The Wind

January 1st, 2016 Comments Off on The Wind

A man finds himself fighting for the life of a stranger’s daughter when a flat tire leaves him stranded in the woods…


“My daughter,” the man said. “My little girl.” His voice no more than a whisper as a slow curl of breathy vapor drifted from between his lips and dissipated.

Milo Jackson let the man’s head down gently, resting it in the snow. His own breath was heavy; voluminous thunderheads that shrouded his face. He shook his head once, trying to clear the dream, but the body wouldn’t go away. He wiped apple-size tears from his cheeks and looked up into the dark night. The wind had cleared away the clouds and the stars winked like tiny, studded eyes waiting for him to move.

Milo dragged in a deep breath and scooped up the body. With an unlikely finesse, he managed to open the door to the back seat of his car and slide the man in. He hesitated half a second, then went around to the trunk and opened it, digging around for every blanket he could find. These he methodically placed over and around the body, telling himself over and over that he was a first-string running back for the Cleveland Browns, not a doctor, and he wouldn’t know a dead body if it—

“If it ran out of the woods and collapsed in front of me,” he mumbled aloud. He slammed the car door and walked off a few paces, pulling his phone out of his pants pocket as he did so. He glanced over his shoulder at the car, then turned back to the woods and dialed the police. He told them all he knew: How the man had stumbled out of the woods and collapsed, and how he’d mentioned a cabin and his little girl. Milo told them the body was in the car, wrapped in blankets, and that he was going to follow the man’s tracks back to the cabin.

“No, sir, stay with your car until we—”

“There’s no time,” Milo had said simply. “Get a medic out here, too—he might be alive for all I know. I’m going to find that little girl.”

“We have your cell phone number, sir,” the dispatcher said evenly.

“Good,” Milo agreed. “Then you’ll know where to find me.”

Milo Jackson flipped the phone shut and slid it back into his pocket. He moved over to the man’s tracks and followed their line with his gaze, off into the darkness of the woods.

“I never should have gone to see what it was,” the man had said. “Don’t let them get my little girl. My daughter. My little girl.”

Milo tried not to think too much about it. Like Coach said: “Keep your head in the game, Milo. The action’s in front of you—just keep moving forward.” Milo put his head down and trotted into the woods.

* * *

Milo didn’t like the woods much in daylight, but the crisp darkness around him now seemed edged like a knife and full of the sounds of things that meant him harm. He was breathing heavily from the exertion, but he wasn’t cold. He looked around himself as he walked, the moon and the snow lighting the woods in relief: Dark, leafless shapes like the bones of supernal beasts littering an ancient giant’s graveyard. He could see his tracks snaking away behind him, and the fuzzy outlines of the indentations he was following ahead.

A noise suddenly cut through the stillness: A knocking sound, like a rock flung into the trees, bouncing off branches as it fell back to the ground. Milo stopped, his eyes wide and his condensed breath puffing in front of him like a storm front. He heard it again, then a sharp electronic tune drowned it out; Milo jumped and snatched at his pocket to find his phone. He didn’t recognize the number, but he answered anyway.

“This is the police, Mr. Jackson. Where are you?”

“Just follow my tracks—I’m in the woods, heading for the cabin, like I said. Are you at my car?”

“Yes, sir.”

Milo stopped short of asking another question and rubbed his jaw with his massive hand. He was dimly aware of the knocking sound again and half turned in the direction it had come from—ahead and just to the right—then the cop was talking again.

“He’s alright, Mr. Jackson.”

“What?”

“The man in your car—he’s fine. A little hypothermic, but they just took him to the hospital.”

Milo let out a huge sigh. “Thank God.”

“We’ve got a K9 unit with us, Mr. Jackson. Why don’t you wait for us to catch up?”

“No way,” he decided adamantly. “That man, he was crazy with fear—I could tell. He was afraid for his little girl out here alone.” Milo glanced around himself again, at the black trees against the white snow; at the black span of sky cut across the horizon. “He must’ve run for miles. I’ve been walking ever since I called you.”

