The Great American Eclipse

– A horror/sci-fi short by Red Lagoe.

Invasion lurks behind solar-filtered glasses…

 

“If you never look up, you miss all the good stuff,” Uncle Steve says as he hands Helia a cup of coffee. “That’s what your dad used to s—”

“Keep looking up,” she interjects, allowing one sleepy corner of her mouth to grin. “Dad used to say ‘keep looking up, or you’ll miss all the good stuff.’”

“Astronomers—always looking up, always tripping over things,” he laughs, scratching his silver-flecked full beard.

Uncle Steve’s research cabin is a one-bedroom shack in the westernmost mountain range of North Carolina. Set directly in the path of totality for the solar eclipse, it makes an ideal location for viewing. Hotels and campgrounds from coast to coast along the path of totality sold out, so Helia and her roommate Katie drove out yesterday.

Free accommodations and college students—perfect match.

Musty, fungus-ridden cabin and sleeping on the floor—inconsequential factor.

Uncle Steve tips up his mug, and the last bit of late-morning coffee drips on his tongue.

In the corner, a nineteen-inch tube television with foil-wrapped rabbit-ears plays the only station that comes in. News out of Asheville buzzes about the Great American Eclipse. Static breaks up the picture in stripes, but the excitement is clear.

On the screen, the rosy-cheeked anchorwoman, Allison Yang, explains the hype. “Today, the entire United States will be able to view at least a partial solar eclipse. For the few that are lucky enough to be in the path of totality—or determined enough to get there—a rare, spectacular reward awaits. Total solar eclipse.”

Co-anchor, Donald Harris, remains professional about the upcoming celestial event. “Wear protective eyewear when looking at the sun, or you could go blind. Be sure to check for the new certification number…”

“Bull!” Uncle Steve says, slamming his empty coffee mug on the table.

Donald Harris tells the public, “I tried out my IGN certified glasses yesterday, and still have my eyesight.”

With a throw of Uncle Steve’s arms, he demonstrates his exasperation with the news, yelling at the screen. “Do your research people! ISO certification has been fine for years. Now new IGN certification is required because some schmuck in a lab says so. They’re just trying to make a quick buck.”

Katie comes out of the bedroom after Steve’s eruption. Straggly, auburn hair hangs in her eyes. Face swollen.

“What happened to you?” Helia says, inspecting her friend’s puffy cheeks.

“Looks like an allergic reaction to something,” Uncle Steve explains.

“They’re right about the IGN certification,” Katie says. “It’s imperative to protect our eyesight.” A monotone voice delivers the words, but it doesn’t sound like Katie. She hasn’t been herself since they left Blacksburg the day before. Something distant and empty about her, like she lingers in a dark, traumatic trance.

“What’s going on with you?” Helia asks. “You’ve been weird.”

“I still call bull,” Steve argues. “My glasses, IGN un-certified, have never blinded me.”

“Yet,” Katie warns with a scowl then reaches for her backpack.

“Maybe it’s a conspiracy.” Helia tries to lighten things up. “The government wants us all wearing these glasses for some kind of mind-control experiment. Think about it. There are only two companies in the country that are IGN certified. Why?” She forces a squinty-eyed, sly smile, but Katie’s mood doesn’t change.

“It doesn’t matter.” Katie hands over a pair of solar viewing glasses, individually wrapped in a Mylar pouch. “It’s not safe to wear anything other than these.”

Helia takes the glasses from her friend, barely able to recognize her.

“I need to relieve myself of waste,” Katie says, then leaves the cabin, allowing the heavy screen door to slam behind her.

“You’re roommates with that whack job?” Uncle Steve asks, turning his ball cap backward.

“She’s not normally like this.”

Outside the front window, Katie disappears from sight into the woods. The animal science major has never been a boisterous character by any means, but her robotic responses over the past twenty-four hours are raising concern.

“Dumbass!” Steve shouts at the television again as news clips show the President and the Secret Service, all wearing a pair of solar glasses, giving thumbs-up in a morning photo tweet. “Helia, don’t act like that schmuck. Your solar filtered glasses are fine for viewing the eclipse.”

“I don’t have any other solar glasses,” Helia says, holding up the Mylar pouch that Katie gave her.

“You do now.” Uncle Steve goes to the cabinet over his microscope and removes a black, nylon equipment bag.

“Is that—” Helia asks.

