Something… (Part 8 – Conclusion)

(Longer than the other parts, but I wanted to wrap it up today)

Kent Lewis pulled up to the Swanson residence with his emergency lights on but the siren off. As those red lights pulsed along the side of the house, the porch light flicked on and Gus Holcomb came sprinting out, as close to sprinting as Gus could achieve. He carried a shotgun with him and a pale look of horror covered his face. For a split second, watching that fat body bounce toward his cruiser, Kent thought it all to be a prank. They thought I was sleepin’ again, he thought. Those buggers thought I was havin’ a good old nap and decided to get clever and call me out to try to snap some surprise into me.

When Gus slammed his heavy body onto the hood of the car and started yelling incoherently, that idea vacated Kent’s mind.

“Damnit, Kent, did ya hear me!? Get on the squawker to Jen now! We need medics ASAP!”

Kent fell into a momentary daze. The red lights kept pulsing around and slapping Gus in the face. Each round showed a gravity Kent had never seen before. Gus was in his civies, and a black fluid was smeared across his shirt, his arms, his hands. It made Kent wonder if the real trouble was with a tractor’s gearbox and not the Swanson’s dog.

Gus jolted toward the door and the sudden movement broke Kent from his trance. He grabbed the radio and called up Jen. When she responded, almost instantly, Kent looked at Gus with a slacked jaw.

“Give me the goddamn thing!” Gus yelled. He shoved his hand through the open window and snatched the radio.

“Say again, Kent,” said Jen.

“Jen, it’s Gus. Get the medics down here quick. Tell them boys we got a mess on our hands.”

“What’s happened, Sheriff?” she asked.

Gus looked at Kent, speechless. Kent shrank back at the sight. He had worked with Gus Holcomb for nearly nine years. Their time together in the rural country of Ohio had been pleasant and more often than not filled with dealing with inconveniences rather than crime. But through it all, Gus had kept a calm persona and always knew what to do next. Flustered was not a word Kent used to describe Gus Holcomb. He watched Gus’ jowled jaw hang open and whispered, “Sheriff, what’s happened?”

Gus shook his head and squeezed the radio mic. “Just tell ‘em there’s been an accidental shooting.” He glanced at Kent and then back at the house. “Tell them to expect a mess of a shotgun wound.” He dropped the radio into the Kent’s lap. Jen gave a muted affirmative from the crotch of Kent’s pants.

“Shotgun?” asked Kent.

Gus stepped back from the cruiser. His eyes were wide and Kent saw that the man was trembling. Kent turned off his lights and stepped out of the cruiser. “Jesus, Sheriff, what the hell happened?”

Gus just shook his head. He reached out to grab Kent by the shoulder, saw the mess on his hands, and stopped. “Just wait here,” he said. “Keep a close eye out for anything strange. You see something, you lay on that horn until you see the whites of my eyes or the barrel of my gun, ya hear?”

Kent nodded. He suddenly felt a strange revulsion toward the sheriff. He looked changed, defiled. The cool nerves were gone, the calmness of his voice replaced by nervous barks. “Okay, Sheriff. Okay.”

Gus turned back toward the house. “You get in that car and you stay put.” Kent did so and watched Gus Holcomb disappear into the front door.

When Gus entered the house, he flipped on the living room light without thinking about it. His mind, after enduring such a whirlwind of insanity, was trying to find normality through light. The scene exposed to him did not help to restore that normality.

The room was destroyed.

Dale’s recliner had been thrown into the television, exploding the glass across the dark carpet. The couch was wedged in the corner of the room after being violently flung aside. Curtains were ripped from their rods, the coffee table was nothing more than splinters, and the ceiling fan hung from a single, precarious wire. As his eyes toured the wreckage, they spotted burnt hoof marks in the carpet.

“Sheriff, help,” said Dale. He was halfway down the stairs with his wife in his arms. Gus felt his jaw snap shut at the words. He hurried over and leant his hands. Peggy was wrapped in several towels to try to contain the bleeding (or whatever in God’s name that black stuff is, Gus thought). Gus grabbed her legs and began backing her body down the stairs. As Dale landed, Peggy’s head rolled like a rag doll to the side and black foam, thick like head from a stout beer, oozed from her open mouth. Gus fought off the urge to vomit then and there.

“Just get her outside,” Dale said. “Maybe fresh air can help.”

Gus nodded but heard the hopelessness in Dale’s words. He caught a glimpse of a fearful Andrew Swanson standing at the top of the stairs in his Bigfoot t-shirt and felt his heart crumple inside. There’s no happy ending waiting for this poor boy, Gus thought. They laid Peggy on the front porch and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Dale hunched forward, leaning with his hands on his knees. “What the hell, Sheriff?” he asked. “What the hell?”

Gus saw themselves from distant eyes in that moment. They were two men lots in a world of darkness. Despite the fact that Peggy clearly wasn’t breathing, neither attempted mouth to mouth. They both kept their distance from her body as though she were an infected corpse waiting to spread that blackness to the rest of them. Gus had no words to offer. He just shook his head.

