28 May Pea Ridge (Part 2)
“Pea Ridge (Part 2)”Written by Xavier Poe Kane Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 24 minutes
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
The world has turned upside down. Glen was right. Fuck! Aliens!
About 5:30 p.m., Snaggle wanted to go outside. I followed him out, rifle slung over one shoulder. He sniffed around the fence before he started barking his head off. Then I heard it. A soft skittering sound like claws on wood. I can’t call it a face that appeared over the top of my fence; at first, it was just a round mouth two to three times the size of what I assumed to be a neck.
Six hook-shaped claws, three to each side of the nightmarish mouth, gripped the top of the wooden fence. These it used to lift a slender, serpentine body over the top. I could hear scratching on the other side of the fence at what I presumed were claws on its feet propelling it up and over. The top of the fence picket crumbled under its weight causing it to lose its balance, topple to the ground, and roll toward Snaggle who barked wildly. The creature let out a scared, ear-splitting cry.
My dog nipped at the strange creature, which lashed out at him with its tongue, the proboscis wrapping around his remaining back leg. He yelped in pain. Instinctively, I unslung the rifle and shouldered it. Muscle memory kicked in as I sighted down the barrel, aiming for center mass. My thumb flipped the safety to fire. My finger slid onto the trigger. Squeezed. Light recoil into the shoulder. The smell of smokeless gunpowder.
Missing the small target, my bullet splintered a fence panel next to the alien. It let out a distressed howl, answered by a low rumble somewhere on the other side of my fence.
But it didn’t let go of my dog, and I was about to go full John Wick on its ass. I adjusted fire and aimed for the pink mouth. My vision tunneled, and I fired into the gaping maw. The Russian-made hollow point expanded as it contacted the soft tissue. The projectile didn’t leave a massive exit wound. The creature slumped to the ground with a gentle groan. Blue-green blood oozed from the orifice and shredded viscera floated out in clumps in various hues of pink, blue, and beige. The stench of ammonia hung heavy in the air.
Its tongue loosened around Snaggle’s leg, and he took off like a gunshot. He ran past me and into the house. As I beat a hasty retreat, its parent broke through my fence, giving me a better look at the snakelike species. It stood at maybe 7 feet tall on two spindly legs which matched its arms; each limb ended in with three long, hook-like claws. At the top of its body, it had a mouth as big as Snaggle and two eyes to either side that glared with hungry, murderous intent. The pink of the mouth contrasted with the dark gray skin on the front of its body.
It looked at its dead spawn and then at me. With a bellowing clamor of rage and loss, it reared backward. In the woods, I could hear this call answered by other, similar wails.
I turned and ran, slamming the door behind me as I heard a tongue slam against the metal. I threw the deadbolt and pushed my wooden desk against it, hoping it would hold. Snaggle whined, and I looked at his leg. The tongue must’ve been coated with something acidic; the fur was already gone, and a painful-looking chemical burn was dissolving the now exposed pink skin. I didn’t have any milk, but I hoped some bismuth would work. Retrieving it from the medicine pantry, I poured the hot pink liquid on the injury, and it seemed to soothe as he looked up at me with grateful puppy dog eyes.
That was two hours ago. As I hid, I called the sheriff; the dispatcher must’ve thought me crazy, drunk, or on meth. I heard hardly contained giggles in her voice. Eventually, I convinced her to send a deputy—when one became available.
What I thought was just a momma bear and her cub proved to be a pack of these otherworldly creatures. They’re casing the house, and I find myself unconvinced by their intelligence. They focus on the door the first adult saw me and Snaggle retreat into. They aren’t breaking through windows or the back porch’s French doors. Unexpectedly, light footfalls echo from the roof.
That I’m as alien to them as they are to me is my only advantage. Unfamiliar with Earth dwellings, I wonder if they are actually predators that were destined for a galactic zoo or if they were bred for war. Either way, they have been unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
I’m suddenly overcome by a memory. When I was in high school, we went to Fort Walton Beach for our senior trip. Our hotel overlooked the beach, and one night I broke curfew and just sat in the sand looking out into the blackness. Clouds muted the moon. A faint hint of horizon separated the deep black of the gulf from the lighter black of the sky. I felt peaceful staring into that ominous void, and I thought that it was what purgatory must be like.