“It’s only been about 10 minutes,” the cop said with a touch of humor. “We aren’t that slow. Look, we’re starting off now: Why not head back toward us? You’ll only lose about five minutes—”

Milo turned and looked around, back the way he’d come. He saw dark, fuzzy bumps against the snow not too far away; dog-sized bumps he knew he should remember passing, but didn’t. Five of them, loosely grouped, as if someone had tossed a handful of them down and walked off. The one nearest to him moved: Slowly—inconsequentially—like an animal getting used to moving in the snow.

Milo let out a short yelp, snapped his phone shut, and took off running in the other direction, deeper into the woods.

* * *

Jiffy sat in the kitchen sink staring out the window into the woods. Her dad had gone out by the front door, but the furballs seemed to have moved to back of the house and she wanted to keep her eye on them. She’d seen what they could do and it didn’t seem wise to leave them unobserved.

For one thing, they’d chased her dad away. The last she’d seen of him, he was running and screaming into the woods, three furballs giving chase with uncanny speed, pulled forward by a single, pink, fleshy arm and a three-fingered hand that shot out of the hump and recoiled like a frog’s tongue, the fingers grasping the ground before it and pulling… pulling… pulling…

She shuddered and looked way from the window for a moment, at her feet in the sink, then back again. It was full dark now, but she’d turned on the yard lights. The furballs—maybe 15 of them—were milling slowly around the trees, their single, fleshy hands shooting evenly in and out as they moved. It looked like they were trying to climb, but with only one hand, it wasn’t possible.

Another movement caught her eye and she saw a raccoon shuffle into the light. In a moment, they were on it: The sinewy pink hand of the closest one grabbed the hapless animal around the middle and crushed it. She saw just a flash of realization on the raccoon’s face, that it was in danger. Its eyes widened and its mouth opened to yelp a warning cry, then the hand closed like a vice and the animal simply split in two. A few other furballs hurried over, and before Jiffy gasped the raccoon had been torn apart as if five men had grabbed and pulled the same piece of tissue paper simultaneously.

And what if one of them had managed to grab her dad’s ankle as he ran away…?

She looked away again as a tear slid down her cheek, but any tears that might have followed were stemmed immediately by a loud thud on the front porch. Her eyes widened wildly and she stared at the front door—had one of them finally figured out how to clamber up the porch steps with one hand?

The door rattled as something slammed against it. Jiffy screamed and leaped from the sink, heading for the loft. This had always been her plan if they made it to the porch: Climb up to the loft and kick the ladder away. She’d already loosened the bolts.

The door rattled again just as her foot hit the bottom rung. She heard a grunt, maybe even a strangled cry.

“Dad?” she screamed. “Dad!” She froze, halfway up the steps.

The door was solid. She heard another muffled cry, but it didn’t sound like anyone saying her name. She started back down the ladder, but froze again when the door weathered another hinge-rattling blow. Why would her dad be pounding like that? Wouldn’t he call out her name? Wouldn’t he go to the window so she could see him?

Jiffy moaned with indecision and bounced lightly on the ladder. It could be a neighbor or a hiker or a hunter—or her dad, half mad with running for so long.

The door shuddered and the lock splintered. Jiffy squeaked and ran up the ladder to the loft, but she didn’t kick away the ladder. Not yet.

“Dad!” she screamed again, crying now and slipping into hysterics. Why wouldn’t he answer her?

“Lemme in!” she finally heard a voice bellow through the wood. It was a man’s voice, but it was not her father’s, and by the continued blows, he wasn’t waiting for her to reply.

That door could keep a bear out, she dimly recalled her dad saying, once upon time—then the door cracked with a piercing groan and burst open, showered splinters into the room. A massive figure fell into the cabin and lay motionless.

Jiffy pulled her legs into the loft and tried not to cry. She could see the furballs beyond the door, beyond the porch—they hadn’t figured out the stairs, then.

The figure moaned and started to get up.

“Shut the door, mister,” Jiffy squeaked.

“Huh?” the man said.

“Shut the door.”

Jiffy kicked the ladder away and scooted into the back of the loft.

