An Everything Quests: Scary Stories story.
"Are they still there?"
Cal was out of sight behind the planking, as we both lay under the wooden deck with our chins resting painfully on the verge of shale and limestone rock beneath the outer rim's drainage line. From this position, I could see across the slope of the lawn, over the low stone wall at the other side and across a small stretch of Route 44. At the right end of this patch, the road went behind a small rolling hill and appeared again in the distance as it curved back around the side of the ridge. Eventually, Little Stapleton was in that direction, perhaps a couple of miles.
To the left, the road was obscured by the beginnings of a long row of tall, proud spruce trees. They were still quite lush, in their bluish coniferous way, and brushy needles cut off sightlines all the way down to the ground. There was perhaps fifty feet of the road visible between these two barriers. To the left, the road went around the small hill on which the house stood; out of sight around to the left was a break in the spruce where the driveway (a rutted dirt track, oiled in the wet season) pushed out to it, a capillary of commerce reaching for a vein.
In happy times, trucks vanished down that driveway several times a week, carrying a sloshing load of warm fresh milk from the holding tanks at the end of the barn. The barn, down the hill behind us, was easily locatable by the constant relaxed lowing of cattle and the warm smell of manure overlying the sharp acid of fresh hay. Some nights we'd crawl to the top of the barn and count stars. A few nights before, we'd laughed as a shooting star 'fell,' ruining the count before we lost count ourselves.
Now, however, Cal and I lay beneath the deck, watching the road, straining to see the road where it jogged back into sight nearer town.
The game didn't change, ever. The Aliens would land near town. There'd be no help to get, and he and I would be forced to play the last ditch defense, our plinking rifles laid out beside us as we waited (patient snipers) beneath the deck at the side of my house. My gun was with me now, its metal warmed from my side, a nice light Savage-Anschütz .22 Long Rifle. I had it loaded with the Lightning hi-power rounds we used for shooting more distant targets; indeed, at the moment, there were two paper squares hurriedly tacked to the side of the spruce trees at the beginning of the row. From experience, we knew those targets were one hundred and thirty feet away. The Lightning cartridges on top of the high speed of the .22 rimfire meant that there'd be almost no bullet drop between us and them; the right target (mine) had five holes within the five-ring, and Cal's had four, with the fifth just a hair low. He'd adjusted his sights after the grouping.
"Happy birthday, Jan." Cal's voice was comforting, the familiar laughter in it. "You old fart."
Fourteen. Huh. Yeah. Soon we'd be going off to high school, days, and wouldn't be able to prowl the hillocks and killing zones of the farm's fields and buildings, stopped only occasionally by Dad, who would raise an eyebrow until we showed him the empty barrels of our guns, the bolts safely in our pockets. Only then would he nod, and pretend he hadn't seen us. Sometimes, if he wasn't busy, he'd begin to loudly 'report' to his Alien Overlord Commando on his personal voxaphone, telling headquarters of the particularly juicy human cutlets wandering about the farm and recounting, in frustrated tones, how the little snacks kept eluding him and killing the members of his harvesting squad with their pathetic (but effective) little slugthrowers.
We'd slink away then, looking for the perfect overview to the area he or the hands were working in, so that we could pretend to continue our stealthy guerrilla campaign of attrition.
Weekends, sometimes, when Dad wasn't busy (almost never) he'd come down Saturday morning with gravity visible in his face, checking his pistol. On those days (which usually seemed to be when Cal was over) we'd freeze in ecstatic surprise, and scrabble below our breakfast chairs for the small boxes there. Dad would draw a mug of coffee, cock his pistol, place it on the table, and the day would start:
"OVERCOMMANDO!" he would tell Mom loudly. "OVER, I'M GOING TO FINISH MY BREAKFAST RATION AND HUNT US SOME KIDLETS."
"Not too old and tough, dear," she'd shout back from the kitchen. Her voice, saturated with laughter, is still clear in my memory.
"Oh, no worry," he'd reply, face obscured by coffee. "I'll be heading out in three minutes." Or five, or - sometimes - one.
At that, we'd jump from our chairs and pelt outside, pausing only to grab our rifles from the rack near the door before dashing out into the yard, boxes clutched in our tight fists. There would always be that moment of exquisite anticipatory panic, as we wondered where he'd start looking. Should we stick together? Split up? No more than five seconds later, we'd be off, ending up in the treeline above the house, or in the hayloft of the barn, or (once) lying partially hidden in the rain gutters of the barn roof.
