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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

BLOOD: CHUD fan fiction - 'Strangest Things'


STRANGEST THINGS
BY
BOWIE V. IBARRA AND MAXIMILLIAN MEEHAN
Copyright 2017 Bowie Ibarra, Maximillian Meehan

I.
“Hey, Goldie.  You hear about that explosion in SoHo?”
     The man at the business end of the question curled his lip into his trademark repugnant condescension, revealing the root of his moniker – a gold-capped incisor. Goldie responded through the stogie tucked tightly into the corner of his mouth, every syllable blowing out cheap smoke with a Brooklyn accent, “What do you think? You know I got the scanner in here, ain’t nothin’ better to do.
Goldie was the man perpetually planted in the window of a lunch-style truck parked in a bombed out lot beside a similarly-scorched brownstone. He’d been in that same location for a good five years at that point, emerging as a fixture shortly after the building which had previously been occupied the lot met its demise at the flaming tip of the all too common killer known as ‘Jewish lightning.’ The lot was cleared shortly after flames had brought the tenement to the ground, but nothing ever rose in its place. And so, the lot had remained open – a plain-but-professional ‘FOR SALE’ sign peeked up in its corner with a phone number that the kids in the neighborhood found suitable for pranking.
And then there were the adult denizens of the area had come to regard the space as some sort of dump. Weeds and brush grow out and around various couches, mattresses, tires, and several junker cars to create no vacancy. But a quarter of the lot belonged to Goldie. No one was sure if he was paying rent for the plot. He never harassed anybody who might be making an odd trash deposit behind him, but he might sell them a bratwurst, or a cup of coffee. Hell, maybe he wasn’t supposed to be there after all, either.
His super leaded brew and various greasy items mainly dwelled in the bellies of folks returning from a Manhattan club at some nauseating hour, in search of something to soak up the alcohol. His food wasn’t particularly good. He wasn’t even charming or particularly good smelling either. His presence was reliable in spite of apparent mobility, which he rarely took advantage of. But it was perhaps his cartoonish marketing, which he’d spent ample time on, which drew eyes and feet in his direction.

     The lettering was simple and bold enough.  Outlined in tarnished gold, it read, ‘WURST BRAT.’ Nothing special, unlike the strikingly child-like curmudgeon statue attached to the top of the truck. The regulars had collectively named the plaster mascot “Frankie” – a Looney Tune delinquent with a ginger flat top, aiming an ACME slingshot with a large wiener pinched between his fingers at some unfortunate target below.
All day and, apparently, night, Frankie and Goldie stood watch from their lot in the heart of the Bronx, the police scanner blasting from the serving window with a steady current of acrid stogie smoke.
Bobby ‘The Boxer,’ a regular at Goldie’s window, was the man who’d asked the question. His nose was facing five o’clock, and his teeth were a mangled set of black and white keys. He’d obviously taken a few shots to the mug in his time, but it was anybody’s guess as to whether or not he earned his name for some sort of background in pugilism, or if it was simply because he looked like some kind of British dog.
     Goldie slid a glossy bratwurst piled high through the window. The Boxer unwittingly unraveled a typical home for pestilence as he poured sauerkraut on his dogs from a plastic jar on the outside counter as he asked, “So’s that’s why I’m asking. You got the skinny, or what?”
     Goldie hemmed, “They been trying to use some kind of code, but it ain’t been hard to crack. I was in the field, back in Korea, ya know. So, it’s basic. But from what I can tell, I think they’re smoking out some kind of hippie cult under City Hall.”
“’Hippie cult’? What?!” echoed Bobby with a grin, as if he were waiting for a punchline.
“Yeah, you know, bunch of them mole folks.” Goldie shrugged with a speculative tone as he produced another shimmering hot dog, this one on a bun and drenched in some sort of cheese that wasn’t really cheese. “Don’t sound like your usual bums, though. Probably militarized, or something.”
Bobby received the other dog with a distracted grin, “You don’t say?”
“Lots of people down there in them tunnels,” said Goldie. “Lots of them. Ain’t as fortunate as a guy like me. They come back from Korea, Nam. Nowhere to go. No job. Can’t fit in. They’re brains been retweaked for war. But when they come back, nobody fixes ‘em. Because nobody can. Can’t undo that kind of thing. Believe me, I know. These fellas, they’re still wired for war. Get enough of em together, they start to fall into the only thing they know.”
By the end of Goldie’s point, Bobby’s smile had diminished. “Could be,” he shrugged. Goldie grinned, flashing his tooth. Bobby slid the man a Lincoln. “Keep the change,” he uttered as he turned away.
Bobby took a seat at the carved-up lunch table nearby as Summer, a well-manicured Puerto Rican woman in her twenties, approached the window. Goldie croaked, warm and familiar, “Hey, doll, what can I get ya this evening?”

Summer’s glistening red lips broke into an infectious smile. “A cup of that nuclear waste you call coffee might get me through tonight.”
With the nudge of his leathery fingers, Goldie materializes a smoldering cup of Joe toward the lovely young woman in the fur-trimmed coat and dangling earrings. Her smile grew two sizes as the vendor purred, “I could smell that perfume of yours a coming two blocks away, beautiful. On the house.”
Summer blushed and thanked the old man before joining Bobby at the table as he stuffed meat casing into his crooked face.  She chirped, “Hey, Bobby, how you doing tonight?”
He answered through the slop, “Better than you’re gonna be when you find out the trains ain’t runnin’!”
“Yeah?” Summer took her first sip of the powerful caffeinated concoction, “Do tell?”
“Well, if you’re working tonight, you’re walking. Trains are down.”
Savvy, Summer fires back with a pang of exhaustion in her voice, “Yeah, well, I’m coming, not going.”
Bobby’s eyes widened, “You walked that bridge?”
     “Well, I obviously didn’t swim it. Anyway, Rico walked me.”
“Oh, yeah?” Bobby remarked as he began to dig into his second dog, “He doing okay?”
She sighed, “Losing his damn mind. You shoulda heard the stuff he was trying to feed me tonight on the walk back.”
     Bobby snickered, “Lay it on me, sister.”
“Rico was saying that the reason the trains was shut down was because some heavy dudes in big suits is hunting something in the tunnels.”
     “Suits?” he quizzed.
“Yeah.” Summer lit a cigarette as she struggled. “You know, not like uptown. Like, big yellow suits, like they was handling waste.”
     Bobby’s brow went flatter than last night’s beer. “HAZMAT?”
Summer shook her head. “I don’t know what that is.”
He shot back, dead-pan, “Hazardous materials.”
“Hazardous something, that’s damn true. Some kind of mutants down there, or something.”
     The Boxer chortled through a mouth full of sauerkraut, curdling his breath.
“Go ahead and laugh, you can go up to Marble Hills and ask one of them Black Pearls, that is if you can find one.”
     Bobby took the bait, iniquiring, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     Summery obliged with a serious air. “Rico told me that one of them things they’re hunting down there climbed out of some storm drain. The Pearls tried to jump it. Wound up getting cut up pretty bad and losing a lot of brothers, but they eventually got it. Out’a eighteen of them, only three of the Pearls made it.”
     Eavesdropping all along, Goldie bellowed from his perch at the window, “Guess their choir got cut to a trio.”
Summer shot a glacial look back at the old man, but his amusement was unfazed. The Black Pearls, an all-Asian street gang from a neighboring borough weren’t necessarily dear friends. In fact, the neighborhood Nomads had run their soldiers out of the Bronx many times over the years. Nevertheless, there was a grudging respect toward anybody who wears any color and guards the parameter of their neighborhood from ill elements. It could have just as well been Rico zipped in a bag with his throat torn out by one of those things, and it still could be.

Summer scolded back, “We’ll see if you’re still laughing when those things start sniffing around your truck. All the blasting they been doing down there is driving them into the streets and God knows where else.”
Goldie smirked, flashing his tooth again, but another gleam drew Bobby and Summer’s eye to the old man’s hand on the counter as it laid a nickle-plated 357 beside the ketchup and mustard pumps.
     “Yeah, well, when they do, I got something that ain’t on the menu for ‘em.”



