Fright Reaction
By Joshua Scribner

Curtis Hillard walked into a clearing of the giant evergreens, and there it was, his first architectural feat.  He’d built it out of wood from this forest.  The two-story cabin wasn’t on par with the buildings he’d designed in the last decade, but it was solid.  He was confident no creature had been able to break in and take up residence.  He doubted any human had been inside either, because other than the forest hermits, who were privacy fanatics and would never invade someone else’s property, no one else would have ventured this deep into these woods.
Mark, his business partner, had recommended he come here.
“It’s been a year since Kendra died,” he’d said.  “Stop drowning yourself in work and get away for a while, go up to that cabin you used to talk about.  Remember her.  Mourn.  Then come back.”
Now, looking at the cabin, memories rushed in, but they came too fast and too heavy.  He pushed them back.
“Three days of hiking.  I need rest before I let that sort of thing start up.”
Curtis went inside.  He dropped his backpack and bedroll on the floor.  He opened the heavy wooden shutters to let some light in.  The place was dusty but not as bad he had expected it would be.  He went up to the loft and opened the back window, which overlooked a downward clearing, then the river, about fifty feet away.
Kendra was there, bathing, pretending she didn’t know he was watching.
He looked away.  He wasn’t ready.  He had to think of something else.
Luckily, that wasn’t hard.  Yesterday, he’d been hiking, when out of nowhere came a sweeping red light.  It rushed right by and through him without a noticeable impact.  He’d wondered what it could be.  He’d even entertained the thought that he didn’t really see it, that the monotony of the forest had lured him into a hypnagogic state, causing him to hallucinate.
Last night, he’d turned on his battery-operated radio to drown out the sounds of crickets while he tried to go to sleep.  Instead of music, he got a newsman talking about the red light, which had been seen around the world.  Some were saying it was a simple astronomical phenomenon.  Some were saying it was a sign from God.  No one had evidence to prove any theory.
Curtis went back downstairs and dug out his radio.
The voice from the radio sounded curious and stunned.
“The spacecraft have appeared in major cities around the world.  At this time, various military forces have surrounded the craft but no offensive measures have been taken.  We don’t know if communication has been attempted.  Right now, it’s a waiting game.”
An hour later, the voice was slightly panicked.
“At this point, the aliens have only attacked military installations and governmental institutions.  Officials are asking everyone to stay in their homes.”
An hour later, the voice was frantic.
“They’re entering private residences now!  There is no official word on anything.  I don’t think there are any officials left to give any word.  All I can say is hide!”
That was the last broadcast.
The radio became eerie, static in most places, silence in a few others.  Curtis finally turned it off.  He sat with his mouth agape.  How could this be real?  Who was left?  Were the aliens still here?  Would they come for him?
Being alone had lost all appeal.  He longed for the city: millions of people, coffee shops, subways, noise other than insects.  Was it really all gone?
He felt the urge to rush back.  It had taken him three days to get here, but he suspected he could make it back in two, maybe one and a half.  He could call Mark immediately.  They could meet at Freddie’s Tavern for beers and talk about the Dellany project, the one they’d turned down because Mark said he wouldn’t enter another project with Curtis until Curtis took a vacation.  They could start drawing the next day.
That’s what would be there, not death and destruction, not the end of civilization, not the damn aliens.
Curtis got up.
“Have to find something to do.  Can’t let myself go crazy.”
How could he not go crazy, though?  Night was coming.
He’d found the box of paperbacks under the cot upstairs.  He’d then remembered Kendra stashing them.  She’d never read one, because she’d never been bored enough here.
They were all romance.  They were all outdated.  They were all he had.  Since he’d started, he’d only stopped reading to set up a kerosene lamp.  Now he sat on the cot, with the book on the windowsill, not thinking of anything but the content of a poorly written novel.
There was darkness.
Curtis jolted.  He stopped breathing.  His heart picked up the pace.
Calm down, he thought.  The lamp just went out.
The window was open.  He tried to blame it on that, but he couldn’t ignore that he hadn’t felt a breeze.
It’s just that the wick burned out.  That’s all.
The thought was comforting, for a few seconds, but then the image came.  It was only a few minutes ago that he’d looked at that wick and seen plenty of white.
Curtis tried telling himself that it was just a stupid little phenomenon, a flame going out, with probably a dozen possible explanations that he wasn’t considering.
He fished a pack of matches from his pocket.
That was when he heard the music.
He froze again.  This time, the fear was so strong that his stomach seemed to shrink.
The music was faint.  It was a familiar tune, but in his panicked mind he could not place it.
He felt the urge to crawl under the cot, but he couldn’t even move to do that.  Whoever was downstairs was probably not familiar with the cabin.  Darkness would give him the advantage.  If he were still, maybe they wouldn’t even notice that he was here.