I push such thoughts of the end out of my mind. I’ve prepared for this. I’m hunkered down in my walk-in closet. I made a fatal funnel when I got in a prone position and aimed at the front door. I’ll have a chance. But if they find they can break in through multiple doors, they’ll be able to attack as a horde, which would spell doom … the crawl space!
Built as an expansion, the closet’s foundation was poured with a small crawl space for ductwork that never got installed! I’ll try to hide in there. I pull back the area rug covering the opening and lift the door.
“After you, buddy.”
I help the medium-sized canine into his hidey-hole. Unfortunately, they built it at a time when people tended to be smaller. I can only get him to safety.
“Be quiet,” I tell him as I close the entryway and replace the area rug.
I can hear the door as it starts to give way. It won’t hold much longer.
I look at the two 30-round magazines on the floor next to me. I reload the one I fired from earlier and snap it back in place. Plus the one in the chamber, I have 91 rounds total. They provide a false sense of comfort. Time is precious and changing mags in an AK is slower than in an AR. My mind works the math on how far the creatures can advance in a handful of seconds. I’m not convinced the odds are in my favor.
This leaves me with only one last task as the door starts to fail: call Petra. I pick up the cordless, landline phone just as it begins to ring.
“Fuck, Glen, you always had shitty timing,” I curse as I hit the green button. I don’t give him time to respond. “Listen, brother, they’re here. There are more than two of them. A whole pack. Shelter in place. If you don’t hear from me, Snaggle is in the crawl space under the walk-in. And—”
As the door begins to give, the enraged swarm bangs harder. I have only seconds.
“Tell Petra I love her.”
I shoulder the rifle and take aim at the first pink mouth I see.
* * * * * *
Enraged, the creature was finally able to break through the barrier between
her and the monster that stole the life of her son. It let out a victorious, high-pitched growl before one of her swarm mates pushed her through the hole into the monster’s den. Thunder boomed, and the den wall splintered next to her. Another thunderclap and a swarm mate’s head exploded, splattering her with viscera and fueling her rage.
Focused on her enemy’s fear, she moved through her prey’s shelter, which was much more spacious than the burrows and dens she was used to hunting in. She moved toward the thunderclaps with jerking movements so her prey could not hit her. The shockwaves of its missiles tickled her skin as they passed by. Sounds of pain from her swarm propelled her toward the kill when a round grazed her neck below her maw. Another sliced right above her leg. She collapsed, and a brother leapt over her toward the light and clatter of their target. She felt the claws of her swarm mates gently grip and lift her.
As she was carried out of the den, she watched the mass of squirming, serpentine bodies closing in on the monster that killed her son. A primitive sense of satisfaction flashed through her mind as she lost consciousness.
* * * * * *
Snaggle made himself as small as he could, trembling as he heard the clatter of battle above him. He never liked the noise his pack’s alpha male made with his boom stick. The high-pitched calls and growls of the predators attacking them made him whine in pain. The unusual surroundings did not help either; it was dark and damp, filled with smells that he would have happily explored if it were any other time.
There was a loud thud, and he heard the alpha male scream in pain. More loud
claps from the boom stick were followed by silence punctuated by soft whimpers from the alpha. After a few moments, Snaggle scratched at the roof from which his alpha had been able to place him inside this strange space. His efforts were met with a low moan but no rescue. He lay down, his eyes focused on the agonized sounds of his packmate.
Snaggle lay on his paws as the worst moment of his life passed. Lacking a human sense of time, he could wait for as long as it took for one of his pack to rescue him. The floor above him creaked, and there was the sound of something vocalizing. Snaggle began to tremble when the roof started to shift. As the planks were removed, he backed into the shadows, waiting to see who or what was coming for him.
Just after Midnight Monday Morning
Glen sped through the woods toward his brother’s house in his side-by-side UTV. The same paths they paved as children were now worn by time. Back then, they had been the hunters at the top of the food chain. He feared that the tables had turned—that they were now the hunted. All of his senses were tuned to his surroundings as he crashed through the wood. His lights cut through the darkness as limbs slapped against the side-by-side.
He broke through the woodline and sped through a field. He saw the blue and red lights of police cars. Glen leaned forward, trying to see if they were cops from the closest small town, Bourbon; county-mounties; or—the most problematic alternative—the highway patrol. As he drew close, he saw the blue markings of the Bourbon PD and breathed a sigh of relief. As he pulled up near the garage, he saw the silhouette of the police chief Gene; Glen was relieved, as they’d been inseparable best friends growing up.
