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CHAPTER ONE: MOM AND DAD
The treacherous full moon darted through the clouds, sometimes fully illuminating the onrushing road and sometimes casting it into blackness.
Jeff was putting the pedal to the metal, trying to make up for lost time. So their lime-green Taurus barreled ahead, fearlessly plunging over hills, around bends, and into one pool of darkness after another. As they swerved around one particularly hair-raising bend, Elaine braced herself and let out an involuntary yelp of terror.
“Slow down! You can’t see what’s up ahead,” she pleaded.
“One driver to a car. I believe that’s one of our family rules, isn’t it?”
Jeff didn’t exactly snap at her, but he adopted that stern, I’m-the-man tone he employed on occasion to inform her that a conversation was over.
She knew well enough that being told how to drive was one of his pet peeves, and so she’d held her tongue for the past 20 minutes. But he was really scaring her now, twisting and turning through this unfamiliar, serpentine road hemmed in by dense pines.
On top of that, she really, REALLY had to pee — and no way was she going to ask her new husband to pull over for a rush into these murky, uninviting woods.
In a sense, of course, she was to blame, because she had been the one who was late for the ceremony. This was the bride’s prerogative, her maid of honor had assured her. But delays had piled on, one on top of another. The band showed up late, and then her Uncle Jack (AKA Mr. Amateur Shutterbug), insisted on taking his own “artsy” shots of every single pose the wedding photographer set up. As a result, they said their goodbyes and left the reception two hours late. So instead of taking a leisurely ride up to the lodge in New Hampshire in broad daylight, they enjoyed only a brief spell of gold sky at sunset. The rest of the trip had been under this fickle moon.
The honeymoon spot would be idyllic, swore her maid of honor, who had indulged in carnal delights of epic proportions in its valentine-shaped Jacuzzi with her boyfriend a couple of years back. A remote clutch of cozy log cabins by a lake, each with its own fireplace, Elaine’s friend had described it.
The romantic drive north through the New England countryside as the leaves turned was supposed to have been a prelude to an unforgettable wedding night. Instead, it was this wild ride through the dark, at once monotonous and unnerving.
Elaine didn’t know why, but an ineffable sense of melancholy came over her and she began to cry. Jeff reached over, stroking her hair with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said and flashed his signature Tom Cruise grin. Somehow he always knew how to make things right again. When Jeff was around, you always knew that things would be okay.
It sprang in front of the car — and before Elaine could get a syllable of warning out of her mouth, they hit it dead on.
“Oh God!!” she shrieked, bouncing up and down like an excited child.
There was the awful bumping sound of the body tumbling over the roof of the car. Jeff hit the brakes hard and the car skidded, did a 180 and spun off onto the shoulder.
It had been the biggest dog she’d ever seen, nearly the size of a colt. It must have been a… a… what was that breed that looked like an oversized German shepherd? A mastiff?
“Are you all right?” Jeff was saying. He’d been repeating the question for a few seconds, shaking her. His words only now registered.
Her heart pounded like the proverbial jackhammer, and she felt a burning pain in her chest. Had she suffered a heart attack? No, she realized, it was where the shoulder harness had bitten into her. Elaine nodded. Her swimming head ached faintly, too. She wondered if she had thumped it on the dashboard, although she had no recollection of having done so.
“I better see if he’s all right,” her husband said gravely.
“Are you sure? It might panic and bite you.”
“The dog, if it’s alive.”
Jeff’s brow furrowed, and he looked puzzled.
“Must be the shock. No, hon, it’s a man. A stark-naked old man. He practically jumped right out in front of the car.”
“No, no, no. It was dog, a big one, like a Saint Bernard but taller.”
Jeff looked at her as if she was crazy, then released his shoulder harness.
“Either way, I’ll take a look. Even if it’s someone’s dog, we can’t leave it lying in the road.”
“The hell we can’t,” Elaine replied. “You’re not getting out of this car!”
Jeff flicked on the dome light.
