Deidre Lopez slumped on the side of the bed, elbows on her knees, face pressed into her hands. Pain hammered in her skull threatening to splinter bone with each blow from her heart.
Christmas Eve party, she thought.
She rubbed her eyes, hard, until the pressure made her heave. At least she kept it down, even though she’d probably feel better if she just let it go. Sight blurry, she looked around, willing her sleep-gummed eyes to focus.
She wasn’t home. The feel of the sheets against her skin was wrong—too coarse and crisp. The smell of the room was unfamiliar too, all the wrong air fresheners and fabrics. And there was a lingering tang of sweat too.
She was at his place…in base housing.
Damn. Way to go, Lopez.
She shook her head, ignoring the sharp stabs behind her eyes. She was in…oh, God, she couldn’t even remember his name.
Please tell me you didn’t…
But she knew she had.
She stood, legs wobbly, the small interwoven collection of crosses and stars dangling between her breasts, and picked through the mixed pile of clothes at the foot of the bed. His civilian stuff and her own duty uniform. Her detail from the master-at-arms office had been charged with making sure the partiers didn’t get themselves into compromising positions. Hell of an example she was.
The pain ebbed in her head but lingered in her gut, twinges tugging in her stomach when she bent or twisted. That’s just great. It wasn’t bad enough she was so desperate and lonely the one or two drinks she’d managed to sneak while on duty had screwed her up so much she could barely remember a thing. She did remember he was young, though. Ten years her junior. A civilian husband with an active duty wife deployed in Afghanistan.
No, that wasn’t enough. She stretched, wincing at the needling response in her abdomen. No, she’d gone and pulled a muscle too.
Merry freaking Christmas.
The morning sun crept through the windows, playing across wedding pictures on the wall and the vase of dried roses on the dresser. Garland hung from a false mantel beside crayon drawings of Christmas trees and stick figures with huge heads and crescent smiles.
I love you Mommy. I miss you Mommy.
Even better. He has a kid too.
Deidre pulled her clothes on faster, the ache in her stomach a reminder of the indiscretion she’d be able to enjoy for a few days while she healed.
Taking her sidearm and duty belt from the bedside floor, a glint caught her eye. An etched glass plaque lay on the floor, cracked, announcing the wedding date of John and Heather Morrison a year and a half ago.
She nodded. His name was John. A flood of details returned. He’d had a few too many to drive and needed to get home so the babysitter could get to a midnight party herself.
It was just supposed to be a ride home.
Where was he, anyway? Probably crawled into bed with his kid. She vaguely recalled a child climbing between them last night, happily hugging her and calling her Mama in the darkness.
Deidre didn’t even know if the kid was a boy or a girl.
Pushing fingers through her close-cropped black hair, she slid her beret into place. Her hair, felt tangled despite the length. Tiny black specks and rigid fibers like steel wool clung to her palms. Nausea swelled in her gut at the thought of what that might be. Best just to leave.
Let’s just forget it ever happened, John.
“Sorry,” she mumbled to the wedding photo from the bedroom doorway. A fellow woman in uniform. We’re supposed to stick together, aren’t we?
A small dog, mostly Jack Russell, lay with its head between its paws facing into the child’s room. She knew it was a kid’s room from the cartoon jungle scene painted there. Small Santa hats had been thumbtacked to all of the animals. Raising its head, the dog groaned more than growled, then flopped flat on the carpet returning its attention to the room’s interior.
John and his kid must be in there. What if they were awake? Awkward would not even begin to describe that encounter.
Deidre could see the front entrance to the small house, framed in silver tinsel. To one side, white lights cycled through various patterns on a scrubby tree. The thought of dashing across the doorway in hopes of an unnoticed escape were tempting.
You’re not in combat, Lopez. Stand down. Just peek in and, if they’re awake, wish them a Merry Christmas. Then bow out before it can get awkward.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the doorway. They lay huddled on the bed and didn’t stir despite the shadow she cast across them.
At last, a break.
The front door knob was in hand before the way the lay in the bed struck her as odd. Not bad, necessarily. Just odd.
The dog repeated its earlier acknowledgement and she had to step over the lethargic animal to get into the kid’s bedroom.
A single west-facing window and the green glow of a toy aquarium provided as much light as the brightening sky outside and the Christmas tree down the hall combined. The room was sparsely appointed but the jungle theme held down to the efficient way the kid had managed to cover the floor completely with stuffed animals, board books, and clothes.
