Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Protecting What's Left

by Philip Roberts



A crack of wood in the still, summer night brought Bill to his feet. The lone lamp beside his reading chair illuminated the far open window and the swaying grass. Bill set down his book and walked slowly towards the window, listening carefully, trying to hear through the constant rustling of the tall weeds beyond his property line.

This surely didn't amount to anything, just like most sounds offered dead ends, but Bill still turned on the lights as he passed through the front hall and the kitchen. He grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen drawer and stepped out into the warm night. The breeze carried only the barest chill.

He swung the beam of the flashlight around, hesitating briefly on the tall wooden fence twenty feet into the yard and the three stones visible between the planks, but he had other business to deal with.

He traveled around the side of the house, through the yard mowed every two days. Two miles from the city proper, Bill did the best job he could on his patch of land, the dream patch seventeen years of hard work had bought him. The beam of his light ran over the well-painted exterior, not a crack or chip to be seen, its blue and gray coloring touched up the second a blemish was found, and if something had chipped away at the wood, Bill wanted to know if only to make note of the needed repairs for tomorrow.

On the north side with the least lighting to see by, Bill found the damage, and stopped at the sight of the three-foot wide tear in the siding. He stepped up to the destruction, mouth hanging wide, balding head cocked to the side more in fascination than anger.

"Definitely need to put this on the list," he whispered, both annoyed and, he had to admit, secretly smiling at the work being handed to him. Retirement and the life insurance check had led to slow living.

He started around the corner of the house, still pondering the cause, when the lights inside flickered out. He stopped on the northwest corner of the building right around from his front porch, eyeing both the house and the wilderness surrounding it, the nearest neighbor a good half-mile away.

A flash of light caught his eye from down his driveway leading to the only road through the area. He took a few steps closer, flashlight aimed towards the sparks rising up, the side of his house momentarily forgotten as he saw in his mind a wrecked car at the base of the electric pole with a wounded person trying to get out.

The summer heat and his bulging gut slowed him down before the sight of the downed pole made him stop completely.

He didn't linger on the broken wood itself but rather the form hunkered low beside the base of it, almost studying it, Bill thought. The black, muscular shape was turned away from Bill, but the flashlight caught its attention. Dark, bug-like eyes focused on Bill, bulging out of a mound of flesh that split open four ways to reveal an abyss somehow darker than the creature's flesh. Though it walked on two legs, the creature was hunched so low its arms almost appeared to be legs as well. Brown sludge poured from its open mouth like saliva.

Bill threw the flashlight at the creature as he turned to run. He had nearly reached the house when the warbling cry erupted behind him and the ground shook from the creature's approach.

Bill hurried through his front door, turned to see the creature barreling towards him, massive arms digging into the ground to launch it forward, the moonlight shining in those bulging eyes. He slammed and locked the door before it could reach the house, and thankfully his fear of burglars had led to the thick wood and double locks. The wood shuddered when the creature struck it, cracked sharply from the blows, but the monster appeared simple minded, ignoring the open windows Bill ran to and slammed shut.

A spike needled his side by the time he'd finished with the last first floor windows, closing both the glass and daring to reach outside to get the shutters as well. By the time he finished he realized the pounding had stopped. He stood in the dark study surrounded by shelves of books; sweat dripped down his face, soaking his shirt.

The shutters provided both protection and a wall preventing him from seeing whatever the creature might be doing. He walked through the house; the structure so well embedded in his mind the darkness didn't hinder him at all, even stepping over the small footstool in the kitchen on his way up to the second floor stairs.

He stopped on the second floor landing, eyes adjusting to the darkness, taking in the five rooms he had to secure. Too many rooms, he thought, rooms meant for a family of four, not a single old man. "Now isn't the time," he whispered, knew the truth in the words, but he still found himself thinking of Virginia and the kids when he hurried through each room to close and latch the windows.

The thought of the creature getting in made him think of them, his own death suddenly a stark reality no matter how bizarre the circumstances around it were. Before he could enter his bedroom, fingers on the knob, he could hear the clattering from within. What weapon did he even have in the house?

He pushed open the door, let it swing completely open to show him the massive form pulling itself through the window above the queen sized bed, half of it stretched through. As soon as the door opened and the creature saw him its movements became more frantic, a long, thick arm swiping with spiked fingers towards Bill's still form. The effort of getting through the window had been difficult given its size, and now, lunging for Bill, it wedged itself into the frame, but it tore into the wood, shattered the glass. The abyss in the middle of its face opened wide to shriek at Bill in eager anticipation.

Seeing the creature's claws tear into the mattress sparked something in him, thinking not of the damage those claws might do to him, or even where the thing had come from, but only that Virginia had picked out that mattress, just as she'd designed the house, and here he saw it being torn down in front of him.

He did have a weapon, he suddenly thought. When his father had died Bill had inherited both an old pistol and a bayonet once used in World War 2.

Behind him the window began to give way when Bill turned and slammed the door shut. He ran down the hall and into the storeroom, digging through boxes in the dark, nose filled with dust and the musk of age. He pulled out the gun, fingers barely able to load the weapon as he listened to the bedroom door slam open. In the hallway the commotion ended, the house quiet except for the low, husky breathing and the thin click of nails raking across the wood flooring.

He hadn't closed the door, didn't know how well the thing could smell or hear. He knelt down in the corner with the gun aimed in front of him; only ten bullets in total left over from his father's days of target practice right up until death some eleven years prior. Bill didn't even know if they would work, if the gun would fire, or if he had the skill to aim.

A hand appeared in the hallway, stretched forward, followed by the warped head, but it didn't look in the doorway, inching forward, unaware of the gun Bill steadied.

