|Written by David Dunwoody|
“I'm sick,” Rebecca insisted.
Her father, perched on the edge of the bed, smiled and pressed the back of his hand against her forehead. “No fever.”
“I'm not faking,” the girl pouted, pulling the covers up to her chin. “My head hurts.”
“How does it hurt?”
“Like a fog.”
Like a fog. Sometimes she said the strangest things; yet he understood what she meant, and he patted her hands and kissed her auburn hair and said, “Let me talk to your mom.”
In the hall, Eileen said, “She's been so different ever since...”
“I know,” Forrest replied. “But I think she really is sick. Let's let her rest and see how she is after lunch.”
“You mean I'll see how she is.” Eileen smirked. “You'll be at the ass-end of the county while I try to drag the little monster out of bed.”
“I can come by and pick her up,” he offered. “You stay with the baby.”
“We'll see.” Giving her husband a peck on the cheek, Eileen peered through the doorway at the miserable-looking child.
In the kitchen, Forrest was pouring himself an on-the-go cup of joe when Deputy Burroughs rapped on the side door. “Morning Sheriff.”
He let the man in, who shook his head and reported, “It's still as cold as a wolverine's bare ass out there. I tell you, spring don't begin until May in this state.”
'Can't predict the weather,” Forrest replied.
“Tell that to that smarmy you-know-what on Channel Five.” Burroughs angled his thumb toward the coffee maker. “Got enough for another cup?”
“See for yourself.” Forrest sat down at the counter. “Mi casa es su casa.”
“Beccca started Spanish this year?” Burroughs asked.
Forrest nodded. “Eighth grade. I don't remember taking languages that early.”
“They have to nowadays,” Burroughs muttered.
“Here we go,” Forrest cracked.
“What?” the younger man asked. “I mean it. Illegals don't bother to learn English, so we spend tax dollars teaching Mexican to our kids.”
“Same difference.” Burroughs emptied a few teaspoons of coffee into the sink. “That's not a cup.”
“We'll stop by Hunter's,” said Forrest. “Let's get a move on.”
Bison Falls, Montana was sparsely populated, but it was sprawled out over nearly half the county, and so Forrest was always buried in work, pulling double shifts and fighting sleep to try and be an actual presence at home instead of a sullen specter. Eileen, a court clerk in McMurphyville, had cut back her work hours, but she didn't sleep either. Such was life. Forrest knew well enough to bite back his resentment. More often than not it was up to the parent to be the miracle, not the child.
On the highway, the cruiser passed several dozen somber-faced kids marching along the shoulder in their heavy coats and hats. “Hell of a time to be making them walk the mile,” Burroughs remarked. The middle school was just on the other side of the ridge.
“You know Coach Lemmon,” Forrest smiled. “He's a sadist.”
He caught the eye of one of the kids at the rear of the pack, a boy of twelve or so swaddled in Dallas Cowboys gear. The kid gave him a dark glare.
“Sheriff?” the radio squawked. “What's your twenty?”
“Passing the school on the Two.”
Just got a call from the principal over there...”
Mr. Raines was waiting out front when Forrest and Burroughs pulled up. “They're gone!” the old man exclaimed, arms in the air. “Just gone.”
“Who?” Forrest asked.
“Sixth graders. Almost all of them! And some of the seventh graders too. They just walked out of class!”
“We saw some of them,” said Forrest, “walking along the highway. Did anyone say where they were headed?”
“No, they just took off. Teachers didn't know what to do.” Raines pressed his hands to his face and moaned. “The parents. I have to call the parents.”
“All right, let's get turned around and go talk to those kids,” Forrest told Burroughs. “Didn't look like an entire grade we saw out there, but there were quite a few of them. Mark, didn't anyone try to stop them?”
“Oh, Greg Lemmon went after them,” Raines muttered. “What's happening here?”
“We'll find out,” Forrest said, and got back into the cruiser.
“Maybe Miley Cyrus is in town,” Burroughs suggested as they pulled out of the lot.
“How do you know Miley Cyrus?”
“I read People.”
Once back on the highway, it didn't take long to catch up with the kids. Forrest pulled past them and swung into their path, stopping the car. “Let me take first crack at this,” he told Burroughs. “I don't want any of them getting shot.”
“That's funny. I like that.”
Forrest stepped out into a biting wind and waved at the approaching youngsters. “Hey! What's going on?”
