On a bright, sunny summer day in 1788, Christopher put down his hammer, removed his apron, and walked out of the foundry. He ignored Mr. Bristle’s shouted demands that he return to work. After all, the shouting of his former employer was just another loud noise in a city that was full of them.
The city seemed to have become full of sound. The hammering in the foundry was just a small part of it. There was a new mill across the road whose hundreds of identical machines produced the unholy screeching of banshee legions. And the workers who tended the machines would all pour out of the building simultaneously and fill the street with their coarse language, expressing their blasphemy at the very top of their lungs. Even the usual cacophony of schoolboys and livestock and policemen’s whistles was defeated by that infernal barrage.
The air was so full of noise that Christopher was convinced that there could be no room for him, so he left his tools off to one side and walked out to find a place he could fit.
He walked up the street where the mills and their legions gave way to the stately houses of the owners. But here, too, the sound of carriages and horses and—again—the infernal whistles of the law informed him it was time to move on.
The street turned into a dirt road, and the post jangled past him every few hours, keeping him from the silence he craved. Birds tweeted annoyingly in trees. Once, a whole regiment went by, surely with no other purpose than to stomp its boots on the packed earth.
The road went up, and his spirits rose with it. Up into the mountains, above the lakes and treeline. The birds had gone, and there seemed to be a still calm upon the land. Perhaps there was room for him there. But, upon turning a corner of the path, a herd of cattle blocked his way, and upon the lead cow… a bell.
He walked off the path along the rougher, rock-strewn spines of the mounts until he came across a small ridge overlooking a tiny lagoon. It was a secluded place surrounded by mountains that blocked off the wind, and it seemed completely silent.
There, Christopher rested.
As he rested, he listened. Without the constant noise of life and bustle filling the air and the inside of his head, he could hear the words that could only be said in silence.
He listened to the Earth and to the stars. He listened to the distant oceans and to ghosts of fallen soldiers. The voices in the silence taught him the ancient secrets of the Titans and the hidden shame of the gods. They taught him to live forever and to gain nutrition from the very air. They taught him to control the fabric of reality and to see beyond the veil of death.
Christopher sat and listened to the voices and grew fat on the thin mountain air. He listened for days, years, decades. He listened for centuries and was at peace.
One day, however, the shout of a hiker broke through the silence. It was miles distant and only reached the ridge on which Christopher was seated because of a fortuitous gust of wind. Its power was akin to the sound made by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing.
The thunderous noise nearly killed him. He felt a searing pain in the very atoms of his body, and he was sure he would never recover.
But the sound didn’t repeat itself. The wind was still, and no further interruption was carried up to his retreat. Over the next few weeks, the atoms of his body healed, and the pain receded until only the anger caused by the invasion remained.
On a bright, sunny summer day in 2012, Christopher wrapped himself in a shield of silence and walked away from his ridge. He retraced his steps across the tortuous hillsides and came to the small mountain path he’d walked before.
There stood not a herd of cows but a flock of sheep and a shepherd. He saw that one of the lambs had a bell.
Christopher gave a silent command, and the shield around him expanded to give them the gift of silence. As he left them behind, he saw they were cold, immobile, and blessedly quiet.
He walked on. Birds fell from the trees as he passed but hit the ground with no sound. The rustling of the leaves ceased to be forever. A row of army trucks on the paved two-lane that had replaced the dirt track of yore suddenly stopped. No men descended, and no men ever would.
The city had grown, and the mills had spawned countless progeny. But he pushed back the noise, filling the previously cramped air with the power of eternal peace. As he walked across each intersection, the city behind him went cold and lifeless—perfectly peaceful in its lack of noise.
Christopher kept walking. He walked until he’d given his gift to all the living creatures of the land and the seas and had brought absolute peace to the world. But the perfect stillness was incomplete.
He listened to the voice of silence to discover what was amiss. And then Christopher, understanding, smiled.
He banished the winds.
And he was content.
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Lost Island Rampage (2021). He has also published three other monster books: Ice Station: Death (2019), Jungle Lab Terror (2020) and Test Site Horror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.
