When I first saw the stranger, he was standing in front of Lester McCreed’s house. The stranger was dressed simply enough—overalls, a plaid shirt, a brown cap, and one of those surgical masks you see everywhere nowadays. I couldn’t see his hands on account of the thick, rawhide gloves he wore. The pinky on each look limp, telling me that he was missing a finger or two. Not a strange attire by no means, especially since the start of this whole pandemic business. It was his eyes, the hungry way he looked at Lester’s house. The way his tall, lanky body didn’t move, even when a car passed by. Made me nervous as a jitterbug.
“Howdy, friend!” I called out. The stranger didn’t reply. Didn’t even acknowledge me. “Ya lost?” Again, nothing. I thought briefly about calling the cops, but what was the fellow doing? Last I checked, it wasn’t a crime to stare.
“What’s wrong, Howie,” Gracie called from the kitchen.
I put the stranger out of my mind. Gracie was always tellin’ me I was too skittish—something passed down to me from my time in the Great War. That and this damn leg. I limped back to the kitchen where Gracie was washing dishes.
“You know if ole’ Lester is having visitors?”
“Not that I know of,” she replied, not looking away from her dishwashing. I nodded, somehow knowing the answer before she said it. Lester was a “solitary soul,” Gracie’s sweet way of sayin’ “he was a royal pain in the ass.” He kept in his house mostly, curtains shut and the bolt locked (or so I assume). Hard to imagine anyone would want to go out of their way to see the old fool.
“Maybe I should give him a call,” I said, more to myself than Gracie. “Saw a fella out there staring at his house.”
“Think it was one of Mrs. O’Brien’s grandkids?”
“Don’t think so,” I replied. “Too tall for one of them…way too tall.”
“Hm,” she said over the clattering of dishes in the sink. “Maybe a visitor? Doesn’t he have a son?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. Truth of the matter is, we knew practically nothing about ol’ Lester. When we first moved here, he only came to our house once.
“Just wanted to let you know don’t bother me,” he told us bluntly. He didn’t even come in, instead keeping his hunched self on the porch. Lester always had this affliction where one of his eyes was bigger than the other, so it appeared as though he was constantly leering at you. Probably was. Since then, we only saw him in passing. Gracie—the good Christian woman she is—tried waving to him on the occasion she spotted him puttering around outside. When he did bother to look up, he just scowled and then looked the other way. I think the only person he’d ever been warm to was Mrs. O’Brien across the street. I wonder how many years she had at him before he finally defrosted.
“I’m just gonna call him,” I said, picking up the telephone. “What’s the worse he can do?”
“He’ll probably try to give you the stink eye through the phone.”
I chortled and dialed the number for the operator. No more had I put in the final number had a perky young lady identified herself on the other end with, “Operator.”
“Hello there. Connect me to Lester McCreed, will you, darlin’?”
“One moment,” the operator said, followed by silence.
“Yeah?” Lester said from the other side of the phone. The word was followed by a fit of coughing. I pulled the receiver away from my ear, as though I could catch illness through the phone lines. After a moment, it died down, leaving Lester’s haggard breath in my ear. The sound was like a death rattle at this point and it made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up. “What do you want?”
For a sick man, the amount of venom ol’ Lester managed to muster made me grimace.
“Well, I noticed you had a visitor.”
“Don’t got no visitors,” Lester shot back. “Don’t want them.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there, you miserable mask slacker—
“What I’m trying to tell you, Lester,” I said through gritted teeth. Heat was rising from the back of my neck. “Some stranger was staring out at your house .”
Lester snorts on the other end. The absolute nerve—
“There’s no one out there. Now stop bothering me.”
The line ended, leaving me with my mouth hung open incredulity.
“Ever the charmer, ain’t he?” Gracie asked over her shoulder.
“As charming as a rattlesnake.”
Gracie laughed and the room seemed a little brighter. I couldn’t help but grin. It was the memory of that laugh that kept me going through the war. Amid the bloodshed, the explosions, and the wails of men screaming for their lost limbs in the trenches, reading how she saw her sister Susie or went to the market made the possibility of a normal life seem possible. But now, even with her beautiful sounds of joy, it didn’t stay with me.
There was still the stranger.
I checked out front again.
He was gone.
The air stank of dirt, blood, and gunpowder. I blinked, attempting to bush aside tears welling on my lids, but the smoke kept me blind. It was as if the Lord himself said, “let there be darkness.” The screams of men filled the air, punctuated with the noise of gunfire. I stumbled through the trenches, making sure to step over my fallen comrades. Whether they are alive or dead, I don’t stop to check. I can’t. I’d lose what was left of my sanity if I did that.
The smoke cleared momentarily. The sky was just as gray as the battlements though they never seemed to release any rain. Only sentinels that zealously guarded the sun. How could there be sunshine in such a hellish as this place? My bunkmate, Gibbins, lay several feet away—head lulled back and eyes staring upward. I would have thought him dead had it not been the steady rise and fall of his chest.
