15 Jan White Out
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"White Out"Written by Shannon Higdon
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Estimated reading time — 30 minutes
It was cold. Morgan woke up shivering, his breath coiling in the air before him. Why was it so damn cold? Key West was known for a lot of things but its frigid mornings weren’t one of them. Quickly pulling himself from the sheets and throwing on his robe, which did nothing to impede the chill, he hustled to the digital thermostat in the hall; the wood floor like ice against his bare feet. Thirty-two degrees…that couldn’t be right, could it? True…it did feel accurate, but when had the tip of Florida ever been thirty-two degrees in August?
Morgan clicked on the heat and the little, old house groaned its disapproval, the furnace sputtering its way to life. It had been, what…at least a decade since he had last turned it on? It was remarkable that it worked at all. He placed his hand over the vent to verify that a feeble stream of heat was actually coming out and then hustled back to the bedroom closet for something warmer to wear. Much to his chagrin, and as he expected, there was very little to choose from by way of warmth.
Tropically flowered silk shirts and a varying array of cargo shorts and bathing suits pretty much made up his wardrobe. He had exactly two pairs of pants: a pair of paper-thin, linen slacks he wore when he was going “fancy” and a pair of painter’s coveralls. Morgan settled on both and a seldom used blanket from the linen closet as a coat. The sun was blaring through every window at the same time and he wondered just how in the heck it could be so sunny and bright out and still so cold at the same time.
Curious to inspect the afternoon, he opened the front door to a blinding, white light which he had to shield his eyes from until they could adjust to the difference. What he saw on the other side of the second, glass door welded him to the floor, unable to move and shocked beyond the ability to comprehend. The vibrant green paradise he left outside when he went to bed the night before was no longer. It was replaced by a clean, white nothingness…it was snow; and not just a little bit. It came to the middle of the door, easily four or five feet in depth and had completely buried everything.
“What the…” was all he could gasp as he desperately tried to wrap his mind around what he was actually seeing. Slowly returning to mobility, Morgan pulled the glass door open. He had to see…had to know that this wasn’t some type of hallucination. Thick, white, fluffy snow came spilling into the house covering the sand he tracked in the day before. It was real, alright. The air was piercing and furious, a blizzard still in progress and he closed the door, shivering all over again.
His mind was racing…but to no helpful ends. It just made no sense. Eleven years ago he had gone to Ann Arbor to watch his sister’s oldest son graduate a Wolverine from the University of Michigan. In the days following, the entire dysfunctional family went to north to Mt Holly to do some skiing. Morgan remembered thinking that he would never see that much snow again for the rest of his life…he was wrong.
He then ran to the kitchen window to see what the ocean-side view consisted of but not before, cursing to himself, he put on the one set of clothing that he hated to wear the most: socks. The sight was normally his favorite as his little piece of retirement heaven sat directly on the beach, but today it was the most disturbing thing he had ever laid his eyes on. Green palm trees, golden sand and brilliant blue waters were replaced by a clean sheet of white. The snow that continued to fall did nothing to improve the view, but he was acutely aware of where the island ended and the Atlantic began and that line could no longer be seen. There was nothing on the other side of that window that would have indicated that he was anywhere near a body of water; no waves or rocking…just a smooth layer of omission. It shook him.
Grapping the remote from the kitchen counter, Morgan flipped on the outdated, thirteen-inch television that sat next to the coffee maker.
“…which officials have called a ‘bomb-cyclone’. Again, officials are warning all residents to stay inside and…wait, ok we’re going to Sam now with the latest update…Sam? Thanks Jane, this is definitely unprecedented. This storm is the first of its kind in recorded history and the combination of conditions that needed to come together to produce this ‘storm of the century’ are seldom seen in…” The signal cut out and the high pitched tone of the Emergency Broadcast System filled the room, bouncing off the linoleum floor and wicker cabinets. Morgan had been half expecting it to kick on at any minute anyway.
“This is the Emergency Alert System,” the familiar, robo-toned voice informed. “This is not a test. We repeat, this is not a test. FEMA and the National Weather Service have issued a severe weather storm warning for the Florida Keys region. All citizens are encouraged to…” The screen went black and the lights followed. Morgan could hear the furnace clicking its way to a stop. The power was out. Everything else about this freaky storm was foreign to him but this…this he could handle.
On Stock Island, Florida, at the very tip of the Keys, they weren’t unfamiliar with inclement weather. In the last decade alone, hurricanes had become something of an ever-present threat; a new moniker always just waiting in the deep of the Atlantic to come say ‘hi’. The population of Stock Island included just a little over twelve-hundred residents and it was fair to say that at least two-thirds of them had become was the media like to call “preppers”. Hardly any of those were like what you might see on a reality show with bunkers and arsenals, but after getting your butt handed to you storm after storm…you learn to prepare the basics.
