Monday, December 25, 2017
By Daniel Skye
Ray hadn’t seen an entrance or exit ramp for fifteen miles. No road signs, no landmarks, no buildings or storefronts.
Twenty minutes had passed since Ray lost the main road, opting for a more scenic route. It was his decision to abandon the highway for a road he never traveled before, a decision he now lived to regret. But he’d never admit defeat and give Sophie the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.” It was one of her choice phrases.
If it was the scenic route Ray had desired, that’s exactly what he got. The road was virtually deserted, with the sporadic exception of a passing semi-truck traveling in the opposite direction. They were from Nassau County and Ray wasn’t used to how eerily quiet it was in certain areas of Suffolk. No traffic, no commotion, no pedestrians, no crazy drivers blowing through red lights or suffering bouts of road rage.
He rolled his window and breathed in the fresh, untainted air; no pollutants. At home, their backyard was so close to the Wantagh Parkway that Ray practically choked on exhaust fumes every time he went outside. His lungs had never breathed air so clean and healthy. His air sacs felt like they were on vacation.
“Roll up your window,” Sophie said. Then she added, “Please.”
“Oh, come on, hon. Enjoy the fresh air. It’s better than inhaling people’s exhaust fumes on the highway.”
“It’s December and it’s freezing out.”
“Fine,” he sighed and rolled his window up. Sophie cranked up the heat and fished through her purse for her Samsung.
“I should call Zachary and see how he’s doing,” Sophie said.
“We never should have left him with Elliot.”
“He was the only person available on such short notice. And what’s wrong with Elliot?”
“I just don’t like the idea of a gay babysitter looking after our son. What if he…you know, touches Zach or something.”
“He’s gay, Ray. He’s not a pedophile.”
“If he likes men, he could like little boys, too.”
“By that logic, all straight men could easily like little girls.”
Ray thought about her argument for a moment, stymied, unable to retort. “All right, you got me there,” he admitted. “At least Elliot’s not transgender.”
“I believe they prefer to be called transsexuals now.”
“Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?”
“You really need to join the 21st century, Ray. In this day and age, gender isn’t relevant. It isn’t even binary.”
She made a quick call to the house, checked in on Zach, and spoke briefly with Elliot. “They’re making a gingerbread house,” Sophie said when she got off the phone.
Ray felt guilty about leaving Zach with a babysitter on Christmas Eve. But Ray always went to visit his dad on Christmas Eve. Shane Collyer’s condition was rapidly declining, and he didn’t want Zach seeing his grandfather in that state.
“I hope he isn’t mad at us,” Ray said.
“We’re only going for a few hours. We’ll be home in time for Santa to put the presents under the tree.”
“You mean I’ll put the presents under the tree. I’m tired of that Santa guy getting all the credit.”
“We need to find a spot to eat. I’m famished.”
“Famished,” he repeated.
“Yes, it’s a word.”
“Nobody says famished.”
“I say famished.”
“I’ll find us a place to eat.”
“Yeah, as soon as you get off this Godforsaken road. I haven’t seen anything for miles. What made you get off the highway in the first place?”
“I was bored,” he shrugged. “I wanted to take the scenic route.”
“Well, you definitely got your wish.”
Ray turned up the radio to give himself a much needed reprieve from the conversation, and to drown out the rattling of a bad catalytic convertor. He went through every station until he found one that wasn’t playing Christmas music.
Ray and Sophie’s road had been a rocky one. In fact, their relationship had been a road paved with landmines. But they had evaded every bomb in their path and managed to keep their relationship intact. Ray Collyer knew all too well what divorce does to a child. He’d been through it before and he wasn’t about to put Zach through the same. And Sophie seemed to concur. It was the only thing keeping their frayed marriage from completely falling apart.
“That’s it, I’m using the GPS on my phone,” Sophie said, fed up.
The catalytic converter rattled and pinged.
“Don’t bother,” Ray said as he saw a sign welcoming them to the town of Hither Hills.
The first thing he saw was an unoccupied rest stop. He pulled in, turned off the car, and got out.
“Where the heck are you going?”
“Um, to the bathroom. I thought that was obvious. Just wait in the car. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Just wait in the car? Sophie thought. Who the hell does he think he is?