* * *

Officer Tom Scott glanced over at his partner and let out a long breath, only then realizing he’d been holding it. Just ahead of them stood a third officer who was barely able to hold back a wildly barking police dog.

“What is it?” Officer Scott called out.

“No clue,” the K9 officer called back. “It just moved again, and I think there’s another one off in the woods. Heel, Jessie!” he added in a growl to the dog, to no avail.

“It’s a raccoon,” the other officer said quietly, but he wasn’t sure he even believed himself.

“Jesus,” Officer Scott sighed, letting out another long breath. “I hate the fucking woods. Let her at it!” he called out to the dog handler. “We can’t stand her all fucking night cuz of a coupla damn raccoons!”

“I don’t think—” the cop replied, but Officer Scott cut him off.

“Release the damn dog, Al! Christ!”

What happened next was later expunged from the official police report for fears of generating the “widespread panic” that officials always seem to think will be ignited if the truth is made public. Officer Al Chiffon dropped the leash and drew his gun in one well-practiced move as Jessie darted forward with a vicious snarl. The dog headed directly for the nearest animal in the path, but instead of turning and scampering off, it stayed put. In fact, the other critter they’d seen came bolting out of the woods toward the charging dog and its counterpart in the path.

The three police officers barely had time to register the fleshy, pink hand the critter used to pull itself along with before the other critter’s hand shot out of the furball and caught Jessie squarely around the neck. The dog didn’t so much as yelp before an ugly crunching preceded its body slumping heavily to the ground, independent of its head, which rolled off the fleshy fist and thudded to the ground itself. Then the second critter was on it, and the dog’s body was deftly relieved of a back leg in one squeeze of the inhuman hand.

Al Chiffon screamed and opened fire. He squeezed off eight rounds, but the first two hit their marks: The creatures stopped moving with just one bullet each, parts of the dismembered Jessie falling loosely from three-fingered hands.

Al screamed again—a potent voice of rage, fear, and confusion—but didn’t fire his last round. “What the fuck!” he managed to bellow. Behind him the other two officers stood motionless and pale, gaping judiciously. Officer Scott had his hand on the butt of his gun, but that was as far as his reflexes had got him before it was all over.

“What the hell was that, Phil?” Al asked, turning and looking at them. “You’re the wildlife expert.”

“There may be more,” Officer Scott replied cautiously for his partner, pulling out his gun. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

Al turned back to the trailhead. The only part of the carnage that still looked like Jessie was a large mass of meat that contained her tail. “Jessie,” he whispered, sucking in a ragged breath.

Officer Scott moved forward a few steps, his gun trained on the nearest furry bump. “I better call that Milo guy,” he said distantly. “Make sure he’s… okay.” He slowly holstered his gun.

“Cover me, Phil,” he said over his shoulder as he pulled out his cellphone and dialed Milo’s number.

* * *

Milo pushed against the door to test its resistance. He’d shut it and moved the couch over to hold it shut and it seemed like it would hold.

“It’s okay,” he said, more to himself than the girl who was still huddled in the loft. “What are those things out there?”

Jiffy didn’t respond so he turned and looked up at her. Milo guessed her to be about eight or nine, her young face writ with defiance and resolve fueled by fear.

“Your daddy’s okay,” Milo said kindly, smiling. “He asked me to come and get you, make sure you—”

Jiffy started to cry, though she was trying to hold in the tears, her face still rigid with that defiance. She was not only rightly afraid of this stranger who had burst into her cabin, Milo could tell there was no way she was going anywhere without a fight.

“Hey, I know how that sounds. My name’s—”

“Why isn’t he with you?” Jiffy cut in curtly, the sound of her own voice boosting her confidence. She sat up straight and sniffed back the tears that had never fully emerged.

“Pardon me?”

“If my dad’s okay, why isn’t he with you?”

“He fainted,” Milo replied. “He was exhausted and he was too cold. He had to go to the hospital…” Milo trailed off as Jiffy’s tears finally spilled onto her cheeks.

“I don’t believe you,” she managed to sputter.