The emergency generator had been installed nearly twenty years ago after Hurricane Georges decimated the area and, while a little outdated, stayed perfectly dry in its concrete hovel connected to the kitchen by a tiny, half-door in the wall behind the refrigerator. Morgan had the spot created so that he would be able to access it from inside the house while the fumes it produced stayed outside; all while staying nice and dry from potential torrential waters. It took a moment to roll the fridge out of the way and even longer for the machine to come to life but eventually he could hear the furnace grumbling again and he breathed a small sigh of relief. Never in his wildest dreams would he have considered the possibility of freezing to death in this house.
Morgan flipped the TV back on but there was no longer a signal coming in on any channel; just static snow. Just like outside. It was the same on the good television on the living room. He fell onto his couch and sighed. It was still cold, but at least he couldn’t see his breath anymore. He needed to take inventory. The majority of the supplies he had managed to collect were outside in the metal shed he shared with his neighbor, Frank, so at some point he would have to venture out there.
Morgan wondered for a moment if Frank was okay but really only so much as to hope that he had been able to restock his supply before this freak storm came along. Frank was not only his neighbor, but his weed dealer as well, and maybe…maybe…his friend, although he didn’t really care for the guy most days. It was a small community, however, and Frank was the closest thing he had to a buddy. Plus…he needed more pot. There was no way he was going to suffer through this thing sober. He had just about decided to pick up his cell and call when the act was interrupted by a pounding on the exterior front door; hard enough to rattle the glass in its frame.
The urgency in the knock brought him to his feet quickly but whoever was at the door was already working the glass door, which swung both ways, open into the matted snow. It didn’t matter as the main door was deadlocked but that didn’t stop them from rattling the handle before Morgan could get to it.
“Morgan!” they screamed at the top of their lungs. It was Frank…he sounded freaked. Morgan flipped the lock and Frank, in his chinos and golf shirt, nearly fell on top of him trying to get through the door. Morgan fell back against a wall and Frank slammed the door shut, locked it and then threw his back against it, panting. Eyes, wild and darting, he looked like a feral animal.
“What the hell Frank?” Frank didn’t say a word and, after a moment, hurried to the bottle of Jim Beam he knew would be tucked away on the book shelf and threw back two large gulps. “Frank?” Morgan asked again, following the other man into the living room and then the kitchen as he paced with the bottle of bourbon in hand. “Frank!” he finally demanded after several minutes of his semi-psychotic behavior.
“Have you been outside?” he said finally turning his attention to his neighbor. Morgan just kind of shrugged.
“No…I mean, I opened the door. This is crazy…right?” Frank looked at him like he was speaking gibberish and knocked back another swig, easily his sixth or seventh shot in the last few minutes before emitting a sarcastic chuckle, devoid of any real happiness.
“Crazy…?” Frank shook his head. “Man you’ve got no idea what’s going on out there.” That was all Morgan could get out of him though as Frank slowly slid into a dining room chair, clutching his bottle of whiskey and lost in his own thoughts. The guy must have gotten really messed up last night; that and the combination of waking to the storm probably fried his circuits. He was pretty close to a burn-out as it was. Morgan wrapped his neighbor in a couple blankets from the closet and set himself to the task of forming the warmest outfit possible. He was going to need to hike out to the shed, no matter how bad it was out there. It was where all the food, water and supplies he was going to need were located.
With the use of some towels, belts, socks and almost all his shirts, Morgan was able to cobble together an outfit that, while looking like a deranged, Arab clown, felt like it should have been warm enough. It wasn’t terribly accommodating as he waddled himself back into the living room and took a look over his shoulder at Frank who still staring off into the unknown and muttering about the snow. A few laborious steps later and he was unlocking the door and pulling open both doors at the same time as they had frozen together. The cutting wind that came through immediately pointed out the defects in his snowsuit design and bit at areas he didn’t even know were exposed. He needed to be quick or he wouldn’t make it at all.
The door never made it all the way open, however, because Frank, with a speed Morgan didn’t know the bigger man was capable of, had run across the room and lunged at the door; ripping the handle from his hand and slamming it shut. No longer in his state of catatonic nerurosis, Frank had returned to the wild-eyed and frantic person that first came in and used his body to block Morgan’s access to the door.
“Jesus Frank!” Morgan screamed with more than a little surprise. “What the hell, man?”
“You can’t go out there.” Frank’s voice was hushed, barely above a whisper and not at all in line with his current demeanor. “There’s…things…out there.” Morgan could only shake his head with frustration. The world was going to frozen shit outside and he had to deal with this? Frank had obviously gotten a hold of some bad shit…it wouldn’t have been the first time he had said ‘okay’ to joint laced with PCP, but could there possibly be a worse time for Morgan to have to babysit his neighbor’s bad trip?
“Frank…” Morgan tried to keep his voice as even and calm as possible, despite his desire to smack the other man senseless. “You need to come sit down.” Gently, he led Frank by the arm to the aging couch. Taking a seat across from him, Morgan did his best to keep eye contact between them. “Frank…there are always things out there. I know it looks a little freaky.” Morgan had no idea if Frank had even seen snow before. “But it’s just a crazy storm. They said it’s a ‘storm of the century’.” He didn’t appear to be getting through. Frank shook his head venemantly.