“The binoculars of an astronomer,” Steve says. “Zeiss 20×60 image stabilizing binos.”

Helia allows her fingers to run along the ridges of the binoculars, where her father’s hands used to touch.

“Before your dad passed last year, he went on his final eclipse-chase to Indonesia. He used those binos to view it. And those solar filtered glasses.”

Digging into the bag, Helia finds the solar lenses to fit over the end of the binoculars, as well as a plastic pair of eclipse glasses in a side pocket.

“Thought you should have it,” Steve says. “Keep looking up.”

“Always,” she says, eyes welling with tears.

“Well that’s enough emotion for one day,” Uncle Steve says, pulling his chair up to the microscope. “This native fungus isn’t going to research itself. You and your crazy friend don’t have to go down to Andrews. You can view the eclipse from the main trail right out there. That’s what I plan to do.”

“With the IGN certified glasses, I hope,” Katie says from outside the screen door.

“Sure. Of course,” Steve answers with his back to Katie, winking at Helia.

“No offense, Uncle Steve,” Helia says, “but the Hawkes Viewing Party has beer.”

Helia steps outside and inhales the fresh scent of pine on a warm August morning, then inhales a toke from a joint. A two-mile hike down the rolling mountainside will bring them to the viewing party, where they had parked the day before.

A thick canopy of trees obscures the sky, but sharp patches of electric blue pierce through—a promising sign for excellent viewing today. Soaked in the broken beams of daylight through the trees, Helia is drawn to the sky as she passes the joint to Katie, who declines. That’s a first. Katie marches ahead, stiff and traumatized by whatever happened to her.

“You went to pick up solar glasses yesterday at the school,” Helia says.

“Yes.”

“What happened? You haven’t been yourself since.” She catches up to walk beside her friend. Katie’s face is chapping, still puffy and swollen. “We should get you to a doctor.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“They’re sure to have a first-aid tent or something down there,” Helia argues, taking another drag. “We’ll get you some Benadryl, or cortisone, or something.”

Laughter ahead disrupts their conversation. Helia snuffs out the joint, and sprays the air around her with an odor neutralizer.

A large group of people with bright-colored clothes—like they were pulled straight from a department store catalogue—hike up the mountain. Eight people, adults and children, smiling, laughing, and excited about the eclipse, headed uphill toward the summit.

Helia and Katie follow the trail down to the open stretch of land that is called Hawkes Knob. The rounded hilltop overlooks the outskirts of the town of Andrews. The Hawkes Viewing party comes into view. Guitars twang in the sound system from the party down the hill. White squares dot the field. Beer and wine tents await. Crowds of tiny, far-away people stare at the sun through cardboard, solar-filtered glasses.

“This is a nice spot up here,” Helia says, enjoying the open expanse and seclusion of Hawkes Knob. “I could hang out here all day. But not without beer,” she laughs.

After the last leg of the descent through the woods, they make it to the party at 12:42 p.m.

A field littered with people lounging on their backs. Kids looking to the sky with cardboard solar glasses pressed to their faces. Plastic cups spill dribbles of beer onto the grass as inebriated people navigate the crowds.

Hundreds of people have come to the small mountain town of Andrews to observe. A group of local astronomers with telescopes aimed at the sun, sit under umbrella shades, waiting for first contact. The moment when the moon’s silhouette touches the sun.

“Let’s find you that first-aid tent first,” Helia says, but as she turns around, Katie is gone. “Katie?”

An inexperienced local country band rocks the main stage as Helia makes her way to the beer tent for a draft of PBR. Katie will be around.

At 1:05 p.m. All heads turn to the sky.

Helia leaves the IGN certified glasses in her bag and pulls out her dad’s plastic pair.

She lifts her protected eyes to a small white disc against a black backdrop, as the moon chomps a black nick off the edge of the sun. Only 0.01% of the sun’s light makes it through her glasses, but it burns an imprint into her memory that will never fade.

An undulating sound of elation moves through the crowd.

“I see it!” Voices erupt. “Do you see it?”

Another hour and a half will pass before totality, so Helia removes her glasses and wanders the crowd, looking for Katie. Passing by a man in a camp chair, she slows down to notice a walking cane and guide dog by his side.

The blind man smiles with his face to the sky.