It was the shadow cast over him that caused me to pause.
A tall man in army fatigues stared at him. At least, I think he was staring. He wore a gas mask. The way the man hunched over Gibbins, reaching out its long spindly arms…it was like a wolf hovering over its prey.
Gibbins opened his mouth. I wasn’t sure if the scream that followed was his or my own.
The scream still rattled in my head when I woke. It rose; heightening in intensity; cutting through the air like a knife. Then, it ebbed and faded before rising again.
The crow of a rooster.
I pried myself off the bedsheet. The spot I left was damp and cold with sweat. Bed sheets tangled around my legs and the harder I thrashed, the tighter its grip on me became. Panic buzzed through my head; blinding me, numbing me. Blood and smoke and dirt clung to my nostrils. I clutched the sheet so tightly my knuckled cracked. The war is over, I told myself. I’m home. I’m alive. I’m home. I’m alive.
I beat Death.
It was the phrase that allowed my muscles to relax and my breath to become normal. I beat Death. A mantra that anchored me to the present – that reminded me that among all those poor souls that drowned in their own lung fluid or lost control of their nerves or were blown clear apart, I was the one who escaped. I was the one who survived. I beat Death.
The tingling in my head subsided. My eyes still searched the darkness, that ever-present feeling of imminent danger sharpening my senses. A scream pierced the night and sent my body back into contractions.
Damn Roosters. Courtesy of Lester McCreed.
“Rooster crowin’ in the night… Only trouble comes from it,” my grandmother used to say. She was a large, busty woman who seemed to have a superstition for every occasion. I remember when she would sit me on her knee and explain, “roosters only crow at night for the dead.” A silly superstition, as most superstitions are, but lying there in the dark in a puddle of my own sweat, I could almost believe it was true.
“Howie?” Gracie asked beside me in a half-asleep fog.
“It’s alright, darlin’.” The shaking in my voice betrayed me. She shifted in bed, sitting up. A cold hand rested on my shoulder and sent a shock through my system. A sharp intake of breath. That’s how pain—quick pain—works. It was always cold before the body realized it had been damaged. It was exactly as he remembered when he had been shot. His old leg wound ached dully at the memory. “Damn rooster.”
I excused myself for some water, to which Gracie gave a half-awake nod, coughed, and then fell back to sleep. Sleep was the last thing I wanted. Not the trenches— not again.
Usually, the house was full of creaks and groans of settling floorboards. Tonight it was deathly silent. My bare feet barely made a sound against the wood. It was almost like being in one of those moving pictures without the sound on—where you can’t hear anything except the low static of the projector. Everything was dull and lifeless and for a second I reckoned I was in another dream.
That was before red lights flashed through the living room windows.
Two bulky Pontiacs were parked haphazardly in Lester’s driveway. Their black and white bodies were darkened by the red light coming from the small dome on the vehicle’s roof. Only three houses stood out on Temple Street— Lester, me and Gracie, and Mrs. O’Brian. No other house for about five miles. So, naturally, I was not surprised to find Mrs. O’ Brian out there, watching the scene from across the street.
“What happened, Mrs. O’Brien?”
She didn’t answer right away, her shimmering eyes staring wide at the scene before them.
“Oh, poor Lester,” Mrs. O’Brien replied. There was a far-off quality to her voice, as though she was mentally miles away.
I tried like Hell to keep calm, but I could hear the panic creeping into my voice like a foreign invader. Mrs. O’Brien’s lip quivered but she remained quiet. There was a low whine in the air and I spotted the flashing lights of an ambulance in the distance.
Mrs. O’Brien nodded, opened her mouth to say something, but was caught short by a sudden fit of coughing. I took a step toward her until I noticed how pale she looked.
Those pictures in the paper filled my mind then—of all those body bags, those poor souls who caught the damned virus, piling up on the hospital floor. Practically hearing the cries and the pleas and the breathless gasps come through the ink.
My hands felt unwieldy and numb, and my face tingled. I swallowed hard, my spit feeling like a rock in my throat.
“He…he called,” Mrs. O’Brien continued, pressing the sleeve of her nightgown to her mouth. “Said someone was trying to get into his house. By the time I got there…”
I tried to draw more out of her, but she refused to elaborate. The ambulance sped in behind the officers. I wanted to march up to them and ask what had happened when I noticed Gracie standing on the stoop of our house.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, glancing between me and the mess happening at Lester’s house. She gave a half-hearted cough. Small, but enough to stop me in my tracks.
“I don’t know,” I replied truthfully. The police and paramedics exited Lester’s front door, a stretcher carried between them. “I don’t know.”
I couldn’t get to sleep after that, even when the police lights disappeared. Couldn’t get the look on Mrs. O’Brien’s face out of my head. I’d seen that look too many times to count, and even now, it made my skin crawl. The look of a person who had seen death.
And that man… I should have told the police about the stranger.
