Mason Bushell vs. JP Behrens
“Maxi, are you sure this is a good idea?” Kai asked, switching her vision from the forested hillside to the double line of train tracks running beneath the iron bridge she was crouched upon.
“It’s still in the liminal stages. So, if you have a better idea …”
Kai kissed him. “I trust you. I’m just anxious.”
“Me too.” Maxi smoothed her obsidian hair. “The Oracle’s on that train. We have to stop Schweitzer escaping with it.”
They heard the clacking of a large train. Then saw it thundering along the forested line toward them.
“Let’s do this,” Kai took a deep breath as the train came neared.
“I love you.” Maxi touched his lips to hers, stood and vaulted off the bridge.
Kai was right behind him. Falling two-feet she landed on her knees and dropped to her stomach upon the train’s roof. “Ow, why did I choose shorts! Maxi — you okay?”
“No, not quite!” Maxi replied in a strained voice. He’d overcooked his jump and taken a tumble across the train’s roof. His fingertips had prevented him from falling onto the tracks. With a groan of exertion, he tensed his wiry muscles and hauled himself back onto the roof. “That was too close!”
“You have a tendency for close shaves,” Kai rolled her eyes and pointed, “Come on! We know Schweitzer has his private carriage behind the locomotive.”
“Right behind you.” Maxi winked as the couple bent low and ran along the train. Jumping between carriages, they aimed for the black diesel-powered locomotive. On occasion, they were forced to flatten themselves to avoid branches, power lines and junction signs.
With a little luck and agility, Kai reached her destination at a crouch, “It’s the next —”
“You! Get off the … argh!” A soldier had appeared in the gangway between two carriages. He’d seen Kai leap over his head.
Maxi had gone unseen until he swung into the gap. His feet connected with head and shoulder sending the soldier flying off the train.
“Nice!” Kai grinned as she dropped down beside Maxi and accepted a quick kiss, “Let’s save the hanky-panky for later, shall we?”
“Yeah, I suppose we better,” Maxi reached and turned the carriage door handle — it was locked. “Now, what?”
“My turn.” Kai scrambled back onto the roof. Flattening herself just in time to avoid the framework of another metal bridge, she hung over the side. A sliding window was open, but it was narrow.
“Careful!” said Maxi winking around the side.
Kai nodded and began to wriggle and contort her lithe frame through the gap. A tree raced towards her. She shrieked, took a breath and flexed her shoulders through the window. Landing in the carriages vestibule as the tree passed by. “That was a whiskery one!” she gasped as she unlocked the door.
“Yeah, and you’d look terrible with a beard,” Maxi retorted while checking the luggage store was clear of danger. “Come —”
The safety slide of a luger pistol being withdrawn froze his words in his throat. “Guten tag. That way and no funny business!” A six-foot-tall soldier wearing army fatigues stepped from the toilet. Keeping his gun on Kai, he closed his flies with his free hand.
Kai followed as she watched a bead of sweat rolled down Maxi’s face. “Easy, big boy,” she urged she moved to follow his instructions.
“Herr Schweitzer will be displeased — now move!”
Maxi put himself between the gun and Kai as he escorted her into the carriage’s main seating area. This one bore cream walls with burgundy curtains. A small bar and plush burgundy seats. All were unoccupied aside from two surrounding a table. A pretty brunette in a sleek red dress occupied one. A long black cigarette tube graced her fingers as she gazed at the countryside racing by outside. Across from her, the suited form of Schweitzer with his platinum blonde hair and monocle. Between them an object wrapped in brown paper and hemp string.
“Herr Schweitzer, two intruders for you,” the soldier saluted. His gun never wavered.
“Very good, Karl. Return to your position.” Schweitzer rose and studied his unwanted guests, his nose pointing toward the ceiling. “Maxi, you never quit. Und now, you involved the pretty hexe too.”
“Kai is no witch. Watch your mouth when you speak about her.” Maxi bristled.
Kai placed a hand on his shoulder calming him. A tough thing with Schweitzer snickering just then.
