by JC Hemphill
Cooper Hurst watched as dark, oppressive clouds overran the blue tranquility of the afternoon sky, casting a gloom over Aberdeen, Georgia. A breeze accompanied the low-hanging ceiling, filling the neighborhood with a frenzied sough and an unmistakable energy as a seething behemoth named Hurricane Madison moved in.
He stood on the front lawn of his family’s white colonial, waiting for Dad to return with nails so they could finish covering the windows. Leaning on a sheet of plywood, Cooper watched as the neighbor across the street made room in his garage for his Acura, and wondered if Mr. Finely knew the National Weather Service had upgraded Madison to a Category Five.
His gaze moved to the two moss-draped oaks flanking the sidewalk, and he worried about the ancient tree’s network of branches surviving. He had made the varsity baseball team at school as a sophomore, which he attributed to two things. First was Dad’s tenacious dedication to practicing with him, but the second were those trees. During the overbearing heat of summer when most teens traded baseball mitts for air-conditioning and video games, he and Dad would throw the baseball in the shade of those trees for hours.
The wind intensified, violently whipping the Georgia Bulldog flag mounted to the front of the house. Cooper rested the plywood against the stack of other boards, and removed the flag from its mount. As he twisted it around the mast, Dad strode across the lawn with a box of nails, ignoring the wind pulling his navy polo and cargo pants against his lean frame.
“We better get crackin on this,” Dad shouted. “Madison just hit Savannah.”
“Mr. Finely isn’t boarding up. You think we should warn him?”
“You just worry about getting our own windows covered. Storm’ll be here soon." As if to prove his point, the winds intensified and the clouds filled with ink, deepening the shadow over Aberdeen. "Besides, if Finely isn’t boarding up, it’s because he doesn’t have the material."
Cooper glanced at their neighbor, and considered running over anyways. But, of course, Dad was right. The meteorologists had spent all week predicting that Madison would sail right past Georgia, so most people weren’t prepared when the hurricane swung inland. Luckily, Dad kept a store of emergency supplies in the garage.
They covered the first floor, but with high winds threatening imminent danger and the first fat drops of rain falling, the two men retreated inside, leaving the second floor exposed.
When Cooper entered the house, he found Mom writing a list and yelling random words as his two younger siblings rushed to fetch the items she called for. As soon as everything was gathered–food and water, blankets and pillows, candles and flashlights–Cooper and his twelve-year-old brother, Joshua, hauled it to the basement.
“I hate it down here,” Joshua said as he and Cooper carried a long cooler of food down.
“Yeah, I did too when I was your age,” Cooper responded. His foot found the basement floor, and they sat the cooler with the other supplies. “I always pictured giant nests of spiders and rats.”
“I’m not afraid of spiders,” Joshua responded, sounding offended by the comment. He puffed his chest out and his tone switched to pure bravado. “Nothin scares me, Coop. Nothin.”
“Oh? Then what’s the problem?”
“Well … there’s no walls or carpet or anything, so we got no privacy. It’s always cold. And, well, what’re we gonna do down here all night? There’s nothin but the washer and dryer and a bunch of old boxes full of junk.”
“Stop moaning,” Cooper said, playfully pushing Joshua’s shoulder. Joshua took a step back, but instantly recoiled into a stiff posture. Cooper admired his little brother sometimes. Everybody said Joshua and he looked like twins born five years apart. They had the same straight hair, olive skin and hazy blue-green eyes. Their personalities on the other hand, were yin and yang. Twelve-years-old and Joshua had the no-shit-taking attitude of Dog the Bounty Hunter. When Cooper was his age his vocabulary only consisted of two phrases: ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ "We’ve got the radio, and you’ve got your PSP, so that’s a solid seven hours of shooting bad guys right there.”
“Oh yeah,” Joshua exclaimed. He scrambled up the stairs, stretching his skinny legs to take two at a time.
Cooper grabbed a pair of sleeping bags, and looked around for a good spot to unroll. Their basement, which ran the full breadth of the house, was unfinished. Wood studs and exposed wiring marked future walls and divided the basement into rooms.