“Look in the glove compartment. I think there’s a flashlight,” he commanded. Elaine hesitated.
“Come on, come on,” he persisted.
She popped open the glove compartment and, frowning dubiously, passed him the heavy-duty black flashlight. He flicked the light on and off and back on, testing it as if trying to buy a moment’s time. Then he swung open the door, and Elaine shivered at the rush of frost.
“Wait,” she said. Everything was happening so fast; she needed time to think. Jeff turned back to her.
“This is so strange. Maybe we ought drive to a gas station and call for help.”
“Now come on, be reasonable. You know we can’t do that. The poor bastard could be bleeding to death.”
He climbed out and hunched down, pointing the light ahead, and squinted into the distance. Jeff looked handsome and heroic in his tux, with his jet-black hair and square jaw line. The moon was creeping out from the clouds now, but seeing ahead was no easier. Jeff’s flashlight couldn’t penetrate the dense fog enshrouding the road.
The car’s headlights were still on, but did little to add to the illumination. In fact they generated a blinding haze. Jeff hesitated and in that instant, Elaine knew that he, too, was afraid.
“Kind of like something out of Chiller Theater, right?” he said with a weak chuckle.
Elaine realized that the absolute last thing her new husband wanted to do at that moment was walk down that road, and he was forcing himself to do it by sheer will power.
“Lock the doors,” he told her. “Just my luck the guy is some kind of escaped nut, not an old-timer who wandered off from a nursing home. Running around naked in 30-degree weather! Yeesh!”
He slammed the door shut and she hit the power locks.
Jeff started walking gingerly toward the approximate spot of the collision, probing the gloom with his pinpoint of light.
“Hello! Hello! Are you all right?” He vanished into the glare and the fog.
The former Elaine Morgan, now Elaine Stern, turned off the dome light and used her fist to wipe away frost to see through the windshield. She could make out the beam of her husband’s flashlight dancing in the fog an extraordinary distance away.
Moments passed and instead of her heart settling down, it began to pump furiously. The radio was still on, tuned to an oldies station and playing Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.”
Right. As if the situation isn’t eerie enough already. She was getting seriously antsy now.
Well, I’m not just going to sit here like some bimbo, Elaine decided. She scooted over into the driver’s seat, wrestling with her white taffeta wedding dress. Her six-inch heel found the brake and she threw the car into drive, figuring to creep forward and maybe cast the headlights onto the road so Jeff could see what he was doing.
Then came a scream. No, to call it a scream was to dignify it. It was a shriek, a shriek of sheer terror as high-pitched as a she-goat’s at the moment of slaughter. But it wasn’t a goat — it was her husband’s voice, still recognizable though contorted with agony and fear.
“No! Noooooo! Oh, please! Oh God! Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
Elaine began to scream, too, in helpless panic. “Jeff, Jeff!”
A slash of crimson splashed across the windshield, as if a bucket of blood had been hurled at it haphazardly. She recoiled, burying the back of her head against the headrest.
Something the size of a soccer ball bounced on the hood of the car and spun around. Suddenly Jeff’s face was staring at her through the windshield, drenched in blood and eyes wide open. His open mouth puckered up against the glass.
It was his face and nothing else. His head had been swiped cleanly off his body. No, not cleanly. There were jagged ribbons of bloody flesh dangling like strips of confetti from his throat.
Elaine’s screams hit the high octaves now, raw screams of disbelieving horror. An ax hadn’t taken off Jeff’s head. It had been savagely ripped off like a slice of bologna torn by hand. And suddenly, the hand that had taken off her husband’s head was there.
A hand, covered with coarse brown fur and ending in cruel, curving talons, swiped the head away so it rolled off the hood of the car. The head landed with a sickening thump like a spoiled pumpkin. Then the hand — the paw – twice the breadth of a man’s, flattened against the glass.
It balled into a fist and Elaine knew that in half a second it was going to come crashing through the windshield for her.
Go! Go! GO! a tiny voice screeched deep inside her head.