“No. No. No. I can’t let you go out there.” He seemed adamant and Morgan pulled out his last joint from the drawer in the coffee table where he kept his paraphernalia and lit it. The familiar odor of marijuana seemed to draw Frank back to reality a bit and after a few hits he was somewhat calmer so Morgan tried to readdress the issue.
“Frank…we can make it through this. It’s just a storm. We have all the supplies we need in the shed; somebody has to go out there and get them though. Do you understand?” Frankly, he didn’t give a damn if Frank understood or not, he just wanted the fool to stay out of his way long enough to actually get things done. At the rate the snow was coming down, every second they waited added to the difficulty of the thirty-yard trek. Sure it would be great to have his help, but at this point Morgan would settle for his just not being a detriment. Frank inhaled half the joint while considering his words before finally responding.
“If you go out there…you won’t come back.” Morgan could hear the sincerity in his voice and sighed. He went to the kitchen before returning with a pair of all-weather walkie-talkies that they sometimes used when they went kayaking together.
“Frank,” he said as he handed one of the radios to his neighbor. “You’re having a bad trip man. Look at me.” He did. “You know I wouldn’t lie to you about that. There’s nothing out there but shitty weather and there’s nothing in here but Fritos and Corn Flakes. If we want to eat more than one crappy meal and keep the generator running more than twelve hours…it has to be done. I have to walk out to the shed. Do you understand?” Morgan thought maybe he was beginning to. He was going to try to be sympathetic either way as Frank had once talked him down from the roof of a house party many years ago when Morgan was convinced he could fly. We’ve all been there.
Finally, after several more wasted minutes and the remainder of the joint, Frank agreed to let Morgan go out to the shed. The big guy promised to monitor his progress from the house as best he could. Morgan considered asking about getting more weed from Frank’s place but it had taken long enough to progress to this point, so he let it go for the time being and made his way into the snow. Frank shut and locked the door behind him.
Morgan instantly regretted his decision to go out. It was like trying to walk in cold, wet quicksand and every step was as much of a workout as he had done in years. His “snowsuit” became wet after a couple of feet and began to harden and freeze a few feet after that; digging into his skin like frozen glass. His entire body was aching and numb and he realized very quickly that he needed to pick up the pace; if for no other reason than to not freeze to death in his driveway.
Morgan had walked every inch of that yard at least a thousand times; he could make his way to the shed blindfolded if he chose to do so. Today was different, however. The wind and snow was blinding and he found himself becoming turned around several times. He might as well have been in Antarctica. When he finally settled on what he thought was right direction Frank piped in over the walkie to say he could barely see him but he thought Morgan was going the wrong way. What should have been a twenty second walk was pushing twenty minutes and Morgan would have turned back had his tracks not been already covered. Every step was a battle to keep momentum with the cutting wind and snow drifts working against him; every foot sinking a little bit further than the one before.
Desperate and terrified, his muscles beginning to refuse their commands, Morgan picked up the radio to let Frank know that he wasn’t going to make it when the saw the hazy silhouette of the shed coming up before him and cast out a small prayer of thanks. His fingers struggled to move as he navigated the combination lock on the door and the irony wasn’t lost on him that he might die having made it to, but not into, his destination. He did finally get the combination in but the lock still took a couple additional smacks against the door to shatter the ice holding it shut.
The temperature was barely any different inside the metal shed, but Morgan knew exactly what he needed the second he saw the box labeled “Michigan”. As quickly as he could with massive, cold-induced delirium tremors, Morgan peeled out of his ice-cubed clothes and squeezed into insulated ski suit he wore on that trip so long ago. It wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. While the TV commercials made sitting on the beach with a Corona Light in your hands look relaxing…and it was, they never really advertised the body type that activity would give you. After so many sunsets and so many beers, the portion of the ski-suit around his belly was more akin a girdle. It was uncomfortable as hell trying to get it zipped up but at least it was warm and Morgan could feel his body temperature returning to a less critical level.
“Morgan…are you okay?” Frank broke in on the radio.
“Yea man,” he answered, “I made it. I had to change clothes. I thought I was going to freeze to death.”
There was a long pause and then, “Morgan…I think they’re out there again.” Oh hell…not this again.
“Frank there’s nothing out there, man. Listen…I’m going to gather what I can carry and I’ll be back in a little bit.” Frank didn’t reply and Morgan set himself to gathering what he could into a laundry basket that wasn’t already in the large ‘bug-out’ bag he could throw over his shoulder. Mostly it was MREs, water, a couple tanks of fuel, and a few of the outfits and coats he wore on the trip. It was highly unlikely that anything would fit Frank’s larger frame, but considering he was wearing a blanket as a dress, maybe they could make something work. Deciding that he had just about all he could carry, Morgan was stopped from opening the shed door by a noise.
