18 Jul Pea Ridge (Part 3)
“Pea Ridge (Part 3)”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 — 26 minutes
Early Monday Morning
The creature paused. Sensing her prey’s agony, even from afar, brought her satisfaction. She had become the embodiment of obsession, and she would greet whatever fate awaited her with the wild passion of her kind’s primitive demoniac spirits. The creature paused and took in the scents. She was being stalked by two of the smaller prey animals that were often in the company of the more dangerous two-legged kind. They were wounded, so she knew she could dispatch them if they became a problem.
Nothing would stand between her and the creature that had stolen her child and dared to attack her.
Snaggle’s lone back leg ached as he and Thor made their way through the woods. His leg had grown strong to allow him to run, but it came at the price of occasional nagging aches. He also knew the strange jungle his alphas lived in had made him soft, and the fact that he’d seen too many cycles of heat and cold didn’t help either. But if his pack needed him, he could be as tough as he ever was—one more time.
At first, he and Thor had moved away from the stinging scent of the terrifying predators, but it was dangerous to stay in one place. They could also smell that their human packmates were somewhere closer to the creature. Snaggle recognized the scent of the one that terrorized his pack, and he could smell her moving in the direction of his alpha.
He looked at Thor and growled: We gots to go toward the bad guy.
Thor settled onto the ground on his belly, placing his paws over his eyes.
Snaggle softly growled again.
Thor reluctantly got to his paws and barked back: You’ve gotta be heckin’ kidding me.
The pair began moving in the creature’s direction while keeping a respectful distance.
Glen felt like he had just lost a boxing match. He rubbed his forehead and felt a goose egg growing where it hurt worst. He squinted, trying to get his eyes to focus. His mind was reeling, trying to remember where he was and what he was doing before—the crash!
“Sarah!” he cried out, remembering the asshole officer and that she had been driving. “Sarah, baby! Where are ya?!”
“I’m right here, Glen.”
He felt her soft touch on his shoulder, calming him.
She was out of the vehicle and had the door open. She was looking him over. “How’re you feeling?”
She stood, planted her hands on her hips, and stared at him sternly. “Glen.”
“Okay, things are a lil’ blurry. I gotta headache, and I’m feelin’ sick to my stomach.”
“I think you’ve got a concussion.”
“Ya think?!” he snapped. “Sorry, just feelin’ a lil’ grouchy.”
“I noticed.” She went back to checking on him.
“Whaddaya think we do about the asshole?”
“First things first,” Sarah said, “we get you some help.”
“Where? Everywhere from Bourbon to Sullivan has been evacuated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they carpet-bomb the place!”
Sarah lowered her head. “Well, I think the truck is fucked. The jerk steered us straight into a damn tree!”
“We’re gonna have ta walk. I think we’re jus’ down the road from the Gardner place. We might be able to pick up some wheels there.”
“Okay, but I’m driving.”
A dejected look clouded Glen’s face. “But if they have the Trans Am—”
“Yes, yes, I know you love Tony’s Trans Am. But even if it’s still there, you need to relax.” After helping him up off the ground, she hooked an arm around his and started walking. She paused to look at the unconscious soldier. “You were right about him.”
Glen smiled in partial victory.
“Don’t let it go to your head.” Sarah stifled a chuckle.
“Before we go, grab the lever-action and leave yer shotgun for him.” Glen looked around where the captain lay slumped over in the passenger seat. “He’s not good enough for Dad’s revolver. And a semi-auto will be easier for him; he may not know how to use a lever-action.” He tucked the .357 in his belt as Hannah lay the shotgun next to the captain, and they headed toward the Gardner farm.
“Well, he is a soldier. Doesn’t that make him an expert on guns?”
Glen chuckled. “Nope.” He emphasized the “p” sound with a pop. “Soldiers jus’ know what the Army wants ‘em ta know.”
It’s a child’s voice that sounds vaguely like my daughter’s, but not quite.
“It’s time to wake up.”
Slowly, I open my eyes. I’m in a hospital, and there’s no one else around.
“Hello?” I ask, my voice echoing in an empty ER. “Nurse? Doc? Uncle Jerry?”
I wait—no reply. I sit up, surprised I’m not connected to anything even though the heart monitor continues its regular beeping. I close my eyes and rub my neck.
The scent of ammonia stings my nose, and my eyes flash open. The creature stands before me. We stare at each other for a moment before she lunges at me, her hellish maw enveloping my vision—
I sit up with a start, the heart monitor beeping erratically, and at once begin to gag on the air tube running down my throat. I rip off the mask and pull the surgical tubing out of my mouth, trying not to vomit as it triggers my gag reflex. Like a wounded, trapped animal, I look around. I know the bitch is around here somewhere. I just saw her. Or was that just the dream? Well, if I’m not dead, I at least hope the creature is.