Other than a single low-wattage bulb in each room, a thin bar of light shone from a squat, rectangular window above the washer and dryer that overlooked the sloping front lawn and Westbridge Drive.
Cooper dropped the sleeping bags in the room with the window, hitched up his sagging jeans, and heard a crack and roll of thunder, followed by a car alarm in the distance.
A tingling crept up his spine and into the base of his skull. He glanced around, suddenly aware of his isolation. A single cone of yellow light cornered him between concrete walls and the consuming darkness of the basement. The bare wood studs disappeared like rows of skinless trees into the thick shadows, reminding him of the dread he experienced as a kid.
He flicked lights on in other rooms, knowing he would only find boxes and studs, boxes and studs, boxes and studs. He stopped when Dad’s booted footsteps echoed across the hardwood floor above.
The upstairs door squeaked. “You down there, Coop?” Dad yelled.
Cooper jogged to the stairs. “Yo.”
“Good. Stay there. We’re coming down.”
Dad stepped back, and a moment later, Baylee came bounding down. Cooper smiled at his sister, fighting back an urge to comment on her lime-green sweatpants, oversized t-shirt, and toe-socks. The last thing she needed was a put-down. She had started her freshman year a couple of weeks earlier, and her middle school friends were scattered in different classes, setting her adrift in the insulated reality of high school. Baylee was smart, witty, and nice. Unfortunately, those qualities, at her age, meant she was shy, disliked, and too often taken advantage of.
“Dad said to keep an eye on the window down here,” she said, moving around him, “make sure nothing outside might break it.”
“Where’s Mom and Josh?”
“They’re coming.” She climbed on top of the washing machine, the thin metal popping under her weight, and stood on her knees to see out. “You better not let Joshua hear you calling him Josh.”
“Yeah, I don’t … unless he’s pissing me off.”
“Geez! You can’t see it upstairs with the windows boarded, but that wind is going crazy. I think the Nelsons’ cat just went flying down the street.”
“Is it raining yet?”
“Nah. A few drops here and there, but not really.” She spun around on her knees, sat on the edge of the washer, adjusted her glasses, and grinned. “They’re saying this is going to be the worst hurricane to hit Georgia in recorded history. Maybe even the entire U.S. The news said the winds broke records at one-hundred and seventy-two miles per hour when it hit land, and eighteen-foot storm surges knocked houses over like they were made of cards.”
Cooper chuckled. “You seem excited.”
“Oh, I am. Didn’t you hear what I just said? Worst in recorded history! And we’re a part of it. One day, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids the harrowing story of how Grammy Baylee survived the worst storm in U.S. history. Wild, right? And to think, until an hour ago, everyone thought it was going to miss us.”
Cooper laughed and shook his head. Baylee was Baylee, and he hoped she never changed. “Well, you better soak in all the excitement you can through that tiny window, oth–“
Lightning blinked, followed by a loud crack of thunder. Baylee squealed and jumped off the washer. Light footsteps skittered across the floor upstairs, followed by Joshua practically falling down the steps.
“Holy crap! You guys hear that?” Joshua said, clutching his PSP in both hands.
Baylee stood next to Cooper, her smile gone. “What’s taking Mom and Dad so long?”
“They’re moving electronics away from the windows.”
Baylee moved to the washer and was climbing back up when the rain started. It came fast, heavy and in crowd-roaring sheets. The entire house sounded like it had been moved to the base of a waterfall. Everyone fell silent, dumbstruck by the racket. Then the wind really kicked. Before, it had been a faint white-noise, barely audible inside, but now wind and rain became instruments in an orchestra, combining to create an awe-inspiring, room-filling cadence.
“I hope they get down here soon,” Baylee whispered as she looked out the window at Madison’s barrage. “Hey, somebody left the Bulldog flag out there.”
Cooper craned his head back with a long groan. “That would be me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry now. The wind just relocated it to the Shadwells’ hedges.”