Raymond felt the first symptoms on Saturday after eating an extra-large, stuffed-crust pizza and two pints of chocolate ice cream: a tingling rush in his stomach, a triumphant coursing of a million miniature mouths.
The part of him that kept others from seeing him was now disappearing.
By Monday, he had already lost six pounds.
These really are miraculous little creatures, he thought, remembering Dr. Tilly’s description of the CRISPR-engineered Arachperis: “Eight mouths and a conical head for burrowing, little miners happy to excavate all that’s weighing you down.”
The doctor chuckled, and Raymond noticed the protruding black tendrils of Tilly’s nose hairs.
“They’ve proved efficacious for other patients,” the doctor said.
At first, Raymond pictured the Arachperis as cartoons with big twinkling eyes and licking-lip mouths; an army that he might command, that would grow to love him.
But Thursday arrived with another fourteen pounds dropped, and he began to have visions of miners with spinning shark-toothed mouths, furiously cutting into walls built of bacon burgers, colossal nachos, meatball carbonara, and German chocolate cake.
He called Dr. Tilly to ask if this was normal.
“Perfectly fine,” Dr. Tilly said.
“What if they get into my heart?”
“And chew through all that plaque? You would consider yourself lucky to avoid the bypass surgery.”
The doctor chuckled again.
“There’s nothing to worry about. They’re designed to live only in fat. They hate muscle, especially a vibrating muscle. Just maintain the high-fat diet, and when you’re down to 180 pounds, we’ll kill them off with the cleanser.”
Raymond started Friday with two grand slam breakfasts, asking for eight extra butters, which he pressed onto his pancakes with shaking hands. He tried not to think about the cleanser, how the Arachperis had so little time left.
To be enslaved and then die? To be so hungry while alive?
And as he thought this, he felt a surge in his stomach—millions of suffering mouths gnashing in frenzied speed.
He ordered another grand slam and a double fudge sundae.
They’re going hungry, poor things. Why would I want to kill them off?
The food at the pancake house was not coming fast enough, so he left and found a Burger Buster two blocks away. He began circling through the drive-thru, consuming one Double Buster meal after another.
His phone vibrated. It was Tilly: “We’ve had some concerning results with one of the other patients using the same batch you are. You need to get in here immediately, and until you get here, keep feeding them.”
Raymond pictured them now as addicts, their mouths slack, their eyes dilated—heartbreaking in their bottomless need.
The fat wasn’t coming fast enough. He felt their agony, their misery for always being hungry.
And he felt something else.
They were climbing out of his stomach, creeping on their black-bristled feet. Their mouths gaping with the hunger of the world, painfully empty and growing emptier with every bite.
My poor, hungry children.
Seeking, he knew now, the organ that is over fifty-percent fat. The mind where he had lived alone all his life, waiting amongst feasts unending for some guests to arrive.
What will it feel like?
And how fast will I disappear?
Niles Tomlinson lives in the Washington DC area and teaches American Gothic fiction and writing at Georgetown University. His scholarly publications explore human/animal crossings in Poe’s “The Black Cat”, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and The Ring. He loves animals, so-bad-they’re-good horror films, all things carnivalesque, and The Replacements.
The old crabapple tree spoke first, loud
and clear, except listening takes expertise.
Its crooked trunk and skeletal limbs
do their best to support apples
rotten to the core, hanging on
until they drop to death.
A bed of tangled weeds hides nests
of ground hornets that engulf
the fallen fruit, an arbitrary cemetery,
ignored. Burning bushes way past
glory days of crimson, look charred and sore
as though seeded on a volcanic planet.
Windows. Cleaned yesterday,
but within four days the glass will fade
into shades of gray, tainted with scents
of decay. Worse, the entryway mirror
is coveted by sheer madness since
it returns after being discarded.
Nothing hides under our beds, yet never
would arms or legs dangle, or dare
set foot upon aged floors after 3:17am.
Just pretend you exist on a tropical island,
drift into a warm place, sway on a hammock
while waiting for sunlight to break.
Basement. Do not consider looking back
at those etched glass doors once shut,
eyes ahead. Trust me on this.
And if the old man wearing a black hat asks
for a cup of tea, he prefers the pale yellow
mug displaying a pristine crabapple tree.