“Why is he not observing?” Katie stands a few feet away, inciting the man’s guide dog to growl. His fur over his shoulder blades pricks to attention, but Katie doesn’t back down. Hunching her shoulders, she stares the dog down until he whimpers and cowers.

“Wear these,” she says, holding the Mylar pouch out toward the man.

“He’s blind,” Helia whispers. “He’ll enjoy totality with his other senses.”

A woman’s nasally voice, from a group of people behind, grabs Helia’s attention. “Oregon just had totality, and a group of people lost their minds like it was the Rapture or something.”

“Crazy doomsdayers,” Helia huffs, and looks around the crowd wondering if any insane, end-of-world losers lurked among them that might try to ruin her experience.

“Put your glasses on,” Katie demands. “The moon has made first contact. You’re missing it.”

Overwhelmed by her friend’s strange behavior, and a new paranoia about psychos among her, Helia needs to get away for a while.

Hawkes Knob is a hundred yards away, up the hill beyond the patch of trees. The seclusion calls to her. She slips away from Katie and climbs the hill through the woods until she reaches the clearing.

On a sleeping bag in the grass, she lies on her back, hands tucked behind her head, enjoying the distant music in peace. Periodically, she slips on her dad’s solar glasses on, or uses the solar-filtered binoculars to view the partial eclipse as the moon obscures more of the sun.

Announcements sound from below that the time of the total eclipse is drawing near.

A crescent of sunlight remains.

Minutes later, a sliver.

Then a slim white line. Shadows of her arm against the blanket reveal crisp lines, individual hairs.

The diamond ring—the ring of sunlight with the last gem of light.

Then darkness. Total solar eclipse.

The crowd below releases a conglomeration of moans, oohs, and cheers. A sound of joy and awe that hits Helia’s soul like a shockwave. She removes her solar glasses to view the eclipse naked-eye. The solar corona stretches out with strands of feathery light against a dark, purple-gray sky. Pink-orange glow on the horizons all around.

Mercury. Venus. Jupiter. The bright star Regulus.

Darkness surrounds her, but light fills her heart.

Goosebumps invade her arms as the temperature drops. Three squirrels scurry across the clearing, into the trees. Birds fly back to the tree canopy.

A deep, sharp inhale reminds her to breathe as she experiences her surroundings.

“I’ll keep looking up, Dad,” she whispers, then places an ardent kiss upon her fingertips and raises them to solar corona.

Downhill, masses of people drop their belongings. Hundreds of them, all at once, drop their solar glasses in the grass, and head in one organized group toward the parking area. Chairs and coolers are left behind.

“Where are you going?” Helia whispers, scanning the field for something chasing them away, like a bear. But they don’t seem to be scared. Every person walks to their cars in a calculated and organized manner.

The diamond ring returns. No cheers or eruptions from the crowd as she would expect. They all filter into the parking lot.

The moon’s shadow leaves, returning a flood of sunlight back to her corner of the earth.

Silence below and now an empty field with only a handful of people left behind.

At once, the car engines all start. Every vehicle simultaneously turns on, engines roaring across the treetops. Then in an impossible feat, each person pulls their vehicle out of its parking spot with precise organization. Filing into continually moving lines like a well-choreographed marching band leaving the field.

Garbage, lawn chairs, and even baby strollers are scattered below.

After popping the solar lenses off her binoculars, Helia scans the field for Katie.

Few people remain behind. The blind man rises from his chair with his dog by his side. Helia holds her binocular’s field of view on him. A burly man in a white button down shirt approaches him.

Pushing the image-stabilizing button on her dad’s binoculars, the view of the guide dog steadies. In a threatened stance, he lowers his head, then runs away from his owner. While swinging his walking cane, the blind man backs away as the burly man in the white shirt hunches over.

Binoculars sweep across the party field to another person.

“Katie!” Helia calls out over the trees, but not loud enough to be heard. Eyes back to the binoculars, she zooms in on Katie, standing beside a child in a stroller.

Returning to the view of the blind man—he has fallen on his backside. The burly man stands over him, hunching like he’s about to vomit. His spine swells through his white shirt. A ridge pulses along his spinal column, as a black, shiny appendage telescopes from behind his neck, out over his head. The pointed tip of the spider-like leg extends, reaching toward the blind man.

With a swift, calculated jab, the antenna pierces his eye.

Helia gasps—her feet are locked to the ground with paralyzing fear. Sweaty palms grip her binoculars as she scans to find her friend again.