They stood there in silence for several minutes while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Neither tried to chase Andrew off when he looked at his mom from the doorway. Dale kept wandering in small circles, muttering the same phrase now and then. “What the hell, Sheriff,” he’d say, but Gus knew the words weren’t directed at him. And all the while, Gus felt a strange finality to the situation. They no longer felt the need to scour the night for an assailant. The threat, whatever it was, seemed to be no more.

When the paramedics arrived, Gus gave them a hand signal that said not to rush. The victim had been lost. They pulled the gurney from the black and laid a fresh body bag on it. This procedure seemed to ground Dale Swanson, and he scooped up Andrew and brought him back in the house.

“Sheriff,” said one of the paramedics, “I don’t… what happened?”

“Boy, you wouldn’t believe me if I told,” said Gus. “I don’t even believe it myself.”

“What did this?” the paramedic asked.

Gus thought of Cinder, the snicker, the high-pitched squeal, the red eyes. He looked at Peggy’s shoulder, flesh that looked as though it had been peppered with shotgun blast and soaked in motor oil, as the body bag made its closing zip. “God only knows,” he said. “And even that may be up for debate.”

They took the body of Peggy Swanson away. Gus motioned for Kent to wait a moment and then went inside.

“Dale,” he said. “I hate this as much as you do, but I need you to come in to the station. We’ve got to sort this out somehow.”

Dale was standing in the middle of his destroyed home. Andrew was standing beside him, clinging to his waist, and Dale had a dirty hand on his head. “Okay,” he said. The response was empty, distant.

“My man’s gonna stay here and start some preliminary, have a look around. You and little Andy there can ride in with me.” Dale nodded, and the three of them walked out together.

When Gus explained to Kent his duty of staying behind, Kent became quite a negative Nancy.

“No way, Sheriff. Just no—“

“Shutup, Kent!” Gus said, slamming his fist down on the roof of the cruiser. “If you’re too scared to poke around on your own then you get John or Gary down here to help you out. Wake them up if you have to. I don’t care. But I’m just about at my wit’s end with this thing. I can’t investigate this with a clear mind, and I need to take these boys to the station to try to unravel some sort of reasoning from this nonsense.” Dale Swanson walked up to the side of the car and they both turned to look at him. His entire torso was covered in black goo that was now thick and sticky from drying. Swollen bags hung under his eyes, and a small stain of vomit lingered at the corner of his mouth.

Kent hung his head. “Alright, Sheriff.” Gus clapped Kent on the shoulder and walked to his cruiser. He opened the back door for Dale and Andrew, got in himself, and the three of them headed on down the road. The washboards in the road shook Gus in all of his soft spots again. The feeling was like a finger rubbing on a raw nerve, and he was happy to pull onto the smooth pavement of the country road.

“Dale,” Gus asked after several minutes of silence, “you got any mind to explain what the hell happened tonight?”

Dale pressed his head against the glass and watched the corn rows go by and made no attempt to respond. Gus nodded. He imagined himself in Dale’s shoes, seeing poor Cynthia in a state like that, and figured he wouldn’t be much for answering questions either. The thought occurred to him that taking them to the station was a mistake, almost vulgar, like taking a rape victim to a strip club. His foot came off the accelerator for just a moment as a change of heart swept through him.

Then he saw the accident.

“Oh what in God’s name now?” Gus said. He lit off his emergency lights and pulled to the shoulder of the road. Dale snapped out of his daze and looked ahead to see the ambulance rolled onto its side. One of the rear wheels was still spinning. In the headlights they could see that the back doors were hanging open. Gus stopped the vehicle and put it in park. He looked in the mirror at Dale. “You wanna see this?” he asked.

Dale nodded.

“Your boy?” Gus asked.

Dale looked at Andrew whose eyes had gone wide again. The nightmare still wasn’t over. “Put him in the front seat,” Dale said. “You see something, you lay on that horn, got it?” Andrew, small and timid, nodded his head. “Alright,” Dale said. “Let’s take a look.”

They came up to the ambulance slowly. Gus had his pistol drawn and Dale was creeping behind him at arm’s length. Gus moved to the cab while Dale hunkered down at the rear of the vehicle to see in through the double-doors.

“Mother Mary,” said Gus. He stopped at the driver’s side door and shook his head. There was blood everywhere.

“What is it?” Dale asked, not stopping. He needed to see his wife’s body.

“Jesus Himself couldn’t explain,” said Gus. “What kind of devil-night is this?”

Dale grabbed the door and pushed it up. It was heavy with the ambulance on its side and Dale had to struggle to get under it. He lifted it up, and the headlights from the cruiser poured in. The pulsing red from the emergency lights added their effect.

The two paramedics had been torn apart. Their limbs were scattered within the ambulance, and the entire inside of the vehicle was awash in fresh blood. Mixed in with the blood was the same black fluid that had been leaking from Peggy’s wounds. At first, Dale thought that Peggy had suffered the same fate, that her body had been destroyed and her parts mixed in with the others. But as Dale counted the limbs, the hands and feet, and the two heads that held frozen faces of horror, he knew better. Peggy’s body was not part of this desecration. Her body was nowhere to be found.

