Phil Giunta



Phil Giunta’s first novel, a paranormal mystery called Testing the Prisoner, was published in 2010 by Firebringer Press. His second novel in the same genre, By Your Side, was released in 2013. You can listen to both on audio for free at Scribl.com: 

https://scribl.com/browse?au=1017

Phil's short stories appear in such anthologies as Beach Nights from Cat and Mouse Press, the ReDeus mythology series from Crazy 8 Press, and the Middle of Eternity speculative fiction series, which he created and edited for Firebringer Press. His paranormal mystery novella, Like Mother, Like Daughters is slated for release in late 2017.

As a member of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (GLVWG), Phil has also penned stories and essays for Write Here, Write Now and The Write Connections, two of the group’s annual anthologies. He also served as chairman of the 2015 Write Stuff writers conference in Bethlehem, PA.

Visit Phil’s website: http://www.philgiunta.com


So Hungry . . .

Phil Giunta
Winner of Honorable Mention
2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award

After scaling a treacherous length of the steep mountain trail, Edwin Santiago turned to extend a helping hand to his wife. Without a word, Prudence waved it away and bounded up through a notch in the cliff wall to stand beside him. As she caught her breath, they turned to admire the view from the northwest face of New Mexico’s Starvation Peak. Beige and tan earth—dusted with rouge and mottled with deep green pines and desert scrub—stretched flat to the horizon, broken only by a few scattered and distant peaks.

Edwin pulled a granola bar from his backpack and tore open the wrapper. “Hell of a nicer view than the other Las Vegas.” “That’s a matter of opinion,” Prudence grumbled. “And technically, we’re in Bernal here.” Edwin cocked his head and glared at her. “I know where we are, sabelotodo.”

“I’m not a smart-ass!” Prudence nudged his arm.

Ignoring her, he continued. “I grew up in this area. Used to come here all the time as a kid. It’s just as beautiful as I remember.”

“What’s so beautiful about it? It’s just a desert.”

“When Lawrence of Arabia was asked why he liked the desert, he said, ‘I like it because it’s clean’.”

“And desolate, not to mention cold and windy. I’d rather be in a hot tub, or weaving around tables on a casino floor instead of stumbling over rocks and hauling myself up onto cliffs in the middle of February.”

Edwin chuckled and shook his head. “We’ll be in your Las Vegas for a whole week starting tomorrow, chiquita. This weekend, I want to enjoy my Las Vegas. I’ve been away too long. Besides, this is the best time of year for a hike—the rattlesnakes aren’t out yet.”

“Rattlesnakes? You waited until now to tell me this? See, this is why I don’t do nature.”

Although Prudence had never been fond of the outdoors, she and Edwin had agreed long ago to support each other’s interests, which often requires compromise—and sometimes, complaining. Prudence was far more adept at the latter than the former.

Edwin kissed her on her cheek. “Relax, Pru. It won’t be long until we reach the mesa.”

She folded her arms and continued staring at the landscape over 6,000 feet below. “How long?”

“In about fifteen minutes.”

“After a short break.” Prudence slipped off her backpack and set it down atop a nearby boulder. She slipped her water bottle out of a side pocket and took a sip before passing it to Edwin. “You never did tell me why this place is called Starvation Peak.”

“Depending on what you read or who you ask, the legend is a little different. In one version, a Navajo tribe chased a group of early Spanish settlers from the Santa Fe Trail to the foot of the mountain. They fled to the top, where they eventually starved to death rather than be killed by the waiting Navajo. Other versions claim it was Spanish soldiers, or a merchant caravan, or even Catholic missionaries. The most dramatic rendition actually has the victims cannibalizing each other, with the survivors hoping to outlast the Navajo’s patience.”

As Edwin spoke, a fog descended over the northwest face of the peak. “I’m part Navajo and my family called bullshit on all of these stories years ago. There’s no documented evidence that anything ever happened here. It’s all just folklore.”

He turned to peer up toward the mesa just as Prudence screamed and stumbled backward.

Edwin spun. “What happened? Did you lose your balance?” Prudence whipped off her sunglasses and pointed into the swirling mist. Several yards out from the side of the mountain, a dark, featureless figure stood suspended in mid-air. After a moment, its arms opened wide, then rose above its head before flapping up and down wildly. Prudence glanced back at Edwin. Smiling, he dropped his arms to his side. The figure in the fog did the same.