Once Gracie was asleep, I carefully uncovered myself and walked out to the living room. The sky was already turning a lighter shade of blue through the windows. An eerie silence hung over the street— the darkness surrounding Lester’s house gave it an abandoned feel.
Nearly lost my nerve right there. I felt like a kid again, looking across the street at night to the old civil war graveyard. I’d avoid windows like the plague, half-expecting to spot a ghoul roaming the misty tombstones. Except instead of a ghoul, I expected the man.
I snuck over to Lester’s, my ears perked for any disturbance. Everything was too loud. Every footstep against the ground was an avalanche. Every breath was a gale of wind.
I blinked and I was under Lester’s bedroom window. The first rays of sunlight peeked out over the horizon, making the window’s glass shimmer. I grabbed the ledge and pulled myself up.
Red. The walls, the floor, the bed. Everything. Pieces of dark meat rested in a bloody puddle in the middle of the mattress. A putrid stench seeped through the pane.
I vomited. That’s the last thing I remembered until the next morning.
I was back in the trenches. The explosions of distant mortars burst my eardrums. A shadow flew over my head. I scrambled for my gas mask, holding my breath in case the object was a mustard gas canister. Not that it would have been much help. Saw Anderson try to save himself the same way. He just got it on when the mask filled with his own vomit and blood.
Gibbins lay a few feet away, gasping for air that just wouldn’t come. The man in the gas mask towered over him; abnormally tall in the narrow space. I could barely see Gibbins’s face—more than an outline than anything else.
“Get away from him!” I shouted. No sound came out of my mouth.
I ran forward, but pain radiated up my leg to my groin. A jagged hole the size of a dime had been carved out of my fatigues. The figure leaned in.
I drew closer and the light shifted. The man laying on the ground wasn’t Gibbins.
It was Lester, his eyes blank and his face a mass of blood and ripped flesh.
I woke the next morning tired. Dark bags hung under my eyes and my pallor was ghost-like. Something bad had happened, but I couldn’t remember what it had been. It was like a bad dream on the edge of my memory. The closest I got to realize what was wrong was the fact that every time I glanced at Lester’s darkened house, it made me shiver. My bad leg ached too, as though I had run a marathon on it.
Gracie looked pale too. She lumbered around the house doing her daily chores, eyes staring vacantly. There was also the coughing. The damn coughing. My heart seized in my chest just looking at her.
“Get your rest, love,” I told her.
“No, no,” she replied, dusting the coffee table. Her voice came out in a weak rasp. “I let it go this once and I’ll never get it done.”
“You are more important to me than any old chore,” I told her. I grasped her arm lightly, as though she were my grandmother and not my wife, and gingerly led her back to the bedroom. She felt so fragile that I half-expected for her to fall to pieces in my arms. It’s not that flu, I wanted to tell her. It was some other virus. Just your garden variety virus.
“I’m sure it’s just a bug,” she said, followed by another round of coughing. Probably more to put me at ease. “Could I trouble you for some water?”
“Of course, love.” I bent down and kissed her on the forehead. Her skin burned my lips.
Besides, even if she did have It, she was young—strong. Not like that old bastard, Lester. But he didn’t die from the virus, did he, a nasty little voice reminded me. A room coated in red flashed across my mind’s eye. The strength went out of my body and my bad leg nearly fell out from under me. I grasped on the hallway wall, clanging against the hung portraits.
“Are you alright?” Gracie asked, voice far away. Weak.
I opened my mouth but the tingling in my face made my muscles stiff.
“Fine,” I hollered back. “Just tripped.”
Every step I took after felt like trudging through waist-high water. By the time I reached the kitchen, my old wounded leg ached something fierce and I could barely catch my breath. My hands clutched the sink. They shook and looked withered in the morning light. I’m wasting away, I thought. It made my hands shake more. I snatched a glass from the cabinet and held it firmly in my hand. Too firmly. Any more and the damn thing would have shattered on me. Water poured out of the facet as soon as I twisted the knob. The sound of the running tap against the sink basin gently eased the panic welling me. Now, as the water reached the rim of the glass, a tidal wave of weariness washed over me.
I couldn’t sleep though. Not yet.
Still had to call the doctor. Gracie would probably protest but these were dangerous times. We had to make sure.
I walked back out into the living room but stopped. Something wasn’t right. Couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. All I know was that, when I glanced out my window, I already knew what I was going to see.
‘Bout a foot past Lester’s darkened house stood the O’Brien homestead. A nice little farmhouse— two stories with a wrap-around porch. A far cry from our quaint, single bedroom home.
The man in the surgical mask stood in front, staring right at it.
I swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to start quivering once again.
My voice was hollow in the room. I glanced over my shoulder, waiting for Gracie’s worried voice. I set the glass on the table and walked out my front door.
“Hey!” I repeated, walking out onto my porch. “Get outta here!”
If the man had heard me, he didn’t show it. He just kept staring at Mrs. O’Brien’s home. Why wouldn’t he look away? It reminded me uncomfortably of a dog, staring with hunger in its eyes.