II.
     The trademark denim-clad Greasy Greg Neeley sat at the top of the stairs, double-knotting his long Converse laces behind his ankles – a religious practice he’d taken to after catching the dangling strands in his BMX chain earlier this year.
Greg was what the other kids at school called a “hasher” – a misfit among even the other freshmen, whom he’d alienated through his interest in the most extreme heavy metal. His denim vest, sewn over a dirty maroon hoody, bore meticulously arranged patches and band badges, from Kreator, to the more obscure Cathedral. But his back patch – an ode to Slayer’s ‘Haunting in the Chapel’ was a true masterpiece, which Greg had managed to render by hand on a white shirt using markers and acrylic paints. Overall, the likeness hinted at a real talent, but the mixed medium had been diminished by the elements over time. Nevertheless, he flew the flag proudly.
Ironically, his ‘uniform’ hit all the right notes. He represented no false metal. He took great pride in the quality and arrangement of the band pins and patches that lined his ‘battle’ vest. Wrists clad in spiked bracelets, and a few morbid rings – one a raven, and the other, a tarnished skull. His hair – at the center of relentless teasing, even spawning the infamous ‘Greasy Greg’ taunt – had grown out to a proud length over the last summer, and created quite the head-banging spectacle.
Still, in spite of the nuance and dedication to it all, Greg was, for the most part, a complete and total slob. Some might say Greg was a class-A weirdo and probably sacrificed hamsters in effort to summon Beelezebub in his spare time. Perhaps certain contemporaries of the more conservative persuasion avoided Greg out of a certain fear toward the morbid wrapped around him, but if you stripped away the studs and the Satanic imagery, people would probably still avoid him. The bottom line was that he was hygienically challenged to a point of repulsion. The onset of puberty had long since passed by, but Greg’s grooming habits never really evolve passed what he had developed during mere boyhood.
Greg harbored some deep-seeded shame about his acrid qualities, but making excuses is always easier than consistent action. Indeed, he had woven a powerful defense to go with his smell; that it was a part of his rebel persona; that it was a defensive and offensive trademark, in a way. It was the smell of ‘The Beast,’ and if it kept casualties of the system at bay, then it was worth stewing in his own filth.
That morning, as Greg sat at the top of the steps, a report from the blaring kitchen television came in. He’d been glued to the news since the wild news about the caves, and had even began clipping out articles on the gruesome details regarding the body that had been discovered at the mouth of Green Briar’s Natural Oddyssey Caverns.
Greg hadn’t visited the Caverns since his father was alive, but he’d been consistently enough as a boy that he had both fond and vivid recollections of the natural attraction. Aside from the town’s pig slaughtering and meat casing industries, the Natural Oddyssey caverns were one of the things Greenbriar was best known for. Truthfully, it was the less embarrassing of the two earmarks. Beyond that, families from the city would routinely make the trek up to the small town, which brought a nice year-round influx of tourist dollar.
Several days ago though, that one sacred attraction took a hook to the gut when the remains of one of the tour guides was found. Details were initially sketchy.  But small town people are generally prone to talk, and it wasn’t long before someone who knows somebody whose cousin handled ‘the pieces’ started to trickle into the conversation that revolves around those Rockwellian dinner scenes.
A seeker of morbid curiosities and extremism, Greg was naturally peaked by the graphic details, which involved heavy disembowelment and dismemberment. That blood and entrails would be smeared across the cavernous walls of a revered childhood haunt made it all the more tantalizing.
Greg remembered as a kid hearing reports that they’d found mountain lion bones deep in the caverns, and that was the first thing that leapt to his mind when he’d heard about the fatal mauling. However, some of the town’s people with fairly specific interests tied to the local church didn’t have to do much to churn the horrific discovery into total hysteria. Less credible rumors of satanic ritual murder had begun to make the rounds, and went just short of suggesting that Natural Oddyssey Caverns was the gateway to the McMartin preschool tunnels. Greg was certain any day now, he and his friends would probably find themselves down at the station being interrogated as natural suspects, due to their devotion to ‘devil music.’ He and his friends, Stoney and Jacob, had joked about it in the past twelve hours.  And while they were sure to make a point to laugh, there was a certain nervous pang to it.

There weren’t any new updates as far as Greg could hear this morning, so he made stealthy toward the front door, slipping away like a spy.
Outside, Greg climbed onto his Mongoose bike and began peddling around the side of the house and toward the driveway when something large pelted him in the side of the skull with a crunch. The distraction and the force combined was enough to knock the boy off his bike, and send him palms-first into the gravel path.
His hands burned, and Greg immediately knew he was bleeding as he popped back up. What he heard next made his ears hot – his stepfather’s raspy, Woody Woodpecker cackle.
Greg had assumed that his stepfather, Joe was at his usual post in the kitchen in front of the television, pretending to comb the want ads while his mother made breakfast before leaving for her job at the meat packing factory. He had assumed wrong.
Fuming, Greg’s eyes immediately fell on a brown paper lunch sack on the side of the driveway. His brain quickly fused the pieces together as he wiped his bleeding palms off on his sleeves.
There stood Joe, near the garage, smoking a cigarette. Joe was definitive white trash – sinewy and long-armed, and usually barefoot, with a wild-eyed expression under a bushy head of hair. He taunted smugly, “Don’t forget your lunch, Greg.”
Greg kicked the bag back at his stepfather before grabbing his bike to ride away.
Joe sneered, already revving up for his next encounter with the kid. With a North Carolina twang, he crowed, “Awe! You’re gonna hurt your mama’s feelings, now!”
Greg flipped the bird as he rode away, and he was too scared to look back and check for Joe’s reaction. He knew better. He also knew he’d probably regret it later.



II - B
Greg came speeding around the bend of the hill, stood upright, when he spotted his accomplices parked in their usual spot at the abandoned roadside rest stop. Greg settled back onto his seat to some degree of relief as he peddled toward his friends. If this had been two weeks ago, there would have been zero trepidation while approaching their usual meet-up point.  But with the town currently in the grip of a full-on Satanic panic, Neeley wouldn’t be surprised if there was a sudden change in routine one of these mornings.
Fellow soldiers in the metal militia, Jake and Stoney sat on the vandalized lunch table. Their so-called uniforms barely deviated from Greg’s in nature – all denim, spikes, patches, and pins, with a few deviations in band taste, which were still respectable among this particular brood. Their heads lightly banging to the faint tempo blasting from their Walkman headphones, they didn’t even notice Greg’s steady approach.
The identity of these three teenagers might blend if not for the radical variations in their physical appearance. Greasy Greg was easy to peg for his stink and struggling acne problem, but he was also much more slight in frame than fair-haired Jake. In fact, Jake’s allegiance toward his life-long friends probably kept him out of more conventional social circles. He was a good-looking square-jawed kid.  His physique was the epitome of a cornfed, lil’ Abner type. He was also group’s lynch pin. No one dared mess with Greg or Stoney for fear of incurring Jake's wrath.  His stature intimidated even the athletic set.

And then on the opposite-end of the spectrum was the sweet-faced, baby blubber-covered Stoney – an easy target, but perhaps the most charismatic somehow. This had to do with the fact that he was the brightest of the three. Stoney had a gift for speaking. He’d talked his way out of numerous precarious spots over the years. At one point, he’d even managed to convince his grandparents of heavy metal’s merits as a modern day evolution of classical music, due mainly to its virtuosity. He insisted it exhibited far more class than the low-brow pop garbage they might see on American Band Stand. His weight was a little ironic, though, and both Greg and Jake had wondered privately to one another why he was so big when he rode more than twelve miles to and from school every day – by far the longest distance any of the trio had to peddle.
Greg dismounted from his Mongoose in his usual calamitous way, allowing his bike to crash into a nearby table. Moments later, he was lighting up a Marlboro.
Stoney hit stop on his Walkman, and lifted his head, “You ready, or what?”
Still fuming from his encounter with his stepfather, Greg responded, “In a minute, alright?”
Jake sensed the tension from over the high volume of his mixtape, and hit stop, too. He queried, “You alright?” 
“Nothing” Greg stonewalled. “Just Joe being an idiot. The usual.”
Jake and Stoney knew the drill, and they proceeded to let a bit of time pass so their friend could wind down before they started their ride.
Jake broke the ice. “So, either of you racing home after the bell today?”
Stoney replied first, “Not particularly. Why?”
Jake replied, cool and casual. “Bill Farr said he found a big honkin’ stack of nudity books down on old Creek Road yesterday. Probably been cherry picked by now, but I thought it might be worth checking out.”
Stoney replied, “Then what, we just take turns holding each other out in the woods while we look at the pictures?”
Jake shot back, “Maybe we can find some broads.”

“Listen to James Cagney and Lacey over here. “Broads.” Who says broads?”
Exhaling a halo of carbon, Greg interjected, loosening up with a grin, “Wouldn’t that make you Lacey, Stoney?”
Jake laughed. Stoney fired back, “That’s preferable.”
Jake asked, “To what?”
Stoney answered confidently, “To going out to some cold-ass woods and poking a pile of used horny books with a stick. You don’t know where those things have been or what someone did to or on them. It’s sick, man.”
Greg attempted to ease Jake’s fuming. “Wouldn’t mind riding out there anyway. My old man once showed me some area with some caves near the creek that ran into the caverns.”
Stoney arched an eyebrow. “You’re not worried?”
Jake teased, “What’s the matter, Stoney?  Afraid of the big bad Satanists?”
Stoney let logic be his shield. “Didn’t say that. But something tore that guy up real bad.”
Everyone went quiet.
Stoney once again broke the silence. “I’m in.”
Greg flicked his cigarette butt into a nearby trash can and the trio road away in silence moments later.



