by Marcus Jayne
Smoke filled the sky and an ominous rustling noise blew through the fields.
Frantic screams got louder; they had seen the farmhouse, lit up against the dark night.
The young man finished tying his shoelace and stood, silhouetted against the chaos behind him. He let out a sigh. Of course, they realized how bad things were now. He broke into a run and quickly made his way over to the crowd of gasping, crying, and shouting people.
Before he could even catch his breath, they were shouting questions. “Was it them?” “Where are they now?” “How could they do this?” Glancing back and forth between the terrified faces, he felt bad for them, but he also felt the frustration that had built over the past week as they'd ignored his warnings.
“I told you something like this would happen!” he shouted. “I told you what they really are.”
Across the crowd, mothers and fathers wrung their hands, wiped tears from their eyes, and whispered names and prayers. “They're just little kids!” someone shouted. “They're our babies!” someone else added.
The young man shook his head. “They might be little, but they're not yours.” At the new round of gasps and shouts of outcry, he added “They're not in your control anymore. I've been trying to tell you!”
Someone let out a strangled scream and someone else pointed. Everyone turned to look. In the firelight, emerging from the corn field, the horde was coming. In their worn out velcro'd sneakers and hand-me-down overalls and t-shirts, the small children marched in unison. Their eyes glowed a sickly white, the most visible parts of their shadowy faces. They made no sound except the rhythmic crunching of their tiny footsteps.
The crowd of adults, despite more than one longing look being sent towards the kids, began shuffling backwards.
The deputy mayor, trying to keep his feet from being stomped on, shouted “What are they doing? Are they coming to us?”
In the growing terror, no one could answer, until a few seconds after the children stopped, still a hundred yards away. The farmer lurched forward, waving his arms futilely. “The barn! They're going to burn it down too!”
Several pairs of hands restrained him by grabbing his plaid shirt. “You can't stop them!” shouted the sheriff. “Do you want to end up like Fred?” asked one of the deputies.
“They're right,” cried his wife, tugging on his arm. “We can't do anything about them now.”
The sound of the children's laughter startled the crowd, who turned to look at them. They stood, staring, standing in the same way like a collection of matching statues, and their faces were lit more brightly as the barn burst into flames.
One of the mothers collapsed on the ground, wailing. Many others in the crowd were sobbing.
The young man sighed again, but noting that the children weren't advancing anymore, but had taken to playing a spookily robotic round of ring around the rosy, he motioned to the crowd of adults.
“This way!” he shouted. He led them around the side of the old fruits and vegetables stand. With their sight of the children partially blocked, they seemed to become slightly calmer. Their eyes were all on him now.
“Marcus, what do we do?” asked the hardware store clerk.
“How do we stop them?” asked the president of the PTA from the back of the crowd.
The young man called Marcus shook his head grimly. “Been trying to tell you, you can't.”
“There must be a way,” said the bartender, and several voices in the crowd echoed her.
A horrible sound rung through the night. The farmhouse was collapsing, beams crumpling in the flames. Marcus took a breath.
“Only thing to do now,” he sighed, “Is get to safety.” He turned away from the fiery farm buildings and took a step. The people shouted protests behind him.
“They're ours, we can't just leave them!” shouted a deputy.
Marcus continued to walk, but a hand reached out for his. He stopped for a minute and faced the teacher. There were tears in her eyes. “Please, you don't know what it's like. Having children.” He paused for a moment and looked at her sympathetically but then he gently pulled his hand from her grasp.
The teacher's friend stepped up and patted her friend's back, saying, “You don't know how scary it is. How much you worry, bringing them into the world.”
Nearby, the farmer smirked, “I'd be more worried about the world right now.”
Several people shouted back at him, but Marcus, unable to stay silent any longer, cut them off. “He's right! You brought them into a world that they're far better at handling than you are. You thought they'd make it better for you, but really, they'll make of it what they want, and you're just standing in the way. You shouldn't worry about them. Worry about yourselves! You're the ones who don't fit.”
He braced himself for the angry shouts of “That's not true!” but they were mixed in with confusion and wailing, and farther off, the eerie high pitched laughter that had preceded so much of the destruction that had rained down on Jericho the past week.
Marcus turned once more, hoping to get to safety himself, but this time it was the sheriff who grabbed his arm. “We still need you, Marcus,” he said. “We need your help, and a plan.”
