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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    ROGUE RIVER by Jerome Hamilton
    September 7, 2010  Short stories   Tags:   

    Gunner and I ran like hell through the dark streets. We could still hear the screams. Air tore in and out of my stubborn lungs, but not fast enough to keep my sides from throbbing. That didn’t stop me. We ran until the road forked, then slowed to a walk. Gunner—at least that’s how he introduced himself, after I bought him a beer—thumbed toward a branch of the fork. I assumed his house was that way. He didn’t speak—too busy sucking down air, chest heaving. When he leaned back, I saw that blood had speckled one half of his body, from his face down to his waist. Screams came sporadically, now. One final one, cut off abruptly. Then silence. “Holy shit,” Gunner said, the blood on his face looking like chicken pox. “Holy fucking shit.”

    We started walking quickly, toward a porch light beyond a copse of redwoods. The dark stretch wasn’t paved. Gunner kept looking behind us. I kept looking at the shadows ahead. A shed stood on the right of the road, with a few tools next to it. I reached over and picked up a hoe, gauging its weight with both hands, running my fingers along its metal ridge. “I’m not waiting,” Gunner said, and started to run again. I ran too, holding the hoe across my body with both hands like a soldier’s gun. Only once did I glance back, but the sight chilled me: down the hill, the lights were dying out one by one, and then, running across the path behind us, was a hunched-over thing, his arms hanging down and loose, like a missing link between bipeds and gorillas. It disappeared into the trees.

    “I fucking saw one,” I yelled, energy coursing through my burning thighs, and Gunner started sprinting so fast I thought his bouncing potbelly would rip from his body. When we reached the house, I started to run up the porch, but Gunner panted, “No, no,” and waved me around, to the back, where we dodged into a solid-wood shed. He clicked on a naked light bulb and we shut the double doors and barred them with a two-by-four.

    “Why not the house?” I asked.

    “Windows,” he panted. He finally realized I was holding a hoe. “What the fuck were you going to do with that?”

    I made vague hacking motions at the air.

    “Shit,” he said. “Your neck’d be a fountain before that touched them.”

    I looked around the room, the shadows slicing sharp lines of darkness around lawnmowers and weedwackers, rakes and post-hole diggers. The particleboard on the wall held garden shears and trowels.

    “What is all this shit?” I asked. “You garden for a living?”

    “It’s called horticulture,” he said. “At least, that’s the bullshit term that opens the pocketbooks of corporations. They want the grass in front of their Lexuses to shine Technicolor green.”

    “So what the fuck are we going to use to defend ourselves if those”—I lost the word, or maybe there wasn’t a word to describe the black-socketed things we’d just seen bust into our bar and bite into patron’s necks so ferociously that blood sprayed like garden hoses—“things, those things, come here. You don’t have guns?” He shook his head no.

    “Shhh,” he said, and leaned his ear against the door. I heard some shuffling, some sniffling. Sounds of wetness moving over pine needles and dirt. Then it went silent. Our hasty breaths, piped through our nostrils, sounded torrential. It was so silent I could almost hear my nails digging into my fists, almost hear my fear pound across the floor of my brain. I don’t know what tipped him, but Gunner yanked his head back from the door just before the door slammed inward so hard that I thought the hinges might snap off. Luckily, the two-by-four held. The door shook violently. Enamel ground against enamel. Then footsteps ran away quickly.

    “He’s gone,” he said.

    “You don’t know it’s gone.”

    “He’s gone,” he said. He tapped his ears, as though to give me confidence that his hearing had evolved beyond mine. It didn’t.

    “I’m going out for a sec. Gotta check something.”

    “The hell you are,” I said, thinking he had to be joking, thinking that if he considered those things breaking in the windows he had to be smart enough to not fall for the stay-silent-to-make-prey-emerge trick. But before I could stop him, he threw up the two-by-four and poked his head out. I wanted to scream, but stopped myself because I didn’t want those things to hear. I imagined him pulling back in without his head attached, just a stump with a geyser of blood, or, even worse, pulling back in with his eye sockets faded to black. I imagined the sounds of ripping and tearing and biting and scratching. All the sounds of cannibalism, though those things weren’t really our kind any more, not the way they’d changed. His head was still out. A gust of cool air came in. Through the slit I saw a tiny star that winked out as I stared. Wasn’t going to wish on shit like that.

