Riders On the Storm

How Do Hurricanes Affect Birds?

A storm was coming.

A wicked one.

And if the weatherman over at Channel 10 news could be believed, it was going to be one of cataclysmic proportion, whatever that meant.

Warnings and dangers about approaching bad weather had no effect on Bess Houghton.  Having grown up on the east coast of South Florida, she’d been in the midst of, ridden out and survived, more hurricanes than she had teeth.  And since she had a full set of natural pearls, that was a lot of storms.

Not to be complacent and unconcerned about inclement weather, but rainfall was rainfall regardless of whether it was in Florida, or in a sleepy tiny town in the Midwest.  Perhaps the citizens of Nowhereville, Indiana were frightened by a little thunder and lightning, but she wasn’t.  In fact, she found thunderstorms to be quite intriguing and relaxing.  The mesmerizing sound of the rain pounding on the roof and splattering against concrete pavement could put an insomniac to sleep.

Nowhereville wasn’t really the name of the town she’d allowed her husband to talk her into moving to, but it was certainly an appropriate name, given the fact that she now resided in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but acre upon acre of farmland with the nearest neighbor being more than five miles away.  Buying groceries required an hour’s drive to the next town over, so when she did shop, she bought enough food and supplies to last a month, having to make a necessary adjustment from the weekly shopping she was used to.  There was a general store in her small town of Somerset where several locals liked to shop and gossip while they did so, but she disliked going in there unless she absolutely had to, refusing to drive an hour simply to buy a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.  All of the items were displayed on wooden shelves so dusty she couldn’t touch anything without feeling disgusted.  For the first three months after arriving, she’d stayed angry at Rick for allowing his brother to talk him into giving up city life for farming, which neither of them knew a thing about.  She was also angry at herself for making the move without first seeing the town and the property up close and personal instead of the phony, made to look good shots posted on the website of the real estate agent who’d brokered the deal.  She wouldn’t make that same mistake twice.  Because she loved and trusted Rick and he trusted his brother when he’d told him the price was a steal for the amount of land and property it entailed, she’d consented and agreed to make the move.  It wasn’t until after they’d arrived and gotten a good look at the farm that they’d realized they may have made a bad choice, and sometimes she wondered if Rick wasn’t just as disappointed as she was about the decision they’d made.  The farmhouse itself wasn’t too bad.  The high, vaulted ceiling in the living room made it appear much larger than it actually was.  All four bedrooms were located on the second floor, each of them a considerable size and roomier than the ones in their modular home in Florida.  The kitchen had been upgraded with modern, stainless steel appliances and oak cabinets.  The cobblestone fireplace in the living room was her favorite feature in the entire house, having always dreamt of having one but never having a need for one living in Florida.  The barn and horse stables left a lot to be desired and would require months of manual labor, and paid contractor work, to make either one usable.  The stables were no big deal because they didn’t own any horses, but the dilapidated old barn was needed to store supplies like hay, feed for the cattle when they finally did get them, and crop seeds.  For now, those things were stored beneath blue tarps inside the barn.  She’d give credit where it was due though – at least Rick was doing his best to have successful crops of corn and wheat and was doing a considerably good job for someone who was a novice at farming.  Triumph couldn’t be determined until harvest time, and that was still several months away; however, if him having successful crops were determined by their current growth rate, then Rick would be quite happy when that time finally did come.

The real kicker of the whole ordeal was that within a month of arriving in Somerset, his brother sold his own farm and moved back to Florida, never uttering a word about his intentions while coaxing his brother to move to the Midwest.  Talk about a turnabout.  Rick wasn’t happy about his brother’s decision, but since he’d invested most of their life savings into the purchase of their farm and everything he’d need to get started, he wasn’t willing to give it up and go back home, choosing instead to stick it out and see what happened.

Dark clouds were beginning to crest on the horizon, the tops of the oaks and maples disappearing into the darkness as the storm drew nearer, reminding her of the countless times she’d stood on the beach with her toes dug deep into the warm sand, watching as hurricane clouds rolled across the ocean announcing the approaching storm and warning her and anyone else watching to seek shelter.

She’d had no intentions of preparing for the coming storm in the same way she had in Florida when the threat of a hurricane making landfall prompted all Floridians in its path to plan an evacuation route, purchase needed supplies and heed precautions.

“Bess, we don’t know anything about Midwestern storms,” Rick told her.  “From what I’ve heard, Indiana is prone to experiencing severe electrical storms and tornadoes.  Wouldn’t you rather be ready for what might be coming than to not be?”

“I suppose you’re right,” she’d agreed.  “Better safe than sorry.”

Which is why there was now an ice filled cooler with water, sodas and sandwiches sitting on the dining room floor, a battery-operated radio on the kitchen table, candles and matches placed on coffee and end tables throughout the living room, phones and computers fully charged, and fresh batteries in five different flashlights.  She didn’t think they’d need them, certain that the weatherman at Channel 10 was exaggerating and frightening his viewers in the process.  But if her preparedness made Rick feel better and safer, then so did she.

“Bet you’re wishing you’d installed those storm shutters now, hunh?” Bess asked as she watched Rick hammering nails into a piece of wood paneling as he covered the last of the windows.