“Funny, boy. You are my prisoners. I will talk about either of you as I please,” he remarked with a gleeful smile.
“Did you, even for one second consider what you took? Do you realise the damage you did to that tribe when you stole their Oracle?” Kai demanded to know.
“Nein, the tribe matters little to me,” Schweitzer raised his arms nonplussed, “The greatness of the person is not measured by how much he cares, but in the wealth, he takes and controls.”
“The purity of the man and his lady are measured in the way they selflessly give their lives to help others. That Oracle not only foretells the future and guides the tribe. It is the centre of their universe. Without it they will war until every last one of them is dead,” Maxi’s nose wrinkled with fury. “There blood is on your hands.”
“Good, That will make it easier to conquer the country when we return.”
“Oh, Heimy. You are a devil, aren’t you?” Simpered the woman still smoking her long cigarette.
“He’s an evil bastard but let’s not mince words.” Kai walked straight towards him. “One chance. Give me the Oracle, now!”
“She is a pretty, brave hexe, Maxi,” Schweitzer said ignoring the threat.
“Yup, she warned you,”
Schweitzer gazed on Kai and smiled.
“Fine,” Kai went from still to swinging like a peregrine falcon diving on her prey. Her fist hammered into his face with a resounding crack.
Schweitzer’s monocle flew from his cheek as he plunged backwards and crashed onto the table.
“Halt!” demanded both guarding soldiers.
Karl’s luger barked off one shot.
Maxi and Kai had been ready for it. Both hit the deck as the bullet zinged overhead.
The second soldier raised his Sturmgewehr 44 machine gun. The luger’s round slammed into his chest. He convulsed, unleashing a volley of bullets into the carriage as he dropped to the floor.
The woman screamed, cowered and dropped her cigarette.
Maxi swore as windows shattered and bullets smacked into the furniture all around him.
Kai had seen Karl preparing to shoot again. She vaulted into a cartwheel, somersaulted over Maxi, and planted her heels deep into the soldier’s groin. Landing on his chest, she winked and punched him into unconsciousness.
“Nice!” remarked Maxi standing with an appreciative smile.
“Thanks. You smell smoke?” Kai asked rejoining him.
“Nein, there is no smoke!” Schweitzer had gained his feet. Blood oozed from his cheek and mouth dripping onto his collar. He held a golden Mauser pistol in his right hand shaking with fury. Beyond him, a column of black smoke began rising toward the ceiling. “Now, you will die!”
“Err, I think the lady just set fire to the train!” Maxi said pointing.
Schweitzer sniffed his eyes going wide. “Verdammt! What did you do, Rosa?”
Rosa scurried from her seat. “I dropped my bloody cig—”
The curtains ignited with a deep whoomph
With springs in his legs, Maxi leapt forward. Cannoning into Schweitzer he deflected the Mauser.
Kai slipped by, her fingers wrapping around the object as she plunged into the thickening smoke. “I got it!” she cried.
Maxi groaned and choked. A knee slammed into his stomach.
Schweitzer pulled back to strike again.
Maxi blocked, collapsing Schweitzer’s nose with a sickening head-butt and shoved him into the minibar. Bottles of spirits rolled away and smashed upon the carpet. The alcohol igniting in pools of liquid fire.
“Run, Maxi!” Kai screamed.
He couldn’t, Rosa had seized him around the waist.
“Don’t make me hit a woman. Let me go and run while you still can!” Maxi said his eyes stinging from the smoke.
“Now, we all die!” Rosa shrieked.
“Hell —with — that!” Kai choked as she stepped from the smoke and delivered a withering slap. Rosa’s head bounced off the train wall.
Maxi didn’t stop to see what became of her. He burst free, seized Kai and ran. “Think this is our stop!” he said as they burst out the carriage. Taking one look at the grassy hillside, he kissed Kai and they jumped.
Both bounced and rolled as they barrelled through bushes and came to a stop inside the tree line.
“Owee! Next time we go on a date. I’m picking a much safer, softer activity,” Kai complained as she examined a new collection of bruises.
