The sound of the bus’ horn cut through the peaceful tranquility of the late spring afternoon in the small town. It was the last time he’d hear the sound for a few months since Divide County Elementary School had been officially dismissed for the summer, and with talk of a trip to Disney World in late July to look forward to, Kurt Drevin figured that this vacation was shaping up to be one of the best so far. The seven year-old had been promoted to the second grade with the distinction of having attained perfect attendance—all in all, no small feat since winters in Crosby, North Dakota, tended to be quite harsh. More than half of his class had been absent one week, victims of a particularly nasty strain of flu. Kurt hadn’t been touched by it. His mother was fond of saying that it was all in his blood, but that was something that Kurt really didn’t understand.
He hurried around the front of the bus and onto the sidewalk, scowling at a rip in the bright red shorts his mother had just bought for him. He hadn’t meant to tear them, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped when he was playing dodge ball during recess, and while he knew that his mother would likely scold him, he also knew that after she was finished, she’d ruffle his hair and give him a cookie from the never-empty jar on the counter in the bright and airy kitchen of the Drevin family’s home . . .
“Bye, Kurt!” Billy Rotmore called, waving over his shoulder before Kurt turned down the alley—the short-cut to his back yard.
“See you!” Kurt yelled as he stooped to retrieve a short stick off the ground. “Come over if your mom says you can!”
Billy nodded and ran up the steps onto the wide porch that spanned the length of his house. He heard Billy’s front door slam moments later as the wail of sirens erupted in the distance.
Letting out a deep breath in a heavy gust that lifted the fringe of black bangs that framed his little face, Kurt reshouldered his backpack and trudged down the path to the high wood plank gate, letting the stick thump against the picket fence edging the neighbor’s yard. It fell from his fingers as he reached for the heavy iron handle of the gate and let out a soft little grunt as he bore down on it with all his weight. It opened with a loud groan that made him grimace, and he pulled it closed in case his dad decided to put Loopy, Kurt’s clumsy golden retriever puppy, out for a while. He frowned, cocking his head to the side as he scanned the empty yard. Caroline wasn’t outside, and that was strange. His three year-old sister loved to wait for him on sunny days, and sometimes she would sit on the swing with a cold Capri Sun packet, just for him. ‘Stranger still,’ he thought as he scowled at the emptiness of the screened-in patio door, ‘where’s Loopy?’
An odd ripple of foreboding ran up his spine, prickling like a thousand tiny needles along the nape of his neck, and he couldn’t help the slight tremor that he felt deep down when the empty swings started to sway. Maybe it was just the breeze that stirred them, but for reasons that he didn’t grasp, the movement seemed somehow eerie, like the whisper of ghosts that couldn’t be seen or touched. The air stilled abruptly, and Kurt swung around, scanning the area with a thoughtful scowl. He couldn’t figure out why he thought it, but he knew—just knew—that something wasn’t right. The trees, maybe, were a little too still; the air a little too empty . . . the only thing that Kurt could hear was the slowly increasing wail of distant sirens . . .
Letting his backpack fall from his shoulder, Kurt broke into a sprint, closing the distance to the back of the house and throwing open the door with a dull thud as it hit the white vinyl siding and snapped back. The air piston caught it, keeping it from slamming hard, and it clicked closed as Kurt stopped in his tracks, staring through the plate glass window in the door that led into the kitchen. From his vantage point, he could see directly through the kitchen and dining room into the living room at the front of the house, and what he saw . . .
Reddish brown streaks on the walls; splatters of the same color on the ceiling; the pristine white paint indelibly marked with the crimson stains . . . He could feel the stagnant aura that seemed to seep from the very edifice around him . . . He’d seen that color before, if he could only remember where or why. As the trepidation he’d been feeling surged and swelled, he reached for the doorknob but couldn’t bring himself to turn it.