Her brow furrowed as she looked back and forth. “What the hell is that?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a Brocken spectre before. The sun is behind me, casting my shadow into that low hanging cloud.” He stepped back, away from the edge of the cliff. The apparition vanished. “Stand where I was. Quick, before the sun burns away the fog.”

Prudence moved into place. The hazy silhouette reappeared, although much less defined as the mist began to dissipate. “That’s just creepy. What was it called?”

“Brocken spectre. I think it was first observed on a German mountain of the same name. Ready to move on?”

“No. I think I’ve had enough.”

“You want to go back when we’re this close to the top?”

“Where a bunch of people starved to death and possibly ate each other? No thanks. If you’d told me that yesterday, I would have slept in this morning.”

Edwin sighed. “Pru, I know you’re superstitious, but I’m telling you the stories are bogus. There are no ghosts roaming the mesa ready to eat you alive.”

“Whatever. You can keep going if you want to. My ass is staying right here.”

“It might take me about forty-five minutes. You’re just going to sit here in the cold?”

Prudence shrugged. “The sun’s starting to warm things up and that line of pine trees over there is blocking the wind.”

“What’re you going to do while I’m gone? There’s barely any cell service out here so you won’t be able to go online.”

“I stuffed a book in my backpack, and I have hot chocolate in my thermos. So go. If I need anything, I’ll scream.”

“Increíble.” Edwin threw up his arms. “Fine. I’ll try to be quick. I just want to take pictures from the top of the mesa for my blog.”

“No hurry, but be careful!”

***

He emerged from a gap between two boulders and stepped out onto the mesa. Rather than a panoramic view of the surrounding wilderness, Edwin could hardly see beyond the impenetrable pall of the low-hanging cloud. So much for taking pictures.

In the distance ahead, another Brocken spectre appeared, hovering between two pine trees. This time, it did not mimic Edwin’s movements, but remained perfectly still. He glanced over his shoulder before scanning the mesa. There were no other hikers in sight, nor was there even a single ray of sunlight piercing the fog. He called out, but there was no reply. So whose shadow is that?

He moved his hand to his hip and felt the reassuring leather sheath of his survival knife. Slowly, he began backing away toward the trail.

“Help us.”

The words, distinctly Spanish, were barely louder than a whisper. The voice seemed to come from everywhere.

Edwin called out again, this time in Spanish. As he glanced from trees to rocks to clearings, more Brocken spectres coalesced from the fog until he was completely surrounded. A chorus of hushed voices replied.

“Hungry…”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“Food...so hungry…help us...”

The spectres drew closer, cutting off all avenues of escape. Edwin held up quivering hands. “Wait! I have food.” He shucked his backpack and unzipped a side pouch. Several granola bars tumbled out. Edwin gathered them up and held them at arm’s length. “Here, take them all.”

The spectres paused. Since they had no facial features, Edwin could only hope that they were considering his offer. Then it occurred to him that if these were the ghosts of people who starved to death on this mesa over 160 years ago, they would have no knowledge of processed food. In unison, they continued their approach until they hovered directly above him.

“No, wait, please! If you let me go, I can come back with real food!”

Ignoring his pleas, they descended, their forms undulating and merging into one massive shadow that engulfed Edwin as he dropped to his knees and covered his head. He strained to scream, but could utter no sound as the voices grew to a deafening roar in his head, repeating their refrain. “So hungry…”

***

“Edwin!” Prudence pressed her fingers to the side of his neck. Relieved to find a pulse, she gently turned his head right and left, looking for any sign of injury. With a grunt, he opened his eyes and winced against the blinding sunlight. “Edwin, are you OK? What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” he whispered. “How long was I out?”

“I don’t know, but when you didn’t come back after an hour and a half, I came up here to find you. Can you stand?”

Edwin sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. After a moment, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, face buried in hands.

“How do you feel?” Prudence said.

Edwin didn’t answer.

“Take your time. If you’re in pain, I have—”

He doubled over, clutching his stomach. “Hungry.”

“Hold on, I’ll get you a granola bar.” She stepped away and rummaged through her bag. “I knew coming here was a bad idea. Once we’re off this mountain, we should get you to a hospital.” She turned, granola bar in hand—and flinched at the sight of Edwin standing directly behind her.

She stepped backward, nearly tripping over the uneven ground. “Oh, on your feet already? I, uh, didn’t hear you approach.”

He cocked his head before running a slow, predatory gaze down the length of her body.

“Why are you looking at me like that? What’s wrong with you?”

Edwin brought his right hand out from behind his back. The 10-inch blade of his survival knife glinted in the sun. “So hungry...”

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