Curtis wondered if he could really be hearing what he was hearing.  Why would someone or anything come into the cabin playing music?
The music finally cut off, but it was another hour before he had the courage to move.
Sleep had come, but there had been no dreams, as if even his subconscious was afraid to move.  Morning light had never looked so good.  He was still very tired, but he didn’t care.  With tight muscles, he got to his feet.  His insides felt icy and random shivers disturbed his body.  A face dominated his mind’s eye.  It wasn’t a particular face, just a general human face, and that was all he wanted; any person would do.
Bart was the quintessential backwoodsman.  He was a big grumpy man with a face covered in thick brown hair.  His only redeeming qualities were that he’d let you stay as long as you needed and his cabin was by far the closest.  It was five hours away by woods, but less than an hour by river.
In the shed beside the cabin were various things Curtis and Kendra had brought up over the years.  The biggest was the kayak.  It was made of a hard polymer, so it wouldn’t rust or bend like metal and wasn’t heavy like wood.  Forgoing coffee and breakfast, Curtis took the Kayak to the water.
After about five minutes of paddling, Curtis came more awake.  The woods grew thick and ominous arround the river.  The occasional rustling of branches made him think of how stupid he was not to bring his gun.  He doubted it really mattered, though.  From the sounds of it, the aliens had defeated the US military.  What good was his pistol going to do?
The river was rough in places, but Curtis actually liked that, since it kept his mind on the river and out of the trees.  When the river was calm, he thought of the face, but now it was a particular face.  It was Bart’s ugly mug.
No matter how much he thought of seeing Bart or how rough the river got, his spine wouldn’t loosen up and butterflies danced in his stomach.  Pulling the kayak out of the water made him feel a little better, until he thought of the thick forest he still had to maneuver through.
Curtis rushed around trees and over brush.  He heard something not far away and thought he should stop or at least slow down.  He was making too much noise.  He couldn’t slow down, though.  The panic had him.  He had to see another person, had to feel normal again.
Bart’s rustic cabin was usually a five-minute hike from the river.  Curtis was sure he did it in less than three.  The inside of the cabin had its usual dusty smell, but there was something else, a terrible sweet smell.  He found Bart in the back corner, sitting up on the floor.
The giant of a man was crouched into himself, except his head was raised.  In the corner of his open eyes were little burnt holes, like whatever had killed him had simply scorched its way into his brain.
Curtis shivered as he backed away from the corpse.  He felt his stomach lurching but was able to hold it until he got outside.  He vomited as he staggered away from the cabin towards the woods.  He fell before he reached the thick of the trees.  He tried to get up but fell again.
The image of Bart’s face had returned to his mind’s eye, but now it had big open eyes, with charred skin in the corners.  Thinking of how that corpse was still nearby got him to his feet.
The reality of how alone he was sunk in, like a stone settling in his gut.  If they’d made it out this far, then there was probably no place on Earth safe to hide.
By the time he got home, he was thoroughly exhausted.  He told himself he shouldn’t sleep right now.  He should save his drowsiness for night and use it to escape the dark.  It didn’t matter.  He couldn’t resist.
He awoke in the early evening.  He cried, thinking of how he would now have to face the dark.  He remembered the book he had been reading the night before.  He lit the kerosene lamp and placed it on the windowsill.
For hours he read.  He felt hunger and he felt thirst, but he denied these sensations, opting to stay in the false world the book provided.  He stayed this way, until again, the flame of the lamp went out.
His mind shouted at him to hurry.  If he hurried, it wouldn’t happen again.  His hand shot into his pocket.  It pulled out the matches.  He heard the music.
In the pitch dark, he was frozen.  He’d brought the pistol upstairs with him this time, but right now, it didn’t make him feel better.  He’d have to be able to move to fire the pistol.
He was sure it was the same song as the night before, but he still couldn’t place it.  After about a minute, the music cut completely off and he was left with total darkness and total quiet.
For hours he sat, waiting for light.
It wasn’t really sleep, but the state Curtis finally entered was enough to make the night pass a little faster.
His skin burned when he awoke.  He went out naked and took a bath in the stream.  The water was cold, but it didn’t invigorate him like it used to.  It did take off the past day’s residue and soothe his skin.
Walking up the slope toward the cabin, Curtis considered whether he wanted to go on.  There was no one left.  The aliens were probably still around.  He couldn’t handle another night like the last two.
But could he do it?  Could he stick the pistol in his mouth and end it all?  The answer was definitely no.  He knew, because he’d tasted that pistol a few times since Kendra died.  He just couldn’t do it.
The only alternative was to leave the cabin.  They might not be able to localize him if he kept on the move.  He could take his pack and bed role and roam the woods until winter came.  Maybe by then, the aliens would have left, or maybe the bacteria and viruses of this planet would have killed them off.