Katie bends over a child in the umbrella stroller. A similar hunched spine. Pulsing.

Then the appendage ejects from Katie’s spine, injecting into the stroller. Tiny toddler-sized legs tremble.

All heroic intentions are left behind as Helia sprints to the tree line, away from the threat. Not allowing her mind to consider why or what was happening, she runs. Feet to the ground. One after the other, back up the mountainside. Concentrating solely on getting as far away from the party as she could.

A rumble of an engine cuts through the forest ahead, and her body instinctively dives off-trail, hiding in a patch of thorny brush. Skin pricked and bleeding, she quiets herself as the rumbling ATV approaches. Uncle Steve.

Scrambling out of the brush, waving her hands, she calls for him as he nearly speeds past her.

“The news…” he says, bringing the four-wheeler to a stop. “Is it here too? Where’s Katie?”

Opening her mouth to speak proves to be futile. Unable to gather her thoughts to explain what she had seen, her jaw hangs open.

“Do we need to go get her?”

Helia shakes her head and climbs onto the back of his ATV.

Steve calls over his shoulder to her as they ride. “Oregon was first. People going crazy,” he pants, pausing to speak as they bump over large roots across the trail. “I was working and not really paying attention to the news. Then I saw Nebraska. Kentucky. Even Texas. What happened down in town?”

He cuts a sharp corner onto the overgrown trail that leads to his cabin, set fifty yards off-trail, and they dart inside.

Helia paces, pausing by the window, waiting for an incoming threat, but there is nothing.

“This cabin is pretty well camouflaged here,” Uncle Steve says. “We can see the hikers way out there on the main trail, but they can’t see the cabin unless they look hard enough. Nobody will find us here.”

The reporters from the Asheville news are back on the television set. Donald Harris sweats through his cheap suit, puffy-faced and sickly. Static stripes break up the reception as media clips from across the country play on-screen. Entire masses of eclipse-watchers drop everything and walk away.

“That’s not the weirdest part,” Uncle Steve says. “Keep watching.”

There’s no other option but to watch the captivating screen.

From Wyoming, a blurred video reveals a dark mass flash before the camera. When the clip is paused, the human-sized mass takes shape with long, spindly legs and an antenna.

“What is that?” Helia finally speaks.

Uncle Steve shakes his head. “Too blurry to tell. Hoping it’s a fake.”

“It’s not fake,” Helia says. “That antenna thing came out of Katie.”

“What do you mean, it came out of Katie? Those things are inside of people?!”

Helia locks on the television screen, hoping for answers, but the anchorwoman delivers nothing but speculation. “This solar eclipse must have had an effect on people. Driving them to madness, turning them into these things.”

“That’s impossible,” Helia yells to the woman on the screen.

Allison Yang continues, “Donald and I did not view the eclipse today, so we are safe.”

Donald stares at the camera, sweating and silent.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Helia says. She explains everything to her uncle. The blind man, the baby, and Katie.

“Parasite?” Uncle Steve says, rubbing his beard.

“What kind of parasite can infect people like that? All at once? How?” Helia returns to the window. “Bioterrorism with parasites? Is that even possible?”

Uncle Steve lingers by the television set, rubbing his beard as if answers will pop out of it if he thinks hard enough.

“How do you infect the entire country with a parasite using the eclipse?” Helia asks.

“You can’t.” Uncle Steve says. “That’s stupid. You can’t infect photons,” he laughs with a hint of derision. “We’re not infected. We both viewed the eclipse. It’s some other common factor.”

The answer sat tucked inside her father’s gear bag. Helia pulls out the IGN certified solar glasses, still in their Mylar pouch.

“The glasses,” Uncle Steve says. “IGN certified to infect the population, and individually wrapped to preserve the parasite. But how do they infect people? Let me see those.”

Afraid to infect herself, she pinches the corner of the pouch, hand trembling.

“Millions of people across the US viewed the eclipse today,” Uncle Steve says, “being coerced into using these specific IGN certified glasses for viewing. Everyone that wore them, even those not in the totality path, were affected. That’s the entire U.S.”

“We need to call someone,” Helia says.

“I’m secluded out here. There’s no cell tower within reach. If I need anything, I have to ATV into town.”

“You’ve gotta have a satellite phone or something, right?”