‘B . . . Blood . . .?’ he thought suddenly, his eyes flaring wide as he gaped at the stains. He’d tripped last summer, cracking his forehead against the corner of the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and breaking the soft flesh against the unforgiving metal support. His blood had marred the stark white wall back then, and he’d stared at the smears with a sense of morbid curiosity as he touched the gauze covering the stitches for which he’d had to go to the emergency room.
Now . . .
Now there was no perverse urge to see it up close this time . . .
He couldn’t see Caroline, but he could hear her terrified shrieks as a malevolent shadow moved off to the right. His father’s voice was muffled by the door, but the words were clear enough, and despite the filter, Kurt could hear the unmistakable desperation, could sense the anguish that thickened his father’s tone, “Don’t kill her! Please don’t kill her! For the love of God, don’t—God, no!”
Kurt gripped the door knob so tightly that it rattled in his hand as Caroline’s shriek was abruptly silenced. His father was sobbing, mumbling things that Kurt couldn’t discern. Blood thundering painfully in his ears, his heart lodged in his throat, silencing a scream that he could feel but couldn’t voice, he wanted to run inside, to help his father, to save his sister, and yet . . .
And yet he stood rooted to the spot, unable to run, unable to speak, unable to do more than watch as the monster—no, two monsters—lumbered into view. Kurt gasped, eyes widening as he gaped at the creatures—the demons . . . knobby horns atop their heads, they looked like the gross depictions of devils that he’d seen somewhere—he couldn’t remember where at the moment. Razor sharp teeth protruding from grimacing maws, they had no lips, their faces forever caught in a permanent snarl, their mouths gaping, dripping, glistening hideously in the sunshine pouring through the windows, eyes red—crimson—and glowing with a perverse sense of grim enjoyment . . . Grotesquely long arms with spindly fingers . . . grayish skin that looked more like reptilian scales than real flesh . . . and hideous claws . . . In one of the beast’s hands dangled the lifeless form of his baby sister—of Caroline. Kurt uttered a sound caught somewhere between a strangled cry and a choked sob.
‘Monsters . . . demons . . .’ he thought wildly, his chest constricting painfully. ‘Monsters are real . . . demons . . .’
He couldn’t understand; it made absolutely no sense to him. Where had they come from, and why . . .? Why?
“Why?” he muttered, his voice little more than a squeaky whisper. He could feel the edge of panic wrapping around the edges of his psyche, but it was blunted, dulled, almost more frightening than the altered reality that he was observing through the window. As though he was no longer a part of himself, as if the only real part of him was floating somewhere else—near enough to touch but far enough away to protect him from the understanding that was he was bearing witness to was absolutely real. “Daddy . . .”
His father stood, head bowed, staring at the floor, or maybe he had his eyes closed. The monster tossed Caroline away as the other creature raised his claws and brought them down with a terrible bellow, and Kurt watched in abject terror as his father’s blood sprayed, fanning through the air only to fall like a macabre rain as the demon’s claws sank into his chest. The beast growled and swung again, catching the right side of Kurt’s father’s head. The man never cried out as his blood spilled from him, as he staggered back from the blow, careening wildly: a puppet on invisible strings commanded by a drunken puppet master.
The monsters stood still for a moment. Kurt could hear the sirens coming closer despite the roar of his erratic pulse throbbing in his ears. They seemed undecided, as though they’d lost their focus. Seconds later, they grunted to each other and ran out the front door, moving faster than Kurt could credit, their forms little more than blurring streaks of washed-out color.
Kurt blinked, eyes burning though the tears he could taste wouldn’t come. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. The door opened with a soft groan, and he flinched, staring incredulously at his fingers wrapped tightly around the knob—fingers that he couldn’t stop from shaking, gripping the knob so tightly that his knuckles leeched white. Fumbling with the door, he shoved it open and stumbled inside, whimpering quietly when the residual rage hit him. It hung thick in the air like a funeral pall, choking and cloying and malevolent.
He didn’t want to go in there; didn’t want to see—didn’t want to understand, and yet his feet carried him forward slowly, haltingly, gingerly. “D-Daddy?” he whispered, his mind oddly numb, unable to fully comprehend what he saw, what he knew.