With a resounding thud which vibrated down the walls, something fell onto the roof; at least that’s what he thought at first. Perhaps a chunk of ice from the coconut trees? Maybe a frozen coconut, itself? Whatever it was it had some mass to it. Letting the initial spook subside, Morgan was ready to open the door again when it began to move…to walk? There were a series of loud clicks like screwdrivers tapping against the corrugated metal roof as it moved around. As insane as the thought was…it sounded like a giant insect. Morgan’s gloved hand froze just shy of the handle; he didn’t move a muscle…just listened.
A second thud as something else hit the roof…landed? And then there were two of them clicking their way in circles a few feet above his head. So many disturbing thoughts and images came flooding into his mind it was impossible to organize them; a cavalcade of every monster movie he had seen since the third grade combined with the newsman saying, “storm of the century” and…oh geez, worst of all…friggin Frank. Frank really did see something…and then that son-of-a-bitch let him go outside? He’ll say he tried to warn you. No…that wasn’t a warning. He said “things” …he didn’t say “flying monsters”.
“Morgan?” Frank broke through on the walkie-talkie and suddenly it was way too loud. The clicking came to an instant stop and Morgan fumbled with the radio in his gloved hands, desperately trying to turn it off before he could say another word. “Morgan?” He was too late. Both of the…things…on the roof quickly clicked their way to the point directly above him and Morgan tore off his glove with his teeth to turn down the volume before it could happen again.
“Frank…” Morgan hissed into the radio. “There’s something out here.”
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. I told you.”
Morgan was suddenly enraged with his friend but the fear still won out and he kept his voice at a whisper. “No…Frank…you did not tell me this. You fucking said that there were ‘things’ out here. You didn’t say shit about monsters.”
“Monsters?” Frank sounded frantic. “You’ve seen them? You know what they are? They’re monsters? Jesus Morg…” Morgan turned off the radio…they were moving again, walking around with what sounded like many legs. Next to the door hung a machete, which Morgan hadn’t planned on taking but was now lashing to his waist. After several agonizing minutes of praying, whatever had been on top of the shed apparently grew bored and just disappeared; either jumping off the tiny building or flying away. Morgan switched the radio back on.
“Oh Jesus Morgan…I thought something happened to you. You scared the crap out of me. Literally…I’m taking a dump right now.” He didn’t want to hear that.
“Geez Frank…TMI man. TMI.” Morgan took out a head lamp and strapped it to his hood. “I’m going to try and come back in a second. I need for you to keep a watch out and help direct me. I’ve put a light on my head so hopefully you’ll be able to see it.” Morgan then grabbed a couple of tennis rackets and strapped one to each foot with a bungie cable. It wasn’t pretty but it would have made MacGyver proud.
The wind smacked him in the face again but with significantly less bitter intensity this time; the ski-suit made a world of difference temperature wise. However, being squeezed into it like a sausage and having a hefty bundle to carry, the progress wasn’t a lot better once he got outside again. If it weren’t for the home-made snowshoes it might have been worse. Frank was able to make visual contact with the head lamp and did an adequate job giving him directions, although it could have been better since he kept mixing up his left and right with Morgan’s.
Morgan had just about reached the half way point between the shed and the driveway when something caught his eye just off to his right; which was surprising since he could barely see anything at all, even with the ski-goggles on. It was something in the snow and, after putting the basket and duffle bag on a drift, he decided to investigate. It had only caught his eye for a split-second and he couldn’t even be sure that he saw it, but it made enough of an impact on his psyche that he felt compelled to check it out. Unfortunately, it was what he originally suspected and hoped he had been wrong about…it was blood.
Bright red against the spotless array of white, there was a lot of it beginning to freeze on top of the snow; and it led off in a trail away from his property and towards the Ashburn’s, an elderly couple that lived catty-corner to him. Morgan followed the trail for a few feet before realizing that he was going to have to decide just how far he was going to go here. It didn’t look like it was ending any time soon. Should he go all the way to the old people’s house to check on them? Probably not…probably best to get the supplies in the house and make a plan from there.
Morgan went a few more feet but, remembering how quickly he lost his own trail before, decided to turn back for now. He would have too if something else hadn’t stood out to him next to the trail of blood. Getting down on his knees as best he could, Morgan tried to get a better look at what looked like a little, white bean or something poking out from the snow. Brushing some snow away it became clear…it was a finger. Morgan brushed more snow away to reveal the hand it was attached to. Sheathing the machete, he grabbed it with both of his to pull free the poor soul who had become buried in the cold and pulled with all his might.
The hand, which was severed from its owner at the wrist, easily came free sending Morgan sprawling backwards and onto his ass, half buried in snow himself and screaming in repulsed horror. He flung the frozen appendage and scrambled to his feet with as much speed as the environment would permit. His heart pounded against his ribcage as he hustled back to his provisions. Every moment of this day had upped the ante. It went from strange to scary to what in the holy hell was going on here; and escalating by the second.