I woke from the musings, and saw them, the horrible creatures! Aliens! I raised my rifle slowly; soft rustlings told me Cal had done the same under the other side of the deck. "Right," I muttered, placing the ring sight over the paper cranium of the right-hand invader. A slight whistle told me Cal had heard me, and was exhaling for the shot.
Bang-cr-a-ack. The two lashes of pellets reaching supersonic came almost as one, and out near the spruces, two more holes appeared - the targets hit, and the farm safe. I strained my ears, but even so, couldn't hear the action of Cal's bolt. His Remington was less accurate than my Savage, but the Nylon 66 used Teflon for all its moving surfaces, and I couldn't hear a thing. My own bolt ting-ed softly, dropping a warm casing into my cupped and waiting left hand. The sudden stink of cordite wrinkled my nose as always. I replaced the bullet in the gun's eight-round box magazine with a fresh one, clicking the bullet down into the well, and closed the bolt.
A bird chirped, experimentally. Nothing else moved. I had a sudden urge for lunch, just as always. I hoped you couldn't fail sniper school because of a growling stomach. Lowering my gun, Cal and I having agreed without speaking not to relocate yet (the previous pair hadn't had time to report our position), I felt my eyes defocus slightly, and I smiled-
Usually, those happy Saturdays, we'd have at least two or three minutes to hide from Dad. He hated rushing coffee. That day in the barn gutters, I'd spread myself carefully onto the pile of half-sodden leaves in the gutter pipe, and opened the small box as quietly as possible. Inside, twenty-five .22 rimfire cartridges peeked back at me, bright orange in color. I removed one, pulled my magazine from my pocket, and jacked the bullet down into it. Seven more and the magazine was full, so I returned the box to my jacket pocket, slotted the magazine and worked the bolt quietly. Then I raised my head onto my forearm just enough to see over the edge of the gutter, and peeked over at the back door to the house.
I didn't see him coming, of course. You never did. Dad was getting older, but he hadn't spent twenty years in the Army for nothing, and the berets on his wall were anything but ceremonial. There was a pam from somewhere out front, and a shout of pain and disappointment as Cal was taken out. I shook my head slightly; we'd screwed up. With the house between us, I didn't have nearly enough information about where Dad was from the shot. Still, he had to come around one of two sides, or out the back door. My rifle's barrel was aimed in the general direction of the house; it was slowly traversing between those three points. One minute passed. Two. I was reminding myself to breathe regularly; the instinct to hold my breath was almost overpowering, but I needed to be fully oxygenated when I finally did stop breathing for the shot. I was a couple of hundred feet from the house. Nothing on the right side. Nothing on the left. The back door -
The back door was moving, ever so slowly. I was confused; usually, Dad's much better, but the rules were the rules, movement meant target. I centered the ring just below the doorknob and waited, shifting my weight just slightly.
The crea-aa-ak sound was unexpected, but not alarming; the roof of the barn wasn't meant for heavy use. I kept my eyes to the ring sight. The door was still slowly opening. I was just taking up slack on the trigger, when the creaking morphed quickly into a noise like a giant distressed zipper, and I was moving - slowly at first, then more quickly, as the back door burst open to frame Dad. He was looking towards the barn, his face beginning to register concern over his pistol, and part of me realized the rain gutter was collapsing -
The pain, when I hit the ground, was enormous. Leaves, PVC piping, dust, wood and shingles rained down over me; one square hit me a particularly nasty way over my left ear. Dad was running down the hill, now, fear on his face, the pistol hanging from one hand, and there was an unbelievable pain in my midsection. I checked my whimper, and with the darkness closing in swiftly, lined up.
I imagined Dad jolted, losing the pistol, his chest flowering red as he fell backwards, and I felt my rifle drop as an unbearable sleepiness took me-
I'd woken, that Sunday, to the ceiling of my room. Mom was sitting by the bed reading; when I tied to sit up, she dropped the book and put her hand on my chest. "No, Jan, no, don't. You've got broken bones."
I gathered that. My front hurt like fire. I settled down, releasing muscles to feel the relief of pain.
"You've got four broken ribs, love. The doctor's been in to see they're straight, and he's getting a pressure bandage for you, but you're not to move." She had stood up and moved to the side table, one hand still resting cool on my chest, and now took a compress and laid it on my brow. The cool spread through my head, and a sudden relief of heat made several more muscles let go. I think I did whimper, then, once. She looked over at me, concerned, and smiled as our eyes met. Removing her restraining hand, she reached back and brought forward a glass of water, helping me to sip.
At that moment, Dad came through the door.
He looked haggard and the lines on his face were pronounced, but he was smiling, with a bit of a tear in one eye. "Evening, snake."