His mother was sprawled on the floor in front of the sofa, her chest ripped open, her face contorted in pain; frozen in time and indelibly etched into the haze of memory, precluding the memories of the mother he knew so well—the laughing mother who would tell him to make sure he wore his helmet when he went biking, the one who tousled his hair and checked behind his ears after his bath. He took a hesitant step toward her then jerked back. Something deep down—a whispering voice, a warning, perhaps—told him that his mother wouldn’t have ever wanted him to see her that way. ‘Mom . . .’
Caroline lay nearby, folded at an odd angle, her head nearly severed from her body, her hand still wrapped tightly around the arm of her favorite doll; the grisly tableaux laid out before him like the roiling remnants of an inescapable nightmare. Golden curls stained in blood, her eyes were still open, staring at him in an accusing way, demanding to know why he wasn’t dead, too. Shaking his head and swallowing hard, he forced himself to look away as a strangled scream welled up inside him but wouldn’t come out. In his head, he could still hear her laughter as she teased him and followed him all over the place, and he wasn’t sure why, but all he could discern was her scream over and over again, ringing in his ears like a fell wind.
Stumbling back, shaking his head in a pathetic effort to challenge the knowledge that couldn’t be denied, his feet bumped against something, and he glanced down. Loopy, his beloved puppy . . . mauled so badly that all he could discern was the color of one patch of golden fur. One of the pup’s legs was missing, the jagged edge of bone glistening in a twisted mass of tendon and muscle, and her mouth was open, spilling grayish-pink—something—and blackened blood all over the floor beneath her.
Kurt leaned over quickly, pitifully heaving so hard that his chest ached, his vomit furthering the thickened stench of death that seeped into his very being. He closed his eyes and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, struggling to breathe, to think . . . struggling to figure out just what he was supposed to do.
A wet gurgle drew his attention, and slowly, hesitantly, he opened his eyes, turning his head to the side, gazing in shock at his father.
“K-Kurt . . .” his father whispered, lifting his trembling hand for a moment.
“Daddy!” Kurt yelped, scooting across the floor to his side, trying to ignore the oddly misshapen contour of his father’s face. “Daddy . . . the monsters—monsters . . . monsters,” he babbled as a thick sob choked him.
He reached out unsteadily, trembling as he groped for Kurt. Fingers already being leeched of warmth, he somehow managed to latch onto Kurt’s hand. “Don’t tell,” his father said, his eyes strangely clear, uncannily bright as he stared at Kurt as though he were willing his son to understand this awful thing. “Never . . . tell . . .”
“M-M-Monsters,” Kurt repeated, clumsily clutching his father’s hand, his voice cracking, crumbling. Nothing made sense; nothing seemed real. Everything he saw, everything he knew was fuzzy around the edges like a surreal dream where demons lived—where those things that dwelled in the darkness rose up to strike man down. “Devils . . . demons . . .” he babbled, dashing the back of a shaking hand over his eyes.
His father shook his head, his breathing growing shallower, more rasping, and his grip on Kurt’s other hand tightened as a desperation seeped into his voice. “Don’t . . . tell . . . Live, Kurt . . . Live . . .”
‘Don’t tell? Don’t tell . . .?’ Hysteria was rising thick and hard, hitting him squarely in the chest and squeezing with an invisible hand, tightening around him, choking him, as a little whimper spilled over. “Monsters, Daddy; monsters . . .”
His father’s breathing sounded wet, garbled as his chest cavity slowly filled with blood, as the brightness of his gaze flickered and faltered, and yet he smiled . . . He smiled . . .
“Daddy,” Kurt whimpered as the first cold prickles of true understanding began to penetrate his overwrought brain. “Daddy, don’t leave me . . .”
His father squeezed his eyes closed for a moment when the pain grew to be too much, and when he opened them again, he had trouble focusing on Kurt’s face, but his grip tightened, and a low sound borne of pure sadness slipped from him as a single tear fell. “You . . . live, Kurt . . . Happy . . .”