Welcome to the Sunday Edition of Sci-Fi & Scary where we’re pleased to bring you an original short fiction story by Patrick Barb!
Patrick Barb is a freelance writer and editor from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Previously, his short fiction has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Waters Vol. 7, Boneyard Soup Magazine, Sci-Fi & Scary’s Twisted Anatomy, and other publications. For more, visit patrickbarb.com or follow him at twitter.com/pbarb.
CW: Animal Death
by Patrick Barb
Will didn’t understand how anyone lived out in the backwards middle-of-nowhere part of the state he was driving his family through. He had a sneaking suspicion that the overalls-clad old-timer working behind the convenience store counter at the last gas station they’d stopped at intentionally gave him bad directions, plunging him and his family deeper into unnamed backroads, instead of getting them back on the main highway. And Will hadn’t even wanted to ask the guy–who reeked of beef jerky and Menthols, even behind the glass security partition–anyway.
Probably Michelle’s fault because she asked if they had almond milk. Almond milk!
“What’s that?” Michelle asked. Lately, she somehow seemed to sense Will’s mental shit-talking without him needing to say anything out loud. Will wondered if her internal reviews of his performance as a partner were just as scathing.
“I didn’t say anything,” he answered, keeping his eyes on the long, black, and empty road. It stretched out, flat and monotonous, until it blurred with the shimmering horizon ahead.
He heard a murmured mumble from the passenger seat. Then, Candy, the couple’s oldest at six-years-old, screeched from the back of the car, like a hawk swooping down on vulnerable prey, “Mommy called you an ‘ass-hole,’ Daddy!”
“Ath-hole! Ath-hole! Ath-hole!” Two-year-old George took up the chant for his big sister.
Will looked to the back, making eye contact with Candy. Her car seat was behind him and her tiny white dress sandals pressed into the faux leather seatback. “That’s a good girl. We don’t say bad words, do we?”
Candy smiled back. Daddy’s perfect little angel. “Oh no, Daddy. We do not.”
Michelle’s hand grabbed hold of Will’s arm and squeezed tight, driving her fingernails through the cotton fabric of his shirt. She pinched down hard enough to leave marks on his smooth, pale skin underneath.
“Jesus, Will! Watch out!”
Whatever nasty retort Will had cued up got swallowed down with Michelle’s last exclamation. Even before he’d turned back around, his foot had pressed down hard on the brake. Their SUV screamed, loudly protesting the sudden end to its plodding forward momentum. Will held on tight to the steering wheel, as it shook like a shivering man left out alone in the cold.
When the last cow passed in front of their car, Michelle and Will stared at her, dumbfounded. Her udders were purple and swollen to the point where they threatened to drag on the ground. She followed four others just like her across the broken asphalt of the road. The sun against the road caused a glare by the driver’s side, so Will had a hard time focusing on the fat, bloated creature.
“Moo-cows sick,” George declared, even though his rear-facing safety seat prevented him–a two-year-old–from making such a diagnosis.
Still squeezing the steering wheel like it’d insulted his mother, Will felt his pulse racing at a mile a minute. Or more. His foot twitched against the brake. One slip, they’d blast forward, slamming into the emaciated backside of the cow.
The cow, for her part, didn’t seem to give a damn either way. Not about Will and his family or about the pebble-sized green and black horseflies buzzing around her rear end.
Before anything crash-related could happen, Will threw the car into park. He pressed his palm hard against the steering wheel’s horn. Trying to get the cow’s attention or, at least, get her moving.
The blast emerged long and loud. The cornstalks on either side of the road seemed to bend to the sound. In the back, the children both put fingers in their ears. Michelle followed suit. The cow let loose with a huge shit. Her patty splattered against the road, right by the SUV’s front tires.
Will punched the car’s ceiling to drive home his point.
The cow, unphased, passed into the field by Michelle’s side of the car. Will looked to the back and caught a glimpse of Candy and George waving bye-bye to the passing bovine.
“Do you know what Hannah and her husband did for their vacation, Will?”
Will bit his lip at his wife’s question. The whole morning, while they’d scrambled to get everything packed, Michelle had provided detail after detail of her little sister’s romantic getaway with her current beau. Will wanted nothing more than to respond to his wife’s passive-aggressive bullshit, saying, Your sister doesn’t have kids. Your sister doesn’t want kids to such a degree that she won’t even help us out and watch our kids, her niece and nephew, to help us have a weekend to ourselves for a change. Hence why we’re stuck taking these two with us for what should’ve been a relaxing weekend in the wilderness. Like we used to do.