“I know, honey,” Milo replied, trying to sound as kind as possible. Maybe I sound too kind, he considered. So kind, it sounds fake. Milo had heard from his father the same stories about strangers and their lies that Jiffy had undoubtedly heard from hers.

“Look,” he added with a sudden realization. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “Call the police—they know I’m here and they’re already on their way. Ask them about me. My name’s Milo Jackson.”

“Like the football player?” Jiffy asked incredulously, her small brow wrinkling.

“That’s right, honey. I am the football player.”

She eyed him curiously, looking him up and down and sniffing in a few ragged breaths. The tears had stopped again. Milo figured any girl who spent time on winter camp-outs with her dad probably regained her composure pretty quickly.

“I know, I look different than on TV. No helmet, no pads.”

She still didn’t respond, but she visibly relaxed, uncurling her legs and sitting up straight.

“I’m going to throw you my phone, honey,” he said. As an afterthought, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket, too. “And my wallet. Call the police—really. And check my ID. I don’t want to frighten you. I just want to get you out of here.”

He glanced at the door, but kept the smile on his face and offered the girl a small, encouraging nod. She didn’t nod back, but some subtle shift in her posture said she was ready to catch. He pitched the phone up to her and she caught it, then he flung his wallet, which opened in the air and flapped down closed beside her.

Jiffy grabbed the wallet and opened it, focusing immediately on Milo’s driver’s license. She tilted the wallet just right to catch the light and cut off the glare from the plastic sleeve that held the license, and her heart fluttered a little. He was Milo Jackson alright. She was in the same room as Milo Jackson!

Well, he’s a Milo Jackson, she added to herself, hoping her brief excitement hadn’t been obvious.

“Behind my license is my team ID,” he said, as if reading her mind. “You know, to get in the weight room and stuff.” He pantomimed the motion required to find the team ID and she mimicked him, slipping her finger behind the license. She pulled out the card behind the license and gasped, forgetting for the moment that she was trying to play it cool.

There it was: A very official-looking Cleveland Browns ID card, with hologram logos and everything, and Milo’s picture with his name, number, and position under it. Jiffy glanced over at a crumpled pile of clothes in the corner of the loft—her team jersey with Milo Jackson’s name and number on it was in that pile. If it wasn’t dirty, she was wearing it.

Jiffy snapped back to the moment and looked down at Milo, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. It would be hard to fake that team ID, but she still had to be cautious. Focus on the moment, her dad’s voice echoed in her head. If you’re ever stuck, just focus on the moment and take it bit by bit.

“This still doesn’t mean you’re not going to hurt me,” she pointed out.

“I know, honey. Lots of famous people are screw-ups—so call the police. Please. We have to get—”

At which moment Milo’s cell phone rang. She looked down at the phone’s display, which read “incomplete data,” so she threw it back down to him without a word, a stern look of something close to anger on her face. He managed to catch it—Like a pro football player, Jiffy thought—and flip it open. He eyed her warily, well aware that the wrong caller at the wrong time could blow whatever tentative ground he’d gained.

“Hello?” His face washed with relief. “Yes, officer—I’m at the cabin.” He smiled at Jiffy and gave her a thumbs-up. “Yes, she’s fine.” His face darkened and he unconsciously turned aside as if to hide the conversation from the girl. “Yeah, I saw them. They chased me.” Milo slowly took the phone from his ear, looking at it with wide eyes. Jiffy could just hear the tinny scream coming out of the earpiece—a small voice, out there in the woods, yelling “Shoot it! Shoot it! Shoot it!” over and over, the pitch rising with hysteria as the sound dimmed to a small buzz.

Milo glanced up at Jiffy and saw the panic on her face. He snapped the phone closed and tossed it back to her.

“Call 9-1-1,” he said urgently. “Tell them to send more help. And don’t forget to ask about me.”

Jiffy nodded and swallowed slowly. Her hands were shaking but she held back the tears—Cry later, Jiffy-bear, she heard her dad telling her—and opened the phone. She pressed the 9. In response something thudded against the barricaded door. Milo moved over to the window and looked out. There was one of the furballs on the porch trying, it appeared, to grasp the flat of the door with its fleshy protuberance. Behind it another one was just gaining the top of the porch steps.