Cooper groaned again. That flag was Dad’s pride and joy. Mr. Finely across the street had graduated from the University of Florida and flew an orange and blue Gator flag year-round. And for Dad, orange and blue were like garlic to a vampire, so he flew his Bulldogs flag in stoic defiance.
More thunder rolled, and the distant sirens of emergency vehicles came through the rain. Movement behind Cooper surprised him. He turned and found Mom standing over the supplies, marking items off her checklist.
“Hey Mom, what’s the latest on the news?” Cooper asked, moving closer as she counted cans of soup.
“I don’t know. The local station went out a while ago.” She seemed overly intent on her task, and for a second, Cooper thought he noticed a twitch in her slender face. She wore a white blouse and black capris, but her blouse was only half-tucked, and her hair hung in a loose bun–a sure sign of the apocalypse.
“You okay, Mom?”
She stopped counting and looked at Cooper with an ambiguous smile. “Yeah. We’ve just never had a storm this bad.” She glanced around at Baylee and Joshua. Baylee was absorbed in the hurricane and Joshua lay in a sleeping bag with his PSP in hand and headphones on. She nodded to each and locked eyes with Cooper. “Don’t say anything though. I don’t need them scared half-to-death.”
“Ok. No problem,” he said. She turned back to the supplies and resumed counting when Cooper realized something. “What did you mean when you said the local station went out? Do you mean the cable went out?”
She glanced back, and this time he was sure he saw panic hiding in the depths of her pupils. “No. Only Channel Six out of Savannah. And I guess Fox News had a correspondent there covering the storm, but they lost communications with him, too. It’s the weirdest thing. The channels out of Atlanta and Jacksonville are fine, but anything in the storm’s path is silent."
Madison had been abusing the house for fifteen minutes when Dad finally came downstairs. He didn’t have the same worried look as Mom. Ten blistering years in demolition and another twelve as a freelance contractor had hardened him. Minor problems barely registered, and bigger ones–like the worst hurricane in U.S. history–seemed more like inconveniences than anything.
When the power went out, Joshua was glued to his handheld. Mom had just climbed onto the dryer next to Baylee, facing the room instead of the storm, and Cooper was helping Dad rearrange boxes. The lights died without a warning flicker, leaving the Hurst family in a sea of black. Only Joshua’s PSP and a pale light from the squat window offered illumination.
“Stay put, I’ll find the lantern,” Dad ordered, unsnapping the cell phone from his belt for light. After a fumbled search, Cooper heard a rattling of matches, and soon the room came to life with an orange radiance that flickered and danced in the edges of the shadows.
Dad sat on a rolled sleeping bag, and stared into the lantern. Cooper did the same, and listened to the storm’s chaos. In the dim light, beneath the pressure of nature’s tantrum, he realized how insignificant they were. Like ants, they had built their home as sturdy as they could, fortified it against the elements, and now hid in its depths, praying the walls kept the waters from seeping in and drowning them.
“Thanks for your help with the windows,” Dad said, and switched on a weather radio older than Cooper and his two siblings combined. Static poured out.
“Yeah, no problem.” An image of finding Dad’s flag stuck in someone’s windshield after the storm passed came to mind. There was only one Georgia Bulldogs flag on Westbridge Drive, so there’d be no hiding who it belonged to. He debated whether to tell him now, or stay silent and hope for the best. He knew what his younger brother would do: Joshua would play his game and ignore the problem. But Cooper didn’t like the idea of having that guillotine of uncertainty hanging over his neck.
“Um … I accidently left the flag outside and it blew into the Shadwells’ bushes,” Cooper said.
“Mike!” Mom hissed, unnoticed.
“–I meant to bring that in.” Dad must’ve sensed Cooper’s tension, because he added, “Thanks for taking it down for me, at least. Woulda broken the pole or ripped the mount out the wall if you hadn’t.”
“Sure. I just wish I remembered to bring it in.”
“Well, hopefully Madison will carry it on down to Florida for us.”
