This story was produced as an audio tale by the podcast Tales to Terrify; you can listen here.
There was one little corner of the basement window where the cardboard had separated from the glass, the tape not quite holding. The sunlight would bleed through, and you could hold an eye to the crack and see outside.
Some days you’d see the squirrels playing on the lawn.
They didn’t bother with the squirrels. Too many bones. Not enough meat.
I guessed they would bother eventually. When they got hungry enough. We certainly would have a feast if we could figure out a way to trap squirrels. Cassie and me, we were hungry.
I’m a teenager, so I’m old enough to know some things are more important than hunger. Hard to tell that to an eight-year-old, already tiny and getting thinner by the day.
At least it was day. Dad said they were nocturnal, every time he went out for food. Right up to the last time.
Mom said okay, but they are mostly nocturnal. She said it when she started going out.
It had taken us 10 days to give up hope for dad. Four more days had passed before she started going, dismissing our begging and our insistence someone would come to help.
It only took three days to realize she was gone.
And that no one was coming. No one ever came.
At first, we thought whatever had sent them would come. The experts said getting the things here would have taken a lot of intelligence. An intelligent race would do the right thing. They wouldn’t want to see other intelligent creatures eaten. We mattered.
Later, mom and dad said the government would come help. Or the military. Someone would help. Because we mattered.
I guess when you’re older, you need to believe you matter. And that someone will come when you need help. It gets you through.
When you’re a kid and you’re dealing with bullies, or ducking under your desk in active shooter drills, you know that isn’t the way things are. Kids are realistic. Adults forget.
Or maybe it’s a city thing. When you grow up in the country, like Cass and me, you see things. You know eggs aren’t just meant for scrambling, that meat comes from animals someone might have named. You’ve seen death, poked it with a stick, turned it into food or buried it.
You live, you die, the world forgets you.
Christ, I’m hungry.
I step out into the sun onto the once-manicured lawn. Dad worked the fields and the barn; that’s why he’d gone country, and he was OK at it. Mom did the patch of grass and the flower beds out in front of the house. Took pride in it.
Now the grass was long, and dandelions poked above the green. With each footstep they sent little parachutes out, clouds of potential life. Mom had fought hard to keep those weeds out of the lawn.
Maybe that why the coming made me think of dandelions.
The science types had thought they were asteroids, big blocky objects bound for earth fast. They were on all the channels for three or four days, with warnings to stock up on food and water. Depending on where they hit, we could see terrible damage. Or worse, they might end it all.
But the objects controlled their descent. Never knew how.
They were organic pods, fleshy, the size of warehouses, and landed in a dozen places around the world. Then they bloomed. Smaller pods that seemed lighter than air, floating, traveling miles and miles. Landing softly.
Cassie and me, we watched cable news over popcorn in those days. Watched the pods shimmy and shake. Eventually the globs split open, and then they came out. At night, so they were hard to see. Fast, four legged, mostly cartilage. Hard to kill. No one ever found them asleep or unguarded. Turned out they could swim, so maybe they slept underwater.
They didn’t seem to eat fish. Or anything small. Just people. Maybe animals bigger than people, but I never saw that. They left most green things green. They ate the top of the food chain. Maybe they left the rest for whatever would follow them.
I try to move in bursts. Tree to tree, building to car, whatever. Finally get in dad’s old Jeep Laredo. Hot inside after sitting in the sun for days. A leathery smell; his cologne. Always kept the keys under the visor.
I’d taken it out a couple of years before, at 14. Karen had wanted to go to the river. It was hot, and she wore just shorts and a bikini top. That was going somewhere, but someone saw the rig parked on the highway and called dad.
I remember he said he couldn’t afford to give the car to me when I got my license. But I could take it to prom and then have it for graduation. Give that girl another ride, he’d laughed.
Never did get that license. Won’t get a prom. I wonder if there are any girls my age left.
Hard to start. Noise, movement. Being out of hiding was dangerous. But town was a mile away and walking would be riskier.
Walking I’d be exposed. They say you don’t see or hear them coming. Of course, I’m not sure who’d lived through it to say what you see and hear.
I look in the rearview out of habit. And because I’m imagining them. Maybe in the back seat. Between the heat and the fear, the back of my neck is soaked. It could be their slobber.
I steer slowly through a couple of accident sites before I get to town. Pretty eerie but very quiet.
At least we don’t see bodies anymore. Just long white sticks of calcium stripped clean and sometimes marked with grooves left by incisors. Bones.
I go into Jim’s drug store and mercantile. It’s dark when you get away from the big windows in front. Low ceiling, steel shelving. Mostly picked clean. Like the bones.
I head on into the back. Rummage through the packing boxes. Come up with a box of granola bars buried deep in the cardboard. There are a few cans of soup; good, they last almost forever. The last human will die a few days after he sips the last spoonful of Campbell’s Tomato.
I see the curtained-off area. Mom had never let me go back there, and it was embarrassing to try. The sign still said, 18 and older ONLY. But what the hell.
No way to play the videos. There are magazines I could, well, use. Stuff a couple under my shirt to take with me. I remember my dad, and maybe the pastor, saying it was a big deal when they were kids to hide a Playboy in your room.
Then I hear it. Scuffling outside. Then a crunching sound, and a crash – an easy step that upsets a row of shelves. Inside now. And the smell. I remember camping once, with dad, and we ran across a badger that had been dead for a few days. Ripe with musk and a sour milk smell. It was like that.
I peer out through the curtain. Mostly shadow, broad shoulders and a head like a buffalo. The skin clattering as it moves, the sound like an insect from a horror movie.
I have nowhere to go. Is this how it ends, my punishment for just planning to sin? I thought they said it just made you go blind.
Then it’s gone, outside. I wait. Listen. It hovers out there for a while. I heard sounds – well, they are terrible. Then a scream. Then gone.
I walk outside into the setting sun. She’s in a pile, crying. She’d followed me. Seen it. She’s shivering.
I put my hand onto her head, first just to check. Wet, but not with blood. A viscous saliva. She looks up. Her shirt is torn. There are scratch marks along her biceps where the white sleeve ends.
“It’s OK,” I told her. “You’re OK.”
It had hunted her. But it had left her alive. Why?
And then it comes to me. I sense it without sensing. It’s close. I just know. It’s waiting for me. It planned this. She was better for bait than a meal.
Too many bones. Not enough meat.