The gunshot made the thing jerk forward, bullet striking the edge of the doorframe. It showed no fear at the shot, merely alerted to Bill's presence, legs pumping it forward, arms outstretched towards him as it burst into the room, hindered just briefly by the narrow doorframe.

Bill fired as fast as he could, unable to miss the monster loomed so largely in front of him, and he heard the hiss of pain with each bullet, but it didn't pause. He pulled to the right as the creature's hand nearly tore into him, claws raking his arm instead. Two final shots boomed from the pistol directly into the creature's head, detonating one of its eyes, spilling foul liquid onto Bill's jeans.

The heavy body almost crushed him, but he rolled to the side, though not before it landed on his left leg. In his efforts to jerk the foot free he twisted his ankle, sent a wave of nausea running through him, but he couldn't say if it was just the pain that caused it, or the adrenaline wearing off.

He let off a jittery laugh, right hand clenching his chest and the pain shooting through his ribs, his lungs rubbed raw. Before he heard the shattering glass from the floor below him, he'd known it wasn't over. He didn't think he minded it so much, the idea of dying that night, feeling suddenly more connected to his home, just as injured as it. He found it fitting the idea of both dying together, even imagined himself with Virginia and the girls, Tracy and Cynthia, running through the house on better days.

The trip out of the room left him winded, ready to collapse. He walked into Tracy's bedroom; kept intact just as everything else in the house had been from the day all three of them had died in a car crash. Through the window he could see another one of the creatures lumbering away from the house, disinterested in it, Bill thought. It looked like the thing didn't realize he was there, or didn't care. "Maybe it isn't your time," he whispered.

He was about to turn away from the window, to take up a seat and let life play itself out however it would, when he realized what direction the creature was moving in.

The pain didn't bother him anymore. Bill moved through his home filled with the same fear crawling up his stomach that he'd felt on the day he'd gotten that phone call. He ran up to the shattered window frame the creature had torn through in the bedroom, didn't feel the shards of glass pierce through his hands as he gripped the sill and peered into the night.

There were two of them down there. One had already torn away the wooden fence surrounding the graves of the only people Bill had ever really cared about. Two of the headstones had fallen over from the creature's efforts to dig up the corpses.

He dragged his injured left foot across the ground as he marched into the storeroom and grabbed the bayonet. He counted two bullets still left in his pistol on the way down the stairs.

Both of them had reached the burial plot when he slammed open the kitchen door. He could see the roof of Virginia's coffin in the monster's grip. His arm didn't shake as he brought up the gun and aimed it at the closest one. It almost looked pleased, he thought, as it bounded towards him, gaping mouth dripping brown with anticipation.

He held his ground as long as he could, let it nearly slam into him before he fired twice into the abyss of its mouth. An arc of pain snaked up his leg when he leapt to the side, shoulder jarred by a rock jutting from the earth, but the dead weight missed him. It tore loose a chunk of the siding beside the door before falling limply to the ground.

He pulled the bayonet from its holder, but the other one didn't attack, didn't even glance back at him, too preoccupied with the coffin. "Get away from that!" Bill shouted. It sank claws into the wooden lid and tore it open.

Pain couldn't stop him from rising from the ground. When he had nearly reached it the creature finally glanced back at him. He brought up the weapon, but the thing swung out its arm before he could stab, raked claws across Bill's chest and dropped him to the ground. Now it turned towards him, grotesque face leaning in closer, yet keeping its distance.

He tried to swing the blade but the pain in his chest made him coil into a ball; teeth clenched so hard he bit through his tongue and tasted blood.

The thing darted in, cut into Bill's leg, coming away with a chunk of his thigh and jeans. He screamed in pain and swiped at the thing again, but still it kept just far enough away to save itself, bringing the chunk of flesh to its face as if the eat, but throwing it into the grass instead.

Bill heard the cracking wood up above him. He glanced at the crooked flower box below the bedroom window that had once held Begonias before Virginia passed away, and figured when the first one made it through the window it had used the box for support. Now the wood splintered and snapped, tumbling down the side of the house, spilling dirt into the night.

In that moment Bill struck, left hand grabbing hold of the distracted creature while his right drove the bayonet into its neck. It shrieked and tried to jerk away, but Bill's hand held its grip. He tore the blade free, thrust it again, and with each strike the movement slowed, the creature slumped down, until finally it didn't move at all and Bill kept stabbing with distant arms, eyes livid, spit and blood running down his chin.

He left the bayonet stuck in its body and crawled across the grass. There might be more, he thought, but he didn't have the strength to fight them. He'd done all he could to protect the only things he had in the world, and that was all he could offer.

He couldn't say if the heaviness to his eyes was just exhaustion or signs of something worse, and he didn't much care. He wanted to hold his wife; no matter the decay the body had suffered. He crawled into the torn open casket, pausing just briefly to look down at the dark image of her face. His watery eyes saw only the beauty he'd spied from across a hallway thirty-one years ago.

He pulled her body close to him and closed his eyes.

THE END


© 2012 Philip Roberts

Bio: Stories by Philip Roberts have appeared in many places, including Midnight Echo ("In the Walls", June 2010), Beneath the Surface (anthology from Shroud Publishing, 2008 including Philip's story "The Apartment's Best Feature"), The Absent Willow Review ("Catching Back Up", February 2010), (the list goes on...), and, of course, Aphelion (most recently Indistinguishable (August 2011)).

For a complete listing of Mr. Roberts's published works, visit The Writing of Philip M. Roberts.

E-mail: Philip Roberts

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