II - C
As normal, school was inconsequential, and thanks to the acute awareness of Satanic symbols brought about by the brewing witch hunt in town, the social aspect was without any sort of sting on that particular day. Jake wasn’t just tempering a hot tide of rejection for his two friends. There seemed to be a genuine fear and wariness now toward all three of them. For now it was comfortable, but they knew it would probably get much worse once the squares started passing and comparing notes with the faculty. For now though, the boys were just going to enjoy the lack of hassle and worry about the inevitable blow up later. The wheels in Stoney’s head had already started to turn, and he suspected they might even be able to get something out of the mess if they kept their heads down in the meantime.
The boys had reconvened at Jake’s house, which wasn’t too far from the start of old Creek Road. Jake was fortunate enough to have been born with hippie-type parents, who only settled in Green Briar due to its proximity to Woodstock, and it’s ultimately cheaper real estate purchase price. The folks were absentee and hands off, giving their child a wider berth than wiser heads might allow. Their thought was that this methodology would allow their child to grow firm and flourish, like a wild vine. Jake’s opinion was that they wanted him far enough away so that they could smoke weed, and his independent streak made it easy for them to take off for a day or two.
Jake kept a towel across the foot of his door to keep the stink of sage his parents used to cover up the marijuana smell from their bedroom up. Meanwhile, he kept the volume up on the Judas Priest to reduce the hum of Morrison Hotel that seemed to be on repeat in the living room.

Greg always enjoyed the strange sensation of stepping from one parallel universe, made up of dream catchers, crystals, pastels, and artifacts from another period into the pitch blackness of Jake’s D&D lair, pasted with heavy metal posters and nude pinups. The oddest note of angst was perhaps the tidiness Jake embraced, which was in complete contrast to his parents’, who dwelled in waist-high clutter.
Stoney sat on the edge of Jake’s tightly made bed, reading the liner notes to Agent Orange’s ‘Sodom’ LP.  Greg sat back in a chair, gazing out the window, fixated on a Dungeons & Dragon’s miniature of the monstrous Kobold.  Jake had just finished painting the miniature the night before.
Priest’s ‘Stained Class’ was blasting at a respectable level, but unfortunately mauled by the constant high-pitched yipping of a ratty dog at the fence of their back yard. Greg could see the mutt from the second-story bedroom window, his lip faintly bent by annoyance. Greg wasn’t the type of guy who’s ever hurt an animal, but he had a great deal of contempt for small dogs. He had said on several occasions, “If I can kill it with one hand, it’s not a real dog.” And the weird wire-haired yapping creature in the yard behind Jake’s house was the epitome of why he really hated small dogs – their nervousness and Napoleonic need to never shut the hell up.
Jake burst from his closet, where he’d been rummaging for the last twenty minutes.  He bellowed, frustrated, “I hate that goddamn dog. It never shuts up. Can’t wait til that old bitty back there bites it. Hope they bury that rat with her.”
Greg grimaced, pleased by his pal’s fiery resentment. Nevertheless, he was ready to go so he wouldn’t have to listen to another minute of that dog’s incessant, raspy whining. Jake’s house was otherwise ideal, but his nerves were wearing thin.
Rising from his chair, Greg dumped the books from his backpack out, and disappeared down the stairs, into the kitchen, where he opened the fridge. His eyes drifted through the paltry offering of mostly past-due goods and settled on a pack of greasy, Green Briar Franks – the town’s main export.
Moments later, upstairs, Jake emerged from his closet with a sheathed machete and a C02 pellet pistol, which he stowed into his backpack. Jake’s realization that Greg was missing perhaps distracted him from noticing that the incessant barking from next door had ceased.
Stoney looked out the window behind him, and said, “He’s smoking.”
Jake took a gander, and sure enough, Greg was on his Mongoose, sucking on a Marlboro, waiting. They locked eyes. Through the pane, they both could hear Greg shout, “What’s the goddamn hold up?”



III.
The afternoon was abysmal to start with, but under the thick of the natural canopy, it felt like they were closer to dusk. One would not have to stray too far from the road before they either got lost or developed a sense of isolation, and that was the appeal of this place for these rogues – a sense of lawlessness and that anything could occur.
As Jake cleaved a swath through the overgrown limbs with his machete, he developed the fantasy that he was moving in to some virgin territory, and that almost anything could be just ahead of them – from treasure to ghost.
Stoney followed up, brandishing the Co2 pellet gun, poised like an undercover cop in too deep. Again, fantasy was at play. He knew that if he aimed it at anything bigger than a squirrel he’d be in for it. Still, the feel of the handle in his palm gave him a sense of security and strength.
And lastly there was Greg. He was deliberate in lingering at least thirty steps behind his friends as they wound their way through the thick of the woods.
The boys had spent numerous hours out in these woods, shooting off bottle rockets and air guns and driving off wild life with blasting cassette players. Anybody in their shoes might be a little lost at this point, but they knew exactly where they were going.  Their ears were following the sound of rushing water in the distance.
The boys skittered down an embankment, landing on the muddy shore of a knee high stream. The three of them traversed downstream, hopping rocks and occasionally slipping with a splash of profanity.
The outline of a monolithic boulder loomed through the trees, marking a bend in the small river just ahead, and as they drew closer the graffiti that caked this otherwise impressive landmark grew sharper.
The massive geological specimen didn’t have an official name, or at least not to their knowledge. But amongst to those who know of the spot, it was referred to as ‘Gilby’s Blunder,’ ‘Gilby’s’ or simply, ‘The Blunder.’ The spot was typically littered with beer bottles and cans and other traces of contraband. An essential party and make-out spot for the high school kids in town, it was solid, high, secure, and impossible to miss if you followed the stream for long enough. It was also reputed to be haunted. The mythology of the spot dated back to around 1974, before the spot had earned any sort of name. Even then, it was popular amongst young people, and at that point in time, the waters which ran under the rock were much deeper and powerful, making it slightly more difficult to reach.
Legend had it that a popular boy by the name of Gilby Connor had arrived at the rock one evening with several friends and a case of Rheingold. They probably were bickering over the last can or so when without word, Gilby toddled out to the peak of the rock and took a jump. There was a splash a moment later, and his friends rushed to the edge to see Connor whisked away downstream into the darkness. It would be the last anybody ever saw of him.

Of course, there was some rumor that Gilby – by no means a popular boy – had eventually clawed his way to shore but just never went home. The fact that his body was never recovered, along with a few vague sightings made this a particularly popular theory. However, realists believed that Gilby’s body had most likely been sucked into the ellipsis of cavern that siphon off the river. The current generation of teenagers held onto that firmly as the reality since about a dozen of them – all of whom probably had something exciting in their blood streams – had witnessed what they claimed was the spectral image of Gilby taking a leap off the rock.
The myth of this fatal tragedy and the apparent ghost that haunted the site added a romantic aura to this spot, and kept the kids coming back. Over time, too, the river that previously rushed around it had ebbed into something shallow and more still, making it all the more accessible.
Jake shouted back, “They said it was right up here!”
The trio climbed up the embankment, beyond the rock, and continued deeper into the forest, and not ten minutes later, Greg watched his friends stop dead and take a few steps backward. The reaction was so odd that Greg forgot about what he was hiding and flanked Stoney.
As Greg drew closer the acrid, unmistakable stench of death tickled his throat.
Sure enough, several feet in front of them lay a cache of pornographic magazines, roughly the size of a king mattress – a veritable goldmine of tits and ass, enough to get off to for months, in theory. But there was something laying across the virtual mattress of colorized flesh photos that dampened any enthusiasm there should have been otherwise. Splayed across the battered magazines lay an adult buck – or at least half of it. Tongue clenched between its teeth, the visible eye had deflated into a port of goo as a horde of insects pecked and lapped at it. One of the antlers had been snapped from the skull. At the midsection, the beast ceased to exist – bone was blaring, while entrails and blood spilled across what had essentially become sexy butcher’s paper. A pond of gore dragged across the clumps of skin mags. Greg’s eyes followed the bloody streak, as it lead off into the forest. Chunks of meat and fur scattered in the wake of whatever had claimed the other half of what was once a very elegant trophy.
The kill was cold by now, and the elements and other wild life had taken their toll, but the coagulated blood was still wet and its nickle stink permeated the air.
Stoney blurted under his breath, “Jesus H.”
Jake lamented, kicking at the pile of blood-soaked periodicals in front of him, with heartbreak all over his face, “What a waste.”
Stoney looked at his friend in abject disgust, impressed by his callousness. He knew he wasn’t talking about the buck. Stoney didn’t have much time to be offended, because in a matter of seconds, a noise from Greg’s backpack caught his ear --- the unmistakable sound of a small dog whining.
Stoney looked over at Greg and fired, “What the hell was that?”
Stoney spun Greg around, and unzipped his bag. Seconds later, the yipping dog from Jake’s next door neighbor poked its head out of the book bag.
Alarmed, Stoney pulled the cowering, rat-like dog out of the bottom of the bag. Jake smirked.
Greg snatched the dog away from Stoney, who merely stared in silent judgement of his friend.
“Oh, relax,” Greg assuaged, “I wasn’t gonna  do anything to it anyway!”
Jake quizzed, “well, what were you gonna do with it?”
Greg responded in a tone oozing condescension. “I was going to let the poor creature be free, as god intended. I figured it would find its way back anyhow, but after seeing this, I’m not so sure he’d make it back in one piece.”
Greg cradled the dog with an assuring stroke as he began to follow the streak of gore leading into the woods.
Jake began to follow, clenching up on his machete.
Stoney shouted, “Where the hell are you going?”
Greg kept walking without answering. Jake continued to follow. Soon, Stoney joined them as they wound deeper into the forest, following the still-slick trail of carnage.