Sophie Collyer was never one to take orders and they had been driving for two hours, so she got out of the car to stretch her legs. She tied her shoulder-length blonde hair into a ponytail with a scrunchie she always kept around her left wrist. Then she adjusted the cashmere scarf around her neck. An early Christmas present from Ray. The man was stubborn, childish, irritable. But Sophie couldn’t deny that he had great taste, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to be generous.
Rest stops were the bane of Ray’s existence. Public restrooms were germ factories. And this one was no different with its sticky floors, wet surfaces, and that acrid stench of stale urine wafting through the air.
Ray observed the crude graffiti above the urinal as he unzipped his fly to relieve himself. Typical stuff. So-and-so was here. Or, for a good time call 555-3255. These vandals were no Banksy. More like petty teenagers looking for a quick laugh.
When he returned from the restroom, he was gripped by a sudden fear. Sophie was gone, and the thought terrified him. Despite their marital difficulties, despite all the trials and tribulations, Ray still had a tremendous love in his heart for her.
“Sophie!” Ray screamed. “Sophie!”
“Ray! Come here! You’ve got to see this!”
“Where are you?”
“Back here! Come and see!”
Ray ran along the side of the rest stop and found Sophie around the back, frozen in place. She stared in disbelief at something that shouldn’t have been there, something that couldn’t have been there.
A snowman, about five feet tall, with a black top hat, black coals for eyes, and a gaping mouth. Some had scooped out a large chunk of snow to create the mouth and then carved around it with a chisel or an ice pick to give the impression of jagged, monstrous teeth.
“How is this even possible?” Sophie wondered. “There’s not an inch of snow on the ground. It hasn’t snowed at all this year.”
“We live in Nassau County. This is Suffolk. Sometimes it snows out here and we don’t get it.”
“Then where’s the snow?” Sophie asked. “If it snowed in the past few days, then it all melted away. So why hasn’t this thing melted too? Look at it. It’s like a block of ice.”
“I have no clue, but I’m famished,” Ray said, busting her chops. “You want to stand here talking about the weather, or you want to get something to eat?”
He walked back to the car and Sophie followed after she was able to break herself away from the icy glare of this cryptic snowman.
Ray turned the key in the ignition, but the car refused to start. “Piece of junk,” he muttered. “It must be the converter.” He tried again. No luck.
Sophie took out her phone to call for a tow truck. “Hmmm, that’s strange…” Sophie said and trailed off. She had no service, no reception. No 4G, no LTE. No internet access. No GPS. “What are we going to do?”
“I hope there’s a gas station nearby,” Ray said. “Looks like I’m walking. It’s cold out there. Stay here. It doesn’t make sense for both of us to freeze.”
“How considerate of you.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
When Ray was gone, Sophie had that itch again to ignore Ray’s wishes. But he was right for once. It made no sense for both of them to go. So she sat alone with no heat, no radio, nobody to keep her company, nothing but the thoughts in her head. And with Ray gone, her mind inevitably drifted back to the snowman and how it came to be.
Ray returned more than two hours later with a tow truck. It had been a long, exhausting walk. Hither Hills was a desolate town and it was five miles to the nearest gas station. The driver hooked the car up to the tow truck, but Ray told him to hang on a second.
“Sophie!” Ray called out. “Where’d you wander off to now?”
He checked the bathrooms, but the rest stop was vacant. “Just a second,” Ray told the tow truck driver. He walked around back and expected to see Sophie the second he turned the corner. But Sophie was nowhere in sight. Only the snowman remained.
And it had a new addition to its black top hat–A cashmere scarf.
The corners of its gaping, cavernous mouth were smeared red. And something about the mouth had changed. Before, it appeared to be smiling. Now its mouth was stretched out into a wide grin. A malevolent grin. A grin that said, “You’ll never see Sophie again.”
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction
By Daniel Skye
PART TWO: …COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
“So let’s review…” Milton began. “We know that Tom Stahl discovered the spacecraft in his backyard. We know the spacecraft contained parasitic organisms. We know that these parasitic extraterrestrial lifeforms can multiply and assimilate other organisms, and in turn, imitate them.
“To do this, the parasite attaches itself to the host and its cells begin digesting and replacing the host, creating a perfect imitation in the process. We know that they’re shapeshifters and our flesh is malleable to them, that they can use our bodies as weapons. And we know that they’re strong and they don’t go down without a fight.”
“Doesn’t sound like a problem to me,” Tucker said, but he didn’t sound like his usual, arrogant self. There was a hint of doubt in his words.