Morgan found his way back to his supplies and was working to wedge them free from their frozen mold when something buzzed past his head. Initially he thought it was just the wind but when it happened the second time he realized it wasn’t. It sounded like a giant wasp…giant as in, the size of a dog or cat. For a split-second he considered the possibility of drones; it was about the right size of some of the ones he had seen flying around the island but…who in their right mind would be out flying drones right now? That and those damn things he heard in the shed quickly convinced him otherwise.
Brandishing the long blade again, Morgan kept his head on a swivel desperately trying to make out anything in the hazy, winter fog swirling around him. Any noise, any shape, any…thing, and he was ready to split it from head to toe. Hell would freeze over before he ended up like ‘Handy’ back there…if it hadn’t already. A couple of times he thought he heard something and he thought he saw something, slicing the air both times, but nothing came at him and so he grabbed the radio.
“Yea man?” Thank God he was still there.
“Can you see me?” Morgan shook his head a little to emphasize the light.
“Do you see anything else out here?”
“Shit man…like what? Monsters? Are there more monsters?” Frank was getting himself worked up again.
“Will you just stop with the ‘monsters’ already? It’s not helping. Just…do you see anything at all?”
“No,” the fear was still in his voice. “I just see you. I think you need to hurry up.” At least they agreed on that.
“Yea…I know. Listen man, I’m gonna make for the back door; I think it’ll be quicker. So be ready to let me in.”
“Roger that.” Morgan threw the bag back over his shoulder, grabbed the laundry basket and tried to balance all of it with the machete still in hand. At this point it seemed like the most valuable asset he was carrying and the last thing he would ditch if he had to. The backyard which was usually just a small patch of grass surrounded by beach sand, was deeper, if that were possible, than the front had been. The snow he used as the ground kept going up and up until he was eye level with the gutters and tiles on his roof by the time he reached the house.
“Frank,” he sighed, “we got another problem. The back door is buried. I’m going to have to go around front after…” something heavy flew by him, a blinding flash of white, and knocked the communication device from his hand sending it spilling onto the roof; his sentence left unfinished. With the weapon still firmly grasped, Morgan began slicing wildly at the air around him. There was something there…several somethings…flying through the air around him, just beyond the point of revealing any detail. Occasionally he thought he saw a wing or something white whipping past him. Something white that looked kind of like…fur? It had to be an optical illusion. Whatever the things were, they were big and they were many and if he didn’t get the hell out of there, they were seemingly partial to all body parts but hands. Screw the walkie-talkie.
He could hear Frank calling out his name as he did his best to drag the basket and bag while still remaining defensively ready. Using the upper portion of his house as a brace and something to keep at his back, Morgan carefully made his way around, sporadically dropping everything to take a few swings at the eddying air. The fear kept him anxious and ready but he had to admit one thing, he wasn’t cold anymore; a thin layer of sweat was building between him and his thermal suit.
Sliding over the corner of the house and down a straight slope, getting to the front door was the easiest part and Frank was there waiting for him, having correctly anticipated that the back door was out of question. Morgan slid the basket and bag across the frosty walkway into Frank’s waiting hands and had nearly crossed the threshold himself when something icy and sharp, like talons, tore through the back of his suit and jerked him back into the winter abyss, actually lifting him several feet from the ground in the process. Despite the snow, the fall was hard and it knocked the breath from his lungs.
Keenly aware that he no longer had his blade in hand and with his lungs desperately gasping for any bit of air, Morgan’s panic reached a crescendo…or so he thought. That would, of course, be the moment one of them would land on his chest and stare him straight in the eye. The moment played out in surreal slow-motion, like time out of time, and felt like he was watching it happen from outside his own body. The insect was like nothing he had ever known and yes…his first instinct was that it was an insect of some type.
It had strong arachnid qualities but not like any spider he had seen on National Geographic. It did have eight legs and an array of black, lifeless eyes, but it was easily the size of Mrs. Matthew’s beagle and was the adorned with the same white hair. Brittle and sharp, the hairs were long and brilliant white and did an outstanding job at concealing the thing within its snowy environment. The absolute topper, however, had to be the wings. Silver and white, two wings resembling what one might see on a dragon-fly, protruded from its back and flittered in the air as it cocked its head from left to right, surveying its prey.
Morgan knew, with complete certainty, that this was it. This was how he would die. When the creature unhinged its mandibles revealing rows of spiked teeth it did nothing to dissuade the thought. He watched as it lunged for his throat and wondered how quickly he would die. Would it remove his head with one swift bite or would he have to endure some degree of…being eaten? It was a question he was happy to have not needed the answer to as Frank, from out of nowhere, cleaved the dog-sized bug into two pieces with the machete he had dropped.
Drops of thick, blue blood sprayed out as the creature unleashed a deafening shrill of anguish before its two parts stopped twitching. The blood, if that’s what it was, froze the second it touched his ski-suit and the small drop that hit his cheek burned intensely as it immediately froze the skin beneath it. Seemingly similar to hydrochloric acid, Morgan could only imagine what type of damage any more than a drop would have caused. Frank grabbed his arm and began to drag him into the house and, although his breath had yet to return, Morgan did his best to help him. Lying in the foyer panting, the two men stared at each other wordlessly after finally getting the door closed and locked.
