By Kris Williams -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]
Nick Donovan had always loved the time of day when the late afternoon shadows lengthened and the light faded gradually to a misty twilight: it was what his grandmother used to call "the gloaming". He remembered a song she sang about it when he was small . . .
Fire's burning, fire's burning
Draw nearer, draw nearer
In the gloaming, in the gloaming
Come sing and be merry . . .
Usually they were sitting in front of the fireplace, he and his parents and Gran, and his head would fill with sleepy images of that perfect balance between light and dark. It was also the time, unfortunately, that his mother would choose to shoo him off to bed. Now that he was an adult, and Gran was years in her grave, he still remembered the song, especially on warm summer evenings that stretched toward fall.
It was one of those evenings now, but he didn't stop to enjoy it as he hurried across the street from the train station. He had promised Melinda that he wouldn't be late, on tonight of all nights -- his son's fourth birthday -- but he was pushing his luck. His car was one of the last in the parking lot, and he unlocked it and threw his briefcase in the back seat. He pulled out of the parking space with a roar and a squeal of tires, but before he had gone fifty feet he hit something that thumped under the wheels of the car.
"What the hell?" Nick said aloud. He hadn't seen a goddamn thing. Just what he needed, trying to pry some cat loose from under his car when he couldn't afford to be late.
Just this once, Nick. Please, just this once, could you be on time?
Nick could hear Mel's voice in his head as if she had spoken beside him, and a pang of guilt went through him as he remembered all the times he had made her wait, all the times that it was "just a minute", or "I'll be done in a little while" that had stretched into hours. Mel was a patient woman, and she had been aware of the demands of his job as a lawyer, but he knew that tonight was especially important, and he didn't want to screw it up because some animal had run where it shouldn't have.
Sighing loudly, he put the car in park and got out; going around to the front to see what might be stuck to the grille. When he got a good look at what he had hit, his face drained of color and he had to hold on to the hood of the car; his knees were suddenly weak.
The creature trapped under his wheels was unlike any animal Nick had ever seen, in reality or in his dreams. It had a short, squat body, as long as it was tall, with long spindly arms that were waving frantically. The appendages attached to these arms merely lumps, each equipped with one finger topped with a huge, hooked claw, and as Nick watched, frozen, the creature scraped one claw along the cement, making a hideous shrieking noise. Its body was covered with dense grey hair that looked more like quills, and its face . . . for a moment Nick had to close his eyes to shut out the huge, lamp like eyes and the impossibly large, wide-open mouth. That mouth was filled with dozens of razor sharp teeth, and the grinding noise they made as they came together made a shudder convulse Nick's spine.
Christ, am I seeing this? Am I really seeing this?
The creature made a hideous mewling noise, and its eyes sought out Nick's; even from where he was standing he could see the fury in those eyes. He took one step toward it, unable to believe he was even doing it, and the creature redoubled its struggles to get free of the wheels of the car that pinned it. Nick hastily backed up.
What the fuck do I do?
In the end, he did the only thing he could think of: he got back into the car and jammed the gearshift into drive, running over the thing again. Then he backed up over it, wincing at the crunching thump that shuddered through the car. When he looked back through the rearview mirror, all he could see was a lump of bristly fur and blood; the creature wasn't moving. Nick jerked his eyes away from the sight and took off out of the parking light, never noticing that twilight was over and the shadows of night had fallen by the time he was halfway home.
He was only half an hour late, and although Melinda frowned at him, Nick could tell by the kiss she gave him that she realized it was the best he could do. The whole family was there: Mel's parents and sister, his own father and brother, along with his brother's wife. Nick greeted everyone warmly; glad to be back in a place where things made sense. He put the disturbing encounter with the strange creature out of his mind and concentrated on enjoying his son's birthday. Scotty was thrilled to see his dad, and he clung to Nick all night, sitting on his lap to blow out his candles and open his birthday presents. At one point in the evening Nick met Melinda's eyes over his son's head and they exchanged a smile, one of those real smiles that pass a wealth of information between two people.
