Lost Souls
Wolf Orchard
Vote for Your Favourite Story
Guestbook of Souls
Linked Souls


Wolf Orchard

by Matthew Carroll

As a volunteer constable in rural Utah, my Dad didn’t drive an official squad car. Instead, he sat behind the wheel of a 76 Pinto that he’d bought off Mr. Dobbs for a down payment of four-hundred dollars and twelve weekly installments of Mom’s apple pie.

In fact, there were only two things even remotely official about Dad’s car. One was a detachable beacon that he never used; the other was a CB that kept him connected to “headquarters” in Miss Debbieshire’s kitchen.

Most nights the CB slept quietly, and that was okay with me. I was perfectly content riding shotgun with Dad and debating whether I should grow-up to become a rodeo clown or a railroad engineer. Dad retained the opinion that I shouldn’t grow-up at all, but if I had to, I should become an orthodontist.

It was the first Thursday of August 1984, two weeks before my tenth birthday, and three weeks before the start of another school year.

A sharp wind whipped around every tree and corner, while struggling to tear apart the boiling clouds that had gathered in the early hours of the evening. The downpour had been swift yet fierce, a hit-and-run that had left gutters swollen with rain and Mom scurrying throughout the house, placing pots beneath the rifts in our roof. Every time it rained, Mom scolded Dad for failing to mend the roof as he’d promised. She was beginning to suspect that his love of rain extended to welcoming it indoors.

Dad cracked open his window and the car quickly flooded with the fresh sent the storm left in its wake. He drew a long, deep breath and closed his eyes; then realized that he was driving and they quickly shot open again.

He looked at me a little sheepishly. “I’ll bet that’s what Heaven smells like.”

Ahead of us, shadows crawled from their burrows, spilling darkness onto the road. At their approach, Dad’s face crumbled, as did mine. Darkness was not the agent of our despondence; it was the hour. We knew this was the last time Mom would allow me to accompany Dad on his nightly patrol.

Beginning tomorrow, Mom wanted me in bed before eleven so that I wouldn’t have a problem getting up in the morning once school started. Evidently, it took a whole three weeks to adjust to a new sleeping pattern.

It was our last night together, and Dad planned to make the most of it. Thus, after rescuing Mr. Beadle’s pig from a stubborn nest of barbed wire, we stopped at the Merry Dairy and ordered two large banana splits and a couple of Cokes. We talked and laughed about all of the bizarre and comical things we’d witnessed during the summer.

Of all the stories we kicked around, Dad claimed the one regarding Mrs. Blaylock’s stolen cat was the pick of the litter.

In July, one of Mrs. Blaylock’s tabbies turned-up missing, and then turned-up pink. As it turned-out, the culprit was a first grader that had abducted the tabby and dyed its fur so that Mrs. Blaylock would fail to recognize it.

I had to admit that the pink cat was worth more than a chuckle, however, nothing could contend with the time Mr. Lackey stumbled into the Dreamboat Beauty Parlor, less than half dressed and more than completely drunk.

A few hours after our conversation at the Merry Dairy took its place on a shelf marked memory, we were back inside the Pinto, searching for any sign of trouble so that we could defuse it before it had the chance to explode.

All it took to feel like a Superhero was to sit next to Dad. Okay, I confess I didn’t exactly feel like a Superhero. I was more like a sidekick. A hero in training. Dad was the real hero. He once crawled into a drainpipe to rescue a litter of greyhounds, despite the rising water that threatened to swallow him. He even managed to dispatch a rabid fox that had Mrs. Henderson cornered between her woodpile and her porch. Even if it did take all six shots to do it.

Dad glanced at his watch, and then glanced at me. “It’s after midnight, Champ.” His hand clasped my knee almost hard enough to make me wince. “I think it’s time we retire.”

I pressed my forehead against the glass, and watched the trees and scattered houses roll past the window. In that instant, the moon transformed from half full to half-empty.

“Don’t you think we ought to secure the park first?” I asked. It was a longshot, but I was a good aim.