“Hold up, Glen,” Gene said, towering over the UTV as Glen pulled to a stop.
“I’m goin’ in, Gene. That’s my big brother,” Glen replied, getting out of the UTV and reaching for his lever-action rifle.
Chuck, the newest addition to Bourbon PD, stepped up close to his boss, seemingly looking for guidance on how to handle the situation. A subtle gesture from Gene made Chuck step back.
“Well, we just got here. Thought it was you messing with us, pretending to be your brother so we’d listen to a wild tale about aliens.” Gene looked away from Glen. “Didn’t realize Rich was in town. The house looks like all Hell broke loose.” Gene grabbed his AR-15 out of his trunk, with Chuck following suit.
“Yeah, whatever it was broke through his fence,” Glen briefed the cops. “Got on his roof and tore up the metal pretty good. We got some blurry pics on the camera.”
“So, you’ve seen them?” Chuck asked.
Glen shook his head. “Not clearly. Mind if we shut the hell up and go see if my brother is still alive?” he said, shouldering his rifle and marching toward the house, hoping the two cops fell in behind him. “Fuck me!” he exclaimed, taking in the blue-green blood splatters and pink viscera clinging to walls and sliding toward the floor. “Now do ya believe me about the aliens?”
Gene couldn’t meet Glen’s eye. “Yeah. They smell like cat piss.”
Glen moved quickly into the house. “Gene! I see Rich!” Glen dropped his rifle and ran to a body on the floor. “Oh, God! Rich!” Tears came to his eyes. “Why the fuck didn’t ya come to our house?”
His brother’s body was covered in bites and burns. Rich had given the bastards one hell of a fight. When Glen leaned over to sob, he felt Rich’s chest move with a shallow breath, and noise came from his brother’s throat. “Gene! Holy fuck! He’s alive! Call for an ambulance!”
“They’re already on their way,” Chuck said, taking point and covering the door with his rifle. “I think I can hear sirens now. Hopefully, it’s the EMTs and not the highway patrol. Don’t want to answer why we let an armed civilian in here. This is the most FUBAR thing I’ve seen since Somalia.”
“Those look like chemical burns,” Gene interjected. “Maybe those creatures’ saliva or blood burned him? Chuck, go grab the first-aid bag.”
Chuck was in motion the second the chief of police said his name, likely his Army Combat Life Saver training kicking in.
“We’ve got to get him out of his clothes,” the police chief continued. “Go get a pitcher of water or any bottled water you can find—cool but not freezing.”
Glen rushed to the kitchen, filled a pitcher, and grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge. Returning to Gene and his brother, the two men started tending to the wounded Rich. His clothes in tatters, they came off easily, and then they started rinsing him off.
“Got the first-aid bag,” Chuck said as he returned. “I could see flashing lights. They’ll be in here soon.”
“Thank God!” Glen said as he grabbed gauze from the first-aid bag to bandage his brother.
“Sheriff’s Department!” a woman’s voice boomed from the door.
“Bourbon PD!” Gene and Chuck yelled back.
“House is clear!” Chuck added. “Kayla, is that you?” he asked.
“Yeah! I got here with the medics!” She whistled. “It’s clear. Bring in the stretcher!” she yelled outside. “What’ve we got?” She approached the bedroom where Rich had made his stand. “What did this?”
“Deputy Randolph,” Gene said in acknowledgment, “seems my crackpot best friend here isn’t cracked after all. He thinks it’s aliens—”
“I know it’s aliens,” Glen corrected.
“—and I’ll be damned if I don’t believe him,” Gene finished, shaking his head.
The clatter of a stretcher interrupted their conversation as the EMTs entered.
“We’ll take it from here,” one of them said as he started tending to Rich. “Who are you?” he asked Glen, the only one not in uniform.
“Glen. He’s my brother.” Glen nodded toward Rich.
“Okay, Glen, we’re going to take good care of your brother. But right now, we need you to go outside and let us work,” the EMT said firmly.
“C’mon, buddy,” Gene said, guiding him out of the room.
* * * * * *
“So,” Kayla began, “does this have anything to do with those National Guard trucks that rolled into Town & Country’s parking lot yesterday morning? It’s all over Facebook.”
