The best stories come from dreams and nightmares. This was a a very real nighttime experience for me.
The walls shook. The door banged against the frame. Jamie grabbed her daughters and pulled them to the floor.
“What’s going on, Mom?” her youngest asked.
“I don’t know, Jemma. But let’s be quiet while your dad finds out.” The floorboards rattled beneath them and she hoped it was just an earthquake. But earthquakes didn’t hum like this.
Zack ducked beneath the window. He grabbed their dog by the collar to keep him quiet.
“Zack?” Jamie whispered for him.
He pointed a warning finger at the hyper but obedient hound and pulled the curtains closed. “Rocky, stay.” He commanded the dog and slunk over to them. Jemma reached for him and he grasped her in a bear hug. Over her shoulder he stared into Jamie’s gaze with a grief she had never witnessed.
His skin had gone from a summer bronze to ghostly white within a matter of minutes. His pulse thumped from a vein in his forehead just under his receding hairline.
She pressed her hand to his beard.
He kissed her palm.
Cadence squirmed beside them. “Is it the end of the world?” She giggled.
Nobody else laughed.
She straightened up. “I was just joking.”
Rocky whimpered and Zack eyed him into silence.
Jamie tightened her grip on her eldest. “Shh. Your father and I need to talk for a minute. Look after your sister.”
Zack slid Jemma into Cadence’s lap.
Jamie stood up and looked over their daughters wishing her presence would protect them from all dangers. She hesitated to step away as if her shadow shielded the girls.
“They have each other,” her husband whispered in her ear. “You need to see this.”
Shouts echoed in the distance. Voices cried out for help. They tore into Jamie’s heart, until it pumped ready to burst. Her tongue stuck in her throat as Zack slightly pulled back the curtain. She scooted closer to the window, squinting through the glare and wind whipping twigs and garbage around.
Her eyes couldn’t focus at first. Everything moved before her like static. Then the man from the cabin next door came into view. He held something in his hands. Marching forward he faced a figure, but what was it?
The features were indiscernible. Its clothes were bright and shining with their own beams, destroying the natural sunlight. They blinded Jamie. She shielded her eyes. Her ears rang. The pressure in her head built and built. She couldn’t understand anything she saw. There was something in the unknown person’s hands. It looked like something out of a movie. A misshapen gun. It blew her neighbor to the ground without a sound, or sign of any kind of bullet. No blood appeared on his body, he just fell down lifeless.
Nothing made sense. This was a family campground. They had just arrived for a simple trip in the woods a few hours earlier. “It’s like a nightmare.” She trembled.
Zack let go of the curtain. He slid to the floor beside her.
She reached for his hand and looked to the children. They were both crying now. Cack grasped her hand before she could return to them. “We have to hide.”
“From that?” She glanced to the window. “There’s no hiding from that.”
He pulled her back. “I know you’re family history is fuzzy, but do you know why our last name is so uncommon?”
She gaped at him.
“Because most of my ancestors were killed in concentration camps. They nearly wiped us out. If you meet someone with our name, we are related.”
Jamie didn’t hold back her tears any longer.
“When something like this happens there’s no time for planning. We have to hide. It’s our only option.”
“We can’t go out there.” She panted.
“Not yet,” he said. “But we’ll find a way.”
She crawled to hold the children for as long as she could. Rocky followed and rested his head on her shoulder. She rubbed his floppy ears. “At least the dog is taking it pretty well.” She smiled at the kids.
Jemma dried her tears on soft fur.
Jamie looked to Cadence’s confused face. “We’re just going to hunker down for as long as we can.”
“What’s out there?” Cadence’s breathing grew heavy.
“I don’t know baby.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Zack slid beside them and smoothed out her hair. “We’re safe right now.”
Another shriek rang in Jamie’s ears. She held her breath for as long as she could to avoid screaming under the pressure. Her thoughts drifted to their safe lying on the counter. Not yet, she told herself.