“I think the park’s about as secure as it can get.”

Again, my face crumbled. Couldn’t he see I hoped to stretch small hours into long hours?

“Unless you think something’s up?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I said

He studied my face, then grinned. We both knew that’s exactly what it would be.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt to check it out, right?”

It was my turn to grin. “Right.”

Dad tapped the brake and circled back toward the intersection that led to Thornwood Road and Patriot Park. Most of the homes we past along the way were so quiet and dark, that anyone unfamiliar with the early to bed early to rise mentality of small town life would assume they had been deserted.

Despite the placid semblance, I suddenly felt overcome by the feeling that something was wrong. Something was missing. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what had sparked this perception, and before I could dissect it any further, the feeling had past.

The pavement was still slick, so Dad drove at a cautious pace. Than again, Dad always drove at a cautious pace.

On the horizon, two smokestacks from the distant industrial plant sent swirling white snakes into the air. The pollution merged with the clouds, which had already begun to regroup.

Dad rolled up his window, deciding that even Heaven’s scent wasn’t worth the cold that slithered into the car.

We pulled onto a narrow road that cut the park in half, and slowed to a near crawl so that we could survey the shadows that prowled beneath the trees and discern if any were cast by a human.

The darkness inside the park thickened. The lamps that lined the edge of the road were dead, and the shadows pounced on every sliver of moonlight that managed to break through the canopy.

It was odd that the lamps had expired so premature. Even though curfew fell over the park at dusk, they usually burned until dawn, as a deterrent to late night prowlers.

“Oh, gross!” Dad killed the engine and squinted through the windshield at an obscure point ahead of us. “You were right. It’s a good thing we came down here.”

He switched on the brights and the darkness peeled back from the road, slinking into the safety of the shrubs.

“Oh, gross!” I echoed.

A German shepherd lay sprawled on the pavement, its innards oozing from a laceration in its abdomen. The bones in its legs appeared pulverized, for they were contorted into impossible shapes.

“Someone must have been in an awfully big hurry,” Dad said, as he popped the trunk and climbed out of the car. He pulled his John Deere cap from his back pocket and planted it on his head.

I joined him at the trunk and helped forage through its rubbish for a large plastic bag and a shovel.

“What are we going to do with it?” I asked.

Dad paused, and then shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’ll see if it has a tag and collar. If it does, we’ll find its owner and let him decide.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“We’ll give it the plot next to Bo.”

I disliked the idea of having a strange dog sleep next to my dearly departed Doberman for all of eternity, but I disliked the idea of it sleeping alone even more.

Dad found both items beneath an unused stack of traffic tickets and a few dozen cartons of cigarettes he’d sequestered from the underage Hamlin brothers.

He handed me the bag, and together we started for the mangled German shepherd, neither of us looking forward to the task ahead.

Beneath the trees, dust devils rose from the ground like ghosts from their graves. Those that swirled into Dad’s path met their fate beneath his foot.

I kept close to Dad as the feeling of unease returned, and again I found myself pondering what had inspired my apprehension.

The wind tugged at our coats, and the bag in my hand snapped like a bullwhip. I feared I’d lose my grip and the bag would disappear into the trees and the darkness.

As we neared the German shepherd, an unsettling truth became increasingly clear. The dog had not merely dawdled in the path of a speeding car… It had been tortured. Someone had gone to great lengths to meticulously braid its shattered legs. Its left eye had escaped its butchered head, only to end-up trapped in a shallow pothole a few feet from its former residence.

Dad knelt beside the corpse and pinched his nose, for the smell was more repugnant than we had anticipated. A look of confusion overcame Dad’s disgusted expression. Unable to read the answer in his face, I asked what he was thinking, but the wind stole my words before they reached his ears.

I crouched beside him and asked again. “What is it?”

Dad hung his head. “I didn’t know a dog could look that scared.”

He was right. Even though its eyes were no longer neighbors the terror etched into them was undeniable.

“Maybe you ought to wait in the car,” Dad said.