IV.
Donna Barton’s vehicle went into a full furl as her sedan cruised up the pretty, plush path that approached the Green Briar Natural Odyssey Caverns. She had anticipated there might be someone there to greet her – perhaps a local authority to keep press or curiosity seekers at bay. Instead of anything so local, a pair of men in green fatigues clutching M16 rifles loomed into view through her bug-spattered windshield. Their posture bristled as she slowly rolled toward them, and their bulldoggish expressions were less than welcoming.
One of the men raised his hand, motioning for her to stop, but she was already in the process of complying. She rolled down her window as the other approached her.

The fresh-faced officer remarked curtly, “I’m sorry, ma’am. But I’m afraid you cannot proceed. I’m going to have to ask you to turn around.”
Donna was in her thirties, earthy, sunbaked blond, but well kept. She was dressed casual for what she anticipated to be a bit of hiking in the wilds, but the description of the task and just who might be there to receive her was all vague. She had initially been contacted by federal authorities, whom had been directed to her by someone at the state game and park board. The man on the phone was dry and evasive, and conveyed to her that they were looking for someone with environmental knowledge. Donna had just that, but most importantly she also knew the caves.
Ms. Barton had attended NYU throughout her twenties, and graduated with a degree in forensic anthropology. From there, her goal was to find her way onto the NYPD force, where she had hoped to walk the beat for several years before graduating to a position in homicide. As a little girl, Donna was obsessive when it came to puzzles – the more pieces the better. It was an inclination that survived childhood fed her curiosity when it came to the subject of bones – human or otherwise – and what they could teach her about the body they once occupied. She was an encyclopedia of tell-tale marks, wear, and damage. If you gave her a cup of coffee and some sun-washed skeletal remains, she could identify gender, age, and possibly even the cause of death by the time she hit the bottom. Her professors were certain she would have been an asset to any homicide department. However, the one thing they didn’t teach her about was department politics.
The written tests were a breeze, and she spent six months training for the physical. Prior to stepping onto the academy course, her body was lean and cut, and seeing the definition improve every day to a peak had imbued her with a confidence that allowed her to conquer almost any physical obstacle. She watched several large but doughy applicants struggled through the course and fail before it was her turn, but when she finally got called up, she took off like a thoroughbred out of the gate, and reached the end of the course by dragging a 180 pound dummy to hypothetical safety. The instructors were impressed – she wasn’t just capable for being a woman, but capable for anybody. And considering the need for women on the force to handle more delicate situations that might involve the fairer sex, she should have been a shoe-in.
Six months after she conquered that course, though, the shoe hadn’t come. She’d had to start taking secret handouts from her mother, which put a dent in her self-esteem. So, she began to explore her options and quickly hit what she thought was a sweet compromise. It didn’t necessarily put her exactly where she wanted to be, but it was a step in the right direction in terms of experience. She was soon hired as a Park Ranger and deployed to Green Briar’s Natural Odyssey Caverns, where she provided care services, patrolled the grounds, and even gave the occasional tour when required. Recreationally, she’d even spent a fair amount of time doing a bit of amateur spelunking, though it was discouraged by her superiors.
She was in her late twenties by the time a particularly brutal summer took her out of commission. While recovering, Donna considered returning to school, but those notions were quelled when an offer came from the New Hampshire division of Forest and Lands as a ranger. Donna immediately leapt at the opportunity. She’d not only developed a taste for a more scenic work place, but she’d adapted to the pace of her previous position, and she knew she might be able to parlay this into something bigger. However, at this point she’d been in the position for three years and hadn’t exactly had any inclination to claw her way out of it.
There was a definite nostalgia about returning to Green Briar, though the town was definitely a podunk mess full of cretins with mangled teeth and strangely Appalachian accents. Still, she loved those caves and that forest.
The second guard on duty had returned to the military Jeep parked nearby and began chattering into a squaw box with a low and guarded tone as the other gun-toting grunt instructed her to turn around.
Donna’s position and the dangers it entailed had firmed up her tone and she was accustomed to putting up a warm front out of sheer diplomacy. She responded with an attractive smile, “My name is Donna Barton. I’m a ranger from the New Hampshire division of Forest and Lands.”
Donna handed her ID and credentials over to the guard, who reluctantly took them.
She continued, “My services have been requested by an agent Hankamer. I’m a little early, I’m afraid.”
The guard gave her a thorough eye over before taking her credentials back to the jeep where more squawking ensued. After several minutes, though, and some droning confirmation on the other end, the guard returned her wallet and badge and waved her through.
Just like old times, she rolled beyond the gates and within two minutes she pulled into the parking lot – empty, save for a cluster of local squad cars, unmarked sedans, and – unexpectedly – several military vehicles, all parked at the cave’s entrance.
Donna had been briefed about the death, which rattled her slightly. She didn’t know the man in question, but he had been her replacement and had been in place for several years. The thought of what might have been was not as pervasive as it could have been.  But based on her familiarity with the wild life in the area, she was curious as to what all this could be about.  The idea of a cougar hiding somewhere in the cavern, behaving so aggressively, seemed unlikely to her based on her experience and knowledge so far. Now, with the presence of military, she was sure that her briefing was about to expand wildly.



V.
The lithe, female voice perforated what had otherwise been dominated by baritones. “Harve?”
The voice sent a surge of electricity through square-jawed EPA man Harve Tesser’s scalp, freezing him in mid-stir of his coffee. The centrifugal force of his about face in the direction of his name sent a wave of scalding coffee splashing across the floor in front of him. “Ah, crap!” he exclaimed, involuntarily.
A shallow mote of java steamed just at Donna Barton’s toes. Her face lit up as she met eyes with Harve. Harve succumbed to the contagiousness of her smile as he nervously ran his hand through his wavy, black hair to make sure it was still in place.
She chimed again, surprised, “Harve Tesser!”
She took his hand, warmly, and inquired, “What are you doing here? I thought for sure you’d be back in the city, dealing with whatever’s going on down there. Unless of course I just put my foot in my mouth and you’re not—“
Harve struggled to keep up, voice breaking, “Hey, Donna! No, I’m still with the EPA.”
Donna paused with a quizzical expression – one which Harve understood fully. He knew Donna had only bare bones rather than specifics.
He made a frail attempt to divert, “Looking good as always.”
Donna’s voice dropped as her game face emerged, and she continued, fluidly, “Thanks, you, too. What’s the EPA doing here? And what about the army? And for that matter, what am I doing here?”  
She was not a woman to be detoured by mere pleasantries or basic flattery, and Harve knew that too well. He’d first met the bright-eyed Barton several years back on a stretch of cold New Hampshire beach, when a suspect barrel with some ‘troubling markings’ had been brought in by the tide. When the EPA line rang, they deployed Harve – young but fastidious, and charismatic enough to melt even the most frigid iceberg of formality.
Harve adjusted his face and lowered his tone, working up his most disarming half-cocked smile. “Well, I assume you’re here because of a certain federal check with a fair amount of zeros. Now, at least two of those extra zeroes were to keep this quiet. So, for the time being, let’s keep it down, alright? As for the boys in green, they’re backup. They are here to contain a problem that we suspect might have leaked into the caves.”
Savvy, Donna patterned her low voice after Harve’s. “leaked from where.”
Harve responded, coyly, “You know, that problem in the city?”
Donna kept it tight. “How?”
Harve nodded. “Let’s take a ride. Come on, I’ll show you something.”

VI.
Donna approached a line of yellow tape wavering in the light breeze and gingerly placed her hand on it to duck under. Harve’s voice rang out sternly from behind her, “I wouldn’t go much further than where you are.”
She looked back over her shoulder. Harve was casually leaning against his government issue sedan’s fender, stirring his coffee. He continued, “Not without a suit anyways. Unless, of course, you wanna light up like a Christmas tree when the sun goes down. And then there’s the nausea and the hairloss—“
Donna cut him off, “I think I got it, Harve, thanks.”
She kept a safe distance, even taking a few steps back as she looked down the wooded embankment toward a towering concrete wall that stretched on as far as she could see. In the center of the wall was a massive tunnel opening, fifty feet in diameter. Deep in its recesses she could barely make out large fan blades, and so she assumed this was an in-take of some sort. At the bottom of the opening, signs of something making some sort of escape were evident, as the rebar grating had been pushed outward to grant access to the outside.
Donna asked, “So, what am I looking at here?”
Harve replied, simply, “It’s an intake.”
Incredulity crept into her voice. “Right, but for what?” 
He replied, “City sewer.”
Harve was being evasive, and it was starting to wear on Barton. She pressed, “We’re a long way from the Big Apple.”
Donna crossed her arms and walked back to the car, casually. “Look Harve, you can cut the crap or you can keep the check. It really makes no difference to me. I’d rather go back to the beach anyway. It’s nice and crisp this time of year. You’re welcome to join me.”  She shot a loaded smirk in his direction.
Harve began to crack. Calculating the pending scenario, he knew time was off the essence. He also didn’t know if there was anybody with credentials who might know those caves better than Barton did – and he was certain his problem lay somewhere inside of them. He decided to level with her, “Alright.”  He wound up, “It’s part of a government facility.”