“Um hum,” he replied, nodding, unable to speak with nails protruding from the corner of his mouth.

All of the outside furniture and anything else that could potentially become a projectile during high winds were stored and locked inside the shed behind the house.  The weatherman had reported that tornadoes were possible but not definitive, but in the event that one did touch down anywhere near them, they would seek shelter in the basement of the house.  Hopefully, the storm wouldn’t bring any tornadoes, because if it did, the barn and horse stables would be history.

“Will you be long?  Clouds are coming in fast,” Bess said as she glanced toward the tree line, taking note of how low-lying the clouds were.  And how black.  Not the dark gray that usually accompanied a storm, but ebony.  Something else was strange about them as well.  The edges of the storm clouds appeared to be scalloped, like that of an awning over front door entrances of business offices.  And the clouds weren’t simply rolling in – they were pulsating as if they were alive and breathing, inhaling and then exhaling.  Strange.  She’d certainly never seen anything like that with a hurricane.

“Finished,” Rick said, climbing down the ladder and folding it.

“Good.  Let’s get inside,” Bess said, the wooden “HOUGHTON” name sign that Rick had made in his carpentry shop in Florida swinging back and forth on its post beside her, the metal chains creaking and grinding eerily against the gust of wind.

“As soon as I put this away,” he said, putting the ladder beneath his arm and heading toward the barn.

“Hurry,” Bess called out as she glanced once more at the throbbing clouds, wondering if she’d underestimated the weatherman’s prediction.

“Hi, mommy,” Hunter, their four-year-old son, said as she entered the front door into the living room where he was busily playing with his fire truck and police car, his favorite teddy bear blanket sprawled on the carpeted floor.

“Hi, baby,” she said, tousling his blonde hair as she walked past.  “You okay, buddy?”

“I’m okay, mommy.  Where’s daddy?”

“Putting tools away.  He’ll be here any minute.”

“Okay,” he said, making siren noises as he rolled his police car across his blanket.  “Tell daddy he needs to huwwy, mommy.  Theyyyyyyy’re coming!”

They weren’t expecting anyone that she knew of, unless Rick had offered their home as shelter to a friend and had failed to mention it to her.

“Who’s coming, Hunter?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.  “But they are.  And there’s lots of them.”

Had Rick invited an entire family?  Not that she minded, she just wished he’d told her so that she could’ve made better preparations – and more food.

“Bess,” Rick called as he opened the front door.  “Come take a look at this.”

In the few minutes she’d been inside, darkness had fallen over their farm.  Although it was only late afternoon, it appeared to be dusk.

“What do you make of that?” he asked, pointing towards the trees.

“Of what?”

“The clouds, Bess.  Look at them.  Watch what they’re doing.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear there’s something alive and moving around inside them.  Reminds me of that crazy cat you used to have that would hide under the covers and chase its own tail while running back and forth across the sheet.  All you could see were synchronized, wavy lumps beneath the blanket.”

“I remember.”  How could she possibly forget?  She’d loved that nutty cat and was completely heartbroken when feline leukemia took him over the rainbow bridge.

“You ever seen clouds do that?  Is it just me or do they look like they’re breathing?”

“It’s not just you.  I’ll admit it’s definitely weird, but like you said, we don’t know anything about midwestern storms.  By the way, did you invite anyone over to shelter here?”

“No, why?”

“Just curious.”

“You have to have a reason for asking.  What would make you think I invited anyone over?”

“Something Hunter said.”

“What did he say?”

“They’re coming.”

“Who’s coming?”

“That’s what Hunter said to me only a few minutes ago.  When I asked him who was coming he shrugged and said he didn’t know but that there were a lot of them.”

“Maybe he was talking about the clouds.”

“Could be.  I’m not sure.”

“Most likely he saw one of the weather forecasts and knows that storms and clouds go hand in hand.  I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.”

“You’re probably right.  Let’s get inside and lock up.  For some reason, I’ve become somewhat unnerved about this storm.”

With all of the windows boarded up, the only way to see the outside was through the peephole on the door and it didn’t provide much of a scope when the sun was out and visibility good, and as dark as it had grown as the storm slowly approached, she was unable to see anything at all.   But she could hear clearly enough to know that the wind had picked up speed, rustling the leaves on the trees as it whipped across their tops and whistled through the cracks around the door and wooden panels covering the windows.

Rick had gone upstairs to wash up, and most likely to check the weather report on the television in their bedroom, leaving the one downstairs tuned to cartoons for Hunter.

“Be right back, buddy,” she said.  “You stay there and play with your toys.”

“I’m not going anywhere, mommy.”

“Rick?” she called out as she ascended the stairs.

“In here,” he answered, drying his hands on a towel as he stood in front of the television.  “I was about to call you up here,” he said as Bess walked into the room.  His expression was taut, and one of deep concern.

“Why?  What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure yet,” he answered as he stared at the black screen.  “The weatherman was about to give an update when I heard a loud crashing noise, like glass breaking, people screaming, and then the screen went blank.  I’m waiting to see if it’s going to come back on.”