Maxi crawled over to her holding the object. Removing layers of brown paper, he revealed a near-perfect sphere of quartz. The transparent carving of an alien with a long skull glinted upon one face. “It’s a deal. First, we have to get this back to the tribe.”
Kai rolled on top of him. “I do love a man who is absorbed in his work. We —” an earth-shaking bang sent a hot breeze billowing through the trees. A ball of fire and a rain of wooden debris signalled the end of the train. Kai sighed, “Well, I was gonna suggest we lay and enjoy the moment for a while. However, we just sent a massive smoke-signal to every soldier in the area.”
Maxi stood. Taking Kai’s hand as they limped painfully into the forest. “Yup, like you said on the train. I have to save the hanky-panky the later.”
A loud crack shattered the innocence of the day. Pale yellow slime leaked out. The smell burned the children’s noses. Ben dropped the egg with a small shriek. He glanced around to see if Adam, his best friend, noticed the girlish scream. Thankfully, Adam was just as terrified, backing away as the opening grew little by little. Two white talons emerged from the crack and pushed the shell open further before disappearing back inside.
Ben recovered from the initial shock and inched closer to look inside.
"No, Ben. Don't!" begged Cynthia, Adam’s little sister.
Ben waved away her concern.
He leaned in close enough to see inside the crack, but his eyes couldn't pierce the darkness. The claws appeared, tearing away more of the shell. A gray, green snout peeked out from the widening hole. Yellow slime spurted from the nostrils with a wet snort. Ben inched closer, curiosity overpowering his mounting fear. He refused to miss anything. The claws and snout retracted into the egg. The world paused.
As if someone hit fast forward, the shell exploded. Ben covered his face, screaming in shock as slime and shell forced him to the ground. Wild with panic, Adam and Cynthia clung to each other, dashing across the street to hide behind a nearby crumbling wall.
Ben lay frozen with fear. A large, seething reptilian creature stood on his chest. A clicking echoed deep within the beast. Two beady, black eyes stared into him. Dark drool dripped off the creature's sharp, skeletal frame. Needle-like teeth glinted under the warm sunlight. The creature leaned forward, its mouth hissing open. The whip-like tongue flashed out at Ben and flickered over his face, searching, tasting. Ben shuddered as cold terror froze his ability to think or breathe.
The creature's eyes shot up. A hungry growl clicked in its throat. Cynthia's hushed words caught the creature's attention.
Without thinking, Ben pulled the creature closer. His tone becoming stern and commanding as he said, "No, look at me. Don't you dare go after them." He was stunned by his sudden burst of bravery.
It regarded Ben, settled down on his chest, and whined. It nuzzled into Ben's chest, struggling to cuddle. Ben reached around the creature and, unsure if he should, hugged it closer.
"It's ok. Don't be upset."
The creature sprang up and screeched. It bounced around and whipped its tail like an over-excited puppy. Ben just hoped that it wouldn't try to scramble over his legs and chest with those razor-sharp talons.
Curiosity pulled the siblings from their hiding spot. They inched closer, pulled forward by youthful curiosity. When the creature noticed them, it growled low and threatening. Large spikes sprang up along its spine. Ben placed a hand on the creature's boney shoulder.
"No, these are my friends. They're ok."
The spikes retracted, but the creature kept a wary eye on the children as it found a comfortable place on Ben's lap.
"Ben, you can't keep it."
Ben scowled at Cynthia. "Why not? I found it."
"It'll think you're its parent. You have to get rid of it."
Wary, but enraptured by the new creature, Adam sidled up beside Cynthia. "I think it's too late for that, Cyn.”
The creature chortled in Ben's lap.
Adam touched the creature's head with only his fingertips. "If you're going to keep it, you'll need to name it, Ben."
"He's not keeping it," said Cynthia.
"Pet. I'll call it Pet."
"Ben!" Cynthia looked horrified by the decision to keep Pet. “You can't keep it. It could be dangerous."
"Its name is Pet, and if he was dangerous, Pet would have attacked by now. We're fine."
“How do you know it’s a boy?” asked Adam as he tilted his head to get a better look under the creature.