I was insulted. Dad had never dismissed me from duty before. I recognized that we were not equal partners, but we were partners nonetheless.

“I can help.” I crossed my arms over my chest as if a physical display of stubbornness would help emphasize my point.

Dad made a point of his own. He pointed at the car.

Dejected, I turned around, my chin in my chest, my eyes on the blacktop. It was then that I noticed that the blacktop was not as black as it should have been.

What appeared to be red raindrops dotted the road. I paused to consider the bizarre spots and reassure myself that they were not mere figments of an overwrought imagination.

I dabbed one of the dots with my finger and discovered that it was not only real, but wet. While examining the smudge that had transferred from the road to my finger, another large drop splashed onto my face. I used the sleeve of my coat to swab my face, and my sleeve came away red.

I looked up and my balls instantly shriveled. It was as if they were trying to climb back inside and hide.

Hundreds of dogs hung by their tails from the tangled limbs of the trees. Boxers and bulldogs, poodles and pugs, Dalmatians and deerhounds, huskies and harriers. Like the German shepherd, each of them had suffered beyond anything I had ever fathomed. Those with tails too short to knot around a limb were secured to the trees by nails through their paws.

I fought to keep my banana split from reintroducing itself, and staggered back toward Dad on wobbly legs. He was hunched over the German shepherd, using the shovel to tuck its innards back inside its stomach. I tapped his shoulder and he squealed like a little girl in her first Halloween Fun House. He spun around and cocked the shovel over his shoulder like Joe DiMaggio prepping to send a knuckleball sailing past a grandstand. For a brief moment I feared he wouldn’t recognize me, and the shovel would crack open my skull.

When he did manage to identify me, his face softened, although only for an instant.

“I told you to wait in the car!” He barked, obviously embarrassed by his reaction.

I didn’t reply. Instead, I looked up, and Dad followed my gaze. He gasped and nearly stumbled backward over the German shepherd.

“God in Heaven,” he uttered.

As a witness to something so horrendous, I instantly began to question how accurate his utterance was. Surely, if there were a God, he would not sit idle and watch as someone brutally massacred every dog in town.

Every dog in town…

Realization struck like a slap in the face. That’s what was wrong. That’s what was missing. There were no dogs barking at encroaching shadows. There were no dogs chasing squirrels from their kennels. There were no dogs whining to come in from the cold. There were no dogs.

But why would someone go to the trouble of exterminating an entire population of canines? Madness seemed like the only explanation, yet even a madman couldn’t possibly have done so much in so short a time.

I couldn’t comprehend the cruelty a person must possess in order to perform such an act. Before Bo lost his fight with a pickup truck, he served not only as my best friend, but also as the family watchdog. Our first line of defense against unwanted visitors.

Perhaps that was it? Had the entire town been deliberately robbed of its security, one dog at a time?

An Irish setter let out an agonizing howl, and I let out a startled yelp. It dangled near the crown of an elm tree, watching the gash in its gut give birth to its entrails. Dad’s cheeks puffed up like a blowfish as his mouth filled with vomit. His eyes swiveled toward me and he begrudgingly swallowed.

The Irish setter had lost the strength to howl, so a whimper was the chorus that played as its intestines spilled from its brisket.

At that moment, I knew.

I do not claim to possess any form of sixth sense. In fact, most people would argue over whether I even possessed any common sense, but at that moment, I knew.

I knew that something inhuman had come to Wolf Orchard.

I knew that the Nature Outings of the Senior Citizens’ Club, and the Baked Bean Spectaculars scheduled as fundraisers for the down-on-their-luck Holt family, would no longer grace the front page of the morning paper.

Worst of all, I knew that someone, somewhere, was screaming.

My stomach warped into a ball of tangled snakes, and I felt the blood drain from my face. All at once, I no longer cared about pink cats or drunken Lackeys. All I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. I wanted to fall asleep with the light on and pretend that I didn’t know anything… That I didn’t hear anything.

“You feeling alright, Champ?” Concern wrinkled Dad’s face.

Now was my chance to tell him. To warn him.