Some of the kids lowered their heads and murmured to one another. Others stared straight through him.
Forrest stepped around the front of the cruiser and hitched up his belt. “Okay, someone want to talk to me here?” He lowered his head to look for a face he could recognize. “Hey, Tom Alves. Tommy!”
The boy was in the front of the pack. He averted her eyes and veered right as if to head around the cruiser.
“Hey.” Forrest reached out and grabbed the sleeve of the boy's coat.
The other kids broke out in wild screams, racing around him and the car and sprinting down the side of the highway like they were running from a murderer. Forrest spun, clutching the struggling Alves boy, and yelled, “Stop! Stop right there right now!”
They didn't listen. Not a one.
Burroughs opened his door. “Let's go! Throw the kid in the back.”
“You're not under arrest,” Forrest assured Tom Alves, wrestling him toward the car, but the boy fought like an animal, thrashing his arms and legs and snapping his teeth. “Get the damn door open!” Forrest shouted. Burroughs got out, and Tommy Alves seized his wrist in his little teeth and tore away a hunk of flesh.
“Jesus Christ!” Burroughs cried. He raised his arm to his face and watched dark blood spill down in rivers. “What the fuck, kid?”
Forrest yanked the back door opened himself. Tommy had fallen still, zombielike, and didn't put up any more of a fight as Forrest pushed him in. Slamming the door, the sheriff turned to his deputy and said, “Let me have a look at that.”
The Alves boy had bitten deep, scraping bone. Burroughs' face was white with shock. “Okay, let's get you bandaged up,” Forrest said. He opened the trunk and fished out the first-aid kit. “I'll get on the radio and get everyone else out here. Then I'm taking you to the emergency room.”
“No,” Burroughs protested, “don't do that. Let's get after those kids. I can go to the hospital later.”
“You really need to see a doctor,” Forrest said. “No arguments.”
Burroughs sighed and sat quietly, wincing as Forrest wrapped gauze around his wrist. Then they got back in the cruiser.
Burroughs looked back at Tommy. “Pretty ballsy, kiddo,” he growled. “You know you're going to prison? You know how long you'll get for biting a cop?”
“Cut it out, Jim,” Forrest said. He pulled off of the shoulder and turned on the siren. Into the radio he said, “Pat, get every available unit out on the Two, westbound out of town. We've got a classload of runaways.”
“Consider them armed and dangerous,” Burroughs grunted.
Tommy Alves spoke.
“I didn't want to,” he said softly, staring at his feet, his lips crimson. “I don't want old people meat.”
“What?” Burroughs frowned through the grille separating them.
licked his lips. “I want little meat.”
Miss Christian, second-grade teacher at Lowell Elementary, looked up from her desk. Her students were reading Kipling's “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”; some of the other teachers had been surprised to see it on her curriculum, but the kids had taken to it immediately and the room was silent. So what had jarred her from near-sleep?
The door at the back of the room pulled open. A procession of ten, fifteen, twenty twelve-year-olds filed into the room, walking quietly past the reading children and gathering in the front of the room.
“What is this/” Miss Christian asked. “Where did you come from?”
One of them, a girl in a burgundy coat, approached Miss Christian's desk with a strange look on her face: almost guilty...plotting.
She snatched up a pair of long-handled scissors and wrapped her hands around them. Miss Christian rose, trying to say something, trying to take control or make sense of what was happening, but she could only manage as strangled cry.
the girl ran at the students.
“Christ Jesus.” Forrest sped into the parking lot of Lowell Elementary and slammed on the brakes. “C'mon Jim.”
As they ran toward the entrance of a non-descript, peaceful school building, Burroughs hissed in a whisper, “Guns?”
Forrest stopped at the front doors and peered through the glass. The hall was empty.
Nodding grimly to Burroughs, he drew his pistol.
The other units were on their way, but there was no time to wait. The two men slipped inside.
They immediately heard screams and took off running. They were in the first-grade hall, but the sounds were coming from deeper in the school. Rounding a corner, Forrest suddenly felt his feet go out from under him, and he smacked hard against a wall and slumped to the floor. Somewhere behind him, Burroughs cried out in horror.
A classroom door was open just ahead. A man, a teacher, lay on the floor, spasming quietly as a little girl straddled his waist and beat his face in with a hammer.
She looked up at the policemen and snarled, her teeth red - then she disappeared into the room.
