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“Once upon a time,” Tom would begin, “The Moon was married to the Sun, who was her husband and protector. One day, she noticed a giant snake begging for her attention and her affection. So, the days passed and the Moon stayed out later and later and further and further away from her husband’s protection.”

She wiped the sleep from her eyes. Linda Foster didn’t know what day it was, or where she was, let alone what time it was at first, but as she began to look around the cab of the truck; she became slowly aware that something was incredibly wrong.

“As the Moon became enamored with the great reptile, the Sun became aware of this, as she stayed out so late one night that the Sun came up to see her with the reptile.”

For three hours straight, the Corporal’s dreary legs collapsed through the snow-encased undergrowth, impact after impact as he struggled to move on in the blistering Balkan winter night. One would have to keep moving, for if the limbs ceased to produce heat via friction, the first to go would be the toes – no matter how well-insulated one’s boot is. The circulation would fail, and then the toe would begin to turn red, then purple, then black… and finally, green – indicating the appendage had turned entirely to a bulbous mass of fungus.

“One can safely assume that the Sun was not happy about this.”

Jeffrey Moseley couldn’t remember who it was, but someone was following him. “LINDA!” he shouted, frantically charging through the Lincoln National Forest. He’d gotten turned around, and it had been over an hour since he’d last remembered seeing the truck.

“LINDA!!!”

He bolted into the forest; unknowingly… further away from civilization.

Now, it was Linda’s turn to enter the woods, but by the time she’d gotten to where she’d heard her name called from… Jeffrey was nowhere to be found.

“The Sun punished the serpent…”

Vukovic could feel the pinky toe of his right foot already beginning to tingle with numbness, the first stage of hypothermic decay. He had been trudging through the cold since the twilight morning hours of yesterday, all of yesterday, and a solid five hours of tonight. Nearly 24 hours straight of exposure.

As Vukovic came to the crest of a mountain, what he hoped – what he prayed – was his last, a presence leapt through a snow fall from a tree right at him. A sickly moment of uncertainty of the future, and certainty of another fact – that he was not alone – hit him in the stomach. The Corporal slipped, grasped hold of a root, and steadied himself before the figure now standing windily above him.

“He took the reptile, and gripped him tightly…”

“Ilija,” he started, but before Vukovic could say anymore, Ilija had wrapped a large hand around his mouth, and practically tackled him.

Vukovic managed to strain his eyes far enough to catch a brief perspective glimpse of Ilija’s face. His expression was bordering on hysterics, a fear of such intensity, Vukovic was almost certain he was genuinely frightened and not simply delusional. But, the explanation – that Ilija had snapped and killed those men – was simply too much of a logical conclusion to what happened.

It was almost literally impossible anything else might have happened.

Ilija now cradled Vukovic’s head tightly, and whispered in his ear, “We can’t see it. But it can see us.”

The unsettlingly eerie statement only saddled in his mind for a moment, for that is when he noticed Ilija drawing a pistol. “ILIJA, WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”

Vukovic elbowed Ilija in the stomach – the latter reacting with pain and sadness. “Wha–?”

But Vukovic didn’t fall for Ilija’s mind games, even as he began to cry. “Why? Why are you pointing a gun at me?” he inquired, sobbing now.

“Shut up! You killed those men,”

“What men? What are you talking about?”

“You pulled your gun, you intended to shoot me,” he said.

“What gun? You’re the one with the gun…”

Vukovic realized he was correct, the gun he now had was aimed at an unarmed man. Where had the image of the gun being drawn come from? That is when Vukovic realized that it was not winter.

It wasn’t even snowing.

He turned back to Ilija, whose expression had gone from hysterics to utter, petrified, horror – his mouth agape in a frozen scream caught in his throat as his eyes protruded from their sockets in an ineffable terror, inexplicable in human definition at what was unfolding before him at that very moment.

Nobody knows what he saw, nobody that found his body. All they know is that they found him exactly as he had been killed – frozen in eternal horror, at what he saw, whatever it was – that had ripped his partner, literally, limb from limb.

“He then took the snake, and beat him… repeatedly… into a million pieces,” Sheriff Tom Bell explained to Jefferey Moseley from the other side of the bars of his cell. “And that is how snakes were created. Supposedly, according to the Navajo, anyway.”

Jeff chuckled sardonically. “You used to tell that story to your fucking kid? Really?”

“Well, not that particular version. But, heed my warning. This path you’re going down – getting lost in the woods, drunk, on God-knows-what kind of drugs…”

“I don’t do drugs, Sheriff. I’m telling you, there’s some crazy… person, out there in the woods. And what does that story have to do with… anything?”

The Sheriff sighed and smiled with sarcasm, and then left the boy alone in his cell. “HE’LL COME FOR YOU, TOO! DO SOMETHING!”

***

The frequencies overlapped and danced around one another as if in some dark, static ballet… and Livy still remembered the idiotic thing she said to Jeffrey Moseley, right in front of Linda.

“Oh, you were flirting with me?” she inquired, accidentally aloud, as she furiously flipped through the stations. Everyone, no matter which station she tuned into, was talking about something stupid happening in North Africa – something about a ‘nationwide blackout’. She couldn’t care less – she still remembered his answer, a curt ‘no’, and she slammed the volume knob of the aging Cadillac hand-me-down from her mother out of a fit of furious impatience after the fifth station in a row talking about the same idiotic North Africa story.

Livy pulled around the corner upon which sat the decrepit house of the equally-dilapidating old man that all the residents of Cloudcroft, of all ages, suspected of pedophilia, and onto the road that led to the Nelson grandparents’ house. She barely noticed the fact that the man – Milton Grant – who was almost never seen outside of his walls except to check his mail, was standing on his lawn, staring at something.

