J.B. Toner

The December Selected Writer is J.B. Toner

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by J.B. Toner

A rain of apes.

They fell mostly on the windy plains beyond Chicago’s limits; but thousands hit the streets and rooftops, plunging from troubled skies to douse the neighborhoods in blood and fur. They lived till they landed, and such a symphony of howls and yammerings had not been heard. Many people hungered in the city, but not the most desperate of the poor would try the flesh of those fallen apes, handiwork of the experimenting Archons. Even the crows ate nothing but the eyes.

They were outside of town when it happened—out in the Corpse Lands. Decatur lowered his 12-gauge, raised his goggles, and said, “Rainin’ monkeys.”

“Ayup,” said Tomlinson.

Rookwood spat.

They moved on.

The Dead were getting harder to find. Good news for travelers, bad news for hunters. Also bad news for the species, but that was no longer news. Twenty years since They arose, and less news every day.

Father Joe pointed. “Yonder.”

Beyond the shale outcroppings, a grove of pines. Half a mile, maybe. Man-forms in rotted clothes were moving. Omaha gave a sharp nod and went ahead through the late afternoon shadows to a clump of dust and old dead grass, just tall enough to prop his M24. The other four fanned out and closed in slowly on the pines.

Omaha’s first shot: square in the hip of the nearest one. Kneecaps were too small a target. The Dead turned and crouched and came loping toward Omaha with their skinless knuckles scraping the pebbled earth. Decatur stepped in on their flank, fired the second shot, smashed the pelvis of another one. Then wiry Rookwood’s katana and barrel-chested Tomlinson’s sledgehammer, pulping and severing. Father Joe moved in with the scooper and started snatching out eyeballs. One got too close; Omaha popped it, center mass, to knock it down, and Decatur smashed its head with the shotgun butt. As it was getting back up, the padre plucked it and it flopped down final-dead.

“Felix!” Rookwood shouted. Behind: three stragglers. Tomlinson shoved the first one toward Rookwood, who pinballed it back to him with a flying spin kick, and it ran straight into Tomlinson’s brutal clothesline and hit the ground hard enough to spray dirt-clods. Rookwood drew his Glock 18 in midair and came down raking the knees of the other two Dead with automatic fire. Father Joe pounced and plucked, and the hunt was over.

Omaha came sauntering. “’Nother day at the office, huh boys?”

“Ayup,” said Tomlinson.

When the Archons rose from the waves and the world’s electricity died, millions of people died with it. At first, the survivors used fearful names for the victims—the Walking Dead after the TV series, or the Hungry Dead.

But there was simply no need for adjectives. All dead men walked, all dead men hungered. Not for brains, not for blood, but for eyes. And only taking the eyes of the Dead could give them final death. So the government (there will never not be a government) issued high bounties for every pair of rotten, soulless eyes.

The sun was bloodying the west. “Let’s make camp in them pines,” Decatur said.

The fire began as the daylight ended. They hunkered and they ate their jerky and their limes. Then they counted up.

“Hundred ’n’ fifty-seven brace of eyeball,” Omaha said. “Good haul.”

Decatur nodded. “How ’bout ammo?”

“That ain’t so good, Moe. Used more’n we shoulda, that fracas.”

“Last three came outta nowhere,” Rookwood said.

“No one’s blamin’. But them bastards back in town’s chargin’ more and more for iron these days. We either gotta conserve or start cuttin’ back on whiskey.”

“Conservation got my vote.”

“You and me both, brother. Speakin’ of?”

Father Joe produced an old scuffed bottle of The Glenlivet. “Bless us O Lord and this Thy Scotch, up on which we are about to get tore.”

“Amen,” said the others, and the bottle made the rounds.

“What about some harmony, Dude?” Decatur said.

Deuteronomy Omaha, late of Barney, Kentucky, dug in his satchel and emerged with his harmonica. “I call this one, ‘Home, Home, with the Deranged.’”