The air conditioning kicked on and everyone froze. It hummed along with the buzzing outside. The shouts died down but the air vibrated.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” Jemma squirmed.
Zack grunted. “You can’t hold it?”
“I’ll take her.” Jamie got up and carried her to the closet-sized bathroom built into the cabin.
“What if they hear me?” Jemma whispered.
Jamie handed her some toilet paper. “The paper will make it quiet. Hold it between your legs as you go and let it catch the pee.”
Jemma did as she was told, but bunched up her face.
Her impish features gave Jamie hope. At least she still makes me smile. On their way back to the main room, she grabbed a pack of playing cards and tapped them.
Cadence nodded and Zack joined them on the floor. Jamie shuffled and handed out enough cards for everyone. Nobody said what they were playing. It didn’t matter. Just quietly laying down each card became a game. They placed what they held before each other like a dance. The numbers flashed in front of them as if the outside world didn’t exist. When they ran out they reshuffled and dealt it all again.
This went on until Jemma fell asleep in her dad’s lap. Jamie handed Cadence a notebook and they played word games back-and-forth.
Rocky nosed the door and Zack made him lay down beside Jemma. He positioned himself before the door like a lab animal waiting to escape.
After filling pages with endless nonsense, Cadence wrote: The sun’s going down.
Jamie stared at the words. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
Cadence shrugged. She glanced to the window and moved toward it.
“No.” Zack got up and grabbed her hand before she could look.
Jamie moved closer. “Let her look. She’ll see eventually.”
He shook his head.
She pushed past him and slid the curtain up just enough to peer out. A few bodies remained on the ground, but the chaos had vanished. The last rays of sunshine glistened through the trees bidding the terrible scene goodbye.
She nudged Cadence to look and rubbed her daughter’s back.
“I don’t understand.” Cadence’s breath shook. “What happened out there? The trees look like a major storm came through and there are people on the ground?” she whispered.
“We don’t know.” Zack went for the safe.
Jamie pulled their daughter away from the curtain and motioned for her to sit beside her sister.
She walked lightly toward her husband and rested a hand on his shoulder. “It’s quiet out there now, maybe whoever came moved on.”
He shook his head and opened the lock.
Jamie swallowed hard. “I hope we don’t need it.”
“It won’t do much, but I’m glad we brought it. Might at least buy us some time.” He pulled the pistol out, opened the cylinder, and slid a bullet into each chamber.
A scuffling noise pricked her ears.
Zack aimed at the door.
Rocky stood pawing at it.
Jamie pushed the gun down. “I think he just needs to pee.”
“Don’t we all?” He smirked.
She rushed over to Rocky and patted his head. She tugged his collar toward the bathroom separating the main room from the single bedroom, but he wouldn’t budge. He dug his nails into the wood floor. They scratched the fibers just as the air conditioning stopped.
She let go, afraid to cause more noise.
The silence surrounded them, nearly swallowed her whole. Where did the humming go? Where were the birds, or the insects?
The room grew darker and darker. Was that the sun abandoning them or another horror bringing unanswered questions?
Jamie went back to her children. She cradled Jemma to her. Cadence hugged her.
“We can’t turn on the lights.” The words solidified in her brain. Cadence clutched her tighter.
Zack stood by the window. He gazed through a small sliver between the curtain and the frame. “There’s nothing out there anymore. We should move. Who knows when they’ll be back?”
“I thought you said we should hide.” She felt like a little girl. The idea of moving everyone in the dark frightened her as if she were a child avoiding from the boogeyman.
“This wasn’t the best place to hide, just the only option.” His feet sounded nearby.
Every noise made Jamie brace for an intrusion. “They might not come back. Why would they leave this mess only to come back? If they meant to take the land wouldn’t they be clearing it, wouldn’t they have captured us by now? Please. Let’s wait until morning.”
Cadence shook against her. “Yeah, Dad. I’m too scared to move right now.”
Zack’s hand grazed Jamie’s back. She could feel his breath on her neck. “Okay. But rest up. I’ll carry you if I have to. We need to find a better place to hide.”