“Why did we even come to school today?” Riley asked. She fished a cigarette from her pack and lit it with the tip of her finger; the perks of pyrokinesis.
“If it got to Omar, it could’ve gotten to anyone our age,” Noah pointed out. “We have to assume it got to some of the other students. And we have to stop it from spreading, cut it off at the source.”
“That and it would look pretty suspicious if all five of us didn’t show up for class,” Sasha said. “Just keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. If we hear or see anything strange, we report back to each other in between classes.”
Sasha twirled her short red hair with her fingers. It was a nervous habit. They all had their own quirks. Riley would smoke when she was stressed or anxious, hence the two-pack-a-day routine. And Milton would ramble incessantly about any subject that was kicking around in that big brain of his. Today’s subject was Super Mario Brothers.
“You guys remember the original Super Mario Brothers games for Nintendo?”
“Nintendo came out before we were even born,” Noah said. “But yeah, I think we’re all aware of Super Mario.”
“Did you guys know Super Mario Brothers 2 was based on another game? Yume Kojo was released in Japan and modified for a release in the US. They found the design of the original sequel to be too difficult and also too similar to the original. That game was eventually released as The Lost Levels.”
“I’ll file that under LIGF, for Like I Give a Fuck,” Riley said.
“I’ve definitely heard that one before.”
“It’s a-me, Mario!” Noah exclaimed. “The Italian stereotype who’s extremely confused about his job title.”
“If you ask me, Mario has a pretty sweet life,” Tucker said. “He gets to eat mushrooms all day and jump on people’s heads and steal their coins.”
“I blame Princess Peach. That whore is always getting kidnapped. If it wasn’t for her, Mario could get some actual plumbing done,” Sasha said.
“Princess Toadstool is her real name,” Milton said.
“I thought it was Princess Daisy,” Noah said.
“Are we really discussing this?” Riley asked.
Mr. Grayson, the gym coach, exited his Buick LeSabre and shot them a look of disapproval. With his orange shorts and tank top, he looked like a human traffic cone. Even in the most frigid conditions, Grayson’s wardrobe never changed. And that black whistle was always dangling around his neck. He never took it off. Tucker imagined he even wore that thing when he went to bed.
Riley scoffed. “Creep.”
“Something about that guy has always rubbed me the wrong way,” Noah said.
“He probably eats candy bars with a knife and fork,” Milton said.
“He probably eats people,” Tucker said.
Sasha locked eyes with Mr. Grayson as he crossed the parking lot. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or the lack of stimulants, but when he blinked, he didn’t blink vertically, open and down. She could’ve sworn she saw him blink from the sides, back and forth, just like Omar Wright.
“Did you guys see that?”
“Mr. Grayson…his eyes…he…never mind,” she sighed.
In the hall, Riley bumped shoulders with Tanya Morgan, an olive skinned girl with her short dark hair in a French braid, a three hundred dollar Louis Vuitton purse dangling from one forearm.
“Watch where you’re going you, you–”
“What?!” Riley snapped. “Go ahead, say it! What?! Freak?! Is that what you were going to say?!”
Tanya scoffed. “Geez, take a chill pill, Elvira.”
“Think she’s an alien replica?” Milton asked as Tanya sauntered away. Milton’s telepathy was both a gift and a curse. It wasn’t always a pleasure being able to read other people’s thoughts. And he had read Tanya’s thoughts and knew exactly what the girl thought of Riley and the group. She looked down on them. She thought of them as nothing more than freaks.
“No, she’s just a royal bitch. I’ve got to get to English class. I’ll meet you at my locker when the bell sounds.”
They went their separate ways with Riley heading to English and Sasha heading to her calculus class. Tucker usually skipped first and second period, hung out in the library or the cafeteria or wandered around the halls.
Noah couldn’t focus on his assignments. His eyes darted around the room, perusing his classmates, all potential threats. Any one of them could be an imitation. The fear and paranoia crept up his spine and seeped into his brain. His feet itched to run for the door.
He watched Mrs. Macchio intently, waiting for some sign to give her away, all while trying to watch his fellow classmates out of the corners of his eyes. He heard the soft ping of someone’s cell phone in their purse or pocket. Heard Kim Sutton’s obnoxious chewing as she crammed pieces of mint-flavored gum in her mouth. Watched as Henry Smith and Chet Myers passed notes back and forth. But he never once saw anything out of the ordinary. No one betrayed their facades or gave themselves away as easily as he assumed. He was starting to wonder if the paranoia was getting the best of all of them.
