Cast of Wonders 141: Reading Time / A House in the Forest

Reading Time

by Beth Cato

We began to burn the books, and Dad tried to kill himself.

Almost all of the extra furniture had been burned over the previous month, leaving the upholstery and padding from sofas and chairs heaped on the big bed in what used to be just Mom’s and Dad’s room. Me and Taylor stayed in that room all day since heat rises, and we wore so many layers of clothes that it was hard to go up and down the stairs. Anyway, with so many of the walls and rooms empty, the whole house echoed so their voices really carried from the downstairs library.

“I can’t do this, Vick, I can’t. Burning books, like Nazis?”

“We are not burning books like Nazis. We’re burning books to keep our kids warm and alive. I’ve torn apart everything else first. You know that. The books are last.”

Dad made some sort of weird moan like a whale from an old nature show. “I know, I know. But if we make it out of here, what sort of world will it be without books? What sort of civilization–”

“Tom. Listen to yourself. We’re one family. There are other survivors out there. You’ve said yourself that a nuclear winter isn’t supposed to last long. It’s a drop in temperature, nothing permanent.”

“I thought it would be over by now. The smoke and debris should have cleared the atmosphere.”

“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You were wrong, but it’s okay to be wrong. We’re still alive. We have rations for the next two months. It’ll be June by then. We’ll dig out of the snow and find other people. Whenever we leave the house, we’ll have to leave the books behind, anyway. Just get down from the chair, please.”

Something squealed against the floor.

“Leaving books behind isn’t the same as burning them. You can’t compare the two.”

This wasn’t good. Dad had been really quiet for a few days. I had wondered if the books had been why since I felt the same way. I loved his library. Thousands and thousands of books, some of them really old. It made me feel sick, tossing that first book on the fire, but I refused to throw up. Food was too precious.

Taylor’s body was a warm lump beside my leg. He whimpered in his sleep as I edged away from him, my shoes thudding on the floor. Mom and Dad normally would have heard that and stopped talking, but not this time. I waddled down the hall and towards my old room. Like candle smoke, the sound of their voices drifted up the staircase.

“We need you, Tom. Please.”

“If you didn’t have me, you’d have more food. You’d last longer. Taylor could eat more. A kid of six shouldn’t be that skinny, even with all those clothes on.”

Any of my stuff that could be burned already had been. The shelves, the bed, all that was gone. I still had some pink plastic toys—old sentimental things—and the leftovers from my dumped-out dresser drawers. I dug through the mess, looking for Great-Aunt Sara’s birthday gifts.

“We need you. We love you. You’re part of this family. You help. You’ve been clearing the roof of snow, or it might have caved in by now. We’re in this together. We need you, Tom.”

I took the stairs, one at a time, my legs thick with layers of pants. The knees didn’t quite bend. Going up again would be much harder.

The silence had been so long, I was afraid of what I might find in the library. Mom stood in the doorway, her pale face framed by a sweatshirt hood. Dad was in the middle of the room on top of his metal desk chair, a rope swaying behind him like something out of a western.

“Lucca, go back upstairs and keep Taylor warm,” Dad said, as if I could ignore what he was about to do. His words formed clouds in the air.

“No, she needs to stay,” Mom said. “If you’re going to do this, I won’t be able to hide it from them.”

“Yes, you’ll have to explain the sudden appearance of fresh meat somehow,” Dad said, his face twisting into some weird wannabe smile.

I had both hands tucked behind my back. “That’s gross, Dad. I know about the Donner Party. I could hear everything you both were saying, too.”

Mom sucked in a sharp breath. “Taylor–”

“Was sound asleep when I left the bed. He doesn’t know a thing. But I had an idea for Dad. Remember last year when you told Aunt Sarah I wanted a music player, and she bought me that ancient little tape player instead of an iPod?” I held out both my hands. “I also have a whole box of blank tapes and two cases of batteries, and Mom said ages ago those weren’t good for the radio or flashlights. There’s not enough tapes for all of the books, but if we have to burn favorites, maybe we can read them first. Make them last longer. I can carry this with me whenever we leave.”

Dad stared at me with his jaw hanging open like a fish. I walked up to him and cleared my throat. “Can I help you down, Dad?”

His legs quivered as he moved to sit, both arms tucked against his stomach. “It’s something,” he murmured. “It’s something.”

“Well, I sure don’t want to clean the snow off the roof, even if it is a five-foot drop now,” I said.

He managed a faint smile. “Yeah. Lazy teenager.”

“That’s right. I expect you to do the book reading, too.”

He closed his eyes. “Remember when we used to do reading times before bed, when you were little?”

“Yeah,” I said, squeezing his hand. “Guess we just needed an excuse to start again.”

A House in the Forest

by Shawn Bailey

March 6th, 2009

We huddled together near the fire in middle of our living room. For a while, we had been able to use the chimney because the smoke and the heat from the fire had kept them from entering the house that way. We would just close the flue when we were done and leave the embers to smolder. But they soon became accustomed to the heat and we would see little glowing pieces of the fire emerge onto the hardwood, leaving a burnt little trail behind them as they moved slowly across our living room. It was surreal.