"Hi Dad." I tried to speak softly so it didn't hurt as much. "How're you?" I stopped, fighting an urge to cough.
Dad smiled wider, tears now definitely visible, and opened his jacket.
There was a red stain over his heart.
When he opened his shirt, the yellow and purple bruise was visible. He closed it after a moment. "You made the shot, son."
"I'm glad, Dad. I thought...I thought I had, but I...I didn't know, and it hurt, so I had to..."
"Shh." He closed his jacket again. He stood there for a few moments, silent. "You know, even in the field, there were only a couple of men I'd've trusted to be able to make the shot under those conditions."
I didn't know what to say.
He came over to the bed, knelt and placed his hands, rough and callused, over my right hand where it lay on the coverlet. "But I'm mostly just glad you're okay, boy." He retrieved his hands long enough to wipe his eyes, then took mine again. "I'd go out with you, Jan. I'd go out with you over any of the others, and I'd not worry about my back." He looked awkward, knowing this was strange praise, but I understood, and the pain retreated several yards as a warm feeling came over me. I squeezed his hands, and he returned the gesture, before standing. He reached behind his back and retrieved a small package, which he put on the bed near me. Leaning over, he kissed me on the forehead and went out. Mom just smiled.
Later, when they'd gone, she to fix dinner and he to bed down the cows, I got Cal (who'd come over midday) to open the package for me. His eyes bulged, and he laid the contents on my bed near my side-turned face so I could inspect them. There was a Zeiss telescopic sight, stabilized, and five boxes of .22 Magnum match ammo. Full Metal Jacket, to replace the paint marker rounds I'd fallen on and cracked, their blood mingling with my own under my windbreaker and my nose tingling with the mixed smells of iron and powder as the blood and bullets mixed.
The two weeks before I could test them out were the hardest I've ever known.
Now, here we were again. There was movement at the end of the lawn, something approaching from the road. I raised the rifle, and there he was - Dad, pistol in hand, moving out from behind the small hill, eyes tracking slackly up the hill. I led him a few feet, and as it always was, the flat crack-ack of the shot was a surprise to me as well. The round crossed the distance in a couple of milliseconds, and Dad's head snapped back, his goggles shifting but staying on his head, and he dropped back behind the hill.
"Damn." Cal said it quietly.
We crawled out from under the deck and sprinted down the lawn, rifles held with barrels up to protect them from dirt. Hurdling the wall, we stopped to get our balance, and just before rounding the corner, I noticed Cal's chest was red. I'd thought the shot had sounded long; Dad must've got one off before I tagged him, and Cal had paid this round.
We came around the corner. Dad was hunched, still on the ground, his hands still adjusting his goggles. I approached him, and gave him a small shove with my boot.
He rolled back over. His hands fell away from the reddish cavity in his forehead. His eyes were pointing in different directions, and one was bloodshot. Blood and brains spattered the ground behind where he'd been standing. Cal choked, writhing, and I turned to look at him. He was, in fact, bleeding from the chest. Quite a bit, in fact. His movements were becoming less and less coordinated, and he forced his head to turn and gaze at me. Our eyes met. He was almost done with his seizure.
I shot him in the throat, offhand, the gun near my hip. He shook, once, then with a fast-fading look of...something, he fell sideways and lay still.
I picked up Dad's pistol, and trudged back towards the house, ignoring the buzzing heap where Mom was. She'd been one of the first, and she'd come back before we knew what was going on. Dad hadn't understood, and she'd been on him before he could force himself to move, and that had been that. Cal had shot her, and I'd almost killed him then, but he'd clubbed me with his rifle butt and held me down, sobbing, until I had come to my senses and looked at her bloodless face and the lack of blood near the bullet hole. She'd been zombi all right, and Cal had saved my life.
I turned and put a pistol bullet through Cal's brain before he stood up, and went back to my cold dark bed of stones.
I'm hoping that whatever is going on is a local thing (since Cal and I and Dad were OK, initially) but the last radio station has gone silent, with no warning or reason, and the phones haven't worked since the beginning. I keep waiting, and no help comes.
I have seventy-nine rounds left, and the last one's saved.
This was written for the quest, and is written in homage to the movie that has frightened me more than anything else - Night of the Living Dead, the original. It wasn't the actual zombies that were so scary - it was the effectiveness of the illusion that this was, in fact, happening, and all over the world even though you could only see your little blighted corner. So that, even though you fought, and killed them with head shots, and barricaded, and held out-
...it didn't matter. They'd get you in the end.
That fear of the normal-looking countryside coupled with the absolute certainty that not only was there no hope but that you couldn't just quit are what made that movie frighten me.