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 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.
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
The Black Forest was a dark wood with an even darker history, but winter was approaching, and the larder was bare. The boy packed his crossbow and quiver and as much water as he could carry, then set out just after dawn. Frost festooned the leafless trees, and the ground crunched noisily beneath the well-worn leather of his boots as he traipsed across the countryside, leaving behind the only home he’d ever known.
Plague had swept across the land just the season before, killing his parents and all but the healthiest citizens of the village atop the hill. Marching Flagellants murdered the rest.
He spied the acrid smoke from the funeral pyres as he stood outside the rundown manor and watched the band of maniacal zealots march past on the road to Ravensburg. He remembered their banners hanging limp in the autumn morn, 100 men whipping bloody stripes across the pale flesh of their backs as they chanted prayers for salvation.
His family had been one of means, but coin mattered little in a realm populated by nothing but traveling monks and wandering ghosts. Now that he was alone, the four walls which held him were nothing but shelter from the wind. His needs were few. He only hoped to find and kill a boar for enough meat to last until spring. He’d set several traps in the fields, but they remained as empty as his belly. He knew if he didn’t leave for the forest soon, he wouldn’t have the energy to do so. His father had told tales around the fireplace of hunters who had entered the Black Forest never to return—victims of the wolf packs who called the forest home. This, the year of our Lord 1350, was meant to be the year they finally braved the deep woods to face the wolves and kill a boar together, father and son. Now he would have to face the challenge alone.
He was tall for 15, lanky but strong. Even clad in thick leathers and furs to protect him from the bitter cold, he looked more like a wraith than a man. The moment he set foot in the wood, he became just one more shadow amongst the skeletal trees in an indistinct world of gray.
It was late afternoon, his crossbow still untested when he first heard the monsters howl. They were distant but unmistakable. Long, lonely cries pierced the forest, silencing all other creatures as each held its breath, waiting for what might come next. Seconds ticked away, then one by one, the birds began to chirp, and the squirrels began to scamper once more. The boy was too deep into the wood to turn back empty-handed. He readied his crossbow and again took up his trek for winter sustenance.
The sun began to set, its rays gold and red as they touched the top of the barren trees. His gray surroundings became an orange haze, like a warning fire gone unheeded. When he first saw her, she was in the form of a naked woman: wild eyed, wild maned, and draped atop a tree branch. Too stunned to speak, he stood and stared, his crossbow forgotten at his side until she smiled.
“You must be freezing,” he managed to say. He pulled off the topmost of his furs. “Here, put this on.”
Her smile grew wider, revealing a set of gleaming white teeth. She shook her head and then leapt to the ground gracefully, her bare feet hardly making a sound when she landed. She glanced down at the boy’s weapon, then took off at full speed, racing into the trees as if to escape him. He gave chase without a thought, desperate to know more about this strange woman, determined to save her from the predators he knew must be near.
She was fast, and he quickly grew winded, but he managed to keep her in sight as she dashed ahead. As the last of the day’s light glittered on the frost-laden trees, she finally stopped in a small clearing and waited for him to catch up. He approached warily, careful not to frighten her away. When he stood before her, she stepped close and, without a word, lightly planted a kiss upon his numb lips.
He shivered as he stood in place, unsure what to do next. She took a step backward and directed her deep brown gaze toward the sky. She howled as the last of the day’s light disappeared, and the full moon revealed itself in the darkness above.
It was the howl of the wolves, and goosebumps arose on the boy’s skin as other beasts hidden in the wood joined her cry. They stepped into the clearing, one after another, a dozen winter wolves with white-gray coats and hungry eyes. As he stood frozen in place, the boy watched the woman transform, her beautiful face and body morph from woman to wolf in a matter of seconds. He tried to raise his crossbow, but his muscles failed him. Instead, he dropped to his knees, and like the Flagellants who had heralded the end of the world, he begged for salvation.
She delivered it quickly. She sank her teeth into his throat, and he felt the cold seep into his bones. She drank his blood as her pack watched in silence. Everything went dark. The night swallowed him whole. He was sure he would be reunited with his parents in the afterlife. But it was not to be. He awoke the next morning curled next to his new mother in a snow-dusted den, comfortable and warm despite his lack of clothes. She stroked his hair and smiled, gifting him with a look of utter devotion. She had tasted his heart, and it was pure. He was one of them. He had entered the forest a child of man. He was one of the moon’s children now.