Deidre wrinkled her nose. The room was sour; probably from a diaper pail needing a mercy dump in an outside bin. But there was another smell, faint. Like burning paper.
She looked at the sleeping form on the bed. He was a big one, all muscles and musk.
Stop it, she warned herself.
He faced away from the door, a blue blanket pulled up under his arm. Another blanket, maybe pajamas, covered him above his head. Who wears a hoodie to bed?
A guy who doesn’t want his kid to smell a strange woman on him, that’s who, moron, she thought.
Moving closer, hand outstretched to touch his shoulder, she just wanted to make sure he was okay.
The dog yipped.
Deidre snatched her hand back and spun on the little creature. Heart pounding, hand on the butt of her sidearm, she relaxed. The poor little thing was whimpering.
Another ten minutes off my life. Thanks, Fido.
Turning back to John, she reached out and shook the upper blanket where his shoulder should be. “John?” The hoodie crackled beneath her touch, like old paper, brittle and waiting to crumble. Flakes like crushed leaves coated her palm.
“John.” She crouched, shaking him more vigorously, pulling gently. He rolled toward her, crinkles and pops filling the small room. She lost her balance and fell onto her butt as his body flopped against her, lighter than it should have been. A flurry of tiny flakes spread in the air like dust.
Scrambling to her feet she backed away. John looked as if he’d been covered in filmy layers of paper, bread even, and allowed to dry. The face was unrecognizable, open in a gash extending from where his forehead should have been all the way down to his groin. Inside, nothing but wispy smoldering layers. A smaller form, the shape of a young child, was cradled under a husk-like arm, their individual layers fused and blurred.
Everything she’d eaten last night, everything she’d drank, everything she’d done that she shouldn’t have. All erupted from her as she struggled to her feet, staggering for the door.
She threw on the light in the room but kept moving for the kitchen and the living room, hitting switches as she went. A phone. There had to be a phone.
She snatched at the wall unit, hitting 911, her gaze alternating between the short illuminated hallway, the blinking white lights of the tree and the small dog scratching frantically at the front door.
The phone in her hand was cold, the ring from the speaker hollow. How many times had it rang?
A series of pops came from the receiver and she opened her mouth hoping she could speak at all when prompted but the ringing continued. She hung up and redialed. Ten rings and it popped again.
Deidre charged through the front door to the squeals of the dog as it charged between her legs, equally eager to leave the house. Her Explorer sat parked at the end of the drive, along the cul-de-sac’s curb. She pulled at the handle, fingers stinging when the handle didn’t move. Fumbling keys from a pocket, she pressed unlock, almost giggling when the vehicle bleeped in response.
A moment later her arm hung limp at her side, cell held loose in trembling fingers.
Keep it together, Lopez.
A quick look around the cul-de-sac didn’t help. Two sets of duplexes flanked by two single-family units. John and his family occupied the rightmost.
Pain radiated from her stomach again and she doubled over, heaving what little remained in her stomach. She wiped at her mouth, vision panning across the yards of the other houses. A dozen or more lounge chairs sat on the lawn of the farthest house. White plastic tables were scattered everywhere covered in bowls and bottles. Partying folks enjoying the unseasonably warm San Joaquin Valley Christmas. Only there were no people passed out on the lawn or in the chairs. Only gray and white figures, roughly in the shape of people, scattered like heaps of garbage. And the ground immediately surrounding each was smudged as if the limp grass had dried and withered away.
Deidre didn’t need to get closer to confirm. Just like John and his kid, they were husks. She’d torn open an old wasp nest in the attic as a girl, fascinated by the sheets of ashy paper all layered around a honeycombed center. Like papier-mâché.
Her stomach churned.
The base. She had to get the hell out of base housing and get out to the master-at-arms office on the base proper.
Jumping into the Explorer, she drove. The motion and the mission helped her focus. The base was split into two bases really. One section was barracks, family housing, a huge commissary, and the medical center. The other section, where the work got done, was the Naval Air Station. Located eight miles away to minimize the impact of the twenty-four hour noise aircraft training ops created.
“No other cars,” she mumbled to herself. No one walked or jogged on the streets as she passed the convenience store, the enlisted club or the gym.
Everything was wrong and, she feared, the longer she searched, the more wrongness she would find.