They spent the next two hours unhinging cabinets and doors, salvaging as much wood as they could use to properly seal all the windows with hammer and nails. Since there wasn’t enough wood to go all the way around Morgan had to get creative in the living room with his bookshelves and entertainment system. All in all, it was as secure as it could be, but at the same time they appeared to be getting buried beneath a mountain of snow so if those things could only stay airborne they were probably okay. If they were burrowers also, well…that was a different story.
It was around six in the evening when they got around to eating anything and, although there should have been daylight for another two or three hours at least, it appeared to be night time. It only took a little investigating to realize that they were completely buried, even the front door. Sunlight couldn’t have gotten through if it wanted to. They ate their freeze-dried meals in glum silence and when they were done, Frank set about messing with the hand-crank radio while Morgan tried to treat the aching blackened spot on his check with some aloe. From in front of the bathroom mirror, Morgan heard the shortwave crackle to life as Frank apparently found a channel.
“…I don’t know. Nobody knows.” It was a man’s voice, gravely and deep. “But they’re everywhere. All I can say right now is: stay out of the snow! I repeat: stay out of the snow! US Interstate One is unpassable at all bridges, not just the Key West connector; so don’t even try it people. We’ve been receiving sporadic reports which we’ll try to relay but the information is scarce at the moment. Some people on the northern keys are reporting cell service returning but…” The radio went dead and Frank set to frantically cranking the handle again while Morgan retrieved his last bottle of whiskey…the good stuff. It had been tucked away for a special occasion and he couldn’t foresee a better opportunity arising any time soon…if ever.
“…don’t let it touch you.” The radio came back to life. “Again…they are highly susceptible to heat. If you can make fire then you can kill the bastards; they will burn right up, but do not let their blood touch you. It has highly toxic properties and can cause instant damage or even death so don’t let it touch you. There are a group of us gathered at the Boot Key High School gymnasium on Boot Key just north of the Seven Mile Bridge. If you can make it here safely, there is room but…” It died again and this time Frank didn’t bother to re-crank the battery.
“What the hell are we going to do man?” he finally asked after a few minutes of silence. Morgan, who found himself involuntarily picking at the new wound on his face, could only shake his head. This wasn’t exactly in the emergency preparedness manual he had ordered online. The damn thing even had a section on a zombie apocalypse, albeit tongue in cheek, but there was nothing about massive, flying snow-bugs provided by Emergency Press and Publishing.
“I guess we just…I don’t know…survive.” Morgan did his best. “I mean…its friggin Florida man; it’s got to warm back up…right?” Frank didn’t seem so sure. “It’s not like the Earth tilted on its axis or anything…otherwise we’d be dead. It’s like they said on tee-vee before the power went down, it’s the ‘storm of the century’…you know…a freak occurance. It can’t last forever.” Morgan wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince Frank or himself. Either way, the words were making him feel a little better, even if he were the one saying them.
The moment was fleeting, however, when the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen sent a chill down both their spines. They knew immediately it was the back door. Since it had already been well beneath the snow, it was the one place they hadn’t boarded up. That and they wanted a spot where they could make a hasty exit if it became necessary. They figured they could just break the glass upper portion of the door and tunnel their way out of the island igloo. Most likely the snow’s pressure had broken the glass on its own but they took no chances. Morgan grabbed his machete and Frank his homemade blowtorch cobbled together with a lighter and aerosol can of paint.
Morgan turned the corner seeing, first snow and broken glass then the snow-bug writhing in pain on the floor, the house obviously too warm for its survival. Frank followed right behind and they watched in horror as the thing would try to get up and walk or fly only a release a trill series of shrieks before falling on its back or side again. This went on for several mind-numbing seconds before the thing self-combusted into a ball of wriggling flame and, before too long, a pile of ash. It was terrifying to behold, yes; but it was also very educational with several important points jumping out at them. They were, much as the man on the hand-crank said, highly susceptible to heat; it couldn’t have been any warmer than fifty-five or sixty degrees in the house, despite the furnace’s best efforts.
The second, and probably most important to their current situation, was that the snow-bug had somehow dug its way in. They examined the tunnel it had made to reach the glass. It was crudely dug and only wide enough for a raccoon to squeeze through, but it was there none the less. The little bastards were hungry and, as it seemed now, aware of Morgan and Frank’s presence beneath them. The dining room table from Ikea became the barrier they used over the back door. It didn’t even need to be nailed because once they wedged it into place, neither of them could move it again. It seemed they had just eliminated their only easy exit.
Around nine-thirty they fell asleep together, back to back, on the couch. They had both fought it as long as they could but this had been perhaps the most physically and emotionally draining day that either of them had ever experienced. The original plan had been to take turns keeping watch while sleeping in increments but Morgan’s legs had been aching and cramping from his hike earlier in the day and that combined with Frank’s hangover from the whiskey and his scarred psyche and neither of them stood a chance for long.