Jemma shook in Jamie’s arms.
“You awake?” She nuzzled her daughter.
“Mm hmm,” Jemma whimpered.
Rocky nosed them. “We’re okay, boy.” She wrapped her arms around the dog.
Jamie studied the outlines of her family huddled together in the shadowed room. She gazed on the tenderness emanating from Jemma and smiled. “I know you just woke up, but we all need to rest. We can’t turn on the lights, just in case. But there’s no reason we can’t all sleep in the bed in our room.”
“Really?” Jemma bounced like nothing had changed.
“Sure sweetie.” Zack picked her up and carried her away. Jamie followed with cadence and Rocky. They tucked the children in with their dog and sat at the foot of the bed together. Unable to say anything helpful she laid her hand atop her husband’s. He grasped it tight and they sat in the stillness waiting for their lives to end.
Death seemed so close, so eminent. Jamie didn’t understand how she knew. She felt it deep within her bones, like some ancient instinct hiding from society.
After time immeasurable, Zack got up.
“Where are you going?” she whispered.
“To stand guard.”
“I thought you said they were gone?”
He pulled her close and rested his chin atop her head. “They are. But this is all I can do until morning. So I’m gonna do it.”
She nodded and let him go. He would stand watch over their cabin, but she had her own duty. She turned to the children and sat beside them. Through the long night vigil she rubbed their little hands, slid her fingertips over their chubby cheeks. Even at nine years old Cadence was still her baby. She found comfort in watching over them.
Rocky lifted his head to lick Jamie’s arm. “You’re a good dog.” She scratched his floppy ears.
The tender moments vanished over time. At the first sign of the sun’s rays her head ached. Her stomach tightened and a loud humming noise erupted once more. The walls started to shake again and the dog barked.
“No.” She clamped Rocky’s mouth shut.
Zack rushed in. “They’re back. God dammit I knew we should’ve left last night.”
Guilt rose in Jamie’s throat and she swallowed bile just as Jemma woke. “Mommy!” She reached out and Cadence opened her eyes.
Jamie placed her hand over Jemma’s mouth.
Cadence grabbed her hand and they sat frozen in their decision to remain. I did this to us, Jamie thought. She clenched her teeth and tears slipped out.
“Don’t cry.” Zack leaned over to kiss them all. “I should have made us go,” he whispered.
Rocky jumped off the bed and rushed for the door. Zack followed.
It banged against the frame once more. The floor moaned and creaked under the pressure until Jamie feared it would burst.
Jamie couldn’t sit in bed. She grabbed Jemma and led Cadence into the main room. They stood together staring at the door. It rattled and banged, but slowly stopped shaking. The familiar hum continued. As if in accordance with it, the air conditioning came back on and made everyone jump.
The dog released his bowels on Zack’s boot and he grimaced. He patted Rocky’s head, “You held out long enough.”
The girls giggled.
Jamie smiled at her husband. It was going to be a long day.
Most everyone from the camp had rushed out the day before. There was no way to tell who might be alive or who escaped. Jamie grew tired of waiting, tired of wondering. She grabbed the cards and their hands resumed the previous day’s dance until her fingers cramped.
She drew pictures with the children in her notebook. Zack joined them at intervals but mainly posted himself by the door or checked the window. Rocky went from guard dog to sleeping beside the children.
Jamie preferred that. The girls were always more calm when cuddling their pooch.
Her stomach cramped and the pressure moved downward. She stood and finally took herself to the bathroom. For a minute she couldn’t go. It took ten deep breaths and her rubbing her hands together to finally relax enough.
When she got up Zack checked on her. “You okay?”
“My turn.” He handed her the pistol. As soon as he was out of sight the door banged open. Jamie didn’t have time to think. She ran forward. She stared at the intruder and planted her feet. Her finger pulled the trigger, firing at its chest.
A yellowish goo spurted from it and thing fled.