The beeping begins to slow as I huff air, my eyes continuing to survey my surroundings. “This better not be another fucking dream,” I say to the empty ward.
The itch of the heart monitor’s sensors and the burning in my lungs tell me it’s not. They’re the next to come off, and I’m surprised that there’s not the sting of pulled hair. That’s when I look down at my body. It’s covered in hues ranging from raw pink to dark black. In some places, blisters have formed. My chest hair is mostly gone, stripped by their saliva.
Images of the attack return. Tongues lashing at me. The burning sensation from the whip-like appendages striking me. The ringing in my ears from the deafening sound of the rifle firing inside the house. I’m pretty sure that I killed or injured many of them, but I doubt I got them all. Though it would seem I did enough damage that they cut their losses and abandoned me as their prey.
It’s at this point I realize I’m naked. I slip out of bed and wrap the bedsheet around me. There’s an eerie silence despite the humming of office and medical electronics. I pause, listening for anything out of the ordinary. I almost yell for someone but think better of it. Besides, my eyes and nose still sting. At first, I think the burning sensation in my nose is from the air tube, but I start to wonder if it’s from the ammonia.
The first thing to do is find something to wear. Slowly, I creep down abandoned halls and rooms. It takes a few minutes, but I find some scrubs around the surgical suite. After some more exploring, I find a pair of shoes in a doctor’s office. They’re dress shoes and a little big, but they’re better than nothing.
My stomach rumbles. On the way to the cafeteria, I stop by the men’s room. I pause as I pass a mirror and stare in disbelief at my face. The whites of my eyes are deep red. The same blisters on the rest of my body cover my face, along with a few lacerations from either claws or tongues. My hair is a mess.
I find myself wondering how I’ll look after this. The image of Frankenstein’s creation—the 2011 play not the green monster—floats to mind. I lower my head and burst into tears. I remember a man with burns I had seen as a child. I remember being terrified at that face without a nose. And now I am a spectacle to terrify young children.
Captain Elijah Boleyn slowly came to from his stupor. He tried standing but felt like he was about to pass out again. He took stock of himself. He ached all over because of that bitch and her asshole husband and the guy they were trying to save who was probably dead already.
“Fuck him, and fuck you too!” he spat.
A rustle in the undergrowth made him reach for the revolver Glen had lent him—it wasn’t there.
“Motherfucker!” he yelled, causing the squirrel that had come to investigate to flee up a tree.
The captain shook his head and slowly started to get up, this time on less shaky feet. Looking around, he saw the shotgun they had left him.
“Fucking rednecks and their antiquated guns.”
He chose not to remember how well the .357 had done compared to the M-9s Sergeant First Class Kim Hoth had them using at the crash site.
“I should’ve never left the Quartermaster Corps. At least there were no monsters in the shower and laundry repair shop,” he muttered, looking around for any sign of which way his former companions went. His authority during martial law had been questioned, and he needed to reassert himself. Thinking he saw footprints, he began following them.
Snaggle and Thor could smell their packs. Thor’s humans were heading in one direction that was somewhat the way to Snaggle’s alpha but incredibly inefficient. Not that efficiency mattered to their two-legged packmates, who traveled around in loud, scary wagons. Some of their kind loved sticking their head out the window with the wind blowing through their fur, including Thor. But others like Snaggle, as brave as he was, hated the damn things and tended to vomit, much to the annoyance of the humans of his pack.
The untrustworthy human was traveling toward a faint scent of the creatures that had invaded their territory. The two canines looked at each other. It was not in their nature to allow a human to come to harm. However, over the millennia that dogs had partnered with humans for survival, some like Snaggle had developed a sense for the character of people. He loved most, disliked few, and was suspicious of those he didn’t know.
Others, like Thor, tended to try and make friends with every creature—human or not—they came across. When Snaggle found out Thor had initially tried to make friends with his strange attacker, he considered scolding him. He held his tongue, however, hoping the gaping wound along Thor’s back would be lesson enough.
Snaggle was about to make his case in a series of barks, growls, and whines, but Thor looked in the direction where the scent of Snaggle’s human was most direct and started that way unprompted. The matter settled, Snaggle followed the other dog in his awkward but surprisingly fast three-legged pace.
Captain Boleyn froze as he again heard movement through the brush. He shouldered the semi-auto shotgun, hoping it wouldn’t have too much kick, and prepared to defend himself. He aimed the gun in the general direction of the noise and considered taking a knee to steady himself. He decided against it since it would make it more difficult to run if he had to try and escape.