"You just called Pet a 'he'."
“Because there is no way a girl could be this cool.”
“Hey—! “started Cynthia.
"Quiet, Cyn,” said Adam.
Cynthia looked at her brother, tears welling up in her eyes. She remained quiet, but they could tell she wasn't happy. Ben shrugged it off. His father always said, “If you want to be number one. If you want to be an alpha. Be strong. Be a man.”
Ben ran his hand down Pet’s head and back, soothing the creature. The leathery skin was slick where the remnants of slime sloughed off. Along the spine, small ridges marked where the spikes appeared. As it fidgeted in Ben's lap, it’s talons poked and cut at his legs. Before his pants and legs became bloody rags, he maneuvered Pet to the ground. Once on his feet, Ben looked around, concentrating on the next activity of the day. With their new companion, the possibilities were endless.
"What now?" asked Adam. The question gave voice to Ben's thoughts.
"The park, maybe. I'm sure Pet would love all the equipment," suggested Ben.
"Too many people. We have no idea how they or Pet would react," said Adam.
Ben nodded. “There is that one field on the edge of town. It should be empty still.”
Adam thought it over. “It could work. No harm in checking it out.”
They took back trails, cut through the woods when possible, or rushed through open expanses whenever their circuitous path forced no other option. Even Cynthia offered suggestions to keep their new companion a secret from prying eyes despite her vocal misgivings.
The immense field offered the protection of isolation. Pet used the open space to run, jump, and chase the children around. Even as Cynthia squealed as if terrified of Pet, she continued to play and chase it in turn. Pet yipped in glee with its screeching voice. The children filled the humid air with laughter. The boys screamed and waved sticks through the dry brush. Bugs and dust flew through the air in every direction. Grasshoppers managed to take flight in an attempt to escape, but the boys chased them doggedly, Pet snapping and biting the slower ones, gobbling them whole.
A few minutes after noon, a cooling breeze broke the heat of the day and took the boys’ madness with it. In the middle of a chase, Pet skidded to a stop. Ben's laughter stilled.
Pet sniffed the air and its eyes narrowed. A growl exploded from Pet as it dashed toward the high grass framing the field.
"No! Pet, come back! What are you doing?"
Ben ran after Pet, stopping at the edge of a dried-up cornfield. He could see the stalks rustle, highlighting Pet's path.
"What is he doing in there?" Adam ran up and stood next to Ben. They both scanned the dried-out cornfield for any sign of Pet. Cynthia stood only a few feet back, a look of grave concern darkened her face.
"No idea,” replied Ben.
About twenty feet into the field, a tortured screech broke from the curtain of yellow-gold husks. The stalks thrashed the air in a chaotic frenzy. Within seconds, silence fell, and the corn settled back into a relaxed sway under the guidance of the cool summer breeze. Ben looked at Adam, worried about what might lay hidden by the weeds.
The sounds of ravenous crunching and slurping floated out of the weeds along with the smell of wet fur and raw meat. Ben wrinkled his nose but forced his way into the field.
"Don't, Ben. It may not be safe."
"I have to see, Adam. Pet could be hurt."
"It's not Pet I'm worried about."
Ben nodded. He understood and feared the same.
As he waded into the waist high, brittle stalks of grain, Adam’s eyes followed his progress, waiting for the darkness to swallow him whole, never to be seen again. Ben took slow, steady breaths and trudged carefully through the weeds to the place disturbed by Pet. As Ben closed in on it’s hideaway, the hard, dry earth softened. The soft soil turned muddy. Sticky red liquid dripped from the stalks. Ben swallowed, trying to dislodge the dry spot in the back of his throat. He took a loud, squelching step forward.
A ravaged clearing of broken, dried-out corn stalks opened up before him. Pet sat at the center, covered in blood and fur. Its long, thin tongue flicked out, lapping at the carnage. Ben attempted to choke back the vomit burning up his throat but was unsuccessful. He turned away, barely able to keep the sick from splashing back onto his pants. After a few final dry heaves, he wiped his mouth and stumbled back along the path he’d made in the weeds. Pet followed, writhing around, cleaning his body off on a bundle of dry brush growing amidst the long-forgotten crops. Watching Pet twist and turn, yapping happily, rolling around, Ben forgot all the horror and smiled. Pet wasn't a dog. It was something more. Something better.