But what came out instead was: “No, Michelle, but I’m sure you’ll tell me!”
He looked at her, really looked at her, staring long enough so that part of him hoped it made her uncomfortable. At least then he could make her feel something again. He had a hard time finding any traces of the twenty-something party girl who’d once spent an entire New Year’s Eve drunk off cheap champagne and speaking nothing but Italian, before ripping his clothes off in the bathroom of their friends’ lake house. He didn’t even see the motherly glow that’d appeared in the L&D after both their kids were born red and screaming into the world. When he looked at her now, all he saw was a blank, a nothingness that made his heart hurt. But it also egged on his anger and frustration when left unanswered.
He reached for his phone, but before he touched the black plastic clip on the dashboard, he saw there were still no bars displayed. Same as it had been for the last hour or so. Frustrated because he couldn’t figure out what to do next, Will cracked his knuckles and said, “I’m sure your sister and her dumbf-u-c-k ‘partner’ didn’t have to deal with crappy cell service either.”
Michelle didn’t reply. But her look across the car said, “Are you fucking done?” And that was plenty.
This time, when Will held the steering wheel, he was the one shaking. “Goddammit!”
“Daddy!” Candy shouted from the back. “You said a bad word. Twice. And you spelled another one.”
A harsh laugh, like he was being strangled, spewed from Will’s mouth. He had no fucking clue where his daughter learned how to spell the word “fuck.”
Michelle didn’t seem as amused. She reached back and gave her daughter’s bony knee a squeeze. “That’s okay, Candy. Daddy’s a little bit upset because he’s a lotta bit lost.”
Will had heard enough. If he was going to get dressed down and insulted like that, he at least wanted it to happen at the cabin they’d rented for the long weekend and not while they idled in front of some sick-looking cow’s feces. “Guess Michelle knows best, huh?” He threw the car into “Drive,” and pushed his foot down on the gas pedal. They blasted forward, sending cow shit spraying back against the side of the car.
Will drove with tunnel-vision, reducing Michelle and the kids’ insistent pleas for him to “slow down” to a background hum. Then something caught his eye, a glimmer of pale-white sunlight reflecting off a window, a sign of humanity in the surrounding agriculture sea. Will took a sharp right turn, heading for the light. The sudden movement threw Michelle back against her seat. The side of her head tapped the passenger’s side window.
Will managed to get a quick “Sorry” out when he saw that happen. He’d pulled the car off the main road (such as it was) and onto a gravel-strewn driveway that went back for about a mile and a half. The SUV bumped, shook, and rattled down the path. Up over a slight crest, an old country farmhouse, along with a barn and stable, and, of course, a silo, greeted the weary travelers. Off to the side, fenced-in grazing pastures, with white paint peeling from thick wooden posts, encircled muddy ground devoid of anything green.
“You want me to ask for directions? I’ll ask for some directions.”
He put the car in park and unhooked his seat belt, pushing it from his shoulder. “You kids stay in the car. I’ll be right back,” he said, looking at Michelle the whole time.
She was seven years younger than him, and Will knew how much it got under her skin to be reminded of that fact. Before their troubles started, she’d lie in bed, letting him run his fingers through her hair while she rested her chin near his belly button, and remind him that she never wanted to be thought of as just “some young trophy wife.”
Of course, if she told him that today, Will would just say, “It’s okay, I don’t think anything about you.”
Lacking that particular opportunity, Will slammed the car door shut behind him and stretched under a late afternoon sun that looked like a scab.
Second later, Michelle’s door opened. “God, what’s that smell?” she asked.
She made her way over to her husband, kicking up dust clouds and causing rocks to skid off the driveway and into the yard on her way there. Will kept moving, not waiting for her to catch up. She had to follow him like some sort of misbegotten puppy, trailing him to the front porch of a farmhouse that had seen better days–and then a whole lot of worse days after that.
Will’s nose wrinkled. The scent of whatever Michelle had detected reached him too. He couldn’t quite identify its specific bouquet though. Something–or some things–musty and decrepit. The sense-memory it triggered put him in mind of his mother’s room in hospice care near the end.
“So, what? You were just gonna leave us there in some stranger’s driveway while you poked around their farm equipment?”
Will really didn’t want to fight with her, even though it seemed to be their natural state of existence for the present moment. He knew he should defuse the situation, mumble an apology and move on.