“Captain?” A familiar voice came from the woods. “Is that you?”
“Tech Sergeant Hafley?”
The airman emerged from cover, his M-4 shouldered and ready to aim and fire in a split second. “I never thought I’d be happy to see you, Captain.” The other man looked around with an expectant look on his face. “Where’s the rest of the team?”
“After those agents came and requested you,” the captain spat, still feeling salty that this pain in his ass was selected—despite his objections—by the two civilians running the operation, “we went about setting up a perimeter and monitoring with our AreaRAEs. Then we were attacked.” The captain looked down and shook his head. “Sergeant Miller was taken first as his AreaRAE alerted for ammonia. He shouldn’t have been out there by himself, but someone had to advance their career and head off with the incident commanders.” The captain then looked up and stifled a grin.
The sergeant was silent, his eyes squinting—no doubt holding back tears and hiding fear. Even the man’s hand was flexing against the grip of his assault rifle.
“Then Williams and Acevedo.” Boleyn took a deep breath and paused before continuing. “There had been some sort of warning by the time the creatures got to Bell and Tenneyson. Sergeant Hoth and I heard them put up one helluva fight.”
“Where’s Sergeant Hoth?” Sergeant Hafley asked.
“She didn’t make it.” Captain Boleyn actually shed a tear.
They had joined the Army National Guard around the same time as shower and laundry repair specialists. He’d joined the Civil Support Team first, figuring CBRN would make for a better career. He had been right; he talked a good game and maxed out the physical fitness test a few times, so they made him an officer. He brought Sergeant Hoth on board when she was looking for a job.
And now his friend was dead.
“And yet you’re still here,” the airman said, his eyes looking over his captain. “Got all your ammo, I see, but not your weapons.”
Captain Boleyn bristled. “I see you still have all yours, so you haven’t fired a shot either.”
Sergeant Hafley just laughed. “I was empty until about an hour ago. Came upon an abandoned house. They must’ve evacuated so fast they forgot to lock the door behind them.” He took a plastic magazine out of his rifleman’s vest. “It’s Magpul, so civilian. The people who lived there had more AR-15 mags and ammo than I could carry.” With the hand not on the pistol grip, he slapped one of the bulging cargo pockets of his uniform pants.
The captain shrugged. “We should probably move out. It’s getting dark, and we need to find a checkpoint or something.”
“Agreed,” Sergeant Hafley said, walking in the direction the captain had just come from.
“Sergeant, we’re going this way,” Captain Boleyn said, nodding the way he had been heading.
“Not unless you want to make it easy for the aliens. Can’t you smell the faint scent of ammonia? There’s a group on the hunt to the southwest. We’re currently downwind from them.”
“How do you know they’re aliens?”
“The agents told me. Something about how the A-10 we were sent out to monitor crashed because it collided with a disabled UFO. They were carrying these beasts from a dying world to a planetary preserve in their solar system. They’re some sort of predator that preys upon the weak, culling other species of those who are ill. They can sense not only disease but things like pain, depression, and fear.”
Boleyn scoffed. “Yeah, right. How the hell would they know that?”
Sergeant Hafley shrugged. “They said they were part of a highly secretive part of the intelligence community that deals with interplanetary threats. They couldn’t tell me much now. But after this, I have an opportunity to leave the CST and join them.”
This stopped Captain Boleyn in his tracks. “Why the fuck would they want you?”
“I thought you’d be happy I was leaving, Captain.” The sergeant spun on his officer. “As for why they want me, that’s above your pay grade.” He began walking away.
It took the captain a few moments to find his tongue and catch up. “I could order you to tell me!”
Sergeant Hafley grinned, his expression smug. “You could, but it’d be illegal, and I wouldn’t—” He went silent.
“Sergeant—” The captain was silenced by Hafley’s hand on his mouth.
He was about to tear into the man when the wind picked up, carrying with it the strong scent of ammonia. The sergeant removed his hand, and the captain shot him a look communicating that this was not over—not by a long shot.
Sergeant Hafley shouldered his M-4 and flicked the selector switch to semi. Captain Boleyn watched as the other man tracked something with the barrel of his weapon. The captain looked into the woods, seeing nothing, but decided to shoulder his shotgun anyway. He turned his back to Sergeant Hafley and covered the left flank with his shotgun.
This got an approving nod from the sergeant who kept his head on a swivel between what was in front of them and to their right. The captain heard rustling to his right and instinctively twisted to look for himself. The loud crashing of a large animal through the woods brought his attention back to what he should’ve been covering.