“Try another channel.”

“I did.”

“And?”

“No broadcast.”

“That can’t be right,” Bess said, picking up the remote control and punching in the number ten for the news station they generally listened to, broadcast out of South Bend.  “Surely they can’t all be out.  Even if they lost power, news stations have backup generators so that they can stay on the air, especially during a crisis.  They wouldn’t simply go dark without a good reason.”

The blank screen at Channel 10 News was replaced with multi-colored, vertical lines, a message posted above.  “WE ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES.  PLEASE STAND BY.”

With the remote, Bess flipped from channel to channel, all of them with blank screens or similar messages.

“What are the chances of every single TV channel going off the air at the exact same time the storm is passing through?” she asked absently, calling to mind Hunter’s eerie statement…they’re coming, then quickly dismissing it as nothing more than child talk. 

“One, maybe,” Rick replied.  “If their antennas were struck by lightning or destroyed by high winds.  But all of them?  I’d say the likelihood of that happening is slim at best.”

“Let’s get downstairs,” she said, placing the remote back on the nightstand.  “And make sure that every single door up here is closed tightly,” she added before bounding down the stairs.  Suddenly, the thought of leaving Hunter alone, even in the safety of their living room, was a horrifying thought.

“Mommy, can I watch a movie?” Hunter asked.

“Of course you can.  Any particular one you want to see?”

“The one with the funny, talking cars in it.”

“You hungry?” Bess asked as she put the DVD into the player.

“Not really.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to eat something, okay?”

“Okay.  Mommy?” Hunter said, turning toward his mother as she entered the dining room, picking up the battery-operated radio from the table.

“Yes?”

“Are all of the windows upstairs covered up the same way daddy covered up all the other ones?”

“They sure are,” Bess answered, flipping on the radio and turning the dial, looking for a station, any station that was on the air and could offer an update on the storm.

“Are all of the doors up there closed?”

“Yes.  Hunter, are you afraid of the storm?”

“No, just wondering.”

“You know you don’t need to be frightened.  Daddy nor I would ever let anything happen to you.  You know that, right?”

“I know, mommy.  I’m not scared of a storm.  But they scare me,” he whispered as he turned his attention back to his movie.

Nothing but static on the radio.  Not even the Latino and country music stations were broadcasting, which she found odd since it was usually those that she could always tune in when the others didn’t work.  Frustrated, Bess tossed the radio back onto the table and stared thoughtfully at the front door.  Perhaps she could open it just wide enough to get a peek outside and see what the hell was going on.

All she could tell as she looked through the peephole was that it was pitch black outside.  Wind still howled wildly, a banshee riding its chariot in on a tempest to claim its dead, and she could only imagine the amount of debris that was getting blown around, hoping that none of it, or a fallen tree, crushed the car or the house.

“Don’t open that door!” Hunter screamed as she put her hand on the knob, startling her and causing her to pull back.  Never had she heard him yell or raise his voice.  He’d never even thrown a temper tantrum for God’s sake, which is why his sudden outburst chilled her to the bone.

“Hunter?”

“You can’t go outside, mommy,” he said calmly.  “It’s not safe out there.”

“Because of the wind and the storm?”

“No,” he answered without looking at her.  “Because of them.”

“Who are you talking about, Hunter?  Who are you referring to when you say ‘them’?”

A shrug.  “I don’t know.”

“You must know, sweetheart.  That’s the second time you’ve said that to me.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore, mommy.  I want to watch my movie.”

Saying that once might be child’s talk, but twice, and in that tone of voice?  Not a chance.  What, or who, the hell was he referring to?

“Bess!” Rick yelled out.  “Get up here!  Now!”

“Stay put, Hunter.  I’ll be right back.”

Rick pulled her into their bedroom, panting as he spoke.  “You have to see this, Bess.  I don’t know what the hell to make of it.”

“What is it?”

“A video,” he replied, holding his phone out so that she could see the screen.  “This was just posted to the website for Channel 10 News.  I usually only get weather alerts, but I got this instead.  I hope and pray to God that it’s a joke or some kind of a sick prank.”

