it had been a long time since someone had come into the labyrinth to bother locking a prisoner away in a particular part of it. The beast’s cage was the only barred cell as far as Elias had seen, and the beast itself the only living thing that he’d found within the winding walls.
“What are you?” Elias asked.
“I am Kol,” said the beast. He dipped his head a little so that the bell on his neck rang faintly. “What have you done to find yourself in a place like this?”
“Nothing.” The truth threatened to rise from its place in the back of his mind, but he shoved it away, tucked it into a box, and put it in a place where he didn’t have to look at it too closely.
“Not nothing. The labyrinth is a place into which you toss things you don’t want to see the light of day again, where you try to bury a sin or hide a secret. So, you must be a sin or a secret. Or perhaps a fool. I met a fool once. What a pleasant fellow he was.”
“What I am is of no consequence to you,” Elias replied. “I don’t suppose you can tell me how to get out of here?”
“I suppose I could, but I don’t think I will,” said Kol. He moved, and the bell on his neck twitched, laughing a high, tinkling laugh. Elias stared at the bell. It caught the edge of the weak torchlight near the front of the chamber, the metal glowing brilliantly. It was the brightest thing that he had seen since he’d been tossed in here. The bell seemed to wink at him as it passed in and out of the light.
“Have you found a key?” Something hungry lurked in Kol’s eyes.
“No.” He had. He’d scoured every room in the labyrinth he could find, followed every twisting passage, seeking a way out. The key had been lying on the floor of a room of no light. He’d only found it because he’d kicked it with his foot. Like the bars of the cage, it was cold steel beginning to show hints of rust. He couldn’t say why he didn’t tell Kol, except that he didn’t think he quite trusted the creature.
“Ah,” said Kol. “Well then. Should you find it, perhaps we might talk.”
Elias left Kol to his cage and continued to prowl the labyrinth.
On that first night—if one could call it that in a place of no sun— Elias dreamed of the bell, flashing in the dark, tinkling brightly.
The bell followed Elias through the labyrinth the next day during his waking hours, the sound ringing in his ears like joyous laughter. It was the only thing that shattered the monotony of the silent, rotting stone. Eventually, Elias gave up trying to ignore the thought of the bell. He began to find his way back to Kol and his prison. The way was mostly dark, with only the occasional sputtering torch or glowing moss to provide any relief. As he tried to remember the path back, he thought he caught a glimpse of movement. When he whipped around, however, he saw nothing but heavy patches of darkness. Nothing moved.
The silence twined itself around him like a noose. He wavered. The shadows seemed to slither and crawl, too quiet, too quiet. He turned away and scurried the rest of the way back to Kol’s prison, taking refuge in the solid thump-thump of his boots on the ground.
When he arrived, Kol seemed to unfurl from the darkness, rushing forward as he had before. This time his black claws snaked out from between the bars, halting inches from Elias’s chest. The bell jingled frantically against his neck.
“What was that for?” Elias snapped. With his eyes on the bell, he felt less fearful than before.
Kol withdrew his arm and sat in the cage, calm and composed, blacker than a night of no moon with two pale eyes and one pale bell. “One never knows what one might find down here,” he said. “Best to be safe.” But he ran a pink tongue across his sharp, gleaming teeth.
“Have you seen anyone else down here?” Elias asked.
“Certainly not. Just you, sir.”
Elias swallowed. “What do you have that bell for?”
Kol made a rumbling sound that might have been laughter. “So that the mice can hear me coming. It’s only fair to them.” Kol narrowed his eyes in the way cats do when they smile. “Its sound is a lovely companion in the dark as well, wouldn’t you say?”
Elias said nothing.
“I don’t suppose you’ve found a key, have you?” said Kol.
“Why? Does the key belong to your cell?”
Kol considered. “Yes. And should you find it, I might ask if you could let me out.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I know the way out of the labyrinth,” Kol whispered. “Why else would they cage a fellow in a supposedly inescapable place?”
“I guess…that’s a good point.” Elias felt himself growing weary. He didn’t know where the sun or moon sat in the sky outside, but in the labyrinth; it didn’t matter. He was tired from hours of walking, and the hollowness in his stomach continued to gnaw at his insides. “I should go now.”
The bell laughed again as Kol cocked his head. “Oh, so soon? Why not stay a while? It’s so good to have company down here.” He actually sounded sad.
“I should go,” said Elias again. The sound of the bell had calmed his frayed nerves, but the thought of sleeping under the watch of Kol’s pale eyes filled him with foreboding.