Dale backed out of the ambulance and let the door slam down. He bumped into the cruiser and nearly fell down. Then he turned and vomited. Gus, who had managed to hold his composure throughout, heard the sound and did likewise. Dale fell to the ground in his convulsions as his gut clenched and rejected until only thin, yellow strands fell from his mouth. He looked up from the side of the road, out to the corn rows that surrounded them, and saw something he never told anyone. Deep within the field were two small eyes of brilliant red that sparkled with pleasurable hate. The fear it caused sent Dale to vomiting again, and when he looked up after his second fit, the eyes were gone.

A full investigation of that night was under taken by county, state, and federal officials. Soon after, a nation-wide manhunt was initiated for the person of Peggy Swanson for the brutal slaying of the two paramedics that responded to the call that evening. Peggy Swanson, neither the person nor the body, was never found.

Something… (Part 7)

There was a violent thrashing in the house. Peggy stood at the top of the stairs with her eyes wide and her shotgun firmly gripped. Her hands trembled, and she had to force her finger off the trigger to stop herself from shooting accidentally. Below, in the swimming dark, glass shattered and wood splintered. Something was creating a typhoon of destruction. It sounds like a boar, she thought. A giant, pissed off, wild boar.

And then, just as quickly as the attack on the house had started, it stopped. In her mind, Peggy saw the chaos she envisioned in her living room, spinning and tearing her world apart, suddenly vanish, and all the tokens of her life fall from the still air down onto the floor. Peggy let out a yelp as something brushed against her leg.

“What is it, Momma?” asked Andrew. “Is it a hog?”

“Get back!” she yelled. “Get back in that room and hide!” She shoved her son into her bedroom and closed the door behind her. With the door closed, the small amount of illumination that shone in through the window was cut off from her sight. She felt the blackness encase her body like concrete. The silence resting at the bottom of the stairs was heavy and seemed to creep toward her. Peggy blinked in a vain attempt to force more light into her eyes.

Footsteps ran to the back door and stopped. Peggy knew it was her husband, but her breath was held hostage by fear. “Peggy?” Dale asked. He crept into the house. Broken glass tinkled under his weight. “Peggy, you okay?”

Just as she was about to speak, she saw the eyes, those burning rubies that pierced like needles. Her courage collapsed in her throat. She tried to yell out, but couldn’t. Every hair on her body stood straight as though it were trying to flee from her crawling skin. She couldn’t see in the darkness, but she knew that it was smiling at her. It saw her, and it was excited by her fear. Her hands grew weak and the shotgun began to slip from her fingers.

But that feeling of wood and metal sliding against her skin was enough to break the spell. She heard the voice of her father again. Just point where you know your hazard is and pull yer finger back on that trigger. The gun’ll do the rest. Air leapt into her lungs as she let out a weak croak. The red eyes twinkled at her, and she heard a heavy foot settle onto the stairs. Her gaze locked onto her hazard, onto those horrible red holes that punched through the veil of reality, and she raised her father’s favorite gun.

“Peggy?” asked Dale.

His voice was distant, around the corner. She knew he was safe from the blast. She placed her finger on the trigger and pulled it back.

In the final seconds of Peggy’s life, she regretted not closing her eyes. Her father always scolded her when she did. He taught her, quite sternly, that closing your eyes when firing a weapon was an almost guaranteed miss. It may have been the darkness, or the fear, or the nightmarish events of the night that caused her eyes to stay open, or maybe the lesson just finally held true. But the flash of light that filled the stairway when the shotgun discharged was enough to see more evil than she could have seen in a lifetime. Thick horns of rotten bone spiraled off the creature’s bald head. Its skin was black and peeling and looked as though it was suffering from third degree burns. This burnt skin clung to a hulking body that looked human in muscle structure but beast in form. But truly, her eyes only saw the mouth.

Peggy never heard the squeal the creature made when she shot it, the squeal that sounded out like a steam whistle and cracked the front window. She never felt the pounding in the wood as it charged up the stairs to where she was standing. Her body never made a motion to defend or flee, even as the light vanished and the sight of that horrible mouth disappeared. She only saw the image of that mouth, wide and grinning despite its scream, filled with long teeth that looked like syringes, and the long, snake-like tongue that was coiled within it. That mouth closed down on her shoulder as the creature slammed her feeble body into the wall. The teeth punctured through her mortal form and bit into something deeper, something spiritual, and infected her with its presence. Peggy felt her true self, not her human form, being pulled down into torturous depths. Oceans of pressure crushed her core. Invisible claws tore at her fiber. Unholy flames seared her conscious mind and all the while jeers and laughter surrounded her. The beast delighted in her suffering, savoured the taste of her soul, and consumed it fully. Peggy sank into the abyss and was gone.