“I don’t know,” Gene said. “I talked to the captain in charge. They’re some sort of HAZMAT team, and all he said was that an A-10 had crashed and they were ordered to monitor for some chemical or other.”
“A-10 my ass,” Glen spat. “It’s a fucking UFO.”
“I believe you,” Gene responded, gesturing toward Chuck and Kayla who were nodding in agreement. “They believe you too. Something stinks, and it’s not just the cat piss smell in Rich’s house.”
Their phones all made the maddening clatter of the Emergency Alert System’s alert tone, the same message appearing in all caps:
THE GOVERNOR OF MISSOURI IN COORDINATION WITH THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (FEMA) HAS DECLARED NORTHEASTERN CRAWFORD COUNTY AND SOUTHWESTERN FRANKLIN COUNTY A DISASTER AREA
A HAZMAT INCIDENT HAS OCCURRED AND AS A PRECAUTION ALL RESIDENTS IN AND NEAR SULLIVAN, BOURBON, AND CUBA ARE INSTRUCTED TO EVACUATE
THE NATIONAL GUARD IN COOPERATION WITH FEMA IS ESTABLISHING SHELTERS IN THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES OR AREAS:
UNION AND WASHINGTON IN FRANKLIN COUNTY;
STEELVILLE IN CRAWFORD COUNTY;
ST JAMES IN PHELPS COUNTY;
“It’s going to be a long day,” Chuck said.
“Yeah,” Gene agreed, as he read incoming text messages. “They’ve shut down eastbound I-44 at St. James and westbound lanes in Stanton.”
The clacking of a stretcher drew their attention to the house; the EMTs were wheeling Rich out.
“He’s in a coma,” the paramedic from earlier told Glen. “It’s not good. We’re going to take him to the hospital in Sullivan. Came over the radio that they’re evacuating all but the most serious patients. The National Guard is taking over as a trauma center. I’m sorry, but you can’t go with your brother.” Without waiting for a response, the EMTs hurried to the ambulance and started loading Rich.
“Glen,” Gene said before Glen could say anything, “I’m taking you home. Pack up Sarah and get the hell out of town. We don’t know how many of these things are in the woods, and your side-by-side won’t give you any protection in case of an attack.”
“Not gonna get any argument from me. But first, I need to see if Snaggletooth is all right. Rich called and told me where he hid his dog. I’d be better off with … those things than my own family if I didn’t at least look.”
After removing the floorboards, he peered into the darkness. “Snaggle? Buddy, ya down there?”
Glen heard a whimper, and the trembling three-legged mutt crawled into the light. Glen pulled him out of his hiding place. “Yep, he’s alive. It’s not good, not gonna lie.” He scratched behind the dog’s ears and hugged him close for a moment before letting him down.
Snaggle cautiously followed Glen outside where he lifted a phantom leg to relieve himself.
* * * * * *
The creature came to in a dense part of the woods that the swarm had found to regroup. She opened her eyes and saw her family. Her species used biofluorescence to see each other in the low light and darkness of their home world, but this new planet allowed more UV light; her swarm shone in various hues of green, orange, and red. With effort, she stood. Her wounds were already healing naturally, for which she was glad. Her kind practiced cannibalism; normally it was after one died, but if hunger became too great, they would feed on the near-dead.
The swarm was silent, listening for the clicks of an approaching swarm mate. Silence favored predators, so they only used vocalization when in distress or when needing to locate one another after becoming separated. They were more careful in this new place than when the strange, colorless bipeds came to their home. They woke up in a strange place devoid of prey and emotion; the swarm fell into panic and rampaged through the space which brought them here.
Which is why they were learning that in their new home, they should communicate through telepathy. Her mind was filled with a cacophony of images: some violent, some scared, all of them hungry. She projected the image of her son laying lifeless. The swarm understood the wisdom of the image: there was no future without the young. They would have to fight smarter and use the knowledge gained from the first battle at their crash site. Their prey brimmed with complex emotions and was most dangerous when these swung to the extremes of alertness and fear. However, when these creatures were at peace, they could be culled with relative ease.
As the swarm settled upon a course of action, she could not stop projecting images of her son. The swarm knew she was intent on hunting for vengeance over sustenance. They would allow her to go—alone. They could not risk the collective for her quest. However, they wanted her to accompany the rest of the females to a cave nearby before she embarked on her singular mission.
