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Deadwoods

Deadwoods
  Brandon Massey
varianta print

Brandon Massey



Publicat Duminică, 10 Decembrie 2006, ora 16:37

      "Dad, can you come outside for a minute? I want you to look at something."

     

      Paul raised his head and looked at his son. He'd been poring over the Jobs section in the Memphis newspaper, "The Commercial Appeal," red pen in hand, the mug of instant coffee at his elbow forgotten and now cold and stale. He might as well have enjoyed the coffee while it had been hot. All of the jobs listed either paid insufficient salaries, or were far outside his field of expertise.

     

      He set aside the newspaper. Fifteen years old, tall and lanky, Akili stood in the kitchen doorway, a puzzled look on his face.

     

      "What's wrong?" Paul said. "The lawn mower die on you? Please don't tell me that, we don't have the money to get it fixed."

     

      "Uh, no Dad, it's nothing like that. Will you please come look?"

     

      Paul followed his son outdoors, into the vast backyard. It was a beautiful, warm summer morning--mornings like this sometimes made Paul glad that they had moved back to the family home in Hernando, Mississippi. There was a purity in the air here that just didn't exist in Memphis.

     

      Country living will be better for our health, Paul thought. He would tell that to his wife, Christine, when she and his daughter returned home from getting their hair done at her sister's house. Paul believed that when you were handed lemons in life, you should learn how to make lemonade, and his brother had handed him a lemon the size of a medicine ball three months ago, when he forced Paul out of the family business and gave him a pitifully meager severance package. They'd left their home in Memphis and moved here, to Paul's old family homeplace, where they could stretch their limited dollars further. Although it was a comfortable house and they had several acres of gorgeous land, no amount of "look on the bright side, guys," comments would sway Christine and the kids. They hated living there. Predictably, Paul felt responsible for their misery.

     

      Akili stopped in the middle of the yard, where he had left the riding lawnmower. He pointed toward the back of their property.

     

      "See it, Dad?"

     

      Paul looked. He gasped.

     

      "Where in the world did that come from?" Paul said.

     

      Akili shrugged. "I was kinda hoping that you'd know."

     

      A tree had appeared at the perimeter of their property. It was not just any tree; it was gigantic, with a

     

      trunk as thick as a stone pillar, a vast span of leafy branches, and a crown that reached, Paul guessed,

     

      over two hundred feet into the air.

     

      His mouth grew dry.

     

      "That wasn't there yesterday," Paul said. "It would take several years, decades, for a tree to grow that huge."

     

      "Same thing I thought," Akili said. "It's kinda like one of those redwood trees they have out in California, I remember hearing about them in a Science class. Those redwoods live for over a thousand years or something, right?"

     

      "Yeah," Paul said. "But this doesn't look like a redwood to me."

     

      He walked closer. Not only did the tree not resemble a redwood, it did not resemble any species of tree that he had ever seen. The bark was ash grey, with green-black blotches that looked like cancerous tumors. The leaves, each one the size of his hand, were a strange bluish-green, and they were formed in an unusual shape: numerous, thin leglike blades sprouted from the leaf stalk, giving the leaf the look of a flat tarantula.

     

      Then there was the smell. A rancid stench oozed from the plant, as if the trunk were a hollow tube chockful of the corpses of putrefying squirrels.

     

      Paul covered his mouth and stopped about ten feet away from the tree. If he walked any closer the smell would knock him on his butt.

     

      Akili came beside him. He protected his nose with his Memphis Grizzlies t-shirt.

     

      "It's a deadwood," his son said, his voice muffled.

     

      "A what?" Paul said.

     

      "I just made up the name. The tree's tall like a redwood, but smells like something dead. So I called it a deadwood."

     

      "Oh. Well, the name fits, doesn't it?" Paul said, but his thoughts continued to circle around the question: how in the hell had this thing turned up in their backyard?

     

      No answers popped into his mind. But . . . he found himself thinking of something that had happened a couple of nights ago.

     

      A light sleeper, Paul had been awakened by a boom in the backyard; it sounded as though someone had exploded a cherry bomb. But it was a few days after the Fourth of July, and his neighbor had rambunctious teenagers who loved fireworks, so Paul dismissed the noise as the work of the kids depleting their remaining bottle rockets and whatnot--until a greenish glow flared through the blinds.

     

      Curious, he reached the bedroom window and peered outside just in time to see the odd light glowing at the farthest reaches of their lawn. Then the glimmer sputtered out, like a dying ember.