Zack raced to the door with his pants around his ankles and helped Jamie hold it shut. “Slide the table over here.”
Cadence and Jemma pushed the wooden table over and together they all stood it on one end and pressed it against the doorway. Zack pulled up his pants and moved to the camper sofa and set it in the doorway as well. “It won’t hold forever, but it’s something.”
Jamie stared at the gun in her hands.
“Someone’s a sharp shooter.” He chuckled.
“You too.” Jamie looked at his pants and found laughter oddly accessible.
They both grew silent at the extended features of their terrified children. Jemma reached for Zack. He picked her up in one arm, and struggled to lift Cadence in the other.
“It was weird looking,” Jemma whispered.
“I’ve never seen anybody like that.” Cadence’s entire body shook.
Jamie tried to think of what she had seen but didn’t understand it. The man was jaundiced and short. He couldn’t have been more than 4 feet tall. His head looked too big for his body and the yellow stains on the floor destroyed her ability to question the possibility that this wasn’t a human attack struck her and her throat closed up.
Zack peered at the A/C unit.
Rocky’s nails clicked across the floor. No one tried to hush him. No one knew what to do. Jamie grabbed the playing cards and sat down with the girls. She had no other option. It was bide their time once more, or go crazy.
Daylight streamed around the curtains. No one shrieked outside but the earth shook with a thump. Zack went to the window gun in hand. His jaw clenched. His nick tensed. The sound of crashing trees gave Jamie an idea of what lay beyond without even looking.
She had no intention of facing the window anymore. She feared the outside world to the point that even gazing out terrified her. The cabin protected them. It kept them alive.
“They’re clearing the entire space. We won’t be able to stay much longer.” Zack turned to them.
“Why? They’re out there and we’re in here.” Jamie heard the naiveté in her voice, but she couldn’t help it.
Her husband knelt down beside her. He pulled her into a deep kiss, then stared into her eyes. “I have a theory.”
She raised her eyebrows and leaned in.
He pointed to the air conditioner.
“What about it?” she asked.
“From what I saw these creatures need warmth. Sunlight. They left at night. Why? It doesn’t make sense. They just left us here after killing anyone who crossed them.”
“Maybe they don’t want to destroy the buildings?”
Zack shook his head.
“They could have wanted to explore a different area and decided this one is better?”
Again, Zack shook his head at her.
“The alien came in when it was warm and sunny in here before the air conditioning went on.” Jamie stood up and walked to her father to hold his hand. “Maybe they’re afraid of the dark.”
Jamie’s ear rang at the word alien.
Zack hesitated for a moment but patted her head. “Or maybe the cold. And they’re clearing the land to get more light on the surface.”
Jamie closed her eyes and rubbed them. “Sounds a bit far-fetched.”
“No more so than invaders who leave a family alive because they’re hiding in a cabin. We just shot one of those bastards and no one has followed.” He eyed the door.
“The alien,” she shivered at the word, “broke in after the A/C kicked on.”
“Maybe that helped.” Zack scratched his head. “I don’t know. I’m trying to make sense of it all.”
“There is no rationalizing this.” She shuffled the cards and dealt them.
Everyone played silently.
The day dragged. The sun beat against the curtains but they remain untouched in their own little world. When night came the noises ceased, the humming dissipated, and they were left alone.
“It’s time.” Zack packed up his bag and tossed the girls their backpacks.
Jamie blocked the door. “We can’t go out there. It’s suicide.”
Zack stomped over to her. His face pinched on itself.
Cadence stepped between them. She hugged Jamie’s arm. “Don’t be scared. I’m scared too but it’s easier if we don’t think about it. Let’s just go for a hike and see where we end up.”
Jamie gawked at her daughter’s wisdom. She glanced at her husband and her lips trembled. She longed to apologize, to be stronger. Her words stuck. She nodded and grabbed her backpack. It felt heavier than when they arrived, as if she was strapping on the weight of her entire family.