* * * * * *
The police cruiser’s tires crunched on Glen’s gravel driveway as they pulled up to the house.
The door opened, and a very concerned Sarah came rushing out of the house, wrapping her arms around her husband as he got out of the car. “I called Petra; she’s leaving St. Louis now,” she said, not letting go.
“I-44’s shut down, and the hospital’s now a trauma center. No visitors. They’re evacuatin’ the area,” Glen told his wife. “Why don’t-cha call her back and let her know? There’s nothin’ she can do stuck in traffic.”
Sarah wiped tears from her eyes and stepped back. “Yeah, but you know her. She’s going to do whatever she wants.” She pulled her phone out of the pocket of her leggings and brought up her sister-in-law’s contact. “I’ll meet you inside—hurry.”
Glen nodded and turned to Gene. “Thank you, brother.” The two men hugged. “Stay safe.”
“I will.” Gene paused before getting back in his car. “There’s something I want you to have.” He popped his trunk and took out a rifle case and small backpack. “It’s the AR we were talking about you buying. I know all you’ve got are your bolt- and lever-action rifles and your dad’s .357. I know Sarah has her shotgun, but you could use something a little more tactical.” Gene handed him the case and backpack. “The backpack has some mags and ammo. Hopefully, it’s enough to get you where you’re going.”
“Thank you, Gene.”
“Where do you think you’re headed? St. Louis?”
“Probably. Best to bunk with family than sit around in a FEMA camp,” Glen said.
Gene scanned the woodline for a moment. “Think it’s too much to hope this will be over soon and we can get back to normal?”
Glen pondered it for a moment. “That’d be nice, but I don’t know how they can contain this.”
Gene stepped toward the open driver’s door. “Yeah, thought so. Go with God, Glen.”
“You too,” Glen said, as his childhood best friend shut the car door and started rolling out of the driveway.
* * * * * *
Snaggletooth followed his alpha’s brother, his tail by his one back leg and his head down. Things were happening—things he did not like. His alpha was not in their den when the alpha’s brother pulled him from the scary space. Snaggle had sniffed and wandered around the house but could find no trace of his primary pack. So, he followed his extended packmate.
When he got out of the strange car, he sniffed the yard, recognizing the markings of his friend, Thor. Thor was what the humans called him; among the canines in the area, he was known as “He Who Stands Against Thunder Booms.” Snaggle, on the other hand, was known among their kind as simply “Lucky” for surviving every trauma that would have killed a lesser dog. Personally, Snaggle believed no such creature as a lesser dog existed.
Snaggle looked around the yard for Thor, but there was no sign of him. He stepped over to the nearest marking of Thor, lifted his phantom leg, and left his own calling card before following his alpha’s brother into the den.
The thumping of a wagging tail drew Snaggle deeper inside to where Thor lay on his bed. The other dog whimpered a greeting, which Snaggle returned. Both were too hurt and tired for the customary butt sniff but did it anyway. After all, good manners distinguished canines from their human packmates.
After the perfunctory whiff, the two curled up on Thor’s bed and watched the humans go about their business.
* * * * * *
“That’s about it,” Glen said, as he brought out the last of their emergency preparations and placed them in the bed of their truck. He placed their hunting rifles in the back seat. They had the AR and her shotgun slung over their shoulders.
Sarah surveyed the woods, looking for danger. Both were tense. “We just need to get the dogs—”
A clatter in the woods interrupted their conversation. They shouldered their weapons and pointed at the noise.
“It’s a soldier!” Glen yelled, lowering his rifle as a man in camouflage and tactical gear emerged from the woodline. He wore an expression of sheer terror.
“He’s being chased!” Sarah yelled as two of the serpentine creatures erupted out of the woods in pursuit. She fired at the creature to the soldier’s left, her shotgun making it howl in its otherworldly high pitch.
Glen shouldered the AR from Gene and fired twice at the one on the right. His target howled, and the two retreated back into the woods.
The soldier bent over to gather himself and catch his breath before approaching them. “Thanks,” he said in between pants. “I’m Captain Boleyn with the Missouri National Guard.”
