THE GHASTLY • by April McCloud

She had never held her head higher than when she stepped through the gilded double doors, red cape flowing behind her. Her reception at the unloading area had been warmer than she’d dreamt of in her most crazed delusions of grandeur. Now, she was finally walking through the hallowed doors to celebrate her victory.

She was euphoric, triumphant.

This was her day.

Behind the wooden podium, the host’s eyepatch did not fully cover the scarring beneath, giving him a deadly mien. At the sight of her though, he gave a half bow with a hand to his chest that highlighted the embroidered name Jacob on his tunic. “Welcome to the Ghastly.” His remaining eye glinted with promise like a knife’s edge. “Table for one?”

Trying to remain dignified and not lose the gravitas of the moment, she dipped her head. “The Rostrum Table, please.”

He gave a knowing grin. “This is a special day for you, indeed.”

The Rostrum Table sat atop a circular raised dais and while it only lifted her inches above the room, it felt as if she were climbing a beanstalk into the sky.

“The chef will be with you momentarily.”

Crystal chandeliers with candles adorning them sent shimmers of light to every dark shadow. They were beacons for her, she knew, announcing the change from who she had been to who she would now become. The large hall was empty of other guests, the early entry an honor. Soon, others, their dreams and memories perfuming the air like smoke from a genie’s lamp, would join her and pay witness to her triumph. Tonight, she would ascend. Tonight, she would be accepted.

Her face hurt from grinning.

“Lady Red, welcome. I’m the head chef, Wilhelm.” He was delightfully portly with a single large eyebrow that arched and danced like a drug-addled caterpillar. “I am overjoyed to see you here.”

“I can’t believe it’s finally happened, myself.”

“I had no doubt, my dear.” He touched her shoulder in a fatherly gesture. “Will you do the honor of allowing me free design for this special occasion?”

She nodded proudly. “Bring me your finest art.”

He bowed formally at the waist.

As other diners arrived, she caught the looks of disbelief. While it could have been simple surprise to see anyone at the Rostrum Table since it so often sat empty, she suspected it was shock at seeing her, of all people, seated there. She struggled to maintain her air of dignity and modesty, aching to point and cackle in smugness in the face of all the disbelief she’d endured over the years.

Instead, she bowed her head politely, while the whispers of excitement wove like briar thorns throughout the room.

Every table was occupied when the music crescendoed with a flourish. Her heart raced in anticipation, the cart pushed in by Wilhelm himself. A crisp, white linen fully covered his creation. The room hushed as he stopped beside her table, bowing grandly. “In honor of Lady Red’s ascension.” He made a show of yanking away the linen. A gasp of delight burst past her lips.

The creature was more gloriously displayed than she’d ever imagined possible. Nestled amongst red silk inside of a wicker basket was the head of the Wolf, dead eyes staring. His jaw rested on the basket lip and between his jowls his canines pierced a pristine, shining red apple. Her eyes shot to the crowd to see a woman wearing a mirror mask that covered the top half of her face — her blood red lips smiling as she gave a delicate nod of acknowledgement. Red’s face flushed at the honor of receiving a tribute from Lady Snow, herself.

The wolf’s head was decorated with wild flowers and three haunting red roses in the prime of blooming. She was a hint choked, knowing they were to symbolize her fallen grandmother, mother, and huntsman father. She found Lady Belle seated at a table alone, her plate barely finding space between the piles of books. And while the woman didn’t lift her gaze from the book in her hand, Red saw her slight smirk and the casual way she shifted her arm to bring attention to the beast pelt she wore for a cloak. Red felt a thrill of inspiration, looking at her wolf’s teeth — she’d make herself a necklace to commemorate this moment.

The room was taken by applause and cheers thrown her way. The night was more than she’d imagined.

Wilhelm set a covered plate before her and upon lifting the silver lid, released a subtle metallic aroma intermingled with the unfamiliar scent of victory. He turned the plate to ensure the perfect angle so the words, The Ghastly, framed the meal.

“Naturally, I decided your steak should be served raw.” He gave a quiet chuckle as her eyes began to devour the curves of the meat. “You are Red, after all.”

She thanked the man, picking up her knife and fork. She hadn’t seen the steaming loaf of bread and glass of red wine placed before her, but she delighted when he put the basket on the table, the wolf’s head facing her. He was the perfect centerpiece — and companion — for this meal, after all.

The energy in the room was buoyant and setting knife to steak she found it to be so tender it practically glided through — just like the knife she’d sunk between his ribs earlier. Blood was pooling beneath her food exactly as it had on the floor of his den where she’d found him fast asleep. And as she brought the first bite to her lips, a shiver ran through her body.

He tasted like conquest.

Looking around at her fellow diners, she reveled in their gazes of admiration and jealousy. As she quickly cut herself another bite — dunking it into the growing pool of red — she felt the blood drip down her chin. But it only made her grin. No one would call her Little, ever again.

April McCloud [she/her] is a 1% bionic human hailing from Rochester, NY. She’s a librarian, educator, and opinionated black belt who worships her cat and hopes to be reincarnated as a red panda. Her short works have appeared in The Black Fork Review, and Knee Brace Press, and more are forthcoming in Blue Unicorn, Aurtistic Zine, and Black Sunflowers Press. Her debut novel is set to release in 2024 from Rebel Satori Press.

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