Donna interjected confidently, “What base? There are no bases around here.”
Harve gesticulated awkwardly. “Well, it’s underground, and by ‘underground’ I mean it to be—uh—“
Donna filled in the blank, “A double entendre?”
He chuckled, “Sure.”
Donna was well aware of certain secret installations that dotted the cost all the way up to Canada. As a ranger, she’d begun to collect a wide and colorful assortment of mythologies, ranging from cryptid and ghosts to even UFOs – the latter of which leaned heavily on the government conspiracy paranoia. More likely, though, many of these rumored bases had something more to do with underground missile silos in conjunction with a line of coastal defense against the Russians. It was what she’d heard referred to as ‘Reagan’s Last Stand.’ The wildest speculation was that many of these bases were connected via underground monorail, running all the way from Maine to the tip of Florida. Considering the country’s current political climate, the idea of underground silos never seemed too far-fetched, and she assumed what she was seeing was perhaps some sort of cooling duct.
Donna said, “Well, whenever you feel like cutting the proverbial crap, I’m all ears.”
“Alright,” Harve mustered, “I’ll level with you. We’re dealing with something radically challenging underneath that city down there. Some sort of mutation, humanoid and aggressive.”
Barton was connecting dots rapidly, “Love children of the NRC in some way, no doubt.”
Harve took the shot, bowed his head and continued. “Wilson’s been working with city authorities to contain and quarantine the sewers and train tunnels, but it’s a virtual maze down there. There were maps, sure.  But no one even considered that some stuff had been left off of paper, and for the purpose of national security. We found that out the hard way when we discovered a series of ducts that shouldn’t have been there.”
Donna made it easy on Harve. “And they made it this far, huh? Quite a trek.”
“We’ve come to find that this mutation is cunning as it is sturdy. Nothing surprises us anymore.”
“And the guide down in the caves?” Donna said, asking another hard question, “It wasn’t mountain lions, or devil worshippers, I take it?”
Harve shook his head, slowly. He continued, “An unfortunately fortunate circumstance that put us back on the trail. Anyway, I remembered your dossier—“
Donna quipped, surprised, “I have a dossier?”
Harve fired back with cold finality, “Every single one of us does. Your dossier had mentioned Green Briar, the caverns. Apparently you know those caves pretty good. For now, they’re quarantined down there. Now, it’s our job to find and quell the problem.”
Donna responded with honest modesty. “I’m no spelunker. Strictly amateur, actually. But I’ve been pretty deep.”
Harve asked, “Just how deep?”
“Oh,” Donna attempted to recall, “Can’t give you an exact measurement, but deeper than just about anybody else. You said the problem was quarantined?”
Harve responded confidently, “We’ve been posted at the cave’s entrance since we tracked them there.”
Donna suddenly looked concerned, “And that’s it?”
Harve didn’t like the question. “What do you mean ‘that’s it?’”
Donna ditched her cool. “I mean that there’s the tourist entrance, but there are veins that stretch all over. There are several entrances to the caverns by a small river just on the other side of the hills in fact.”
Harve flew into full on panic as he dropped his coffee and jumped into his unmarked sedan. “Come on!”
Barton ran, climbing into the passenger seat just barely as the car flew into reverse, speeding back down a rural path toward a main road.



VII.
Greg sped through the dark on his mongoose, ripping around the bend toward home, peddling for dear life. His lungs heaved erratically, a tangled pattern of racing heart and physical exhaustion. The cold air stung his eyes, but they still stayed peeled back in disbelief from what he’d just seen half an hour before – though he felt like he’d been running for an eternity.
Greg pushed up the hill, nauseated, and reached the peak. Below, the road descended, and he could see the comforting light of home, brimming from the kitchen window. He consciously forced deep, steady breaths into his lungs as he cruised down the hill, trying hard to collect himself. But still, his mind went racing back to Gilby’s Blunder, the deer, and the gore trail that lead them back to the cave. He began to replay the events in his mind again. Terrified by what he saw as he may have been, he was desperate to recount the details, hoping that maybe he’d been mistaken. Hell, maybe it was even some grim prank pulled by one of the more territorial blunder regulars. Still, what he’d seen was too gruesome and would have required a level of creativity that the high school art students, who were routinely called ‘queer’ and beat up by the high school senior jocks, could summon.
His mind shot back to the deer leaking out across the bed of pornography – both more titillating and repulsive a sight than any suggested by the album covers he routinely obsessed over. He had started into the woods, following one particular strand of entrails, with a ratty, quivering dog in his clutches. Jake and Stoney tread after him.
Stoney called out after him, “What the hell are you doing?”
Greg ignored him. Jake choked up on the machete, while Stoney kept his finger snuggly on a very futile trigger. He knew that, too.
The trail of gore continued up a small path, toward the side of the hill. Chunks of flesh and fur were mixed in with the visceral, syrupy blood that had soaked into the ground and painted across several large stones in the ground. Greg speculated in his mind that this red swath could only have been painted by whatever it was that had dragged the other half of that buck away. He shook with anxiety and excitement. He’d always wanted to see one of the wild lions his father used to tell him resided in the hills. He was certain that if he saw one, it would probably skitter away, but if it were bolder he imagined a scenario where he would throw the decrepit mouthful of canine meat in his sweating palms at the beast as a distraction that might allow he and his friends to escape.
By the time the trio arrived at the towering mouth of the cave entrance, the sun had almost gone, and what they could see of the sky was a grim, cornmeal blue. It was narrow and tall, as if cleaved into the hill’s face. The viscus trail continued into the dark recesses of the cavern.
Greg inquired as he attempted to peer deeper into the cave, “Anybody got a light?”
Jake responded, doltisihly, “Got a lighter.”
Stoney objected, firmly. “You’re goddamn crazy, man. I ain’t goin’ in there and neither are you two ‘tards.”
Greg was almost gleeful. “Why not?”
Stoney’s curt logic once again prevailed. “Because whatever the hell it was that tore that buck up is up in there, and all I’ve got is this stupid pellet gun.”
But Greg didn’t care. “I only wanna see what it.”
Stoney quipped, “Those sound like terrible last words if ever I heard ‘em.”
Greg removed his bag with a free hand.  Reaching inside he retrieved the package of Green Briar Franks he’d liberated from the refrigerator back at Jake’s house as he crept closer to the mouth of the cave.
Jake and Stoney hung back. Both went quiet, gripped by their own morbid curiosity.
Standing in the archway of the cave, Greg tossed the remaining hot dogs across the ground. They accrued filth and turned crimson from the blood as they rolled.

Finally, he placed the dog on its feet, and released it. The trembling, rodent-like dog sniffed and looked around for a moment before picking up the scent of the dogs. It scampered toward the blood-tainted treats and began to tear at them with is muzzle, wolfing down two of the dogs within a minute.
Greg kneeled, watching the dog tear at the third dog when something in the true darkness in the cave began to stir.
The ratty mutt tore into the final dog when from the dark sprang an arm, bearing a clawed, glimmering hand. Within an instant, the dog was gone with a yelp, disappeared into the dark, and from the recesses of the pitch black the dog’s cry was snipped short by the send of ligaments and flesh snapping and tearing like several pieces of drenched paper. Seconds later, a foul gust followed by a guttural growl wafted from the cave. Iridescent eyes raised up, peered out at them, and reflecting the last of the day’s fleeting light, which all three boys watched fade.
Greg scampered backward and turned to run, but Stoney was way ahead of both he and Jake.  The boys screamed and bolted, fleeing through the woods. Stoney’s feet stuttered, and sent him crashing into the crimson-soaked pile of porno magazines. He began to gag as he leapt down the bank and into the creek. He could hear branches breaking and his friends screaming close behind him, but he wasn’t sure if anything might be on their tail. He never bothered to look for fear of seeing it coming – an idea that seemed worse than an actual death, knowing how imminent it might be before it took you.
The three boys blew like hell fire into the clearing and grabbed their bikes without a word. Jake went in one direction, while Stoney and Greg went in the other.
There was no space for words as they sucked air, peddling as fast as they could down the road. Stoney eventually broke off at a fork in the road in the direction of his respective home without so much as a peep.
By that point, Jake was probably in the security of his own room. Stoney would have a longer way to go, but that only meant he was further from whatever it was that they had just seen. Meanwhile, for Greg home was at the bottom of the hill. But from there he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do.
Greg flew down the dirt driveway leading to his home. The night was greasy black, and his dried-out eyes struggled to adjust in it. He dropped his BMX, and briskly walked in the direction of the light in the kitchen window.  He could hear the phone in the kitchen begin to ring, and he quickened his pace to a jog.
Then everything went true black, and he was seamlessly snatched from consciousness. The ringing went dead.