One of the creatures sped toward him, its horrible maw open wide and claws raised to attack. Reflexively, Captain Boleyn more pointed than aimed the shotgun at the mouth of the alien and pulled the trigger. The buckshot load the rednecks had left him eviscerated the creature, blasting a hole almost big enough for him to stick his fist through.
He let out a laugh and turned toward his comrade. “Holy fuck! Did you see—” he was cut off as Sergeant Hafley’s M-4 roared, tearing a smaller hole through the one attacking from the right flank.
Movement caught his eye and the third creature—this one screaming its high-pitched yell—made a desperate charge toward them. Both men reacted at the same time, firing almost simultaneously at its open mouth, leaving behind a stump. They watched its headless body slump to the ground.
The creature could smell the delicious scent of fear wafting off one of a pair of the bipeds nearby. She was hungry and needed to feed, but she could smell the strength of its companion. The fact that a trio of her male swarm mates was closing in on them also gave her pause. It would be a quick kill with three of them and even easier with four. However, she was not sure if these enemies had strong defenses or if they were the more docile kind her swarm had fed on when they first arrived.
Hearing the loud thunder their weapons made settled the issue for her. She felt each one of the males die. However, they would not go to waste. A swarm of about 10 were hunting close by and would feed before deciding whether or not to seek retribution for the deaths of their swarm mates.
As for her, if she was going to die by human hands, it would in battle with the monster who stole the life of her son. She began moving but paused, momentarily forgetting about her prey, as she sensed a familiar presence—one she had last encountered on her home world right before she awakened on this planet. There was so much about this presence that confused her. It hunted her kind but not for food. It captured instead of killed, something she couldn’t understand. She would have to be quick. She would have her revenge before she was taken again.
“I’m startin’ ta feel better.” Glen broke the silence as he got closer to Tony’s house.
He loved Trans Ams and even had one as a teen in the ‘90s. Although, his parents did make him sell it after a high-speed chase from tiny Leasburg all the way through Bourbon.
He really wanted to drive the classic their friend kept in his barn.
Sarah was about to respond when she stopped and put a finger to her lips. She made a show of sniffing the air. Glen followed suit but couldn’t smell anything. A breeze then began to stir, and it carried a subtle hint of ammonia.
The couple began moving slowly and quietly toward Tony’s yard, hiding behind an overgrown bush at the end of his driveway. Tony was infamous among his friends for not liking to do yardwork. It annoyed his wife, Miranda, but it made for good theater when they all hung out. Right now, Glen couldn’t have been more grateful.
They didn’t see anything and were about to move when they spotted one of the creatures around the garage. Glen could still feel the effects of his concussion. Driving 10 minutes to a hospital was one thing. Making a precise long-range shot with Sarah’s life in the balance was another, so Glen planned to suggest he distract the beast while Sarah shot it. She had grown up hunting and was almost as good with a rifle as he was. It was a mix of machismo and self-awareness that made him want to put himself in danger; the thought of using his wife as bait was something he just could not entertain.
The roar of a shotgun in the distance made the couple and creature freeze. Next, they heard the sound of rifle shots, ending with the crescendo of a shotgun and rifle being fired almost simultaneously. Then, a silence that was interrupted by an alien cry in the distance. The creature reacted and took off into the woods.
Sarah and Glen looked at each and shrugged. Not seeing any others and with the scent of ammonia weakening, they moved out of cover.
“I was gonna distract it and let you shoot it,” Glen said proudly.
She chuckled. “So, you admit, I’m a better shot?”
“Only when I have a concussion.” He winked and smirked.
“My hero,” she said, snaking an arm through his and drawing him close to her. “You’re still not driving the Trans Am.”
Glen groaned and kicked a rock in disappointment. “Sun’s about ta go do—” He was cut off by the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. He turned and looked into the sky behind him. “No” was all he said as he saw a black triangle silently growing larger as it approached in the darkening sky.
“We need to find someplace to hole up for the night,” Sergeant Hafley said as the shadows of twilight glided through the trees.
“Afraid of the dark?” Captain Boleyn sneered.
“Not at all. I like getting to my deer stand about an hour before first light. But then again, that’s when I’m not being hunted by creatures who can sense things like fear.”
The captain scoffed. “Sure, keep telling yourself that.”
The sergeant had been right earlier; Captain Boleyn did look forward to the day the airman was no longer his problem. The captain thought of himself as a good judge of character and, despite the last engagement, the guy was not who he wanted having his back in combat.
Sergeant Hafley stopped. “Fuck,” he said quietly. “They’re here.”
“Why aren’t you whispering?” the captain admonished in a hushed tone.