The CB crackled to life and Miss Debbieshire’s voice filtered through. “Jeremiah? Jeremiah, if you’re still up, pick up.”

Dad dashed to the car, plucked the handset from its crook and brought it to his mouth. “I’m up, Rose. What’s the problem?”

“There probably isn’t one, but I thought I best leave that up to you.”

“Hit me.”

“I’d love to, but you have some business to take care of first.” The signal died. In all likelihood, Miss Debbieshire had stepped away from the radio so that she could ferret out a slice of cheesecake from the refrigerator. And indeed, when she returned, it was evident that her mouth was full. “Mrs. Haywood’s hearing things again.”

Dad looked at me and rolled his eyes. “What kind of things?”

“All kinds of things. Screaming mostly.”


Mrs. Haywood was too concerned about her missing Chihuahua to let the unseasonable weather dissuade her from venturing out into the cold to head a search party of one.

According to the report Mrs. Haywood related to dispatch, she spotted a chunk of thread from Little Lucy’s hand-knitted sweater in the mud behind her granddaughter’s playhouse. Another piece had been snagged by the greedy thorns of the blackberry brambles at the edge of her property. Soon, Mrs. Haywood found herself following a trail that led south along Orchard Ave for a quarter of a mile, then veered into a cornfield before finally emerging at the McNickels farm.

She was about to march up to the house, pound on the door and demand that the old pervert return her precious pooch, when she heard a scream so terrifying it would have turned her hair white had Mother Nature not already beaten it to the punch. She froze, although she was more than warm inside her thermal underwear and extra large coat.

Despite the fact that the lights were dead inside the McNickels farmhouse, Mrs. Haywood claimed to have seen the outline of a man standing inside one of the second floor windows. Only he wasn’t a man. Not quite. Mrs. Haywood couldn’t say why this idea had entered her head, only that it wasn’t an idea at all… It was a fact.

He was not a man.

Whatever it was, it caught sight of Mrs. Haywood standing frozen at the fringe of the cornfield. It craned its extra long neck out of the window, and a crude grin took control of its face.

Mrs. Haywood forgot about the osteoarthritis in her knees, and the debilitating case of asthma that generally struck whenever Mr. Haywood inquired about the ETA of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. She forgot she was a sixty-four year old grandmother of three, who had not run a single mile since her days as a high school track star.

All she knew, was that she was a star again, running the race of her life.

Miss Debbieshire knew Mrs. Haywood had a renowned flair for the dramatic, so she politely listened to her account, and then promised to have the constable on the McNickels’ porch, and an APB on Little Lucy.


Mr. McNickels was a bitter old man who spent his nights drafting a petition stating that all children are to remain indoors at all times, and his days persuading dimwitted adults into signing it.

The farm was only about three miles south of the park, nestled on a mere ten acres of land and surrounded by a sea of giant cornstalks. Despite the strength of the stalks, they bent under the weight of the wind.

A dirt trail, so incommodious that the corn rapped on the windows as we past, served as the only road leading to or from the McNickels’ farm.

Since our grizzly discovery at the park, every attempt to ignite a conversation between Dad and I quickly diminished. Discussing the pros and cons of the clown industry had lost its significance. Instead, I watched the road twist through the corn-maze, and tried not to think about what was waiting on the other side.

A high pitched shrill broke the silence. The noise originated from a bend in the road about half a dozen yards ahead of us. It was like thousands of televisions tuned in to the Emergency Broadcasting System. And it was growing louder.

Dad stomped on the brakes. We stopped under a whirlwind of straw that rose from the ragged clothes of a headless scarecrow. We listened. We waited. Dad dropped his hand onto my shoulder and squeezed.

A horde of squealing pigs tore around the bend and rushed toward the car. Their wide eyes blazed in the headlights, and even the loud peel of the horn failed to deter them from their charge. Their fat bodies squeezed past the Pinto, while others disappeared into the corn, their squeals fading to a memory as they fled.