Nor did she notice, until she was halfway down the road, the fields upon fields of dead cattle. ‘Oh, my God,’ she mouthed, as she came to realize that a small fleet of police cruisers were piled around the driveway at the very end of ‘Stop Gap Road’, and they appeared to be talking to her stepmother – Pamela Nelson.

As she climbed out of the vehicle, she saw her elder brother – Michael – chopping wood like always, as if nothing was going on out of the ordinary. She nodded to the Officer, who was accompanied by a heavyset man in his mid-forties, the scar across his aging Hispanic features betraying to her his unequivocal identity as Tom Bell, Sheriff of Cloudcroft.

“…And they’ve been like this ever since.”

“Pam,” Livy tried, her voice trembling with apparent concern. Never had she seen so many dead animals in one place.

But, her stepmother merely waved her away. “Not now, Olivia.”

She took one more look at the officers, and then placed the keys in Pamela’s outstretched hand. Pam wasn’t noticeably shaken, beyond her obvious irritation. Olivia decided to stay out of the way, went into her room, and found her younger brother – Jerry – playing with her dolls.

“Oh my God, Jerry! I’ve told you about coming in here!”

After the cops had left, Michael noticed a police helicopter beating its blades against the evening sky at a surprisingly-low altitude, way lower than he was used to. He stopped mid-swing, and erected a middle-finger in its direction.

“That’s really stupid, you know? They can see that!”

Michael ignored Olivia, and went back to swinging the axe head into the round. He had about whittled it halfway down, taking out slivers from the surrounding edges, when Olivia inquired, “When are you going to get a real job? There’s places hiring all over the mall…”

“When are you going to start helping around the house?” he interrupted. “Those dishes aren’t going to do themselves,” he added, as he swung the axe into the final mass of wood, splitting it into three pieces.

“What killed them? Pam say anything?”

“What do you mean, killed them? There’s like… three, maybe… six, dead cows. I dunno. I only know what I saw from the kitchen window,” he explained between swings.

He heard Olivia scoff and looked up just in time to see the screen door recoiling from her slamming it as she stormed into the house. The irritation that teenage girls distilled within the core of his being was almost more virulent than the utmost fiery and smoldering of furnaces. Time and time again he expressed his desire to keep her at a distance until she had gone through her ‘phases’, and time and time again she found a way to piss him the hell off by picking away at him with snarky and minute annoyances. The most trying and difficult of times often failed to find a way to break him, yet this skinny little arrogant shit never ceased to infuriate him to within a point of screaming at the top of his lungs.

If Michael hadn’t had his license suspended for getting caught by Sheriff Bell, the neo-fascist himself, he would have been out of the hellhole house run by an absent father and a stranger with a minion hell-bent on making his life a living hell.

***

Three Days Later

The Detective awoke a full 15 minutes before his alarm was to go off. He’d had another nightmare, the same one he’d been having for the past six years... since before his wife had died in childbirth.

He decided it was good he’d woken up early, it would give him time to rest before hitting the books.

“Any luck?” Detective Jerrold Nelson inquired as he tenderly closed the door to the forensics lab.

“You’re not gonna like it,” said Bob, taking the coffee. “We’ve been going over the sites of death, trying to find a pattern in the location, the six victims have no connection. Zero. Not even in the places their bodies were located, but that’s not all we found…”

“Wait-wait-wait,” barked the Detective. “Why are you calling them ‘sites of death’? Why aren’t you calling them crime scenes?”

“Well,” Senior Analyst Brent began, continuing where Bob left off. “When we went back over the tests we ran on the wound for clues as to the weapon or method used to commit said murder, what we found…”

He returned to the x-ray imagery, sliding the top one onto the projector. “Was that this, here…” he said, pointing, “This was done without help. This was done with bare hands.”

Bob sipped his coffee in an acerebral, aloof manner – as if he hadn’t heard, or cared, what the analyst had just said. Jerrold circled the desk and removed the transparent image from the projector to get a closer look. As he did this, the analyst said, “This was either done by an incredibly determined, large, and strong man of incredible physique – or, quite simply, it’s not human.”

Detective Nelson was seen by the Chief in his office, although for a minute there he was alone with his thoughts, as he had arrived first. Nelson had requested transfer from Santa Fe to Alamagordo, to be closer to his family, which currently lived in Cloudcroft.

But, they had requested his help on one final case. As his luck would have it, it happened to be this particularly grisly one. While the Detective wasn’t too happy about this, he knew that once he’d clinched his teeth and gotten through it, he would have a significantly different life.

The same routine of waking up, alone, usually from one of his nightmares – soaked in sweat, stumbling into the bathroom and shower and from thereon to work – and repeating the same old day for weeks or months on end… it had to be broken. He was barely seeing his children grow up, and although he was making a comfortable living financially, the new life he’d worked for the past fifteen years to repair from the disaster it had been in his early thirties and twenties, he wasn’t even really getting to experience it.

And of course, the universe had to throw this at him.

“Detective,” the Chief announced as he opened the door. Nelson smiled, stood and shook his hand firmly. “Always good to see you, sir,” he stated curtly.

“Please, sit… sit…”

***

Sheriff Tom Bell took his hat off and immediately darted for his office, pretending not to hear Molly, the receptionist, waving at him, barely speaking as it were.

He flew through the entrance and trampled past, swinging his office door nearly off its hinges as he came in and plopped down behind the oak desk, resting his head in his hands.