Burroughs crept past Forrest, who got to his feet and looked down to find his pants slick with gore. The floor was covered in it. It wasn't all that teacher's blood.
Burroughs paused outside the doorway and called, “This is the police! I want all of you to put down any weapons you're holding and come out! I mean it!”
Forrest pressed himself flat against the opposite wall and trained his gun on the doorway. Jesus Christ. Kids. Kids almost Rebecca's age. They're killing people.
Coach Lemmon was supposed to have gone after the kids when they left the middle school. He was probably lying dead on the ridge. But they wouldn't have eaten him...no....they wanted little meat.
“There are second graders in there,” he whispered. The place had grown eerily silent. Why weren't those poor kids screaming?
A boy, a sixth or seventh grader, stepped out of the classroom. Burroughs revealed himself, taking a few steps back, and said, “Okay buddy. I want you to come over here and sit down on the floor.”
“I didn't mean to do it,” the boy said, picking absently at his teeth.
“It's okay,” Burroughs stammered, “Just come over here. You're not in trouble.”
Burroughs didn't have kids. He didn't know what Forrest knew: that children could see through bullshit like a human lie detector, that they could hear the fear in a naïve adult's voice and that sometimes it was like throwing a switch.
The boy's eyes settled on Burroughs, and narrowed, and the switch threw and the kid ran at him with a compass raised over his head.
A gun cracked. Someone's gun cracked.
The boy was lifted off his feet and tosses against the wall like so much rubbish.
Burroughs lowered his smoking pistol. Tears streamed down his face. “I didn't want to - you made me do it--”
A swarm of children erupted from the classroom and fell upon Burroughs. Forrest pointed his gun into the crowd and screamed, screamed as they brought his friend down and as drops of blood rained down around him; but he couldn't do it, he couldn't pull the trigger.
Burroughs' head emerged from the frenzy of children, dented and bloody and screaming. He hollered Forrest's name as he was dragged by his legs into the room.
clamped his hand over his mouth. Coffee and bile spurted between his
fingers. He ran.
The entire department and the State Police had the school surrounded. All of the kids were in there, the ones who'd left the middle school. And they weren't letting anyone leave.
It was noon. The news crews had been pushed back to the highway, save for the choppers hovering overhead; but the police were having a much tougher time with the parents. Hundreds of mothers and fathers clamored to be let through the barriers, to be allowed to talk to their children, pleading for a chance to talk down the homicidal preteens or negotiate the release of the elementary students. Most of them demanded to see the sheriff. They wanted to know why he was letting this happen.
Forrest was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a cup of water in his trembling hands. The State Police were in charge now. The FBI was sending a team. All he could see in his mind's eye was Burroughs being sucked through the doorway like he was being sucked into a beast's maw.
His cell phone was ringing. He finally answered it, wordlessly, pressing it to his ear and listening.
“Forrest?” Eileen. Terrified.
“Honey,” he gasped. He knew she must have seen it on TV by now. “It's the children.”
He couldn't say it. Not again. The State Police hadn't even believed him, not until they talked to Tommy Alves. It was unbelievable, wasn't it? It was something that wasn't supposed to happen, not ever, not in their world.
Somehow, the words passed his lips anyway.
“They want to eat them.”
“Forrest?...What?...Oh, God. You can't mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“Forrest,” she stammered. “It's not just here. It's everywhere.”
“What? What do you mean everywhere?”
“I mean everywhere. They say that they're killing the younger ones…they never said anything about…oh God.”
“Jesus!” a trooper yelled. Forrest peered out of the ambulance to see a man looking through binoculars at the school, screaming: “They're tearing them apart!”
The barricade holding the parents at bay disintegrated. Shots rang out. Chaos took hold and Forrest's vision blurred as he dropped the phone.
Everywhere. Kids everywhere. He drew his gun and got out of the ambulance, pushing his way through the surging crowd to his cruiser.
He got in and closed the door. Tommy Alves was still in the back, watching the mob outside with mild interest.
“Why?” Forrest asked. He pressed the mouth of the pistol against the grille.
“I didn't do anything,” Tommy said, squirming out of the gun's path. Forrest followed him with it. “Why, Tommy?”
“What?” the kid protested. He really didn't thin he had done anything wrong. They were all blameless…of course. Because they'd simply woken up today, like any other day, and gone to school, and then it just happened. It wasn't a decision they'd made. It was a switch thrown in the brain.