Her hands and feet took over, slamming the car into reverse while stomping the accelerator. The thing on the hood tumbled off as she hurtled backward.
A bear! Not a dog, a bear, she thought as she pictured that huge paw against the glass.
Staring straight ahead through the windshield, she could see it rise up, seemingly unhurt. But, of course, it wouldn’t be hurt by the spill. The Thing had already taken the full brunt of the car ramming it at 70 M.P.H., hadn’t it?
Silhouetted in the glare of the headlights, it stood upright in the general shape of a man but with shoulders as broad as a bull’s and a colossal head, much too big to be human. It bounded toward her with preternatural speed, jerkily, like an actor in a silent movie.
No, not a bear — not any animal of this world. Elaine was flying in reverse at better than 80 M.P.H. but The Thing was keeping up, effortlessly, like a fit jogger on a morning run, coming after her to do exactly what it had just done to Jeff. Jeff, who a scant three hours ago had been holding her in his arms as they danced to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
Have to, have to turn around, Elaine said to herself. Her thoughts were now pared down to such staccato bursts. Between the tears cascading from her eyes and the oppressive fog, she was half-blind.
She wrenched the steering wheel clockwise, hand over hand, trying to make a U-turn. The car spun, screeching, and pitched up onto two wheels.
Black. Black. Black.
When Elaine opened her eyes, all was tranquil and she was leaning against the car door. There was no sound but the serenade of cicadas. She groaned.
The car was in a ditch at a 45-degree angle, lying on the driver’s side, the smoking hood crumpled against a tree. The back window had shattered and even the radio was dead. For a moment everything was still and Elaine sensed that she was waking up from a nightmare.
I must have fallen asleep at the wheel, she reasoned. Of course, yes, the wedding is tomorrow. I fell asleep on the drive to Mom’s. Her groggy brain sought to reassemble reality.
But, like Humpty Dumpty, her world could not be put back together. No. She was in her wedding dress, and looking at her hand, she could see she was wearing a wedding ring. And on the windshield was that awful slash of crimson.
Oh, Jeff! My Jeff!
Their two years together came rushing back: Eating pizza together on his living room couch; the passionate quarrels; going to her first hockey game and yelling her head off even though she was clueless about the rules; making love into the wee hours.
A hand — THE HEAD-RIPPING HAND — smashed through the passenger window, sending shards of glass flying everywhere as it reached greedily for her.
Elaine squealed and launched herself into the back seat as the massive, shaggy form crowded through the window, a long and ape-like arm clutching for her. As the huge, stinking beast poured into the car, she clambered over the back seat and squirmed out of the shattered rear window.
“Eeeh-aaaaw!” It bellowed like a mule. It wasn’t a howling sound at all, she noted. Surprised — because by now she had a pretty good idea what it was.
She crawled out on the trunk on her hands and knees, bloodying her hands on broken glass. Then she felt something stop her.
The Thing had snatched her wedding gown and was reeling her back in like a fisherman drawing in his net. She felt herself being sucked back toward death.
This was one of those dresses with a detachable train — another suggestion from her maid of honor. But Elaine, tipsy on champagne, had danced in her full dress all afternoon. Her trembling hands clawed behind her, found the snaps, and detached the train.
The bottom of the dress flew off, flapping like a ship’s sail in the wind. She was free!
A moment later, Elaine was blindly running along the ditch, freezing in the icy air, her stiletto heels stumbling over stones. The moon was hiding again, making it too dark to see in the gully. So she scrambled out by grabbing fistfuls of grass and dirt. She kicked off her shoes, then bolted headlong along the road, screaming at the top of her lungs. She and
Jeff had passed a few cars on the road earlier, hadn’t they?
“Help! Help! Someone help me!”
But there wasn’t a car in sight. Not another soul for miles. No human soul. She heard sounds close behind her, terrifyingly close –- The Thing’s rasping breath and its padded feet scuffing the asphalt. In desperation, she took refuge in the woods. It was a safe bet that was The Thing’s home, she knew, but there was no other option. Elaine ran through the forest, hopping over fallen trees, and crashing headlong through bushes that scraped at her face and shredded her gown.