     

      Probably a rocket or something those kids launched onto our property, Paul had thought. But he had never seen a light quite like that one; and he did not see or hear his neighbor's children, either. Those kids were so loud that it would be obvious if they were outdoors playing.

     

      He thought of going outside to investigate, decided against it. It had grown quiet and dark out there again. It was nothing worth checking out, he figured. He might have even imagined it all. Since he'd lost his job, he spent so much time daydreaming that he would not be surprised if he had hallucinated the spectacle.

     

      Now, however, Paul wondered if there was a connection between the mysterious light, and this tree. This deadwood, as his son had labeled it.

     

      A breeze blew, and the rattle of the leaves sounded like shaking, dry bones. As the leaves quivered, he thought he caught a glimpse of something high up in the branches, something blue-black and large, but when he blinked, the visual impression was gone, and he was again left wondering if his acuity was slipping away.

     

      "Did you hear me, Dad?" Akili said.

     

      "I'm sorry, son. What did you say?"

     

      "I said, what are we going to do about this tree?"

     

      Paul scratched his head. But his answer was automatic. "Let's see what your mother thinks. She'll be back soon."

     

      "I knew you'd say that," Akili muttered.

     

     



     

      Christine was horrified.

     

      "Where in God's name did this monstrosity come from?" she said. Like Paul, she stood at a distance from the foul-smelling tree. She gagged. "And it stinks!"

     

      "I don't know, honey," Paul said. "It showed up here this morning."

     

      "Listen, that's not possible," Christine said. She turned on him, her gaze sharp, every bit of the rational, high school mathematics teacher known for not tolerating any nonsense. "Trees do not magically appear, Paul. What species is it? I've never seen anything like it and I've been gardening for years."

     

      Paul stuck his hands in his jeans. "I thought you would know what to do."

     

      "Do I always have to make the decisions in this family?" Christine said. "I'm already the sole breadwinner, for God's sake."

     

      Paul winced.

     

      "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," she said. She touched his arm. "We've all been stressed lately, what with the move and adjusting to living here. Something bizarre like this tree showing up only makes things worse."

     

      "So what should we do?" Paul said. "I think we can leave it out here. It's weird, but it's only a tree. It smells bad, but we don't spend much time out here anyway."

     

      "Are you serious? We're not allowing this filthy thing to stand on our property. We're going to get it chopped down. I'll call around this afternoon to get some quotes."

     

      "Quotes? You're talking about spending money to get this done?"

     

      "Of course I am. We don't have the tools or the skills to do it ourselves."

     

      "But we don't have the money to pay folks to cut down a tree," Paul said. "The truck needs new brakes. Then we've got to pay for Jamila's braces next week--"

     

      "I'll take care of it, somehow," Christine said. She sighed. "Don't I always, Paul?"

     

      Her words, though delivered with weariness, not malice, stabbed at his heart. But she was right. She always took care of it, whatever "it" happened to be at any given time. They had first met in college, twenty years ago, and Paul had wanted to ask her on a date but had been terrified of rejection--and Christine, sharing a mutual interest in him, took the lead and asked him on a date. When they married, Paul had been reluctant to move out of his parents' house, preferring to stay there indefinitely and not risk living on their own until they were ready--but Christine found a cheap apartment for them and arranged the move. Paul's father had run a successful construction business, and Paul had been content to keep a low-profile management position and let his younger brother assume the role of his dad's right-hand man--but Christine had relentlessly pushed Paul to work for more responsibility and respect, and when his father died, six months ago, Paul had risen to a leadership role nearly equal to his brother's.

     

      He loved Christine, but sometimes, he despised himself for being incapable of accomplishing anything without her guidance. His woman was his crutch. She deserved a stronger, more decisive man, and so did his kids.

     

      But he was forty-one years old. It was too late--and too difficult--for him to change his ways. Surely, God had sent him Christine because He knew Paul needed someone like her in his life.

     

      Christine returned inside the house, leaving him alone out there.

     

      Paul looked at the deadwood.

     

      He wondered: If God had sent him Christine, who had sent him the tree?

     

      Disturbed by the question, he quickly went inside the house.

     

     


     

      Late that night, Paul was tormented by a recurring nightmare of his younger brother, Glen, aiming a rifle at Paul and his family and forcing them to board a flimsy sailboat. They got on the boat, and soon found themselves in a storm at sea, lightning cracking on the dark horizon, the turbulent waters heaving their boat into the air, and then a wave stole overboard like a giant hand and snatched away Christine . . .