They met up after the first period bell. Tucker sauntered out of the cafeteria with a cheese bagel, his eyes already glassy from the first morning joint.
“You guys seen anything suspicious?” Milton asked.
“Nothing,” Noah shrugged.
“I’ve been roaming the hallways for forty minutes,” Tucker said. “Haven’t seen a thing.”
“Riley?” Milton asked.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
“Hey, where’s Sasha?” Noah asked, noting her absence.
“What’s her second period class?” Tucker asked.
Riley gasped as it dawned on her. “Gym class.”
The doors of the gymnasium were locked from the inside. A note taped to the door advertised that all gym classes were cancelled for the day.
“Red flag,” Tucker said.
“I’ve got this,” Noah said. “This is where the superhuman strength comes in handy.” He gripped the door handles and pulled them so hard the lock snapped. The gymnasium doors flew open. Sasha stood at the center of the gym, surrounded on all sides.
Mr. Grayson was leading the pack. Henry Smith and Chet Myers were among them. Riley scoped out the gym for Tanya Morgan, but she was nowhere in sight.
Riley was about to put her powers to use when Milton pointed out the cameras all throughout the school.
“Sasha, could you, you know?”
“Got it covered,” Sasha said. She raised her hand and uses her powers to scramble the cameras without moving an inch.
Riley fired up, literally. A burst of flames shot from her palm and sent them all scattering like ants, regrouping. They all seemed to function as one, communicating silently, likely through telepathy, although Milton could not use his telepathic abilities to read them or track their moves.
Tucker teleported from one side of the gym to the other, taking cheap shots and teleporting away before they could lay a hand on him. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but his powers helped him move around like a boxer. He’d teleport right up in their face, throw a punch, and teleport halfway across the room. But punches didn’t seem to faze this mob of replicas. Even Noah’s Superman-like strength was not enough to keep them down for the count.
Riley heard a voice. It was Milton inside her head, warning her to watch her back. She spun around and saw Chet Myers sneaking up behind her. A jet of flames burst from her palm, setting his clothes ablaze.
A tear formed in Mr. Grayon’s forehead, continuing across the bridge of his nose, bisecting his lips. His head, split evenly down the middle, unfolding at the sides, revealing a ravenous mouth with row after row after row of jagged teeth.
Noah was throwing everything he had at Henry Smith, who barely flinched as Noah’s concrete hands came crashing down on him. Henry’s fingers started to grow at the tips, stretching out and mutating to form tentacles. The tentacles snared Noah around the ankles, pulling him to the ground.
Mr. Grayson advanced on Milton, his bisected head ready to devour. Milton moved slowly until his back was up against the wall and he had nowhere else to run. The others were preoccupied at the moment. No one was coming to his aid. He had no choice but to defend himself. He reached out and grabbed the closest thing he could find, which happened to be a mounted fire extinguisher. He pulled it down from the wall, pulled the pin, and blasted Mr. Grayson with it. A futile attempt, Milton supposed, but he had to try something, anything.
Mr. Grayson, or the thing that had inhabited his body, recoiled. The flesh bubbled and pulsated. A thick, yellowish pus oozed from every orifice. The chemicals had dried it out, making the skin and flesh look ancient. A putrid smell emanated from its body. The smell of rapid decay as the dissolved and then petrified, leaving only an empty shell.
“Eureka!” Milton exclaimed. One by one, their classmates fell at Milton’s hands. The air of the gymnasium was enveloped in a white fog of fire extinguisher clouds. Yellow pus and white fire extinguisher residue covered the floor.
“Milton, you did it!” Sasha cheered. “You killed them!”
“With a fire extinguisher?” Tucker said.
“The powder in these things contains sodium bicarbonate. It’s loaded with ions and salt. Looks like it dried them out, like a diuretic.”
“You’re a genius,” Noah said.
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” Milton said, busting his chops. “Riley, we have to get everyone out of school for the day. I need you start a controlled fire in the upstairs bathrooms. Controlled being the key word here. We don’t want to burn the school down. We just need a mandatory evacuation and for classes to be cancelled until we can sort this mess out.”
“Roger that. Don’t burn the school down.”