But he always was a stubborn son of a bitch, and he’d never let anything die. “I told the kids to stay in the car. However you interpreted that is your business, dear…”
With a grin he knew damn well was a shit-eating one, Will stood there, waiting for a rebuke that never came. He broke and looked off at the side of the porch. Michelle had wandered over there, and was using the toe of her shoe to lift open a water-logged canvas sack left in the dirt.
Will stepped closer to see what she’d found. He noticed rips and tears in the canvas. Claw marks. A black nylon rope, its ends frayed, sat detached and pitiful looking in a nearby mud puddle. At the sight of that wet and empty bag, Will’s heart leapt into his throat.
He took a deep breath before looking away. He knew what a bag like that meant. His dad had been a dog breeder, hunting dogs mostly. Never fixed or spayed them, so there were some seasons when the litters got to be too much to care for and there was no one looking to take in a mewling, squealing, squishy blob of their own.
The scratching and scraping at his pants leg shook Will back to reality. He looked down and spotted not dogs but what had to be at least eight tiny kittens, all wet and ragged, yet still moving. Their tiny claws weren’t sharp enough to break through denim, but they scrambled for purchase on Will’s leg with a relentless fervor nonetheless. It was almost cute, the way they tried and tried.
Maybe, I can turn this trip around, he thought. Who cares if we had to bring the kids? Maybe we’ll end up with a cat. That’d be nice, right? Wouldn’t be the first time we’d got a pet to try to make it work, would it? And it did work. Until it didn’t… But this time could be different, right?
He looked over at Michelle, hoping she’d be looking his way too, thinking the same thing he was. Like the old days, like how it used to be for them. But, even as another group of similarly water-logged furballs were biting and scratching at her pants leg, she ignored them and Will, keeping her eyes elsewhere.
One hand was on her forehead, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun. She stared at the farmhouse’s closed screened-in front door, trying to peer through the spider’s web of tiny diamond-shaped metal holes, hoping to find some sign of humanity within. Seeing nothing inside, she took a sweeping 360-degree look around the property, covering the barn, the fields, and the silo.
“It’s so dead around here.” she said. “Where is everyone?”
“Where’s Animal Control, at least?” Will added. He heard panting, like the kind old dogs make. That sustained wet kind of coughing. And then, like he’d stepped inside a strip mall pet shop, he heard birds chirping and squawking. Something squat and furry, a mouse–maybe–darted from the lattice work under the porch, but got lost amid some overgrown clumps of grass almost immediately.
One of the wet kittens vying for Will’s attention had a little more jumping power than her companions. She got down in a low crouch and sprang up, headed right for Will’s face. Though the way she swung her front paws, with the claws fully extended, it seemed she’d be content with reaching any part of him, as long she drew blood while doing so.
Caught off guard by the hissing spray of his feline attacker, Will stumbled backward. He felt his heel come down on the head of another of the tiny cats. The creature didn’t scurry out of the way like Will expected. But worse than that, he didn’t hear the crunch and crack of his heel through the slick-backed fur and skull beneath that. Instead, it felt like he had stepped through wet cardboard, with nothing waiting on the other side.
“Oh my God, Will!”
More of the kittens leapt for Michelle. She swatted them away, the palm of her hand somehow enough to knock some of their heads off. Heads with mouths that still kept crying out after they’d been detached. Distracted by his wife’s plight, Will left himself open for an attack. One of the kittens sank its teeth into his forearm. Will grabbed hold and tore it loose from his flesh as fast as he could.
Holding the squirming animal at arm’s length, Will got a good long look at the kitten’s face.
“Face” was putting it nicely. The kitten-like creature’s fur sloughed off whenever it moved. And not just the fur. Skin and muscle came loose too. Gray, wet meat splattered onto the ground. Soon enough half of the kitten’s face was skull, yellowish bone exposed to the air.
The skull kitten screeched. Its breath hit Will in the face, and he knew that what he smelled was death.
He threw the kitten–somehow still alive, despite all physical evidence to the contrary–away from him. Down at his feet, its other water-logged siblings showed similar signs of rot and decay. Eye sockets white with wriggling maggots “looked” up at the two human intruders.
At the very least, Will knew that they needed to get the fuck away from the farm. He grabbed for Michelle’s hand. Their fingers interlocking on contact, Will immediately noticed the difference in body temperature. The animals felt cool, corpse-like to the touch. But Michelle was warm. All he wanted in that moment was to draw that warmth and never let it go.