I had to pinch my privates in order to keep my seat dry. Dad sat with his hand on the horn and his foot on the break for a good thirty seconds before he remembered to breathe. I was so frightened I would have deserted the car and followed the retreating pigs if only the cramped road would allow the door to open.

Dad forced a smile. “Mr. McNickels must have had beans for dinner.”

There was no need to force my smile, I laughed so hard I had to pinch myself again. Like the hero he was, Dad managed to lift the bulk of my fear with a simple joke.

As the farm at last came into view, the first thing I noticed was the empty doghouse crouched between a rustic barn and a rusted silo. A broken leash sat in the mud like a lazy worm.

Dad cut the engine, but left the power on so that the headlights chased the darkness from the front of the house. Every window was open. The drapes tugged at their rods, reaching toward the clouds like frightened ghost attempting to flee a house that was already haunted. There was no front door to speak of, but the screen door crawled open then snapped closed, following the whim of the wind.

Dad clasped onto my knee once again, and forced another smile. “Sit tight, Champ. I’ll be back in a micro-minute.”

He stepped out of the car and hiked up his slacks. At Mom’s request, he’d recently stopped using a belt. She claimed he was prone to fits of depression every time he had to add a new notch.

He climbed the porch steps, and then paused on the threshold as if to reconsider whether or not he was willing to exercise his responsibility as constable under such daunting conditions.

“Hello? Mr. McNickels?” He entered the house, and the darkness instantly smothered him.

As Dad disappeared, I half expected a thunderbolt to stomp the earth so close to the house that a tremor would shake the dust from its eaves. Instead, there was only silence, and somehow that was even worse.

Mom was right. I’d wasted too many hours under the influence of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Instead of sitting in front of the television watching the Saturday Monster Matinee, I should have been outside practicing my proficiency with silver bullets and making crosses out of Popsicle sticks.

I watched the house for what could not have been more than a few minutes, yet seemed no less than a few hours. Now that Dad was no longer at my side my trepidation returned. I wanted to melt so that I could seep into the seat and hide.

A dead sycamore leaned against the side of the house, and a frantic ball of fur scurried around the bark like a stripe on a barber’s pole. Other than Dad and I, it seemed the squirrel was the only living thing that lacked the sense to flee.

The screen door nearly tore free of its hinges as Dad burst from the house. He bounded down the porch, using both hands to retain his pants. The bottom step cracked and Dads left foot disappeared beneath the splintered wood. He groaned as he stumbled to the ground, tearing open both his slacks and his knee. Without pausing to nurse his wound, he climbed back onto his feet and hobbled toward the car.

“Open the door!”

Over his bouncing shoulders, I caught a glimpse of something long and lean crouched in the doorway. I glanced down to unlock the car and when I looked up it was gone. All I was able to perceive from such a brief glimpse were dark eyes and sharp teeth.

I flung open the door and Dad dropped to his knees once again, only this time it was with intent. His hand disappeared under the passenger seat, and tunneled through a barricade of old hamburger wrappers and empty soda cans, before finally emerging with a small wooden box.

“I need you to get on the radio,” he said, while struggling to catch his breath between each word and syllable. “Tell Rose I need backup ASAP. I don’t care who it is or where she gets it, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

He pulled a single-action revolver from the box and grabbed a handful of bullets from the glove compartment. His hands trembled as he fought to load a bullet into each of the six cylinders, all the while stealing glances over his shoulder.

Then he looked at me. He looked at me long enough to memorize every freckle on my face, yet it was the look on his face that planted the goose bumps on my arms. Dad was a death row inmate, about to walk his last mile.

“Stay in the car, Champ. Promise me you’ll stay in the car.”

“What is it, Dad?”

“Promise me!”

I gave-in and nodded my consent.

Dad turned to face the house, and raised the revolver level with his shoulder. He cupped his left hand under his right to steady his aim, and peered down the muzzle at the shifting darkness inside the doorway.

“She was right,” he said, as he followed his gun back inside the house. “It is not a man.”