Riley didn’t burn the school down, but she did manage to get the school closed down for at least a day. They had all crammed into Noah’s blue Toyota 4Runner. They weren’t about to split up or let each other out of their sights. Everyone in town was a potential threat, a possible enemy. They kept their eyes peeled as they drove through Redfield. But they weren’t the only ones watching. Every car they passed, every person they saw on the streets seemed to be watching them closely. The fear and paranoia was starting to spread as quickly as the parasites. How many people had been assimilated? Was it the whole town? Had it got to everyone?
They headed straight to Milton’s house to hide out in his garage and regroup. “I think we underestimated these parasites. If we don’t stop it from spreading, they’ll take over the whole town. Then it will spread throughout New York, then out of state. Then it’ll be too late to stop it.”
“What can we do?”
“I have a theory. If we kill the ‘head alien’ so to speak, it might kill them all. They all seem to be connected on some level, they function and communicate as one. Someone or something has to be pulling the strings, a puppet master.”
“But how do we find the puppet master? It could be anyone in town. It could be you,” Noah said with an accusing tone.
“And it could be you,” Milton said defensively.
“Noah’s right,” Riley said. “Where were you when we were dealing with Omar Wright last night? Home alone. How do we know it didn’t get to you?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Milton said, getting loud, louder than the group had ever heard him get.
“Hey!” Sasha yelled. “Milton saved our lives. How dare you guys accuse him of anything.”
“And how do we know it isn’t you?” Tucker fired back. “You were the one who initially crossed paths with Omar Wright. How do we know the parasites didn’t take you over too?”
“Riley was with me.”
“Actually, we parted ways when we got to my apartment. I never saw Omar.”
“So you were all by yourself when you saw him,” Tucker said.
“Yeah. So what?”
“So it could have easily gotten to you.”
“Oh I don’t believe this crap.”
“How can we be certain?” Riley asked.
“How can we be certain it’s not you?” Sasha asked. “We don’t keep tabs on you twenty-four-seven.”
“I’m not one of them,” Riley said vehemently. She was known for her vile temper. And with the power of pyrokinesis, that made her a living, breathing weapon. Sasha had her own abilities. Telekinesis. She could move objects with the will of her mind. And she could do a lot more than that. If Riley and her ever came to blows, they would annihilate one another.
“Enough of this,” Milton said. “We need to put all doubt and suspicion aside. I have an idea. Have you ever seen the movie The Thing?”
Milton used a syringe to draw their blood, including his own. He puts the samples in petri dishes, and exposed them to the residue of a fire extinguisher. He tasted his own blood first. No reaction.
“Do Sasha next,” Riley demanded.
“Why me? Why not you?”
“Knock it off!” Milton shouted. He tested Riley’s blood, then Sasha’s no reaction.
He tested Noah’s sample next. Nothing.
“Last but not least,” Tucker said.
They all took a step back. Milton took a deep, anxious breath. He lifted the petri dish and tested the sample.
Noah’s face reddened. Guilt washed over him in a powerful wave. “I’m so sorry I doubted you,” he said to Milton.
“Don’t sweat it. We’re all tense, on edge. But we need to stick together if we’re going to see this through. We can’t turn on each other.”
Sasha hugged Riley and Riley squeezed her back. They exchanged apologies and all was forgiven. That’s how strong their bond was.
“Wait a minute,” Milton said. “I think I know how to find the puppet master.”
Milton stared down at the egg-shaped crater in Tom Stahl’s backyard. This was where it had all began. This was where they’d find the answers.
“Why are we back here?” Noah asked.
“Tom Stahl dug this up. But why? What compelled him to just start tearing up his backyard? And how long was this thing down here? It had to have been here before he purchased the property. It could’ve been there fifteen, twenty years. It could’ve been there for hundreds or thousands of years. But something possessed him to dig it up. Someone or something wanted him to find it.”
Milton heard a voice, a quiet whisper. He spun around and saw that they were still alone. And he wasn’t listening in on his friends’ thoughts. Something was communicating with him telepathically. He followed the whisper to Tom Stahl’s shed, where they had found the spacecraft that Tom Stahl unearthed.
“It’s the ship,” Milton said. “It’s speaking to me. The ship itself must be sentient, self-aware. It must’ve got in Tom Stahl’s head and manipulated him into digging it up. It wanted to unleash those parasites on the population. It wanted them to take over.”
“So is the ship the puppet master?” Sasha asked.