     

      Paul awoke in an icy sweat.

     

      Only a dream, he assured himself. Relax.

     

      He reached toward the nightstand to get the bottle of water that he kept there. His mouth was cotton-dry.

     

      When he took the first sip, he heard a sound that caused fresh sweat to break out on his forehead: a sharp, animal-like cry. It came from somewhere outside.

     

      Paul didn't have any pets, but his neighbor had a horse, and the cry sounded as though it could have come from that direction.

     

      Whatever it was, the creature was in agony. It shrieked, once, then fell silent.

     

      Paul looked out the window. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary--except for the enigmatic deadwood. It was like a shadowy skyscraper.

     

      Primal fear gnawed at his guts.

     

      Whatever happened, it's none of my business, he thought. Go back to bed.

     

      Instead of returning to bed, he slipped on his houserobe and slippers. He grabbed a flashlight, too.

     

      Outdoors, the warm night was silent and still. Normally, crickets and other creatures were abuzz. At this moment, however, they were eerily quiet.

     

      Paul switched on the flashlight and walked across the lawn. He moved toward the wooden fence that separated his property from his neighbor's. His neighbor kept the horse in a stable, near the back of the yard. Paul shone the light beam over there.

     

      Even from a distance of fifty feet, he saw the slaughtered horse lying on the ground.

     

      Paul's hand that gripped the flashlight trembled.

     

      What in the hell had happened?

     

      A large, shadowy figure darted from behind the stables. It leaped over the fence, onto Paul's property, and scrambled through the darkness, apparently headed toward the giant tree.

     

      Paul tried to capture it in the light, but it moved too fast. In seconds, it had scurried up the trunk and vanished in the concealing leaves. It moved with unnatural agility and speed.

     

      I didn't see that, Paul told himself. No, I did not. I imagined it. In fact, I'm dreaming right now. In reality, I'm curled up underneath the covers, snoring.

     

      His heart boomed.

     

      No one else had come outside. His neighbors, hard-drinkers that they were, were probably in a drunken stupor. His own wife and kids were hard sleepers, too.

     

      The night belonged to him . . . and the thing that had crawled up into the tree branches.

     

      Common sense cautioned him to go back inside the house. Curiosity, and a sense of duty, compelled him to move forward across the yard. If everyone else was asleep, then it was up to him to check this out. Besides, if he were really dreaming, no harm could come to him. You couldn't get hurt in a dream.

     

      As he neared the tree, the rank stench made his nostrils dilate.

     

      This is no dream, and you know it, he thought. A dream could not possibly be this vivid.

     

      When he accepted that he was, in fact, awake, a powerful compulsion to flee seized him. But he refused to run away. He was too close. He only wanted to peek.

     

      He wished he had brought the shotgun, though. His father had kept firearms, for hunting, in the gun cabinet in the den.

     

      Too late to worry about that.

     

      He edged underneath the leafy boughs. He slowly raised the flashlight.

     

      Something wet and fleshy plopped onto his face.

     

      He shouted in surprise and revulsion. He snatched the thing off his face and flung it to the ground.

     

      It looked like a strand of steaming, bloody intestines.

     

      From the slain horse . . .

     

      He stumbled away, and vomited.

     

      The thing in the tree, it had killed the horse. It had chewed on the horse's guts and spat them on him, a gesture of utter contempt and arrogance.

     

      The creature wasn't stupid. It was smart enough to mock him. And it was intelligent enough to use the cover of the night to hide its murderous activities.

     

      Paul wiped his lips and backpedaled across the yard, keeping his gaze on the tree, ready to bolt if something rushed him.

     

      Inside the house, he locked the door, double-checked to make sure it was bolted.

     

      Satisfied, he stared at the tree out there in the darkness.

     

      Be honest, he told himself. It's not an ordinary animal hiding up in those branches. The tree, and the beast that dwells in it, are alien.

     

      It was an incredible explanation, but the only one that made sense to him. He was not the kind of man who spent time wondering about the existence of extraterrestrials, but he never discounted the possibility of alien life. There were billions of worlds in the universe. Why couldn't aliens exist? Why couldn't they visit Earth? It seemed flatly impossible that every supposed UFO sighting, and every single alien abduction, throughout history, could be dismissed as figments of human imagination.