I picked up the handset and shouted at Miss Debbieshire to wake-up. Evidently I’d interrupted another Harrison Ford fantasy, for she barked at me in a sleep induced baritone.

“Someone better be dead or you will be!”

I had to explain the situation twice. The first time I struggled to form a coherent sentence. Words raced out of my mouth two at a time. She finally persuaded me to calm down and start over.

Initially, Miss Debbieshire questioned my honesty, but the fear in my voice convinced her that this was no prank. She promised to have every man she could muster, out of bed and on his way, and I promised not to do anything stupid.

I returned my attention to the farmhouse, and watched for any sign from Dad. I told myself everything would be alright, yet my imagination kept asking what ifs, and none of the answers were encouraging. What if Dad bumped into someone whose intentions were less than admirable? Yes, Dad had his revolver, but would it matter? The last time Dad used his gun, he killed the dirt five times before he managed to take the head off the berserk fox. With each miss, it inched closer to Mrs. Henderson, foam dripping from its curled lips.

What if…

Two smother POPS, like firecrackers swallowed by a pair of pigeons detonated inside the house, and two quick sparks illuminated an upstairs window. Then silence.

I crouched down onto the floorboard and waited. The gun had gone off. Twice. Yet there was still no sign of Dad.

What if… He missed?

How long would it take Miss Debbieshire to assemble the backup we requested? At such a late hour, and such a remote location, twenty-five to thirty minutes was an optimistic estimate at best. If Dad missed, did he have that much time?

I swallowed the lump in my throat, which turned-out to be my heart in the midst of relocating to a warmer climate, and pressed my nose against the glass. At first, I thought a snake of fog had encircled the car while I was hugging my knees on the floor mat, and I was certain I’d been sucked into the center of a Mary Shelley nightmare, but it was merely my breath on the glass that triggered this misconception. Under less frightening circumstances, I would have laughed at myself for falling prey to such a dark reverie.

I carved a circle into the mist with my palm, and peered through it at the upstairs window were the gun had discharged a pair of bullets. A few dozen sheets of paper escaped from the open window, and then crawled along the battered shingles before disappearing over the crest of the roof. The next item to leap from the window nearly caused my heart to leap from my chest. Dad’s John Deere cap bobbed in the air like a confused yo-yo, then plopped onto the hood of the car as if its string had suddenly snapped. A dark splotch stained the visor, and if this were a Rorschach test, I would have told the doctor it looked just like a mangled German shepherd.

I had promised Dad I’d stay in the car. I had also promised to uphold my duty as honorary deputy of Wolf Orchard… And duty called. I stepped out of the Pinto onto the bullets Dad had fumbled, and my sneakers dug them into the dirt.

I had seen enough horror movies to know that I was playing the part of the wayward idiot that the audience always shouted at. “No, don’t go in there! Run away!”

Then they would shake their collective heads when he didn’t listen.

I gathered a handful of rocks and stuffed them into my coat pocket. I wasn’t David, and I didn’t even own a slingshot, but I had once sent a fastball sailing past a humbled (and somewhat embarrassed) Little League coach. Besides, the creature I’d seen was too skinny to be Goliath.

Despite its fractured hinges, the wind managed to push the screen door open. A chilling invitation I tentatively accepted.

The interior of Mr. McNickels house was not as I expected. I stood in the living room, and the sole item that seemed to be out-of-place was a tipped-over lamp that the wind had bullied. No bloody handprints on the walls. No corpse on the couch. To my left, a cluttered kitchen crouched behind a waist-high counter that served as a partition between the two rooms. A swarm of black dots wrestled to escape a strip of flypaper that dangled above the stove.

Ahead of me, a makeshift staircase clung to the wall on its way to the second floor. Beyond the staircase, a bathroom door stood ajar. I could see a grimy shower curtain, and heard the steady drip from what I hoped was a leaky facet. I lacked the courage to approach the door and push it completely open, so instead I pitched a hefty rock and it struck about a foot above the knob. The door snapped open. A few drops of blood stained the sink, and a disposable razor teetered on the edge of the counter. This was not the aftermath of a brutal assault, but that of a feeble old man who had yet to master shaving between his wrinkles.