In the blackness, she could hear The Thing barreling through the bushes behind her like an elephant. You can’t outrun something like that, she thought. You can’t even outrun a dog or a bear, can you? Even something natural.
She ran smack into a tree, bloodying her nose. She grabbed the trunk, slid around it and crouched down. Yes, hide, hide, she told herself. You have to hide, like as a hare pursued by a fox.
For a moment, everything was still again. She sank very low, shivering from both cold and terror. Then she could hear it again, making its way stealthily now through the branches, telltale snapping of twigs beneath its hind feet.
Now the moon was coming out again and a shaft of blue light penetrated the canopy of the forest. In that strange faerie light, she could make out its head — almost the size of a stallion’s — about 12 feet away.
She could see its black snout twitching as it tried to sniff her out. An odd bit of trivia jumped out at her, read in a children’s book a lifetime ago: that a dog’s nose is 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s. But how keen was the smell of this Thing, that was not a dog and not a man?
Not a wolf and not a man. A wolf and a man.For now she had little doubt what was stalking her.
She squatted behind the tree unable to move, trembling, her body practically seizing. It took a step toward her, then pointed its twitching, sniffling snout slightly away.
It hesitated. It might move away — granting Elaine a few more moments of life, or it might stride toward her, meaning instant death, torn limb from limb, butchered and beheaded, like Jeff.
That’s when she finally lost control of her bladder. A stream of urine poured out, puddling beneath her. Elaine experienced a peculiar flash of shame at this loss of control over her own body — and then raw panic as she realized the acrid smell or the tinkling might alert The Thing.
The immense head suddenly snapped in her direction.
The moon eased out from behind the clouds. As The Thing came leaping toward her, for one microsecond as it flew through the air she could see it clearly, in all its glory.
Like something out of a comic book, she thought.
It tackled her and she fell back on a muddy hill of leaves, finally free to let out a full-volume scream. It lay crushing her down and she could smell its foul breath — the stench of rotting food mixed with its ghastly body odor, the worst combination of animal and human. She pushed against its chest, burying her fingers in a thick mat of hair, but it was like trying to hold back a tumbling brick wall.
She finally stopped screaming. It would be over in a second she knew. The jaws yawned impossibly wide and came down within an inch of her face.
Elaine muttered feverishly a prayer she hadn’t uttered since the age of 14: “Lord, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
The moon vanished behind the clouds, casting them again into total darkness.
“I will fear no evil. I will… fear… no… no…”
Silence. Her tongue was finally paralyzed by terror.
The Thing stopped, just lying on top of her like a Saint Bernard shielding an avalanche survivor. It was as if it were waiting for a cue.
As she lay there, panting, reason started to come back, knowing that it could not be what it seemed. A man, a man in a costume, a madman yes, a lunatic who had killed her husband. A nut, just as Jeff had said, a nut in a mask. A hoary, horrible wolf mask and some kind of rubber suit, like that backwoods prankster who impersonated Bigfoot. She lay trembling under the man or monster, whichever it was, waiting for death to come.
Then, sickeningly, she became aware of its male member, nuzzled against her abdomen. Nauseated by this intimacy with her husband’s slayer, her own killer-to-be, she tried to wriggle away but she was pinned down firmly.
And now she could feel its shaft stiffening.
The Thing purred — a soft, almost human moan — and to her supreme horror, she realized what was coming next. The phrase “a fate worse than death” came to her mind, and now, for the first time in her life, she understood it clearly. For she would rather die and be sent to be with Jeff right now than THAT.
“Oh, God no!” Elaine screamed and struck the massive chest with a fist. It was like punching a suit of armor. She crossed her ankles and locked her legs together. No way was that going to happen. Better to be, to be ripped apart, yes, shredded by those sickle-like claws, than that!
“No, you fucking DON’T!” Elaine shouted.