I hobbled to the hall closet, pushed aside Gracie’s and I’s coats, and found my Winchester propped against the back wall. The cold steel bit into my flesh and a chill ran through my spine. A flashback to when I carried a Springfield. My hand searched blindly for the box of ammunition like a spider crawling through the dark. Time was of the essence. If I didn’t nip this in the bud now…
A red bedroom flashed through my mind’s eye. I staggered. My hand slid across the shelf, knocking into the box of ammunition with a resounding rattle. I opened it, wrenched out two rounds, and jammed them into the shotgun. I rushed back out the front door, pumping the gun to fire—
The man was gone. I scanned the arid Kentucky fields. Nowhere to hide. Was I seeing things?
No. A lot might be happening but that wasn’t one of them. I hoped.
I was about to step outside for a closer look when I heard Gracie’s faint cry.
I spun back and set the Winchester against the side of the couch. When my fingers left its frigid surface, I nearly snatched it back up. Suddenly, I felt alone. Defenseless.
Gracie drank greedily from the glass. Once she was finished, she slumped back onto the bed breathing heavily. I took the glass back with the promise of a refill before returning to the living room. The street was as vacant as I had left it, but I had to know. Know if the man was gone or had been a figment of my imagination.
I placed the glass on the coffee table and darted outside. Sweat dotted my brow as soon as I stepped onto the porch.
Where could he have gone?
Surely he hadn’t ducked into Lester’s house or, God forbid, poor Mrs. O’Brien’s. Heat attacked the soles of my feet as soon as they hit the gravel road. It wasn’t until then I noticed that I was out there in my socked feet. I got to about where he had been standing when I saw a figure dart behind Mrs. O’Brien’s house.
“No,” I muttered under my breath. Not this poor woman.
My legs burned running for the phantom and the pain in the bad one made everything feel dream-like. The Winchester weighed me down but dropping it wasn’t an option.
I rounded the side of the house, ready for whatever devil I had been chasing—
The stench of rot felt like a punch in the face. I staggered back, losing my breath at the sudden shock of the odor. A few feet away lay a rabbit, its white fur messed and tinted red with blood. A buzzard, about as large as a dog, hunched over the poor thing. It thrust its beak into the rabbit, shaking its head as it tore off another hunk of glossy flesh. Bile threatened to rise out of my throat. I swallowed hard and forced it back down.
“Get out of here!” I swatted at the damn thing but it barely took notice. It wasn’t until I limped forward that the bird jumped back and raised its wings like it was trying to scare me off. It thrust its crimson beak at me, opening it and releasing that horrible hiss.
I spun around and the sudden movement made my leg scream. My vision blackened for half a second. I came to quickly enough, surprised to find myself still standing.
Mrs. O’Brien watched me with dark eyes that seemed too dark in their sockets. She was an older woman— had been elderly since I first met her— but right now she seemed more aged than usual. Maybe it was how deep her wrinkles appeared; like trenches carved into her face. Maybe it was the pallor of her face or how her skin looked paper-thin. Maybe it was her hunched posture or the way she held her arms like she were constantly cold. The mere image of the woman in this nightmarish form made me recoil before I could catch myself. Luckily, a coughing fit distracted her.
“There was a man,” I said in a voice that came out as more of a squeak. The widow’s forehead wrinkled.
“Man?” she asked. “I’ve seen no man about.”
Now was my turn to furrow my brow. He had been standing in the dead center of the street. How could she have not seen him?
“The man…in the mask and overalls. He was standing out front of your house for a while…”
Mrs. O’Brien glanced toward the front of her farmhouse, as though expecting to see him standing there at that moment. Irritation shot through me. He’s not here anymore, you stupid woman! I wanted to scream. I clamped my mouth shut and, though no words came out, my face became hot.
“He’s gone now,” I replied, making sure to keep that agitation out of my tone.
“Oh,” she said, almost absent-minded.
“Go inside, Mrs. O’Brien. Go inside and lock the door. Don’t open it for anyone unless you call for them.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Do you remember Lester, Mrs. O’Brien?”
I didn’t think it was possible to get as white as the poor old woman became. She only nodded and turned toward the house. The sluggishness in her movements made me instantly regret snapping at her. She didn’t know what was going on. For that matter, I barely understood what was going on.
There was only one thing I was certain of — this stranger, whoever he was, wasn’t hurting anyone else. I wouldn’t allow it.
Days passed and there was no sign of Him. I still sat in the living room when I wasn’t caring for Gracie, staring out the window with my gun at my side. The stranger’s absence should have lessened my anxiety, but it only made it worse. With him in sight, I knew exactly where he was. Now, he seemed to be everywhere.
Gracie and Mrs. O’Brien didn’t appear to get any better. I’d go visit the widow at least once a day, a mask tight against my face. Each day took longer for her to answer, and when she did Mrs. O’Brian looked as fragile as a porcelain doll. Her voice came out in whispery utterances that were indecipherable if the wind blew too fiercely.