“Jesus,” Milo breathed, glancing at the door knob as the thing thudded harmlessly against the flat of the door again. “They figured out the steps.”

When he turned back to Jiffy she was crying, but softly, holding her breath to hold back tears, the phone pressed to her ear. In a dreamlike state Milo heard her trying to explain what was going on while the thing on the porch continued to pound at the door. The thuds seemed louder than anything, like the slow beating heart of a massive creature that may or may not be sleeping. All Milo could imagine was one of those tendril-thin fingers hooking the knob…

“She says to stay on the line,” Jiffy’s voice finally quivered, managing to break through the pounding.

“Good,” Milo agreed, glad to have that obstacle out of the way. He glanced around the room, truly taking it all in for the first time. “Do you have a back door?”

“She also said you recently reported that my dad was hurt,” Jiffy intoned slowly.

“That’s right, honey,” Milo agreed, not too concerned with his alibi any more. “Did she tell you he’s okay?”

Jiffy shook her head. Milo caught the movement out of the corner of his eye as he scanned the room and he sighed heavily, looking her in the eyes and holding her gaze.

“Well he is, I promise. That man who called… you know, before? He told me the ambulance has taken your dad—”

“You told me that,” Jiffy whispered, but he could tell by her tone that she believed him now. On top of that, her eyes begged him to help her, to save her, to get out of this cabin alive. To be more than a man or a sports hero. The door thudded again and Milo peeked out the window.

“Christ,” he gasped. “There must be fifteen of them—is there a back door, honey?” he asked with more urgency. He glanced up at her, but she was shaking her head again.

“She says to stay put,” the girl replied distantly, emitting a small squeak as the door thudded again. She looked confused and so, so small. She knew the person on the phone was a cop, and cops always knew how to keep people safe, but in her heart of hearts, in the place her daddy said she should always trust, she knew they couldn’t stay put. Not a chance.

“I don’t think we can stay here,” Milo said evenly, holding up his massive hands to her in a posture of surrender. “I think we’re going to have to make a run for it.”

“Well, I’m not going to jump down,” she replied curtly, drying up her tears with a sense of purpose now that her mind was made up and this man—Milo Jackson, the football star!—appeared to be in agreement.

Milo dropped his hands and allowed himself a slight smile, then slowly bent down and picked up the ladder, standing it back in place against the loft.

“Why don’t you come up here?” she wondered, just so she could hear again how they really only had one choice.

“They figured out the stairs, honey,” Milo said. “And there’s… so many of them. If we stay here, I don’t think it will take them long
to—”

Jiffy slid the phone from her ear and snapped it shut, then grabbed Milo’s wallet and climbed down the ladder to the cabin floor.

* * *

Officer Scott hit the last of the fuzzballs with the first shot, and he was quite proud of that statistic. Not that he’d been keeping a careful tally, but of the 20 or so fuzzballs they’d just wiped out, he was pretty sure he’d landed the only first-shot killshot on a moving target. And move they did, at first in a one-mind pack like a school of fish that bows and twirls at the same moment, then after they’d started to pick them off (while he shrieked, “Shoot it! Shoot it! Shoot it”), they broke into small clumps of hunters trying to surround their prey.

Trying to surround them.

After the low fear returned and left the hysterical rage as nothing but a few shakes and a sweaty brow, Officer Scott looked sheepishly at the other two.

“Five in a row,” he whispered, a proud curl running along his lips. “Three more shots, then we’ll see how you do, Phil.”

“Shit, Tom, I won’t waste a single bullet.”

It was small talk designed to keep their minds off whatever the hell was happening. They’d been moving forward picking them off as they saw them, trying to clear a path back to the cabin in Milo Jackson’s footprints, when the pack had come out of nowhere in front of them.

“Maybe I should call Milo again,” Tom said. “Let him know we’re okay.”