From the moment he’d woken at 6 AM to a call about a ‘peeping tom’ who, according to the Sheriff, had been completely imaginary – Tom had been going nonstop. He searched for this ‘peeping tom’ for two hours, and had immediately traveled from there to call for backup at the first mass-death sighting of the cattle in Tularosa, and the rest of them in Cloudcroft. The Nelson residence had been the last of the whopping nine eyewitness accounts they’d had to collect that morning and afternoon, and yet still after that he’d had to personally apprehend a hit-and-run in Alamagordo.

He’d repeated the process for the past three days, and it was now almost ten at night yet again, and the Sheriff had to sit down and catch a breather before he passed out.

He heard a tapping on the glass, and a squeaking of the door, as he looked up to see Deputy Mathews leaning in.

“Hey, Sheriff. Molly has a call on hold for you,” he gulped. “Says it’s pretty important.”

Tom sighed at this, “I find it important to wipe your ass after you take a crap.”

The Deputy cocked an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Nothing. Tell her to send it over my blue phone, not the white one by the chair.”

He nodded and popped back out. A few seconds later, the white phone began to ring off the hook.

Tom sighed again, shook his head, and jammed his finger at the phone beside his laptop.

The call had been from the Cloudcroft school principle and gardening enthusiast, one Barry Foster. He was good friends with the town preacher, at least which was where Sheriff Bell knew him from. Tom wasn’t particularly fond of Cloudcroft or its people, but Barry was a good guy, and this particular issue was one of an oddly coincidental and relevant subject matter besides that.

“That boy, you two picked up – you and Randall – he did something to my daughter.”

“Now, now – just hold on.”

But Barry wasn’t holding on. He was choking up.

“I’ve always had a bad feeling about Jeff Moseley, he was last seen with her …before she went missing. She was supposed to be home three days ago! Nobody’s seen her. Everyone is worried. And you picked him up because he was going seventy-miles-an-hour down the middle of Alamagordo, and hit a pedestrian and put her in the hospital! Now, tell me that my daughter going missing around the same time is just some coincidence, Sheriff! Come on! I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night!”

“Look, we put him in a cell, and he was perfectly fine the next day. We’ll help your town conduct the search party, and if it makes you feel any better we’ll question him. We’ll question all her friends…”

“I’m pressing charges…”

“Okay…”

From there on the Sheriff verbally wrangled the principle off the phone. An “OK” here, an “ok” there.

“Listen, I’ve got another call coming in. Probably another cattle die-off.”

He inquired about the status of that particular investigation.

“We’re still not sure, we’re waiting on a call back from the CDC, and then we’re going to get to the bottom of this. All of it. In time. It has been a very busy day, and I look forward to seeing you some time. OK? Buh-bye…”

Another rant.

“Okay… bye.”

He hung up the phone.

***

After school the next day, Livy had gone to the Cloudcroft court house to testify in the case against Jeff Moseley. Dozens of people had come out for the search party that morning, and they had searched virtually all four corners of the town limits… coming to the boundaries of the Lincoln National Forest.

They had decided to search the forest tomorrow morning, and an amber alert had been broadcast to the other major communities of Otero and Lincoln Counties – Cloudcroft in addition to Alamogordo, Ruidoso, Carrizozo and Tularosa would all be mobilizing a total people power of over six-hundred to sweep the forest.

Livy hoped her friend was alright, and despite her worry, she was utterly livid over the fact that the authorities were dumping the blame on Jeff Moseley.

That psychotic principle – Mr. Foster – and his delusions of grandeur.

As Livy was making her way to the parking lot, she felt a breeze and the faint smell of firewood. That’s when she saw the car pulling up next to her. In the driver’s seat was her brother.

“Hey, Liv. You okay?”

She didn’t answer at first. “Good, I guess…”

“Hey, don’t try to drive. Pam sent me to pick you up.”

“With a suspended license?”

He ignored her question. “Pops is coming home. For good this time.”

His statement didn’t register until she was in the car.

“Really?” she exclaimed, ecstatically.

She hugged him tightly, the first time she’d hugged her brother in almost two years. But, he could tell she’d been crying, and that the hug was more for her than it was for him.

She started to cry again, but she caught herself.

“You good?” he asked, pulling onto I-82.

“I just… I never realized how much I cared about her…”

“Oh, stop… she,” he honed in on the traffic. “She was a bully.”

“Where are we going?”

“Alamogordo.”

“You’re driving for over an hour on a suspended license?!”

“Had some things to pick up at the old apartment. Wanted to get it over and done with. By the way, I can get to Alamogordo and back in under forty-five minutes,” he said. “Watch.”

***

“The lab results are in, you’re not gonna like it,” said Bob, spilling his coffee a slight bit.

“What’s not to like?” inquired Jerrold, as he gripped the folder that Bob was so clumsily shoving into his hands. Bob laughed a little bit and shook his head.

The Detective opened the folder.

They talked on the way to the morgue about what he’d found.

“So, that would mean that all of these victims are from animal attacks? That doesn’t make any goddamned sense.”

He looked at the six body bags, each one snugly concealing the corpses they had found. Six bodies. Six attacks. And God knows how many rabid dogs loose in Santa Fe.

Bob got a call on his cell. He took it, answering and nodding at regular intervals. About thirty seconds later he’d hung up and tapped the Detective on the shoulder.

“They got another one. Alamogordo.”

***

“I don’t have time to do this right now,” said Michael amidst a flurry of loose household belongings. Calliope ‘Callie’ Reynolds, Michael’s ex-girlfriend and former-roommate, regarded him with contempt from behind the eerie mushroom cloud of freshly-lit cigarette.

“First you lose your security guard job, lose your license,” she wheezed laughter. “Then the cows start dying, and now this poor fucker is mauled by a fucking dog.”

“What the hell are you even talking about anymore, Callie?”