“It’s a different them.” Sergeant Hafley shuddered, showing visible fear right before the woods exploded.
They had wandered into an ambush.
Sergeant Hafley dropped to a knee and began firing at open mouths. “Engage, Captain! Engage!” he yelled in between bursts of semi-automatic fire.
There were too many for them to fight. The captain screamed and turned on his heel. One creature dropped from a tree, eliciting another scream from the captain in a higher pitch than the last. Since it blocked his escape, he had no choice but to shoulder the shotgun and fire. This time he shot low, blowing off the lower left of the creature’s jaw. While not a kill shot, it did fall to the ground to writhe in obvious agony. A path open, Captain Boleyn leapt over the squirming beast and took off in a run.
“Come back here, you fucking coward!” Sergeant Hafley screamed loud enough to shake the earth. He shot another creature right before a tongue whipped around his boot and dropped him to the ground. Another creature swooped in and took a chunk out of the sergeant’s shoulder. “Damn you!” he yelled as the beasts began to swarm, his tone suddenly more fearful and defeated than enraged.
Captain Boleyn heard his noncommissioned officer curse him. It was too late to do anything; it had been foolishness on Hafley’s part to have even tried to fight that many attackers. But he couldn’t resist the pull to look back, and the face the other man was making would haunt the captain for the rest of his life. It was desperate and … angry.
The captain registered the muzzle flash the same moment he felt the small bullet graze his right shoulder. He reflexively dropped his shotgun, turned, and ran.
Technical Sergeant Hafley watched as the most despised member of his unit cut and ran, revealing himself as the coward everyone knew him to be. The creatures were swarming him, and he knew he was about to follow in the footsteps of every other member of his team. As teeth sunk into his flesh and tongues slashed at his uniform and skin, he chose to aim at the man responsible for the death of his comrades.
But he couldn’t pull the trigger and shoot a man in the back, even one as despicable as Captain Elijah Boleyn. Then the coward turned, causing Hafley to grin so wide it was painful. As he squeezed the trigger, a creature bit his left arm, causing his shot to go wide and only wound his target. He was seconds from death, but his last feeling was vindication as one of the creatures stopped attacking him and pursued the captain. And the last thing Technical Sergeant Hafley saw was a triangle-shaped spacecraft silently moving through the early evening sky.
The captain ran, not caring he’d just been shot. Part of him was pissed he wouldn’t be able to bring the man up on charges of fratricide. The sound of one of the creatures chasing him pushed all thoughts not related to fleeing out of his mind. He turned to look over his shoulder and saw his pursuer. He let out a pathetic yelp as his foot caught on an exposed root causing him to crash to the ground. Instinctively he rolled as the creature pounced and landed where he would’ve been.
He tried to get back up, but a tongue whipped out of the alien’s mouth and wrapped around his ankle, pulling him to the ground. The creature retracted its tongue and began behaving differently, moving slowly. Captain Boleyn’s fear began to rise to levels of panic he had never experienced. His tormentor would lash at him with its tongue, causing him to yelp and flinch.
The captain began wondering if it were playing with him; if they truly preyed upon emotion and pain, this could be it preparing its meal the same way he marinated his steaks. Slowly the creature stalked toward him. As his death drew near, Captain Elijah Boleyn began to sob as he pissed his pants. He closed his eyes and looked away as the heavy scent of ammonia seared his airways.
A bright, blue light suddenly blinded him even through his tightly closed eyelids, and he heard a loud thud. He felt something heavy fall across his leg and heard the soft movement of feet. Not the clawed feet of these creatures and not the paws of a dog or the hooves of a deer, but something that sounded a lot like footsteps.
He opened his eyes, and the woods were cast in a light blue glow. The creatures were on the ground as if they had suddenly fallen asleep where they stood. In the distance, two children—as unbelievable as that was—crouched in front of the lifeless body of Tech Sergeant Hafley.
“Hey! Get out of here!” he yelled as he tried to get up but couldn’t.
His pursuer had fallen across his left leg, effectively pinning him to the ground. In lieu of struggling, he just … watched. The creatures began rising into the air. The captain’s jaw dropped as he watched them float away toward a triangular craft hovering 100 feet above him.
The sound of a twig snapping brought him back to Earth to find himself staring into the black voids of a gray alien. Realization hit. Those hadn’t been children.
“You are real,” he whispered as he stared into the deep eyes, too mesmerized to flee.
He instantly felt foolish for all the times he had mocked those in his social circles who believed in the stories about these visitors from another world. His fear began to ebb. Something about the little alien was calming him, even the pain from the bullet wound lessening. As the alien extended a finger toward his forehead, Captain Boleyn welcomed the touch. He was convinced it would provide healing. He did not know from what, only that he needed it.