A man of about thirty wearing a red flannel hoodie stared into his camera phone, a look of sheer terror distorting his face.  Tears streamed from his eyes as he spoke, gasping as he tried to get the words out.  “I hope I can finish this video and get it uploaded before I die, which I’m fairly sure I’m going to do, like so many others around here have.  My name is Keith West.  I’m in South Bend about a mile from downtown.  I ran all the way here, not stopping until I found shelter where I thought I would be safe.  Right now, I’m holed up in somebody’s shed, hoping and praying that I make it through this.  Me and a couple of my buddies were having a beer at a bar when the shitshow started.  One minute we were laughing and joking, having a good time, and then BAM!, the roof started caving in, glass in every window breaking, people screaming and running away.  Nothing but fear and chaos.  And it wasn’t only the bar.  When I got outside, I could see the same kind of damage on every building within sight.”  He paused momentarily to catch his breath, then continued.  “It wasn’t the damage that scared the hell out of me, it was what was causing it.  There are these…these…things is the only word I know to use to describe them.  They’re huge, with gigantic wings, scooping people up with their claws as they tried to run away, biting into them and ripping off their flesh as they lay in the streets.  My God, those things are eating humans!  It sounds crazy, I know, but I swear it’s the truth.  I don’t know what in the world is going on here, or exactly what those things are or where they came from.  I can’t even find the words to tell you exactly how bad it is out here, or how destructive these flying monsters are, but it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  I’m not sure if this chaos is only happening here or in every other town in the storm’s path.  If it hasn’t happened yet where you are, you’d better pray it doesn’t, but if it does, then you’d damn well better get ready for what’s coming.  Oh God, there are dead, bloody bodies scattered everywhere.  Office buildings and homes have been destroyed, downtown is ravaged, but none of the damage was caused by thunder, or lightning, or the rain,” he paused, looking nervously at the shed door then turning frantically back to his camera.  “These things that I’m talking about came in with the storm, lunging down out of the clouds by the hundreds, demolishing everything in their path!  I’ve never seen anything like it and these things, they’re vicious and blood-thirsty.  Listen to me and take my advice.  Stay inside your homes, lock yourselves in the basement if you have to, do whatever you need to do to survive.  And whatever you do, don’t go outside, take my word for it!”  The shaky video ended abruptly, leaving Bess to wonder if the man had simply turned off his phone or fallen victim to whatever it was he had referred to in his message. 

They’re coming.

“What in God’s name is going on?” Bess asked, her voice trembling.

“I wish I knew.”

“You believe that video is real?”

“Did you see the look on his face and how bad his phone was shaking?  The guy was mortified.  I don’t think anyone’s that good of an actor.”

“Hunter!” Bess gasped, rushing from the room and down the stairs, breathing a sigh of relief when she found their son still sitting on his blanket watching his movie.

“We need to get out of here,” Rick said softly as he took a stand beside Bess.

“Rick, we can’t go outside,” Bess replied.  “You heard what that man said.  We don’t know what’s out there.  It’s so dark you can’t see a foot in front of you.  It’s much safer in here.”

“We’re sitting ducks here, Bess.”

“And out there,” she said, pointing at the door.  “We’re moving targets.”

“Can’t leave, daddy,” Hunter said, standing up and turning to face his parents.  “They’re almost here.”

“Who, Hunter?” Rick asked.  “Who’s…? he started, then stopped when the power went out, plunging them into total darkness.

“Rick, grab the flashlights from the table,” Bess said.  “Hunter, stay where you are until daddy gets a light.”

“Everybody stay together,” Rick said as he guided his beam around the room, inspecting every corner from ceiling to floor.  “Bess, light all the candles.  Let’s save the batteries in the flashlights.  No telling when the electricity will come back on.  I’ve a feeling this is going to be an exceptionally long night.”

Huddled together on the couch with Hunter tucked snugly in the middle, Bess watched quietly as flickering lights from the candles cast dancing shadows on the living room walls.  During hurricanes, she knew what was coming and what to expect.  But with this storm, it was anyone’s guess.  The words of the man in the video kept replaying in her mind.  What, precisely, were they on the precipice of facing? 

“You okay, little man?” Rick asked Hunter.

“I’m okay, daddy.  Are you okay?”

“Sure, buddy, I’m fine.”

“Are you okay, mommy?”

“Yes, honey, I am.”

But she wasn’t.  She was terrified.  Not only of what was likely heading their way, but of the unknown and what it would deliver.  She was afraid for Rick and Hunter, horrified at the thought of losing either one of them.  As long as they remained together and stayed inside, they should all be okay.  At least that’s what she hoped.

“You hungry yet?”

“Nope.”

“Thirsty?”

“Yep.”

“You want some juice?”

“Can I have soda?”

“Juice it is,” Bess said, rising from the couch.  “Rick, you want anything?”

Drink requests were instantly cast aside when loud, forceful pounding rocked the front door.  Nervously glancing at Rick, she whispered, “Who in their right minds would be out in this mess?”

“No one that I know of,” Rick said, getting up and cautiously moving toward the door, stopping abruptly when another round of banging erupted, echoing hollowly throughout the room.

“Who’s there?” Rick shouted, tip-toeing closer to the doorway.  When no one answered, he called out again.  “I asked who it is?”

His demand was answered with deafening drumming on the back door.  Bess grabbed Hunter off the couch, wrapping her arms around him protectively as she held him close.  “Who the hell is doing this to us?” she breathed.  “And why?”

Rick shook his head.  He couldn’t even begin to imagine who would be cruel enough to pull such a sick and disgusting prank, especially in the middle of a devastating storm.  Being so far out in the country with no nearby neighbors, it was unlikely that it’d be kids or teenagers thinking it funny to play a deadly game of Ding Dong Witch.  But then his thoughts went to a different place as he wondered if their tormenter was actually a person.  Maybe it was the something that Keith West had warned them about in his video, or they that Hunter had spoken of.  Maybe no one was knocking at all, but instead, were slashing and chipping away at the wooden doors and window coverings, desperately trying to find a way to get inside. 