She sighed. “I don’t even know. The world is going insane.”

Michael slammed another crate atop the steadily-growing tower of musty magazines, mildewed clothing and other archaic trinkets from the late 1990’s.

“The world’s been insane, Callie.”

The entire time, Olivia stood awkwardly near the doorway, in silence, as she bore witness to the odd transaction unfolding before her.

Another heated exchange, and a few more crates later, and Michael had gathered an arm full of his things and was ready to hit the road back home to Cloudcroft. By this time, Olivia had retreated down the hall. She caught a sideways glance of Michael shouting something and the door to the apartment slamming shut.

“Come on, maybe Dad will be home by the time we get there.”

The Detective hadn’t yet arrived at the Nelson Residence at 809 Stop Gap Way. But, who Michael and Olivia saw when they got home, not to mention what they saw, could have certainly warranted his wise words and counsel.

The first thing Michael noticed when he walked in was the aroma of iodine and steam, and the second thing was the man lying on the couch. A gauze bandage with the blossom of a red blood stain at its center encircled his left arm, and he appeared to be unconscious.

Perhaps most startling, was the woman knelt beside him, tenderly feeding him water. When she looked up, Michael knew it was his cousin, Valerie Nelson.

“Mom,” Olivia half-shouted. Michael presumed she was calling for Pam in a fit of overwhelmed uncertainty. This got Val’s attention, which turned to see them.

“Mikey! Hey!”

“Hey,” he said, nervously half-chuckling. “What’s going on?”

“Kids!” Pam shouted from the adjacent room. She soon appeared with a wet rag in her hands, which she brought over to the man on the couch and placed gingerly over her head.

“Again, I’m so sorry to disturb you all on such short notice,” Val implored, stepping aside to allow Pam to take over.

“Nonsense,” said Pam, “We’re all quite pleased by the surprise, of course… I worry about your friend here. You said it was one of those animal bites?”

“Yes, we were heading through Alamogordo when it happened.”

***

The Sheriff was the first person he saw from Otero County when he arrived the next morning. It had been almost a year since he’d last seen his home town, but these were strange times, and duty called.

“Jerry!”

They hugged.

“Long time no see, buddy! How ya been?” he inquired amid a high-pace and tense work day. “Hey, listen. I’m sorry about… all of this. I know you were going on vacation starting today, but…”

“It’s alright. I want to know what’s going on, too. What the hell is going on in the world? They’re talking about a nationwide blackout in North Africa. NATO, the UN, every major world power, they’re all going in. There have even been reports starting in about ‘unidentified combatants’…” The Sheriff nodded solemnly, before motioning behind him at the behest of Molly urging him to the phones.

“Walk with me.”

“So, yeah…,” he began.

“Santa Fe animal attacks. Something in the air? Think they’re connected? And then the cows dying…”

The Sheriff held up a finger as he took a call that seemed to be important.

His eyes darted around the room as if attempting to catch a visual glimpse of the words he was hearing over the phone. After about ten minutes of nodding and agreeing, he hung up the phone and cast a concerned glance in the Detective’s direction.

“What?”

“The reason I called you here, Jerry. They found her. At the outskirts of the Lincoln National Forest – Barry Foster’s daughter.”

***

Just a few hours before the search party that found her, that he was part of, Michael John Nelson had been in a heated exchange with Pamela Nelson over his misgivings about his cousin – and the mysterious wounded man she had currently passed out on their sofa.

It was around twelve or one in the morning when Valerie overheard them, and interjected.

“What do you mean ‘lying’?” Valerie inquired, referring to Michael’s protestations toward Pamela about his belief that the man’s wound was due to a firearm. “You think I’m lying to this family?”

“We don’t even know his name,” suggested Michael. “Or, at least, I don’t know him… how long has Pam here known him? Give me one reason I should trust this guy, I’ve never even met, and when you’ve been gone for the past two years doing God-Knows-What and God-Knows-Where?”

“Oh for Pete’s-Sake, Mikey! He’s hurt,” Pam exclaimed, gesturing at the motionless figure limply sprawled across the living room sofa. He almost seemed to flinch at the movement of her arm.

Michael wasn’t budging. “What’s his name, Val?”

“Goddammit, Michael. Its Eric Somerset. Are you fucking happy?”

“Valerie,” hissed Olivia. Pamela defended Olivia, and made her case for peace. Valerie sighed, and apologized. Michael apologized as well. Pamela, if nothing else, was a beyond-effective arbiter. Disagreements rarely endured when she was involved, yet Michael still refused to let his guard down with regard to the Somerset man.

“Tomorrow,” Pamela began, “we will sit down for dinner. We will talk about this. Mr. Somerset will be awake, and we can all sit down and break bread. M’kay? Your father is in town, Michael. And, if I recall correctly, he is also your uncle, Valerie. Tomorrow will be different. I promise.”

Handshakes and concessions abound before bedtime. When they were alone, Pamela turned to Olivia. “Earlier, you called me ‘mom’, do you remember that?”

She shook her head.

“Well,” she began, stroking Olivia’s hair, “I just want you to know I’m not here to replace anyone, but if you ever want to talk…”

“I’m fine, Pam. Really.”

And with that, Olivia had departed for her bedroom.

***

When the patrols found Linda Jeanette Foster, and brought her back to the station, what she had to say left the authorities even more confused and more questions unanswered than before she had been found. According to the record, Linda Foster and Jeff Moseley had gone for an evening ride in his truck through the national forest that day.

“He’d picked me up from the house at a quarter to six,” she’d said. “Jeffrey had in mind a romantic trip for us, into the woods,” Linda continued, lighting a cigarette.