     

      He could not debunk what he had seen with his own eyes. There was an otherworldly creature in his backyard, and it was a killer. It had all begun with the explosion and the flare of green light that he had witnessed a few nights ago; that was when it had landed on Earth. How considerate of it to make its new home in his yard.

     

      But what was he going to do about it?

     

      He thought of Christine, and realized, with a rush of fear, that this was one problem that his wife would be unable to solve for him.

     

     


     

     

     

      The next morning, Christine awoke Paul. Her eyes were troubled.

     

      "Eddie stopped by," she said. "Someone's murdered his horse."

     

      Paul had barely slept at all last night, and was instantly alert. "Really? That's terrible. Did he call the police?"

     

      "He did, but he wanted to know if we heard anything last night. You know I sleep like the dead, but you're a light sleeper. Did you hear anything?"

     

      "No," Paul said. "Nothing."

     

      Christine sighed. "It's such a shame. Who would do something like that to a harmless animal? Eddie said the horse was literally disembowled. That's so sick, whoever did it is sick."

     

      "No kidding." Paul's stomach roiled at the memory of the animal's innards slapping against his face. "Could it have been a wolf, something like that?"

     

      "Eddie doesn't think so. The stable doors were locked. A wolf couldn't unlock the stable and drag a horse outside. It's the work of something a lot smarter than a wolf. It had to be a man, someone psychotic."

     

      "You're right," he said. "I'm sure they'll catch whoever's responsible."

     

      "I hope so." She shivered.

     

      He didn't enjoy lying to her, but he didn't see any alternative. What could he tell her? The truth? To be honest, honey, last night I saw an alien climb that ugly tree, and it spat the horse's guts in my face. Christine already thought--correctly so--that losing his job had badly worn his nerves. Tell her the truth of what he'd seen and she might decide he'd suffered a nervous breakdown. Lying was his only recourse.

     

      "When are those folks going to come chop down that tree?" Paul said. "Didn't you say tomorrow?"

     

      "Tomorrow is right," she said. "No one could come any earlier to handle such a big tree."

     

      "No one can come today?" he said.

     

      She shook her head. "I already asked, Paul. Tomorrow is the earliest they can do it. You know I want that eyesore cleared out of here, wherever it came from. That damn thing makes me uncomfortable."

     

      With good reason, Paul thought. Honey, you don't know the half of it.

     

      "Why are you so interested in the tree being cut today?" she said. "The last time I brought up the subject, you tried to talk me out of getting it removed at all."

     

      He shrugged. "I guess I've accepted that you know what's best for us."

     

      "Okay, Paul." She smiled, but it was a sad expression. He knew what she was thinking. My poor, sweet husband always relies on me so much, and I wish he wouldn't, just once.

     

      This time, he was going to surprise her. As soon as she and the kids left (they were going to spend the day in Memphis, as usual), he was going to handle that tree himself.

     

     

     

     


     

     

     

      Paul gripped the old but sharp axe in his hands. He faced the tree, like a warrior confronting a mortal enemy.

     

      Sunlight glinted off the blue-green leaves. Spotlighted in the golden rays, the unusual tree managed to exude a bizarre sort of beauty. But Paul was not fooled. The alien predator, probably slumbering, was concealed in the branches, waiting for night to arrive.

     

      He wore a disposable mask over his mouth and nose, which he'd found in Christine's pottery tools, to guard him from the tree's nauseating odor. As he approached, he glanced upward, to make sure that nothing dropped down on him. He didn't see anything.

     

      He focused on an area of the trunk that was about waist-high.

     

      He swung the axe with all his might.

     

      It was like whipping a wooden bat against a steel pole. The blade bounced back from the tree with a loud ringing noise, and the recoil threw the axe out of Paul's hands.

     

      He backpedaled, his hands shaking. There was not even a visible mark where he had struck the tree.

     

      The axe was useless. As he had feared.

     

      Time for Plan B.

     

      He returned with a can full of gasoline. He liberally doused the trunk with the pungent fluid.

     

      From several feet away, he lit a match and tossed it at the tree.

     

      There was a great whump and a burst of fire.

     

      "Gonna burn you down, sucker," Paul said. He chuckled.

     

      Incredibly, as quickly as the flames blazed into life, they began to die. As if the tree were made of fire-retardant material. It actually looked like the alien wood absorbed the flames, as absurd as it seemed. Within a minute, the fire died, and the trunk was not even smoking, not even scarred.