Pretty cool, huh, Mr. Lawyer?
Yeah. I should be home more often.
When the guests had gone and Scotty had been packed off to bed (going most reluctantly after being the center of attention all evening), Nick sank down on the sofa beside Melinda and kissed her neck.
"One of your masterpieces, as usual," he said, inhaling the sweet, fresh smell of her skin.
"Oh, go on," she said, putting her head on his shoulder. "Isn't that what a stay-at-home mom is supposed to do?"
"You're a hell of a lot more than just a stay-at-home mom, and you know it. I don't know how Scotty and I would manage without you. I need you, Mel."
Melinda raised her head and looked at Nick curiously. He wasn't given to emotional pronouncements, except sometimes during sex, and his comment surprised her. She cupped his face between her hands and kissed him.
"Well, that sure is nice to hear. I need you, too."
Nick put his arms around her and they held each other tightly for a moment, until Melinda pulled him to his feet and into the kitchen, where he helped her clean up.
When the dishes were done and all the trappings of Scotty's party put away, it was close to ten o'clock. Melinda gave Nick a tired smile and kissed him.
"I think I'm going to go up to bed. You coming?" He thought he saw faint promise in her eyes, but Nick shook his head.
"I've got some briefs that I really have to take a look at before tomorrow," he said, and she nodded.
"Thanks for spending the evening with us. It really meant a lot to Scotty, and it meant a lot to me, too."
For a moment Nick was filled with pleasure, but the feeling was soon pushed aside by shame. For his own wife to have to thank him for being around made him realize just how little time he did spend with his family, and he resolved to change, starting that very evening.
"You know what?" he said lightly, putting an arm around Melinda's waist and squeezing. "Bed sounds like a pretty good idea. Maybe we might even get some sleep after a while."
Melinda kissed him with considerably more passion, and when Nick saw the glow in her eyes he knew he had done the right thing. They went up the stairs and into their bedroom, and for the first time in a long time, made love until the sky was beginning to lighten.
It wasn't until he was on the way to work the next morning that Nick remembered what had happened when he had left the parking lot across from the train station the evening before. By then the details had become hazy in his mind, and as the workday wore on, he managed to convince himself that it had been an exceptionally big porcupine. There were no such things as the creature he thought he'd seen, and by the end of the day he was chuckling at himself for having believed it in the first place.
When he left his office, the light was hanging between the last rays of the sun and the beginning of dusk, and he smiled as he made his way to the underground parking garage, pausing before reaching his car to enjoy the feelings it evoked in him. He was humming as he unlocked the car, tossing his briefcase in the back seat like always, and he was just about to get in when he heard a distinct scratching noise coming from behind him. Frowning, Nick turned his head; he was almost alone in the garage, and he knew the empty concrete walls had a way of magnifying sounds. When he heard nothing further, he shook his head and got into the front seat.
Before he could close the door something landed in his lap, and for a moment he was so stunned that he couldn't react at all. When he realized that whatever it was, it was alive and going for his eyes he brought his arms up instinctively, and its sharp claws tore through the fabric of his suit and the shirt underneath as though he wore nothing at all. The pain didn't hit him right away, and he grabbed it and held it away from his face long enough to see what it was.
It was a long, cylindrical creature, almost totally devoid of hair, with a bullet head and a long snout. The roughness of its skin reminded Nick of the hide of an elephant, and it had two short arms ending in long, lethal claws. It squirmed and bucked in his hands and Nick held on for dear life, putting as much distance as he could between the creature and himself. It lunged forward and its mouth opened and snapped at him; he could see teeth inside that were huge and pointed, and a tongue that was slender and forked at the end. Its claws dug into his arms, and the pain began to get to a point where Nick was no longer sure if he could keep it away from himself. He took a deep breath, pivoted slightly in his seat, and threw the creature out of the car, as hard and as far as he could. Then he pulled his legs in and slammed the door, seconds before the creature landed against the glass of the window with a disappointed howl. It had moved with amazing speed and dexterity, and as it dropped from the window and backed away, apparently readying itself for another try, Nick could see that its legs were equally short, but squat and immensely powerful.