“We need to clear the door.” Zack gestured for her to help him put the furniture back in order. They slid the couch against the wall and pushed the table and left it standing against the wall beside the door frame.
“Ready?” Zack reached for the doorknob.
Jamie shook her head, but he exposed them anyway.
No monsters waited in the night air. The simple wooden porch sat still in the moonlight. Stars shimmered in the sky beyond and the children grasped her hands, one on each side.
Rocky brushed past them and sniffed every inch of ground nearby. He growled and bit at the dirt.
Zack snapped for him.
Rocky glance dup then put his head back down and walked on. They followed. Once down the stairs and completely away from the cabin, Jamie blinked at the devastation. Nearly every tree was reduced to nothing more than a stump. The great forest that had surrounded the camping area no longer existed.
Nothing remained. No twigs or branches. Not a single trunk remained. All the bodies had been cleared as well.
Jamie covered her mouth. Cadence scanned the scene and looked to her. Jamie reached for her hand and squeezed it.
They wandered the road taking in the changes. It looked like someone had moved in and cut all the lives short. A desert of dead grass stretched between the fresh stumps.
Rocky jogged off the road further into the endless deforestation. Zack called after him and ran leaving Jamie alone with the kids with no weapon, no warning, and no ability to keep going.
Jemma struggled to free her grasp. “We have to go after him!”
Jamie picked her up. “They’ll come back.”
“What if they don’t?” Cadence asked.
“They will.” Jamie clenched her teeth. They have to, she thought.
Rocky’s barking echoed. Then Zack screamed.
Jamie turned to run back to the cabin but Jemma squirmed out of her arms and raced toward the noises.
Jamie grabbed her hand and dragged her after Jemma. They tripped over roots and clumps of dirt. Their breathing sounded louder in the empty air. Jamie’s chest tightened more and more until she knew she would die trying to keep her family together.
She didn’t’ realize the presence of trees until she was deep in the thick of the forest. Its blanketing shadows warmed the cool night. Jamie stood touching a tree with one hand and pointing ahead with the other. Rocky ran up to her and brushed against her leg, but Zack, he was wet and stomping around something. It looked unreal. Like a nest of giant eggs.
She commended rocky to sit and stay with the girls. Jemma hugged the dog and Cadence clutched his collar.
“What are you doing?” She asked her husband, slowly stepped through the sea of sticky fluid and broken egg shells. Her eyes focused on the ground and she jumped back.
“It’s them.” He grabbed a 4 foot egg and slammed it on a rock. He stomped on the sides until a yellow figure slid out gasping for life. His eyes twitched and he stomped the underdeveloped being until it ceased to move.
He knocked over more eggs, stomping them into ruin. There were hundreds of eggs in the natural clearing.
Zack’s neck bulged so thick that Jamie knew he would kill himself working to destroy every massive egg. She rushed to him, moving through globs of matter. She placed her hands on his back as he leaned over one of the limp creatures and hollered like a madman. “Stop it. Zack stop it. You’ll kill yourself this way.”
He pushed at her at first but the word “kill” flipped a switch in him. He turned toward her and cried out, then fell over.
She knelt beside him. Placing her hand atop his head she spoke like she would to the children, “Let’s go hide. Please. You were right. Maybe we can wait this out.”
Tears erupted from his eyes. “Where?”
She helped him sit up and rubbed his back. “I don’t know. But we have all night to decide.”
An egg in the row beside her husband’s mess rocked. Holes were already cracked all around it. At first she mistook them for speckles in the dim light, but now she realized the egg was hatching.
She grabbed the gun from Zack’s hand. It dripped with fluid. She wiped it off as best she could and stepped up to the egg as the shell burst open. Flecks of dust and shell tumbled at her feet. She stepped on them, grinding them into the dirt not yet marred by the liquid surrounding Zack.
The alien shook itself off.
She stood before it and held the gun to its concave chest. Its dwarfed figure was not altogether unhuman but the sunken eyes were shaped like giant almonds and set in a head that defied balance. Its stubby legs were muscular haunches almost animal, but nothing in its appearance alarmed her. She expected a face-to-face encounter to be more of an event. Like before.