The alien paused, looking over its shoulder as if in silent communication with its fellows. This was confirmed when it nodded, retracted its touch, stood, and rejoined the others. Then they floated into the air, disappearing into the craft that silently began moving northeast, leaving Captain Elijah Boleyn alone with the body of the last man entrusted to his command.
Snaggle and Thor approached the hospital. They had become aware that they were being followed; the stinging scent would get close and then fall back. They planned to find a way inside the large, strange den and reunite with Snaggle’s alpha to either flee or meet the predator as a team.
They approached a door like the ones their dens’ had leading into the backyard; they could see through it, but light flared off of it, letting them know something barred them from just walking through the opening. They shared a concerned look because no humans were around to open the door. Snaggle decided he would try scratching at the door; it worked at home, so perhaps it would work at this strange place. He stepped forward and the doors magically opened! He let out a pleased bark as Thor ran past him.
The creature watched the two small animals approach the strange structure that housed the evil that killed her pup. She could smell his agony. It was a mix of the physical pain of teetering on the verge of death and a lack of will to live. This gave her pause. Death would end its suffering. Normally, this was something her kind took pride in; their primitive sentience reconciled killing as a mercy on the diseased and suffering.
But she now hunted out of a sense of revenge, so how could she grant this monster a mercy it did not deserve? She had wasted precious energy getting here only to realize the all-consuming lust for vengeance would be best sated by letting the miserable creature live. She was about to turn and slink into the woods in search of different quarry when she sensed a sharp new emotion from her prey—joy.
With renewed rage lit deep inside her, she turned back to the hospital, hot with bloodlust.
The same distorted vision stares back at me from the stainless steel of a cafeteria napkin holder. For the umpteenth time, I laugh maniacally at the joke that will be my next author photo. I sigh and think about searching for a cell phone to call Petra and Glen, as they’re probably worried sick about me. I try the landlines, but they aren’t working. The same goes for the computers.
I turn on a TV and find out a HAZMAT incident has occurred in the area and everyone has been evacuated. If the government is concealing the outbreak of some invasive species that preyed upon humans, it makes sense they would cut communications. I begin wondering if I would have cell service even if I did find a phone.
I can check the parking lot for a car and maybe head back toward St. Louis, perhaps find medical help along the way. Probably don’t want to walk in on Petra with ill-fitting clothes and a monster face.
My pity party is interrupted by the clickity-clack of paws on the tile floor.
“No fucking way,” I mutter.
It has to be a stray that wandered in. But what if?
“Snaggle?” I call, trying and failing to mask the hope in my voice.
The clickity-clack stops, as does my heart as I wonder if I’ve just alerted some different breed of alien demon come to finish me off.
Snaggle’s unmistakable bark echoes down the hall.
“SNAGGLE!” I scream with joy, and I hear his distinct three-legged run heading toward my voice. That’s when I notice he isn’t alone. “THOR!”
Another, deeper bark.
“I’m here, boys! I’m here!” I feel tears start to run down my face.
I slide out of my chair to the ground as the pair find their way to me. Sniffing and licking my face happily, I wrap my arms around them and bury my face in theirs, feeling the primal joy of no longer being alone. Of being part of a tribe in this world. Of knowing that people, these mutts included, love me.
I stand. “You boys must be hungry.” I head toward the serving area with them following happily behind me.
The cooks must have been in the middle of a lunch or dinner rush because there are plenty of grilled chicken breasts and hamburgers sitting near the grill. I’d had half a chicken breast and that was enough for me, but these two look ravenous. I toss a hamburger to Thor who eagerly wolfs it down. I toss another to Snaggle, who usually wants treats like this chopped up for him, but he also quickly scarfs it down. They look up at me, their puppy dog eyes begging for more.
Who I am to refuse? I toss them each a chicken breast, laughing at how happy it makes them. I return to the dining area with a fruit cup and relax into a seat, the sight of the dogs elevating me out of the all too familiar depths of despair. I lean back and close my eyes.
Tap … tap … tappity … tap …
My eyes open wide as the dogs begin to growl. They’re already on their feet with their hackles raised, teeth bared, lips curled into menacing sneers.
The chicken and beef Snaggle’s human had given them hit the spot, and they followed him from the food place to the resting space. Snaggle was exhausted from their trek, and he could tell Thor, despite having four legs, was tired too. They were ready to curl up and maybe catch a snooze. The tile floor was refreshingly cool.