An eerie silence fell over the house when the boisterous clamoring abruptly stopped.  The absence of electrical power only exacerbated the quietness.  There was no humming from the refrigerator, no sound from the television, no ticking of the clock above the fireplace.  Nothing but the sound of their steady breathing.

“Rick, do you hear that?” Bess asked, her head cocked as she listened intently to the noise she was sure she heard coming from upstairs.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Come over here,” she said, moving to the foot of the staircase.  “Now do you hear it?”

Rick swallowed hard as he stared into the darkness at the top of the stairs, dreading having to go up, but he had no choice, because if his suspicions were correct, something or they were trying to find a way inside through the roof.

Please let it be tree limbs, he thought as he paused outside each room with an ear to the door before slowly opening it and shining his light inside.  All boards were still intact with no broken or cracked glass.  Both were good signs, but neither dismissed the fact that he and Bess had both heard the same noise and their minds had gone to the same place – intruders wanted in.

“Everything’s good up there,” he said, returning to the living room to find Bess standing in front of the fireplace staring blankly at the unlit firewood, Hunter standing close by her side, gripping the hem of her blouse, refusing to let go.

“What is it?”

“Rick, I think there’s something inside the chimney,” Bess said, quickly stepping away when an ear-piercing screech bellowed from deep inside the chamber, the sound of an injured, angry animal.

“What the hell was that?” Rick exclaimed.

“Oh, my God, Rick,” Bess cried in angst.  “We forgot to close the flue!  Whatever’s in there, we can’t let it get inside the house!  Shut the flue!” she yelled.  “Shut it now!”

Kneeling on the cobblestone hearth in front of the fireplace, Rick tossed the fire screen to the side and reached up into the chute, groping around blindly in search of the flue lever.  “Son of a bitch!” he yelped, snatching his arm back and cradling his injured hand.

“What happened?” Bess gasped, startled by her husband’s outcry.

“Something bit the hell out of me!” Rick stated, still holding onto his hand as blood dripped from his cupped fingers onto the tan-colored stone.

“You probably scraped your hand against a sharp piece of metal,” Bess offered.

“Since when does metal leave teeth marks like this?” he asked, holding his hand up and showing it to Bess, revealing a semi-circular bite mark in the fleshy skin between his right thumb and index finger.  “I think it’s teeth bit clear through my hand!”

“Rick,” Bess said shakily, wide-eyed as she stared past her husband and at the opening above the pit.  “Get away from the fireplace.  Now!” she shrieked, scrambling backwards, nearly tripping over Hunter.

In the beam of the flashlight, Rick, Bess and Hunter watched in disbelief as a wet, black, dog-like snout appeared above the firebox, nostrils twitching as the creature descended head-first down the chimney chute.

“Mommy!” Hunter cried, clinging to his mother’s leg.

“Light the fire, Rick!” Bess squealed.  “Burn the damn thing!  Kill it!”

Its mouth opened wide, the creature exposed two rows of spiky, serrated teeth with skin-piercing fangs before hissing angrily at Rick and releasing an ear-piercing screech to ward off its attacker.

“I can’t get any closer!” Rick yelled.  “That thing will take my arm off!”

“Then hit it!  Don’t let it get in, Rick!”

An elongated head with small, pointed ears came into view as the creature used its razor-sharp talons to grip the hearth and pull itself out of the chimney, dropping onto its side and into the sooty ash inside the fireplace, sending the unused logs scattering about the floor.

“What the hell is that thing?” Bess asked as she backed further away from the fireplace, dragging Hunger along with her.  “Some kind of a bat?”  Was she looking into the face of but one of the monstrosities that had killed all those people in South Bend and destroyed homes and buildings?  Dealing with a loner would prove to be a challenge, considering its size and aggressiveness.  She simply couldn’t imagine attempting to fight off a large flock of them.  Survival would be impossible.

“Bats don’t have feathers,” Rick replied, taking a stand beside his wife and son.

The shadowy creature emerged from the fireplace, screeching sharply as it expanded its enormous wings and shook gray ash from its feathers.  Dark, beady eyes kept Rick, Bess and Hunter in targeted view.

Twice the size of a bald eagle, the black creature hoisted itself on its legs, flapped its wings and took flight, soaring up to the high ceiling, its immaculate body striking against the plaster and oak rafters as it dipped and then flew back up, circling repeatedly around the living room before diving down in a flash with its talons exposed and grasping onto Hunter’s shoulders, taking flight with him in tow.

“MOMMY!” Hunter screamed.

“Oh, God, Rick, do something!” Bess cried.  “That thing has our son!”

What could he possibly do?  He could run upstairs and grab his rifle from the gun cabinet, but as terrified and shaky as he was, he wouldn’t dare fire a shot at the thing as long as it held onto Hunter.  Same scenario if he tried throwing anything at it.  If he missed and hit his son, injuring him, he would never be able to forgive himself.

Rushing to the fireplace, he reached inside the chute and slammed the flue shut because he damn sure wasn’t going to give another one the opportunity to get inside.

LET GO OF MY SON!” Bess screamed, jumping up and trying to grab onto Hunger’s legs as the creature flew overhead.