I’d be more concerned if a bulk of my worry wasn’t centered around poor Gracie.
Doctor Harris confirmed my darkest fear. It took him only a few minutes to examine her while I paced the living room. I had hope still. Hope that it was a fleeting virus. Hope that the illness, whatever it may be, would leave my Gracie be. That hope was gone as soon as I spotted the doctor’s worn face.
“She has it,” he told me through his mask. “All we can do is make her comfortable and hope for the best.”
My knees gave way and I slid to the floor. Not my Gracie, I thought.
“Is there anything I can do?”
Harris stared down at me; his dark eyes soft with empathy, but held a weary resignation that suggested he had seen this all before.
“Pray,” he replied.
I barely notice him find his way out. I just kept staring down the hall to the bedroom door. What if I opened it and found the worst. Death hovered over us like a shadow. It hovered over everything nowadays—first the war, then the virus, now this… When would it all end?
I’ve beaten death before, came the old mantra in my head. The phrase no longer held the same potency. Fighting Germans was one thing. This new enemy was cunning, relentless. It didn’t need food or sleep. Worst of all, It was invisible.
It hadn’t taken her yet. She still needed me.
That long walk down the hallway was one of the longest I’ve ever taken. The door stood as ominously as a crypt. On the other side lay something I dare not think about; a fear I couldn’t escape. Why couldn’t it be me?
My eyes burned. I blinked and my nose practically pressed against the dark wood—each crevice in its surface was like a gorge. I grasped the door handle. The cold metal bit my fingers, causing my stomach to churn. It twisted in my hand and the latched was undone.
The air inside was stale, like the musk of an abandoned building. Deep shadows took root in the bedroom’s corners and what little light came in through the curtained window possessed a whispy, ghostly quality.
“Darling,” my Gracie’s faint voice came from the bed. She stared up at me with those big blue eyes. When they once shined like sapphires, they now looked watery and dull. Her pallor was that of chalk.
“I’m here,” I reply, sitting on the edge of the bed at her side. I took her hand in mine. It was ice cold. I rubbed them between mine, but no matter how much friction there was, they would never warm.
“I have it, don’t I?”
A shiver crawled down my spine.
“Doctor Harris didn’t tell you?” I asked.
“No,” she replied weakly. “Just that…I needed rest.”
I grasped her fingers more tightly. Gracie returned the gesture but her grasp was barely a muscle twitch.
“Am I dying?”
My heart clenched. I opened my mouth, trying to keep my features passive.
“Of course not.”
She nodded weakly—out of disbelief in my words or her own weariness, I couldn’t tell.
Gracie turned her head away, staring wistfully out the bedroom window. It wasn’t much of a view, only flat Kentucky land for as far as the eye could see. A far cry from the rolling hills of Tennessee. Of home. And she’d never get to see it again. She’d never see her parents again or see their little house fifteen miles from Gatlinburg. Children, vacations, anniversaries—everything gone in a blink of an eye.
What if it wasn’t? What if I could cheat Death? Hadn’t I done it myself? When so many young men had been lost to the War, I’d left with just a bullet to the leg?
I had beat Death. So would my Gracie.
“You won’t,” I told her. She wouldn’t. I’d make sure of it.
The Winchester welcomed me by the front door. Before, the weapon gave me a feeling of trepidation—a relic for a life long gone. Part of me I left behind. But now, it was a companion. The war had returned. This time the risk of failing was more than my life. So I dragged out a chair, assumed my post on the front porch, and waited for my enemy.
Noon came, but He didn’t. Twilight. Still nothing. Three days passed like that—me sitting on the front porch with my shotgun, waiting. Maybe he decided to move on, now that I was wise to him. I hoped that was the case, even though I knew that would be too simple. No, he knew I was onto him. Just a temporary retreat. Get me off his trail. I knew what he was playing at. I’d be right here, on this porch, waiting for him to return.
Each time I checked on Gracie, she seemed to grow paler and paler until it was as though I was looking at a ghost. Her voice came out in breathy rasps, as though every word she spoke was a struggle. I held her hand whenever I sat with her. It was like holding ice.
I had been having another dream. Didn’t remember much from this one, only the scent of blood and smoke. I started awake to find the sky the pink and violet of sunset.
What about Gracie? I jolted in my seat. It had been nearly four hours since I last checked on her. Who knows how long the poor girl had been waiting for my incompetence.
She was sleeping when I entered the room. Sweat dotted her brow and when I placed a hand on her forehead it was like touching a hot stove. I ran to the kitchen sink, soaked a towel, and ran back to place it on Gracie’s forehead.
As I stepped away, her pale lips moved softly. She said something, though it was so low I couldn’t hear what the words were. I could have dismissed it as incoherent mumblings of illness. Then, she spoke a little louder and word fragments floated out.