    “Gunner,” I whispered, in the type of tone that tried to communicate I didn’t want to see even a casual beer-drinking friend dead, that I didn’t want to try to find my way out from this Podunk town on the Oregon coastline without him, and didn’t want to pay for another vacation just to get over this goddam vacation where I was supposed to get over my recent divorce. Even though I had a good buzz going on in the bar, as soon as hell erupted and we booked it out of the mayhem, my mind was straight as a teetotaler’s. Realizing your species is not at the top of the food chain any longer does that to you.

    I thought about pushing him out. Just a quick shove and his shoulders would be past the door, and then I could throw the wood down and push my indexes into my eardrums when they came for him. It might save me from this idiot. But I couldn’t do it. Fucking conscience. What was that moral dilemma? Sacrifice that child on the train tracks to save the entire passenger train? Well the fucking equation doesn’t look so good when it’s a choice between pushing a new friend out to become ground beef or letting him stay in the safe place that he led you to. Just when I was about to yank him in, he withdrew on his own.

    “What the fuck was that about,” I whispered.

    “The porch light up on the hill,” he said. “My wife’s best friend’s house. My wife’s there tonight. Playing cards and drinking boxed wine. But the light’s out. It’s never out.” He shook his head. “They never turn it out.”

    “So you think—”

    “All the lights are out over there.”

    I wanted to offer a hand on his back, but thought anything touching him from behind might be slightly startling. Then I thought about saying something sympathetic, but I’ve always left that shit to Hallmark. Besides, guys don’t say those things to other guys. We drink it under the table, we go fuck someone who doesn’t matter to us, we go to the shooting range and destroy cans and clay until we feel like we’ve broken the whole world into shards, but we don’t say “I can feel your pain,” or “It’ll be all right,” or any other sort of quasi-comforting bullshit that belongs in the phrase book of grandmothers with faux-colored hair.

    “What do we do now?” I asked.

    “We wait.” He brushed tools out of the way and jumped up on the wooden bench. “This has happened before.”

    “It’s happened before? Here?”

    “And it’ll happen again. My grandfather told me once about some crazies that took over a mountain town in Montana. Eyes like black taw marbles, he said. Arms like apes. And my father said a friend of his once saw it too, in Guatemala. Things bit people as if they were rabid. But it’s not rabies. It’s much better than that.”

    “Better?”

    “Listen, the human species has evolved too far. We’ve gone so far that we can destroy ourselves, and will. Gone so far that we use religion as a way to oppress others, governments as a way to shut people up. Our genetic pool’s all fucked up, and doctors don’t let nature weed the bad ones out, they keep them pumped up with drugs until they can pass their shitty genes on to their shitty children.”

    I had the distinct feeling he’d given this talk at many bars, to many strangers, after many drinks.  “Shhh,” I said. “Hear that?” A can rolled in the yard. “Dog?” I asked.

    “It’s nothing,” he said, but when he continued, his voice had lowered. “These—things—they don’t have any of the hang-ups we do. They operate under simple rules of take what they want, act as they wish. Nothing to hold them back. Pure desire. They’re the height of evolution, man. We’re already on the backside.”

    I wondered how I got stuck with this chump. Five minutes after a slaughter, and he’s already talking about how these things are improvements on our race. Next he’d discuss UFOs or talking animals. I’d be trying to hold the bag on our survival as he offered himself as a doorstep to a superior race of beings.

    “Don’t go crazy on me man, seriously,” I said. “Hold it together.” He looked too together, actually. He was quiet and composed, calm as a mountaintop yogi. I had the feeling he’d been waiting for this, that he’d thought about this his whole life, just wanting something as strange as this to happen to him as it had happened to his father and his father’s father. Now, if he actually escaped, he could finally tell the story firsthand, not filtered through hearsay.

    The feet shuffled around the building, bumping the sides. Many feet. Many bumps. Gunner jumped off the table. “Oh shit,” he said.

    I could hear saliva and jaws. I could hear the future: the hum of wind over my open grave, the sound my gnawed-on bones would make when clinking together. Gunner came over to me and examined my face, then my arms. He found what I hadn’t even noticed—a long slit on my forearm seeping blood. “Between the two of us,” he said, “We might as well sprinkle salt and pepper over our heads.” He started rummaging in the tools, throwing off random tools to make way. His sounds enraged the things outside. They rose to a frenzy, bumping against the building like sharks.