And they drank and they sang beneath the dying moon. More of the Dead might be about, but a time came to stop worrying. Finally, with a pistol in his left hand and a sword in his right, Rookwood got to his feet. “Gotta go piss.”

“First piss of the night!” Omaha proclaimed. “Make a wish out there, Patrick.”

“You know it.”

Thirty seconds later, he came back with his fly unzipped and a strange look on his face. “Guys—come look.”

They followed him from the pine-grove and over the lip of the hill beyond. There they stopped and stood.

“Jesus, Rooks, what’d you wish for?” said Omaha.

In the valley below them was an Archon. No one could mistake that thing, a many-tentacled slug the size of a football field, blasphemous and pale in the starlight. Named for the monster-gods of ancient Gnosticism, they had arisen and gone about their own business, never going out of their way to plague mankind—but their business, whatever it was, had sucked up the power behind all technology and brought about the ghoulish obscenity of shuffling undeath which now awaited every living soul.

“Damned filth,” muttered Fr. Joe.

Omaha squinted. “Is it dead, ya think?”

“Let’s go see,” Decatur said.

They picked their way down through the brambles and scree to the base of the hill, fanned out, and advanced uncertainly. When they were within about twenty yards of it, Omaha stooped and picked up a rock. “Hey, you bag a’ shit!”

The rock hit the Archon’s side with a squish, stuck for a moment, and then clattered to the earth.

“Yup, it’s dead,” said Tomlinson.

They had all heard the stories: mankind’s most powerful weapons leaving the Archons untouched, stopped by some unseen aura surrounding them. It was said that the hateful slug-gods had neither retaliated for the attacks nor even seemed to notice them.

Decatur pointed. “The bounty.”

A standing reward had been offered, vast in sum, for any who could harvest their grotesque genetic material. Prized above all would be one of their eyes.

The hunters gathered by the blubbery mass of the creature’s forehead. Three dull grey orbs, six feet in diameter, dribbled reeking pus.


“My pleasure.” Rookwood holstered his sidearm and plunged his blade into the socket. The flesh cut away easily, and he began to saw the eye loose.

“You guys ever heard of one of these things dying before now?” Omaha asked.

The others shook their heads.

“Folk say they got no souls—that’s why they gotta take ours. Why, they took all the electric lights. What if they’re runnin’ out?”

“Runnin’ outta what?”

“Us. Ain’t been a baby born in Chicago in near ten years now. We’re going extinct.”


“Gimme a hand, Felix,” Rookwood said.

He and Tomlinson grabbed fistfuls of gristle and rolled out the squelching eye. A cord like an optic nerve came trailing after it, and Father Joe sliced it with a Bowie knife.

“Wonder if that’s why they made it rain monkeys back there,” Omaha said, distant. “Trynna make humans. Make souls.”

“They won’t,” the priest grunted. “Only God can.”

“Hope you’re right, Padre.”

“All right,” said Decatur. “Rookwood, Tomlinson—you take these back to town and buy a horse and cart.” He tossed the sack of eyes to Tomlinson. “We’ll stand watch, make sure no other hunters come along.”

“Hold up,” said Rookwood. “I still gotta piss.”

“The hell you doin’, Rook?”

He was hunched down and making his way into the gaping socket. “Gonna piss on this thing’s brain.”

“Man, are you out of your—aw, suit yourself.”

The other four ambled around, gazing up at the massive carrion and the glimmering worlds above. The night wind blew and the peepers sang. A minute or two went by. “Hey Pat, you okay in there?”

Then he came out, flailing. One of his hands was clenched around something, and orange light was spilling through his fingers; the other was clawing desperately at his own face. Blood ran down his shoulders. “Get it off! Get it offa me!”

“What is it? What’s on you?”

“My skin!”

Whatever he was holding fell, and he ripped at his arms with both hands, screaming like a man in a pyre. They grabbed him, tried to hold him, but he writhed and kicked and spat until Tomlinson hauled off and hit him with a right cross that made a sound like a suicide hitting the asphalt. Rookwood went limp.