Morgan woke several hours later to Frank’s vibrating shuddering but it was impossible to tell what time it was. It was pitch black and ice cold; the power was out.
“Frank,” Morgan whispered to the man shaking next to him. A couple seconds later he repeated himself, only slightly louder. “Frank!” It took a third attempt at the man’s name for him to bolt upright and awake.
“Sammy!” Frank screamed into the darkness. Sammy was Frank’s son a lifetime ago…long before Tawney left him for a bartender from Jacksonville and during a period in which he happily filled the role of husband and father. He had died in a car accident when he was three years old…Frank was driving. It was the first time Morgan had heard Frank say the boy’s name since a drunken night on the beach many, many years ago…and that had been after a funeral.
“Frank,” Morgan’s voice was gentle; Frank’s mind-set was not good right now. Calling out his dead son’s name was proof enough of that. “Frank.” Morgan put his hand out into the darkness, reaching for his friends arm. He was shaking with violent sobs and Morgan put his arm around the man to console him while reaching for the flashlight on the table with his other. By the time his got the light on, Frank was back to just shivering again.
“I’m okay,” he assured Morgan.
“We gotta fuel the jenny. We’re gonna freeze to death if we don’t.” Frank nodded in agreement but before they had a chance to move they heard the noises and realized that they were not alone in the dark. It was difficult to describe, a combination of clicks and chitters and rustling about; they knew exactly what it was. Frank was the first to spring into action, surprising Morgan with his rapid ability to break through the fear that held him in place.
The paint-can blow torch was in Frank’s hands in a split-second and suddenly a six foot blaze of raging flames rocketed across the room, illuminating the mass of snow-bugs that were gathering around them. It was a mental image that Morgan would never outlive. At least a half dozen of them were immediately burned to ashy crisps while the rest climbed over each other to escape the heat. Their screams…oh Dear Lord…their screams; they filled the room, vibrating off the walls and stabbing into their eardrums.
They were trapped, the snow-bugs were in every corner and on every wall, buzzing through the air. The fire was the only thing keeping them and bay and both men knew that would only last so long. Frank, who apparently could keep a cool head when he needed to, was able to figure out their best odds and called out to Morgan cowering behind him with the flashlight and machete.
“The generator! We gotta get the heat going in here.” Morgan’s mind raced. His tiny house seemed so large and foreign in the pitch blackness; he couldn’t remember, for the life of him, where he had sat the fuel can earlier in the day. “Kitchen!” Frank screamed, remembering that as well. He was right. It was in the kitchen next to the generator door. Morgan was starting to become really impressed with Frank all of the sudden. There was a very real possibility he had just saved both their lives with his quick thinking.
Morgan did his best to light the way as Frank shot out short bursts of fire, clearing as much space as he could with each blast. It was obvious that he was trying to conserve his ‘fuel’. Just as they were crossing from one room to the next something sharp sliced out from above them, buzzing Morgan’s ear before cutting it into two dangling pieces. He screamed involuntarily and cut upward with his own blade. The only thing it made contact with was the door frame but the rapid movement combined with the scream jolted Frank into a misfire.
The flame shot out and immediately ignited the kitchen window drapes which had been thrown onto the floor next to the two small canisters of diesel. The cloth pile went up quick and, between the screaming snow-bugs and nightmare blackness, somehow both men came to the same mental conclusion at the same time. There just enough time to share a knowing glance before they both leapt and then were concussed into the living room by the violent explosion which rocked the house on its foundation.
Large chunks of drywall and the plywood wall that separated the kitchen and living room piled on top of them, acting as a shield from the chain reaction of detonating snow-bugs; each alighting the next as the fire combusted its way around the house in a series of loud, wet explosive pops, like the world’s biggest popcorn maker. It might have been their saving grace too had the main gas line not somehow ignited from either the fire or poorly located ‘bug-bomb’, but when it did three quarters of the house was blown away in an instant.
The second, larger explosion was deafening, much louder than the first, drowning out the last of the screaming snow-bugs trying to drag their burning bodies away from ground zero. It rocked the very earth beneath them before a tidal wave of brick, mortar, wood, steel and flaming embers of debris rained down on the already substantial pile that buried the two shell-shocked men. Neither of them could move for several minutes, both diving in an out of consciousness.
Frank was the first to come fully aware, brought to lucidity by the half-inch piece of steel rebar penetrating his calf like a giant punk-rock piercing. His moans brought about Morgan who wasn’t much better with a couple cracked ribs and a left shoulder dislocated out its socket. It took an effort neither man would have ever dreamed they still had in them in order to crawl their way from beneath the pile of Morgan’s fragmented home…but they did it…out of one hell straight into another.
Morgan looked at the broken and burning pieces of his life…his memories…blown to hell all around him; it was in incomprehensible sight. This wasn’t really his home. In the morning he would wake up, start the coffee maker and have a good laugh at the completely messed up dream he will have woken from. Flying snow spiders…a blizzard in Key West…it was so laughable Morgan was starting to wonder why he was taking it all so seriously anyway. Frank, with clarity Morgan had yet to achieve, somehow kept his head in the moment and, through his urging, the two men assisted each other as much as possible and retreated to the only room left standing in the entire house: the bedroom.