Dale heard the shot, the scream, and then the sound of that beast charging his family. He rushed into the darkness. His feet kicked aside debris as he sprinted around the corner and up the stairs. Halfway up, his toe caught a step and he fell forward, slamming his chin on the edge of another step. Tooth enamel cracked when his jaw snapped shut, and the shotgun Dale carried fumbled from his hands. He flailed up the stairs in a panic. Silence was all around him again, and he cursed himself for not having the mental wherewithal to snatch the flashlight from the Sheriff’s hands during his pursuit.

He groped in the darkness, his fingers striking out like claws, waiting to make contact with some unspeakable form at any minute. He tripped over Peggy’s leg and fell on top of her, screaming out in surprise. He felt her skin and the cloth of her robe and scooped her body into his arms. “Peggy!” he shouted. The body of his wife shook lifelessly in his hands. “Peggy! Peggy, say something!”

The bedroom door cracked open and a sliver of soft white shone through. A small shadow was huddled behind the door. “Andrew!” Dale shouted. “Andrew, turn on the light!” A switch was flipped and yellow light fell on the landing. When Dale saw Peggy’s body, pallid and broken, he nearly threw her back to the floor in shock. Her shoulder was covered in hundreds of small holes and thick, black fluid, like old motor oil, leaked from each one. It stained her robe and was smeared across the wood floor. Her veins were traced in black throughout the length of her body as the viscous fluid absorbed into her bloodstream. Peggy’s eyes were open but dead, like a heroin addict getting that final fix of all fixes.

Downstairs, Gus Holcomb used his surplus of body weight to bust open the front door. He came in, shotgun ready and eyes wide, and looked up from the base of the stairs.

“We need an ambulance, Sheriff,” Dale said. “We need one now!”

Gus moved with a cautious quickness to the top of the stairs. A gasp fell from his mouth when he saw Peggy. “Where’s the beast?” Gus asked.

Dale spun his head, reminded of the imminent danger, and saw nothing. He looked to Andrew whose eyes were fixed on his dying mother. “Andrew!” Dale hissed. “Where did it go?’

Andrew shrugged his shoulders and shrank away from the door.

Something… (Part 6)

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.

Something… (Part 5)

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.

Something… (Part 4)

With the first clang of the bell on the rotary phone, Cynthia Holcomb was awake. During her 32 years of work as a secretary, her ear had become dreadfully attuned to the sound of ringing phones. She took pride in her ability to respond quickly to calls, and her boss demanded that pride throughout each and every work day. In short, she hated the sound of a ringing phone and did anything she could to cease their incessant assault upon her ears.

Gus Holcomb, however, never answered the phone on its first ring. Whether he was awake or asleep, busy or sitting idly at his desk, the first ring was always allowed its full duration. Typically, when calls came late in the night, Gus would snatch the receiver before the first ring could finish to spare his sleeping wife. Only when he was tired did he fail to meet this unspoken obligation for her.

The second ring was true and clear.

Cynthia heard her husband stir, sucking in a gasp of air through his nose, and knew the poor man was tired. His years were catching up with him. Even in such a quiet county, a man couldn’t remain Sheriff forever. Gus would soon be forced to face the biggest adversary of his life. The boredom of retirement.

The phone rang for a third time, and this time a thick hand pulled the handle from the base before the sound could complete its cycle. Gus cleared his throat and croaked a grumble for an answer. Cynthia felt a loving pity for her husband. He never let the phone ring three times in the night. He was either exhausted or sleeping exceptionally well. Or both.

“Hold on, now,” Gus said. “Who shot what?” Cynthia’s ears perked up. His voice was low, but when the man speaking them lay six inches away, it was impossible for her not to hear. She strained to listen to the caller. It was a woman and she sounded panicked. “I think it killed the dog” slipped out from the phone.

“The dog?” asked Gus. “Cinder?”

The pieces tumbled into place for Cynthia. Cinder was Dale Swanson’s dog, a hulk of a rottweiler. That meant it was Peggy on the phone now. Something had happened at their place. A shooting.

“Yup, yup, easy now Peg. I’m a-comin’.” Gus swung his legs over the side of the bed and Cynthia felt the mattress roll with his weight. “Keep Andrew close,” he said. “I’ll be there in a jiff. Did ya call Jen at the station? No?” There was a long string of words from Peggy. None of them carried an air of pleasantry. “Yup,” Gus said. More words from Peggy zipped through.Cynthia furrowed her brow when she couldn’t make them out. “Na, na, you were right to call me. I’m out the door now,” he said. He quietly put the phone back in place.

“Anything serious?” asked Cynthia.

“Could be,” Gus said as he stood. “Don’t know.” He pulled on his jeans and looped the suspenders over his shoulders. He gave them a tug and found the material was losing its stretch. He’d need to buy another set. He shoved his feet into his boots and grabbed his holster that hung from the bedpost at the foot of the bed. “How many times did the phone ring?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “There was shooting?”

Gus could hear the concern in her voice. He loved her for it. “From what I gathered. Something may have killed their dog.”

“Someone shot their dog?” Cynthia was sitting up now. Her voice was elevating as quickly as her body. Being married to a Sheriff meant certain things. It meant visibility to the public and the need to carry herself a certain way. It meant waking up to ringing phones at ungodly hours. It meant hearing the stories of how horrific man can be, either on accident or on purpose. But what bothered her more than all these things, it meant dealing with guns. In Cynthia’s mind, guns existed to serve one purpose. To take away.