But the unmistakable scent stung Snaggle’s nostrils shortly before they heard the faint sound of the creature’s claws on the floor. Between the joy of reunion with his alpha and the delicious meat, he had forgotten about the threat that had stalked them.
Thor had beat him to his paws, and his raised fur and growl matched Snaggle’s. Both canines were tired of these creatures invading their territory and attacking their humans. It was time to kill or be killed.
Their enemy appeared, and Snaggle’s human was on his feet, barking in the peculiar way humans do. They knew he was trying to get them to run, but the time for retreating was over. Thor lunged at the creature, letting out a yelp as it caught him, and it bit into his neck before tossing him over its shoulder into the hall from whence it came.
Snaggle saw his packmate laying lifeless in the hall and sank his teeth into the creature’s leg as hard as he could, causing it to cry out in pain. Its cry hurt Snaggle’s sensitive ears almost as much as the creature’s blood stung his nostrils and burned his tongue. The latter forced him to reflexively release the creature, shaking his head in a vain attempt to get rid of the pain.
The creature’s stinging tongue whipped Snaggle before it jumped at him and tossed him into the hall. His furry body banged off the wall, and he found himself lying next to Thor. He tried to stand, but something was broken, and he whimpered in pain. He looked at his packmate, and they shared a sorrowful stare. Thor closed his eyes and let out a soft whimper.
Snaggle looked toward their enemy and saw it chasing after his human. They disappeared behind a set of doors. He tried to get up again, but his ribs erupted in pain. He, too, closed his eyes, knowing the end was near and accepting it. They were good dogs, but they had failed.
Having easily dispatched the nuisance animals, she focused her attention on her prey. She felt joy that she had stripped away the momentary happiness it had felt. Now, it would pay.
She stalked after it, knowing exertion would tire it out and make it easier to kill. Her kind rarely took their time with prey. Yet when it came to revenge, tormenting with needless violence gave the meat a delicious quality.
And she would savor it as much as she would the kill.
I know it sounds crazy, but this creature—I killed its baby. There’s a familiarity in the way it looks at me, a familiarity filled with hate. The insane thing is I don’t blame it. I would feel the same way were the roles reversed. If there were a living embodiment of cancer, I would be as savage as this beast.
The creature and I stare at each other from across the room, its eyes on fixed stalks on either side of its horrific, tooth-filled mouth. At first, I can’t see its pupils, lost in a purple, marbled iris. But then its pupils dilate from black pinpricks to a wide vertical stripe down the center of each eye. It chills me to the bone.
My fight or flight impulse kicks in, and fight loses as I turn to run to the kitchen. I call the dogs to follow me. While exploring the kitchen, I’d found a janitor’s closet that seemed perfect for hiding. I assume smell is the primary means by which the aliens track their prey. The closet smelled of chemicals, which I imagined would hide our odors.
But the damn dogs, they attack it. We are no match for it, all still recovering from earlier run-ins with the creature and its swarm. I’m convinced at this point that Thor met one of these things instead of a bear. I try calling them again, but they are single-mindedly heading toward the creature. Tears start to slide down my cheeks.
“Snaggle! C’mon, boy!”
I hear Thor’s yelp as the creature grips him and then tosses him as if he were a rag doll.
“No! Come back, Snaggle! Come back!” I scream as he bites the creature. “Goddamnit, Snaggle!” I freeze, watching the horror unfold before me, and I don’t know what to do. “Fuck you!” I cry at the creature, my throat raw.
Only moments ago I was feeling some degree of sympathy for her, but now I only feel impotent rage and grief. I have no choice but to try and escape so Snaggle and Thor didn’t die for nothing. I make it to the refuge of the closet. The heavy wooden door has a lock, and I flip it in the hope it will help.
I can hear it stalking me. It’s outside the door.
“Fuck!” I cry out as the creature begins banging on the door.
Its high-pitched roar strikes terror in my heart. I can see the hinges move each time the creature makes impact. It’s unbelievably strong, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to break through. I’ll have no choice but fight—again.
I grab a mop as the door splinters and strike at the creature. It swipes at me with its claws, its tongue flicking out at me, again lashing my flesh and burning it with its saliva. I grab a bottle of bright green cleanser and start spraying at it maniacally. Miraculously, the creature staggers. But with its body blocking the door, I can’t run. It recovers quickly and reaches for me.
I feel its claws digging into my sides, and I wonder if it’s taking its time with me, if it’s enjoying my agony. I reach for anything that can help me. I start desperately pummeling it with a bottle of bleach. The creature starts snapping at it, its teeth eventually sinking into the plastic bottle. The bleach flows out of it and down its gullet.