“I don’t remember much of that. I get brief flash backs, a see his face… he’s… in pain,” she shook her head.

In observation, the Detective leaned over to Sheriff Bell. “What did you say he said to you?”

“Who?”

“The boy, Jeff Moseley,” Jerrold said as he reached for the case files. “I already told you, he kept going on about someone chasing him…” Bell explained as Jerrold’s eyes skimmed Moseley’s file, finally coming to the transcript itself.

The Sheriff huffed as Detective Nelson noticed the attorney and the Deputy discussing something that – judging from their expressions – was clearly about the issue of her memory. The Detective instantly knew that he wanted to be in there.

“Missing time,” the hypnotherapist began, taking a seat across from Linda. “They call it that because… that’s what it is. People who, say, drink too much alcohol experience it, but on a subtler level. You specifically said you can’t remember anything of the past twelve hours?”

“I get brief glimpses, but not much,” Linda replied, visibly disturbed by the thought. “All I know I already told Deputy Mathews.”

“I realize this, and I am not here to hear what you already know, but what you do not know. Have you ever been placed under hypnosis before?”

“Yeah, once at the fair.”

He chuckled a bit, reaching for a red handkerchief. “Well, what we’re going to be doing today is a bit more ‘intense’ than anything at a carnival or what have you.”

The hypnotherapist held the handkerchief in one hand before her; he then beckoned with it for her to hold out her hand. “I want you to hold onto the other end of this handkerchief.” And she did. “Hold it tightly,” he instructed, “do not let go. I want you to look me in the eye.”

She did so. “You will begin to get drowsy as you count backward from one-hundred. As you come closer to the state just beyond wakefulness, and just before dreams, you will become faint,” he paused and took a deep breath. “I want you to take a deep breath in, and count backward from one-hundred to ninety-four,” she did so. “You can count to yourself if you wish. When you get to ninety-three, you will continue to count as you exhale. You will continue to become drowsy. Do you feel it?”

She nodded as she continued the routine. Deputy Mathews, the Sheriff, the Principal and the Detective all watched intently.

As she continued her focused breathing and counting, they began to see her grip on the handkerchief loosen, and her eyelids became heavy. “Now,” the hypnotherapist began, “I want you to, using what little consciousness you have remaining, focus on the red handkerchief. Focus on what we would not normally see under conscious circumstances.” Linda Foster had passed the 50’s and 40’s, and was approaching 29. She no longer counted down out loud, instead making swooning and involuntary noises of no particular meaning. A sigh here, a hiss there, and then she began to furrow her brow in concern.

“You are there. Three days ago today, almost. You have parked. What do you see?”

Linda began with a startling confession. She had seen lights, they had been like headlights. And then, the truck had died.

“Jeff was gone,” she said.

“I want to fast forward a little bit, not to yesterday, nor the day you arrived. But to the day right before Jeffrey was arrested. You are there. Two days ago, almost. You are in the forest. What do you see?”

Her brow furrowed to such an exaggerated degree that the Detective was almost certain she was in pain. She ground her teeth, and spoke – with some effort, “I… am not in the forest.” She then appeared to wince. The hypnotherapist stood up as the Sheriff flanked him.

“You’re hurting her.”

“I’m sorry… but she just said–”

“To hell with what she said,” barked Principal Foster. “I’m tired of these games. I want Moseley tried and arrested for sexual assault and rape! This nonsense has gone on long enough!”

Then, as Barry put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, she began to scream in a sing-song voice; “COYOTE’S BLOATED! COYOTE’S DEAD! THIS ONE WASN’T IN MY HEAD! COYOTE’S BLOATED! COYOTE’S DEAD! STORMY DAYS ARE JUST AHEAD! COYOTE’S BLOATED! COYOTE’S D–”

Foster shook his daughter two good times and she snapped out of it. She gasped and looked around, and then she fainted.

Barry sobbed as he cradled his daughter. The Sheriff, Deputy and Detective decided it best to give the family a minute or ten.

“Yeah, maybe I need to go see my own?”

The Sheriff nodded and patted Jerrold on the shoulder.

“Go get a good night’s sleep, go see your wife. Your kids. Come check in with me in the morning, but… I want you to spend as much time as possible with your family,” Tom explained.

Jerrold smiled. “Thanks, Tom. You know, we didn’t get along in high school, but…”

“Don’t thank me. This is a duty you have to attend to. We don’t know when the next time is that we’ll be able to have a normal time with our families. I need to go see my son, George, soon. Before anything else crazy happens in the world. You know?”

“I hear you, thanks again.”

And with that the Detective and the Sheriff hugged, and the former departed in time to see his wife, just before she went to sleep.

The next day was full of activities; the kids began the day by corralling their father. Valerie anticipated doing the same, but decided against it. She and her uncle decided to catch up at the shooting range.

Jerrold grunted in irritation as his standard-issue sidearm jammed instead of firing. “Son of a god-damned–”

“Hold your horses, lemme see it, a trick my instructor taught me at SFPD a few years ago. May I?” Jerrold sighed and handed her the firearm. With a few swings and twists, the grizzled detective was stunned and impressed. He voiced these feelings to her.

They spent a few more hours at the shooting range. Eric, the boyfriend, joined them in the last half-hour. Jerrold didn’t know what it was, but something was off about this Eric fellow; the way he kissed Val, the way he held her, maybe even the way he walked although that may have been due to his injury. The rest of the day was spent preparing for dinner, although Jerrold decided to pop into the police station to check in with Sheriff Bell. They had been investigating a new animal attack, not to mention the peeping toms.

“Seems like this sick bastard likes to get a front-row seat to his horror shows,” Deputy Mathews chimed in. “I’m tellin’ you guys, this is a copycat of the Zodiac Killer.”

