Featured Author: Zachary Toombs

Oil and fire and flesh.

Like a silent incantation these words were laced throughout my every day. The oil in the cast iron fed an eruption of greasy fire, searing the sinews of dripping flesh. Yes, there was the neon-licked mist of the city, the chefs who worked under me, and the solitude of my apartment, but these three words were the operators of my limbs. The workers of my mind. The motivators of my smile.

Oil and fire and flesh.

I had red wine most nights. It swirled about in my glass as I sat in that engulfing leather arm-chair that occupied the living room. Most of the time a book rested in my opposite hand, taking my attention. Distracting me. But this evening only had the glass of red wine in its makeup. No book. But the longer I sat in total darkness, the only light spilling from the slit between the drawn curtains, that wine appeared thicker and thicker. The red hue glistened in the light that slit created like a morbid lantern. No book could satisfy me. Not like this urge that had been ripping at my insides. This hunger that ebbed and flowed.

Each filet I seared in the pan teased.

Served as a reminder.

A reminder that this hunger wasn’t going away—not unless I did something about it.

And that was when the phone rang. When its piercing blare cut through the thoughts and urges and hunger, beckoning. The tone unearthed a certain nostalgia, as it seldom rang, especially at this hour. I rose from the embrace of the arm-chair and made my way through the darkness. I stared at the handset as it shrieked. And once I held it to my ear, a familiar hunger spoke to me through the static of the landline, “Good evening.”

The call led me into the hills beyond the city. I had to leave my very own restaurant in the hands of one of my subordinate chefs. But I didn’t care. For, the way this man spoke over the phone dripped with a necessity to give it attention.

On the train ride over, I had wanted to catch up on the reading I had missed, but nothing of the sort was accomplished. I sat and stared at the words on the page, thinking only about the phone call.

About what it elicited

“Good evening,” I had said back.

“This is Ian, I imagine?”

“It is.”

“Offers like these don’t concern people in your position. You have a very successful grill there in town. You get to cook whatever dishes you want.” He let the hissing landline get a word in. “For an ordinary man there is no incentive to leave.”

Was this the call I had been awaiting?

“You don’t love to cook, Ian. What you desire does not contain love. It is empty.”

“What are you—”

“I’ve faxed over an address. A train for you to take. Once you get off, there will be a black car waiting for you.” Before hanging up, he ended with, “I can fill this emptiness.”

And after approximately two hours of sitting and staring and thinking, the train reached its station. I stepped off into the desolate autumn—which whispered winter down my neck—and into the backseat of a glossy black sedan. It was remarkably warm inside, almost shockingly so; the driver must’ve waited for the better part of an hour.

He wore a suit of some kind—one I couldn’t parse from the deep backseat. But based on his stiff demeanor, formal silence, and unenthused glances, I doubted this was the man I spoke to last night.

He drove me further into the hills. The houses—small like huts—at our sides were thinning and the trees—bare and twirling—were growing more plentiful. They shrouded us in their embrace until becoming an engulfing tunnel. The road wound and wound on a continual grade, our sedan following suit. Despite the car’s heat, the air’s growing chill oozed out of the sights.

In a crescendo, in accordance with our altitude, a greater accumulation of frost clung to the dead grass and rotted leaves. The wind started presumably as a breeze but picked up into a mighty sigh. It toyed with trunks like toothpicks.

We never eclipsed the desolate wood. Our vehicle only plodded through a stretch of gravel path before braking amongst several other—nearly identical—black sedans. As the driver put it in park, I froze at the sight of a massive building. It had that ancient look of a castle but channeled the wind like a pair of lungs, to give off this sense that it lived.

I stepped out onto the gravel.

I was asked, by my driver’s demeanor, to approach the pair of doors at the front of the massive, stone-bricked beast. These doors were six inches thick of a dark—almost black—wood, but not even the biggest fool could get himself a splinter on them. And as I placed my hand upon the silver of the door handle, a deeply buried part of me emerged—if only for the span it took to open that slab of wood. It asked all the burning anxieties an “ordinary” person would ask.

Which is why I don’t need to list them here.

Inside, it was massive.

Fountains of rushing water were the pair of overseeing eyes perched in the back of the place. They supervised a long stretch of loft, equipped with red-clothed tables. The plates and goblets and silverware shimmered, even after those who ate from them were finished.

Yes. This place was a restaurant, far different from my very own. It ejected me from my body and sent me soaring to spectate an immense culinary gallery.

But what put me right back in my own little shell was the suited man who greeted me.

He was a slender person; each bone in his punctual face bulged against the tightness of his skin. That suit hugged those arms like a python does its victim. But what meagerness his frame presented was compensated for by the razors in that stare. Threats, secrets, commands—all spoken by a pair of irises. But when his lips moved, they uttered, “Good morning, Ian.”