Before climbing the stairs, I cupped a golf ball sized rock in my palm, and did my best to draw strength from such a modest weapon.

A narrow hallway divided a pair of second story bedrooms, and ended in a small linen closet. Both rooms hid behind closed doors, and although I was certain the gunshots had come from the room to my left, I chose the door to my right. I refused to admit it at the time, but I was convinced that when I entered the room on my left I’d find my Dad on his knees, struggling to hold him together. Literally.

I turned the knob and the door slowly swung open. Again, I found it odd that everything was in its place. Framed photos stood on an oak dresser like a row of dominos waiting to be tipped-over. The unruffled bed served as evidence that whatever happened to Mr. McNickels, happened before he’d suspended work on his petition in favor of a good nights rest.

I was beginning to suspect that I would never find anything to confirm that an intruder had entered Mr. McNickels’ home, when a hand tapped against the glass of the open window. The fingers were curled in like the legs of a dead spider. The hand dangled from a bony forearm that disappeared above the window frame.

I stood paralyzed. When I finally managed to force my eyes closed it felt like sandpaper because it had been so long since I’d blinked. The shriveled hand continued to tap on the window. I couldn’t hide behind my eyelids forever. I knew I had to look. I had to know if that hand belonged to my Dad.

I opened my eyes, and before better judgment could dissuade me, I poked my head out of the window.

Mr. McNickels’ naked body hung upside-down from the arms of a walnut tree that sprouted from the dirt in his backyard. Thick nails penned his feet to a fat limb, and blood run down his legs. Most of the skin that had once covered his torso now covered his face, hanging from his neck like a skirt.

A flock of crows dropped out of the sky to peck at the meat between his toes, while slowly inching closer to the freshly exposed tissue of his chest and back. The fattest of the flock dived onto Mr. McNickels’ wilted genitals. One greedy eye gauged me, while the other gauged his work. Repulsed, I hurled the rock and the crow mutated into a ball of caws and feathers. I quickly unloaded my coat pocket and the crows retreated into the darkness.

At that moment, it felt like everything I had ever stuffed into my face exploded from my mouth. I even recognized Mom’s casserole from the night before. I withdrew from the window and wiped my mouth on my sleeve.

Then a crazy thought occurred to me. What if Mr. McNickels was still alive? Were all of his movements caused solely by the wind?

I feared I was beginning to lose touch with reality. If I hoped to be of any help, I needed to find my Dad before I lost my mind.

Afraid to turn my back on Mr. McNickels, I retreated from the room by walking backwards and stealing an occasional glance over my shoulder. Once in the hallway, I slammed the door because I couldn’t bear the thought of Mr. McNickels watching me from behind his veil of dead skin.

I crossed the hall and took a quick inventory of my rock supply, which confirmed my fear that I’d squandered every one of them. If Dad truly was fighting to hold himself together, I couldn’t afford to waste anymore time. Not even in search of a worthwhile weapon.

Unarmed, and unnerved, I pushed the door open.

A simple study revived an otherwise stale room. Jumbled bookcases lined the west wall, and a prehistoric desk crouched below an open window. One by one, crumpled sheets rose from a ream on the desk and dived from the window like a brigade of paper paratroopers.

Wedged beneath the closet doorknob, a desk chair stood on two legs, next to a tall filling cabinet.

Dad lay on the floor, his head propped up against the wall. His khaki shirt hung in tattered strings from his waist, and his arms were crossed over his chest like a corpse eager for his coffin. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was moving.

I knelt beside him and gently nudged his shoulder. He groaned and his arms fell away from his chest, revealing a large gash and milk white bone.

I began to cry. “Dad? Wake-up, Dad.”

His eyes rolled open. “Daddy’s too tired to play right now, Itsy-Bitsy Buddy.”

Dad had not used that nickname since before my fifth birthday. It was obvious I was not the only one at risk of losing my mind. Then the cloud lifted from his eyes.