    “You’ll take the weedwacker,” Gunner said.

    “Weedwacker won’t do shit,” I said.

    “No, no, no,” Gunner said. “It’s not a pansy one with plastic floss.” He pulled out a bulky tube that looked ancient and rusty and greasy and dangerous as fuck. The end had four metal knives all slightly curved to the right, the way I imagined a handheld garbage disposal. I slipped my hand in and pulled the cord. It growled alive.

    “Gasoline powered,” Gunner said. He grabbed a lawn mower and tied a cord to the front. When he lifted it up, one hand held the cord and the other grabbed the handle. He sprung it to life and lifted it to face me. I saw the blur of blades, like a fan of death, and actually felt sorry for a few of the things outside, but my pity died quick as it came. Stomps skipped across the metal roof. When I looked up, I could trace their steps by the dents, pooling their way across as they searched for an entrance.

    “One question,” I said as we approached the door. “If you really think they’re better than us, why would you kill them?”

    “Survival of the fittest, motherfucker. You know what this makes me?” He waved his lawnmower. “Fucking Fittest. Now either we wait in here for them to break the place down, or we go out revving.”

    I revved my answer.

    “One last thing,” he said. He looked around, seeming embarrassed. “If you see a small one with red hair, please don’t kill her. Not her.”

    It was such a hopeless request, and I think he knew it. In the dark, fighting for your life, figures slashing at you, and you’re supposed to check hair color. Excuse me, are you a blonde? Decapitated. Brunette? Arms amputated. Redhead? Hi, nice to see you, please wait to the side while we kill the rest of your kind. But I told him yes by reaching over and wiping the blood off his face. It had been there all night and would soon be replaced by more, but it just wasn’t human to leave it on.

    Then we threw off the two-by-four and went out with engines gunning for flesh.

    —–

    Jerome Hamilton lives in Orange County with six dogs and a wife, and has traveled to more than forty countries on every continent except Antarctica. His writing has appeared in Red Fence, The Subway Chronicles, and SN Review.

    13 Comments

    1. Nice! Like the ‘Braindead’ ref as well.

      Comment by Pete Bevan on September 7, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    2. I have a couple little ones with red hair and a couple of bigger ones. You are tapping into the stuff of my nightmares.

      Comment by Mac on September 7, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    3. yet another great story

      Comment by s.hershi on September 7, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    4. Very enjoyable. Thank you for the fix.

      Comment by Scooter on September 8, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    5. Good Story. You’ve got some contradictions in the machismo department, though.

      If we (guys, men, male chauvinist pigs, whatever) don’t bother with “quasi-comforting bullshit ” then I can’t really see one of us wiping blood off of another’s face…

      That made it kind of difficult identifying the gender of the narrator.

      Comment by zombob on September 8, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    6. Awesome story. Would like to know how things turned out.

      Comment by Brett on September 8, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    7. “Braindead” ref was great. I agree with Zombob that the narrator’s gender was difficult to grasp at first, but it’s still a nice short. I liked how their both sucking wind from a lack of fitness. Nice touch!
      B

      Comment by Barrett on September 8, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    8. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Appreciate you reading it.

      @zombob
      I think I was trying to show how men often SAY they don’t bother with quasi-comforting bullshit” (and often don’t) but when things come down to the wire, we can care for one another in ways that would seem sentimental in other situations.

      @Mac
      Sorry. Or should I be gloating?

      Comment by Jerome Hamilton on September 8, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    9. Awesome piece.

      Just the kinda stuff to keep a person warm on 3rd shift:)

      How’s that for “Quasi- Comforting bullshit?”

      Comment by BoD on September 12, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    10. Awesome. Please continue.

      Comment by Terry Schultz on September 13, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    11. Love a story that doesn’t start off with everything normal. Hope to see more

      Comment by David on September 13, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    12. Great Story. Thanks. Can’t wait to read more.

      Comment by Pete Giamboni on September 14, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    13. This was awesome. Short, sweet and a vague yet hopeful ending. I love the Battlestar Galactica reference – I’m assuming it was intentional – and I absolutely adore the protagonist’s internal dialog.

      Comment by Drew M. on September 28, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

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