Dad surprised him with a forced laugh and Cooper noted the way he continually played with the radio. Static and feedback squealed over vacant bandwidths. Frustrated, he shut the box off and stared into the flame. For the first time in Cooper’s life, the old man showed stress, and it dawned on him that beneath the leathered skin and rigid lines, Dad was just another ant huddled in the basement.
His mother broke the silence with a soft whisper, “Did you hear that?” Everyone paused. Cooper only heard thunder cracking every few minutes and the house groaning under the force of wind and rain.
“What?” Dad and Baylee asked in unison.
“I thought I heard something hit the house.” Her eyes moved to the ceiling. “It sounded heavy … like maybe one of the bookcases fell over in the office.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Cooper said.
“You don’t think something could have broken a window already, do you Mike?”
“Could be,” Dad answered. “Nothing we can do until this passes, though.”
His mom sat upright, completely motionless. She scanned the ceiling as if she were looking through it and into the other floors.
“Whew!” Baylee said from the window. “You know how the weird green house up the street put new mulch down last week?” Cooper nodded. “It’s being blown all over the place. Brown flakes are plastered to everything.”
“Shush,” Mom whispered, still looking up. “Listen.”
She raised a hand and clamped her fingers and thumb together in a closing mouth gesture. “I said shush.”
The four listened. Joshua mashed buttons on his PSP; the soundtrack of warfare blared from his headphones; a faint hiss of gas from the lantern; the storm raged; hearts beat.
Dad raised both eyebrows, and began to speak when a loud crash from upstairs carried through the walls. His mother jumped, and her eyes darted to her husband. Dad’s expression dropped from skeptical to irritated.
“I worried about those trees,” Dad said in a knowing, half-expectant tone.
“You think a branch hit the house?” Mom asked.
“Had to be. What else would make that much racket?”
“How should I know? Do you see any broken branches out there, Baylee?”
Baylee faced them with wide eyes, and shook her head. “No. I think that might’ve been something else. I can’t really tell, but it looks like the storm picked up a bunch of debris. Lots of stuff is floating in the distance, so maybe something got blown into the house.”
Mom wedged in at the window and Baylee said, “See? Looks more like a tornado hit a ranch and picked up a bunch of horses, right?"
“What is all that?” Mom asked.
Baylee and Mom both screamed when another thud hit the house. The second impact was followed by a crunching, tearing sound, like pieces of rotted wood being ripped from the hull of an old ship.
“What’s happening?” Joshua asked, putting his game down and pulling his headphones off.
“I don’t know,” Cooper said. “We think something slammed into the house.”
“Shhh.” Dad held a finger over his lips. A softer thud resounded through the ceiling overhead. Everyone stopped and looked up. “That was inside the house.”
Cooper’s throat went dry. Dad was right. The sound returned, louder, closer. It moved in successive, meandering steps as if searching for something.
“Someone’s walking through the kitchen,” Cooper said.
All eyes turned to Dad. They watched as his jaw clenched in deep concentration, waiting, suspended in fear’s grip. The walking continued. They paused–dishes rattled, pots clanged–then returned to the slow, malicious wandering.
Dad’s eyebrows raised, and he focused on Cooper. “I haven’t gotten a cell signal since we came down here, and I doubt your mother even brought hers,” he glanced at her for confirmation, “so this one’s on us. I want you to find a weapon. Anything sharp or hard. Take everyone to the back corner–no lights–and wait.”
Cooper understood. He considered talking Dad out of going. They could hide and hope the intruder left. Maybe he’d move on. But from the smoldering look of a dishonored man on Dad’s face, Cooper guessed nothing he said would stop him.
“You can’t go up there,” Mom pleaded. “For all you know there might be a whole gang of hopheads waiting to knock your teeth in.”
He stepped in front of her, and placed a hand on her cheek. “Listen here, Grace. I’m not letting some hooligan trash our home. End of story.” She dropped her face, and slunk back. Looking at Cooper, he added, “Stay hidden, no matter what.”
Cooper nodded one last time, and turned to his brother. “Josh, start moving everything to the back right corner, away from the water heater.”