That night, the bell chased him through the labyrinth, along with the twitchings and shiftings of something lurking in the dark. Eventually, he curled up in the room where he had found the key, his back to the wall so nothing could creep up from behind him. He pulled out the key and tapped it on the stone. It gave a metallic ring, but it was dull and muffled, a sad mockery of the bell. He put it away, closed his eyes, and dreamed of the bell.
When he woke next, the silence pressed on him like weights upon his head, scraping at his skull, tearing into his skin. Heavy. Horrifying. He scrambled to his feet, making as much noise as possible, savoring the rough scuff and thump of his feet. Hunger continued to eat at his belly, casting a fog over his thoughts, but greater than his desire for food was the necessity of sound, of life. He wanted the bell. He needed it.
He raced through the maze like a rat that had long since memorized the path to its prize. He ignored the small, skittering movements caught out of the corner of his eye.
Before he knew it, he was at the arched entrance to Kol’s dwelling. Once more the beast rushed to the bars, which shuddered as he threw his weight against them, two sets of black claws grasping for him this time.
“Wait!” Elias’s voice was ragged. “I have the key! I have it!” He brandished it.
Kol slid back from the bars. “Well, well, what a pleasant surprise this is!”
“I want the bell,” said Elias. “Give me the bell, and I’ll give you the key.”
“My bell for the key?” said the beast. “I suppose.” In a swift, sure motion Kol raised a claw and cut through the leather cord binding the bell to his neck. He caught the little silver ornament and held it up, pinched between two claws. “Give me the key and it is yours.”
With trembling hands, Elias passed Kol the key and took the bell, slipping it from the cord. It sat pale and cold in his filthy hands, and it winked at him in the flickering light. He held it between thumb and forefinger and shook it, gently at first, then in violent motions, blissful in its bright sound. He continued to ring the bell as Kol slid the key into the lock of his cage and opened it without a sound. He was wrapped in the sweetness of its laughter as Kol slipped from the cage on silent feet. The sound didn’t cease until Kol’s claws tore through his throat, and the tiny bauble tipped from his hands and rolled into a silence that settled over the entirety of the labyrinth.
Madison Brake is an illustrator and fantasy writer interested in animals, fairy tales, and the nature of fear. Her short stories have appeared in The Blackwater Review and Chomp. She graduated from Ringling College in 2019 and currently pursues an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida.
A smart fridge refuses to open late at night, leading a college student to have a strange conversation with customer service.
This is Celine Pawlack’s “Artificial Assistance.”
*Transcript coming soon.
I placed my laptop on the coffee table and stumbled from the couch to the kitchen. The microwave’s clock shone 2:45 a.m. It was too late, or too early, to eat. Despite this, I went up to the fridge, its embedded screen on the front dimmed, unlike the clock on the microwave. I remembered the pumpkin spice latte I still had in there from earlier. I never drank anything with caffeine that late, or that early, but I had a feeling that the worry I still had from the essay I turned would continue to keep me up the whole night. I tugged on fridge’s door. It didn’t open.
I flicked my finger across the embedded screen on the door of the fridge, illuminating my wrinkled t-shirt and sweatpants so that they glowed a bluish-white color. Up came the calendar, blank to-do list, and time. A box popped up in the lower right corner with text written and it said: “Cannot open.”
“Really?” I huffed. I walked back to the coffee table, picked up my phone, and looked up the refrigerator brand’s website.
I eventually found the customer service number. Before having to subject myself to making that call, I gave a tug on each of the handles, but none of the doors budged. I then contacted the customer service number.
After a few rings, a halting, monotone voice led me through instructions of pressing numbers to get to a person I needed to talk to solve this problem.
“There are…five customers…ahead of you. Thank you for your patience,” said a robotic voice. I placed the phone on the counter with the speaker on so that I could sit down on the couch, going back to the TV show I was watching, this time with the volume lowered and the captions on, waiting for a human to be on the receiving end of my complaint. Smooth jazz drifted from the phone, a feeble attempt to soothe angry customers. I didn’t mind it too much for about a few minutes, until I realized that it was the same tune on a minute timed loop. Sometimes it was interrupted by the countdown of customers calling ahead of me, though it was often stalled a few times on a single number, unsurprisingly.
After I finished an episode and started a new one, a voice on the other end said, “Hello.”
I paused my show and snatched up my phone. “Hi. I had a question about my fridge. Everything seems fine with it, it just won’t open.”
“How will it not open?” asked the customer service lady.
“I keep trying to open it, but it won’t budge. The screen says that it won’t open, but it’s on the regular home screen instead of a separate one. Is this part of a—”
The box on the screen now had “Cannot open. Wait until 5:00 AM. No error.”
“No error?” I muttered.
“What is ‘no error?”