Uncle Steve shakes his head. “I’m not an important enough scientist to be issued a sat-phone.”

Helia sighs, sitting down at the table with her head in her hands.

Steve pulls a large roll of heavy plastic from the cabinet beneath his microscope. “Let’s examine these glasses to see what we’re dealing with.” He hangs the plastic from the ceiling to floor, and closes and area off around his microscope. “It’s not a real clean-room situation, but it’s the best we can do with what we have.”

The clear plastic sheeting allows her watch from outside the makeshift clean-room as Steve cuts an opening in the Mylar. With gloved hands, he uses tweezers to pull the cardboard frames from the pouch.

Helia releases a held breath.

After a cursory naked-eye inspection, Steve excises a small sample of the solar film from the glasses and places it on a microscope slide.

“There’s a strange surface texture,” he says with his face to the eyepiece. “Lumpy or something. This material is so dark, I need more light on it.” After positioning a heat lamp near the sample, he flicks the switch and floods the slide with light. “Very bumpy. This isn’t typical solar film…wait a minute.”

“What is it?”

“Definitely an organism. Larva. Planktonic like trochophore, but not really. Cilia-like structures. Hellgrammite-ish.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying!”

“I’m saying I don’t know what it is. I’ve never seen this before.” He turned to face her through the plastic. “I’ve seen everything. Even undiscovered organisms look like already-discovered organisms. This structure is differ—!” He jumps from the microscope, knocking over his rolling chair.

“What?”

“It jumped!” He throws open a drawer, ripping it from the tracks and it falls to the floor in his excitement.

“What do you mean, it jumped?

Uncle Steve digs through the fallen equipment on the floor and grabs a sample bag. He uses a set of tweezers to reach for the slide. “Oh my God, it grew.”

“It grew?”

“Yes,” he yells. “It grew. It was microscopic, now I can see it naked-eye.”

Thin silver tweezers pinch at a tiny thing under the microscope light, and Steve holds it up to the heat lamp. Helia presses her face against the plastic, breath fogging her view. She moves to the opening in the plastic area to get a better look.

A worm-like thing, shorter than her pinky-nail, squirms between the pincers. Beneath the hot light, it swells, stretches, and convulses.

“It’s still growing. The heat wakes up the dormant larva,” Steve says. With surgical precision, he slides the organism into a sample bag, tweezers and all, and seals it. Separately, he bags the glasses and the foil pouch they came in.

Leaving his protective gear in the plastic room, he comes out. “We’re at risk for contamination,” Uncle Steve warns. “We should leave this cabin.”

“Shhh.” Blotches of colorful clothing move beyond the trees, out on the main trail. “Hikers coming down from the top,” Helia whispers, and using her binoculars, she spies on them from inside the cabin. “I see six of them.”

The same colorfully-clad, laughing group that passed by on the trail earlier, hikes down the mountain. Single file marching, they lurched through the woods toward Andrews, quiet and emotionless.

“Infected,” Helia says. “We’re at higher risk of contamination out there than in here.”

Uncle Steve faces the television and his ominous voice drains all remaining hope. “It doesn’t look like there’s anywhere to go anyway.”

On screen, Allison Yang is poorly lit by studio lights.  Donald, green and clammy, sits halfway off-screen.

“I apologize for the quality,” Allison says crying. “Our crew is gone. They’re all gone. They’re not who they say they are.” She turns to her co-anchor. “We have new footage from social media.”

Allison moves off-screen and switches the feed to a video of the White House grounds. On the famous South Lawn, creatures gather. Black and gray shimmering bodies. Clumps of long, crustaceous legs from torso to abdomen, moving too fast to count. Along their dorsal plate, a spinal ridge extends into an arched antenna over their heads.

Feed cuts to a clip from Dover Air Force Base, where the creatures assemble in hangars.

At U.S. Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, they lurk in groups upon the flight decks of aircraft carriers.

Through the tiny tube television, the entire country crumbles before her. Helpless as the monsters trap people on the street. A mother is pulled from her child, screaming. Pointed antennae inject into her terrified eyes as her child runs. Once injected, the infected mother tremors and collapses to the ground. Then stands, unfazed, and moves on.

Allison Yang’s somber voice talks through the clips. “There are thousands of these videos.”

Helia’s chest heaves with nervous breaths and the inability to process the information.