I waited, watching her cracked lips quiver. Lines creased her face. She looked so old. I had always imagined I would see her in old age, but not like this. Never like this.
A scream sounded from far off. It lingered in the air, ringing in my ears. Every inch of me tensed. There was another scream, but this one was off, more rhythmic. The crow of a rooster. My blood seized in my veins.
I rushed to the front door but knew he was there before I saw that figure in the middle of the street outside Mrs. O’Brien’s house.
“You!” I yelled out. “Don’t move.”
I snatched my gun from its place resting against the couch. By the time I returned to the doorway that slender silhouette was gone. A shadow moved within one of Mrs. O’Brien’s lit windows and a muffled cry drifted in the air. Dirt flew beneath my feet. My leg ached but I gritted my teeth and pushed through it. The O’Brien homestead appeared to get farther and farther away with each step. Each second dragged on and felt like a second two late.
I clamored up the stairs, burst through the front door, and—
I’d been to Mrs. O’Brian’s house a few times during Gracie and I’s move, whether to help her change the lightbulb in the kitchen, drag a bookshelf to another room, or just have an afternoon conversation over a cup of coffee. In all of those instances, Mrs. O’Brian kept an immaculate home. The furniture had been of a more elegant time, with patterns of painted roses over a cream-colored background. The coffee table had been a polished dark wood, decorated with lace doilies and a crystal bowl of hard candy.
The carnage I now found inside stopped me in my tracks.
Deep gouges ran through the floral wallpaper to reveal the marred wood underneath. The coffee table lay overturned, the cream-colored couch slashed, and wet, sticky splotches of crimson dotted the tan carpet. A stench pervaded the room–copper, pungent, stale. Had I not clasped my mouth, the bile would have spilled out. I opened my mouth, stifled a gag, and then tried to call out once again.
My shotgun hung limply in my hand, nearly forgotten in the surrounding chaos.
I wanted to bolt out the door then. Run back to my home and my dear ailing Gracie. My legs refused to move. How could I leave this poor woman, who had been nothing but kind to the both of us? I swallowed hard, pushing down my saliva as well as my fear, and tightened my grip on the weapon.
A trail of blood guided me down a darkened corridor where it turned into a lit opening. The hall was narrow, hardly enough to fit two men standing side by side, and only a few yards long. In the near-black, it felt as though I were in the trenches again. The carpet beneath my feet transformed into dirt and planks of wood. I looked up, hoping to find some stars or the moon–anything that would provide an escape from this Hell. An endless void stretched out above, denying me any hope of existence elsewhere.
Then came the light, as bright as the sun. I saw Mrs. O’Brien’s kitchen, but I was still in the trenches–the two morphing together into some horrible hybrid. The old woman lay across from me. Blood coated her flesh and shined in the kitchen light. Her limbs bent in unnatural angles. The flesh of her right leg was torn, revealing bone.
But it was the creature I couldn’t take my eyes off. Seven feet tall. Sunken, black eyes finding me on the threshold. Its head was bald with a spider’s web of veins through near translucent flesh. Its surgical mask was tossed aside, revealing a beak dripping with thick crimson.
Sleep didn’t touch me that night, but nightmares found me all the same. I kept seeing that creature hunched over Mrs. O’Brien, dripping with gore. She was in the trench with me. Death so near to her. Touching her. Eating her. I don’t remember much of anything more that night–only my frenzied delusions of the war. I wasn’t well until the sun’s first rays painted the sky in lighter hues. Reality fully returned to me. The front and back doors were barricaded by half the furniture in the house.
I checked in on Gracie. She rested peacefully. As it should be. She shouldn’t have to worry about the mad goings-on here, especially now. I gently closed the door and returned to the living room.
What I saw in the window turned my veins to ice.
It stood in the road, staring at my house. The man–no, the creature–wore the same ratty shirt and overalls, though I noticed dark stains ran down his front. Its cap hid its hairless dome and the mask on its face was spotless.
I pulled the furniture away from the door. The screeching of wooden legs against the wood of the floor sent chills down my spine. I swallowed it down. It wanted Gracie, just like it had wanted my cohorts on the field. It couldn’t have her…couldn’t have her.
I snatched up my weapon and wrenched open the door. The creature still stood there, motionless. Its black eyes were so sunken they appeared as two pits in its face. I felt them watch me as I edged onto the porch.
“Get out of here!”
The creature didn’t move–didn’t so much as acknowledge what I said.
“I won’t tell you again!” I said, raising the shotgun. Don’t move, I thought. If it disappeared, even if it stayed gone, I would always feel its presence. It would be in the dark every night–creeping just outside my window looking in. I’d never rest until I knew that it was gone for good. So, I raised the Winchester, aimed it square at the monster’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
The blast rang through the open Kentucky morning. My ears rang from it. The steel leaped back, slamming into my shoulder with enough force to leave a smart bruise. Something told me that the shot had been sure–some old instinct remaining from wartime. Never before had killing left such an exhilarating sensation. In that second, I fantasized dragging that damned thing as far from my home as I dared. I already welcomed the blisters that would form on my hands as I dug its grave and the stinging of the sun upon my neck.