     

      "This isn't possible," Paul said, hopelessly.

     

      He didn't know what else he could do. Head lowered, he grabbed the gasoline can and the axe, and shuffled back to the garage.

     

      A shiny, black Mercedes-Benz SUV roared down the driveway. Paul had to jump out of the way to keep from getting flattened by the vehicle.

     

      This is the last thing I need right now, Paul thought. Shit.

     

      Glen got out of the truck, tall and slim, casually dressed in a golf shirt and slacks. Knowing him, he'd likely spent all morning on the links and left the work of running the company to one of his yes-men.

     

      "Hey, big bro, what's happening?" Glen said. "Doing yardwork?"

     

      "Something like that," Paul said.

     

      "More power to you. My landscaping crew takes care of that work for me. I make too much money to waste time with manual labor."

     

      "Why are you here?" Paul said. "Since you're such a rich and important man?"

     

      "Watch the sarcasm. It doesn't suit you. And you know better than to talk to me like that."

     

      Paul had a shamefully nasty vision; he could tie up Glen around the tree trunk, and the carnivorous creature would find a hearty dinner waiting for it this evening.

     

      The image made him laugh.

     

      "What's the matter with you?" Glen said. "Did I say a joke?"

     

      "Never mind, I've had a long night," Paul said.

     

      "Whatever. I'm beginning to think that living out here in the boonies is doing something to you, man."

     

      "Why are you visiting, Glen? I know it's not because you're concerned about my mental health. Get to the point."

     

      Paul rarely was so direct with his brother, or with anyone, for that matter. The words sounded strange coming out of him. But it felt good to speak his mind, it felt real good.

     

      "Well, damn. Someone ate his Wheaties this morning, didn't he?" Glen said. Leaning against the Mercedes, he looked taken aback. "Anyway, I'll be brief. I'm selling the business."

     

      "You what?"

     

      Glen smiled, once again in control, wearing his arrogance like a favorite suit. "You heard it right, big bro. I'm putting Simmons Construction up for sale. I'm in discussions with several interested buyers. I'm gonna make a killing on this deal."

     

      "You . . . you can't do that. You don't have full ownership."

     

      "You're right, I don't. We own it jointly, fifty-fifty, even though I sent you packing a few months ago." Glen grinned at the memory of that coup. Paul still wondered what had been wrong with him when he'd allowed himself to be fired from a family business that he'd helped develop with their father. Well, no, he didn't wonder what had been wrong with him; he understood very well what had happened, and was loathe to admit it. Glen bullied him, and he couldn't handle the pressure. Plain and simple. Glen had strong-armed him right out of the door, and he'd planned it so masterfully that not even Christine and their attorney had been able to get Paul back inside.

     

      "So I dropped by today," Glen said, "to tell you to sign over your share of the company to me. Then I can wrap up the sale."

     

      "You planned this all along," Paul said. "Fire me, lean on me to give up my ownership, then sell the company. I bet you couldn't wait until Pops died, could you? You selfish bastard."

     

      "Who do you think you're talking to?" Glen said. "I'll kick your ass all over this place, Paul, don't push me."

     

      He glared at Paul. Paul returned the stony stare, without blinking.

     

      God help me, I want to bust him in the mouth, Paul thought. I really, really do.

     

      He'd never hit Glen in his life. Glen, only a year younger, had always been taller, stronger, meaner. Avoiding scuffles with him had been a matter of survival for Paul.

     

      But there was a dangerous creature in his backyard, and that was a hell of a lot more frightening than his greedy, self-centered brother.

     

      Finally, Glen blinked, took a step backward.

     

      "I don't have time to fool around with you," Glen said. He flung an envelope at Paul's feet. "Those are the terms of what you'll get once the sale transaction is complete. Read it over, whatever. I expect to see you at my office tomorrow morning at nine o'clock sharp to complete the transfer of ownership. Understood?"

     

      Paul didn't bother to pick up the letter. "It's time for you to leave, Glen."

     

      Glen shook his head sadly. "Man, you need to get your shit together, get back into the city and be around folks. Living out here's driving you outta your mind." Glen opened the door of the SUV. "Tell Christine and the kids I said hello. Remember, tomorrow at nine sharp."

     

      Glen roared away down the gravel road in a plume of dust.

     

      Paul drew a breath, raised his face to the sky.

     

      Why, he thought, is all of this madness happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?