Matt Handle lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he juggles the reality of being a husband, father, and software developer with the imaginary characters and worlds that constantly vie for his attention. His short stories can be found around the web including at Dark Recesses Press, Daily Science Fiction, Verbicide, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fabula Argentea.
A low mechanical hum filled the uninhabited room. Rhythmic clicking joined in as a red digital display scrolled to show a countdown, the seconds ticking down to oblivion. Shiny metal machines lined the room, operating untouched by human hands. Two screens flickered on, the collective glowing lights illuminating the mission control room. One showed a young brunette woman sleeping. Her hair tangled on the pillow as she rolled to her side and continued to dream. On the second screen, a mother panted in a hospital room as she stood beside a large bed, gripping the rail in the throes of her labor.
A switch slowly rotated as a scale rose from within the machine, each side balancing out the other for the moment. The control room had a single purpose: to keep the universe in balance. When one comes into the world, one must leave.
In the room where the brunette slept, clothes were thrown over a plush chair in the corner. On the desk, a stack of envelopes waited beside a roll of postage stamps, each address neatly written. A novel lay half read on the bedside table. It was overturned and splayed open to be easily picked up and completed.
The mother paced the hospital room, occasionally stopping to bend over and give a silent groan, her contractions making it impossible to stand. A nurse came in and had her lie on the bed, checking her progress. “Soon.” Her mouth formed the words, inaudible in the control room.
Cogs inside one of the large metal machines began to slowly turn, the metal teeth meeting and parting in perfect symmetry. The scale slowly tilted until the left pan rested on the base of the balance.
As the brunette slept, the bedroom door slowly opened. A male figure crawled into the room, moving to the side of the bed. His movements were erratic, unnerving, his head cocked jerkily and quickly to different sides, scanning erratically. He stood, looming over the woman, tall and lean. The gaunt angles on the man’s face cast shadows over his eyes, making them pools of black. His shoulder blades protruded sharply through his shirt. A glint of metal caught the light as he pulled a long knife from the waistband of his pants.
Under the fluorescent light of the hospital room, the laboring mother’s team rushed into the room, bringing an array of medical supplies and devices. The doctor positioned himself between the woman’s legs, indicating to her that it was time to push. Beaded sweat rolled down the mother’s face as she readied herself for the task ahead.
A red button blinked above the screens and then compressed itself down.
The brunette stirred in bed, rolled onto her back, and her eyes snapped open just in time to see the knife thrust downward toward her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and her back arched in pain as the metal disappeared into her body. Feverish movement ensued as she tried to sit up, to get out of the bed. The man pulled her back as her hands clawed at the edge of the bed. A puddle of blood quickly formed, soaking the bed sheets beneath her.
The mother’s mouth opened in a silent cry as her body contracted, pushing her child along. The nurses in the room hustled around her body, prepping blankets and the warming tray. The doctor slid her hands between the mother’s legs, ready to catch the infant. With the next contraction, the mother pushed, focusing all her energy on bringing her child into the world.
The cogs in the machine moved quicker, racing the countdown on the screen.
The man’s lips curled into a disturbingly wide smile as he straddled the woman, pushing his knife into her again. The woman’s face contorted in agony as she fell unconscious, head lolling to the side. His head tilted back in an inaudible cackle as he flung himself off the blood-soaked bed. The brunette’s eyes flickered half open, then glossed over as her body caved into immobility. The man left as quickly as he had come.
Sliding out of the birthing canal, the boy took his first breath. As the doctor placed the boy in his mother’s arms, he severed the umbilical cord, and the child became his own person. As the mother gazed at his face for the first time, the boy suddenly stilled. His body went limp as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. The mother patted his face, a look of desperation crossing her own. She let out an inaudible scream as the doctor hurried to pull the child from her arms and rushed out.
The countdown hit zero.
In the bedroom, there was the smallest movement. A finger twitched. The brunette’s lips parted slightly. Her eyelids opened to reveal the faintest spark of life.
Slowly, the scale moved back, balancing out once again. The machine’s gears suddenly stopped and screens winked out, returning the room to darkness. An eerie stillness settled in the quiet.