What are you sitting here for? Get the fuck out of here!
Nick jammed the key in the ignition -- the way his hands were shaking, it took him two tries to get the key in properly -- and the engine roared into life. Before he could back out of his stall the creature landed with a resounding thud against his window, hard enough to actually crack the glass. Nick stared for a long moment, mesmerized, at the pointed, ratlike face of the thing and the horrible fury in its eyes, before he put the car in reverse and backed out of the stall, narrowly avoiding hitting another car. Then he jammed the gear into drive and tore out of the garage, breathing heavily, as sweaty as though he had just run a five-mile marathon.
Holy Christ! That's the second time in two days! Am I losing my mind?
At a stoplight, Nick examined the sleeves of his navy suit and shook his head in answer to his own question. There were long tears down each sleeve, and drops of blood on the shirt beneath testified to the truth of what had just happened. Nick held up his hands in front of his face, not surprised to find that they were shaking badly. A sharp horn behind him reminded him that the light had turned green and he drove automatically, not really thinking about where he was going. It was almost full dark now, with only the last traces of sunset remaining in the sky, and the darkness suddenly seemed menacing, teeming with creatures he hadn't dreamed existed until the day before. He drove aimlessly, his mind wrestling with what he had seen and experienced, and the question he kept coming back to was: Why me? What do these . . . things want from me?
When he remembered the fury in both creatures' eyes the answer seemed obvious, and Nick was seized with an unmanning panic that made him want to run away, to cry, to curl up under the covers and never come out.
That's what kids do. You're a man, Nicky boy, and you'd better start acting like one.
He was annoyed at his inner voice. What, exactly, did acting like a man mean in a situation like this? That he start carrying a sword with him wherever he went so he could cleave these creatures in two? That he work from home, so that he would know where he was and that he was safe? That he go to a psychologist and confess all, only to be told that the stress was making him delusional?
Yeah, but these scratches are real. They aren't imaginary. What do I do about that? How exactly do I explain that to Mel?
Nick glanced at the clock on his dashboard and was startled to notice that it was after nine. He'd been driving around for two hours, lost in thought and speculation. It was a wonder he hadn't killed anyone. He turned around at the next available U-turn and headed for home, wondering how he was going to explain the scratches to Melinda. By the time he pulled into his driveway all he had come up with was a lame story about a cat, and he didn't think she would buy it. What kind of cat? he could picture her saying, one hand on her hip and an eyebrow cocked. A mountain lion? What really happened, Nick?
Nick watched the garage door open, wondering for the first time what might lurk in the shadows between cars, what might be waiting for him in black corners . . . He shook off these thoughts as he got out of his car, reaching behind him for his briefcase. He thumbed the button that closed the garage door and went into the house. As it turned out, he didn't have to explain the scratches to Melinda; he could tell instantly by the silence that both she and Scotty were in bed. Even when she wasn't watching television, Nick knew that Melinda was up -- it was a sense he had always had, ever since meeting her. Mel said it freaked her out, so Nick didn't bring it up too often, but he liked knowing he was so connected to her. It was a comfort to him in times of stress, and he wished now that she was up, if only for the comfort of her arms around him.
Nick carefully removed his suit jacket and looked at it in amazement. There were long, jagged tears down both sleeves, fully six inches long. Some of the edges were stained with blood (your blood, my man, your blood). He quickly folded the jacket into a ball, tucking the sleeves inside, and put it on the kitchen counter. He didn't want to, but next he examined his shirt, and through the tears, his arms. The claw marks were much deeper than he had originally thought, red and angry against the paleness of his skin. Suddenly Nick couldn't stand having the shirt on, and he only undid two buttons before he tore it off, the other buttons popping off and rolling in all directions. He twisted the shirt into a ball and shoved it into the garbage can, pushing it as far down as it would go. Then he stood there in the kitchen, breathing hard, unable to tear his gaze from the marks on his forearms.