“Don’t call me Josh,” he whined.
“Just go. Baylee, you and Mom can help. Take the lamp with you, but dim it.”
Dad seemed content with their arrangement, and went to the stairs. The door opened into the back of the house, hidden from direct sight of the kitchen. He would have the benefit of surprise if the intruder stayed there. But if he moved to the living room or office, Dad would be in plain sight.
As Cooper dug his old Louisville Slugger from a pile of retired toys, Dad smiled weakly at him, then ascended the stairs. He watched his father’s boots disappear above the ceiling, and the door squeaked as it slowly swung open. Cooper hurried to the rear of the basement, whispering for Mom to extinguish the lantern. When she did, the loss of sight intensified the sounds of the storm, and the dark became menacing, hiding an imagination’s worth of possibilities.
He couldn’t decide if the footsteps had stopped or if they were out of audible range. Either way, the absence of sound was more unsettling than the actual thing. Without the footsteps overhead to mark the intruder’s location, he could be anywhere, at anytime. The idea of a man in the house grew into a horror story. His mind instantly conjured supernatural assumptions, turning the intruder into an all-knowing, all-seeing entity that could move and blend with shadows. He might appear anywhere at any moment, grinning, silently waiting for you to turn around.
Long minutes stretched without a peep from upstairs. His father had been gone for too long, and Cooper took no news as bad news. Baylee squeezed Cooper’s hand when another loud bang issued from upstairs.
“Maybe I should go check on Dad,” Cooper whispered.
“No,” Mom’s discordant voice came from a shaded outline. “You’ll stay here with us like your father said.”
“What if he’s hurt?”
“And if he is, do you really think you’d be able to do any better than he did? I don’t. You stay here.”
“Cooper Allen Hurst, this discussion is closed.”
“Fine. But I’m going back to the stairs where I can listen for him. Besides, if someone comes down here looking for us, I’d be better-off getting a jump on them while they’re on the steps.”
A cold hand reached out and grabbed his wrist. “If you go upstairs, so help me–“
“I won’t, Mom.”
She released his arm, and he quietly stood and felt his way forward. Led by the rectangle of light from the window, he reached the washer and dryer, and listened for a moment. No thumping. No loud bangs. No Dad.
He climbed on the washer, and peered out. Streaks of rain ran almost horizontal in a hissing wind, creating a mist that dampened his view. The Finely’s two-story house was visible and a few bending oaks in their backyard, but beyond that was a veiling wall of gray.
Cooper sighted the shapes Baylee had described as floating debris, but for some reason, floating didn’t seem like the right word for what the blotches in the storm were doing. No, he would describe them as gliding, like what a bird does between flaps of its wings. They weren’t being carried by the wind. They were riding it.
The more he focused on the shapes, the more he spotted. In every sector of the sky, dozens wavered in and out of sight with the surging tempest, riding the storm.
Engrossed by the shapes, Cooper forgot about Dad. For now, this phenomenon was paramount.
Two silhouettes shifted down in the wind like birds switching between in-air streams as they descend, and Cooper’s mind derailed. He couldn’t be seeing hurricane hang gliders. How would that even be possible? The raw power would shred any man into confetti, yet these things managed to harness it.
A crunching from above snapped his mind back to Dad. He glanced at the stairs, hoping to hear the door open and Dad’s voice telling him everything was okay. Instead, Glass broke, followed by the return of the thumping footsteps. They moved faster now–restless, hunting. A sense of sinking filled him as he realized that Dad wasn’t coming back.
Movement outside caught his attention. He snapped around in time to see a shadow dart from the sky and land on the Finely’s roof with a crash. The creature was huge–at least eight feet tall–and covered in shimmering skin like an amphibian. It straddled the apex of the roof, and with massive three-pronged claws, brutally tore through the shingles. In seconds, the black creature had created a ragged hole. It then tucked its arms and slid through, vanishing into the Finely’s attic.