VIII.
Much like the day before, and every other day since the school year had started, Jake and Stoney sat perched on the picnic table of the roadside rest stop. However, there was one wrinkle that made today’s waiting session different – silence. There were no headphones. No heavy metal tapes blasting their brains and heightening their adrenaline before their ride to school. The air of these warriors beefing up for some sort of social battle was absent. Scowls had eroded into looks of concern as the two sat silently beside one another, eyes trained on the bend up the road.
Jake’s homecoming the previous evening was a bumbling and chaotic one as he fumbled through the house, closing and locking every window and door around the house – disrupting the ‘energy flow,’ as the Deadheads he called mom and dad would call it. He then fled to his room, where he sat in silence, processing what he had run from out in those woods.
He sped through a rolodex of emotional stages in the matter of forty minutes. First there was terror. Then there was something he hadn’t felt since he was probably about eight, when his grandparents took him to Disney World – he was ecstatic to be alive. That sentiment was routinely blocked by the woe of cliché adolescents. Thirdly was doubt, questioning what he had seen, but he was certain they all had seen it. But then again, was it real? Was it a prank? He had questions he needed to ask, which directed him to his next phase: total concern for his friends, Stoney and Greg. Had they made it back home? He needed to talk about the shimmering five fingers he had seen wrap around that dog before it was dragged into ultimate darkness. The silence, typically occupied by that same yipping animal now nagged at Jake, who felt a pang of guilt even though he hadn’t been the one to snatch the dog in the first place. His mind immediately flashed to Greg and he dialed his number. The phone rang for what seemed like forever, and eventually he hung up. Jake’s chest filled with dread for several moments until his own phone rang this time. He snatched the receiver up immediately and heard his fat friend jabbering nervously on the other end, asking the same questions he had, with the same amount of fear in his voice, too.
Over the next several hours, they spoke feverishly about the possibilities of what they had actually seen, and they reached the final stage together – strange enthusiasm for this thing, whatever it was, that they agreed that they all saw it. Could it have been a hoax? They, too, concluded that Green Briar wasn’t exactly a thriving artistic community. The majority of its tax payers didn’t even have a sense of humor, let alone one so dark at this point of panic in their town. They knew it was real, but what the hell was it? They lingered on the five clawed fingers, a definitively human trait, but still with something distinctly animal about them.
And then there was suddenly concern when Greg’s name found its way back into the conversation. Jake mentioned that he had tried to call his house, but there had been no answer. This was usually routine, but in this instance it was cause for worry. Stoney contemplated calling, but decided against it when confronted with the idea of Greg’s step father answering. They both echoed the hopeful sentiment that they would all talk about it when they saw him tomorrow at the stop.
And there they sat, at their usual designated meeting place, waiting for their friend to come cruising around that bend. Hoping he would sail into sight any moment. They had reached the point where they knew they’d be late for school, but there they remained, with zero regard for their academic attendance record. They never even questioned whether or not they should leave out loud to one another. Instead, they sat perched, sentry-like, full of hope, and getting increasingly itchy with every passing minute.
Jake didn’t care about school, but he had begun to wonder just how long they ought to wait. He piped up. “Screw school,” he said, “but maybe we should ride over to his house or something? This is driving me nuts.”

Stoney warned, “I dunno, what about Craig?”
The C-name carried with it a certain dread-imbued gravity. Craig was, unfortunately, Greg’s stepfather. Perpetually unemployed since moving into the house previously occupied by a happy family, Craig had made little effort to find steady work in town, or even a little outside of it. This left a tremendous burden on Greg’s mother, Peg Ford, formerly Neeley. By dusk, she typically left for an overnight shift at a plastics factory in the next county. Green Briar wasn’t exactly a town known for industry. Most of the folks that occupied it were content to cruise down their velvet rut and ultimately into whatever cheap coffin their local job might afford them – that is, if they were lucky. But with a son and a husband to support, she never questioned stepping up. She was simply propelled by the initiative she developed during the illness that had taken Greg’s father.
Colon cancer was the aggressive culprit that took Richard Neeley two years prior. Still, in Greg’s brain, he saw it as less oppressive a presence in his household than Craig’s. Greg had developed the keen sense that while cancer took his father, Craig would probably be the death of both he and his mother. While his mother worked herself sick as the mule at the head of the cart, Greg suspected one day Craig might take the opportunity to simply shove him off of it and under a wheel, so to speak. Greg had made an art out of laying low. He mostly stayed out of the big man’s way, hiding in his room, married to his headphones. Greg knew a handful of boys who’d met the backhand of some male authority figure, but he never got the benefit of a slap. Straight away, the first time he crossed Craig, he took a clenched fist to the gut.
Stoney still recalled the time Greg showed up at his house, white as a sheet and out of breath and begging to be hidden. The best Stoney could think to do at the time was to throw his pal under some unfolded laundry he’d been stockpiling in his closet. Greg lay there, like a still embryonic ball under layers of t-shirts and jeans, behind a closed door. Under a mountain of cotton, he heard an aggressive knocking at the door. The clatter of the door handle was interrupted by Craig Ford’s angry voice.
The boys couldn’t make out what he was saying, but it was no doubt as foul as the tone was aggressive. Fortunately, Stoney lived with his grandparents. His grandfather in particular was a stout man – a WWII veteran who’d done time overseas for an extended tour. His grandmother once told him he’d joined the army simply because his family couldn’t afford shoes for him. His cracked leather hands had rarely seen a day off, even at his current age. Craig’s bark was bad, but he was limited to it, unless it came to women or children.
One of the primary reasons Craig could find no work in town was only partially because he was a shiftless ne’er-do-well. The other half was probably because nobody liked him. He was viewed as a loud-mouth lout and a bully who left his brain and his heart back in high school.
Suffice to say, Craig didn’t get beyond Stoney’s grandfather and probably left as badly shaken as Greg was under all those clothes.
Jake answered after several seconds, “I don’t care. Let’s go.”
The boys climbed on their bikes and they were pedaling toward the bend when they saw something break around the corner slowly. Their hearts soared and lungs popped open when they noticed the shape of their friend approaching in the distance. Their relief, though, slowly dissipated. First, they noticed that he wasn’t quite moving in the usual way. Greg was typically the sort of kid who pedaled away from his home faster than he did going back. This time, though, there was something lethargic to his approach. It was hobbled. His head, too, hung low at the end of a pained slouch.
The boys stopped hard as his face came into clear view, and they could see something was very clearly wrong.



IX.
The trio sat in Jake’s room, in total silence. Jake averted his eyes out the window. Stoney on the other hand couldn’t look away from what had been done to his friend.
Stoney mustered, “I think we should take you to the hospital, or something.”
Greg lifted his head from sifting ice water through a knocked-out tooth, and laughed.  “Really?  And say what?”
Neeley looked his friend in the face, though he was barely capable of eye contact thanks to the beating he’d incurred the night before.
Stoney studied the bruising and contusions that left his friend barely recognizable. He fixated on the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut, though an aneurysm had colored in the white around his iris blood red. Greg struggled to speak through several cracked teeth and a badly split lip.
When first he approached them by the road stop, Greg was a mess of matted hair, blood, and caked on filth. Hemoglobin and dirty had mingled to scab while he lay in the dirty outside of his kitchen.
When Greg awoke that morning, the first thing he heard was a ringing in his right ear, and then he became acutely aware of the pain. And then he became aware of the blood as he pulled his head off the ground. The sound and sensation reminded him of carefully peeling Scotch tape off of some course surface. As he stood, he wobbled from the deep, steel-toe sized bruise in his left thigh.
Greg didn’t remember the first punch, but it had been hard enough to set back time and put him out simultaneously, and he was grateful for that. Nevertheless, the culprit was not content to stop there. Once Greg dragged himself off the ground, he attempted to make it inside, only to freeze when he saw his reflection in the kitchen window. His face had been beaten so badly during his unconscious state that the shape was no longer the same, while blackening around his eyes had set in. He looked back to where he’d been and saw the blood – more of the human variety than he’d ever seen before.
Greg stumbled back off the stoop and realized his mother was not home yet from her commute. But he knew the man who’d done it to him was probably inside. He shuffled toward the legitimate puddle of his own now-cold essence, and noticed the abundance of cigarette butts that littered the ground. He had the faculty to connect those dots. The man who’d done this to him had smoked several cigarettes after he’d doled out the beating, and then gone back inside, where he probably sat still in his recliner, drifting off.
Greg was filled with a rage, but he was in no condition to act on it. He could barely move one of his arms, and walking was nearly impossible.
And so, Greg once again mounted his bike and pushed it up the hill before he began his ride.
Stoney countered, “You don’t look good, man. I’m just worried. Just don’t know how bad you’re hurt. That eye--”
Greg cut his friend off, frustrated. “If I go to the hospital, they’re going to ask how this happened. Then what?”
Jake answered matter of factly, “Tell them who did it.”
Greg chuckled out of the corner of his mouth. “Hell, man, I’d get a beating worse than this one.”
Stoney already knew, but he asked anyway. “So it was Craig?”
Greg nodded faintly. Stoney asked, “Why?”
Greg shook his head, but deep down he knew exactly why. It had been that middle finger he’d flown at his stepfather as he’d left the previous morning. He kept that detail to himself for fear that someone might think he asked for it. He knew Craig well enough that he expected some sort of repercussion, but nothing to the level of brutality that had actually been dealt. After he’d finished his cigarette that morning, Craig most likely retired to his recliner for a few beers, and grew more agitated at the thought of the gesture his stepson had made to him that morning, until it had stoked to a nice roaring rage. That night, he probably waited in the shadows for an hour or two, waiting for Greg to return so he could unload his anger and frustration, only this time things got out of control.
Jake shared a surprisingly rare and rational thought. “What the hell does it matter why?  Nothing makes what he did okay!”
Stoney lowered his head in shame. He knew Jake was right and was suddenly awash with guilt for even asking. Still, he asked another question. “So, what are you gonna do? You can’t hide this. People are gonna ask.”
Deafening silence proceeded for several moments. And then Greg lifted his head, sounding lost, but determined to find a way out of this mess, “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
Jake assured his friend, “You can stay here for a while.”
     “No,” Greg said. “I’m going to sleep in my own bed tonight. And it’ll be alright. Because I’m going to get rid of him.”  
Stoney looked across the room at Jake, and saw a reflection of concern.