“No one shot the dog,” Gus said. “It was Dale doin’ the shooting. Probably a big critter getting nasty in a big way.” Gus passed through the frame of the bedroom door.

Cynthia slung her legs out of the bed, ready to chase after him. “Aren’t you gonna call the station?” she said in a voice that was bordering on yelling. She heard Gus stop halfway down the stairs and let out a sigh. The sigh meant there would be no argument on this point. Not tonight.

“Call Jen for me,” he said. “Have her send Kent out to the Swanson place. I’ll get there long before he does.” His heavy body descended the rest of the stairs. Cynthia was on the phone before Gus closed the front door. She gave Jen the most accurate description should could, with a little extra spice to add a sense of urgency, while she watched the headlights of her husband’s cruiser roll through the dark night and over the sloping hills that surrounded their home.

Gus was barely off the gravel lane when he heard Jen calling him over the radio. He smiled at his wife’s tenacity. “Station to Sheriff,” squawked the box. “Come in, Gus.”

“I hear ya, Jen,” he said. The sleep was falling out of his voice now, and the world was becoming more coherent. Lordy, I hate these night calls, he thought. “Cynthia didn’t give you too much of a hollerin’ did she?”

“No, Sheriff, no,” she said. He could hear the smile in her voice. “That woman’s a saint who’s dumped all her love into you and spared none for the likes of Kent.”

Gus laughed. “Was he sleeping?” Gus hated to ask because he hated to be told what he already knew. Kent had turned a nasty habit of sleeping under the Goodyear billboard into the county’s worst kept secrets. But he asked because he had to. Asking was one of the points that made up the star pinned to his shirt.

“He’s here,” she said. “Well, was. He’s leaving now… just pulling onto the road. You’ll beat him by a few minutes. You think the Swansons are in trouble, Sheriff?”

“Hard to say, Jen. Peggy sure was unsettled, but that woman’s a bit of firecracker. Calm and quiet one moment, barely whispering a fuse, then exploding in your hand the next.” Gus thought of the conversation with Peggy and recalled the icy panic that layered her voice. He pressed down on the accelerator a bit. “We’ll get it sorted out, one way or another,” Gus said.

“Your wife said someone shot the dog.” The words fell from the radio as though they were foreign to the girl speaking them. “Who’d shoot a dog, Sheriff?”

“That’s not the version I got from Peggy,” Gus said. “Far as I know, nothing’s been shot with any amount of success just yet.”

“Well that’s something for the positive,” Jen said with relief.

“Listen, Jen, I’m checking off for now. I’d like to clear my head these last few minutes on the road. I didn’t get a chance to pour some coffee. Peggy was in a serious state.” Gus flicked at his radio subconsciously. “If Kent gets side-tracked, you give me a holler. Otherwise, I’ll call you when things get sorted out.”

“Alright,” Jen said. Her voice sounded reluctant. “You want me to call Peggy back and let her know you and Kent are coming?”

Gus thought about it, then answered. “No. We’ve already got too many hands in this poker game. Gimme a chance to sort this out and we’ll deal you in later. Thank ya, Jen.”

“Be careful, Sheriff.”

Gus hooked the radio back to the dash and looked at the speedometer. He was doing 72. He let off the gas and waited for the car roll back down to a reasonable 61. He took a deep breath, and then another, feeling his heavy-set body rise and fall with his lungs. “Easy, cowboy,” he said to himself. “Just take it easy. You gotta get to the rodeo before you can start throwin’ rope.” The car rolled on, cutting the still air of the night. As it passed by, the wind peeled off from the cruiser and stirred the corn fields surrounding the road.

Something… (Part 3)

Peggy looked down through the window and watched Dale step into the dim circle of white light. His plaid shirt was unbuttoned and hung open at his chest. His greasy hair nearly touched his shoulders. He needs a haircut, she thought, and scoffed herself for thinking of such a thing at a time like this. She felt a small wave of relief when she saw Cinder trot back to Dale’s side. Maybe it was just a raccoon after all.

“Momma?” came a voice from behind. Peggy jumped and turned to see a young boy standing in the doorway. She could barely make him out in the low light, but she saw he was suffering from an adorable case of bed head. Across the front of his shirt was a blue monster-truck with an American flag waving from the bed. ‘BIGFOOT’ stood out in bright neon lettering.

“Why’s Cinder barking so much?” asked Andrew.

Peggy walked around the bed and knelt beside her son. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Your Pa is lookin’ into it. Probably just some coons diggin’ in the garbage again.” She gave his hair a stir and smiled.

“I’m sorry, Momma,” he said. “I put the lid on tight, I swear it. Those damned coons just get into anything.”

Peggy smiled again and felt her nerves come down a notch. “Don’t you worry about that,” she said.

Andrew’s eyes drifted to the bed and saw the shotgun lying there. “Why you got Granddad’s shotgun out for?”