Now, our mid-March fire was resting on a few concrete blocks set under an old Coca-Cola aluminum sign from the antique store in town. This kept us from burning a huge hole through our floor and as long as we all slept in the living room, it kept you from freezing to death. The temperature in the back laundry room was around 23 degrees and I’m certain it was a few degrees lower outside, although no one has been outside in almost a month. We keep listening to the radio for good news, but so far there have been no definite scientific breakthroughs. In fact, the CDC reluctantly stated yesterday that whatever it was had spread across the Canadian border. That made 17 US states and Alberta. Disheartening to say the least. And we are running out of food.

At first, we believed the government and the scientists. A few weeks later, we believed the scientists. Now, we believe no one. I don’t believe anybody knows the “why” of it, and really, the “why” doesn’t seem to matter as much now. What matters now is survival. What matters now is sealing the cracks and keeping warm and getting food. That’s what matters now.

Mom keeps doting on me. Asking me if I’m chilly and hovering around me like I’m on my deathbed if I so much as cough. Although I have to admit, if one of us got the flu right now and we had to break out (that sounds so strange, breaking out of your own house), that would probably be the end for us all. Hold on –

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! That was my sister, Lily. She was screaming like a banshee in the bathroom. Thought a piece of black lint that slid across the floor when she shut the door was one of them. Thought there was a breach. We did have a few openings a couple weeks ago, but my dad handled those very quickly. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Breaking out.

In the beginning, you could venture out and get supplies. That is, if there were any left. You could brush the gnats and spiders and ants off of you every so often and you would be fine. You might get home with a few bites that itched you for a while. A few weeks later, my dad wouldn’t take any of us with him to the store anymore. He would come home with hundreds of bites on him and a very serious face. Two weeks after that, you couldn’t go out at all. After that, although we didn’t know it then, we only had two weeks of electricity left. We watched the TV every day for those two weeks and followed the news like we were at war. And I guess you could say that we were. We had been attacked on our own soil by things we stepped over and passed by every day.

The TV had shown one very disturbing video from Los Alamos, the epicenter for this outbreak. It was security camera footage of a couple who made a run for their car in the middle of the day. The news man said they had run only twenty yards before they entered the field of view of the camera. They were already flailing their arms wildly and stumbling. They were both covered from head to foot in a suit of squirming blackness, a swarm of wasp and other flying insects forming mini tornadoes around them as they fell. The woman tried to scream and you could see the blackness swarm into her mouth, cutting her scream short. It was horrible. And there were some reports that the disease, or whatever it was these things had, was spreading up the food chain to the larger animals, like rats.

That would be the end-all for sure. The first time me and my sister saw it with our own two eyes was with our parents. We had been following the whole thing on TV for weeks, watching it spread towards Wyoming like a California wildfire. Then my dad called us all into the kitchen. He had a jar with a big black widow in it and two more jars, one filled with rubbing alcohol and the other with a small rat he had bought at the pet store. He pulled a large cleaver from the kitchen drawer and laid it on the counter. Then he unscrewed both of the other jars and set the lids in the sink. Then he told us to back up and unscrewed the lid to the Mason jar with the black widow inside. He tipped it slightly and the widow slid out onto the counter. He quickly laid the flat blade of the cleaver over the spider and slammed his big fist down on it really hard.

He carefully lifted the cleaver up and we all saw a dead spider. Legs spread in all directions. My little sister looked intently at it and caught on to something me and mom hadn’t yet. “It ain’t squished,” she said. We took a better look and sure enough, its little black bulb with the red dots wasn’t squished at all. Then a leg twitched and both me and my sister screamed. Then all the legs were scrambling and my dad lowered the cleaver again. This time he scooped up the widow and slid it into the alcohol. I had done this in biology lab at school. You grab a handful of pine and leaves and put a heat lamp over it. It drives the bugs down into a funnel and they fall into the alcohol. The alcohol killed them quickly. But we all knew already that this wouldn’t happen here.

The widow came to and flailed for a good long while before my dad poured the mix into the sink and we all backed up without being told when the widow crawled from the sink. Smash. He crushed it again. Scooped it up and slid it into the jar with the rat. The rat must have been starving because it immediately began eating the spider. It pulled and pulled as it tried to tear a leg off or rip it into. It couldn’t. So it ended up chewing it the best it could and swallowed it whole. We waited and watched. Then the little mouse started acting funny and taking short little jumps around the jar. Within a couple of minutes, the mouse looked like it was having seizures and my dad screwed the top on the jar and told us to not go outside without him. We didn’t.

So you can see why, if it was to catch with rats like it caught with insects and spiders, it would be the end.