He turned on the water in the sink, thrusting both arms under the stream, wincing at the renewed pain. Threads of blood ran down the stainless steel drain, and Nick could feel a sense of unreality begin to possess him.
Things like this don't just happen! Not to guys like me . . .
But why not him? Why was he different than anyone else? Would he wish this on someone else? Nick had to think hard about that one, and in the end he didn't like the answer he came up with. If it came right down to it, then yes, he would wish this on someone else. As he turned off the water and wrapped his arms in dishtowels, Nick realized that up until now, his life had been pretty much perfect, and he liked it just fine. In fact, he had taken it for granted. This shit, now, this was more than a wrench in the works; this was threatening his entire existence, and for once in his life Nick had no idea what to do.
He sat at the kitchen table, thinking about the creatures and wondering where they had come from and if they would stop, and he pounded his fist on the wooden surface when no answer was forthcoming. Finally, he got up, went up the stairs and into the bedroom he shared with Melinda, opening the closet door quietly so he wouldn't wake her. He took down a shirt at random and slipped it on, then stood and looked down at his sleeping wife for a moment. He smiled: she looked so beautiful, her face calm and peaceful, her hair fanned out on the pillow, her busy hands at rest. Nick leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek and she stirred but didn't wake. Then he left the room to sleep on the hard leather couch in his study.
Nick stirred as something brushed his nose, and he reached up to bat it away, hearing a giggle. He opened his eyes to his son, standing in front of him in footy pajamas, tickling his nose with a feather. Scotty beamed as his father smiled at him, and Nick sat up and took the boy onto his lap, squeezing him.
"Daddy, don't!" he cried. "I gotta go pee!"
He jumped off Nick's lap and ran off to the bathroom, and Nick stood up and stretched. His entire body ached; particularly his neck and he reflected that while the couch was the embodiment of urban success, it certainly wasn't meant to be used as an extra bed. He had a moment of blessed amnesia (why am I wearing this shirt?) before he remembered the events of the previous evening, and his heart sank. He sat down on the couch, head in hands, wondering what to do. When a hand descended on his shoulder he jumped.
"Feeling guilty about something?" Melinda inquired lightly, sitting down beside him. Nick gave her a puzzled look, and she smiled and kissed him. "Well, you're down here in your study, and you have a shirt on. Was there some reason you couldn't sleep with me?"
Nick relaxed and put his arms around her, drinking in her warmth and feeling briefly as though he was in his mother's arms again. "I got in late and I didn't want to wake you," he said, his voice muffled against her neck. Melinda pulled away and shook her head.
"Thanks for the thought, but I'd much rather have you beside me, even if it means getting woken up."
Scotty came barreling into the room, landing on both of them like a cannonball, and Melinda laughed and got to her feet, scooping him up in her arms. "Let's get you some breakfast, mister," she said, and Scotty struggled.
"No! Wanna stay with Daddy!" Melinda relented, setting her son on his feet, where he promptly climbed onto Nick's lap again.
"Okay, but when I call you, you'd better come running." She winked at Nick. "That goes for you, too."
Nick smiled at her and began to tickle Scotty, listening to his son's delighted shrieks and forgetting about the night before for the time being.
It wasn't long, however, before the creatures were back in his thoughts. He was distracted and nervous all day, prompting his secretary to comment, "Is something wrong, Nick? You seem really . . . I don't know, off your game today."
Nick ran a hand through his hair and gave her a strained smile. "Too much to do, I guess. Hold my calls, will you, Carmen?"