Seconds passed, and then the mechanical hum returned. Click. Click. Click. The digital display suddenly blinked back to life, casting a red glow on the machinery as the countdown began again.
Bethany Walker is a licensed social worker and trauma therapist. She currently resides in Longview, TX with her husband, daughter, and pets. In her free time, she binges horror movies, collects an absurd amount of books, and writes fiction in various forms. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Asylum Magazine, and more. Find her on Twitter @bookshelfofbeth.
"No, you fool! Not that one with the ghastly, lurid pattern. Show me another!"
The young shopworker was taken aback by the scarred old man's burst of anger. He coughed a little to regain his composure (he was a professional, after all!) and hid his annoyance.
After all, this was his personal favourite out of all the mid-price range rugs they sold at Discount Carpet Galaxy. (“Five minutes off Junction 6 on the M25.”)
Those colours! Those wondrous, delicately rendered patterns! It was a big hit with older ladies, wannabe hipsters, and young families. On a certain level, the young man took this as a personal affront.
"Err, OK?" he grimaced. "What might Sir like instead?"
"Anything without a pattern. You heard me? No patterns. Not even subtle ones. A plain carpet, if you don’t mind! In fact," the old man frowned as he pointed, "that shag pile there."
It was plain, grey, and drab, the shopworker thought. The colour of wet Wednesdays and boring afternoons in Autumn. Still, the customer was always right, or whatever nonsense they kept droning on about during team meetings.
“I’ll have it,” the old man sniffed and glowered as the shopworker heaved up a rolled-up copy of the rug, balanced it upright and precarious in his trolley, and radioed for someone to help his customer get it in the car.
Money changed hands, and the transaction was complete. Over tea, other staff would later note how brusque their customer was, and how agitated he seemed when he went near anything with a pattern. Still, these were strange times. No one had got through them unscathed.
But as the old man rolled out the new rug on his floor back home, he sighed. That nice young man hadn't deserved that. He was only trying to help. There was a heavy throb of sadness in the old man’s chest; a reminder why he had been so alone all these years.
And yet... there was still that thing they sent to get him all those years ago. It hid in patterns, merging with them, only to rise, shimmering with malice, from the carpet it had lurked in.
The curves and floral swirls twisted and peaked into claws and fangs and spiked, lashing tails. A stench of burnt ozone, and the prickle of static in the air. And the eyes... Boiling scarlet balls of hate, as the thing utterly perverted the second and third dimensions by its very presence.
His wife died before he could kill it. He briefly remembers holding her as she faded, soaked in blood, even as the thing writhed nearby in its death throes. Never again.
The old man cautiously trod on the rug in his socks. It felt soft and comfortable. Almost soft enough to take the memories away.
Back at the warehouse, the shopworker pondered his customer. What had gotten into him?
But then he stopped. Had the pattern in that carpet over there... moved?
“No,” he thought. “That’s just my imagination!” It had been a long shift.
Behind him, the pattern moved again.
Alexander Hay is a writer, academic and researcher currently lurking in the shimmering carpet fibres of Northern England. His previous credits include the Sleep Podcast, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Nature's Futures and various dodgy music magazines. He can be found promoting himself shamelessly on Twitter: @Alexand40457338
I cradle Mother at my breast until the conductor comes to stamp my ticket. The man doesn’t seem to notice her trembling beneath my coat.
“Where you headed, young lady?”
On the opposite bench, a grizzled older passenger wakes without opening his eyes, presents his ticket, then slumps back to sleep. When the conductor departs, I close the door behind him and unbutton my coat. Beside me, the raven spreads her wings and caws.
“Be still, Mother,” I whisper. “We’re going to the black water. We’re going to make you well again.”
I pull my suitcase down from the luggage compartment and retrieve the glass medicine bottle. “Just a thimble’s worth to dull the pain.” That was what the doctor said. The raven pecks violently as I try to hold her steady. I part the beak with one hand, and tip the silver thimble with another. Then the raven changes, and now a tawny bobcat is curled beside me. I stroke her spotted pelt and her ear twitches, and I listen to the rhythm of her laboured breaths.
The steam engine roars, and the carriage rumbles; the train whistle blasts. I struggle to withhold my tears.