“The box says that now. It just popped up as I was talking.”
“Is your refrigerator up to date?”
I didn’t think that would cause me to not be able to open it, but I went to settings and checked. The settings said there was no current versions to download and I told the customer service lady that.
She responded with “There is no problem if it is up to date.”
“But I can’t open it, and I haven’t eaten since this afternoon,” I argued.
She replied with “There should not be an error if it is up to date.”
“Well, there is one. And the door has never had any problems opening before.”
She replied with “I can check if there is an error. Just tell me the personal information under settings and turn on the internet connection if it happens to be off.”
I followed her instructions and waited while all of this was being processed. I turned my mouth away from the phone and muttered, “That pumpkin spice latte sounds really sounds good about now.”
A few seconds later, she replied, “There is nothing wrong with your refrigerator.”
The screen now had, “Cannot open. Wait until 5:00 AM. No error. It is not recommended to consume food and beverages right now.”
“Something’s not right here,” I said.
“It is up to date,” she said. “There is no error.”
“I just want to open my refrigerator. Can’t you do something? Send out someone to come out here? Like, I’m that desperate.”
She responded with, “There is no error. Why would we send someone out there?”
“Look,” I muttered, “I just submitted a huge essay I had due and worked all day on, and I still turned in past the deadline. I’m hungry and stressed and I just want my stupid pumpkin spice latte that’s going to keep me up at night, or the whole night.”
To this, there was no response.
“Hello?” I eventually asked.
“Hello,” she replied.
I sighed and said, “Is there someone else I may speak with?”
“What do you mean no?” I asked.
And she said, “There is no error. It cannot open. Wait until 5:00 AM. It is not recommended to consume unhealthy food and beverages right now. Thank you for your call.”
The phone beeped, and the call ended.
I retreated to the couch in defeat, waiting for my own refrigerator to open up. Little did I know then that that was the beginning of the uprising of artificial intelligence.
Celine Pawlack is currently an undergraduate senior at the University of Central Florida, majoring in creative writing.
After being assigned to oversee a Halloween party at a university’s off-campus residence, a young police officer encounters a gruesome situation that is connected to her past.
“Yellow Post-It Note,” by Genevieve Leanne Dominguez.
How long can someone live in a costume?
The screen is the only light in the car. The boy and girl, immortalized through pixels and high-definition color, laugh and play. The boy, with his bright blue eyes, made you believe he was a pirate about to be mutinied, a scientist examining the stars, a British teacher admonishing his students for believing in ghost stories.
He had a good British accent.
“Cheer up, fellow – ”
I jump from the sharp tap on the passenger window. Sean smiles and holds up two packages of Nutter Butters. I silence the video.
“Hey partner. Brought you these.”
He tosses me one package and it slips through my fingers. The phone falls and lands near my shoes. My uniform feels stiff. I haven’t worn it in yet.
Sean rips open his package and I start the car.
“Chief wants us to oversee the off-campus residence at the university tonight,” Sean says.
“Wonderful,” I reply.
It’s Halloween. The sky is quiet, dark. The streetlights guide us to the apartment complex.
Once, he stood under a streetlight in his vampire costume and pretended it was a spotlight. I laughed, unaware of how much the costume was ripping him from his identity, fragments of him buried underneath different characters for years. I didn’t see it because I was the one who introduced him to costumes and spotlights and scripts long ago.
Autumn, it’s just acting, he said.
He tried to bite someone’s neck that same night.
I park the car at the far end of the complex. It’s not large. I’ve been here before to quiet some parties.
There’s five buildings, 2 floors each. Each floor holds about seven apartments. Most of them will be open so students can have one giant party like last year.
The silence rests in my ears and creates whispers of what once was for him. He encouraged me to attend college. I decided on a different route.
The darkness settles far below the clouds. The nearest streetlight is a speck. A car screeches by. A quiet tickle enters the center of my back.
“Check this out.”
Sean hands me a yellow post-it note with neat handwriting.
“A ghost is here to claim what he used to say,” I read.
“Neat, right?” he asks.
I crumple the note and stuff it in my pocket.
Sean and I split up. I’m responsible for buildings 3 and 5. It’s 10:30. One minute before the party begins. 10:31 on 10-31.
I got the calm side. A woman enters the outside hallway on the opposite side, groceries in one hand and keys jangling in the other. She waves.
“Love your costume! The party’s that way.”
She gestures to the left.
“No, ma’am. I’m a real officer.” I say.
She pauses and laughs.
“Sorry! A lot of the costumes look so real tonight. You should see this one guy! He looks really creepy. But he’s really hot.”
“The party’s already started? I thought 10:31 on 10-31.”