"Sure." Carmen watched as Nick went into his office and closed the door behind him, something he rarely did. He sat at his desk and tried to get some work done, but all he could see was ravenous teeth, sharp, tearing claws and fury in alien eyes. He waited until everyone else had left before venturing out of his office, feeling like a fool but certain that his misgivings were showing on his face. It made him at once furious and terrified, and as he left the building he couldn't help but notice the quality of the light: hanging suspended between daytime and evening, the shadows stretched out long and the air had a peculiar stillness.
Nick approached his car with trepidation, looking all around for anything untoward and feeling like a fool, but unable to help it. The sleeves of his shirt had brushed against the cuts on his arms all day, a constant reminder of what the second creature had tried to do to him. When he didn't see anything he was relieved, and he unlocked his car, feeling the tension slide from his body like droplets of water after a particularly refreshing shower. Tossing the briefcase on the seat next to him, Nick got into the car and slammed the door, then put his key into the ignition slot. Before he could turn it, however, something cold and slimy slid around his neck and began to squeeze, and panic exploded inside him. He brought his hands up to his throat and tried to dig his fingers into the thing, but couldn't get a purchase on the slippery flesh. He glanced in the rearview mirror and was horrified at what he saw: a long, flat, grayish creature had wrapped itself around him, and as he watched, his own face became more and more red as his oxygen supply was slowly cut off. The creature raised its flat, triangularly shaped head and regarded him out of two flat yellow eyes; eyes without mercy, feeling, or understanding.
Just as consciousness was about to fade, Nick remembered the keys in his hand, and he took the largest one and dug it into the creature's body with all the strength he could muster. The creature immediately let go and slithered down Nick's body to rest on the seat beside him. It was like a noxious ribbon, without limbs of any kind, and its head weaved back and forth like that of a rattlesnake, those soulless yellow eyes never leaving him. Its body tensed, and Nick knew that it was preparing to attack again. He surprised himself by saying, "What do you want?"
The creature blinked, and Nick was unsure whether or not it had understood him, but that wasn't his intention; he was reaching behind him for the door handle, preparing to get out of the car before it could fasten itself upon him again. He managed to get the handle unlatched, and as he watched it coil itself for another attack he pushed the door open and tumbled out onto the pavement. At the same time he slammed the door shut, and the creature hit the window, leaving a viscous smear. It had no mouth, or so Nick thought, but after a moment a long cylindrical projection protruded from the lower part of its face and attached itself to the glass. Nick watched, fascinated and repulsed, as the proboscis made sucking movements against the glass. He scrambled away from the car on his hands and knees; suddenly certain he was going to vomit.
The light, growing fainter, played across the hood of the car, and it became more difficult to see inside. Nick had no idea what the creature was doing. Was it getting out the same way it had come in? How had it gotten in? He found himself up on a ledge, clinging to a cement girder, his eyes frantically searching the garage for any trace of the creature. It was almost dark now, the dusk having faded from the sky, and after sitting on the ledge for almost fifteen minutes Nick climbed down and approached his car with all the caution of a marine approaching a potential land mine. He peered inside and saw nothing except the same viscous material on the passenger seat that the creature had left on the window. Unless it was hiding under the seats, the creature was gone.
Nick gathered his nerve and flung open the driver's side door, bending down and looking under the seat in one swift movement, ready to flee if the thing was waiting for him. There was nothing there but an old umbrella that had rolled under and been forgotten. He checked the back seats: same thing. The creature appeared to be gone. After Nick had checked the trunk and underneath the car, he sank down in the driver's seat and let out a long, shaky breath.
Where the hell did it go? The others sure didn't give up that easily.
He sat where he was for a minute, something nagging at the back of his mind, something about darkness and light . . . Nick sat up straight, and the thought that flashed through his mind was like a bullet fired from a gun.
They all came in the gloaming.
The more he though about it, the more certain he was that he was right. That magical, light-hanging-in-darkness time, more common to this time of year than any other, had heralded the appearance of each of the creatures.
Why? For Christ's sake, why?