Nora Weston is a Michigan based writer/artist. Her work has appeared in Bete Noire and James Gunn’s Ad Astra. Currently, work has been published by Green Ink Poetry, Crow Toes Quarterly, Illumen, and Strange Horizons. Work has been accepted by Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine and Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Author P.L. McMillan reads an excerpt from her upcoming horror novella, Sisters of the Crimson Vine.
Sisters of the Crimson Vine Cover by Donnie Goodman
"Spring Thaw" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
"Shadowlands 1 - Horizon" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Author Caryn Larrinaga gives us a reading from her upcoming novella, Mouse Trap.
Cover art by Donnie Goodman at Atonic Visions Design.
Author C.M. Forest reads us a sample of his book, We All Fall Before the Harvest. If you like what you hear, you can grab a copy and read the rest!
The hinges of the music box creak, the first sound from the oaken object. As the lid rises, a dancing horse appears. Dressed as a ballerina, its front legs take opposing angles: one hoof-hand is near its head, the other at its waist, each leg-arm bowed out, forming two semi-circles. A faded pink tutu surrounds the animal’s waist, a doughnut of frill atop cotton-candy clad legs that belong more to a French prima ballerina than a common equine. The mechanism allowing the horse to dance makes no sound, but a song at once familiar and foreign emanates from an unseen portion of the box.
A crown of clover frames a mirror reflecting the spinning horse and the face of Mariah, the newest owner of the box.
“Are you certain, Gramma?” Mariah speaks, not needing assurance from her grandmother, but asking for it anyway. “Are you certain the box can be mine?”
“I am quite certain. My grandmother made it mine and said someday it would belong to my own granddaughter.”
Mariah’s eyes widen in her reflection, picturing a person old enough to be Gramma’s grandmother. She has seen pictures of Great-Gramma, Gramma’s mother, but cannot fathom time before then. “Is she… dead?”
“Oh, yes, dear. Long ago, soon after coming here from across the ocean, when your mother had not yet met your father.”
At the mention of Mama and Dad, Mariah closes her eyes. She refuses to cry. She refuses to remember. Gramma’s hand touches, then caresses, her back. She opens her eyes again; only Gramma’s arm is visible in the small music box mirror, the horse still spinning, dancing to the tune Mariah feels she should recognize.
“My grandmother and your mother barely knew each other, but look….” Gramma reaches out and closes the lid of the box, hiding the dancing horse and the mirror, silencing the melody Mariah almost had hold of. Gramma taps the carved center of the lid in the middle of a filigreed meadow. She whispers, “Mystical music box mirror, show Mariah her mother.”
As Gramma begins to open the box again, Mariah freezes. She knows Gramma is magic—Gramma had her favorite special macaroni and cheese ready before the men with guns told them her parents had suffered a tragedy—and some magic is scary.
The lid rises, and the dancing horse begins to spin again. In the clover-framed mirror, Mariah sees the face of her mother. “Mama,” she screams and turns away from the box, anticipating comfort from Gramma.
Gramma isn’t there.
The arms of her mother, one dangling precariously from her shoulder with white bone and dark black blood exposed, are open for an embrace. The face from the mirror is only half there, the other half burnt and bubbling, a smell like when Dad used too much fluid on the charcoal grill wafting off her.
“Let me sing you a lullaby,” Mariah’s mother says. She steps closer to her screaming girl, who can now not help but cry, too. “Let me hold you, my pretty little horse.”
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. He has been a grocery store janitor, a college English and journalism instructor, an essential oils warehouse worker, a reporter, and a fast food grunt. He holds a Master's degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net.
Author M. Regan reads us a sample from her novella, 21 Grams. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book by following the link below!
I wasn’t about to let myself suffer.
Nature hadn’t been kind to Ellsworth that year, especially not to me. A wicked blizzard ripped through the beginning of winter, laying waste to an already devastated community. Summer storms that always swept across central Kansas never came, leaving tilled soil to dehydrate in the harsh sun. Seedling crops spoiled, leaving us no food to survive on. No choice but to hunker down, to prepare for a rough end to the year.
“We’ll have to start rationing,” Dale told me. “What little from the crops can go around for a few days, but until the church sends assistance, we need to come together and share resources.” He took my hands. “The Lord will see us through this, Rose. I promise.”