She looked. “Oh, that. You know how your Pa can get. He’s paranoid sometimes and he asked me to set it out while he was lookin’ outside. You know. Just in case.” Peggy felt a sting touch her heart at the lie. But when you didn’t truthfully know the truth, sometimes a lie just had to make due. “Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “Everything’s going to be—“

A shotgun blast rang out and they both jumped. Andrew leapt into his mother’s arms, causing Peggy to fall back and land hard against the floor. She immediately rolled her son off to her side and scrambled to the window to see Cinder and Dale charging around the corner of the house. They’re not running away, she thought. They’re chasin’ after. It’s still alive.

“Momma!” cried Andrew. “Momma, what’s happening!?”

She turned back and scooped up her son. He was nearly seven years old, but he clung to the bosom of her robe like a babe. “Shhh, easy now. It’s okay. Your Pa can handle it.” Peggy suddenly felt angry for being left in the house. She felt helpless and she hated it. She resisted the urge to shove Andrew in his room, lock his door, and charge out after Dale with her own gun in hand. But she knew she had to stay. She knew she couldn’t leave him. “It’s okay, baby,” she said again in a half-song. “We’re just gonna stay inside and wait for your Pa.”

Andrew clung close and Peggy’s eyes drifted to the dark stairway. It seemed bottomless in the night. Chills ran through her as her imagination conjured up wonderful horrors that could be lurking down below, devious horrors that crept inside while the suitable distraction outside played its course. She closed the bedroom door with a soft click and moved away to sit on the bed. She nestled Andrew around her side and pulled the shotgun around to her free hand. Glancing at the open window, her mind began creating new monsters that could crawl in through the opening. She chided herself for being so skittish.

“You’ll see,” she said to Andrew. “Pa and Cinder will get that coon that’s diggin’ around and it’ll be the biggest one ever. It’ll be so big I bet we could take it down to Saunders’ first thing in the morning and get a nice hat made out of it. Would you like that? Your very own Davy Crocket hat?”

Andrew nodded but his grip to her side remained tight. She rubbed his back and kissed him on the top of his head.

“What if it ain’t no coon?” Andrew whimpered. “What if it’s one of them space monsters?”

“Shh,” she said. “Space monsters don’t come around these parts no more. They learned their lesson the last time they tried to scare us Ohio folk. Space monsters only go to Kansas and Arkansas now.” Through the window, Peggy could hear Cinder barking again. Dale shouted, but she couldn’t make out the words.

“But what if the space monster got lost and now it’s here instead!?” He looked up at her with white little eyes filled with terror.

“Space monsters don’t get lost,” Peggy said. “Their ships are too fancy.” She felt a dull ache in her hand and realized she was squeezing the barrel of the shotgun. The voice of her father came to her in an instant. Don’t squeeze it, Pegs. It ain’t a rattler thrashin’ in your hand. Just hold the handle and pull back on that trigger when you need to. It’ll do the rest. Her hand relaxed, but her imagination kept her wound tight. Watch the door, she thought. Watch the window. Listen for the creaky steps at the top. “Now listen,” she said to Andrew. “I don’t want no more space monster nonsense, ya hear?” Andrew buried his face back in her side and she shook a mild acknowledgement from him.

Cinder went berserk. Snarling filled the quiet, and Peggy knew that a fight was in full force. A distinct yelp pierced the night, and she cringed at what could cause such a large dog so much harm. The sound of the savage brawl was then banished by the thundering of Dale unloading several shots of his shotgun. Peggy lunged off the bed and to the corner of the room. She tried to see what was happening through the window, but they remained out of sight. She plopped Andrew down on his bare feet and grabbed the phone. Andrew turned into a siren of whaling cries. Peggy pressed the receiver hard against her ear, terrified that the dial tone wouldn’t be there waiting for her, but the dull ringing was loud and clear. She dialed 9-1, then hesitated. “It’s Thursday morning,” she said to herself, the words drowning under the sea of Andrew’s tears. “If I call 9-1-1, Jen will answer and make up some sob story about Kent being on the other side of the highway to cover for him sleeping under that damn billboard.” She tried to listen through her son’s crying for any sounds coming through the open window. There were none that she could hear. Her wonderful imagination jumped at the opportunity to fill in the gaps that were created. She reset the phone and cranked the rotary, plugging in the number for Gus Holcomb, Country Sheriff.

Something… (Part 2)

The stairway was dark, and Dale took each step carefully. Around the corner, at the base of the stairs, he could see a dim glow of yellow light that came from the kitchen. Without realizing, he fixed his eyes on that light, not wanting to look at the darkness of the rooms around him. The wood creaked beneath his weight, and he made his way into the kitchen with the shotgun pressed to his chest. When he got to the sink, he bent down and took a draw of water from the faucet. His brown hair hung down and was wetted. Water dribbled from his chin, and when he wiped it away from his face, he could feel coarse stubble scrape across his hand.

Dale peered through the window for Cinder. The dog had moved yet again. Whatever was out there, it kept changing position. Cinder snarled and gave deep barks. Dale could see him just on the edge of the white light shining down from the power pole. The dog-shaped shadow was facing out toward the black, still night, toward the corn field.