Nick slammed his car door shut and started the engine. He didn't know, but he was sure as hell going to find out.
The next day Nick played hooky; he smiled to himself as he got into the car and backed out of the driveway.
Sure haven't used that expression in a long time.
He drove downtown, to the public library, parked underground, and took a creaky elevator to the main floor. He was amazed when he stepped off the elevator; evidently time hadn't touched this particular building, because it was just like libraries he'd seen in the movies. Low hanging globes bathed long wooden tables in warm light, racks and racks of books were lovingly shelved in wooden bookcases, and it had that musty smell of old paper that Nick had always loved. He supposed the only concession to modernization was the bank of computers that ran along one wall, each with their own little private cubby. College students, intent on research, occupied most of these.
Nick wandered around, unsure of where to start.
"Can I help you, sir? You look a little lost." Nick turned around to find a middle-aged woman with a kindly face smiling at him.
Just how a librarian should look. This is getting weirder by the minute.
"Yeah, well, I'm looking for a kind of obscure topic," he began, "and I don't know where to start, frankly."
"Well, why don't you tell me what the topic is, and I'll see if I can help you." The woman led Nick over to a wide desk near the front doors of the library and took a seat behind a computer. Nick was surprised to find that he was embarrassed, but he told himself that if he wanted to have any chance at all, he had to know what he was dealing with.
"Uh . . . the gloaming," he said, and the woman's brow wrinkled in confusion.
"The gloaming?" she repeated, and Nick elaborated.
"You know, the time of day when light and darkness almost mingle, and the shadows grow long -- usually near the end of summer." A smile lit up the woman's face.
"What a picturesque way to describe it," she said, and Nick felt his face grow hot. "What did you want to know about it?"
Nick thought for a moment. How could he put this without sounding like a lunatic? Well, ma'am, actually I want to know if creatures come out in the gloaming to try to tear my head off . . .
He cleared his throat. "I want to know if there are any superstitions related to that time of day, any legends, things like that."
The woman began to tap her keyboard, then stood back and waited while the machine searched.
"Actually, there's quite a lot about it," she said, sounding surprised. "I'll print this off for you and you can see if we carry any of these books. How does that sound?"
Nick smiled at her. "That sounds great. Thanks a lot."
A moment later, armed with a sheet of paper listing the names of various books and articles, Nick approached the stacks of books, ready for a long day. He was right; most of the references to "the gloaming" referred to outdated expressions, stories, and even the little song his grandmother had sang for him. After a few hours, Nick sat back in his chair, stretching his tired back and wondering what the hell he was doing. He felt as though he was trapped in a nightmare he couldn't get out of, and the increasing desperation was beginning to wear him down.
He spent the morning at the library, and had just about decided that it was a waste of time when a book on one of the higher shelves caught his eye: Gaelic Tales and Myths. Nick took it down from the shelf, curious. It was a very old volume, its pages yellowed and its spine cracked, and when he blew across the top a fine dust puffed out into the air.
Of course. How could it not? Isn't this the part where Our Hero discovers The Truth and sets out to Put Things Right?
Nick took the book over to a table near the back of the library and opened it to the frontispiece. It showed a man being overpowered by a demon: apparently his sword was no match for the demon's claws, because blood spouted in every direction and there was an agonized look on the man's face. It was a crudely done illustration, copied from a woodcut, but it made Nick nervous nonetheless.
He paged past it to the table of contents, which had chapter heading like: Herbs and Charms to Use in Potions; Phantoms and Demons and Where They Come From; Ridding Oneself of Curses; and Signs and Warnings Better Heeded Than Not. Nick looked at the cover again. It was plain brown, with nothing to indicate its strange contents, and he wondered how it had ended up here. He shook his head and started at the chapter entitled Phantoms and Demons and Where They Come From. It took him a while to get used to the old fashioned language, but as he read, Nick thought, with cautious optimism, that he had finally uncovered some useful information.