I had to bite my tongue. My husband always cared for the town more than me. He was always doing more for them, giving them the shirt off his back—and mine too, without ever asking. And he got all the praise. “Oh, Pastor Gresham, thank you,” the sheep bleated, laying at his feet. Always begging for more. And when everything went to waste, he bore the brunt of everyone else’s suffering first.
I was left to suffer on my own.
So naturally, when the first signs of a miracle came to pass, I took things into my own hands. Literally.
I found the vine growing in my withered garden, poking up from the ice-crusted earth. Thick and green, standing out against the snow. It wove through the plot, bearing juicy red berries. Hundreds of berries, more than enough to see the town through until help arrived.
But if it was an act of God, he must have finally heard my prayers. I bent to pluck the vine before Dale could find it. Could share it among the undeserving. The vine shuddered with each tug, shaking snow from speckled leaves. Rustling from death like a snake in the grass. It was nearly free when something jabbed my finger.
“Shit!” The vine came free, and I turned it over to look.
The sharp end of a thorn had stabbed my finger, skin reddened around the puncture hole. Numbing the nerves. Perhaps the berries weren’t the answer to my prayers after all—but God no longer had a say in that. I took the vine inside, cut the berries loose, washing them. Storing them in jars that I hid beneath the floorboards. Should my husband decide our hunger wasn’t above the piss-poor of this filthy town, he’d be on his own.
The numbness from the thorn prick still hadn’t subsided by the time Dale came home. I did my best to hide it, ignoring the pins and needles as I served him what was left in the pantry.
“The situation is getting worse. I still haven’t heard if help is coming.” He pushed the plate of food away. “I don’t feel right eating while so many are starving.”
No thanks. No consideration for my efforts. As usual.
That night, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. The numbness had abated, but a new problem had risen: guilt. I kept thinking of those damn berries sitting beneath our floorboards. Safely tucked away where no one would find them. I was up all night pacing while my husband peacefully slept through his growling hunger. It caused my own stomach to turn, ablaze with indigestion. I went to the bathroom, and splashed cold water onto my face. Gazed at my puffy, irritated reflection.
“Get over it,” I whispered, shutting off the light and forcing myself back to bed.
But the guilt kept growing. I was unable to get out of bed the next day from how heavy it had gotten. Or perhaps because of how heavy I’d gotten. Overnight, my entire body had swelled, tender and tingling. Radiating from the thorn prick on my finger. Dale didn’t notice, of course; he’d gotten up before me, preparing for his sermon. Only coming to check if I was getting up for church.
“I don’t feel good. I’m sleeping in today.”
“That’s okay. I’ll be out for a while; I’m coordinating the division of rations after service today.” He kissed my forehead, placing something on my nightstand. “Here’s a copy of the sermon, in case you feel well enough to read it.”
When he’d left, I managed to roll over and grab the notecard. Promptly ripping it up.
The Good Lord will always provide. Greed hath no place among the righteous.
I finally forced myself up before noon, but it was difficult. I felt made of cement, stiff and heavy. Barely able to move. To carry the weight of my body on legs that refused to bend. To turn on the lights and head downstairs, refusing to face myself in the mirror. Terrified of what I would see.
By the time I made it down, I had swelled even more. Something inside my bulging stomach sloshed with every step, rolling back and forth. Feeling like marbles. The recliner creaked beneath my body, which grew ever heavier. Ever bigger. My finger ever redder. Had I just left the vine alone, this wouldn’t have happened.
I was just so tired of sharing. Of giving and giving, never once receiving.
I’m glad Dale didn’t come home right away. It would have been hard for him to see. To realize how truly selfish his wife had been. I managed to open the floorboards before I could no longer move, confined to the recliner as my body ballooned out of control. Sloshing, growing full of marbles. They came up my throat, spilling out of my mouth—berries from the vine. Suffocating me just as much as my guilt. Thankfully, Dale had left the pen he wrote the sermon with close enough on the side table. A quick jab was all it took, just like the thorn on the vine.
I wasn’t about to let myself suffer anymore.