Turning away from the boy, Forrest stared at the steering wheel. There were more gunshots now, a lot more, and breaking glass and a cacophony of screams. He imagined it was the same everywhere. Maybe he was hearing the screams of the world at what had become of them.
Puberty. These kids were entering puberty. Hormones, bodies changing, minds changing. Sixth and seventh graders. His Rebecca was in eighth, thank God. She had--
“She's been so different ever since…” Eileen would say, her voice always trailing off. She didn't want to sound accusatory.
'Since we skipped her ahead.”
What child wanted to move ahead two full grades? But she'd been going to a new school in the fall anyway and Forrest thought the transition would be easier. It was for her benefit. Forrest loved his little girl.
He started the car and peeled out of the parking lot. Tommy Alves groaned as he was tossed across the back seat.
What is it? Forrest thought as he sped down the highway, siren wailing. Are we going extinct? Is this how it happens?
Tommy Alves slipped his fingers through the holes in the grille and started beating his head against it. It rattled in its frame, the entire car seeming to jostle. “Let me GO! I'll tell my mom and dad!” As if they'd come down on his side. God, maybe they would. After all, what would Forrest do if it was his Rebecca--
But it couldn't be. No, she stayed home. She was sick. Maybe that made her safe. And Eileen was there besides. No, Rebecca was sick in bed.
Unless she'd lied.
She was always such a smart girl.
Forrest flattened the accelerator against the floor. He pressed his chest against the steering wheel, willing the vehicle to move faster, taking corners at forty miles an hour until he was on his block. He screeched to a halt three houses short of his own and got out, running as fast as he could. His legs were numb. His arms were numb. His head felt like a fog.
He crashed through the front door and hit the carpet. The pistol bounced underneath the formal dining table. He clawed his way across the floor to retrieve it, shouting “EILEEN!” the way Burroughs had cried out his name.
He stumbled up the stairs and threw open the door to their bedroom. Bed made, fresh flowers in the vase on the bureau - a world in its place, a world no longer his. He turned and kicked the bathroom open. Empty.
Jessie's room was to his back. He pressed himself against it, cocking the hammer back on the pistol, and eased the door open.
Sunlight fell on an empty crib.
Forrest smashed into Rebecca's room and nearly fell right on top of her. She was standing by her little table, the one where she still hosted tea parties for her dolls. Still in her pajamas. “Daddy!” she cried.
He stepped back, the gun shaking violently in his grip. His daughter frowned at it. “Daddy?”
His throat felt like it was closing up. He forced the words out. “Where are your mother and sister?”
“Mom took Jessie to Missus Gardner's house,” Rebecca answered, as if it were plainly obvious.
Forrest clutched his heart in his chest and sighed deeply. “Thank God. Jesus.” He looked back at Rebecca. “Honey, how are you feeling?”
“Better,” she said, straightening one of her dolls in its tiny chair.
“Have you been having…sweetie, have you been thinking any bad things? About your sister?”
Rebecca shrugged. “No. I love her.”
Forrest nodded with a smile.
Tommy Alves leapt onto his back, sinking his jaws into Forrest's shoulder.
Rebecca shrieked. Forrest threw himself into the wall, knocking the wind out of the boy, and threw him to the floor. He fired two rounds into Tommy's chest.
Forrest dropped to his knees, gun slipping from his grasp. “Rebecca,” he croaked. “Baby?”
She took a tentative step towards him, her eyes fixed on the boy. Forrest reached out to her. “I had to do it, baby.”
“It's okay,” she said, watching the blood spread across Tommy's green t-shirt.
Forrest touched her arm. She didn't recoil. He pulled her in and hugged her. “I'm so sorry.”
Then he went cold. He released her.
“What is it, Daddy?” she asked. She followed his gaze to the little table where the dolls sat, and moved quickly to block his view. “What?”
“Move, Rebecca,” he said.
She shook her head. “I love you, Daddy.”
He shoved her aside, and there it was. It made hard little brownies with a hundred-watt bulb as its heating element. It had a little hinged door just like a real oven, with a dark little window in the middle. One smeared red.
Forrest wrapped his fingers around the door handle and pulled it open.
And screamed, and screamed, and screamed; burying his face in the carpet and pounding his fists on the floor, his heart thundering in his ears and eyes until he saw only red.
Rebecca knelt beside him and gently rubbed his back. “It's okay,” she cooed. “You still have me.”