March 27, 2009

The batteries in the radio ran out 10 days ago and we have no word on anything. To make things worse, they were talking about having a cure or something and doing some localized tests or something to see if it would work. That was awesome news, and just in time. People were losing hope everywhere. The spread had covered another 15 states and showed no signs of stopping. And the migrations. So many people trying to leave the country or move to the coast. But the other countries stopped taking us after just one report of an outbreak in Australia. And the overpopulations on the coast were causing all kinds of problems. Not a place to be right now. It almost makes me glad we’re trapped up here in the mountains instead of down in the cities with all the crazies.

It’s night now. I know this not because of the sun, which I haven’t seen in two months, but because of the temperature drop. Our windows have been boarded and sealed with caulk for some time now. No cracks anywhere. We have to get fresh air through a rig that my dad built. A screened pipe connected to the dryer vent. He turns the gas generator on for a few minutes and uses the air hose to blast the bugs out of the screen and uses a fan to pull in some clean air. Even so, some smaller ones get in and we spend some time hammering them and collecting them in the jars where they can’t get out.

Me and my sister huddle by the fire while I write all this down in my journal. We listen to our parents arguing for hours in their bedroom. We’re both old enough to know what they are fussing about. Although the water has never stopped coming, we have enough food for just a few more days. Going outside is not an option, but neither is starving to death. And the sounds.

Imagine a million bugs all making their tiny little noises at once, all day, every day. It’s maddening. It’s also very hard to sleep. And yesterday we heard the roof give a little and some wood splinter. We don’t know if it’s termites, or all that combined weight of millions of bugs pressing down with the snow. Or worse even, maybe it has spread to the rats. Maybe they’re being a little more aggressive than the bugs at finding a way in. Who knows? Hold on –

My dad says we have to hide in the bathroom. We hear trucks outside and that’s not good. Could be crazies. Hold on –

April 6, 2009

Sorry I haven’t written in a bit, but so much has happened.

When my dad heard the noise, we all hid. We heard what sounded like a big machine running outside and then something close to muffled grenades. My mom squeezed our arms so tight we complained. Then we heard the front door come off the hinges and dad screaming. Shots were fired and we looked down the hallway to see my dad retreating and screaming, “What are you doing! What are you doing?” Bugs swarmed everywhere. I’d never seen so many. They covered my dad and he grabbed his leg and screamed. He fell limp and my mom started screaming. That’s when we saw the crazies. They ran at us full speed. We couldn’t see what they looked like because they were covered in bugs too. They raised something and fired and we all started screaming. Then the world went black.

When I awoke, I could hear my mom’s voice. I could see nothing. Then I felt the bugs. They were crawling all over me. I tried to flail them away, but my arms wouldn’t do what I wanted them to. I felt paralyzed. I could feel them in my hair, on my legs, and inside my shirt. Everywhere. I started to scream and then stopped. That was how they got in your mouth. I felt an arm grab mine and I screamed anyway. Nothing crawled in my mouth. I had some sort of mask on.

“Calm down. Calm down. Can you hear me?”

“Yes. What is…. what is happening,” I asked.

That’s when I found out that the crazies were military men. They had darted us with a special chemical that was like what they had originally tested on the bugs in Los Alamos. Only this was engineered for humans. I had felt something moving in my stomach. They told me that a few always got inside you before they could get the special masks on. They said that the acids in my stomach would eat through the bugs quickly once the chemicals kicked in. A finger rubbed over the lens of my mask and I saw the world the way I guess I’ll see it for some time now, through a milky glass.

I will write later. Right now, they are teaching us how to use the dart guns and how to administer the masks to those who are still trapped like we were. I feel so much better now. As we leave, I can’t see the walls of our house for the layers of insects and spiders. I walked outside for the first time in months and looked up to see the sun. I couldn’t. There were so many swarms of things in the sky.

The trees. The barn. The road. The whole landscape.

It was all black and squirming as we waded through it on our way to the trucks.

About the Authors

Shawn Bailey

Shawn Bailey author photo

Shawn Bailey longs to change the world, but doesn’t want to interact with it in any way. He is also the leading spokesman behind a campaign against advertising, which he cannot seem to get off the ground. Shawn keeps a Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg underneath his pillow to ward off evil entities, known as the hunger spirits. He is nomadic for eight months out of the year, and lives in the attics of unsuspecting home owners. The other four months, he is feral.

Find more by Shawn Bailey

Shawn Bailey author photo

Beth Cato

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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About the Narrators

Lizzie S.

Lizzie S. narrator photo

Lizzie works in data visualisation, and her work hours are consumed with thinking about data, how it fits together and how to visualise it in a simple manner for others. To escape this she is a keen gamer, writer and reader vanishing off into fantasy worlds for hours at a time. She currently lives with her husband and dreams of a time when they might have space to own a cat or a dog. You can follow her on Twitter.

Find more by Lizzie S.

Lizzie S. narrator photo

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson is a pretty awesome guy, even if he disparages pumpkin beer. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five amazing years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt.

Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.


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About the Artist

Barry J. Northern

Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.

All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.

Find more by Barry J. Northern