T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow's Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. She has also written for The Black Fork Review, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Ghost Orchid Press among other publications. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.
“Angelina, something is different.”
These were the first words Gregory had spoken aloud in what felt like lifetimes. It had been so long since Angelina had heard words spoken in a mortal tongue that it took a long moment to understand that it was speech and, further, that it had been directed at her. Gregory pronounced her name like he was chewing on gravel; the syllables broke apart in his mouth. Had the sound always made her teeth grind? It was an ugly thing compared to the open-mouth exhalations her mother called her by. Scraps of memory were all Angelina was able to snatch from the fog: her mother singing her name, the softness of Abuela’s bolillo under the tongue. The unfairness spread like the bitter taste of bile in the back of her throat.
Hearing her name cross Gregory’s blackened lips was an anomaly itself. But he was right; something was different. Something else.
It was enough to wrest her from inertia. She shifted on bare hardened feet, breaking up the moss that clung furry and green to her shins, her ankles. A flock of skeletal herons with razor-sharp bills and flame blue eyes took to the bruised-black sky. It was eternal twilight here, on this side.
A slight breeze interrupted the stillness of purgatory. The air around them shimmered. Oh yes, something was changing.
“The veil is thinning.” Angelina’s voice was the whisper of two smooth stones passing against each other, so long had it been since she spoke herself.
Gregory swayed beside her, his fingertips grazing the frost-grey grass as he did so.
“The veil is thinning,” Gregory echoed. “We can cross.”
The anticipation in the air was thick on her tongue. She salivated, not bothering to wipe the viscous drool that poured over her hanging maw. She looked to the river, where the mist appeared as a moving wall occasionally broken by views into the mortal world.
The slivers she saw were much as she remembered: towering pines, cerulean skies. Even the scent of pine needles crushed underfoot drifted between that world and this. And, of course, there were people. Five hearts beat blood rich and thick throughout their warm, warm bodies. Eagerness thrummed in Angelina’s bones; she ran her fingertips across her distended rib cage. She was oh so hungry.
“Ovet, where’s the bug spray?” she heard one of the humans call. It traveled between the worlds like words underwater.
Angelina tried the words on her own tongue. “Ovet, where’s the bug spray?” she mimicked. And giggled as her forgery bounced across the deadened hardwoods. They felt familiar enough. She turned, “Gregory, where’s the bug spray?” And then he, too, joined her in wheezy rasping laughter.
Angelina moved closer to the River White that separated them, but she did not dare break its banks. She was bound to this place—the Kalkaska sand along the shores of the White soaked the last of her lifeblood, and here she remained. Changed in a place that was unchanging. She had grown monstrous, and she had also grown used to her fetters. Though it seemed her time had finally come.
The mist hung in columns now. Across the river, Angelina could see the brightly colored patches jutting from the ground, a searing contrast to the pines that towered around them. Tents. She rolled the word around her mouth. Yes, that was right. She pressed her forked tongue up against her teeth. “Tents.”
Three small ones chased each other as the two larger humans worked around the space. A jealous rage wrapped itself around her jutting bones. Her jaw unhinged, “That should have been me!” Her screech ricocheted throughout this unhallowed place. Gregory gave a chorus of grunts in response. He shifted faster, digging the curls of his boney feet into the soft dirt.
What had she done to deserve an eternity inert and rotting? Why should she wait alone in this boundless night with only her cavernous hunger to keep her company? No, no. She would be sated. Angelina imagined slurping entrails through pursed lips. The gristle of throat between her teeth. But before all that? She planned to enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
“I want the small ones.” Gregory rumbled from beside her.
That was fine by her.
The last of the mist burned away. Angelina skated across the River White. The skin that hung off her bones skimmed the surface of the water. She was a blur, a strong wind that lifted hair from the shoulders of the human below. Angelina nestled high up in one of the surrounding pines.
She giggled, and it sounded like two trees creaking in the wind.
“Ovet, where’s the bug spray?”
K.S.Walker is a speculative fiction writer from the Midwest with a fondness for stories with monsters, magic, and/or love gone awry. When they’re not obsessing over a current WIP or their TBR pile you can find them outside with their family.
They're online at www.kswalker.net and on Instagram @kswalker_writes