I had beaten Death again.
I lowered my weapon and then felt myself grow cold. The creature still stood. Its overalls, although painted with the dried remains of Mrs. O’Brien’s blood, were otherwise untouched. That was impossible though. My shot had landed. I know it had.
Deep within those hollow sockets, I felt its eyes tighten on me. The anger was unmistakable. It exploded from the creature like a mortar’s blast. Yet, it remained completely still–didn’t shout or move. It truly was a creature, a beast from the pits of Hell itself.
Breath caught in my throat. My shotgun felt too heavy but my fingers clung to it like a safety blanket. I stumbled back into the house, my legs nearly getting tangled into one another more than once. That bastard’s gaze never left me, not even as I slammed the door behind me and shoved the furniture back in front of it.
It disappeared again at midday. It would be back in the dead of night for a surprise assault. I’d be ready for it. The house had to be fortified. Every opening—every window, every door—was a possible breaching point. I broke the dining room table apart and cut it into planks that could easily secure the kitchen’s windows. I had a little left over after that, but it wasn’t enough wood for the rest of the house’s windows. The better part of the morning was a vain attempt to find more wood. I could have taken the chair and the couch and the coffee table for the task, but how much would that have yielded. After all, chairs and couches were more feathers and fabric than wood, and what little there were were slats that made a frame.
I started improvising. Started prying up part of the kitchen countertop and pulling the cabinet doors down. That got me enough to nail the living room windows. It left the kitchen empty, with the skeleton of the counter revealing the sink’s pipes like exposed intestines.
That only left the bathroom and our bedroom—two more windows. Not much required to board them up. But what was I to use? My search grew more frantic, yet I couldn’t find anything. Shadows stretched across the barren landscape as the sun slowly descended. My time was running short. I paced the porch, searching the house mentally for anything that I could use. Thought about using the porch flooring. In fact, I was halfway across the living room to retrieve my ax when I stopped myself. What if some animal had found a way under and carved out an opening in the house’s underbelly. It was a long shot. I even checked the siding to make sure there were not any gaps or holes.
That left only one place for materials. I turned toward the two abandoned houses with a pit in my stomach.
The house was secured just before nightfall. I watched the sky shift from orange to velvet black. Everything was too still for my liking. The calm before the storm. The rest before the battle.
Gracie had been sleeping last I checked on her. Her pale face screwed up in a grimace, but other than that she remained motionless. The more I watched her, the tighter my chest became. Was she gone? After all I had done to fortify the house—to protect her from that monster—
She coughed, making me shutter.
“This will be over tonight,” I told her. “I promise it.”
Then, I returned to my place in front of the window in the living room with my shotgun and peered through the gaps between wooden boards. Weariness crept into my bones. My eyes felt heavy. More than once, I yanked my head back up just before sleep was about to take me. Every time I’d search fervently outside, expecting to see that ghastly silhouette standing before my house.
More than half those times I dreamed that I glanced out the window to find it standing there, staring at me. Then, I couldn’t move. It felt as though my joints were filled with cement and locked into place. My heart pulsed roughly in my chest, feeling oversized under my sternum. As though it were about to burst at any moment. It was as though the creature didn’t have to lay its hands on me to kill me. It could do it with a single stare and it was doing it now.
That’s when the knock woke me up. Three strong, steady strikes against the front door.
I straightened in my seat. My grip tightened around the shotgun, but it was difficult to get a good hold with my sweaty palms. I waited for another sound, staring at the door as though I could see what lie on the other side. I could look out the window—maybe see in front of the door if I craned my neck enough. Couldn’t bring myself to do it, because then I couldn’t entertain the possibility that the noise might have been part of my dream. Because then it would either be true or false, and God did I want it to be false.
Minutes seemed to stretch by and there was no other sound. My pulse pounded in my ears. Weighing me down. Strangling me. Even the sound of my ragged breathing felt too loud. Shadows played against the walls from my small lamp, alight with a devilish life. It’s safe in here, I tried to remind myself. I had secured the house. There was no way anything was getting in. There was no way—
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
The sound made me want to scream. It sounded louder than any alarm, then any whistle of a falling bomb, then the fire of any gun. It was curt and final. The sound of Death itself.
”Leave.” I shuttered. It took me a moment to realize the voice that had spoken was my own. I cleared my throat and spoke again. “You have no business here! Now leave or you’ll regret—”
I jumped at the sound that followed—a high howl in the night. A rooster’s crow. No. This one was closer and I could hear it more distinctly. There was something…mirthful about it. Almost like laughter. The hairs on my back stood on end.