Dale leaned closer to the window and squinted. “What is that?” he said to himself in a whisper. The tall corn made a black horizon against the few stars that hung in the night. A shadow, thick and tall, skimmed along the top of that horizon. Cinder’s head chased the movement perfectly. Dale leaned in closer and craned his head, nearly pressing his face against the glass. Inexplicably, he felt watched. His skin began to crawl, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever he was looking for was now looking back at him.

Dale snapped his head back and flipped off the light. He saw me, he thought. Whoever that is, he’s a big summabitch and he saw me through the window. Cinder’s barking continued. Dale stepped out of the kitchen, through the laundry room, and through the back door into the dead air of the night. As he did, he patted the shells in his pockets to make sure they were actually there, not forgotten and still sitting on a distant closet shelf.

The gravel crunched beneath his feet. He worked his way toward Cinder, who had stopped barking for a brief moment. Dale moved a dozen paces out, halfway between the dog and the house, and called out. “Cinder. Cinder, heel.” The dog turned and showed a haggard face. Drool flowed from his jaw and he was breathing heavily. Dale nodded. “Come, Cinder. Heel.” Cinder glanced at the black surroundings and then trotted to his master. Dale gave Cinder a good scratch at the neck and knelt down beside him. Cinder’s tongue hung from his mouth as they stared at the horizon. “Good boy,” Dale said, patting the dog. “Good boy.”

Dale squinted into the shadows. “What’s out there, boy?”

Cinder, as if understanding the question perfectly, let out a long, low growl and anxiously shifted his feet. Dale gave him a light pat on the back and stood up. He addressed the shadows in front of them. “Listen here, ya summabitch. I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doin’, but you’re on the private property of a well-armed family. I ain’t got no quarrel with you, but I will shoot you dead as shit if you try something funny.”

The still night hung in silence around him. No crickets chirped their songs. No breeze passed through the corn, stirring their leaves. No critters crawled and no frogs croaked. Dale turned and looked up at the house. He saw the white of Peggy’s nightgown lurking in the shadow of his bedroom window. She remained silent as well.

Cinder tensed, as if startled, and began growling again. Dale turned back just in time to see a shadow within the shadows shift. It was big. Wide, he thought to himself. Not just big, but wide. “Where is he, Cinder,” Dale coaxed in a quick whisper. “Where-is-he?”

Cinder gave a single bark straight in front of them. His muscles tensed and he let out another long growl. Dale aimed his shotgun toward the field. “Last chance, mister,” he said. “I ain’t fuckin’ around.” The stillness resumed. The seconds seemed to suspend. “I will bury you,” Dale said. “I’ll use your body as fertilizer and you won’t—“

A mass of black darted to the right and shook the corn. Dale fired his gun, more out of surprise than intent, and Cinder charged. It was moving again, around the house. Dale tore after Cinder, pumping the shotgun while he ran. The empty shell cartwheeled to the gravel below.

They rounded the property, Cinder charging toward the corn in front of Dale, and fell into the shadow of the house. Dale stopped at the edge of the road, his feet sliding in the gravel. “Cinder!” he shouted. “Cinder, heel!” The shadow of the bulky dog stopped at the edge of the corn. Cinder unleashed a fresh torrent of barks and growls. “Cinder!” Dale shouted again. “Cinder! Heel! Now!” The barking ceased, and the dog hurried back to Dale’s side, quickly turning back to face the corn. Dale let out a shaky sigh, happy to have his dog beside him again. He patted the rottweiler with a trembling hand. “Good dog,” he said. “Good dog.”

Even though they had only sprinted a few yards, Dale was winded. His heart was pounding and his lungs seemed to thunder with air. His ears rang from the fresh shotgun blast. He knelt again, feeling both concealed and exposed in the shadow of the house, and did his best to listen. He placed a hand on Cinder’s side and felt the animal trembling as well.

A snicker came from the corn. Dales’ skin turned to ice in the warm air. Was that a laugh, he thought to himself, but he never got to consider an answer. Cinder roared to life and charged again, flinging small pieces of gravel into Dale’s pant-leg. Dale called out, but his shout fell out as a whimper as his voice cracked with fear. Cinder had engaged whatever was out there and the fight was on. Corn stalks tossed and snapped in the night. Cinder snarled and thrashed, and Something… Dale thought, Something is growling back. A crisp yelp rang out, followed by an interlude of silence. The corn stirred again and there was another sound, a sickly squeal that was followed by a triumphant Cinder growl. Dale’s eyes went wide trying to see the battle that raged in the dark. More stalks broke and something big fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Then another snap, thicker and with overtones of a crunch, split the air. Cinder yelped in pain. Dale aimed his shotgun toward the sounds of the brawl and fired. He shot and pumped, each pump making its signature click, until the shotgun ran dry. When the bombardment was over, Dale waited, listening.