“Oh, no. They wanted to do something different this year.”
She waves and steps through the door.
I continue my rounds. I feel the cold, rough breeze through the thick fabric of my uniform. Thunder rumbles from a distance. I rest my hand on my weapon.
The call comes quietly, vibrating gently in my pocket. I move the crumpled note aside to answer.
“Autumn?” Sean whispers.
“Come to building 2. Be careful.”
“Should I call for backup?” I ask.
“Freeze! Put your – ”
The phone clatters to the ground.
I hear screaming. I take out my weapon and run. An outpour of costumes and glow necklaces rush my way. Someone grabs my arm.
He’s wearing bloody scrubs.
“This is real. It’s real blood,” he breathes.
“What does he look like?”
The nurse shakes his head and breathes heavily.
“What does he look like?!” I shout.
“Tall. Long blond hair.”
“Which apartment were you in?”
I enter slowly. Plastic cups and headphones litter the hardwood floor. A silent party. Furry spiders with red eyes hang from the ceiling and cobwebs hang loosely on the walls.
Thunder rumbles loudly. Lightning flashes through the window. My boots clank on the floor. I remove them. My uniform crumples in tightly as I bring my weapon closer. I remove the top and leave my black tank top on.
I enter the bedroom. A woman lies on the bed, ears beside her hand. Her fingers beside her arm. Her blood has soaked the bedsheets and pooled on the floor. Her eyes are open in fear, lined heavily with black eyeliner. She’s dressed as a pirate. I gag and exit the room.
I search the entire apartment. No one else.
I enter the outside hallway and am pushed to the ground. His screaming leaves my ears ringing. His hands grab my throat and I hit his jugular. It gives me a second to break free.
We stand and I look in his blue eyes.
“Leo,” I whisper.
He cocks his head to the side, eyes wide. He lunges.
I scream and run into the next open apartment. I shut the door and lock it.
I scream again when I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Shh, it’s me.” Sean whispers.
There’s thin scratches on his face. Blood trickles from one wound and has dried underneath his nose.
“Leo,” I say.
“Who?” he asks.
Tears fill my eyes. The rain hits the window hard and fast. I reach for my phone and feel the post-it note.
When I find a pen, I write out my idea as I tell Sean.
“He was my best friend. He lost himself.”
“Lost himself?” he asks.
“He was a theatre major. He took his roles too far,” I explain.
When I finish, I read over it quickly. I hope Leo can read my writing.
Sean calls for backup. I grab my gun and head for the door.
“Wait! I’m coming with you.”
I shake my head.
“I need to do this.”
I unlock the door.
“Autumn? What was his last role?”
“An killer at a party,” I reply.
I search for Leo. Everyone’s cleared the complex or locked their doors. The raindrops slide down my face and pile on my shoulders.
He’s on the second floor of the first building, rummaging through food. His long blond hair is streaked with blood. His fingers are dark red. A man dressed as a scientist slumps against the wall. His eyeball sockets are empty and his jaw hangs open, broken.
He turns around and screams. He rushes at me. I read from the post-it note, my voice shaky.
“Scene. Police cars surround the party. The killer stands still.”
I want to test something. How long can Leo live in a costume? Can he change characters?
Sirens blare through the storm. I hand him the post-it note.
“It’s your next line,” I say.
He reads it. He pushes the hair from his face and clears his throat. His bright blue eyes regain the shine they had when we were young.
He smiles and touches my shoulder. And I know.
He’s become the character I invented for him long ago. I wanted to prove he wasn’t as good an actor as he said he was. But he proved me wrong. He hasn’t lost his talent for a good British accent. He, the teacher, chuckles and admonishes me, the student, for believing in ghost stories.
“Cheer up, fellow. It’s not real after all.”
Genevieve Leanne Dominguez is an undergraduate senior at the University of Central Florida. She’s earning her Bachelors in English – Literature.
Thanks for listening. And we hope you enjoyed tonight’s “Spooky Stories.” We’ll be back in two weeks with more from the Working Title podcast.
We’d like to thank Madison, Celine, and Genevieve for their contributions to tonight’s episode.
Tonight’s spooky sounds were provided by Hunter Brake. Hunter is a mechanical engineering student and at the University of Central Florida. His hobbies include creative writing—primarily sci-fi and fantasy—along with music, gaming, and quidditch. Hunter is a huge nerd.
Working Title: A Literary Arts Podcast is in independent project produced with the support of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, the Department of English, and the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Central Florida
Be sure to visit us at www.workingtitlepod.com. There you’ll find transcripts of shows, links to local literary events, and information about the team that brings you the Working Title podcast.