“No,” Al Chiffon stated simply. He’d been walking in between the other two, picking off fuzzballs left and right without a single word. He hadn’t spoken since they’d set off again, after the fuzzballs had got to his dog. Phil glanced at Tom across Al’s back and shrugged.

“We keep moving,” Al concluded. “We get the girl and we go home.”

* * *

“I’ve been watching them,” Jiffy said as Milo leaned a bookcase against the door then shoved the couch back up against it to hold it in place.

“Yeah?” he prompted. Jiffy nodded vigorously.

“They seem to form little herds or packs—whatever—but eventually they break up again and spread out. But if something moves—like a rabbit?—then they all run back together into a big clump and…”

She trailed off and Milo raised his eyebrows questioningly. This girl was sharp. Now that she was talking to him, he actually felt a certain relief. He knew he wouldn’t have to get them out of this alone.

“And?” Milo prodded.

“They tear it apart,” she finished simply.

“You said they weren’t on the porch until I got here, right?” Milo checked.

Jiffy nodded. “So they aren’t too smart,” she concluded. “They just followed you up the steps. Lucky for us, that took them a while.”

Milo stepped swiftly across the cabin and looked out the little window above the kitchen sink. He scanned the area illuminated by the outdoor lighting.

“I think you’re right—there aren’t any back there now. They all went around to the front. Is there a back door?” he asked, his mind blurring as he considered all their options. This was just like reading a blitz on the offensive line: The pieces may all have minds of their own, but they moved in a predictable fashion, if you could read them right.

“There’s just the front door,” she said softly. As if sensing what this meant, the creatures redoubled their efforts, pounding again and shuddering the wood. Ten minutes earlier Milo was sure she would have broken into tears again, but now her face was set. She was much more determined since talking to the police. Now she just wanted this to be over, to be back with her dad, and it showed in the dark set of her eyes and her grim expression.

Milo scanned the cabin and his gaze came to rest on the books he’d tossed off the bookcase before he’d moved it. “I’ll throw a book out the kitchen window,” he decided as he moved over and picked one up. “You watch and see if they move around to see what the noise is.”

Jiffy nodded and stepped toward the front window. She suddenly looked so very small again—just a little girl out for a night or two in the woods with her old man. Brave beyond her years—and wily—but still so small, so easily broken.

“Wait!” Milo cried out, envisioning the creatures popping through the window in a spray of shattered glass. She wouldn’t stand a chance. “Don’t get too close! Don’t let them see you move.”

Jiffy froze, took a deep breath, then crept up to the window by the door and peeked out. There they were: Three on the porch—now just scratching at the door, after realizing their attacks were useless—two on the steps, and at least ten still out in the yard, milling around within the arc of light from the porch. And God knew how many more there were, off in the darkness.

Jiffy glanced back at Milo as he opened the kitchen window. The scratching at the door stopped almost instantly—they’d heard even so slight a noise as that. Milo snapped the window closed and turned to Jiffy.

“Where are they?” he whispered.

“Moving back off the porch,” she whispered back. “Some of them should be back there by now.”

Milo looked out his window and saw that a handful had indeed already come around to investigate. That worried Milo. They’d sent a scouting party to see what was going on, and if these creatures out-foxed him, it wasn’t the quarterback who’d get sacked, it was a little girl who’d be torn limb-from-limb.

“They’ve stopped,” Jiffy whispered so quietly Milo almost didn’t hear her. “If we make any noise, they’ll come back.”

Milo didn’t think. He did what the coach always said he should do: He turned on his game-brain and used muscle memory. His eyes narrowed as he flung the kitchen window open again and hurled a book out into the circle of light at the edge of the darkness. The handful of creatures pounced over to it with terrifying speed, pulled along by that vaguely human appendage. Milo slammed the window, then open it and slammed it again.

“They’re all going back there!” Jiffy whispered excitedly. “And Jesus, mister Jackson, they can move!”

“Sh!” Milo hissed curtly, dashing over and pulling the couch away from the bookcase across the door. “Next time I move the bookcase and we run.” He said it quietly, but sternly, and Jiffy recognized the focused look in his eyes. It was the same look that came through the face guard of his helmet when they did close-ups on TV. It was what her daddy called a game face, and she knew he couldn’t see anything but the plan he had in mind.