“I don’t think so. But only one way to find out. Riley, would you do the honors?”
In mere seconds, Tom Stahl’s shed was engulfed in flames. Heavy winds helped the flames spread rapidly, leaving only a pile of rubble and smoldering ash.
“We have to get out of here before the fire department shows up,” Noah said.
As they ran to his 4Runner, they heard the chirp of a car alarm and saw Tanya Morgan exiting her Maserati, Louis Vuitton bag swinging from her arm.
“Tanya Morgan is Tom Stahl’s neighbor?” Milton asked as they drove away. He watched her in the rearview mirror as she stood outside and stared as they sped away.
“I didn’t know that,” Riley said.
“Neither did I,” Sasha said. “I’ve always hated that girl. I never really cared to get to know her.”
“This changes everything…” Milton said and trailed off.
Tanya Morgan had a full schedule on Tuesday nights. She’d come home after school, shower and change, then head back out to yoga class, followed by a trip to the gym, and then she’d finish off her night with a cup of frozen yogurt from Buddha Berry.
So they drove around in Noah’s 4Runner to keep tabs on her. But she never showed up at six o’clock for her yoga class. And her car wasn’t in the gym parking lot. And by eight o’clock, Buddha Berry was deserted and getting ready to lock up for the night.
They drove past her house again, cruising slowly as the fire department was now on the scene. Her Maserati was no longer parked in front of her house.
“Where did she go?” Sasha wondered.
“I’m trying to get a reading, but I can’t pick up on any of her thoughts,” Milton said.
“She’s a spoiled rich brat,” Riley said. “Where would a spoiled rich brat go?”
“She’s too young to get into any bars or clubs, unless she has a fake ID. Most of the pretentious rich bastards in our school usually loiter at the coffee shop.”
“Tanya Morgan hates coffee,” Noah said. “And she thinks her shit doesn’t stink, so she wouldn’t be caught dead in that coffee shop.”
“Noah, do you remember exactly where you found Tom Stahl’s remains?” Sasha asked.
“Of course. That hike is part of my daily routine. I always jog on the same trail.”
“Then that’s where we’re going.”
Noah lead the way, taking them to the exact spot where he found Tom Stahl’s skull and bones. The spot was lit up with torches where a mob of about twenty people had gathered. Tucker assumed they were not there to pay their respects.
In the center of this mob stood a girl with olive colored skin and short dark hair in a French braid. Tanya Morgan. The Puppet Master.
The parasites had tried to assimilate Tom Stahl, but his body rejected the new cells and it had devoured his flesh and organs. They had to find a new host. And Tanya Morgan was the next best thing. It was simply a matter of geographical convenience. Tanya was Stahl’s next-door neighbor. The parasites couldn’t latch onto him, so they took her over instead. The mob parted like the red sea
Tanya stepped forward, tentacles sprouting from her face, writhing and intertwining like strands of DNA.
“I’ve got this one,” Noah said. “You guys handle the rest.”
The mob came charging. All locals. Classmates, postal workers, business owners, pizza delivery men. Tanya Morgan was building a small army, taking over Redfield one person at a time.
Noah took a swing and missed. The tentacles protruding from her face lashed around his lips and tried to pull him in. But Noah used all his strength and pulled back, ripping the tentacles from her face. She shrieked, an inhuman cry. But the pain was brief as the tentacles began to regenerate. Noah his time on the football field to good use and tackled Tanya, taking her down to the ground. Tentacles rose up and formed a noose around his neck.
Noah rained blows down on the entity formally known as Tanya Morgan. But the thing refused to release its grip. The air was being squeezed from his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. His face was starting to turn purple.
Noah pulled and tugged with all his might. The tentacles loosened their grip. He wriggled free and tried to take in the air. His reprieve lasted seconds as Tanya was already back to her feet. He looked back at the others, who clearly had their hands full.
Milton was putting his secret weapon to good use. He’d extracted the powder from a fire extinguisher, added water, and put it into a tiny plastic squirt gun. One spray was all it took and these parasitic entities were writhing and twitching and oozing pus from every orifice.
He tried to push his way through the mob and reach Noah, but there was too many of them. Claws developed from Tanya’s manicured nails, curved and razor-sharp. Noah came charging again, spearing her down. They wrestled on the ground, Noah trying to use his weight to pin her arms down at the shoulders. One hand sprung up and jagged claws raked across his chest, cutting through his jacket.