Something… (Part 1)

(Kindly forgive my typos. I’m writing and posting)

Rural Ohio, 1982

Dale’s eyes rolled open, and he lay on his back staring at the dark ceiling. From the forefront of his mind, a dream of heat and pain fled to the depths of his subconscious. He swallowed and rolled to his side, pulling the sheet off of his body. His narrow eyes looked out the bedroom window. It was open. The curtain sheers hung still from the rod. The air was thick and warm, and there was no breeze. Dale closed his eyes to find sleep again, but the seed of realization was beginning to bloom in his mind. He fought it, not wanting to engage in thought or acknowledge certain possibilities. His body begged him to return to slumbering while his mind got to thinking.

It was quiet. Of course it’s quiet, he thought. It ought to be. It’s the middle of the night. But it was too quiet. The warm, summer nights were anything but quiet in the countryside. Frogs croaked endlessly. Critters crawled in and out of every little hole they could find. But for the Swanson family, it was the crickets that lulled them to sleep at night. The miles of corn that surrounded their home was sanctuary to God knew how many crickets. It was a sound that was far too familiar to the Swanson’s. You only noticed it when it was gone. And when it did go away, it wasn’t for lack of crickets.

Dale heard footsteps go tearing across the gravel of his driveway. The steps were fast and dug deep and came with an eager panting. Cinder was on the move. Dale closed his eyes again and they snapped back open with the sound of Cinder’s barks. They were crisp and aggressive. Dale sat up grudgingly.

“The hell’s he on about?” asked Peggy. She pulled her pillow over her head.

“Dunno,” said Dale. He let his eyes drift out the bedroom window, out toward the sound of the barking. A gentle glow of white light spilled from one fluorescent bulb that hung from a nearby power-pole. A wide arc faded out into the distance, caressed the barn, and melded with the darkness. The sky was muted with a thin layer of clouds so that only the brightest of stars could shine through.

“Ain’t ya gonna yell at him?” Peggy moaned.

Dale just shrugged. “I don’t think he’s doin’ bad,” he said. “There’s something out there.”

“Probably the damn coons again, diggin’ in the garbage.” She pressed the pillow down harder.

“I didn’t hear anything like coons,” said Dale. “I think it woke me up. It shutup the crickets and the silence woke me up.”

Peggy lifted her pillow and listened. Cinder was barking with more ferocity now. Through the barking, she could hear the silence. “What time is it?” she asked.

Dale stood up and went to the window. He knelt down on his knees and rested his chin on the frame. “I don’t know.” He stared at the darkness that clung to the edge of that white circle of light. The bulb buzzed with electricity. He squinted to try to see where his dog might be. On the other side of the bed, Peggy reached an arm out and turned on the light.

“Christ almighty,” she said. “It’s 3 a.m.” She flicked the light back off and pressed the pillow to her head again. “Dale, please?”

“Sure,” he said. He stood and gave himself a scratch while still looking through the screen of the window. He exhaled lightly on the curtain sheers and watched them sway casually. There was no denying it. The air was very still. He turned and tugged on some Levis. While he dressed, Cinder’s barking moved from one side of the house to the other. Dale listened with interest. The rottweiler was snarling now. In his mind, Dale could see the slime being slung from Cinder’s mouth.

“Jesus, Dale. What is that?” Peggy cried. She sat up now, tossing the pillow to the end of the bed. “Cinder’s just about lost his ever-lovin’ mind.”

Dale kept quiet and opened the closet. On the top shelf was a pump-action shotgun and two boxes of shells. He pulled a plaid shirt from the hanger, grabbed the gun, and stuffed rounds into the barrel and his pockets. “Hell if I know,” he said. “But it’s sure caused Cinder some concern. I’m gonna take a look for myself.”

Peggy was quiet, but Dale could hear her mind working away. “I’ll be careful,” he said.

“You got your shotgun?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I was thinkin’ of grabbing my pistol for Cinder. Sounds like he’s in want of one.”

Peggy rolled over the bed and looked out the window. Below her sat the same circle of dull white light that Dale saw with darkness all around. Dale reached the door and listened once more. Cinder had stopped barking. The night seemed to hold its breath. Then Dale heard his dog running again, running to another corner of the house. “It’s goin’ around,” he said. “Like a perimeter. Cinder’s keepin’ it back.”

Peggy turned and reached under the bed. She pulled up a double-barrel shotgun, her father’s, and began digging for some shells.

“Now what’s this about?” Dale asked.

“What?” Peggy said in a hush. The soft sound of her voice startled Dale. It was the first he realized how easily he could be heard. “You think I’m gonna sit here and play damsel in distress?” She was whispering, but she managed to convey the words as a shout.

Dale opened the bedroom door. “Just calm down,” he whispered back. “I ain’t gonna do nothin’ stupid. Just take a peak and see what’s got Cinder’s motor going. You stay inside. I’ll give a shout if I need ya.”

Peggy found two slugs and loaded them into her gun with a click. “I’ll be here by the window listenin’ and watching.” Outside, Cinder’s barking roared back to life with a feverish rage. As Dale stepped out, he started to close the door behind him. “No!” Peggy whispered with anger. “Leave it open! I need to know who the hell is out there.” Dale shrugged and went downstairs.