     

      He turned to look at the monstrous tree. The deadwood.

     

      He would go inside, and he would think of something. Thinking was his strong suit. He would come up with a plan to handle this, and he would do it before nightfall. He was afraid to spend another night with that tree looming like a dark tower in his yard.

     

     


     

      But evening came, and in spite of Paul spending several hours on the Internet, researching extraterrestrials and a plethora of other topics, he did not have a single usable idea about what he could do to conquer the deadwood and its bloodthirsty occupant.

     

      His family took dinner in the dining room, as was their habit. Fried chicken, spaghetti, green beans, and rolls. Christine and the kids were hungry from a full day of spending time with friends and family in Memphis, while Paul picked at his food and continually looked out the window, at the tree.

     

      A thunderstorm was predicted to strike that night. Already, purple-black clouds were stacked up in the heavens. Flickers of lightning danced on the horizon.

     

      If we're lucky, lightning will hit that damn tree, Paul thought. Certainly, a lightning bolt would hurt it. Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it could withstand that, too.

     

      "What's wrong, Daddy?" his daughter, Jamila, said. "Why ain't you eating?"

     

      " 'Aren't' not 'ain't' , " Christine said. "Good question, though. Why aren't you eating, Paul?"

     

      "I betcha it's that tree," Akili said. He gestured to the window behind him. "The deadwood. Dad can't keep his eyes off it."

     

      Christine looked at Paul, an inquiry in her eyes. "Well?"

     

      Thunder grumbled through the night, like massive stones grinding together in the sky. The ceiling light wavered.

     

      Paul drummed his fingers on the table. He had not told her about Glen's visit, and he hadn't told her anything about his adventures with the tree. It was not like him to keep secrets from her. He shared almost everything with Christine because she invariably guided him through his troubles. But he doubted that she would have any ready solutions for this.

     

      Nevertheless, witholding the truth, tonight, could place them in danger.

     

      "Okay, I'll tell you, it's about the tree," he said. He looked at Jamila, hesitated. She was only ten years old and scared easily. Once she had watched a horror movie at her cousin's house, without their knowledge, and had suffered bad dreams for a week. "I don't know if Jamila should hear this."

     

      "Tell us, Daddy!" Jamila pleaded. "I won't be scared!"

     

      "Paul, please," Christine said, in her I'll-handle-the-kids-later, tone.

     

      "All right, I know what got Eddie's horse last night," Paul said. "It wasn't a man . . ."

     

      He told them everything, concluding his narrative with his opinion of what they were up against.

     

      "An alien?" Christine said. She tapped her lip. "Wow, Paul. Coming from you, that's something else."

     

      "I believe it," Akili said. "I mean, seriously, what else could it be? That tree came out of nowhere, Mom."

     

      "I believe it, too," Jamila said, eyes bright. She appeared to be more excited at being included in the discussion, than being afraid.

     

      "It's my honest opinion, the only thing I can think of, as crazy as it sounds," Paul said.

     

      Thunder banged, clinking the dishes in the china cabinet.

     

      "We'll continue this discussion in a minute," Christine said. "I'm going to get some candles."

     

      Paul had a horrible sensation of dread that lay against the back of his neck like a cold, damp towel. They should've left the house tonight--that was the move he should've made. They should've stayed in a hotel in Memphis and called the FBI. Let the experts deal with it. Like in the "X-Files." He needed Mulder and Scully to solve this. He was stupid and reckless for staying here and jeopardizing his family.

     

      Christine probably would've thought of that, if he'd told her the story earlier and hadn't been so intent on handling this himself.

     

      Another rumble of thunder shook the house. Lightning licked the sky.

     

      Then the lights sputtered out. Darkness enfolded the room.

     

      Jamila let out a gleeful scream.

     

      "Be quiet, girl, Mom's coming back with candles," Akili said.

     

      Paul pushed away from the table. He suddenly would feel a lot more comfortable with a shotgun in easy reach. His father's gun cabinet was in the den. He'd wait for his wife to come back, then go get it.

     

      Christine returned. "Never fear, candles are here." She struck a match and lit the wick of a tall white candle.

     

      That was when they saw the creature watching them through the window.

     

     

     

     


     

     

     

      Jamila screamed, for real, this time, and Christine was so startled that she almost dropped the candle. Akili shouted, too.

