Dale’s ears were ringing, and the shotgun trembled in his hand. From the chaos that had happened, the snarling brawl that raged in the corn, him unloading every shell waiting in the gun’s cold belly, and the deafening silence and total blackness that followed, only one thought occupied his mind. Reload.
His hand dug into his pockets and pulled from the bulge of ammunition stored there. His shaking fingers dropped the first two shells, so he knelt and laid the rounds on the gravel before loading them into the gun. His eyes never left the edge of the field. When he first stepped out into the night, he dreaded how still the air had been. Now he couldn’t be more thankful for the stillness. The tassel of the corn rows loomed in the darkness like small, saintly crowns. Dale watched them for movement, unable to see anything else.
There was a small amount of relief in reloading his shotgun. It came in the form of not having to make a decision. Reloading was mandatory, non-optional. Now that the gun was loaded to capacity, eight wonderful rounds of reassurance, decision time had come. In the distance, he could hear his son crying. The adrenaline screaming through his veins had triggered a primitive impulse to protect his family, but there was something nearer and almost as dear to his heart lost in the darkness before him. He swallowed hard, caught in that wishful place of wanting to make noise without making a sound.
“Cinder,” he whispered. The word was so quiet he barely heard it over the ringing in his ears. He repeated the word, louder, and waited. The silence hovered. The darkness was still. All he could hear was the distant crying of his son.
Dale took one step forward and stopped. He didn’t have a flashlight. The realization hit him like a forgetful sky-diver who leaps from a plane without his parachute. Over the years, he had become accustomed to Cinder’s abilities. He used them as a tool. And over the years, that tool had become so effective that it rendered all other tools needless. But now that tool was gone. Dale had used Cinder to find what he was looking for, and Cinder found it. Or, depending on your point of view, it found Cinder. For the second time that night, Dale felt very exposed in the dark.
“Cinder,” he said, finally finding the courage to speak with authority. There was a rustling sound of weeds being pushed aside and the dry squeak of a corn leaf rubbing against the stalk. Dale crouched down and readied his weapon. He felt an uncomfortable sting as his knee pressed into the gravel. A small grunt came from the black, and then another. Something was moving.
And then Dale heard the low, guttural laugh once again. His skin tingled as if it were covered with an immediate frost. His finger squeezed back on the trigger while he scanned the darkness for anything, any sign of shape or size or movement. A black outline of corn tassel shuddered. Dale drew a bead down its height and fired.
A horrific squeal cut through the night. It reminded Dale of the sound pigs make when they’re being castrated if that sound were to be played back in slow motion. A new primitive impulse took to his mind now, the second variable that existed in the fight-or-flight scenario. He spun on the balls of his feet and ran. A roar howled after him, and the sound of something big, like a charging bull trying to run him down, took up the pursuit. Dale felt his feet digging hard, forcing the loose gravel free from its place on the ground. He suddenly felt trapped inside a vivid dream, where your top running speed was never fast enough. His legs felt slow and heavy, his stride small and pitiful. He considered turning and shooting, but the need for flight prevailed as a wet snorting filled the air behind him.
He rounded the corner of the house and fell into that circle of white light once more. He made his turn sharp, hoping that the charging bull (is it a fuckin’ bull? he wondered) would swing wide and momentarily lose ground. The backdoor was in sight. Its dull handle blinked at him in the fluorescent light. He sprinted with every molecule in his body. As his hand clamped down on the doorknob, a childish fear exploded in his mind.
It won’t matter, the fear said. You’ve made it this far and you’ve done a wonderful job, but you were just too slow, Dale. You knew you would be. Mankind always is. It’s why they dream such dreams as this. You’re always just on the edge of salvation before you get snatched away in the night.
Dale pushed the door open and squeezed inside. He slammed the door closed and threw the deadbolt. He had no expectations of that small piece of brass holding, but it was worth a shot.
The sound of trampling hooves approached and something big slammed into the frame of the door. Glass exploded in and Dale turned his face and closed his eyes. Hot breath that stunk of rotten meat and sulfur poured in as another low squeal of rage rang out. The creature rammed the door again, nearly knocking it off the hinges. Wood splintered and Dale was knocked back. He fell to the ground, taking care to not land on the shotgun but to not lose it as well. There was a heavy snort, the sound of scrambling hooves on gravel, and then the creature was gone.
Dale stared at the wreckage in disbelief. The deadbolt had burst through the frame and hung in loose shambles from the door. He quickly stood and aimed the gun through the broken window, but there was nothing there. The door teetered and fell in toward him, and Dale saw that the curtains were covered with snot and a thick, black fluid. He leaned against the door and wedged it back into the frame. His eyes kept darting outside, his mind expecting some great form of blood and darkness to charge toward him with eyes of burning rage. He backed away from the door slowly, rounded the corner, and walked backward up the stairs.
Peggy heard the commotion. Her and Andrew both had. The collision with the house was strong enough to stop Andrew’s tears dead in his throat. His eyes popped wide, and they were both silent as they listened to the carnage happening in the kitchen. It’s inside, Peggy thought. She pushed Andrew into the corner of the room, shrouded him with her body, and pointed the shotgun at the door. She heard something moving, something slowly coming up the stairs. She waited for the sequence of wooden creaks that told her when someone was at the top. Her thumb pulled the hammer of the double-barrel shotgun back, and the click it made offered a small amount of comfort. She heard the steps give their warnings, heard the baseboard in front of the door groan under added weight, and aimed down the sight.
And then it stopped.
“Peg?” Dale said. His voice was shaky and raw. “Peg, you still in there?” Her lungs exhaled and her body folded over in relief. Andrew darted out from behind her and ran to the door. “Pa! Pa!” he screamed as he pulled the door open. Dale quickly stepped into the room and closed the door. His shirt was still wide open and he was breathing heavily. He was alone.
“Cinder?” she asked, already knowing the answer. Dale looked at Andrew and then to his wife. He only shook his head.