“Don’t shoot it.” Zack held up his hand and ran to them.
He stared into the dark eyes of the alien. After a moment the thing spoke, “Must serve.”
“What?” Jamie leaned in.
“Must serve.” It turned to leave and she pushed it back.
It whimpered and tried to go around her.
Zack stared into its eyes again. “He’s in my head. It’s like a ripple of thoughts tickling the back of my brain, but he’s scared. If he doesn’t get to the camp they’ll kill him.”
Jamie stepped back. “Who?”
He shook his head. “Hang on.”
She watched her husband’s eyes widen with intensity. They bore into the young alien’s glazed stare.
“This can’t be real,” she whispered to herself.
Zack wiped his face and chuckled. The chuckle grew to a laugh. The laugh crescendoed like a symphony of anger. He turned to her and sighed. “If we prove we’re useful, they might spare us.”
“Useful?” She closed her legs as tight as possible. She looked into the alien’s eyes and screamed, “How?”
The base of her head tickled. A ripple of gushing sensations rushed through her brain and she saw herself making food, sewing and crocheting clothing. Her husband building more cabins. A population of aliens mixed with what few humans could prove their worth working and bowing to…
“No.” She jerked her head away and forced herself to focus on the present.
“Yes.” Zack stood over her resolute.
She shook her head. Tried to send the alien images of revolution, fighting back but it just stared blankly. “We have to fight. We have to hide and find others. Someone has to stop this.” She held the gun up and fired.
The alien cocked its head at the weapon.
Zack jumped at her and wrestled the pistol from her hand. “You want to fight and die? Martyrdom sounds romantic in history class and story books but it doesn’t save anyone. You want to find a hero or become one, but I’m just trying to make sure we survive.”
“What kind of survival is servitude?” She stepped up to him, nostrils faring.
He kissed her forehead. “I’m not going to watch you die. What about the girls? Do you think they can fight this?”
The alien started humming.
Jamie could feel the message being received and transmitted into her head from the being. They were coming. Daylight approached.
She looked to Zack and he nodded. They both ran to the girls and picked them up. Jamie with Jemma and Zack holding Cadence. Rocky howled and ran away.
“Rocky!” Jemma reached for him.
“He can take care of himself,” Zack said.
Jamie swallowed hard. She shook against her daughter’s warmth. If it were just me and Zack… she imagined fighting. Thoughts of pleading as her children were killed filled her.
She resigned herself to Zack’s vow of survival. They returned to the eggs and the alien pointed to the children.
Cadence shrieked. She clutched Zack and buried her face in his shoulder.
“It’s okay. It won’t hurt us,” he said.
Jemma smiled. “He’s going to help us, isn’t he?” She blinked at the alien’s great eyes. “If we serve we’ll be okay.”
Jamie set her down. She bent in front of her daughters. “I’m going to need you to be good girls, okay? We have to listen and do everything we’re told.”
The alien led them through the forest back to the decimated stumpland of the campground. Jamie stepped toward the cabin and led it in the small space. The shadows slowly pulled back as if letting go of all hope. The room lightened as the sun snuck in through the curtains.
The humming started. Jamie fought the urge to grasp her head. It thumped. She ignored the pain and clutched her daughters. “We get to work and live in the cabin forever.” She stared at her husband trying to hide all resentment.
The alien got up.
Jamie held her breath.
It walked across the room and opened the door.
A troop of soldiers marched in fully armed.
“But mommy, they look like us.” Jemma pointed at the men.
“I know,” she said.
Zack snickered bitterly. “Of course. They made them.” He looked to the alien. “It’s easier to create servants than enslave them.”
“Up against the wall.” The soldiers pointed their guns at the children.
Jamie lined up with her family. She stared at the wood beams holding the cabin up and wished they would crash down, that everything would fall before the shots were fired.