Two more black blurs darted from the sky to the roof, each landing like a flameless meteor, and slid smoothly into the house. They were quick, moving with boneless fluidity.
Cooper’s initial thought was to go back and find his bat, but after seeing the alien creatures invading the Finely’s house, a baseball bat just seemed silly.
Cooper almost fell backwards at his brother’s voice. His heart rammed against his chest, and his bladder suddenly felt strained, but he was glad Joshua came. A familiar, normal face brought reality back.
“Sorry,” Joshua whispered, moving closer. “We thought we heard breaking glass, so Mom let me come make sure you didn’t go upstairs.” He paused a few feet from Cooper, and his eyes darted around the room. A scared little boy had replaced the twelve-year-old’s brazen nature. “Dad hasn’t come back down yet?”
“No.” Cooper hesitated, almost adding that Dad wouldn’t ever come back. Not if one of those creatures roamed the house.
“Ma-maybe we should try calling nine-one-one from the kitchen phone.”
Images of confronting an eight-foot monster in the tight confines of the kitchen struck painful twinges of fear in him. Then he thought about finding Dad half-eaten, blood strewn about the house.
Cooper turned back to the window, ignoring Joshua’s idea. The rain–while still pouring–fell straighter. The tree limbs were returning to their original shape, and the storm-riding creatures were nowhere in sight.
“We’ll wait awhile first,” Cooper said, turning back to his brother. Joshua stood with his hands cupped on his elbows. “For now, we need to go back to Mom and Baylee.”
Cooper moved from a kneeling position to a sit. The bending metal of the washer popped and crinkled, forcing him to freeze, worried the thing upstairs might hear. While shifting his weight from butt to hands, a scream pierced the rain. Cooper raised his eyebrows at Joshua. Another scream, louder and drawn out. Cooper turned back to the window without worrying about the noise he made. As the scream diminished into mournful cries of suffering, Cooper spotted the stumbling, disheveled figure of Mr. Finely on his sidewalk. At first, Cooper thought he wore some sort of clown shirt with a frilly red collar. But that wasn’t right. Mr. Finely wore a white button-down with a blood-saturated ring around the neck. His lips peeled back and his mouth hung agape in a continual cry. His eyes flinched and flicked in the downpour, and one awkward step after another, he staggered toward the street.
Joshua pleaded for information, but Cooper only registered Mr. Finely’s agonizing cries. The man fell forward when he reached the curb, landing on all fours. His mouth hung open, silent in the crying equivalent of a dry-heave.
Mr. Finely managed to stand on his knees when a darting black blur slammed into the ground next to him. A disbelieving tingle crept through Cooper as he watched the desperate sight. It had the general sketching of a human–arms, legs, a head–but the features weren’t as well-defined. The legs melded together gradually instead of adjoining at a hip, and the top of its head sloped to the edges of its shoulders, removing any semblance of a neck. Mr. Finely didn’t have time to react before the slimy-skinned creature wrapped its webbed arms around him, bent its legs and launched into the air. Like a bottle rocket, the huge figure holding Mr. Finely became a speck among the thinning clouds.
A hand yanked on Cooper’s leg from behind, and he spun around with a scream trapped in his throat.
“What?” Cooper barked.
Joshua’s eyes were big. He pointed at the stairs, and whispered, “The door opened.”
Cooper’s muscles petrified and his twisted mind cleared, making way for a new terror. At first, he heard nothing, but then hinges squeaked and the door either slammed closed or open–he didn’t know which.
Cooper swept his limited field of vision for a weapon, and cursed himself for not going back for the baseball bat. The Louisville Slugger might not do much, but he would feel a lot better with something, anything, in his hands.
“Go back,” Cooper whispered, holding Joshua’s eyes, “get the bat and keep Mom and Baylee safe.”
“Why aren’t you coming?”
“The washer makes too much noise. Go.” Sweat trickled down his forehead from the exertion required to stay motionless. Joshua stared for a while, slumped his shoulders and crept away.
Cooper swallowed hard as isolation prevailed. He risked a glance out the window. The rain had slowed to a normal, Georgian drizzle.