“It's too bad we don't have a really big playpen,” muttered the deputy at the sheriff's side.
“I'm serious, we need to figure this out!” shouted the sheriff. He managed to regain some of the crowd's attention. They were clearly beginning to notice his trademark bug-eyed expression of panic.
“We should try to split them up somehow!” someone shouted. “Loud noises!” came from someone else. Marcus rolled his eyes.
“Food. Make all the food we can and call them to dinner,” suggested the farmer.
“Knock 'em out with something!” the med centre orderly was shouting. “Something low dose,” he added as angry looks went his way.
The bartender was saying something about music, competing to be heard over the farmer who still wanted to make dinner, as the deputy muttered, “I still think you should call up your old friend.”
“'Cause that worked so well the first time,” sighed Marcus.
The suggestions continued, now including bringing in dogs to herd them, scaring them with clown costumes, and modelling calm behaviour while sitting down in the field. Marcus tried to calm them down, but he was distracted by a whole new sound coming from another direction. He peered through the darkness, trying to make out what was approaching. The ground was rumbling.
“Maybe we could just point them in the direction of – of – that!” suggested the engineer.
The sheriff let out a low, anxious whistle. “Is that - ?”
“New Bern's newest weapon,” said Marcus in a quiet voice.
The rumbling grew louder as it grew closer, and now the gathered townspeople could make out footsteps, and then, could see the huge legs thundering towards them.
“Son of a -” breathed the sheriff. Marcus could only stare.
It was taller than a two story building. Its massive feet divided into razor sharp claws that could crush a small car. It seemed part reptilian but its head was more like a giant bird of prey, with a sharp fringe of feathers and a cruel beak. The arms that swung in front of it were gorilla-like, crushing obstacles in its path with mighty fists. Every few steps, it paused to throw its head back and spit on the ground nearby. Each time, the ground sizzled and a cloud of black smoke floated into the air.
The townspeople were suddenly quiet. A few of them were trembling, and others were stock still.
The creature flapped its giant, bat-like wings, and raised itself up on its haunches. It opened its beak.
“Here it comes,” muttered Marcus, covering his ears.
The creature let out a piercing shriek that ripped through the night. It was worse than ten jackhammers being dragged across a glass floor by one hundred rabid cats.
The townspeople were all cowering, covering their ears, and some looked quite faint.
The farmer was the first to stand again, and he strained his eyes, looking beyond the creature. “What the hell?” he breathed.
Coming up behind the creature were dozens of trucks, which seemed to have been covered with tree branches and barbed wire, glistening in the starlight. The first in line was no ordinary truck. Rising ten feet above the ground, it was a black painted, souped up monster truck. The box where the driver rode had an open window, and sticking out of the window was a megaphone.
“Citizens of Jericho,” boomed a voice they all recognized instantly. “Just like we promised, we're back.” Phil Constantino broke into a fit of maniacal laughter before taking a breath and getting back into his speech. “It might have taken a while, but we did it. We scoured the country for the tools we'd need, the technology that would make us invincible, and now we are unstoppable. Resistance is futile. Give up now and we will let you live.”
The shock of the moment before was wearing off and suddenly the townspeople were arguing again about what to do, though now they were frantic.
“We have to fight, somehow.”
“You want to be New Bern's next lapdog? I say we don't get caught!”
“What about the children? Think of the children!”
“Uh, hey, guys,” cut in the refugee farmhand. He pointed in the direction away from the New Bern invaders, where the sight of the children frolicking was blocked by the burning buildings. The burning farmhouse was trembling more than it had before. Suddenly, with a sickening tearing sound, the blazing roof was lifted right from the house. It rose up into the air, hovering.
The adults stopped screaming, crying, and arguing. Even the New Bern vehicles and monster seemed to have been thrown into paralysis, waiting for what was coming.
And they were coming. Across the field, row by row, steps in perfect unison. Eyes aglow, arms at their sides, humming. And the burning roof kept hovering.
The horrible creature seemed to sense it coming before anyone else did. It backed up slightly, its claws scratching deep into the earth.
The horde stopped, planting their feet firmly in one movement. They looked up, and in unison, each lifted one hand, making a sweeping gesture. They spoke all at once, shouting the same thing, “Bad dog!”