The two of them emerged from the overgrowth, confronted the worried stares.
"Are you ok, Ben?" asked Adam.
"Yeah. He just went after a rabbit to eat it. Seems our Pet is a meat eater."
Cynthia groaned. The green pallor of her face reminded Ben of his own reaction on encountering the clearing. His stomach lurched at the thought, but he managed to stand strong. The last thing he would do was act like a little girl. He would be strong, like his father.
They left the field, the rest of the day consisted of running, whooping, and playing in the sun. As the day progressed, Cynthia never seemed to recover from the incident with the rabbit. The group stayed to the back paths and empty streets, always sure to keep Pet out of view. Only once or twice did it run off in pursuit of a squirrel or rodent. Pet always returned, no evidence of whether it caught prey or not. In those tense moments, Cynthia became ever more distant.
As the day wore on, they found themselves near a small cottage enclosed by a worn white picket fence, the home of Old Lady Winters. Cracked and chipping paint blanketed the ground like dandruff. Bright, colorful flowers and honeysuckle vines wrapped around the house and walkways. Ben glowered at the home, remembering that Mrs. Winters and her gossip had gotten him in trouble in the past.
"We need to go. If she sees Pet, everyone will know about him."
The others agreed. Just as they started to leave, Mrs. Winters turned the corner, groceries curled in one arm, a leash gripped in the other. Darling, her yapping poodle, pulled the bright pink strap taut, attempting to physically accost anyone within sight.
"What are you kids doing near my house? I'll not put up with any mischief. Is that you, Ben Thompson? I know you kids are up to something."
Winters' dog scampered forward, pulling the elderly woman in her squawking wake.
Pet issued a low growl from behind the children. Ben patted Pet's head, hoping to keep him calm until the old woman left.
"We were just passing by, Mrs. Winters. We'll leave."
"Not so fast. I want to know what you kids are up to. I see you all skulking about town.” One shaking, boney finger pointed at each child in turn, accusing them all of underage villainy.
"We're not up to anything," replied Ben. Pet growled louder behind the wooden slats of the fence.
“You have a dog with you? Probably some mangy beast you found. Best keep it away from my sweet Darling."
The poodle struggled against the leash, desperate to attack or harangue the newcomers. Ben stepped back, trying to calm Pet down before he decided to attack Darling in response. Adam tried to block Pet in, desperate to keep him hidden and contained.
"I'm going to tell your parents what you're up to." A twisted smile curled her features with evil delight.
“Why are you always butting your nose in everyone else's business, you old vulture. Leave us alone!“ yelled Ben.
Pet growled louder.
"Don't speak to me like that! Don't you have any respect?"
Darling scuttled at the ground, fighting to get free.
"Just shut up and go inside."
Pet tensed. The spikes along the ridge of its spine rose.
Mrs. Winters' grip on the leash failed.
"I said go inside!"
Darling broke free of Mrs. Winters' grasp. The deranged poodle dove around the corner. Pet broke free from Ben. Claws slashed and blood streaked through the air. Darling yelped in pain and ran for the house. Pet wouldn't let the attack end there. It pounced after the poodle, snarling, eager for the chase. Both disappeared through the small flapping access at the bottom of the door.
"My Darling! What has that monster done to my Darling?"
Mrs. Winters dropped her groceries on the sidewalk, hobbling after the two animals as quickly as her aged body allowed.
"Don't follow, Mrs. Winters. It's dangerous," cried Cynthia.
Ben started following after. "Seriously, Mrs. Winters, don't get involved, it’s too late.“
"Oh, my sweet Darling," repeated Mrs. Winters, over and over. She ignored the warnings of the children. Loud crashes boomed within the home. Mrs. Winters threw the door open and dissolved into the shadows. More crashes exploded from the home. A shriek cut through the clamor. Everything went silent.