The book did mention the gloaming, and the creatures that roamed in it. It said that very rarely did they come into contact with man, but if a man should happen to come across one, or to hurt it, that the man was doomed to suffer the creatures every gloaming until he could honestly beat one. The only good news that Nick could see was that the creatures only came out in the gloaming and once it had faded they disappeared.
It be fact that a man as has come into contact with such demons as these
must best one to the ends of his abilities, else suffer the damnation
of the demons forevermore. Even when the gloaming ceases to be, in
the dread cold of winter, the demons bide their time, and they be waiting
to return with the gloaming. A man canna hide; he must show himself
a man and best one to allow them to disappear forever.
Great. I have to beat one of these things. Just how the hell am I going to do that?
It occurred to Nick that this ancient book might not be the last word on the subject, but he was willing to bet it was; he had heard no such stories when he was a boy, and creatures didn't just walk out of people's nightmares. Then there was the curious way the creature of yesterday had disappeared with the gloaming. He did a quick calculation: it was now late August, and he could count on at least another two months of twilight. Since he didn't intend to suffer this any longer than was absolutely necessary, Nick knew he had to do something. The only problem was what?
It was the weekend, and Nick was especially nervous. He knew that Melinda and Scotty loved to linger in the yard as long as possible, and he cursed the fine weather that allowed this day after day. Melinda had grown brown after a summer of tending her flower gardens, and Scotty loved to play on the big swing set that Nick had installed the year before. Most afternoons he found them out in the yard, Melinda in shorts and a tank top, Scotty in one of the cute short and matching tee shirt combinations that he would outgrow all too soon.
This afternoon was no different. Nick approached Melinda from the back, loving the smooth expanse of brown skin revealed by her halter top and the way the muscles in her back moved as she dug in the loamy soil. He squatted down behind her and slipped his arms around her shoulders, and she started for a moment before leaning back into his arms.
"It's a good thing I know your smell," she said, "because otherwise I'd be calling the cops."
"And possibly retaining a fine lawyer to assist you in a case of unrepentant fondling?" Nick reached beneath her halter and caressed her bare breast, and Melinda laughed and pushed his hand away.
"Something like that. Now go away so I can get this done." Nick assumed a wounded expression.
"You'd rather dig in the dirt than have your devoted husband molest you?" Melinda sat back on her heels and brushed a lock of dark hair away from her eyes, leaving a smudge of dirt on her forehead.
"Save it for tonight, devoted husband," she said, and Nick could see the promise in her eyes. He gave her a lingering kiss and went to push Scotty on the swing. By the time he had barbequed some hamburgers and they were finishing the last of their iced tea, shadows had begun to invade the yard and Nick's pulse began to beat a rapid tattoo. He made a show of checking his watch and said to Melinda, "Why don't you get Scotty in the tub while I clean up this mess?"
"It's only eight thirty, Nick. What's your rush?"
Nick gave her a wink, and although he had never felt less like sex in his life, said, "I seem to remember something about saving it for tonight." Melinda got to her feet and gave him a sultry smile.
"Whatever it is that's ignited your sex drive like this, I approve." She headed toward the swing set to corral Scotty while Nick looked around the yard. Every bush seemed to be a place to hide, every corner a possible ambush, and he urged Melinda in his mind to hurry, hurry, because there wasn't much time. He breathed a sigh of relief when they finally went into the house and began desultorily piling plates on top of one another, but what he was really doing was waiting. He remembered the words in the old book ( a man canna hide; he must show himself a man and best one to allow them to disappear forever), and resolved to face this with as much courage as he could, but he was scared, damn it, he was just plain scared.
As the shadows grew longer and the air took on that misty grey quality that heralded the gloaming, Nick saw it out of the corner of his eye. It was half his height but at least his weight and it had the semblance of a man: the head, arms and legs were all in the right places, but there was something terrifyingly wrong about them. Its head was small, bulbous and wrinkled, with slits for eyes and no mouth that he could see. Its arms were abnormally long, with huge hands that looked as though they could break a bone the way a man would snap a piece of kindling. Its body was covered in what appeared to be black hair, and its feet, stumpy and awkward, protruded from its body on either side. They, too, were hideously large, the toes hairy and the nails long and ragged.