Glen looked him over, counting three rifle magazines and a couple of pouches for a handgun that was not in the captain’s hand nor holster. Also missing was the M-4 or M-16 rifle the other magazines were for. “I’m Glen. This is my wife, Sarah. Where are your men?”
“They’re gone,” Captain Boleyn explained. “All of them—those things surprised us. My NCOIC had just stepped outside our ops trailer to take a piss when they attacked. My team was downrange at the crash site checking our AreaRAE sensors when one by one the teams started going offline.” The soldier shuddered. “The screams over the radio …” his voice trailed.
“What were ya doin’ out there again?” Glen asked, shooting his wife an “I told you so” look.
“We were placing the AreaRAEs—” the captain answered.
“What are area rays?” Sarah asked.
“Gas sensors. There was a crash. They told us it was an A-10. We’re with the Civil Support Team. We do HAZMAT with first responders, and there was a request to make sure things weren’t off-gassing.”
“Are you sure it was an A-10?” Glen asked. “Not a UFO?”
The other man’s eyes went wide before narrowing. “Can I trouble you for a quick drink? Maybe the bathroom before we hit the road?”
“Sure,” Sarah said with a forced smile, stepping toward the house as the men fell in behind her.
“I’m going to need your rifle,” Captain Boleyn said, eyeing Glen’s AR.
“With all due respect, that’s goin’ to be a no,” Glen said firmly.
“There’s an emergency order in effect, and since I’m trained—”
Glen held up a hand. “My brother Rich and I were in the Army too. I’m trained.” His eyes went to the officer’s right sleeve, where a combat veteran usually wore the patch of the unit they deployed with. It was empty.
The captain fell silent and followed Glen into his home.
* * * * * *
The creature left the cave where the other females now busied themselves preparing the space for long-term habitation. It was a good space to build a nest. However, now was not the time to worry about mating, as the males were on the hunt to bring food back. Regardless, her mission was calling her. Her sisters understood, and she could feel their relief that their pups were skittering around their claws. She moved out of the cave, sniffing the wind to search for a particular scent of despair.
* * * * * *
“It’s good to have another soldier around,” Sarah said when Captain Boleyn closed the door behind him.
Glen grunted but remained silent.
“Well, I don’t care. It’s nice to have someone in authority around as we evacuate,” Sarah countered.
The door to the bathroom opened and a refreshed Captain Boleyn emerged, exuding WASPy confidence. “Are we ready to go?” he asked, now eager to get on the road.
“Yeah, just gotta load up the dogs,” Glen said as grabbed his rifle. “I also pulled this outta the truck for ya.” He handed the soldier his dad’s .357 Magnum revolver.
“A cowboy gun?” Captain Boleyn asked with an arched eyebrow.
Glen scoffed. “Cowboy guns tended to be single-action. That’s double-action, so ya can just squeeze the bang button and needn’t worry about the hammer. Plus, it’s a Magnum—much bigger than the 9mm ya lost.”
“Glen, be nice,” Sarah chimed in. She turned to the dogs. “C’mon, boys! Who wants to go outside?”
Snaggle and Thor just looked at each other.
“If they don’t want to go,” Captain Boleyn said, “leave them.”
“We can’t,” Sarah said, her voice quivering.
“We won’t,” Glen added.
The captain opened his mouth to say something but seemingly thought better of it.
“C’mon, boys,” Glen said, nudging them toward the door.
Hesitantly, they rose to their paws and followed behind, ears perked and heads on a swivel. After sniffing the air, they started to retreat back into the house.
Glen bent down and gave them comforting scritches. “It’s okay, we’ll be with ya.” He resumed walking, the pair of pups skulking behind him.
Sarah got to the truck first and slid into the driver’s seat. Just as she started the vehicle, an attack came. The creatures came bounding out of the woods. There were three of them—one attacking straight on and the other two flanking Glen and Captain Boleyn.
Glen had his AR shouldered instantly, aiming center mass on the one attacking from the left. “Shit!” he yelled as his round missed the undulating form of his target, which opened its maw to let out an annoying screech. Presented with a larger target, Glen raised his aim and squeezed the trigger. The military surplus full metal jacket tore through the back of the alien’s throat. It staggered and yowled in pain, retreating back into the woods as Glen moved toward the truck.