“If he were a Zodiac copycat you would have thought he’d have done a little more research,” said Bell, thumbing through the case files.

Back at the Nelson Residence, Valerie and Olivia had plead with their father to go see Mildred, their grandmother, at the nursing home.

While there, after they had clothed her and spoken with her, she made a gesture to someone standing there, but – the only problem was – there was nobody there.

“He’s a short man,” she’d said, motioning to the air before her, “with a heavy build and sunken eyes, like he’s dehydrated and needs some water, poor fella.” Jerrold found his mother’s condition concerning, of course, but mostly adorable. “Aw,” he said as he dropped a thin blanket across her shoulders. “Mama, I’m sure – whoever he is – will be perfectly okay. So compassionate as always, Mama.”

They got back home right as Pam was getting the tomatoes chopped. She was going berserk, chopping so rapidly the knife was a blur.

“OW,” she exclaimed as she knicked her finger. “Oh!?”

She sucked on her finger and gave Jerrold pouty eyes.

“A propensity for bloodshed, as usual,” Mike exclaimed sardonically.

“Oh, come on. I’m not that evil of a stepmom.”

Dinner was awkward at first, of course. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson did most of the talking, most of it directed at Valerie and her boyfriend. He was surprisingly personable, he and Jarrold got along surprisingly well, sharing a laugh and a joke, and even a hug. According to Valerie, Pam and Michael, everything was well. The kids were, of course, distracted with their play and imaginations. The adults stayed awake a bit longer, sharing wine and spirits, but it wasn’t soon after that they, too, passed.

The heavy, wholesome slumber that they received was well needed, and upon the dawn of the next day – they would find – imperative.

At 6:00, around dawn, Detective Nelson was called in to investigate another animal attack. Valerie, Olivia and Michael were stirred from their sleep by Mr. Nelson’s raucous morning ritual, although Olivia eventually went back to sleep. Michael was the first to notice Jerry wasn’t in his bed.

He woke Pam, but by the time the three of them went to see what Michael had seen, Jerry was sitting on the edge of his mattress, rubbing his eyes and yawning loudly.

“I swear he wasn’t there!”

Pam and Val regarded him suspiciously, and then there was a loud, thudding knock at the door.

Pamela and Valerie were startled by what appeared on the other side; an opaque golden rectangle flanked by a white plastic helmet and material that covered the suited individual from head to toe. Pam and Val’s expressions seemed to reflect off of each other just as Pamela’s red frizzled hair and haphazard morning gown and Val’s tomboy appearance were reflected by the faceless person standing before them.

“Pamela Nelson?” he, or she, inquired from behind a circular air filter. She nodded. “Nothing to be alarmed by, ma’am,” he continued, “we’re with the Center for Disease Control and taking a headcount. We believe there’s an airborne pathogen affecting the livestock and local fauna. As far as we know, humans are immune to it. But it is a serious situation and if it gets out of control, it would have catastrophic and potentially irreversible effects on the environment. Again, sorry to disturb you at such an hour.”

He held out his hand, and Pamela shook it. “Buh-bye.”

Inevitably due to the shock the presence of the CDC hazmat units caused, at 9:00 a town meeting was called. Pamela went in Jarrold’s place – representing the family, as was the case with most of the wives of Cloudcroft.

While Pam had her own experience at the town hall, what Jerrold saw while on assignment he would have difficulty explaining to the rest of his family later that day. A detachment of officers had been deployed to the Lincoln Forest, precisely where Linda Foster had been found. The curious reason? An animal attack had been reported there.

“It must have been here, I swear it,” he’d plead. The Sheriff believed him, but something else they’d found distracted them from the current events that were unfolding at that moment. Deputy Mathews had been the first to report on the singed treetops, which the other two confirmed, and so on. The next thing was found by Detective Nelson – the glass fragments in the sand.

Almost as immediately as the trio had found this, something happened that haunted them to this day. An unseen gunman had opened fire on them.

While they outnumbered their assailants, they had been caught wide open and with their pants down. Nelson, however, managed to wound one of them. After the pained groaning, Nelson had immediately committed himself to pursuit.

“Jerrold! Wait!”

Well over a thousand people flooded the gymnasium, surrounding the stage upon which the Defense Secretary’s podium was situated. He fielded questions from the florist, the bartender, and even the principal of the school – Barry Foster.

Despite the bombardment of attention, Pamela Nelson managed to force her presence into the Secretary’s periphery.

“Yes! You, in the back. With the blue sun dress…”

“What are you hiding from us?!”

Her shout reverberated through the auditorium, and petrified the entire consciousness of the room. For a moment he looked as though he himself had no idea what she said, and as she was preparing to repeat herself, he said, “Unfortunately, ma’am, you’re not going to like what I am about to say.”

Jerrold romped through the forest, pursuing – and simultaneously evading – his adversary. He’d duck behind a tree there, between underbrush here, taking each step carefully and with the utmost premeditation.

He’d come upon the body of the enemy’s comrade, and that is when his mind began to truly question the reality of his situation. The assailant was wearing standard-issue U.S. Army BDU – helmet and all. And he’d been firing at them with an M4 Carbine.

“There isn’t much we know that you don’t, actually,” the Defense Secretary announced.

Before he could say more, Pam declared, “you’re lying. Stop lying to me.”

Jerrold’s unseen adversary opened fire on him once more, and this time the bullet grazed the tree that had saved his life at that moment. The soldier then – unexpectedly – began to speak.

“You don’t know what you’re getting into, Detective.”