By whatever twist of fate dictated such things, Morgan’s tiny bedroom was the relatively undamaged. At very least, it was the only part standing with four walls, a roof and most importantly…a door. Despite the fires burning just outside the room, the cold was closing in quickly and the they could already feel the first signs of hypothermia setting in. The avalanche of snow that continued to pour into the blackened ditch of his house was quickly dousing the remaining flames; it wouldn’t be long before they were gone as well. They needed to make a fire.
Morgan had no problem sacrificing the pile of his ‘beach-reads’ paperbacks and his bedsheets; and he did his best to fashion a tee-shirt sling for his aching arm while Frank worked on starting a fire. He needed to pop it back into the socket but the only time he had seen that done was in “Lethal Weapon” and even then Rigg’s technique didn’t seem medically sound. If he somehow lived through the night, then maybe he would find a corner to smack it against in the morning. For now, it would just have to hurt.
Frank got a small fire started in the center of the room. How did that man always have a lighter on him? The burning books produced thick, black smoke than began to gather quickly; choking them in the process. It became quite clear that the set-up wouldn’t work and, again at Frank’s suggestion, they made a change to the scenario that neither of them were thrilled with. They moved the fire next to the bedroom door and opened the door a few inches. It worked. The smoke furled out while the heat stayed in; the fire acting as a barrier between them and the clicking snow-bugs that could be seen flittering about in the dancing shadows.
They were so tired…so sore…and, despite the pitiful fire, so cold it was impossible for either of them to stay awake and, after throwing the last flammable materials onto the fire, they didn’t try to fight it any longer. Holding hands on the floor together, Morgan and Frank, neighbors of twenty years, dealer and customer, and sometimes friends succumbed to the sweet release of sleep. It was a relaxing moment really, with the fire crackling in their ears, and Morgan’s last lucid thought was I wonder if I’ll freeze to death or get eaten? That and…I wish I had a gun.
Morgan’s dreams were violent images of splattering, blue blood and flying monstrosities and when he woke and indeterminable amount of time later, he was happy to have it end. Except it wasn’t really the end…was it? He was still in the bedroom with Frank and everything hurt; his left shoulder feeling like it had been stabbed while his arm was going numb with pins and needles. The thing that actually woke him was the thin stream of sunlight coming through the still-cracked bedroom door warming his face. Not just his face. It was warmer…maybe sixty degrees in the room; while still cool for the Keys in August, it nothing compared to the artic temperature they had fallen asleep to. Morgan had apparently fallen asleep using Frank’s lap as a pillow while the big guy kind of slouched off to the side, still out cold.
Using his good arm, Morgan eased himself upright and gently shook Frank’s arm to wake him. “Frank…wake up.” Waking Frank could be like waking the dead anyway. Morgan knew that from any number of times he tried to get weed off him before noon, so he shook him a little harder. It took a half a minute of this for Morgan to realize that he really was trying to wake the dead. A check of the pulse verified it. Frank was gone. Praying he was wrong and checking again, this time on a different wrist, tears began blurring his vision. Oh Dear God…Frank really was gone.
Morgan couldn’t tell how his neighbor passed away but his best guesses were that Frank either froze to death or bled to death or a combination of the two; the less blood in his system, the quicker they hypothermia would have become critical. That being said…who the hell knew? Frank could have had a massive head trauma or internal bleeding or any number of things. For that matter, now that Morgan was thinking about it, so could he.
Gingerly, he made his way to his feet, over the charred spot on the floor and through the bedroom door which, being wedged with debris, took no small effort to open wide enough for him to squeeze through. Once he was in what used to be the hall, and with no walls to impede his view, Morgan eyes took in a sight that was balm for his soul. There were still some drifts and plenty of patches of snow, but the vibrant greens, lush browns and brilliant blue spots outnumbered them by a large margin.
Snow was melting into streams of water running in all directions and the ocean was much further up the beach but…at least it was there. The crashing waves were like music to his ears and without even knowing he was doing so, Morgan made his way to the shore; stumbling and climbing over rubble to get there. At the water’s edge, he fell to his knees and ran his good hand through the sand. There were large chunks of ice floating away to deeper water. It was over. The tears came in a flood now and Morgan threw his head into his lap. There was no restraining the lurching sobs anymore. Now that the mind-numbing terror was gone and replaced with an overwhelming sense of loss crying was the only sensible thing to do. It’s all he could do.
The tears seemed endless…and perhaps they might have been were it not for the sudden blast of frigid wind that smacked against him, nearly rolling him onto his side. Cursing his arm, Morgan regained his balance and cleared the moisture from his vision…instantly wishing he hadn’t. He didn’t want to see what his skin could already feel. It was snowing again. From out of nowhere…it was snowing again; and this time…it was coming down hard.
Credit: Shannon Higdon
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