“Hell yeah!” Captain Boleyn yelled. He sighted down the barrel of the .357 at the attacker coming from the right, pulled the trigger, and missed. He fired again; this time the jacketed hollow-point shredded its brain, causing it to drop where it stood. “We weren’t doing shit against them! We should’ve been aiming for the mouths!”
The last attacker turned tail and ran.
Glen jumped into the back of the crew cab, keeping the door open so he could cover the captain and, if necessary, their escape from a second attack. Sarah was getting ready to tear out of the driveway when the captain climbed into the passenger seat.
“We got the dogs?” Sarah asked.
Glen’s face drained of all color. “I don’t see ’em!”
“I saw them run into the woods!” the captain responded. “But we need to get the fuck out of here!”
“Shit!” Glen spat.
“Do we go after them?” Sarah asked.
“The creatures are out there!”
Glen’s shoulders slumped. “The captain’s right. They know this land; they know where to hide.”
“Yeah,” Captain Boleyn’s voice quivered. “They’ve probably gone to ground, hiding somewhere. This is the cave state, right? They’ve probably found a small cave.”
Sarah looked at the two men and, with a trembling sigh, sped off.
They got about five minutes down the dirt road when Glen’s phone rang. The contact appeared on the RAM infotainment screen: it was his Uncle Jerry, a trauma nurse at the hospital just up the road in Sullivan. Sarah hit the green button on the touch screen.
“Hey, Glen.” Jerry’s voice was hushed and urgent. “They brought Rich in about five minutes ago.”
“How is he?” Glen asked.
“I’m not going to lie, he’s not good. You need to get here fast.”
“Fuck.” Glen lowered his head. “Gene told me that they’d moved the civilians and that the hospital was for soldiers! We couldn’t go there!”
“That was the plan up until 20 minutes ago. Then something … changed. I don’t know what.” Jerry paused. “It’s not without hope. You just need to take him with you wherever you’re going.” His exhausted voice echoed through the speakers.
“I thought they were turnin’ the hospital into a trauma center?” Glen looked at the captain who was avoiding eye contact. “The gov’ment lying. Imagine that,” Glen said through clenched teeth.
There was banging coming over the phone. “I can’t talk anymore. They’re evacuating all the staff, making us go with them. We’re taking those who can be moved, but the more serious cases—we’re leaving them behind. I tried, Nephew. I really tried, but the last truck is pulling out in five minutes.” More banging. “I gotta go.” The sound of Uncle Jerry explaining to a soldier that he had gotten locked in a supply closet grabbing essential meds and had definitely not been making an unauthorized call was heard right before the line went silent.
“Listen,” Captain Boleyn said, “I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear your uncle breaking martial law—as long as we don’t swing past the hospital and get to the nearest rally point ASAP. I need to find out about my men.”
“We’re goin’ to the hospital,” Glen said in a tone like forged steel. “We don’t leave a man behind, remember?”
“Your uncle’s name is Jerry?” Captain Boleyn asked, his tone teasingly light. “I didn’t catch a last name, but how many Jerrys could be working in a rural hospital?”
“Guys, stop it!” Sarah yelled as she drove. “I’m with Glen. We’re going to save Richard. And you, Captain, are going to keep your mouth shut about Jerry.”
Glen smirked, and the captain slumped back in his seat, sulking.
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled.”
Glen rolled down his window and sniffed the air. “Anyone else smell that?”
“Yeah,” Sarah said, starting to speed up.
“What? What?” Captain Boleyn said as panic started filling his voice. “I don’t smell—” His voice trailed off as the unmistakable scent of ammonia filled the truck.
As the vehicle rounded a turn, a single creature burst out of the trees on the passenger side of the truck. Sarah gunned it and took off, gravel and dust pelting the monster. The animal broke off its chase and disappeared back into the woods.
“Fucking idiots!” Captain Boleyn cursed. “Those beasts are everywhere in this low-life, redneck backwoods! We gotta get to fucking safety! If they’ve instituted martial law, I am in charge here. Pull over. I’m driving.”
“No,” Sarah said, her voice as determined as her husband’s.
“I said pull over!” the captain shouted, grabbing the wheel.
The ensuing struggle for control caused the truck to fishtail and swerve off the road into a tree.
* * * * * *
Snaggle and Thor watched as the humans left them behind. When the attack happened, they had been separated from the pack. They ran to the side of the house and peered around the corner of Thor’s den. They could see the new human, and they made eye contact with him and waited for some sign that it was safe to come out from hiding. No signal ever came, and Thor’s alphas sped off.