The children didn't dare breathe.
Adam and Ben exchanged worried glances. Cynthia curled up on the ground as a defense against the gruesome reality. Ben took a step toward the open door.
"Don't," started Adam, his hand resting on Ben's shoulder. "Maybe we should just go."
"I won't abandon Pet."
Ben approached the silent home, trying to peer through the shadows swarming the entry. Before he could enter, however, Pet trotted out. Its tail wagged in a blur. A golden glint flashed in Pet's jaw.
"What do you have there?"
Pet leaned in and turned to the side. Tucked between gleaming fangs, cramped against a tuft of blood-matted fur, Ben found the gold object, Mrs. Winter's ring still wrapped around her withered, knobby finger. Ben grasped for the finger. A stubborn Pet refused to relinquish its meaty prize. Ben caught the ring with his fingernails and slipped it off. Pet swallowed the finger whole. The ring was green and flaking from years of neglect. Ben slipped the ring into his pocket, a trophy, and steered Pet away from the house. Pet wasn't covered in blood and gore like after the incident with the rabbit. Maybe Pet didn’t make as much of a mess. Who knows, the old lady and her yappy dog could be curled up, hiding in a closet deeper in the house.
What did it matter? They were threatening him and Pet. If Mrs. Winters managed to see Pet and tell everyone... God only knows what would happen. Ben approached his silent friends. Both of them crouched behind the dingy, white picket fence, Adam hugging and shushing Cynthia. She stared into nothingness, curled up in Adam’s arm, rocking back and forth, mumbling under her breath. Ben sneered at both his friends for their public displays of fear. No one should ever see you afraid or weak. That kind of behavior labeled you a victim. With Pet at his side, Ben would never be a victim.
“Well?" Adam asked.
"Nothing. Pet just scared them. They're shivering in a closet somewhere in the house. We should get out of here before she comes out."
Again, the children took back paths through the woods, out of sight of anyone who might see Pet. Each considering what happened at Mrs. Winters' house.
"So, what do we do?" asked Adam.
Ben answered, "Pet can crash in your shed for the night.”
“What?” gasped Cynthia.
“Why my shed?”
“I don’t have one, or any other place to hid Pet right now. I need time.”
Cynthia cried, "Please, Adam, don't. Pet scares me."
"It'll just be in the shed, Sis. Don't worry."
Cynthia refused to go home, instead taking a detour to a friend's house to spend the night. Adam told her to calm down, but she wouldn't hear it. She ran off and never looked back. Ben mocked Cynthia for her childish fears as she raced away into the purple-orange glow of dusk. When both the boys arrived at Adam's house, the last rays of the setting sun cast a blood red glow over the world.
"We need to be quick. I can't be late getting home again," said Ben.
They salvaged some beat up outdoor chair cushions found amongst the detritus scattered in the shed and arranged a makeshift nest on the floor for Pet. It tested out the new bed, dancing over the lumps, fidgeting its body into the pillows until they were just right. Ben and Adam exited the shed without a word. They exchanged worried looks, but there was nothing to do about the situation until tomorrow. Whatever suspicions Ben harbored about the danger Pet might pose, he wouldn't give up on the creature. Ben ran home praying he would make it through the door on time.
When Ben arrived at his house, most of the downstairs lights were on. Ben double checked the house number. The lights in the house illuminated his yard, giving small insects hiding in the grass something to leap towards. He stared at the ballet of tiny creatures exploring the area under the unusual yellow-white phosphorescence. At most, a soft electric blue glow shimmered within an ocean of electric starlight, a blotch of darkness marking his home in the night.
Ben turned the handle lightly, as always, trying to make as little noise as possible when slipping into the house. He immediately noticed the television was off and a symphony of aromas wafted down the hall from the kitchen. Residual fears vanished as Ben's youthful curiosity pulled him down the hallway.
His mother scrubbed the kitchen counter while humming an unfamiliar tune. On the small table used for eating quick meals sat a platter piled with steaming slices of meatloaf. In two smaller serving dishes sat macaroni and cheese and fresh steamed broccoli. Ben's favorite meal.