They laid him down and put a jacket under his head. Omaha knelt by the glowing orange jewel and peered.

“Careful, Dude.”

“Ain’t gonna touch it. Just wanna see. . . what. . .” A look of puzzlement grew in his face. Then dawning horror. He started touching his hands and forearms, his eyes widening ever more. “What is this? This shouldn’t—gotta—get this off.” And he started to scratch.

“Dude? Dude!”

Tomlinson raised his sledgehammer, swung it like a golf club, and the jewel went flying into the scrub grass.

“Thought you was gonna hit Omaha for a second there,” Decatur said.

Father Joe knelt and shook him gently. “Dude. Can you hear me?”

Omaha blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, I—I’m here, Padre. I’m here.”

“What did you see?”

“It was like—can’t rightly—gimme a minute.” He sat down in the dust, and the others followed suit. After a long moment, he spoke: slowly, like a man recalling ancient memories. “It was like seein’ Earth from space. In the old pictures. Except it was all wrong. All this stuff—skin and dirt and bodies—it felt like bein’ wrapped up in a suit made of maggots. The whole, whattayacallit—matter. It felt like matter was a prison. Made of barbed wire. I just wanted out.”

Rookwood chimed in, his voice mostly groan. “Yeah. What he said.”

Tomlinson gave him some water. “You okay?”

“Think so. You like to broke my damn jaw.”

“Panicked. Sorry.”

“’Sokay, buddy. ’Preciate the save.”

“What the hell was that thing, anyway?” Decatur asked.

“Dunno. It was stuck in the skull, right where the optic nerve came out. Looked pricey, thought it might be worth somethin’.”

Fr. Joe was ruminating darkly. “What you said—it’s what They see. Time and space as an abomination.”

Omaha nodded. “That squares with the Gnostic are always saying.” (One couldn’t walk down the street without encountering Gnostic prophets.) “Like the world was one big mistake.”


“I ain’t disputin’ that, Padre, but you gotta know how your enemy thinks in order to beat him.”

“Yes.” The priest got up and walked into the dark, following the orange gleam. They scrambled up and came after him.

“Padre, don’t be a damn fool,” Decatur said sharply.

“It’s all right. Felix can always bash me if need be.” He picked up the jewel. “Now don’t let me pull my face off. But don’t stop me the second I look uncomfortable. Give it a minute or two.” He made the sign of the cross. “Lord, by your name save me; by your strength defend my cause.” And then he looked.

They watched. The blood drained from his face, and his shoulders started to move back and forth as if straitjacketed. Almost inaudibly: “No. No, no, no.” They glanced at each other, tense, half-raising their hands every time he twitched. “Not true. It’s not true, not true.”

“Father Joe? You hear me?”

Abruptly, his eyes squeezed shut and he lowered the jewel. “I’m okay.” He fumbled for his hip flask and took a long pull. “I’m okay.” He walked back toward the Archon, unscabbarding his Bowie knife. Carved a tiny chunk out of one the eyes. And popped it into his mouth.

“Padre, what the fuckin’ fuck!”

He turned toward them, and his gaze was strange: half-looking past them like a man in a dream, but not unfocused; rather, peering intently at something unseen. “Yes. Of course.”

“. . .What do you see?” said Omaha.

“Their world. They’re amphibians, you know. Half outside. In the spirit world. But they’ve got no spirit of their own.”

“I wanna see.”

Decatur winced. “Dude, come on.”

“I wanna see it, Moe. I done ate worse than this in my day, we all have.” He walked over, carved a piece, gulped it down with a slosh of whiskey. “I don’t—oh. Oh! Whoa.”

The other three exchanged glances. “How do we know it won’t turn our willies into tentacles or some such?” Rookwood demanded.

“You’re the one unzipped hisself inside the thing’s skull, Rookwood.”

“Yeah, I mean—I guess.”