The door at the top of the stairs banged again, and Cooper forgot all about the hurricane. A clicking sound sent a numb shock through his body. Long, throaty pops and clicks strung together created an eerie, fear-inducing dolphin call. It came loud and in a distinct pattern, like a rapidly transmitted Morse code.
Cooper wanted to scream, to run, but he remembered Mr. Finely’s violated look just before one of the creatures ripped him from the ground, catapulting hundreds of feet into the storm.
The stream of clicking halted. His heart raced, straining his chest muscles. He eyed the obscured stairs intently, expecting the creature to jump out and wrap him in its embrace at any second.
Glass crashed upstairs, followed by shards hitting the ground just outside the window. The bizarre clicking returned as a creature leaped to the ground from inside the house. From what Cooper could see, it had enormous feet with three, eight-inch talons digging into the saturated soil, and the skin of its calves moved and writhed as if independent of the tissue and bones beneath. The toes spread, freeing the claws from the earth, and in a flash, the creature’s legs were gone.
Cooper had no idea how many of those things had entered the house–at least three invaded the Finely’s house. Glaring at the stairs, he ignored the what-ifs swirling in the back of his mind. Dad was still missing. And if it was Cooper who was missing, Dad would have rushed to save the day without hesitation.
Choosing family over fear, he snuck up the steps. Deep ruts scarred the wood around the door, and he imagined the creature’s claws grasping the frame, taunting with its guttural, phlegm-drenched clicks and pops, waiting to pounce.
Cooper climbed the final steps, and leaned an ear against the door. Only a light beating in his temples responded.
Twisting the handle, he inched the door open and peered into the living room. Other than a broken lamp, an out-of-place rug, and a trail of water, everything appeared normal. He eased the door open, slid through, and crouched low, scanning the house. Light filtered from the second story, but with the ground floor windows boarded over, the living room was a pallid aftermath. He stepped into the open, and paused. No black blurs attacked. No rapid clicking. Nothing.
Moving on, he found the kitchen littered in broken dishes, bent pots, glass, garbage, and pools of water. Rivets, similar to the ones around the door, marred the hardwood floor, and a few cabinet doors hung from broken hinges. A sharp sensation of despair flashed through him when he found a pool of dark-red blood. A long streak extended from the puddle and wrapped around the opposite end of the counter where the streak split into several red-ribbon tracks that Cooper realized were created by fingertips. A debilitating image of his father being dragged by his feet through the kitchen sent a dead chill through him. His fingers tingled and his eyes welled with tears as the full impact sunk in. He had assumed Dad dead, but now, with the undeniable evidence congealing on the floor, he knew.
The blood trail led to the entryway and ended at the closed front door where minute pools settled around the seam. Tears blurring his vision, Cooper snapped the door open and stepped into a disaster zone.
Shades of blue had returned to the sky, the rain had stopped and the wind was a gentle breeze, no more hostile or chaotic than a sunny day at the beach. But leaves, Spanish moss, pine needles, broken tree limbs, and garbage from exposed trashcans littered Westbridge Road. The two trees in the front yard were naked, but intact, and the Finely’s house still had a hole in the roof, which, to an outsider, would appear to be mere storm damage.
He searched the ground for blood, but if there had been any, the rain had washed it away. Cooper ran down the sidewalk, into the empty street, searching for signs of Dad. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he had to try.
He ignored the other houses with holes in the roofs and broken windows.
He turned and found Mom standing at the door with a hand on her forehead, sweating worry, but nothing near the distress of someone who knew her husband was dead. He wondered if she somehow missed the blood.
“I told you not to come up here!” She marched toward him, but he no longer cared. She had no idea.
Cooper turned away and stared at the faded blue sky edged in smoky clouds. The breeze was firm, and Cooper breathed it in deep. The humid aroma of fresh rain and a cleansed environment excited his lungs, filling them with bittersweet refreshment.