X.
In certain people, there is a quality of self-loathing that allows one to take a sick pleasure in just how rank they are. Craig was one of those animals, and he consistently reached a level of stench that kept his wife far from the thought of intimacy. And then there was the funk of body odor and feces that rose from his usual Lay-Z Boy chair that warded anyone from potentially taking his prime television viewing spot. Today, the bouquet of alcoholism, nicotine and unemployment was particularly aromatic as Craig Ford sat in his recliner, feet up.  A cold can of Rheingold set against red, agitated knuckles.
He took sips in between nursing his hand as he watched a man with a bag on his head tell a flat comedy routine on the television – the gong was poised to ring any moment now, but the tension barely kept him from drifting off. But what did jerk him back into a complete state of consciousness was a knock at the door. Craig’s eyes rolled around in his head until the set of hardy raps repeated.
He pulled the lever on the side of his chair, and lurched forward with a groan, ready to tear into whatever sad sack might be fool hardy enough to disturb him during his program. However, when he opened the door, he wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
He stepped out onto the stoop with a quizzical expression. Several feet away from him sat the open tailgate of an old model Chevy truck, while in the bed stood teenager he recognized as one of Greg’s friends, poised with a metal bucket.
Before Craig could draw a breath, the sturdy youth hurled the bucket contents, which flew from the mouth and hit Craig dead across the chest and face.
Despite his own brand of overwhelming pungency, Craig immediately knew what the slop oozing down his body and into the crevices of his pursed lips – a concoction of feces, earth, and urine. His gag reflex began to heave and his eyes watered. Almost instantaneously, Craig leapt down the steps toward the truck, which peeled away, tires spinning gravel and dust in his direction. Craig forced his eyes open to see Jake flipping him the bird from the back of the truck as it sped away.
Craig quickly ran to his own truck, never thinking twice about it and was shortly in pursuit.




XI.
The stinging pain all over Greg was overcome briefly by giddiness as he looked through the rear window of Jake’s parent’s truck, which their lack of parental restriction had graciously permitted him to use on occasion, in spite of the fact that he had never bothered to get a license. Stoney sat behind the wheel, leaning on the pedal. He had developed some merit as a driver on his grandparent’s farm, taught by his grandfather how to handle the wheel.
Stoney kept a steady pace until he saw Craig’s truck roar around the bend and after them. He laid it in and sped up. Jake, still in the back of the bed, clung to whatever he could. From there, Stoney was sure to keep a good distance between them, because they’d need it considering their friend’s limited mobility.
The plan had been set into motion and now there was no turning back. It didn’t take Greg too long to come up with it, drawing partial inspiration from the poster from the 1976 film Carrie hanging in the corner of Jake’s room, with the waifish Sissy Spacek wide-eyed and covered in pig’s blood. He anticipated some push back from his friends, but was surprised when they agreed to help him assemble the components. It was an actual shock when no one objected to what the ultimate outcome might be. Personal risk was one thing, but wantonly putting someone else in harm’s way was where he thought the plot would end. Nevertheless, Jake secured the truck, and from there, they made a small stop at Stoney’s family farm, where they loaded a slop bucket with pig excrement and a natural concoction of urine and mud.
Pure gratification washed over Greg’s body when he saw the pig waste hit his stepfather, but then his legs started to hum when he realized they’d now be forced to deal with him. If he caught up with them, his wrath could be fatal.
Mashing on the pedal, Stoney sent the truck around the west bend.  He could see night closing in faster than Craig’s truck, which was struggling to keep up with their pace.
Stoney hit the brakes and the truck skittered off the side of the road onto a shoulder. Jake screamed as the back of his head collided with metal. Stoney rushed from the cab and screamed for Jake, who tumbled out toward the passenger side. Greg was struggling against his own pain to climb down, but his friends assisted, and propped his arms over him before they bolted into the thick of the woods. Jake took the lead point, slashing through brush his machete.
The sun was almost gone, but it might as well been before midnight under the thick shade of the forest. The creek had just begun to fade in over their heavy breathing when they heard the faint echo of a truck door slamming. Craig had found their abandoned truck, and was most likely hot on their trail.
The boys, collectively toting their wounded friend, made sure to take no care in their retreat further into the woods. In fact, they made effort to make their path clear with a racket that signaled their direction to their pursuer. Jake continued chopping when a familiar voice rang through the woods from a still-safe distance. Craig’s crazed shout pinball’d and reverberated through the thick trunks behind them and hummed against their backs, “DON’T WORRY! AIN’T GONNA HANG YA!”
And then came a dreaded, thunderous sound familiar to anybody who’d spent any time in the Green Briar hills – a KABOOM that froze the trio. In all his haze and haste, Greg had forgotten that his stepfather usually kept a 12 gauge pump action shot gun under his cab seat. Hunting was popular around these parts, but Craig wasn’t much for any outdoor sport. Rather, he used this particular firearm as an intimidation tactic, in case things got a little too rough down at the Shillelagh Club, down on main.
Greg’s head hung and mumbled, “Crap!”
Stoney mused, “It’s okay, guys. He’s not gonna hang us or anything. It’ll be much quicker.”
The gravity of what was happening had set in, and they all felt heavier as they resumed their retreat into those dark woods.




XII.
Craig slid down the soggy embankment with plates of mud under his boots and nearly toppled into the creek below, relinquishing balance in fever of clinging to his rifle. His head shot back and forth in search of a trail to pick up on. Twenty feet up, he noticed the glistening bank with a cluster of foot prints descending up to the other side.
     He trudged up the creek and through the water when something struck his head and his ears began to ring. His legs buckled as the magnitude of the blow set in. A stone bounced off his skull with a solid amount of force and splashed into the rushing water behind him. Seconds later, blood began to collect in his bushy right brow, overflowing down the ridge of his nose.
Craig looked up the face of the massive rock across the bank to spot Jake standing at the peak of the Blunder.
Craig immediately aimed, but the blood pooling around his eye lid complicated what should have been a clear shot. Jake dove backward as Craig pulled the trigger. The buckshot glinted off the peak of the rock in a puff of dust.
He raced up the bank and climbed the hillside. His eyes scoured the ground as he intermittently wiped the blood away. The sickly sweet stench of death stung his nostrils before his eyes found the dear carcass splayed across the bed of magazines. Then came another rock, bouncing against the rifle’s body. Craig lifted the rifle with lightning speed an aimed at Jake. He pulled the trigger, but the gun would not cooperate. Luck was on Jake’s side as Craig had forgotten to pump the 12-gauge after his previous shot, allowing him to flee into the woods.
Frustrated, Ford expelled the shell and took off into the dark after the lithe teen.
Greg stood several feet outside of the cave, poised to move. Jake had come running with the tipoff and hung a hard left thirty seconds earlier, and he’d neglected to take note of what direction Stoney took.
Greg’s feet took root when he saw a shape breaking through the low branches. Eventually Craig emerged, clutching the 12 gauge. Greg couldn’t determine the distance between them. His head was swimming. Craig paused and slowly lifted the muzzle of his rifle, aiming at his step son, but before he could line up the sight, Greg was easing backward into the abyss of the high cavern.
Craig fired anyway. Greg screamed from inside as hot pellets tore through the denim of his leg. Craig cocked and fired again. He reloaded as he approached, grinning sadistically. He entered the cave, cautiously, craning the nose of his rifle out.
“Boy, you learned too late that you do not screw with smoke,” Craig preached on, “because where there is smoke, there is certainly going to be fire. You can’t close a door on me. Because what good is a deadbolt when your house is burning down? Gonna take more than a rock to put me out. For damn sure. Too bad you ain’t gonna live long enough to use what I’m teaching you.”
Craig stumbled as his foot hit a rock, his ankle nearly buckling under him. He uttered some profanity and then tightened his finger around the trigger. The muzzle flashed, illuminating the cavern for a split second. Buckshot pinged down the cavern’s gullet. He heard something scurrying. Craig pointed in the direction of the sound and fired off another shot. This time, he caught a glimpse of a moving shadow.
Craig grinned in the pitch black, edging forward. His boots scraping against the rocky surface elicited the sound of a scurrying, which he did his best to pursue. As he moved what his senses told him was deeper into the caverns, due mainly to the dropping temperatures, something caught his ear.  He paused for a moment as an erratic clicking sound echoed through the black, and grew closer. The dimension of the distance suddenly started to make sense, as a queer light began to creep across the walls. A green and yellow phosphorescent light ring laced through the hull of the cave, slowly creeping forward, with a dim flame at the center, all the while the strange clicking grew louder and more erratic.
Craig pumped his gun and took aim at the flame, and as he lowered his muzzle, a spotlight blinded him, lighting up his threatening posture, and almost instantaneously, the flame bridged the darkness between itself and Craig with a ferocious blast.
     Craig dropped his gun as his clothing ignited, roaring to life, and his flesh constricted under the intense inferno now enveloping him. Staggering forward, Craig lashed out toward the source of the blaze.
Greg remained coiled in a corner he’d felt out, and his sensitive eyes, which had adjusted to total blackness squinted against the sudden moving bonfire that swallowed his stepfather whole. Even over the intense howls of agony, Greg could make out strange static-wrapped voices barking orders. What followed was a hail of automatic gunfire. Greg covered his eyes as he watched the flaming figure picked apart in a series of gory halos. Bits of flaming gore rained past him, coating the walls and the floor of the cave, highlighting up the whole area in a violent pyre. The bulk of Craig Ford little more than a splayed, smoldering core, encircled by his own entrails.
     Before Greg could move to flee, a towering figure in a HAZMAT suit loomed over him, aiming an M16 directly in his face. The teen lifted his trembling hands in a show of automatic surrender. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he sobbed. The figure lowered his weapon after surveying the boy, and extended a gloved hand. Greg accepted and as he stood, he soon found himself surrounded by six others in suits, several of which had black light lanterns fixed to their artillery. The Geiger counter in one of their hands clicked rapidly to the point of near-static as they swept the cavern. One of the men toted a flame thrower – its dim pilot dancing in the grim atmosphere.
One of the figures approached, and Greg could make out the delicate features of a woman behind the helmet’s glass face guard. She immediately placed her hand on the profuse bleeding seeping from the shredded coat sheathing his upper arm. She called out, urgently, “We’re gonna need to get this boy to a hospital.”
The man with the Geiger counter eyed the boy from a distance, and corrected, “We’ll need to get him to decontamination first.”
She insisted, “Harve, he’s been shot!”
Harve fired back, “Well, that may be the least of his problems, Ms. Barton. This place is red hot.”