“I wanna see too,” Tomlinson said quietly.

“Aw, why not. They’re gonna eat all our souls anyhow.”

Decatur shook his head. “Like bein’ back in high school. All the cool kids are eatin’ Archon eyes.”

“So, you in?”


They carved and they gulped, one after another. And for each of them, the veil of matter was rent. The night became an orange and purple dome, fifty times higher and wider than the cosmos they knew, stretching back through numberless ghastly aeons; the earth underfoot, a pink and green expanse of rippling sea, girded by no horizon, extending through insane infinities. And the five of them stood, minuscule and meaningless, in the flat détente of those abysms of wave and sky.

“Welp,” said Rookwood, “I no longer need to piss.”

Tomlinson’s voice: “Uh, guys? How come I can’t see you?”

“Squint, Felix,” Omaha said. “We’re right here, you just gotta, like—tilt your head.”

“Y’all fuzzy.”

“Spitballing here,” said Father Joe, “but my guess is, the Archons have never attacked human beings because they can’t see us. All they see is souls and energy. So as long as you’re alive, your soul is camouflaged in skin.”

“You guys feel that?” Decatur said abruptly. “That pull?”

Chorus of yeah. The flowing tides beneath their feet were moving urgently westerly. Their feet were planted in the dust of the physical world, but their hearts felt the tug.

“This is what they feel—what we feel—when we die. This is how they suck us up.”

“We have to stop this,” Father Joe said grimly. “Whatever it takes. We have to kill them.”

“Well we ain’t dead men,” Rookwood said. “Let’s follow it and shoot whatever we find.”

“Just keep squinting at the real world,” Omaha said. “We won’t do no good if we follow the pull off the edge of a cliff.”

They moved out on foot, following the maelstrom-like tug. Tilting and peeking and shaking their heads, they managed to negotiate the rocks and dales of the corporal universe; and all the while, they let themselves be reeled along like fish on a black steel hook. At the end of an hour, they crested a ridge and stared down bleakly to the vale beyond.

“The God-damn monkeys.”

From the east, from Chicago, a slow meandering stream: the thin, pale souls of apes. A dozen titan slugs, their mouth wide-gaped to swallow. The Archons had succeeded.

“They don’t need us anymore.”

“No,” said Father Joe. “No, in Christ’s name, no!”

And he charged down the hill, unholstering the sawed-off Remington that swung beside his hip flask. One of the monster slugs was opening its grisly maw to swallow an apely soul: the padre sprinted straight into its darkling maw and fired both barrels into the roof of its unholy demon mouth.

The others stood frozen for half a second. “It’s bleeding!” Omaha yelled. “Let’s go!”

They followed their madcap chaplain into the fray, firing rifles, shotguns, pistols, and derringers into the mouths of the monster gods. The Archons bellowed like the everlasting wrath of Satan, and four of them flopped over dead. The others reared their ghoulish bulk and waved their tentacles, and rocks began to shower from the sky.

“Let’s get the hell outta here!”

Scrambling desperately, they fled the vale as mountains worth of stone came showering down. The Archons, aura-clad, shrugged off the plummeting debris. But now they knew. We knew.

The vision of the Archon’s eye was fading. The moon was far above; the night mist hung about them like a shroud. Decatur racked a shell into the chamber, and the empty one went flying. “They’re vulnerable when they feed.”

“Yeah,” said Rookwood. “But also, they can make their own food now. All they gotta do is conjure mountains down on all of us.”

“So the war’s done escalated. We can hurt ’em now, but they can hurt us more. We gotta get the eyes back to Chicago. Let everybody know.”

“Yeah, but—first we get the bounty, right?”

The others glanced around.

“Well, yeah. ’Course we get the bounty first.”

“All right then, let’s go save the fuckin’ world.”

“Amen, brother mine.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He works as a groundskeeper in New Hampshire and just had his first daughter, Sonya Magdalena Rose. She is currently in his lap.