“How long have they been planning this attack?” she asks. “The IGN certification. The factories that made them. Who orchestrated this?”

Leaning forward in his chair, Uncle Steve covers his mouth as Allison Yang comes back on the screen.

“It’s 6:45 p.m. and…” she looks to her co-anchor. “Snap out of it, Donald, please.”

Donald is now in full view of the camera under the bright lights, skin dehydrated, stretched and cracked. Eye sockets sunken in.

His face morphs and stretches. Coarse skin tears and cracks along the eyelid, then down the nose, forming a crevice from eye to mouth. Exposing black and gray iridescence beneath the surface of his broken face.

Allison shrieks and runs off camera as his body busts open—cracked from head to belly. Human halves peel away, exposing the creature beneath. Fully grown.

Screaming from backstage fades, and the sound of a studio door slams.

Then a static—not from the poor reception of the television—but something coming from the creature. A whispering, mechanical, clicking, hum-like sound that Helia has never heard before. It moves off-screen, leaving an empty, silent studio.

Helia holds in a squeal. “The parasite turns people into that? Is that what’s in that sample bag? Is that going to happen to Katie?”

Uncle Steve edges closer to the screen. “It’s a parasitoid. It feeds off of the human body until it’s big enough and strong enough to live on its own.”

Uncle Steve’s face seems to light up with scientific wonder. “Question is, did it evolve here on Earth, or—”

“Don’t say it.” Helia’s gut churns at the notion of some alien invasion. The queasiness in her gut can’t be ignored any longer. She rushes outside to vomit. After spewing the contents of her stomach onto the forest floor, a noise above petrifies her. The rustling of leaves overhead whisper like a static—evoking the memory of the creature from the studio—sending a chill through her body.

When she returns inside, Uncle Steve is behind the plastic sheet again, studying the organism.

“It’s dead. At least it looks dead. With no host, it can’t grow beyond the larval stage.”

“What do we do now?” Helia asks. “Where can we go?”

Ideas for finding refuge run thin. Nowhere in the United States is safe, as every state has been exposed. However, the further they get away from the line of totality, toward the areas that had only partial eclipse-viewing, fewer people should be infected. Fewer people watched in the far north and south of the country.

Getting out of the country might be their only hope. The Atlantic Coast—the closest option for leaving the country, has too many populated areas to pass through, and an ocean to cross.

“Canada?” Helia asks. “Mexico?”

“That’s a hell of a hike.” Steve digs out an old Rand McNally map of the United States from a drawer and considers the options.

“Do you think we can make it?”

Uncle Steve shrugs. “We don’t have enough food or water to stay here, or to make it very far.”

A knock at the door startles them both to a standing position.

“Help!” A man calls. “Help me!”

“What if it’s a trick,” she whispers, mouthing her words, desperate for her uncle to ignore the man. Nobody is safe.

“Help!” He pounds at the door.

Uncle Steve opens and lets him in. A man, frantic and covered in fresh dirt and scratches, pours into the cabin.

“They’re after me,” he pants, darting straight to the window. His pressed shirt untucked and torn at the sleeve. “I don’t know what they are. They got my family. I’ve been running through this woods off-trail for hours. We have to get to town and get help.”

“There is no help,” Uncle Steve says and points to the empty news studio on the television.

The man backs into the corner with his hands over his mouth. “What are you saying? You’ve seen them? Are they in Asheville too?”

“They’re everywhere,” Helia says. “The whole country.” The weight of her words has a physical effect on her body. A pressure deep inside of her that hurts when she inhales.

As daylight fails, Helia studies the map of the mountains and the trails leading to the Appalachian Trail. A trek to Canada would take weeks. Mexico as well. And with no wilderness skills, her confidence in surviving wanes.

A scratch on the side of the cabin jerks her to attention.

The man—the stranger, whose name she never asked—groans at the sound, and his eyes widen with panic-ridden warning.

Uncle Steve grabs Helia’s wrist and drags her to the area behind the plastic sheet. Opening the lower cabinet, he whispers, “Hide.”

“Where can I hide?” The man paws over Uncle Steve.

“You and I aren’t going to fit down there,” he says, closing Helia inside.

Her surroundings go black with the click of the closing door. Knees to her chin, tucked inside the cramped space, she trembles. Her hysterical breathing is loud enough to give away her location.

“Don’t come out,” he tells her through the wood. “No matter what.”