With the fireplace poker, Rick swung hard and heavy at the bat-thing as it flew past him, striking it forcefully across its legs.  The beast screeched vociferously, not out of pain, but red-hot anger at its assailant, dropping Hunter to the floor and turning its fury on Rick.

In one powerful flap of its wings, the animal crashed head-first into Rick’s abdomen, sending him barreling to the floor and causing him to lose his grip on the poker, the heavy iron clanking against the fireplace cobblestone.

Rick shielded his face with his arms as the creature bit and tore at his skin while digging its sharp claws into the flesh of his chest, the fabric of his cotton shirt shredded into thin strips.

“Get off him!” Bess screamed, Hunter crying at her side.  Kneeling before him, she said, ‘I have to help daddy, baby.  I want you to run to the bathroom and close the door, okay?”

“No, mommy,” Hunter sobbed.  “I don’t want to.”

“Hunter, you must.  That thing is going to hurt daddy really bad if I don’t do something to help him, and mommy can’t let that happen.  We’ll both come and get you, I promise, but for now, you have to go.  Run fast, Hunter.  Go!”

Bess snatched up the poker after hearing the bathroom door slam, knowing that Hunter was safe.

Like a batter at the plate confident of hitting a homerun, Bess drew the poker back high over her shoulder, and with every ounce of strength she possessed, she swung.

Feathers flew wildly as the poker connected with the side of the creature’s head and upper torso, stunning it but failing to make it release its grip on Rick.

“You want more?” Bess screamed, drawing the poker back even further before sharply bringing the hooked side of the metal rod down squarely on the top of the creature’s head.  “How do you like that?” she screamed as the animal squealed in pain, finally letting go of Rick and stumbling drunkenly towards the fireplace.

“I don’t think so,” Bess shouted as she plunged the sharp end of the poker into the space between the already incapacitated animals wings, the point passing completely through its body and impaling it to the floor.

Rushing to Rick’s side, she knelt beside him.  “Rick?”

“Hunter?” Rick whispered.  “Is he okay?”

“Yes,” Bess answered, helping him sit up.  “He’s locked in the bathroom.”

“Good,” Rick said, staring at the dead whatever the hell the thing was, pinned to his living room floor. 

“I told him we’d both come get him,” Bess said, holding onto Rick’s waist as she pulled him from the floor.  “We need to get your wounds cleaned up.”

“I don’t think they’re awfully bad,” Rick said, flexing his hand and moving his fingers.  “Just a couple of bite marks and some scratches.”

“So you say,” Bess said.  “I’ll be the judge of that once I see them all.”

“Is Hunter injured?”

“Not too bad.  Minor puncture wounds.  More scared than anything else, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that his daddy’s okay.”

“Bess, listen,” Rick said, stopping midway to the bathroom.  “You hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Exactly.  Do you think they’re gone or playing possum?”

“Who knows?  But I won’t be opening the front door any time soon to find out.”

“Is the sun out yet?”

Bess shrugged.  “I’ll look out the peephole once I get you doctored up.  Hunter, open the door,” she called out to her son.  “It’s mommy and daddy.”

“Daddy,” Hunter exclaimed, throwing his arms around Rick’s waist.  “You’re hurt.”

“Not too bad, buddy.  Mommy’s about to fix me up.”

“Mommy’s gonna make you all better, daddy?”

“She sure is, sport,” Rick replied, taking a seat on the toilet lid.

“Are you gonna fix my boo-boos, too, mommy?”

“I sure am,” Bess said with a smile.  “Can you hold the flashlight for me while I clean daddy up?”

“Okay.”

Rick winced and gritted his teeth as Bess gently peeled away the blood-clotted shirt, revealing multiple, shallow lacerations and bite marks covering his neck, chest and arms.  His forearms sustained most of the bite injuries from holding his arms up in defense.  She couldn’t bring herself to think what would have happened had that thing gotten to his face.

“They’re gone now, mommy,” Hunter said as he watched Bess dress Rick’s wounds.

“Are you talking about the things outside?”

“Badobiraptors,” Hunter stated.

“Badobiaptors?” Bess asked, puzzled at how her four-year-old son could possibly know what to call the thing, or how he could flawlessly pronounce such a big word not consistent with his four-year-old vocabulary.  Perhaps he’d heard the phrase while watching one of his superheroes movies or cartoons and chose to repeat the name instead of referring to it as a thing.

They’re coming.

“That’s what they are.”

“How do you know that, Hunter?”

“I don’t know how I know,” he replied with a shrug.  “I just do.”

“Did someone tell you about them?” Bess asked, trying to make at least some sense out of the fact that he knew what to call them when she nor Rick even knew what they were dealing with.

They’re coming…and there’s lots of them.

“No, I just heard it in my head.”

“I see,” Bess said.  “When did you hear?”

“This morning while you were outside with daddy.”

“It’s okay, Hunter,” Bess said, not wanting to press the issue any further at the moment.  She could grill him about it all day and probably still not get a logical answer.  Another time, perhaps she’d talk to him more about it, but at the moment the only thing that mattered was their survival.  “The storm’s over now and hopefully, it took those things with it.”

“Badobiraptors,” Hunter corrected.