He felt the sudden warmness as the blood trickled down his chest. Tanya clawed and scratched feverishly at his chest, tearing through the flesh, scraping the bones of his ribcage. Noah tried in vain to protect himself by crossing his arms over his chest, but the claws sliced right through his forearms. He tried to sit up, to force Tanya off of him, but he was losing strength. He was pinned down and defenseless.
“Hey!” Milton shouted. The thing that had claimed Tanya Morgan looked at him and growled, a primitive, guttural sound. “Eat this, bitch!”
The concoction inside the squirt gun exploded in her face as Milton used every last drop it contained. The tentacles retracted. It shrieked, a horrible unhuman sound. Its flesh withered as a yellowish sludge discharged from its body. One by the one, the mob began to drop like flies.
The group rejoiced, but their celebration quickly dissolved into a nightmare as they saw Noah’s state.
“Noah!” Sasha cried. “You’re going to be okay! I promise! I’m going to get you to a hospital! They’re going to fix you up! Just hang in there!”
“He’s lost too much blood,” Milton said. “It’s too late to do anything.”
“No, no, no!” Sasha cried, the tears streaming down her face. Tucker was trying to hold back, but he just couldn’t do it and finally broke down. Riley clutched Milton’s arm.
“You have to do something,” Riley said. “You’re a genius. If anyone can help him, it’s you.”
Guilt and remorse slapped Milton right in the face. He was powerless to save his friend. He never realized how much the group had depended on him. He always thought they considered him the weakest link. But now he could see how much they truly depended on him. And he was going to let them down because there was nothing he could for Noah.
His eyes fluttered and closed and he took his last strained breath. Milton checked for a pulse and couldn’t find one. “He’s…he’s gone,” he said and cupped his hands over his face to hide the tears.
Silence filled the frigid air…until Noah coughed and rolled to his side. The wounds on his arms, neck, and chest were starting to heal, the blood starting to seep back into his flesh. He sat up suddenly, alert, refreshed, as if he had just woken from a twelve hour slumber.
“What happened?” he asked. “Did we win?”
Tucker breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. “Yeah, buddy. We won. We sure did.”
“How?” Sasha asked, mystified. “How is it possible?”
“Well, in addition to superman strength, it appears our friend here possesses the healing factor.”
“His body can heal and regenerate itself rapidly, like Wolverine.”
“Of course you would compare it to Wolverine.”
“It’s the best comparison.”
“You learn something new every day,” Noah said, just getting back to his feet.
“How do you feel?” Riley asked.
“Like a million bucks.”
“Is it over?”
“It’s over,” Milton said. “Tanya was the main host, the puppet master, and the others were her puppets. With her gone, the rest will follow.”
“That means a lot of dead, petrified bodies popping up all over town.”
“At least we won’t get blamed for it since nobody knows we were involved. But that also means we can’t take any credit for it.”
“Who cares? We know what we did. And that’s all that should matter,” Riley said.
“She’s right,” Tucker said. “Now let’s go celebrate. I’ve got a ton of beer stashed away for the occasion.”
They sat in Tucker’s smoke-filled basement, getting a buzz off his secondhand smoke. As an athlete, Noah preferred to keep his lungs clean. Milton had tried it once, and made a complete fool out of himself at a house party. Sasha and Riley smoked occasionally, but it was never their thing. But today, none of them seemed to be bothered by it. They enjoyed the buzz. And they were already high on the thrill of victory. They had won the battle, ended the war before it even officially began.
“We did it again,” Tucker said, cracking open a beer and divvying out the rest. “We saved the world.”
“Technically, we saved the town,” Noah said.
“Yeah but if we didn’t save the town, it would’ve been the world,” Sasha said.
“Can’t argue with you there.
“Cheers,” Milton said, indulging in a rare-occasion drink. “To the best group of superheroes since the X-Men.”
“Yeah, except we’re actually real and they’re made up,” Riley said. She was dressed for the holiday season, abandoning her usual black wardrobe for an outfit comprised of red and white and green.
“We’re the best,” Noah said. “A real force to be reckoned with.”
“Yeah, the Freak Force,” Riley added.
“Freak Force,” Tucker repeated. “I like that.”
“To the Freak Force,” Milton said, proposing a new toast.
“To the Freak Force,” they all cheered, and for the briefest of moments, all their troubles were forgotten.