Michelle screamed again. Or maybe she never stopped screaming. Will couldn’t say for sure, thanks to a persistent ringing in his own ears. He tried pulling her forward, dragging her toward the car with him. He didn’t want to look back and risk having her apparent shock transfer to him.
But Michelle wouldn’t let him go. Trying to at least clear a path, Will kicked at the cold, dead (but somehow not) kittens. They sailed back, like empty canvas sacks themselves, and crashed against the front porch steps. But when he’d finished, Michelle placed a trembling finger under his chin. He let her touch him, control him.
A memory came to him unprovoked: an image of the two of them–out in a rain-soaked night, just shy of their driveway. That time it was Will’s hand under Michelle’s chin. The words spoken not so long ago felt ancient in the retelling. “Michelle, he’s gone. He got out and ran in front of the car. It’s no one’s fault…”
Back on the farm, Will looked where Michelle pointed. The weakened grip he had on reality crumbled. They were all dead. And yet, a roaring stampede, a cacophony of meows, barks, snuffles, twitches, chirps, and whinnying snickers heralded their fast approach.
All the animals. So many of them pets, if Will had to guess, based on the collars, name tags, saddles, and harnesses he spotted. They were damaged, broken things. Limbs severed or dangling. Blood soaked their furs and hides. Guts dangled and dragged.
Michelle took in a deep swallow of a breath, like she might be drowning. It cut off her screams at last. Soon, the advancing herd would overwhelm their position. “Oh my God!”
Will knew what she meant. He finished her thought. “The kids!”
That got them moving. Still holding hands, their feet pounded against the gravel. Each held onto the other, keeping the other one upright, even when a rock got in the way or the swirling gray dirt flew up and scratched at the corners of their eyes.
The SUV was right ahead. But still not close enough.
Will’s heart pounded in his chest. “Kuh-kids?”
“Will, look at the doors…”
He stopped short, causing Michelle to crash into his side. Neither of them seemed to notice. The back passenger doors were open on either side of the car. Both car seats were empty. Will had always suspected Candy knew how to get out of her seat. She must’ve helped her baby brother. Sitting abandoned, with the engine running, their family car felt more like an ancient ruin–displaying the remnants of normalcy from a time before some great cataclysm.
Again, he thought of that other night, and another dead pet.
“Help me get him in the back,” he’d said to an inconsolable Michelle. “I’ll take him to the dump. We’ll tell the kids, he went…”
Relief and horror, existing in the same moment, interrupted Will’s thoughts. Glancing back to the farm, he found the stampede of rotten furry, fanged, and feathered undead animals had pulled up short. They were pacing around, waiting.
They acted like they’d crossed into some other animal’s territory. One they didn’t want to disturb.
A bushy tail wagged from the other side of the car. The brown-haired appendage, sprinkled white and black throughout, slapped the ground. Eager and almost impatient in its motion.
“Mommy, Daddy, remember when you told us Cinnamon went away to live on a farm?”
Will shook his head, muttering “No, no, no…”
A pony–its bottom jaw missing and trickle of black blood in the center of its forehead–nudged Will’s shoulder. Getting the message, Will and Michelle walked around to the other side of the car.
There they were. Little boy, little girl, and the dog they’d both loved. Tire tread marks, black from road tar and dried blood, remained as Will had left them. One pointed ear bent slightly at the sound of their footsteps in the gravel. Their German Shepherd, unmistakably so alive or dead, turned to regard his former owners. His head tilted. Will couldn’t meet the creature’s watery, blood-shot eye. And he certainly couldn’t look into the bleached white socket on the other side of the dog’s face, revealing nothing inside but more darkness.
Candy had her thin, freckled arms wrapped around her old dead dog’s neck. George ran his fingers through the beast’s coat, not seeming to mind when the dog’s hair came out in clumps.
“This must be the farm you sent Cinnamon to. Right, Mommy? Right, Daddy?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. She giggled, letting the creature’s black, half-rotted tongue explore the smooth curves of her smiling cheeks.
“It’s okay, Cinnamon,” she said. “We’re here now. And we’re never going to leave.”
“No leave.” George echoed his sister once again.
Cinnamon growled, and bared his fangs.
GracieKat was the first co-host of Sci-Fi & Scary, Lilyn’s partner-in-crime, and sub-head of the Kali Krew. She reviews horror books, movies, and games for the site. She also does a weekly Focus on the Frightful feature, and is the site list-maker. She is also in control of the Sci-Fi & Scary podcast which will relaunch soon.
Be First to Comment