Chapter 3 (001)

As Damion opened the door, Beagsley bolted into the night and stopped until briefly it wasn't night at the horizon and then he sprinted again for the dark, never to be seen again.


Quinn almost chased the dog but Tony stumbled in with the cold air. His dragging footsteps kicked snow under the couch. He looked awful, like a prune, like he'd been sleeping in the snow. He was missing a shoe.


They stared, silent, in disbelief. Roger went for a hug.


Quinn planning ahead because Colby and them would be back, but the twins? They wouldn't hear the good news till after the cops came calling. Someone would have to chase them down. Probably her.


Damion thinking everyone was stupid for getting so worked up over nothing.


Relieved, Rosie fell onto the couch where she pulled her blanket over her head and cried happily. She only heard her squeaks, stifled by embarrassment.


"Think we could let Tony use the blanket for a while?" Quinn asked her. Maybe it'd be good to have emergency services called to treat him. He looked awful.


Rose really thought she had seen him... "Yeah." She pulled down the blanket.


Tony hugged back. His arms, which shouldn't have fit around Roger as round as he was, hooked together. Roger, laughing it off to start, felt the breath squeeze out of him till he couldn't protest. He couldn't wriggle away.


Damion stared and waited for Quinn to notice.


"Tony! What the fuck, man?" She backhanded his shoulder but felt the solid, unearthly cords beneath. Not of muscle or bone, but of an evil spread through him. She felt him not move an inch and not pay any attention. She punched him. Right to the back of the head.


It hurt her hand. She knew it would. She had to punch a horse once when it was gnawing on a friend's finger. This hurt more. And the horse had let go; Tony didn't.


The punch had torn the skin loose on his skull. Peeled off a desiccated strip from his ear to his cheek that hung from his nose. Beneath was black pulsating sludge. There was no sheen off the electric light. Just matte black. Looking dead on, it seemed to go deep into the void where Tony, the real Tony, had been lost forever.


Roger's tiptoes lifted off the hardwood floor. His mouth wanted air in but the pathways were squeezed as Tony closed his arms. Tighter, tighter.


Rosie scrambled for a closet. She'd been right.


Quinn whacked more skin off with an iron poker. More tore off his shoulder, knee, and neck. A solid stab demonstrated how deep the dark went.


From Tony's mouth sprouted a long black tendril that went up then swept down, feeling at Roger's face, for that opening. He closed his mouth. Tony squeezed, trying to open his lips once more, but Roger pursed his lips till his teeth bit into the gums.


The tendril didn't need the mouth though. It had the nose. The ears.


It chose the eyes.


No matter how tight he squeezed his eyelids, they were not shields and they would not hold. Once pierced, his mouth popped open to let out a hiss of air meant to be a scream.


It dropped him. It had soaked up the blood before it could spill and leak and the body just thumped before Quinn who let her poker fall, too. She waited for her turn.


But it sensed someone familiar. Someone out there during its first meal tonight.




The stove hissed as Damion turned the knob to high. He sniffed the range, then turned on the other three. He needed that rotten egg smell they pumped in to really get him light-headed.


The bi-fold closet door between Rosie and it had slats. It pounded itself against the door as it had against the front door, but this one would break. Or unhinge. The round pivot clattered against its tract. Where Quinn had stripped away skin, the goo dripped before Rosie's feet, and the puddle started to squirm.


Damion sparked the ignition. The fireball launched from the stove top singed his arm hairs and whooshed against the tile back splash, but died in the vent. The gas range could only let out methane so quickly and ideally they needed five to ten percent methane in the air, but not so much that carbon monoxide pushed out the oxygen. This was their only chance to kill it and it could take a whole day to get that much gas in the cabin. He slapped his newly bare arm. He couldn't see half his stubble was gone, too, but he smelled it all.


That thing in Tony smelled nearly cooked meat. Heard the whoosh. Felt the heat. It stumbled toward Damion, a threat.


The screeching feet of the oven scraped the wood floors so he could get to the gas line but it was metal. The paring knife he'd been given did nothing to it. Quinn waved him away and smacked her iron poker against the line like she was swinging a golf club. A few good hits uncoupled it from the joint and gas blew out in stink waves.


She reached for the ignition.


"No!" Damion yelled. "Once that's lit, there are no more tries. We have to let the room fill up."


"How long?"


He'd done the calculations and lied. "Ten minutes."


"Might as well pray for a nuke."


Slow, staggering Tony couldn't catch them both. If they ran for it, if they left Rosie...