The clock on the dash said 8:13. People should be awake and moving around. Holiday or not, this was a military base and they never completely went to sleep.
A playground lay ahead on the right. Just beyond a guardhouse and a gate opened to the eight-mile stretch of road leading to the base proper. Several vehicles sat at odd angles on the right shoulder, the lead a white duty officer’s truck. As she passed, she craned her neck to see the gray mass slumped forward against the steering wheel, pieces spilling across the dash.
Turning back to the road, she snatched the wheel hard to the left to avoid someone staggering in the road. Momentum carried the Explorer over the curb, skidding into the grass.
Deidre leapt from the vehicle and rushed to the woman’s side. “Are you okay?”
The woman, wearing a Winnie the Pooh sleeper shirt and bed head only possible for women with impossibly long hair, stood in the middle of the road staring blankly toward the airfield.
Taking the woman’s head in her hands, Deidre forced the woman to face her. “Are you okay?”
Eyes focusing, the woman’s face shuddered through a flurry of emotions, her hands rubbing her swollen belly. “I went to hospital. Everyone’s…” Her lips continued to move though she stopped speaking.
In the loose-fitting shirt, Deidre hadn’t noticed the woman was clearly with child. “It’s okay—it’s okay. You come with me. I’m headed out to the base—“
“I think there’s something…wrong with the baby.”
Deidre looked at the surrounding buildings, willing someone—anyone—to come running to their aid. Any second the world would erupt with sound and motion. People would rush to their aid and she’d be wondering what kind of mental lapse had made her imagine all of this insanity?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or maybe she just couldn’t bare that she’d slept with another woman’s husband. Or maybe she was just a psycho in a funny farm somewhere who’d been flushing her meds too long.
Deidre clutched at the pendant hanging beneath her uniform. A dozen religious and philosophical icons cast in silver and half-melted together. A gift from her twin brother when she’d forsaken her inheritance and joined the Army to find herself all those eons ago. “No one at the hospital?”
The woman shook her head.
Shit, she thought, biting her lip. “That’s okay. What’s your name?”
The woman’s brow furrowed and her lips played with the word before she spoke it. “Holly.”
“Okay, Holly. Let’s get in my car and we’ll get you to the medical annex down the road. It’s gonna be fine.” Without waiting for the woman to respond, Deidre dashed to the still-running Explorer and wheeled it back onto the road, tires chirping to a stop beside the woman.
Holly climbed into the passenger seat and Deidre punched the gas, squealing tires as they barreled through the open gate and down the two-lane road toward the distant air field and supporting facilities.
The road noise in the old SUV was terrible, filling the silence between them. Deidre didn’t know what she should say to the pregnant woman, who stared across the cab of the vehicle toward the fields to the west of the road, leased to local farmers but not cultivated for years.
Deidre switched on the radio to her default channel, a national feed of live and rerun talk shows. Static joined the drone of the tires on the road. Punching through the presets, she found a few music stations but not a single person talking that wasn’t a commercial.
“Same with the TV,” said Holly, her voice a calm drawl. “Lots of the channels working, mind you. Playing all sorts of filth and stuff to rot your brain. Nothing live, though.”
Deidre took a deep breath. Cutting her eyes across at her passenger, replaying the remark in her head but trying not to.
“I think I know what’s happening,” said Holly. “You know too, right?”
“I just woke up. Found my friend…and his son…” She gripped the wheel tighter, foot heavy on the accelerator, as she braced for news of some biological attack gone wrong.
“Your friend?” Holly’s tone was disapproving. “You woke up with your friend and his son?”
“Yes, I did,” snapped Deidre. “You said you knew what was happening.”
“It’s the Apocalypse, I reckon. And this is the Rapture.”
Deidre could feel Holly’s disapproving glare without looking. “God’s come back for his children. And on Christmas Day, too. How perfect.”
Deidre laughed involuntarily. Great, the world’s gone to hell and I get a sermon. I get enough of that from the chaplain, sister.
“Don’t laugh, honey. This is serious.”
Nodding, heart racing, Deidre managed to keep her cool. The base was just ahead, she could see the main gate. Not a single plane was taking off or landing on the dual air strips. No vehicles moved on the ramps and the streets were empty.
Not what she wanted to see. A crazy woman in the car with her and a situation bigger than the both of them. Just keep her calm. Keep yourself calm.