It releases its grip and I fall to the floor. The alien is thrashing, and I swear I can see a yellowish gas coming from its mouth. It smells like a swimming pool. Though the creature steps back and topples to the tile floor, I’m scared to trust that I’ve actually killed it.
The chloramine gas reaches me, causing my nose and throat to burn. I can’t stay here. Soon the oxygen will be displaced and my lungs poisoned. I stagger through the faint toxic cloud. My lungs continue to burn as I make my way back to the dining area and collapse on the floor. I look into the hall to find it’s flooded with light. I wonder where the two children crouching in front of Snaggle and Thor came from.
A sound behind me makes me turn my head, and I’m staring into the two deep black eyes of a gray alien, just like the one from my dream.
“Holy shit. I’m either hallucinating or Glen was right … twice.”
The alien cocks its head as it studies me. It places a finger on my head, and I feel at peace as I lose consciousness.
Light flooded through Snaggle’s eyelids, and he lazily blinked them open. He saw a trio of humans approaching. They were small like children, but they looked and smelled odd. He watched as they finished examining him and Thor; each breath got easier, and he felt less pain from his broken ribs. Snaggle watched as Thor’s side began to rise and fall, his tail starting to slowly twitch with life. He felt happy confusion when the black lab opened his eyes.
A commotion from the dining area drew Snaggle’s attention. As he turned, he saw his human stumbling and then falling over. One of the small humans was tending to him.
After a while, the small humans gathered and disappeared into the kitchen. Snaggle looked at Thor, and together they tried to stand. Their legs were unsteady, but they limped toward Snaggle’s human. They settled down next to the man and rested their heads on his chest as he breathed shallowly.
Movement and a stinging scent drew their attention to the kitchen doors. The creature appeared, its lifeless body floating as the small humans walked beside it. Snaggle couldn’t help but growl. One of the small humans turned its deep black eyes toward Snaggle, and he calmed.
The sound of familiar voices drew Snaggle from a nap he didn’t remember deciding to take. Thor was already awake. His ears were raised, and he barked. His tail was wagging, letting Snaggle know he hadn’t dreamed the sound of Thor’s alphas. Both dogs stood, some of their strength back, and stepped into the hall to guide the latecomers to the injured human.
10 Months Later
The sun warms my skin. The scars are not as bad as I worried they would be. After much physical therapy, I was able to begin living a somewhat normal life. I do get odd looks from time to time, but at least the neighborhood children are not running from me. I reach down and give Snaggle a scratch behind his ears. Thor perks up and looks for Glen. Both made miraculous recoveries, but they still bear their scars like me. And like me, they are slower than they once were.
The government offered Glen and me way too much for our homes—and our silence. We didn’t move far; we went in together on some land outside Onondaga Cave State Park outside of Leasburg. It was the fresh start Petra and I needed.
Petra. The sight of her brings a smile to my lips. I watch her waddle after Sarah, who’s showing her the landscaping plan for the new house she and Glen had just built. She’s six months pregnant—a living embodiment of my progress in finding balance between the beauty and darkness of life—and miserable in the summer heat.
Glen joins me on the porch, handing me a Maker’s Mark on the rocks before taking his seat and giving Thor ear scratches. “Jus’ saw on the news Major Boleyn is gettin’ a medal—the Army Cross.”
I nod and hold up my glass in toast. “Not all heroes wear capes.”
“An’ not all who wear uniforms are heroes,” Glen responds.
“I feel sorry for him in a way. I saw him on the news giving an interview. He looked so hollow. The survivor’s guilt is eating away at him big time. He knows who he is now.”
Glen scoffed, turned, and spit. “Yeah, I saw the same thing, but he’s a piece of shit. When he showed up, all his ammo pouches had full mags. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the reason all his team is dead.”
I silently weigh his words. I didn’t get to meet the guy, but Gene filled us in on the rumor that the captain had been found relatively unharmed next to the body of one of his men. I think about his empty stare and mechanical voice during interviews. It reminded me of how I looked and sounded after my daughter lost her battle with cancer.
I shiver thinking about that version of me; how life had become a burden and I looked forward to its end. My gaze falls upon my pregnant wife, and I think about the son who will be born soon.
Life is good.
Cathedral Cave, Leasburg, Missouri
The pup had been stirring for a few days. The soft shell of its egg was growing too tight, and it was hungry. It had sensed other members of the swarm, all about his age, none older. Some had burst forth and were helping others escape the confines of their shells.
With some help from a recently hatched female, the baby creature emerged into the only world he would ever know, ready to feed.
Coming this December exclusively to FFTH, Snaggle and Thor Save Christmas.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Xavier Poe KanePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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