     

      Paul got his first good look at the thing. It resembled a man-sized spider. Covered in thick, blue-black fur, it had a set of three beady, greenish eyes in a round head, and large, deadly pincers.

     

      The creature screeched, a sound like chalk being dragged across a blackboard. It vanished from the window.

     

      "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," Christine said. She put her hand against her chest. Quickly, Paul went to her.

     

      "Honey, I want you to take the kids to the basement," he said. "You'll be safe down there."

     

      "What?" She shook her head, dazed. "Paul . . . no . . . what about you? You can't handle this by yourself."

     

      Her lack of confidence in his ability hit him like a blow to the stomach. But he recovered.

     

      "Maybe I can't, but I'm sure as hell going to try," he said. "Now, let's go, we have to hurry!"

     

      More than anything, he worried that the creature would get inside the house. It possessed a frightening intelligence, the cunning mind of a predator. He was certain that it was attempting to find its way in. Every second was precious.

     

      He ushered his family into the hallway. Blackness had swallowed the entire house. The only light came from Christine's flickering candle.

     

      The door to the cellar was at the back of the kitchen. But to reach the kitchen, they had to go past the breakfast nook, and there were glass patio doors over there--large portals that the creature could easily crash through. Darkness crowded against the glass, concealing whatever might be lurking outside.

     

      "Hurry, don't stop for anything," Paul said.

     

      They hustled past the breakfast area and into the kitchen. Akili ripped open the basement door.

     

      Behind them, glass shattered: the patio doors.

     

      Paul pressed his family toward the cellar. "Don't look back, just get down there! Stay until I say it's clear."

     

      The kids rushed down the stairs. Christine started down the steps, found something on the wooden shelf beside the staircase, pressed it into Paul's hands. A yellow utility flashlight.

     

      "Be careful," she said. "Do what you've got to do."

     

      Nodding grimly, he closed the door and engaged the dead-bolt lock.

     

      He switched on the flashlight and swung the beam around the kitchen.

     

      He was alone.

     

      A knife block stood on the counter. He pulled out a butcher's knife. It wasn't a shotgun, but it was better than fighting empty-handed. The blade gleamed in the light.

     

      He paused, listened.

     

      The house was graveyard-silent. The only sounds came from the storm: rain pounding against the roof, and rumbling thunder.

     

      Holding the knife in one hand, and the light in the other, he crept across the kitchen. He peered around the corner, in the area of the patio doors.

     

      A big, ragged hole had been smashed through the doors. Shards of glass covered the carpet. But the alien arachnid was gone.

     

      It had to be somewhere in the house. The damn thing was hunting him.

     

      Perspiration seeped from his palm and saturated the wooden knife handle.

     

      I've got to get to the gun cabinet, he thought. Battling an extraterrestrial beast with an ordinary butcher's knife was the epitome of foolishness.

     

      Stealthily, he moved past the breakfast nook, and into the hallway. He checked both ways. Clear.

     

      Where had the creature gone? Had it run back outdoors, perhaps injured by the breaking glass? It could not have simply disappeared.

     

      Don't worry about that yet, get the shotgun and then you can ponder these questions.

     

      The den was at the end of the hall, on the left. He tip-toed to the doorway.

     

      The giant spiderlike creature was hunkered in front of the oak gun cabinet. Its eyes glowed with what appeared to be malevolent joy.

     

      Oh, no, this thing's outsmarted me.

     

      It squirted a jet of yellow fluid at him. Instinctively, Paul ducked. The sticky substance hit the nearby wall with a wet splat. It was like a thick rope of taffy, and if it had captured him, he would've been like a fly trapped in a black widow's web.

     

      Panting, barely able to believe that he had escaped, Paul dashed down the hallway.

     

      The alien screeched. Its hairy feet pattered across the hardwood floor.

     

      It was coming after him.

     

      Not wanting a jet of that icky mess to hit him in the back, Paul raced into another room, slammed the door behind him. He was in the guest bedroom. There was absolutely nothing of use to him in there, but it was a safe refuge, for the moment.

     

      The arachnid monster clattered down the hall. It did not so much as pause at the door to the guest room. As though it were not really interested in him . . .

     

      "Oh, no," Paul said. "That sneaky bastard."

     

      He tore open the door. He swung the flashlight toward the kitchen.

     

      The beast was in front of the cellar door. One of its furry tentacles tapped at the lock.

     

      Paul remembered that the alien had been clever and agile enough to unlock the door to his neighbor's stable, to get at the unsuspecting horse that dwelled within.