“Okay, Holly,” she said. “You may be right about that but it seems a little more likely that we’ve got an attack of some kind on our hands. I’m thinking…God’s got nothing to do with this. Beside the Rapture is just for the good people, right? If that had happened, we must be the only two bad people on the base.”
Holly puzzled a moment then shook her head as if gently reproving an unintentional blasphemy spoken by a child. She pointed to the west. “That is strange, but still, there He is right over there.” Her eyes opened wide, her face seeming to light from within.
Deidre glanced to the left for an instant, then swerved hard across the yellow line, barely keeping the two-ton vehicle on the road. Bringing the vehicle to a crawling stop, she opened the door and stepped out, gaze never leaving the blot in the sky.
A darkness hung above the mountains to the west of the San Joaquin Valley, so big placing her hand a few inches from her face couldn’t block it from sight. Shadowy tendrils writhed around an undulating mass, like ink spilled in the water of a cloudless blue sky. Globs the size of mountains pulsed against emptiness itself, convulsing.
Staggering against the side of the SUV, Deidre glanced back at Holly to see if they were sharing the same experience. Holly leaned across the center console of the vehicle toward the driver’s side door. A mindless smile spread across her face. “See, honey. Told you so. You are right with God, aren’t you?”
Deidre climbed back into the vehicle, shoving Holly roughly back to her side and immediately regretting it.
Head throbbing, stomach cramping, Deidre threw the Explorer into gear and sent the vehicle lurching back into motion. The gate grew closer with each passing second and she fought the urge to look toward the west. The pendant felt sharp beneath her thumb as she rubbed it harder and harder through the coarse fabric.
“Oh, don’t be sorry, honey.”
“What? I’m not…”
Holly cried out, falling back in her seat, her hands grasping at her swollen abdomen. The sleeper shirt tore open from the inside, black tendrils erupting outward. Waves of pitch blackness flickered in the vehicle, icy cold switching places with smoldering heat in impossible spasms of air. Deidre’s ears rang and her head felt as if it would split as the SUV blasted through the flimsy railroad-style security gate, coming to a halt just inside the fence.
Deidre half-fell from the door, barely keeping her feet beneath her, spinning slowly. A shadow darker than any starless night fell across her. A tiny version of the darkness dominating the sky above wafted inside the SUV, then drifted up through the roof as if steel were no more an obstacle than air to smoke. Once clear of the SUV the twisting mass of blackness gained speed, streaking upward toward the behemoth drifting overhead. Holly’s head lay cocked to one side against the headrest, her skin darkening as Deidre watched, wrinkling to brown paper. The pregnant woman’s lips curled, her smile growing larger.
Shadowy specks like flies rose in the distance in every direction, gathering speed at the last instant before absorption by the featureless mass above.
Husks lay scattered on the streets. Two sat in chairs by the guard shack, heads thrown back as if they’d fallen asleep before they’d split open from their heads to their guts. Shadowy wisps wriggled free from their shells and drifted up on unseen currents.
The thing drifted along, tendrils the size of rivers sweeping down to intersect the rising. Deidre looked back at Holly. The young woman had not dried up with the rest of the base in the initial reaping, but her baby had. The damned god, or whatever it was, could only take one of them at a time, not both. Now it was making another pass.
Still that didn’t explain why she was alive—why she’d been spared?
Pain exploded in her gut. Fire seemed to rage beneath her skin, stabbing outward. Deidre dropped to her knees. A tiny shadow, a twinkle of blackness rose from her own abdomen.
Tears like sand dripped from her eyes as she reached for the tiny life from her own womb, only hours old. Like Holly, she’d not been spared after all. Like Holly’s unborn baby, one of her own drifted into the darkness above. The other had been claimed in the first passing. After all, twins ran in families.
Deidre reached into her uniform shirt and found the pendant despite the pain. The thin chain snapped easily and she held it up to the god. Darkness clung to the silvery edges and she cradled it in her palm as the skin of her fingers began to darken and peel.
Closing her eyes, she faced the sky.
William R.D. Wood lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in an old farmhouse turned backwards to the road. His profound love of horror and science fiction routinely leads him to destroy the world, whether by alien artifact, zombie apocalypse or teddy bear. Visit his website at: writebrane.blogspot.com
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Story illustration by Sascha Renninger.