But with one swift swipe of its shaggy arm, The Thing flipped the bride onto her belly and she felt sharp leaves raking her face.
Powerful hands grabbed her hips and hoisted them up, forcing her buttocks to jut obscenely in the air. In a split second, her wedding dress and slip were bunched up at her waist.
R…I…PPPPP! Cruel talons raked away her lacy white Victoria’s Secret thong, leaving her naked below the waist.
Elaine scurried away on her hands and knees, but The Thing yanked her back, slamming her upraised, fully exposed backside against its groin.
Her face buried in the leaves, she screamed into the earth as the creature from the woods ferociously plowed into her.
Its hairy haunches slammed into her rump again and again as it frantically pumped her.
SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP!
The sound filled her with disgust. And with every thrust she bucked forward, letting out a gasp of pain that sounded lewd and shameful to her own ears.
The worst part of it was not the indescribable physical agony, nor was it the degradation of being taken by something part animal. It was the certain knowledge that she would never, ever, be able to tell anyone about this no matter how long she lived — and the loneliness that she inherited at that moment.
She cried again, for the last time in her life.
It went on for an eternity, the noises sometimes more bestial, sometimes more human. Finally, it let out an unearthly howl, half the cry of an animal and half the bellow of a debased man who had long since lost his soul, releasing a geyser of seed into her. But by then Elaine heard nothing — mercifully, she had long since sunk into unconsciousness.
CHAPTER 2: DOUBLE TROUBLE
Elaine Stern bore two sons, twins, but not identical — indeed, different as night and day. Jason, the elder by five minutes, was small and frail and needed glasses by the time he was four. He was fearful of animals, especially big, black dogs. He would literally cling to his mother’s skirt tails and weep if he were separated from her for more than a few moments.
Joshua, on the other hand, was long-haired and wild, always scampering over furniture like a little ape — or, as one neighbor put it more generously, “like baby Tarzan.” His grip was so strong that if he got your index finger in his grasp, you simply could not extricate it, try as you might. No playpen could hold him; toddler gates made him giggle; bookshelves were his ladders.
He didn’t utter a word until the age of three, and the speech therapist who helped to haul him, kicking and screaming every step of the way, into the world of speaking society, marveled that he “had many of the attributes of a feral child.”
Elaine raised her sons with love and devotion, equally, and they never saw the grief in her eyes or understood her strange, interminable bouts of silence.
When the boys were five, Elaine awoke one winter night with a certainty that something was amiss. She tiptoed into their nursery where the two slept in twin beds, surrounded by Disney-themed wallpaper.
Joshua was missing from his bed.
Breaking into a cold sweat, she rushed out and searched the house, running from room to room crying out his name with ever-increasing urgency. Finally, she threw on her parka, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the back door. It was February and below freezing, less than 23 degrees.
A hundred yards into the woods she ran, dreading what she would find, but all the time knowing what she would find.
There he was, sitting in a clearing, staring up at the moon. She gazed at her son, there in the snow dressed only in footed Spider-Man pajamas.
You would think the mottled gray crescent was speaking to him, he was so transfixed by it. And what secret message was it transmitting?
Oh yes, for a moment, she thought of it: leaving the boy in the snow to freeze to death.
Let the night take you. Perhaps that would be kinder, she thought. They say freezing is an easy death; that you drift off into a gentle sleep abundant in pleasant dreams from which you never awake.
But then a mother’s heart took command. Elaine took off her parka and swept him up in it, then trudged back through the 18-inches of snow to the house.
As she tucked the tot back into the bed, Jason sat up in bed, wide-eyed and curious.
“What’s going on, Mom?” he piped up.
That’s when she told him for the first time, the words she was to drum into him on an almost daily basis for the next 13 years:
“You are the older one; you have to watch out for your brother. You have to protect him because no one else can.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Click HERE to find out!
If you found this story by fiction writer C. Michael Forsyth entertaining, you might enjoy his novels…
Read Hour of the Beast.
Check out The Blood of Titans.