"Perfect timing, Ben. Dinner is finished. You hungry?"
"Yeah. Where's Dad?"
"Oh, he got held up at work. He won't get home until later. Sit down, let's eat."
Over dinner, Ben and his mother talked freely about their day. At times, they even laughed. Ben couldn't remember the last time they sat down as a family in the kitchen, laughing over dinner. After filling their stomachs, they put together a large helping of food for Ben's father, cleaned the dishes, and went to enjoy the quiet evening. The two talked together for a long while until a flash of light in the driveway signaled his father’s arrival.
"It's late, Ben. You should get up to bed."
Without hesitation, Ben dashed up the steps and entered his room before his father opened the front door. He heard heavy footfalls on the ground floor approach the kitchen. Already, the scraping and clacking of plates being arranged at the kitchen table filled the void his father's presence brought to the house. As the footsteps entered the kitchen, Ben's mother tried to sound pleasant.
"Your dinner is warming back up. How was work?"
"Christ, can't you do anything right? Work was work. How about you do your job and get my damn food on the table."
"Just a minute."
Something cracked against the window. Ben held his breath until another tap came. He peered into the night to see a small figure crouched in his backyard, hiding in the shadows.
Ben eased the window open, desperate to make as little sound as possible. Ben didn't dare whisper down into the night, fearful that his father might overhear.
The silhouetted figure crept forward. Adam emerged from the shadows long enough to motion for Ben to come down. Ben listened for the TV, but no hum of random shows buzzed through the hallways. He needed a way to get out of the house without being caught.
The drainpipe running down past his window was solid enough to shimmy down. Once on the ground, Ben crouched low and scurried across his side yard.
"Man, am I glad to see you."
"Yeah. Listen, you need to come and get Pet."
"What? Is he ok?”
"He was when I came to get you, but that may not last."
"What's going on?"
"Come on. I'll tell you on the way."
The two boys took off into the nearby bushes and cut through a number of backyards.
"When I walked through the door without Cynthia, I got yelled at. My parents were angry that she left to go to her friend's without asking and mad at me for letting her. I couldn't tell them why I did, so I just took the yelling."
Ben smiled at his friend.
"Anyway, Mom left to go get Cynthia and bring her home. After about an hour, she didn't come back. Dad called ahead, but Cynthia hadn't seen her. Dad and I went to get Cynthia, hoping we'd find Mom. We didn't. After Dad talked to Cynthia's friend's mom, they decided she should stay the night while we came back home to wait."
"Ok, so how does this put Pet in danger?"
"While I was upstairs, I heard Dad calling the police. If they come and search the shed, they'll find Pet. You need to get him out of there."
Ben took a deep breath. He couldn't let the police find Pet. They might hurt it. Adam was right. Pet needed to go somewhere else.
Back at Adam’s house, his father stood on the front lawn talking with two police officers. Ben had never seen a grown man look so worried. He felt as if he should understand, maybe even envy, Adam's life a little bit because of it.
"Listen, you go and distract your dad while I sneak back to the shed and grab Pet,” said Ben.
"I can't. He doesn't know I left."
Ben shrugged. "Just tell him you went back out to look for your mom."
Adam thought about it. "I guess that'll work."
Adam rushed out into the light while Ben slipped through the bushes. Ben heard Adam's father's shock at the sight of his son emerging from the night. Ben listened as words of reprimand and unconditional love spilled out. Ben wondered if his father would react the same way. He reached the shed with little trouble and opened the doors, hoping the rusted hinges didn't squeak. The inside of the shed was a black hole. No light penetrated or escaped. The smell of dried grass and dirt, tinged with a strange undercurrent of iron or copper, wafted out. Brushing it off as an oddity to consider later, Ben stepped into the darkness.
"Pet," he whispered.
Something heavy lay in Ben's path. He nudged it with his foot. It wobbled along the floor. Ben used his hands like antennae and found the mysterious object. He snapped his hand back, now sticky with a viscous slime. In the darkness, he heard his heart thundering.