The whole house shuddered. The front door rocked within its frame, and the furniture pressed against it bounced back several inches. I leaped up reflexively and my foot struck the lantern. It didn’t go out, but the shadows flickered across the walls with a renewed, angry vigor. I raised the Winchester, aimed it at the door, and fired. The blast pierced my eardrums. A high-pitched whine filled the room and my vision spun. My limbs felt heavy and prickly, as though they were being stabbed with hundreds of needles. Don’t you dare lose it now, I told myself. Don’t you dare. You are in the middle of a war.
The door remained motionless. Several holes ran through the wood where the buckshot penetrated it. I lowered the Winchester a fraction but my body still trembled.
The entrance shuttered again and with it came the sound of splintering wood. Cracks ebbed out from the holes and fanned out like spider webs. Another bang issued from the door. The fissures expanded. There came one last blow and the door broke apart in a flurry of shards. Upon the darkened threshold, tossing the furniture I set before it aside in strong throws, was the creature.
Its overalls looked dark and grimy in the faint light, as though they had been stripped from a corpse. The creature’s head brushed the ceiling, tearing off its hat to reveal its bald, veiny head. It ripped off its leather gloves as it entered. Its three fingers extended from their tight confines so that each finger was at least twelve inches long. The mask still held that horrible beak in place. I don’t think I would have been able to handle the situation if it took it off. The monster was already too terrible to behold.
I pulled the trigger again.
The creature barely moved, but it was in front of me in an instant. It ripped the shotgun out of my hands, throwing it aside as though it were a child’s toy. The weapon clattered to the ground behind it. I felt myself sinking lower into the ground. All the strength fled from my limbs so that when I looked up, the creature was a giant. It skulked over me, staring down from within its cavernous sockets. I waited for it to strike—to rip me to shreds as it did to Lester and Mrs. O’Brien.
But it turned its head toward the door at the end of the hall. Toward the bedroom door.
I remembered in the battlefield—I had only seen it once and tucked the memory so deep into my mind so it only manifested into my nightmares. Then there was Lester, who had been sick, and Mrs. O’Brien who had looked deathly last I saw her. It was then I finally understood. This creature—this monster…this vulture devoured the weak and dying. I realized it or another of its kind had been there with me, not so long ago in the war, watching from the fringes and feeding. It was the reaper and the collector, driven by an insatiable apatite for pain and misery.
A hunger glistened in its black eyes and as it took a step forward, its movements were quick–no, eager. He’d rend Gracie to shreds. My Gracie. I must have gone mad at that moment. I don’t remember much of what happened in that five-second span, only that I leaped up, grabbed my shotgun, and leaped onto the monster’s back. It howled an ungodly screech, turning to and fro to buck me off. I pressed the shaft of the Winchester against its face, holding the weapon in check on either side. Its mask must have ripped off in the struggle as I felt its beak biting at the steel.
I slipped to the side and the creature slammed me into the wall. Then, there was a snapping and my arm was on fire. I opened my mouth to scream but all that came out was a horse yelp. I fell to the floor. Blood coated my bent right arm. I pushed up against the wall, forcing myself to stand even as the world swirled around me. The door at the end of the hall was already open.
“Gracie,” I cried out, but it came out as a haggard yell. Breathing was a chore. Every time I inhaled it was as though my lungs refused to expand. The floor twisted to and fro beneath my foot. Pain clamped down on my bad leg and the staggering sent agonizing shots up my twisted arm. When I finally stumbled through the threshold, I was nearly blinded by the darkness.
The creature stood at the bedside, staring down at Gracie’s form. My Winchester was gone, lost on the way during my painful stupor. Gracie didn’t stir. Her face was peaceful and beautiful—a sculpture of serenity that couldn’t be achieved in life…
She couldn’t…I promised her…I promised we would beat Death.
I slid to the front of our bed. Her form lay hidden beneath her blanket. I couldn’t bring myself to look upon her–to see the livid flesh. At the very least, the creature didn’t get the chance to rip her apart. The thought did nothing to quell the anguished scream welling up in my breast, threatening to surface. I bit my lip, kept my mouth tightly shut, making the howl reverberate through my head.
The creature rounded on me. I didn’t bother looking up. I just closed my eyes, hoping that my death would come swiftly. Death may win this time, but at least I would be with my Gracie. A low hiss of a laugh came from the monster. It pressed its leathery fingers against my scalp. I instinctively flinched, but those three spindling fingers kept my head in place.
When I opened my eyes, the creature was gone. Gracie lay behind me, but I couldn’t gather the courage to look. She was gone and I was all alone. My eyes felt hot, but no tears would come. I was nothing more than a husk; an empty bottle.
Then, a new horror shook me—I had deprived it of its meal.
I still felt its hand on my head. Not threatening. Caressing. Marking. There was no need for violence now. A time would come when it found me again. There was no escape, except for a quick escape from the end of my Winchester.
Then I would fall into fire and brimstone, never to see my Gracie again. For eternity. A sob bubbled in my chest and rose to my mouth.
A cough escaped me, erupting into a fit that left me breathing heavily.
Yes, it would be back.
Perhaps, I would welcome it when it came.
Credit: Steven Winters
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