“Right.  The important thing is that you and daddy are okay.  That’s all that matters to me.  You ready for your bandages?”

Rick and Hunter’s injuries would heal, but the lasting memories of the storm and the terror it brought with it would remain fresh in their minds forever.  She would keep a close watch on Rick for the next several days, monitor his behavior and make sure his wounds were healing properly, watching for any signs of the possibility that he’d contracted rabies or some other type of disease from the filthy beast.  It was a miracle that Hunter hadn’t suffered a broken leg or arm after that thing had dropped him onto the floor.  Thank God for carpet and that the creature hadn’t been as high as the vaulted ceiling when it released its grip on him.

“What about that thing?” Bess asked as they entered the living room.

“I’ll get rid of it when it’s safe to go out,” Rick replied, kneeling beside the dead animal and pulling the poker from its body.  “Get a load of this thing, Bess,” he stated as he turned it over onto its back.  “Look at these teeth!” Rick exclaimed as he checked the animals open mouth.  “These claws must be at least six inches long,” he stated, lifting a foot to get a closer look.  “This thing could have easily sliced me in half.”

“Don’t touch it,” Bess scolded.  “For all we know, it could be carrying all kinds of viruses.”  If dragons were real instead of being the mythical creatures that they are, Bess would have sworn that’s exactly what she was staring at – minus the forked tail and ability to breathe fire.  Whatever the animal was, it wasn’t a product of natural evolution, unless Mother Nature herself had been the creator of an extremely cruel and hideous joke, but Bess didn’t believe that nature played a role at all in the creature’s design.

“Weird,” Rick muttered.

“Sun’s up,” Bess said as she looked out the peephole.  “I can’t see a whole lot, but I can tell you that it’s not raining anymore.”

“Hunter said they’re gone,” Rick reminded her.  “You think it’s okay to go out?”

“They are gone, daddy,” Hunter said.  “It’s okay now.”

Bess unlocked the door and slowly cracked it open far enough to get a view of the front yard, prepared to slam it shut the moment that one of those raptor-dragons charged the door.

“See anything?”

“Plenty,” Bess answered.  “Nothing good.”

Hundreds of dead Badobiraptors littered the property.  Some were impacted in the windshield and windows of the car, so it was obvious that the collision with glass had been their cause of death.  But what had killed the ones strewn across the lawn?  Being exposed to sunlight?  Unable to survive outside the clouds of the storm?  Or, had they turned on their own species in their fevered search for prey and not finding any, had converted to cannibalism and annihilated each other?  It was a mystery she cared nothing about solving.  They were dead and no longer her concern.

The barn was completely demolished, the roof caved in with its walls laying atop the ruins.  The lumber panels that Rick had used to secure the windows on the house had been shredded by either teeth, claws, or both, damage left by the raptor-dragons as they’d tried desperately to destroy the wood so that they could gain entry to the house and destroy the humans hiding inside.  Fortunately, the nails had held the wood tightly in place, preventing them from becoming victims instead of victors.  Only one had gained entry through the chimney, but were there any others, either dead or alive, still inside the chute?  To be safe, she’d light a fire and smoke their asses out, or better yet, burn them alive.  Either one worked for her as long as it got rid of them for good.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…what the hell are these things?” Rick asked absently as he glanced around at the multitudes of dead creatures.  “And where did they come from?”

“They’re not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” Bess replied.  “Mutants, maybe?  Products of crossbreeding?”

“Mutants or crossbreeding of what?  Bats?  Dogs?  Birds of prey?”

“No idea.  I’m only glad that they’re dead.  What do we do about all these?”

“Bonfire?” Rick asked.  “Sure can’t let them stay here and rot in the sun and stink up the place.”

“You start getting things ready out here.  I’ll go get the other one and bring it out,” Bess said, turning back toward the house…instantly freezing in her tracks before she could take a single step.

“Rick!” Bess gasped, swooping Hunter quickly into her arms.

“Son of a …,” Rick said as he turned around.

Perched on the edge of the roof was a black raptor, larger than the one lying dead on their living room floor, flapping its enormous wings as it prepared to attack.

“Don’t move,” Rick breathed, looking furtively around the yard for anything that he could use as a weapon to fend off the mighty creature’s imminent assault.

There was nothing.  The three of them were trapped, unarmed in the crosshairs of a murderous, blood-thirsty bat-dog-bird mutant with no way to defend themselves.

When Bess dashed for the front door with Hunter’s arms clinging tightly around her neck, the raptor lunged from the roof and hastily rushed at Rick with outspread claws, striking him squarely on the shoulders and sending him tumbling to the ground.  Instantly, the creature was on top of him, its talons digging sharply into his abdomen, prey trapped by its predator.

Rick struggled against the massive beast, gripping it tightly around the throat with both hands as its sharp teeth gnashed at his flesh, but the creature was remarkably stronger than him.  Already weakened from injuries sustained in his first encounter, he knew he didn’t have the strength to ward it off much longer before having to succumb to its attack.  Growing wearier by the second, he was prepared to do exactly that when he heard his wife call out to him.

“Don’t move, Rick!” Bess screamed.  “Stay down!”