“I think I hit it,” he said. He tried to smile as blood-bubbles formed and broke at the corners of his mouth. “I hit the bastard.” Dad made it a point never to use harsh language whenever I was within earshot; so whatever it was, it was indeed a bastard.

Then his eyes drifted behind his head and he returned to his psychosis as quickly as he’d come. “Have you seen my wrench?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck and dropped my head onto his shoulder.

Something stirred inside the house. The floorboards squeaked. The wind whispered up the stairs. Mr. McNickels’ wilted hand tapped, tapped, tapped, against his bedroom window. Yet these were not the sounds that had bent my ear. It was something else. Something inside the room.

My eyes darted from one dark corner to another, then lit on the barricaded closet. The knob slowly turned. Whatever it was that lurked inside was ready to come out. It leaned on the door but the makeshift lock held.

Two bullet holes punctured the wall a few inches to the left of the closet. Dad had missed, yet inadvertently succeeded in forcing the creature to retreat into the closet where he imprisoned it with the aid of the desk chair and the filing cabinet.

The creature buried its shoulder against the door, and the chair and cabinet inched across the hardwood floor.

I dug into my coat pocket to retrieve a rock before I remembered that I’d wasted them in defense of Mr. McNickels’ corpse. I scanned the room for anything that might serve as an adequate weapon. A letter opener sat on the desk, and I nearly stumbled over Dad’s revolver when I rushed to fetch it.

The creature’s excessively long fingers wrapped around the lip of the door and probed in all directions, like separate snakes, each with their own agenda. An almost human nose pressed against the small gap in the door, and sniffed the air like a starving beast that had just caught the scent of breakfast. Its breath rose in such thick puffs I could actually see it climb into the air.

I grabbed the gun and cocked the hammer point. There were four shots left in its chamber. I raised the revolver level with my shoulder and cupped my left hand under my right, mimicking the stance Dad had used.

Its fingers retreated into the closet. There was an incredibly heavy thud as the creature hit the door. Then drew back and hit again. A jolt traveled through the floor and crawled up my wobbly legs. The door began to split down the center and the cabinet crashed to the floor.

“I told you I’m too tired,” Dad mumbled.

I pulled the trigger and fired two quick shots. Both bullets embedded themselves into the wall a few inches to the left of the closet. Like father, like son.

The creature paused, as if taking the time to register that I was now armed, then drew back and rammed the door again.

The door trembled in its frame, and a puff of dust billowed from the top.

I fired again and the bullet tore through the door. There was a loud thump as it (whatever it was) collapsed inside the closet, pulling clothes off their hangers as it fell. I listened. I waited.

If John Carpenter and Wes Craven had taught me anything, it’s that monsters never die that easily. They always jump up one last time.

Outside, a car crunched over the gravel in the driveway, and a pair of headlights swung past the window. Backup had arrived.

I listened. I waited.

A thunderous crash shook the house to its foundation as the creature struck again. The door splintered from top to bottom, and a not-quite human face thrust its stretched head through the wreckage.

Its dark eyes grew wide as it saw that the gun had remained poised in my hands.

I pulled the trigger.

The last bullet erupted from the gun in a shower of sparks. It struck the creature’s cheek just below the eye, and the left side of its head burst into chunks of black flesh and bits of white bone.

They were right. It was not a man.

She remained standing. Staring at the impossibly small figure that trembled in front of her. A tear escaped her right eye, and she crumbled onto her half eaten placenta.

“Jesus!” A deep voice roared from the bottom of the stairs.

I plucked bits of skull from my tangled hair, then dropped the revolver and collapsed onto the floor next to my Dad. He looked at me and said, “You win, Itsy-Bitsy Buddy. Now run and tell your Mom the mail’s here.”

Karl Rainey stumbled into the room, toting his pump-action hunting rifle. He froze just inside the doorway and pressed his hand to his heart.

“God in Heaven,” he uttered.

As a witness to something so horrendous, I instantly began to question how accurate his utterance was.

Copyright Matthew Carroll 2005

back to Contents