Nick and the creature stood for a moment, sizing each other up, and all of a sudden, the creature ran for him. Nick was totally unprepared for the speed of the thing; before he could think it was upon him, knocking him to the ground and sitting upon his chest. Its weight was crushing, and Nick tried desperately to push it off, but it dug its toenails into his sides, holding on easily.
It looked down into his face, and they seemed to regard each other as equally ugly. Nick was disgusted at the rank odor of the thing and its wrinkled, pitted skin, and its eyes widened in disgust at the human it was sitting on. It raised its huge hands and wrapped them around Nick's neck; its fingers met around the back of his neck easily, and as it began to squeeze with tremendous strength. Nick knew he had to act fast or it would be all over in a moment. His hands scrabbled out to his sides, and his grasping fingers came upon a barbeque fork, dropped during dinner. He brought the fork up and into the creature's head with all the strength he could muster and the creature instantly let go and brought a hand up to its head, howling in agony. Nick couldn't hear the sound out loud; it was inside his head, echoing inside his skull, and he rolled away from the creature and got to his feet, breathing in great, tearing gasps.
The creature pulled the fork out of its head and to Nick's disgust, yellowish mucus began to dribble from the small holes the implement had left. It tossed the fork aside and began to advance on him again, but this time Nick moved fast, putting the picnic table between himself and the creature before it could get to him again. He grabbed a carving knife, holding it out in front of himself, but either the creature had no idea what it was or didn't care; it advanced on him relentlessly, and Nick knew he would have to use it. It darted around the table and reached for him, and Nick just had time to keep his shirt out of its grasp, lunging around to the other side of the table.
The creature jumped on top of the table, and Nick moved back just enough to keep it from leaping on him again. He reached forward, plunging the knife deep into the creature's midsection and pulling it out, hearing that keening howl in his head again as the creature placed its huge hands over the hole Nick had made. He saw more of the mucus dripping from between the creature's fingers, and felt a vicious stab of satisfaction. It didn't last long. Before he knew what was happening, the creature had batted the knife out of his hands and fastened its hands around his neck again; all it had to do was reach up with those arms, and even with the uneven weight distribution, the strength in those hands was enough to bring Nick to his knees, gagging and coughing, trying to pry its fingers from around his windpipe. The creature only squeezed harder, and Nick felt the light fading from the sky and blackness began to overtake his vision.
Before he passed out completely, Nick heard a primal scream that didn't come from inside his head but from somewhere off to his left. He only had time for one thought (what?) before his body began to sag in the creature's grip. Suddenly the hands were gone from around his neck and Nick dropped like a stone to the ground, struggling to catch his breath. When he could take a breath without it stabbing his lungs, he looked around, and to his amazement he saw Melinda, an axe in her hands, standing over the creature. Its head had been completely severed from its body, and as they both watched, it faded from view just as the twilight faded from the sky.
Melinda knelt beside him, all worry and fright, tears streaming down her face and her hands shaking, and Nick reached up to caress her face, filled with such blessed relief that if he could have gotten up and danced, he would have.
"How did you -- " he began, and she placed a finger over his lips and shook her head.
"I saw from the window," she said. "I didn't stop to think about whether what I saw was real or not -- all I knew was that if I didn't do something, that . . . thing was going to kill you. So I grabbed the axe from the garage -- "
" . . . and came out here like my avenging angel," Nick said, smiling at the blush that tinged her cheeks. He tried to sit up, but fell back as his head began to spin. Melinda sat down behind him, his head in her lap.
"Let's just sit out here for a while," she said, kissing him gently. "I think we can now, don't you?"
Nick looked up into her eyes with amazement, and all he could do was nod.
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