It was like he was trying to formulize being normal. Over the phone it was, “Good evening,” and here, “Good morning.” These formalities—they dodged what his very own eyes told me about him.

“Allow me to show you the kitchen. No need to dawdle.” He coupled his hands behind his back and led me through the place.

I couldn’t absorb the rest of the dining room before we reached our destination. There were two aisles of organized chaos. Chefs in crimson coats communicated at a wicked pace. Even with my backlog of experience, their mutterings went unheard. Fire spewed from gas burners through a filter of cast-iron. Cookware hung from the ceiling like ornaments: Knives—sharp as eagle talons—pots—glistening like jewels—and cutting boards—bleached clean.

He brought me down one of the lines, his hands still coupled firmly. The cooks didn’t flinch as we brushed past them. They worked through the tickets without a formality to be spared.

He led me into an office. It, too, was immaculate in assemblance yet stark in composition. The chairs that framed the glossy, long black desk were without blemish. And that desk—free of dust—reflected his face as he sat behind it.

I sat across from him.

“I am the chef here.” And while he didn’t look like a chef—didn’t have a chef’s hands—these words were impregnable.

“And I’m assuming you own this place?”

“Everything is mine,” he proclaimed, giving me that look again. “Food draws the people. Pays every bill. Why shouldn’t the chef be the engine?”

I sat in silence, unable to speak on something I agreed on him with.

“I have no doubt you’ll catch on quickly.”

He had shown me every square inch of this place. Of this fortress. There were so many rooms that one could classify it as a manor from a different era. With as many bedrooms as there were—six or seven, I had lost count after a long while—there were also quite a few surprises. The handful of studies were, in isolation, like libraries.

We ended the tour at a stretch of stone-hewn balcony that overlooked the groaning army of naked trees. He had given me a glass of red wine on one of our stops—and with each sip I could feel myself becoming assimilated to this corner of the woods.

“One last stop.”

I turned to look at him.

His attention was seemingly elsewhere—out in the desolate wood.

We wandered through the forest. No birds—not even crows—cawed. No mole or rat scurried. Only the chef and I.

It was a bunker of thick sheet metal. No windows. One of its four walls hosted a steel door with a massive rusted lock chained to its handle. He sifted through various keys—presumably for all those damned rooms—until picking one out precisely with a slender index and middle finger.

The door groaned open once that lock had freed it. And on the other side, gazing with a spectral eye, was a long shadow exhumed by the dead forest. It cascaded down a narrow staircase. This darkness was only pierced by a yellow bulb that dangled from an anemic wire.

“Let us fill your emptiness.”

Emptiness.

Once I heard this again I immediately assigned it as dishonesty. What I sought was the satiation of my hunger. My desire. For, a desire is not empty. It is filled with vanity and impulse and destruction. It carves a path of fire until it is nullified by whatever forbidden fruit incepted it.

I took an initial step down the staircase. The stone carried a frost so cold it gnawed at my toes. The wind that made those trees groan disappeared once I took a second step. The bulb, as we passed it, made my ears ring with its brightness. And when that intensity fell away, I had reached the bottom of the stairs.

A racket emerged.

Another door stood before me. It masked that clatter which continued to drum and drum away. Though unlike a drum, it lacked rhythm. It wasn’t measured or composed or ready. No. This noise was pure catharsis. Pure primality.

The chef opened the door.

A door opened within me, too, only more ferociously, unleashing my hunger in all of its crude avarice. For, what was revealed took shape in a wide room lit by panels of white, buzzing, industrial light that flooded the space with sterility. It rained upon everything with no relent. It assaulted the steel walls. It made seeing painful.

But no greater pain was held within those four walls than in the eyes of those captives.

Cages barred them in at either side of me, and from each of them emerged that dreadful racket in the form of life. It was life that clung to desperation for survival. Life that dreamt of seeing the sun. Life that didn’t glare or gaze. Only life that stared through petrification.

Humans.

Their mouths sewn shut.

The hooks that hung from the ceiling made sense. The slight dips in the floor. The drains they led to.

I had been searching for something to fill this emptiness—and if that’s what it was, then it resided here, within this very room. In fact, it was much larger. It was as large as this entire sojourn. My desire spanned from the moment I had peered into my wine glass and that phone rang to now.

And thank God he had given me a tour of this place.

Because it let me know exactly what was to fill it.

“I need your help,” the chef said—something the others in this chamber would’ve said if they could’ve. “You see, no one knows of this chamber other than those that need to. The other chefs. Myself. You.”