The scratching along the cabin walls amplify inside of the cramped, musty cabinet.

“Grab something to fight,” Uncle Steve says to the stranger.

“I’m running for it,” the frazzled man responds.

Stomping feet along the floorboards vibrate through the cabinet.

The plastic sheet ruffles. Glass shatters.

“You idiot!” Steve shouts.

The stranger screeches in terror from outside the cabin. A deep, mournful scream seeps through the cabin walls.

The shack falls silent.

“Uncle Steve,” Helia whispers, voice shaking. She cracks the cabinet door open enough to peek out, to see her uncle sitting at the table. A wood cutting axe in his right hand, by his side. The other shaking hand pours a shot of whiskey, then takes a sip. From across the dank room and the fallen plastic, their eyes meet.

Beyond Helia’s field of view from the open cabinet door, something moves.

Bits of glass crunch near the window.

Static—but not the electric snow of the television. A breathy, guttural static. The whispering sound, like a heavy rainfall without the rain. Organic and alive, echoing off the rustic beams of the cabin walls.

The black and gray shimmering creature approaches Uncle Steve, who remains at the table, adjusting the grip on his axe.

“I take it you don’t come in peace,” he says.

The spinal ridge of the creature throbs as the long appendage telescopes out of its back, and over its head. The humming static from the beast intensifies as the tip of its appendage forms a moist droplet. Inside, the incipient, larval stage of the apocalypse squirms.

Uncle Steve, in a swift motion, spins out of his seat and swings the axe at the creature’s thorax. The hefty axe bounces off of the exoskeleton and flings across the room against the cabinet, closing Helia inside, and obscuring her view.

Static clicks and echoes, vibrating the door of the cabinet.

Then the meaty collapse of Steve’s body hits the floor.

Containing her pain and fury so no sound can escape, Helia sobs in silence. Face soaked with tears. Spit strings from lip to lip as she tries to quell the chattering of her teeth.

Glass crunches. Footsteps—Uncle Steve. But it’s not him anymore.

The front door creaks open and the cabin is silent again.

Uncertain how much time has passed since Steve was infected, Helia stays in the confines of the cabinet. Five hours could have passed—or perhaps only five minutes.

Helia pushes on the cabinet door and falls onto the floor, eyes closed, waiting for one of them to take her, but she’s alone.

Fumbling through the dark cabin, she packs her bag with the map and supplies, then climbs onto the ATV. Starting the engine may draw them in, but she isn’t confident she can outrun them on foot.

“Just go,” she whispers. The engine roars. Dirt kicks up behind her as she tears away from the cabin out to the main trail.

Heart thrashing within her ribcage, she focuses on moving forward with a terror so intense her heart may stop beating.

The ATV cuts up the mountain trail, away from town, with only starlight to guide her.

Static-like noise looms overhead, but Helia pushes on, hoping the rustling of tree leaves is to blame for the sound. Two miles up the mountain, with a millimeter to empty on the gas gauge, she reaches the observation tower and cuts the engine. After stashing her uncle’s four-wheeler in the brush, she runs up the steps of the tower to hide.

Thunderous booms in the distance send her to the deck on her hands and knees.

Explosions. It’s all falling apart. Patches of horizon glow orange from destruction.

Helia crouches down in the corner of the observation tower, certain one of those creatures followed the sound of the ATV. Or perhaps they’ve all moved out of the woods, to the cities and towns.

She waits for the noise. That living, breathing static, but only hears the friction of leaves in the wind.

Another boom from behind her, miles away, startles her. She whips her head around looking for them. She can feel them, like a ghost over her shoulder, waiting to pierce her eye, but there is nothing there. The stairs are black and empty as she listens for that static to take her away.

Her heart breaks, awaiting her inevitable demise, but she can’t bear to see it coming. She can’t look down at the staircase, or the dying world, any longer.

Starlight pierces the black sky above. Bright pinpoints of tranquil light reach out to Helia and grab hold. A world of destruction unfolds beyond the mountains, and a looming threat may be climbing the stairs.

Static is everywhere. In the trees. In the sound of her panicked breaths.

Unable to accept any of it, she locks her gaze on the peaceful dome of starlight above.

“Keep looking up,” she whispers with tears blurring the stars into blobs.

“Keep looking up.”

“Keep looking up.”

“Keep looking up…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

by Red Lagoe

 

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