As the echo of the shotgun blast rang in his ears, his face and chest were showered in a rain of black feathers and splattered blood as the bullet ripped through the creature’s upper body, its corpse torn from Rick’s grip and tossed aside onto the ground like a discarded rag doll.

“Bull’s eye, you disgusting vermin!,” Bess said as she lowered her weapon.  “You okay?” she asked, taking Rick’s hand and helping him up.

“I am now, and I’ll be even better when I can get all this disgusting shit washed off.”

“Still feel like having that bonfire?”

“Oh, yeah,” Rick replied.  “Now more than ever.”

Power was eventually restored, radio and news channels returned to the airwaves, albeit without the usual anchors and radio personalities that listeners and viewers had come to know and love.  Unfortunately, a majority of them vanished in the storm.  At least that’s what the surrounding communities were told by government and law enforcement officials while they gave interviews to multiple news outlets without ever mentioning what was in said storm.  In the weeks that followed, life in and around Somerset returned to a decent level of normalcy, and although no one cared to speak about the terror they’d witnessed and been a part of, they would never forget about it.  Because the entirety of what had occurred in South Bend and Somerset had not been fully disclosed to the general public, outsiders and those who weren’t victims of the storm or had lost loved ones in it believed that the stories and social media videos about the raptors were fabricated, the videos doctored to appear real, accusing the posters of spreading falsehoods to either scare people or bring infamy to their small hick town.  Uploaded videos didn’t get the opportunity to circulate for long because every one of them mysteriously disappeared from the Internet before the world could view them, leaving their videographers scratching their heads and wondering how their posts had vanished into cyberspace without a trace.

Residents of Somerset had their own suspicions and opinions about what was unleashed on them.  Some thought the raptors were intentionally mutated in a lab, created for the sole purpose of being used as a weapon of war, while others believed that they were released on the human population as a terrorist attack by an anonymous terrorist group because they hated Indiana and the people who lived there.  Old Man Givens over at the dusty general store shared his view with anyone who would lend him an ear, swearing that the critters that had wreaked havoc upon Somerset and South Bend had come from Area 51 and nobody nowhere was going to change his mind about that.

No one would ever come to learn the honest truth about the fateful storm that had claimed thousands of lives and caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes and commercial buildings because it was all attributed to tornadic-strength winds and damaging hail, even though there were no weather reports released that confirmed tornado touchdowns anywhere near the vicinity of either town.

Nor would they ever be given the opportunity to find out because there would be no information available anywhere about their existence, not a shred of evidence or proof would be left behind.

Within an hour of the storm ending, military trucks and jeeps were sent out into the communities to collect all of the dead animals, threatening homeowners and residents with violence if they dared to conceal one in order to prove to the outside world that what the people of Somerset were saying about the storm was true.  They also confiscated phones, erasing their memory cards and destroying all photos taken by curious and bewildered townsfolk.  No one wanted to willingly comply, but when a military man dressed in full uniform carrying an assault rifle speaks, people tend to listen.

When the military vehicles arrived at the Houghton farm, the bonfire was already burning, the dead animals either reduced to ashes or well on their way to becoming completely destroyed.

“Other than the ones in the fire, are there any others on the premises or in your personal possession?” the Commander asked.

“Who the hell would want to keep one of these freaks?” Rick asked sarcastically.  “They’d have to be out of their minds.”

When the Commander demanded Bess and Rick turn over their cell phones, they obediently complied, knowing that what he was looking for wasn’t on either one of them.

“May I ask what this is about?” Rick asked.

“All you need to know is that it’s a matter of national security.”  That’s military speak for “none of your damn business!”

Residents of Somerset and the surrounding areas were welcome to carry on with their social media posts about the storm and what they’d experienced.  Under the Freedom of Speech Act, no one could stop them from talking or typing about it, but the photographic evidence could certainly be seized from every person who possessed it in the name of national security. 

Afterall, without proof, the chatter is nothing more than rumors and hearsay.

But Rick and Bess Houghton knew the truth – and they had verification to back up their claims should they ever need to use it.

“Why would the military show up after a storm?” Rick asked Bess as the camouflage jeep and covered truck headed up the dirt road toward their property.  “Go inside and swap your phone for the spare.”

“What?” Bess asked, confused by his request.  “Why?”

“There’s only one reason military personnel would be showing up here, Bess.  They intend to commandeer all evidence of the existence of these things, including the pictures you took.  Unless you want your proof destroyed, I suggest you go now and swap out the phones.  Hide yours in a safe place, somewhere they’re least likely to look just in case they request to search inside.”

And so she had – in the bottom of Hunter’s toy box, covered up with stuffed animals.

For now she and Rick would keep what they knew to themselves and hope that the need to go public never arose.  Neither of them wanted to face the possibility of being sent to prison for disobeying a direct order from the military in the name of national security.

But should another incident such as what they experienced ever happen again that cost humans their lives and where denial of the horrific events took front stage, they would set their plan in motion by mailing copies of the photographs to all of the major news outlets and newspapers granting them the authority to go forward with publication of their personal pictures and accompanying story, agreeing to interviews if needed.

Denial is difficult when there’s proof.

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