The man she called Harve pressed forward, while the woman cradled her arm around him, assuring, “It’s alright. We don’t want to hurt you.”
Greg nodded. She asked, “Do you know who that was?”
Greg nodded again, and squeezed her hand, and spoke softly, “Thank you.”
Donna looked at the boy perplexed, as she guided him back in the direction he’d entered. “Come on. Let’s get you fixed up.”
     The troop emerged from the tall cavern, stopping dead. Barton and the boy were last. She made a frustrated inquiry, “Do we have a medic kit?”
She went ignored as the other men stood on guard. The man with the flame thrower pressed, “So, what now?”
     Harve blasted, giving away his own confusion, “Give me a minute!”
The other men in suits made exasperated shifts and sighs. The man with the fire said what was on everyone else’s mind, “You have absolutely no goddamn idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Harve scrambled, “We’re up against something unknown. It’s never been studied in captivity.” He trailed off, and picked up again, trying to stave off all doubt. “They’re searching for food. But once it’s light out, they’ll seek shelter. So, we’ll set up base here. Sweep the area in the meantime.”
The flame-bearer spoke up again, “We’re not sweeping a damn thing.”
Harve shot him a look of sheer astonishment. Donna had grown weary of the situation herself, and interjected, “You don’t even know how many of them there are, do you? Could be five. Could be an entire colony.”
A sense of betrayal swelled up in Harve as he began to sweep the area with his counter in a vain attempt to pick up a trail. The machine in his hand clacked frantically, no matter what direction he moved in.
Greg immediately knew these people were hunting for the thing he and his friends had seen the day before – the thing he had hoped would take his stepfather, even at the risk of succumbing to it himself. He was prepared to never leave that cave to spare his mother from the man who’d made both of their lives an increasingly hotter hell over the past years. Then his mind whipped back to his friends. But he was in no condition to summon any words, as shock had set in, and he was fading fast from the blood loss. Every ounce of his constitution funneled into his ability to stay conscious.
Harve reasoned, “They’ll be back come sun up.”
Donna ripped his logic to shreds with one colorful statement, “They could be marching down Main Street for all you know.”
Harve’s face went slate white once again, and he muttered something indiscernible. Donna looked down at the boy in her arms, his open eyes froze and unmoving. She knew he was gone, and no one around her had lifted a finger to stop it. She resigned, and took advantage of the apathy toward the child’s well-being by slipping back into the cavern. Nobody noticed.
Harve continued sweeping the area with his counter, attempting to lead the men in some certain direction, but the counter continued its rapid racket in every general direction. He stumbled, his feet caught on something. He toppled forward with a scream. Harve struggled to get to his feet, pushing himself up off the object underneath him as the soldiers came to his aid.
One of the men shined a light down on Harve. His yellow suit was covered in a red viscus, and it didn’t take more than a moment before they realized the NRC man had tripped over a mangled carcass – recognizable as human by the denim clad portions of the corpse. A few of the remaining limbs were a tangle, with one hand on a defensively posed arm torn completely off. One of the troops pushed long strands of hair out of the marred face of the stout victim. He remarked, “Another kid. Fresh kill. Can’t be far.”
Harve gagged as he scrambled to untangle the intestines caught around his boots.
The man with the fire retrieved Harve’s Geiger counter, which had landed square in a mash of trampled organs, clattering madly. “She may be onto something,” he said.
     “There’s no telling how many there are.”
The gruesomely painted counter’s activity began to rise steadily. The troops took this cue back away from the woods, and as they did the man with the fire saw the first set of eyes peering back at him from beyond a cluster of brush. More began to emerge as a strange, beastly sound gathered a collective momentum. Within the course of one single minute, the woods were like a sky mad with stars as an army of iridescent eyes bounced back at them, creeping forward through the blackness.
The man with the fire unleashed a blaze as a matter of instinct, torching several trees. The other men pulled their triggers in a barrage of nonsense, as they were blinded by the flames. But before their eyes could adjust to the pillars of fire ahead of them, the first of them had already been taken, arms pulled from the sockets, and still screaming until one of the cannibal humanoid creatures took his head. The mouth gargled out the last few seconds of a scream even after it had been rendered from its body.
Countless numbers swarmed the men, cleaving through yellow HAZMAT material with teeth and claws, and gulping down gullets of flesh, while dragging limbs and whole waggling corpses in the throes of death twitching into the darker recesses of the forest, away from the flames that had already begun to fan out across the forest.
In a flash of tooth and arterial spray, the clearing was only littered with shreds of meat, yellow plastic, and guns, and the storm of flame gleamed across the blood soaked foliage. All the while, the counter continued to clack madly, eventually drowned out by the sound of far-off animals bickering over the last shreds of a feast.



XIII – EPILOGUE – TWO DAYS LATER…
Goldie made the drive up to Green Briar on a quarterly basis rather than deal with the miniscule markup from some inner-city distributor. Some would call him cheap, but he preferred shrewd. Those were the only four days where Goldie’s truck was shuttered up on its lot as he made the drive up in his beater sedan at some nauseatingly early hour. He was a hard man, but even he usually enjoyed the reprieve of the lush, green trees that hemmed in the two lane road that wound through the hills and into that sad little hot dog town.
But today was a let-down. As Goldie chugged up the grade, the usually picturesque scene was nearly apocalyptic. The air was thick with smoke and stray ash, all wafting from the former forest, now a wasteland of what looked like withered matchsticks stretching back into the mountains. The fire that had started several days prior had raged for some time before the heavens took mercy and opened up.
As Goldie rolled onto Main Street, another eerie difference set in. Green Briar was always a dead-end sort of town, but the remainders who clung to their positions were always the kind of folks who gave the local diner a reason to crack their doors before dawn, and the rich smell of coffee permeated the early morning hours. But this time there was no coffee. The diner’s lights were dim. There were a few stray cars parked along the street, but otherwise, not a single sign of life was apparent. Atmosphere is best described as the soul of a place. The soul was somehow gone.
Goldie continued his cruise, wondering if Green Briar Franks had folded up business and killed the town.  But his speculation halted when his eye caught something in the middle of the road. His breaks screeched and his car lurched to a stop.
Annoyed, Goldie got out of his idling car and ambled toward a manhole cover lying in the middle of the road, fifteen feet from the sewer opening ahead.  Goldie strained to lift the huge iron lid onto its rim, rolling it toward its rightful place.
Goldie let loose as the manhole cover got momentum going toward the open hole in the road, letting it drift into place, collapsing half-way over where it ought to be.


Hovering over the open sewer, Goldie paused when his eye caught a flash of something below – something like the reflection of a cat’s eye, which blinked out as soon as he met it. And then there was the sound of something sloshing below. Goldie chuckled as scooted the manhole back into its slot, and said to himself, “The rats is big out here, too.”

FIN

Copyright 2017 Bowie Ibarra, Maximillian Meehan

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