The burning rooftop hurtled towards the beast. It let out a terrible roar as the wreckage collided with its torso, rearing back and batting furiously at the sparkling splinters. Scratching wildly at itself, it sent pieces of shingles and wood in all directions.
The New Bern vehicles were all trying to get out of the way, as the beast was now lurching, half blindly as it still batted embers away from its face. It stomped wildly in the direction of its attackers. As it lumbered into their midst, the tiny terrors scattered, but remained organized, shouting in surprise as one.
Their parents also dashed about in a frenzy.
“No!” some of them shouted. Some screamed their child's name. Some screamed and dove out of the way as debris showered in their direction too.
Some began running right into the battle now, blindly attempting to reach their child. “Idiots!” shouted the sheriff. “We'll never – we can't -” He tried to grab the farmer's arm, but the farmer shook him off.
Several adult bodies were on the ground now as several were trampled by the rampaging beast. The sound of gunfire riddled the air. Constantino and his men had begun firing the huge automatic weapons they'd mounted on the tops of their trucks. The children seemed to have learned a defence for this too, as the bullets didn't hit them but stopped, frozen, two feet in front of them. Wall after wall of metal bullets surrounded them, froze in a glittering ring, and fell to the ground. They retaliated, sending more pieces of rubble flying at the invaders.
Most of the bodies that flung through the air and landed in chaotic positions were those of the parents running across the battlefield. A few reached their children but were blasted out of the way before they could threaten a timeout or offer a dessert bribe.
Some had begun to flee, realizing the futility of their efforts. A few had taken shelter by an overturned wagon. “Got any bright ideas?” the deputy mayor shouted at his brother.
“I'm thinking, jeez,” said the mayor. An explosion erupted near their group and several people screamed.
They were drowned out by the sounds of battle and a new sound – a helicopter.
“What's that?” asked the sheriff.
It was not just one helicopter, but a whole fleet of them, swooping in from the night sky. The sheriff turned to glare accusingly at his deputy. “I called our old friend,” shrugged the deputy. “It had to be done.” The sheriff sunk his head into his hands.
As the booms of the military helicopters signalled their entrance into the fight, Marcus was silhouetted again, his outline contrasting with the fiery sky behind him. He walked determinedly forward.
He had almost crossed to the edge of the driveway when a hand grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?” asked the deputy.
“Away from here,” said Marcus.
“Away from your home?” asked the deputy, his eyebrows raised. “How can you leave this behind?”
Marcus looked back over the man's shoulder. A helicopter was spiralling towards the ground, a huge hole torn out of its side. The army seemed to be faring the worst in the fight, with the other helicopters too busy dodging the fiery rays shooting out of the children's eyes and the jerky arm movements of the beast to do much damage themselves.
Marcus looked back at the deputy. “I'm doing what I've known I have to do for a while. Go someplace away from all this. This doesn't matter anymore. I'm going to survive somewhere.”
Ignoring the deputy's sputtering reaction, Marcus turned towards the open road. In contrast from the incandescent light of the sky behind him, the way ahead was black.
He walked forward in the night, putting his hands in his pockets and giving a grim sigh as a helicopter exploded somewhere behind him.
He walked for a long time until he came to the place where he'd been keeping the motorbike, for when he needed it.
He rode into the black night, not knowing where he was going. Only that he was going away from this crazy town with its silly leaders and insane enemies and stupid classes with stupid assignments that no one really should have to do.
Putting the stapled together story in her hands down on the desk in front of her, Emily Sullivan sighed.
She leaned back in her chair, listening for a moment to the quiet of school in the late afternoon.
It had been a surprise, she supposed, that Marcus had even handed in an assignment. She'd been surprised, a month ago, when he'd shown up to join the literacy class. His enthusiasm had been about the same level it had been back when he was originally a full time student at Jericho High, in the days before the bombs, but at least he hadn't been staging walk-outs this time. He'd grumbled at the longer reading assignments, but had once made a joke that reading Nineteen Eighty-Four was better than growing beets.
She found herself smiling a little as she leafed back to the beginning of the story. So it had ended on a sarcastic note. At least there had been some intense use of imagery. She made a quick note on the last page, and put it to the side for now.
Glancing at the window, noticing the slightly darker sky, she decided she had time to read a few more before it was time to head out. She glanced down at the pile. Sean Henthorn's name was scrawled across the top of the next story. Bracing herself, she picked it up and began reading.