“I’m going to carry you,” he continued in the same low, stern voice. “I’m going to grab you like a 40-pound football and run, okay?”

Jiffy nodded slowly, the tears welling up in her eyes again. Before, when they’d just been thinking about it, it hadn’t seemed so bad, but now that Milo was serious—now that she knew the danger was so very, very real—she was scared all over again.

“Turn on your game-brain,” he intoned, his eyes flickering across her face for barely an instant.

“Maybe we should wait?” she squeaked. Milo glanced past her out the front window: Shapes were beginning to mill around out there again. They’d either got bored or had come back because of the sound of the couch being moved. Either way, they’d only gain a few seconds’ head start. He turned and looked back at the loft again and considered it—but no. Even with the ladder removed the rustic walls left far too many footholds—or handholds, as the case may be.

“We can’t risk it,” he said. “If we run, we’ll be heading toward the police—”

“But the police man was screaming,” Jiffy reminded him weakly.

“He was also shooting his gun,” Milo said. “It’s our best hope.” He turned his gaze back to her and his face softened. “And your daddy out ran them, Jiffy, so I’m pretty sure I can, too.”

“Put on my game face,” Jiffy said breathlessly, sponging tears from her eyes with her palms. Milo actually smiled, then nodded dourly.

“Use your muscle memory,” he agreed.

* * *

They moved on in silence, slowly inching forward as they kept a careful watch for any movement that even hinted at one of the fuzzballs. Al’s gaze wandered up as they walked, taking in all the angles that could contain a threat—and Christ Almighty, in the woods there were a shit-ton of them. He watched the leafless treetops scratching the starlit sky and considered the squirrel nests dotted here and there in the limbs—then he stopped cold.

“Shit,” he breathed, bringing the other two officers to a stand-still. They both turned and looked at him to see where he was looking.

“What?’ Tom asked nervously, afraid to look up.

“That squirrel nest up there just moved.” All pulled out his flashlight and trained its beam on the nest. From their distance it was just a dark bump near the top of a tree.

“Christ, is that one of those things?” Tom wondered, finally looking up to see what Al meant. He hadn’t seen it move, but it looked to be about the size of one of the fuzzballs. He shuddered to think of the strange, fleshy hand grasping the branch it was perched on.

Al moved his light around the dark canopy, outlining several more of the clumps in the trees. “They’re just nests, right?” he asked in a panicked tone. “That’s what my dad always said.”

Tom looked around the woods again. It seemed pretty quiet all of sudden; Phil shrugged when he caught his eye. There certainly seemed to be a lot more of those things up there than he figured there were squirrels that would need them.

“What if the wind brought some of them down last night?” Al wondered out loud. “What if they live up there and they don’t normally ever come down?”

“It was quite a windstorm,” Phil agreed, trying to be helpful. Al snapped off his light and looked at him. “But what if they do come down, to feed?” Phil asked.

“Then we’re surrounded,” Tom stated simply, sharing a wide-eyed realization with the others.

Then they heard the sticks and branches start breaking, off in the distance, but getting closer. All three of them smoothly drew their guns and stood facing the noise.

* * *

“Shall we practice?” Milo asked her. Jiffy nodded, trying her best to keep her game face on. The massive man reached out tentatively and scooped her up like a large rag doll. He grabbed her around the waist with his left hand and tucked her in to his hip, then slid his right hand under her arm, her head tucked in the crook of his right elbow. He squeezed her tightly against himself and jogged in place a few paces.

“Then I’ll run,” he said out loud to himself and put her back down. “Was I hurting you?” She shook her head slowly. “Okay. Then go back to your window and tell me—quietly—when they’re all gone. Okay?”