Curtis got dressed downstairs.  Packing was easy for the most part.  Most of the stuff he needed was in or near his pack.  He thought of the books upstairs.  It would be nice to take a few, to have something to keep him company out there.  He went upstairs to select them.  He saw his pistol was still on the cot.  He considered it one last time.
“Nope,” he said out loud.  “I don’t have the guts for that.”
He looked out the window and saw the face looking back at him.
It was standing in the river.  The current hit it but seemed to have no impact.  Its skin was green and overlapping, like the tiles of a roof.  Its head was narrow on top of a tall body.  The only break in that head was a narrow slit through which a red light passed horizontally, back and forth.
A beam came from that light and into Curtis’s eyes.  Reflexively, Curtis shut his eyes and covered his face with his hands, but then he realized the pain wasn’t there.  The pain was in his spine, like a lightning bolt had shot down it.  He fell forward, his upper body crashing through the window screen.  He looked forward and saw the alien getting out of the water.  It walked upright, on two legs.  It must have been seven feet tall.  It’s arms were humanlike, but with pincers instead of hands.
Curtis tried to pull back, but could not.  The alien’s beam had nearly paralyzed him.  He focused and was able to find movement at the extremes of his body.  He wobbled back and forth on the windowpane, like some pathetic fish on dry land.  He looked and saw the alien was halfway to him.
Curtis tried to focus harder.  A terrible groaning noise came from somewhere inside of him that he couldn’t even feel.  He wobbled harder.  He thought he might be able to wobble off the windowpane and onto the floor.  Maybe he’d be able to reach his gun.
The alien came up right below him.  It looked as if all it would need to do was reach up with those long arms and grab Curtis with its pincers.  Instead, it shot something from its eyes again.  Curtis felt as if he were falling.
There was total darkness, but he could feel her soft naked skin against his.  He could feel her stomach moving up and down and could smell her sweet scent.  Suddenly, from downstairs, music was playing.
He froze.
He’d thought Kendra was asleep, but she giggled.  Then she said, “It’s okay, scaredy cat.  It’s just the radio.  I was listening to it earlier and the reception went out when the rain came.  It must have just cleared up.”
Curtis was embarrassed when he could barely talk.  “Okay,” he said with little breath.
Kendra giggled again.  “Do you always freeze up when you’re scared.”
“Uh huh,” he said, thinking back on the few times he could remember being this afraid.
She kissed him.  “Well, that might work out here.  As dark as it is, you could just be still and the monsters would never find you.”
She kissed him again.  “But don’t worry.  I’ll always be here to protect you.”
Curtis awoke.  He thought of his dream for a little while.  It was actually a perfect replica of an actual night he’d been here with Kendra.  The song that played had been Uninvited by Alanis Morissette.  He was now fairly sure it was the same song that had played the last two nights.
Curtis was able to open his eyes.  He was facing the wall.  He tried to roll but could not.  Something grabbed hold and rolled his body for him.
The alien towered over him.  Its pincers were inches away from Curtis’s body.  Curtis tried to move again, but this time he couldn’t even wobble.
He felt air-deprived, the energy he had not enough to supply his lungs with the breath required for his fearful state.
“I will now conduct a test,” came from the alien, though Curtis couldn’t see where.
“I am equipped with technology that allows me to communicate in a language that you understand.  If I am clear, blink your eyelids one time.”
Curtis blinked.  He wondered what other tests were to be conducted.  He hoped the alien didn’t have anything like the classic anal probe in mind.
“I am from a civilization thousands of times older and more advanced than yours.  We travel the universe in search of planets containing life.  We scan each planet for what you call nuclear weapons.”
The alien paused.  Curtis thought of the red light that had started everything.
“In the history of the universe, there is an overwhelming tendency for planets that have such weapons to use them in the ultimate destruction of their own planet or to launch them at other planets containing life.  Therefore, when we find such a planet we invade it and kill the vast majority of the most dominant life form.  Approximately fifty of that life form are allowed to live on and repopulate the planet, with the knowledge that we will return every hundred years to scan them again.”
Curtis wondered if he were one of the fifty.  He hoped so.
“I was assigned patrol of the river outside of this dwelling.  My vision is similar to yours in that I utilize light to see, but I can also see without light, if there is motion.  The killing phase ended early this morning.  Congratulations.  Your survival skills must be outstanding.  I leave you to search out the other survivors.”
The alien left.  Curtis lied there waiting to regain the ability to move.  He lamented all that was lost, but eventually his mind went to the other survivors.  Were they true survivors, people who had skillfully evaded the aliens, or were they like him and not alone.


E-mail: Joshua Scribner

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