Mom shook his arm, saying something in a harried tone, but Cooper couldn’t hear her. He looked past her as Joshua and Baylee exited the house. Mom didn’t seem aware that they had followed her. Baylee craned her neck to survey the damage, but Joshua stood erect, unmoving. Joshua knew.
Thunder rumbled in the distance and the wind shifted direction. Neighbors came out of the houses without holes, congregating as people do, lured by devastation.
“Cooper! Are you listening? Where’s your dad?”
“I don’t know, Mom,” he responded, pushing her aside.
Something in the sky didn’t seem right. The faded blue blended into a murkier gray. The wind stiffened. “Is the storm coming back?” he whispered, not wanting an answer.
“We’re in the eye.” She said, moving around to face him. “What’s wrong, Coop?”
The eye, he thought, uncomprehending, but sensing importance in the phrase. Thunder clapped.
The eye of the storm.
His vision focused on Mom’s worried face, and words burst from him as if they had always been there, waiting for this moment to be released. “GET BACK IN THE HOUSE. NOW.”
She flinched at his reaction. She didn’t understand, but he didn’t have time to explain. He looked around, frantic. Neighbors were wiping their foreheads in mock relief, talking, and pointing around, oblivious.
Cooper grabbed Mom’s arm and yanked her toward the house. She budged, but fought him. A few drops of rain hit his face, and Cooper doubled his efforts. She pulled away from his grasp, yelling. Cooper tried to grab her, but with his eyes on the sky he missed.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asked, backing away. “We need to find your father.”
A black dot drifted into sight with the gliding clouds as the eyewall of the hurricane drew nearer. A hundred yards down the street, where a group of four neighbors congregated, four black flashes hit the ground, ensnared each person in a slimy cocoon, and disappeared into the sky, erasing them from Westbridge Drive.
Ignoring Mom’s pleas, Cooper grabbed her by the waist, hoisted her off the ground, and carried her toward the front door. More black blurs darted in his peripheral vision. She thrashed and kicked his shins, forcing him to drop her. As she reached back to slap him, a shadow seemed to materialize behind her. Its face was featureless. No eyes. No ears. No nose. Just a snarling, insatiable mouth.
Before Cooper could utter a single word, the creature wrapped her in its slimy arms. Baylee screamed. The creature issued a long series of throaty clicks, almost laughing, and launched into the air with his mother.
Cooper didn’t have time to cry.
A black blur landed on the roof of his house, and slid into a hole. Joshua stood in the doorway transfixed, and Baylee dropped to the floor, screaming.
They didn’t have much time. “Take your sister to the basement,” he shouted. “Don’t come out until someone comes to find you.”
The basement had protected them once, so maybe it would again.
Cooper locked eyes with Joshua. The twelve-year-old focused and he saw the familiar bravery return that he admired so much, and his mind flashed back to Joshua’s puffed chest and defiant exclamation: ‘Nothin scares me, Coop. Nothin.’
Cooper pulled his shoulders back, extending his own chest, and nodded to his little brother.
It’s my turn to be brave.
Something heavy hit the ground behind him, and Cooper sensed an intense heat radiating on his back, followed by the sickening clicks that he now recognized as anticipation-laced excitement. Without hesitation, Joshua pulled Baylee to her feet and tugged her into the house.
Wet arms wrapped around him, cracking his ribs and collar bone. His chest constricted, cutting off his oxygen supply, and the creature’s slimy skin moved, sliding over him like an eel.
His feet lifted off the ground and he sensed the Earth growing small beneath him. He almost felt as if the planet was moving away from him, instead of the other way around. The creature let out a series of braying clicks, and Cooper felt a sharp pain in his chest. Warm blood splashed the underside of his chin.
The creature released him from its grasp, and the final image Cooper saw was of the hurricane. From high above, he took in the full range of Madison and her angry mass of clouds twisting around an open eye. Before blacking out, he saw waves upon waves, thousands upon thousands of creatures breaking through the clouds, their greasy skin wrapped around human forms, like an army of hawks carrying their prey to safer eating grounds.
© JC Hemphill