Gus Holcomb turned the wheel of his cruiser and pulled onto the dirt drive that led to Dale Swanson’s place. The smooth asphalt was replaced by rough washboards carved into the hard ground, and he felt his body jiggle with fat. His headlights illuminated the corn rows and reminded him of a congregation gathered for a funeral. The road took a sweeping turn, and Gus could see the house on the horizon. The dim light from the utility pole made the house look like a cheap, Hollywood prop.
I’m doing these people a disservice, he thought. The layers of fat on his body vibrated again as another set of washboards shook the vehicle. I’ve not done well at taking care of myself. Cynthia, bless her heart, has loved me too well. He patted at his soft belly and sighed. The corn retreated as the road emptied into a clearing and left Gus face to face with the home. He leaned forward to look at the second story. None of the lights were on. He put the cruiser in park and shut off the motor.
“Dale?” he said with a holler as he stepped out. The air on the farm was warm and still, and Gus felt a core of tension twisting in his gut.
“Up here Sheriff.”
Gus pulled a flashlight from his belt and pointed it up. There, leaning through an open window, was the figure of Dale Swanson. His greasy hair hung over his eyes, and he swiped it aside with his hand. He was sickly pale and a strange frenzy filled his eyes. Dale flashed the shotgun gripped in his hand.
“Well then?” Gus asked. He dipped the light some to spare Dale the bright glare. “Y’all okay?”
Dale glanced back into his room and then looked out again. “Something’s out there, Sheriff,” he said. His voice was high and filled with strain. He swallowed in a way that made Gus feel uncomfortable. He looked like a man who was trying to swallow down his own disbelief.
“Yeah?” Gus said. He panned the light around the house. The white beam made a spotlight on the corn. The stalks stood still and patient like suspects not wanting to be identified. “What’cha mean by something’?” he asked as he closed the car door. “Where’s your rottweiler?”
“Cinder’s dead,” Dale said with a certainty that went beyond sorrow. He said it with an unsaid layer of implication that made Gus’ heart quicken. Those unsaid words hung in the air like a fog. Cinder’s dead and we’re next.
“You mind coming down?” Gus asked. “I should want to have a look around. Maybe we can sort some of this out.” He started away from the cruiser, toward the house.
“Don’t leave your car!” Dale shouted. The tone in his voice jumped from strained to frantic. “Just wait right there,” he said. Dale started to leave and then turned back. “Gus, you brought your shotgun along?”
“Yup,” Gus said.
Without explanation, Dale said, “You best grab it,” and disappeared from the window. Gus shone the light up to look at him, but he was too slow. An empty black square with white trim was all that stood in the light. Too slow, he thought. You’re already too slow.
The porch light came on, and the front door opened with a long, dry squeak. Dale hurried down the cement steps and joined Gus at the cruiser. Thick bags hung under his red eyes. He looked like a man defeated. Gus placed a hand on his shoulder and could feel Dale trembling. The tension in his stomach tightened further. “Dale,” he said in a hushed tone. “Dale, what’s happened? What got your dog?”
Dale looked out at the corn and the darkness surrounding them. “Just grab yer shotgun, Sheriff.”
Gus popped the trunk, grabbed the weapon, and checked that it was loaded. He grabbed a few more shells on principle and slipped them into the small storage slots on his belt. Dale scanned their perimeter constantly. Gus had to touch his shoulder again to regain his attention. “Show me your dog,” Gus said, handing Dale the flashlight. They started off, Dale leading them around the edge of the house and toward the field.
Dale swept the light from side to side. It reminded Gus of prison lights that would roll back and forth against the walls, always scanning for some damned fool trying to escape. The gravel crunched under their steps, and Gus realized what was making him so nervous.
“Sure is quiet,” Gus said. He paused to reconsider the silence. “By the Lord, Dale, you ever heard anything like this before?”
“No, Sheriff. I’ve lived here almost my entire life and I ain’t never heard such deafness. It ain’t natural.” They neared the edge of the lane and Dale stopped. “Here,” he said.
Gus stared at the white circle standing in the dark. The corn had been trampled down and the nearby weeds were dislodged. Large clumps of soil had been kicked in several directions. “Something big did this,” said Gus.
The light landed on the dog.
Dale moved the light away as soon as they saw Cinder, but the image was already placed in the mind. It wasn’t the blood or the disfigured form the dog’s body was in that disturbed them both so deeply; it was the frozen look of horror stuck on Cinder’s face. It was a look that begged for death to come even though he was dead. In the low light, in that shadow of the Swanson house, Gus kept seeing that face in every corner of darkness, as if the sight itself had been seared into the lens of his eyes.
“Sheriff’s Department,” he said with a commanding voice. He heard Dale startle next to him. “If there’s anyone out there, you’d best come out. This awful game has gone too far.” The dead night responded in a chorus of silence. Gus turned slowly, looking, listening for any kind of movement. “Don’t make us kill you,” he said.
The snicker that came from the corn sent a fully loaded locomotive of ice down his spine.
They both whirled around to face where the laugh came from, and for a split second they both saw the eyes. They were like burning rubies buried deep within the rows of corn. The light that sparkled from those two gems shone like the sun and put needle pricks to the hearts of the two men that saw them. Gus, stunned, dropped his shotgun. It fell to the gravel with a hollow clink. Then the sky roared with that horrible squeal, that slow motion sound of pigs being forever fixed from the task of reproduction. The air, still to the verge of permanence, swarmed to life around them, and the shadows of the corn rose up like a tidal wave. The creature rushed them, bringing a blanket of darkness with it, and charged out of the corn and toward the house. The surge knocked Gus Holcomb flat onto his ample rear, and he watched as Dale roared, a roar that was weak and slow in Gus’ ears, and fired his shotgun at the shadows. The flashes from the gun were like flashbulbs in the night.
Dale Swanson, who would never speak of that night again, not to the state police or sheriff, or the federal police who would take up the investigation two weeks later, saw the creature plainly in the dim white light that buzzed out from the utility pole. He saw the wicked horns that curled in an infinite spiral on its head. He saw the thick muscles of a human torso that strode atop a set of hooved legs. He saw the speed and terror and focus that the creature had as it rounded the corner of his house, the house where generations of his family were born and buried. And he saw it as it slipped inside the broken backdoor that gained entry to the kitchen.
Peggy and Andrew Swanson heard the gun shots. They heard the yell of both husband and father being drowned out by the infernal squeal. And they heard the beast, the something that had been lurking in the cornfields, storm into the dark kitchen below them.