Mr. Nelson’s blood was flash-frozen as his heart leaped into his esophagus. Detective? How could he know that? Nelson hesitated for a moment, before interrogating, stutteringly, “H-how do you know I’m with the Department?”

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” he repeated. “This is so much bigger than a small town out west. Bigger than this country. Bigger than you, bigger than me,” he stated. “We’re all screwed. But, we were warned.”

“What the hell are you talking about?!”

The gunman responded by firing his weapon once more, as the Detective peaked around the tree trunk, attempting to catch a glimpse of the man’s face.

“Listen here, ma’am,” the secretary began. “There’s no secret agenda. There’s no ‘X-Files’-type conspiracy going on here. You want to know the truth? The truth is far more terrifying than any fiction, I can tell you that.”

Pam sighed and crossed her arms.

“Listen, my job is hard enough as it is. I have to juggle bigoted dictators of nuclear-weapon states on one hand with angry and vindictive protesters and journalists on the other, on a daily basis. And now we have what we suspect to be an international terrorist organization capitalizing on a disaster of unknown origin…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary,” Pam said, rubbing her brow. “I didn’t mean to upset you. We’re all really high-strung and nobody knows what’s going on. Apparently, not even the government.”

He nodded. “I wish I had some secret information to disclose, but we simply have no idea. And I am aware of how that must… unnerve all of us. But, the CDC is on it, they are going house-to-house, and will have a mobile unit open to the public for service on a 12-hour daily basis, until we get all of this sorted out.”

“We’re all pushing daisies and we don’t even know it,” the gunman rambled on, continuing to fire his rifle, seemingly not caring about hitting anything anymore. Jerrold took a chance and, keeping his head down, bolted from the opposite side of the tree in the direction of the gunman.

As he arrived, the incident took another unexpected and harrowing turn. The gunman was lying flat on the ground with a hole in his head. He had shot himself. The Detective broke the news to the crew. The Sheriff scolded him for taking a chance like that, blaming him for the man’s suicide. Jerrold hadn’t the energy to protest beyond a wave of the hand, he was out of breath and wanted to go home and lie down.

Unfortunately, he would not be able to do even this much. Before he’d even made it into the house, the first thing he saw when he arrived were Valerie, Eric, Michael and Olivia loading Val’s SUV. “Hey, what’s going on, where are you going?”

The sky was darkening. Heavy, dark and ominous clouds dominated the skies above. Something was happening, for sure.

“It’s not safe,” commented Val between armloads. “We’re taking the kids up to Utah. Before it gets here.”

“Before what gets here?”

Before he could get an answer, his phone rang. He answered it, and on the other line was Brent, who revealed the identity of the Alamogordo attack victim.

It wasn’t Valerie’s boyfriend.

Detective Nelson drew his firearm at the man.

“What are you doing!?”

“Who are you!?”

“It’s ERIC! Eric SOMERSET! I told you–”

“You lied to me, Valerie,” said Jerrold, cocking his weapon. “I want you to tell me exactly what is going on. NOW!”

Eric held up his hands. “Okay, alright…”

“ERIC!” Exclaimed Valerie.

“I’m a fugitive… from the Central Intelligence Agency. Your niece is an undercover agent for the FBI. Everything was going fine, until your son woke up this morning.”

Jerrold was passingly confused. He demanded to know what was going on, his firearm still drawn, ready to kill. “This man is near my children, Valerie,” he said, on the verge of tears. “And he’s a fugitive from the United States federal government. That is why they’re here. Isn’t it? They’re not here to save us.”

“I’m sorry,” Valerie apologized. There was more she wanted to say, but she couldn’t beyond a simple apology. Despite the animosity between Somerset and the Nelsons, that night would trivialize all that had unfolded over the past 48 hours almost instantaneously.

Despite Valerie’s protests, Eric was handcuffed in the bathroom. As they were about to go to sleep, Jerry demonstrated to his family the abilities he had come into possession of.

“What is going on?” Pam inquired, gripping Detective Nelson’s hand so hard her knuckles turned white. Michael nodded solemnly and Jerry turned his attention to the television set. The channels began changing on their own, white noise abounded.

“What is happening to our family?”

Then, the television set began to levitate off the ground. “We don’t know when it happened, but sometime last night, Jerry was gone. And when he came back, he could do this.”

“Gone? Where?!”

That night is when it all began happening. The family slept together that night. Valerie made a pallet on the floor, after failing to convince Mr. Nelson to give Eric a second chance, perhaps for the best. Needless to say, she did not sleep very easily, recalling a nightmare she’d been having for the past few months. Val awoke after getting a solid two hours of sleep. It was roughly three in the morning, and as she sat upright, jolted by the terrifying visage that had visited her in dreamworld, she realized she was awake for the day.

The familiar, itchy burn on her upper back to lower neck is what was concerning her. She decided she would simultaneously visit Eric and the bathroom to see what was going on. “You okay?” he predictably inquired. She shrugged and turned toward the mirror.

“Been having this itchy-burn, like a bite, right here…” she began, motioning to her neck.

Olivia simultaneously was awoken by her aunt. She pretended to be asleep for the time she figured it would take for Val to not notice, and she then prized herself from her pillow and ventured into the kitchen. It is here, at this intersection, she noticed the suited duo in the den. And the fact that all the kitchen utensils were floating in mid-air. She ventured out into the backyard, and here she saw all the lawn equipment and spare truck hovering in the air. A few seconds later, the machines crashed into the earth with a deafening clang, and her father was out of bed and embracing her in an instant. Over her shoulder, he noticed one of the suited figures silhouetted against the dawn sky. “What happened to the other one?” he inquired in a raspy whisper. He then turned to see – in the wheat fields beyond – a head, upon a long lanky neck, observing them. The peeping tom. Right as he noticed this, his concentration was broken by a heavy object leaping upon his back.