I wake with a start in the dead of night, and the sickly bobcat is gone. Rising, I glance out the window. Beyond looms a skeletal wilderness of naked birch like some sprawling orchard of bones. All is dark and silent; the train isn’t moving. By the pale moonlight, I discover my grizzled fellow passenger isn’t moving either. His big lungs draw no breath. A trail of blue-black blood leads from his mangled throat out into the corridor. The tracks are like none I’ve ever seen.
I knew Mother was ill the moment her teeth sank into my wrist. She had gone out in her wolf skin to hunt for our dinner. When she didn’t come home, I scoured the woods and found her whimpering, scratching her head against the bark of a tree. I ran to her side, and she lunged at me; I tumbled backward. Mother soon realized her mistake and hoisted me up in her strong human arms.
“What have I done? My poor, sweet Matilda. What have I done?” My blood still streaked her mouth and chin.
At the homestead, she bandaged my wound with ointment and herbs then retreated to our bed. There was no dinner, and Mother didn’t rise for three days. On the third, I crept once again into the surrounding woods and followed the path into town.
I walked back with Dr Ellis under cover of night, lest any of the townspeople notice us. Dr Ellis wasn’t like other men in town—the godsmen who raised torches and cried “witch” or “devil woman.” I could see the way he looked at Mother, and I knew this was because he loved her. I’d read of such things in my books.
Once, when I was little, the men with torches had come to our door, and Mother greeted them as a great brown bear. The godsmen scrambled away, screaming.
Mother could still control her magic then and changed her skin at will, not at random (like she does now). Now, I can’t be certain what skin she will inhabit next. Raven. Bobcat. Monster…
The lamps in the corridor have all gone dark as well. I poke my head out and listen to the darkness. Amid the susurrant snoring of sleeping passengers, I detect another, stranger, sound. A low, guttural growl. A claw tapping gently on glass. Mother is hungry, checking the locks. One door, several doors away, clicks and slides open.
I pursue the sound with silent steps, parallel to the trail of blood. I grip the medicine bottle tight, prepared to wrestle Mother to the ground. My body quivers at the memory of her jaws clamping down on it. But I must be brave, lest anyone else be killed. Perhaps more than a thimble is needed this time.
When Dr Ellis came out of the cottage that night, he found me sulking under the tall willow. (Many nights I dreamt the doctor would ask Mother to marry him and come to live with us at our homestead and be my Father.) He knelt beside me, and held my wounded hand.
“I suspect your mama,” he said, “has a tumor in her brain. I’ve seen similar cases before. This tumor is making her very sick.” He said something else then about “X-rays” and a “radiologist on the coast,” but I’d become suddenly dizzy, disoriented. “Sometimes,” he continued, “sick people behave unlike themselves. But you must always remember: your mama loves you very much.” That was when he handed me the bottle, explained how to administer the medicine and how much and when.
“Is Mother going to die?”
He responded without saying a word. I sprang up and knocked his bottle to the ground. I told him I knew a place, Blackwater Spring, where the water healed the sick through magic—not with “X-rays.” Mother had said so when I was little. I told him I’d bring her there and make the tumor disappear.
I pause at the open door of the sleeper car. Moist chewing sounds reverberate within. “Mother?” I hiss.
A black silhouette rises up on its hind legs and turns toward me. My breath catches in my throat. I drop the medicine. I remember our last night at the homestead. It was also the last night I’d ever touch her human skin, gaze into her human eyes, and listened to the music of her human voice. Gazing now into these glowing noctambulant eyes, I recognize no trace of her at all.
Mother has gone out into that skeletal wilderness, and I don’t give chase. As I stare up at the ceiling and the blood pools around my head, I reach out for the thimble and broken bottle of medicine. “Just a thimble’s worth,” I think aloud. “To dull the pain.”
Kirk Bueckert is a young writer living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. His previous work has been published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House and the League of Canadian Poets. He hopes you enjoy reading this new story as much as he has enjoyed writing it.
“I still think you went the wrong way,” insisted Trudy.
Dave glanced at the rear-view mirrors, ensuring that the camper he was towing didn’t go off the narrow pavement or clip one of the many limbs hanging over the path. “I turned where the sign pointed. It said to go this way for sites 38-66.”