“The customers—”

“They are clients. They know of this restaurant’s esteemed position in the culinary world; they know our filets are the best their palates will ever touch, but they know nothing else.” He took a few echoing steps toward one of the cages. And in response, like to opposite poles of a magnet meeting, those captives scrambled to the farthest corner of their enclosure. “And your help is needed immediately. It is needed tonight.”

“Tonight?”

He approached me again. “There is going to be a very special client dining tonight. In the culinary world, he could send this place soaring further. Further than even I can comprehend.”

I smiled and broke eye contact, shrugging my shoulders. “How can I be of service?”

He snickered—just about scoffed—and opened the vest of that suit. Inside was a pocket that perfectly sheathed the glistening Damascus of a cleaver. And upon revealing such a blade, he said, “Choose one to cook,” and offered the shimmering heap of steel to me.

I had dreamt of this scenario for so long. The nights upon coming home from my very own restaurant and wallowing in my apartment, wishing it were a dungeon like this. The days staring through pan-fire at someone, wishing they were in that pan and not a mere cut of cow. Oh, how I longed to have this exact cleaver in my hand and decide which walking cadaver to run it through.

Which to cook.

Which to eat.

And the one I chose was the man who gave it to me.

What I wanted so adamantly extended beyond the mere flesh on a man’s bone. What I hungered for was more than the tender sinew of a masterfully cooked filet. And in his final living moments, the look the chef gave me was not one of a chef—rather one of petrified cattle.

Cattle like those who cowered in our midst.

I chopped those vegetables not to appease the critic who arrived, shook hands with the hostess, and sat down, but to ensure you had a bed to rest in. Even if you had been reduced to this cut of flesh, you deserved such a final moment. After all, without you there could be no ravage to my hunger.

The critic sat near one of the fountains. He was a wide man who waddled, equipped with a thick set of jowls that moved as much as that crimson tie which dripped down his chest. Though, that tie was soon covered by a linen napkin that he had folded into a pretentious bib. He inspected the high ceilings. The tablecloths. Every aspect of the place as he jotted things down with a shimmering fountain pen.

Once I zigzagged the pan with oil, the cut of flesh went into the pan, igniting it. It sizzled in its baste, drawing sweat from my brow until it dripped. I could taste the salt from that sweat. Veins bulged from my red skin. And as the minutes passed and the sizzling continued, all else blurred. But when it was finally time, I wiped my face with a white rag and brought you out of the pan and onto that bed.

Once I stepped out of the kitchen, I did so into the office where you first brought me. I had ironed and hung your suit up on the wall. The colors of an imminent dusk pierced the windowpane, drenching that cloth in another orangey layer. And when I removed my own clothing, I bathed in that sunlight for a bit. That setting orb was so clear and honest it should’ve shed a tear from my eye. But as naked as I was no such tear fell.

And once I clamped that suit to my frame, I went back into the kitchen, gathering eyes from the staff as I approached you.

I carried you to a man whose mouth was wet with anticipation.

Who couldn’t wait to have a taste.


Zachary Toombs is a writer and artist from a small town in upstate New York. His work has been published in numerous venues, including The Dark Sire, Bez & Co., Freedom Fiction, and others. His novel, Night’s Grasp, was released this past September. Want to connect with Zachary? Find him on Twitter: (@ZacharyToombs8), Instagram: (toombszachary), and his website: zacharytoombs.com.

Featured Extra!

This story was a perfect fit for The Dark Sire. We loved the dark tone and the disturbing depiction of obsession. We needed to know more about the inspiration and creative process behind this story.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Zachary Toombs: Inspiration is hard to nail for me. If I had to point to a specific source for this story’s premise, it was the swathes of metal music I have been listening to as of late. The artists that I have been listening to–Deafheaven, Paysage D’hiver, and ColdWorld just to name a few–bleed this sort of mood that I had to write about in reflection. It started with hunger, a sense of longing, and eventually a character formed, bringing with it a sequence of events and dreary setting.

TDS: What creative process did you use?

Zachary Toombs: I knew what I wanted to cover thematically, but I needed to get these feelings out. So, in a sort of catharsis, I wrote a handful of poems that reflected the way this music and my own ideas made me feel. Then I funneled some of this ambiguous language into the frame of a story. Filling in the gaps was easy.

TDS: What authors have influenced your work?

Zachary Toombs: For this piece I can point to Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh as a loose source. However, the narrator tells that story woodenly–to the story’s benefit–but I didn’t want to give off this stark detachedness in this piece. And so, regarding the language and narrator, I looked to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair as a foundational inspiration.


What do you think of Zachary’s story? Let us know with a comment. And…there is another exciting feature to come. Enter The Dark Forest June 18 when we take a deep dive into this amazing author’s creative process, thoughts on the horror genre, and more!


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to Submit.


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