A familiar clicking sound approached from the right. A thin tongue flickered over Ben's wet hand eagerly.
"Finally! We need to get out of here, buddy. Come on."
Pet whined at first. Ben thought it tried to drag something out of the shed with them. Ben reached out to find a medium sized, oblong ball covered in slime, ragged patches of fine thread, and hard rock-like protrusions. Pushing it away, Ben found Pet and pulled the reluctant creature toward the door.
"We can't take that, Pet. We need to run. It's too dangerous here."
Pet huffed understanding. They left the shed, closed the door, and made their way through the night back to Ben's home. Once they were far enough away, Ben tried to clean away the sticky substance drying on his hand. Under the light of the moon, he attempted to examine the black liquid. It appeared oily, so Ben assumed his hand grazed an old tool or car part, forgotten in the shed, covered in grease and motor oil. Crouching down, he rubbed his hands over the grass, wiping most of it away, and finished the job using his pants. Once Ben scraped most of the slime away, he motioned for Pet to follow. It only took a few minutes for the two of them to reach Ben's house.
Ben didn't want to risk being heard or seen on the street, so they snuck into the backyard through a small hole in the fence. The hole sat hidden behind a curtain of vines and honeysuckle, so only Ben and a few of his friends knew about it. Just a few feet to the left, a large, unused fire pit sloped into the ground.
"Get in the pit, Pet. I'll tuck you in and tomorrow we'll find something more permanent."
Pet only grunted in reply and trotted down into the pit. A large tarp hung limp from an old motorcycle his father always talked about restoring. Ben dragged the heavy tarp across the yard and covered the pit, careful to leave Pet the ability to move and breathe while protecting it from the elements.
As Ben headed for the kitchen door, he prayed that his father would be occupied with the television. Before Ben could see inside, a deep, angry voice exploded from the house.
"What do you mean the mail never came? What did you do with my paycheck, bitch?" A loud smack reverberated from the kitchen.
Ben inched forward. Unwilling to witness the scene unfolding before him, yet unable to resist, he peered through the filthy screen door leading into the kitchen.
"Jesus, Samuel, I swear it didn't come today. I don't know why. Maybe it's late." His mother choked back tears as she struggled to get away.
Ben noticed the glazed look in his father's eyes. The same fiery glaze Pet got just before running off to hunt.
His father turned away in disgust only to level his destructive gaze on Ben.
"You little brat, what do you think you're doing?" His father barreled through the door and grabbed Ben by the hair before he could respond. Pain ripped through Ben's head as the world spun until everything turned black.
"Answer me!" his father screamed.
A choked scream broke free from Ben. The sharp pain in his head made it hard for any intelligent thought.
"Stop it!" screamed his mother.
His father swung backward and knocked her to the floor. Ben could see a red blotch on his father's fist through the tears. The words "Answer me!" echoed over and over, louder and louder in the cramped, food and blood-spattered kitchen until the tarp caught his father’s attention.
"What the hell did you do this time, you little accident?"
"Nothing." Ben was only able to think in single word sentences.
He threw Ben back outside through the screen door. The menacing stare never wavered as Ben staggered through the night towards the tarp.
Ben drew the tarp back and Pet shot out from beneath. Ben screamed for it to come back, but Pet already raced through the door and into the kitchen.
Ben chased after, hoping his father wouldn't get angrier and hurt Pet.
Ben entered the kitchen out of breath. Pet growled at his father. Drool dripped onto the floor. Pet's tongue flicked out as it scanned his father.
"What the...?" was all Ben's father could muster as the horrifying beast slathered and clicked. Pet's eyes flared as it leaned back, ready to pounce.
“Dad, you’ll love him, I promise! He’s an alpha like us.”
His father blinked at Ben. A dumbfounded expression slackened his rage-twisted features. A gurgled scream was the last sound Dad made as Pet latched onto his throat.
As Pet and his father thrashed across the kitchen floor, his mom watched wide-eyed, curled in the corner, unable to speak or look away.
Ben smiled. Maybe everything would work out. After all, what could go wrong in a house with three alpha males.