     

      A simple, dead-bolt lock was the only mechanism that separated this abominable thing from his entire family.

     

      "Stay away from them!" Paul shouted.

     

      With the deadly swiftness of a quick-draw gunslinger, the spider-thing shot a stream of fluid at Paul, and this time, he didn't have a chance to duck. The slimy stuff hit his arm.

     

      He dropped the flashlight. It smacked the floor and rolled, creating dancing shadows.

     

      Paul tried to wrestle out of the web, couldn't. Worse, trying to get it off only tangled him in it more deeply. Within seconds, his arm was glued behind his back. He lost his balance and tumbled to the floor, and then his legs became ensnared, too.

     

      His free hand clutched the butcher's knife with manic desperation.

     

      The arachnid-thing emitted a wail of murderous delight. It scrambled toward him, wicked pincers flexing eagerly.

     

      Above the creature's trio of glowing eyes, a raw, pinkish pad of flesh pulsated, like an exposed heart.

     

      Paul understood nothing about this alien's anatomy, but he recognized an Achilles' heel when he saw one.

     

      So when the alien-spider pattered up to him, reeking of death and uttering a strange hum, Paul raised his free arm and rammed the butcher's knife in the center of that throbbing hunk of flesh in the thing's head.

     

      The blade plunged in, deep, all the way to the hilt, with the ease of sinking a spoon into a bowl of warm jelly.

     

      The creature shrieked. Blind with agony, it smacked repeatedly against the wall. Greenish blood leaked from its head wound, dripped onto the floor.

     

      Repulsed, Paul log-rolled away from the dying beast.

     

      The alien continued to bounce against the walls, wailing, steadily losing strength. At last, it hammered the wall a final time, then fell against the floor on its side. Still. Dead.

     

      Paul released an explosive breath of air.

     

      The arachnoid web loosened its hold on him; the substance suddenly lost its elasticity. He brushed off the slimy ropes, his lips curled in revulsion.

     

      Then he unlocked the basement door and invited his family to come out.

     

      "Is it over?" Christine said cautiously. Her eyes were red.

     

      "It's done," Paul said. He took her hand. "I did what I had to do. Finally."

     

      "Hey, look!" Jamila shouted. She pointed outside the kitchen window, jumping. "Fireworks!"

     

      Puzzled, Paul looked.

     

      The deadwood was on fire, but it was not like any kind of fire that Paul had ever seen. Luminescent green flames lapped hungrily at the tree, traveling quickly from the base all the way up to the crown. Paul worried that the conflagration would spread across the property, but strangely, the fire seemed to be confined to the unearthly tree.

     

      "They were joined together, biologically," Akili said, matter of factly, as if he had studied the phenomenon in a science textbook. "The deadwood and that spider thing. When one dies, so does the other."

     

      "How do you know?" Christine said.

     

      Akili shrugged. "Just makes sense to me, Mom."

     

      And the craziest thing, Paul thought, was that his son proved to be correct. >From the patio, they watched the deadwood burn itself up, until all that remained was a heap of stinking ashes.

     

      "Now all we've gotta do is get that monster's dead body out of the house," Akili said. He looked at Paul.

     

      Paul smiled at Christine.

     

      "Let's see what your mother thinks about that," he said.

     

     


     

      A week later, Paul was driving on the highway, returning from Memphis.

     

      "The meeting with Glen went well," Paul said, on his cellphone. "He's agreed to sell his stake in the company to me, and he accepted a less than I thought he would demand. I honestly think he only wanted to get out of the business altogether."

     

      "I'm so proud of you, honey," Christine said. He could hear the smile in her voice. "The kids will be so excited to hear that we'll be moving back home."

     

      "I don't know, I kind of like staying in my dad's place," Paul said. He chuckled.

     

      "Then you can stay here yourself," Christine said, and laughed, too.

     

      They kept chatting while Paul pulled off the highway and into the lot of a BP gas station. He parked beside a fuel pump.

     

      A knot of people stood off to the side, talking, and looking around curiously.

     

      Paul hopped out of the Blazer. Frowning, he looked around, too, to see what held these people's attention.

     

      The cellphone dropped out of his hand.

     

      He saw them. They towered, tall and ominous, ranked in formation across the countryside, all the way to the edge of the horizon.

     

      Deadwoods. Everywhere.

     

© Copyright Brandon Massey
Sursa :   Imagikon
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