The couch was between Tony and Quinn. It was not hard to outpace him with those corners till she stumbled on Roger's corpse. But even as her knee banged the floor and her arms sprawled out and her chin hit, she had time. It was still behind the couch. It could turn and go for Damion, but he could do it just the same. She'd rather it went for him so she could grab Rosie and they could bolt through the snow after Beagsley.


Tony didn't turn for Damion.


Tony sent the couch scratching across the hardwood with so much force it pinned Quinn to the door.


In the panic she rocked herself forward. Her weight tipped the couch backwards and she was sprawled on the floor by Roger again, except the couch frame had shattered her shins. She wasn't the one to rise. Roger was.


"No," she whispered.


His eyelids were still pierced but dry and beneath them black and he leaned over her.


"No, no."


She watched the black goo swell from his eye sockets and the holes knitted themselves together and the dark skin faded till it matched the tone around him. He opened his eyes. Whole once more. But there was only death in them.


"Damion!" she screamed. "You have to light it now!"


It hadn't been long enough. Even if she'd distracted them for the full ten minutes he quoted her, they needed longer. So much longer it was impossible. It always had been.


"Do it!"


From Roger's mouth a little black snake seeped out.


"Don't let them take me."


The screaming stopped when she was gone.


Now, only Damion and Rosie remained and both were hidden behind doors that did not lock. The gas still hissed from its line. The creatures lumbered for their doors to bang against. It was more of a slow-motion ram. Hit with face or shoulder or whatever was nearest. Tony's skin had been so peeled away that no one could've mistaken it was him and as he banged his face against the slats he smelled Rosie through, dribbles sprayed. She was behind the coats. They dripped down. The puddle neared her feet. She could not get higher up on her tiptoes.


The bedroom windows didn't open. They'd been told when they arrived by the welcome pamphlet. They had tried. Damion tried again.


Then banged a suitcase against the glass. The suitcase dented. His android tablet was the hardest thing available with its aluminosilicate glass and yet the screen just shattered and the window stayed adamant. With every knock he grew more desperate and with every knock, he broke something else that wasn't the window until finally it was his hands.


Knock at the closet door.


Faceless Tony, his skin hanging down his back like a hood, was half inside the closet. His face screaming from a puddle for Rosie who threw a coat over him but more trickled down and it slowly grew.


Knock at the bedroom.


The door swung open, the jamb finally giving way. Damion was under the bed and it knew that.


Knock at the front door.


The viewing window shattered. Hunter climbed through and hefted the couch out of the way for Margie and Colby. While her body was in the corner of his eye at all times, he refused to focus on Quinn. The screams of the living were more pressing than the memory of the dead.


Damion saw beyond his terror and screamed for help.


Rosie from behind the coats screamed for them to run.


First thing Margie did--shut the blinds tight over the hole Hunter had made.


As Roger's toes unpeeled and let out black worms lapping at the hardwood to catch Damion, Hunter took aim with the rifle. He had seen Tony's nose hanging off that skin of a hood, the missing head, the dead body, the matte black ooze that left footprints.


Tony started toward Margie, the nearest and newest meal. Her smell suppressed by the cold but Rosie's panic tenderized her meat, marinading it in desperation. She could wait. She'd be the longest to stew. The tastiest of them all. She'd be the last bite.


Margie yelled at Colby, "Get the stove."


It was pushed out of its cubby. The gas line behind it hissing. The air smelling like rotten eggs. She'd figured out the plan immediately, but now, with this little instruction, so had Colby.


And he couldn't.


Tony cornered her.


"You have to," she said.


All the fumes around him lifting up and hissing and making it hard to breathe. The carbon monoxide. The years of PSAs. The drills. News stories. And he was about to be another.


Before he could take the first of his final steps, Quinn grabbed his leg. He kicked her but her hand stayed. She anchored him in place and as he flailed, her fingernails sunk in with a black poison squirming through his veins and maybe if he amputated immediately he'd be safe from it but it started to take him.


And Hunter, his runny nose too clogged to sniff out the plan, pulled the trigger.


The puff of fire trailing the bullet lit the air and the whoosh of pressure and heat blew open the hinged window above the sink so it smacked against the outer wall, shattering the glass. A kitchen chair was sucked outside. The couch, the wall, the ceiling, the cabinets, the table, everything that could caught flame. Including the people. Damion. Margie. Hunter. Rosie. Their fat sizzled. The burns, the pain, neither killed them instantly. They screamed away the oxygen.


This was the brief daylight Beagsley saw in the distance, but it was not why he ran.


That little dog ran because from the house emerged Colby, Quinn, Roger, and Tony. Its charred skin suits chipped away against the bark as it chased its next meals.