“It said sixty-five.” Trudy crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat.
“Either way, we’re not turning around until we get to the end. It does seem like a long time since we passed the last campsite.”
Trudy’s inevitable statement of “I told you so” was interrupted by the sound of the bottom of their camper scraping the road as they hit a deep dip. The screech sent a chill up Dave’s spine.
He maneuvered the pick-up around another tight corner and exhaled at the sight of a clearing ahead. A small wooden post marked the spot as campsite sixty-six.
“There. I knew I was right.” He pulled to a stop and climbed out to look at their home for the next three nights.
“It’s a long walk to the bathroom and showers,” announced Trudy.
Dave slapped at a mosquito buzzing near his ear. “I’m more worried about backing the camper in. It’s a tight fit. You’re going to have to direct me.”
Trudy rolled her eyes. “You know I never can help you. You always get mad at me.”
Dave didn’t reply. He swatted another bug and returned to the pick-up. Then, he pulled a short distance beyond the narrow driveway and rolled down the windows. Shifting into reverse, he cranked the steering wheel to the right and began backing up. Immediately the camper veered off in the wrong direction. Muttering to himself, Dave stopped and pulled forward slightly. He would have to start again.
“That was the wrong way,” yelled Trudy.
“I know that,” he screamed back.
On the next attempt, the camper turned the correct direction but too sharply, heading directly for a large oak tree.
“Watch out for that tree.”
The next try found the pick-up nearly hitting the wooden post that displayed the campsite number. “What evil maniac put the post that close to where I have to back up,” thought Dave.
The fourth effort seemed to go better. Dave stopped and waited for Trudy’s verification.
Eventually, she yelled, “Why aren’t you moving? I’m waving you back.”
“How am I supposed to know that. I can’t see you when you stand behind the camper.”
“You don’t have to yell.”
“Yes, I do. So do you. That’s the only way we will be able to hear each other.”
With a deep breath, Dave began backing up once again.
“Stop,” shouted Trudy, “you’re going to hit a stump on the left. You’ve got to pull forward and try again.”
Fifty-two tries, forty-seven minutes, over one hundred silent swear words and at least half that many not-so-quiet curses later, the camper was finally in the campsite. It sat at an awkward angle and tilted heavily to one side.
The pick-up sat nearly perpendicular to the camper, and its front half was nestled in the underbrush that surrounded the clearing. Dave hopped out of the cab and stepped into what appeared to be a patch of poison ivy. After going out of his way to avoid a large beehive hanging nearby, he began the long process of unhooking the camper. The tally of curses uttered continued to climb.
Dave pulled a toolbox out of the back of the pick-up and set it on the ground. His knees cracked, and he felt a sharp pain in his back when he knelt to get the tools needed to steady the camper before unhitching it. The process would go much easier with Trudy’s help, but that ship had sailed a half-hour earlier when she had trudged off in anger.
After what seemed like an eternity, Dave finally finished. He tossed the toolbox back into the pick-up, banging his knee against the hitch while he did so. There was only one job left to do. The annoying itching sensation around his ankles was becoming impossible to resist. He didn’t give in to the poison ivy, but he did scratch the mosquito bite on his cheek and the three welts on the back of his right hand. Smiling at the sarcasm, he pulled the “Happy Camper” flag from a storage bin, rubbed a knot out of his back, and went to hang the sign on the campsite marker.
As he approached the wooden post, Dave was struck by a strange feeling that he had done all this before. It was more than deja vu. He’d been to this campsite before.
He hung the banner and took a step back to look at it.
The flag no longer showed a marshmallow roasting over a campfire with the words “Happy Campers” embroidered above. Instead, it now showed a camper engulfed in flame and “Unhappy Campers” in bold letters.
A deluge of memories erupted in Dave’s mind. He remembered everything.
Knowing what he would see, he looked at the campsite number. This was not campsite 66 but site 666.
A mosquito settled onto Dave’s ear. He didn’t care; he was too busy screaming.
“I still think you went the wrong way,” insisted Trudy.
“I turned where the sign pointed. It said to go this way for sites 38-66,” replied Dave.
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has enjoyed spending some of his free time trying to turn the odd ideas circling his brain into stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary. Together they enjoy board games and, of course, camping.