The new human had smelled suspect, and neither had particularly cared for him. Thor’s alphas would never abandon them. The two canines shared a look; no barks were needed. Honesty was one of the things humanity could learn from their kind, as they were unable to deceive. Unfortunately, some humans had mastered the behavior, and the duo now saw the captain as such a master.
They sniffed the air and, recognizing the scent of the creatures, moved in the opposite direction.
* * * * * *
The creature moved through the woods, following the scent of her prey northeast. The fear she sensed coming from the metal-clad beasts they traveled in was too delicious to not at least try to feed. She would need the energy; her prey had proven itself to be cunning and dangerous.
The strange and dangerous bipeds that dominated this world were fewer now. The fewer of this species there were, the easier it was for her to track the one who had taken her child. She could sense he was close to death, and she had to hurry so she could be the one to dispatch him. Not that she would not consume him if he died before she could get to him, as it would still be fitting for him to be digested to help birth her next pup.
* * * * * *
Glen and I were riding in his UTV, checking game cameras. Majestic ran beside us. Snaggle was curled up in the small bed, unusually calm. The little guy had always been fearless except when it came to riding in vehicles. Just another sign of how perfect a day this was. The sun high in the sky provided just the right amount of heat to pleasantly warm the skin.
Then it happened. Something hit us from the side, spilling Glen and me into the air. As I flew, I saw Majestic torn in half. His head was flung toward me, and he stared at me with cloudy dead eyes. I didn’t know if he was warning me or damning me. I heard my brother cry out as he landed. Turning to the sound of his voice, I saw Bigfoot dragging him away. Next to the sasquatch was a gray alien, anal probe in its hand. Glen clawed at the dirt to get away.
I tried standing up to run to my brother’s rescue when another gray appeared right in front of me. With an inquisitive look on his face, he touched my forehead, and I passed out.
I come to in blackness. Something is slithering in the shadows, hunting me, but always at the surface and never quite breaking through. I begin wondering if I’m going mad. Fear begins to grip me and so does the sudden realization that I am about to die. Are these memories?
Am I dead?
I slap my face to wake myself up, to chase the thoughts away. I find myself home, standing safe and sound in my bedroom. Petra is there, titillatingly naked. I smile at her as she runs a finger up one deliciously curved hip.
“If you want to ever have this again, Tiger, you need to fight,” she says.
“Fight?” I ask, confused.
That’s when I hear the distant beeping of hospital machinery as black smoke begins to swirl around me. My heart begins to race as I feel the need to fight against the nothingness. I’m stunned to find myself holding a samurai sword, its keen blade slicing through the smoke to no effect.
“I’m sorry, Petra!” I scream as the smoke envelops me, taking me back to the blackness.
I begin wondering if I really am dead. The thought makes me chuckle because of course I’d end up in purgatory. I wouldn’t say I’d been a bad man, but I did things for my country that left a stain on my soul.
“Not good enough for Heaven, not bad enough for Hell.” I shrug and explore my surroundings.
A flicker of light, not unlike a dying neon sign, beckons in the distance. I walk toward it, one foot in front of the other on an unknown surface. The lack of sound is as deafening as words. After a while, the blue xenon light begins to form words, a quote from my college years: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” I sit down and stare up at the words.
Albert Camus’s idea about whether life is or isn’t worth living being the only philosophical question worth answering has stuck with me. Every answer after this is gravy. Questions about science or religion don’t matter once someone decides that life is no longer worth living—if it ever was.
I hang my head and consider the burns on my arm. That pain had been comforting. It reminded me that I was still living even though the pills the doctor pushed made me comfortably numb. For the first time in years, I begin to weep.
“Daddy,” the voice of a young child pierces the darkness, “it’s not time for you to die.”
I bolt upright and run in the direction of the voice, away from the ugly light of nihilism. I see a brighter light as I hear the sound of hospital machinery growing louder. It too begins to form words. It’s the best fan review I ever received: “Richard’s writing is like an insane new designer drug. One that lets you see into the granular nature of reality and what’s written down the sides of it (‘FUCK OFF, LOVE GOD’ I believe).” I start to laugh, collapsing to my knees as the blackness begins to fade.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A