His daughter squealed in horror and retreated back into the house, as the Detective wrestled with whom became known to him as the second suited figure. He positioned himself to use his body weight as a weapon, and threw the attacker into the railing surrounding the stair landing. Next to him – right above him in fact – was the wood axe, where Michael always laid it when he was done. Jerrold got a running start and leapt upon the landing, grabbing the axe, and – right as his assailant got a grip upon his ankle – the Detective had positioned the axe above his head, and dropped it upon his antagonist, right upon where his head would be, killing him. Dark blue blood exploded upon the porch and redecorated it in the beast’s violet-colored circulatory fluid.

“Jerrold!” his wife screamed in horror as he ventured back inside to see the second CDC ‘person’ strangling her in an iron grip. She slashed at the enemy with the butcher knife she’d always fancied, causing him enough grief to relinquish his grasp to allow her to reposition herself for the killing blow. She delivered a critical attack to the humanoid’s jugular, slicing his throat and standing back just close enough to him to have her ankles spewed with the violet-colored blood.

“Pamela!” Jerrold exclaimed as he approached and embraced her.

She quickly and aggressively resisted his affection, practically screaming her next sentence, “Jerrold, there was a third one. And there is a fourth one in our barn right now!” With this, she jammed a finger in the direction of the barn. Jerrold turned just in time to see the barn door open and close, yet the wheats and oats were just high enough in depth to conceal the individual, who had to have been either just below four feet or crouching, for he did not see who – or what – was entering their barn.

Pam advised Valerie, Eric and the kids to pack into the station wagon, for she and her husband had a plan to trap the inhuman suspect in the barn. He took the damaged pickup truck, and – with Eric and Michael’s assistance pushing the beat-up instrument – piloted it into the rear entrance. Pam took the tractor and crammed it against the main entrance. The entity within became visibly infuriated as a bright light emanated from within the barn, just as the nocturnal lights had emanated from the storm clouds earlier that night. With the beast trapped, the Detective contacted Sheriff Bell, for his expertise in Navajo mythology, when the entity began to ‘speak’ in what he’d identified as none other than the language the Navaja had ‘code talked’ in during World War II.

“He’s saying,” the Sheriff began after a moment of silence, “that he and his kind are from here.”

The Detective cocked an eyebrow. “Here? As in, this planet? Earth?”

“Uncle, we need to go,” Valerie plead weakly, still recovering from her incident. “while they do not know where we are.”

“Yes. They are claiming,” he stopped and listened to the gibberish for a moment longer, “they are us… from the future.” Pam suddenly appeared pale and queasy. “They,” he began, putting his head to the barn door, “have come back from the future to warn us about… the real enemy. Those behind the folklore. Behind the Jersey Devil. Behind the Mothman. The Draconians. The shapeshifters…”

This is around the time that Detective Nelson began to look around, as if he’d heard something. “Jerrold?” Pam had inquired, to no avail, he continued to venture toward the house, and look around – as if he were seeing something the rest of them were not.

“Kids, get the station wagon ready, if something happens, start the car, keep driving. Do. Not. Look. Back,” and with this they nodded. Pam pursued Jerrold, and – although she protested against it – Michael did as well. They pursued him as he ventured upstairs, slamming doors open as he went along. “Wasn’t there a third one?” Michael inquired as they passed by the second dead body.

Pam nodded quickly. “Yes, yes there was.” Finally, Jerrold arrived upstairs, at the entrance to the attic at the end of the second floor hallway. All the doors stood wide open, which could only mean one thing. He turned to Michael and Pam with a look of omnipotent fear in his eyes. She swallowed. “Michael, go get Eric. Show him where the shotgun is…” she trailed off as the handle to the door to the attic began to rattle and tremor uncontrollably. “NOW!”

He took off.

The door flew open.

Pam screamed.

A thick reptilian arm wrapped around the Detective’s throat.

All of this unfolded right as Michael reached Eric, with the shotgun in hand. He had pumped it, and rammed it into Eric’s hands right as they reached the second-story landing. Eric hit the floor, screaming at everyone else to do the same. He ran, leaping as he fired the weapon, down the hall. The shell ripped through the door, and the wood was ripped into splinters as the Detective hit the floor. The tattered splinters swung open lamely, and a thick reptilian ‘paw’ slid limply beyond the threshold.

But it was not dead.

Michael and Eric screamed, perhaps out of adrenaline, perhaps out of fear, what they had said was irrelevant. What was relevant was that they grappled Jerrold and hauled him to his feet, through the blood-red living room and kitchen, out of the house over which was situated a blood-red disc emanating sweltering-hot machinery roughly the diameter of a football field. The beast sent the front half of the house hurtling from its foundation, the hulking eight-foot reptilian monstrosity bellowed a deep baritone roar and began galloping after the station wagon as it pulled out. The beast pursued them on all fours for roughly a mile, before the hulking disc became their primary concern. Eventually, the cloud returned. The dark cumulonimbus seemed to envelope the enemy, and distract it. Whatever happened as they passed the state line from New Mexico into Arizona, into the Navajo Nation, it had to have been on their side.

For the next several months, after the Nelson family arrived in Salt Lake City, one of only three ‘Zones’ in North America where humanity had established a certified militia resistance against the reptilian imperialist scum they would soon come to identify as ‘Draco’, they would learn of at least a dozen other ‘Zones’ outside of the frequency the aliens had used to disable and ‘blackout’ the Earth nations.

This was humanity’s last stand.



Written by D. Compton Ambrose
Content is available under CC BY-SA