He moved over and grabbed a stack of books then went back to the kitchen window. One of the creatures was still milling around expectantly, waiting for another noise. He looked over at Jiffy and mouthed “O-K?” She nodded slowly, dreamily, and turned resolutely to her window. Milo threw his window open and tossed out the first book. The thing pounced on it faster than Milo had expected, then like a shot another one scuttled around the cabin and tore into it. Together, they tore the book in half. Milo considered that for a second—what it meant about not only their strength, but their grip—then tossed out another book. Now the creatures were herding, as Jiffy had put it, three of them pouncing on the second book while the first two continued to shred and assess their prize.

Milo tossed out another and another, trying to get them further and further away from the cabin and hoping they wouldn’t figure out that books weren’t good food. The back yard was quickly teeming with them, but the books seemed to be keeping them busy—they either didn’t notice him in the window or didn’t care. He tossed the last book out the window and dashed over to Jiffy.

“I haven’t seen anything move since you tossed the second book,” she whispered. Milo nodded curtly. His eyes had that distant behind-the-faceguard look again. He picked up the end of the bookcase and carefully moved it aside.

“Anything?” he asked as he put it down.

“Nothing.”

“No movement?” He glanced out the window himself for a few seconds, well aware of how slim their head start would be already. Milo saw for himself the expanse of unblemished snow fading into the moonlit blue of the woods.

“Ready?” he growled, turning her to him.

“My coat!” she gasped, but Milo didn’t hesitate a second and picked her up, just like they’d practiced.

“We won’t be in the woods long enough to need one,” he said evenly, tucking her in as he opened the door. The air was crisp and there was a strange sound echoing off the trees—the sound of books being shredded, he realized, and loud enough to cover the sound of them leaving. He stepped onto the porch and took in a deep breath, jostling Jiffy once to make sure she was wedged in well. Then Milo hopped off the porch and ran, ran like he’d never run before, only vaguely aware that this football was so much heavier than all the others and that it was gripping his shirt with tight little fists.

* * *

“It’s too late it’s too late it’s too late…” Al Chiffon repeated like a mantra as the noise crashed toward them. It sounded like it must be at least a hundred of the fuzzballs, pounding along on their fleshy hands and tearing apart whatever got in their way.

“Put your gun away,” Tom suddenly said softly, but sternly.

“It’s too late…”

The sound grew louder and louder.

“It’s too late…”

“Al!” Tom cried. “You’re in shock! Let me and Phil—”

“Holy Christ!” Phil shrieked as a massive shape faded out of the darkness between the trees, heading straight toward them. “It’s huge!” He leveled his gun, his finger tightening on the trigger.

“No!” Tom yelled. In one fluid motion, the likes of which would not need to be exaggerated when he told of the miracle at parties thereafter, he knocked Al’s gun out of his hand as Al squeezed off a round, and kicked Phil in the shin before he could pull his trigger.

The form kept coming, then Phil heard it, too: A voice as big as the form yelling, “Run!”

“It’s Milo!” Tom cried. He looked at Al and saw panic-stricken eyes that were wide and unseeing. He didn’t wait for confirmation. Defenseless and afraid, Al Chiffon turned and bolted away from whatever or whoever it was coming toward him.

Run!” Milo shouted more clearly, barreling headlong toward them. Phil and Tom turned in tandem and sprinted after Al, Milo bearing down on them in a mist of kicked-up snow.

* * *

“Daddy! It’s on!” Jiffy called into the kitchen. Her dad straightened up with a beer in his hand and closed the fridge door.

“Coming!” he called back, popping the top and tossing the bottle cap onto the kitchen table. He slumped down on the couch and put his arm around his daughter as she snuggled up to him.

“Where’s mom?”

“Still at the store.”

They watched the TV as the camera panned over the faces of the starting lineup, and whether or not it paused longer on Milo Jackson, Jiffy couldn’t say for sure, but she thought it did.

“That’s his game face, Daddy,” she said. “He looks mean, doesn’t he? But it’s just his game-brain working—that’s what he called it. He said it uses muscle memory.”

Her dad chuckled lightly and sighed, hoping his daughter wouldn’t see him getting misty as he wiped his eyes without putting down his beer.

* * *

“Did we get ’em all?” the game warden asked the hunting party. He looked down at the hump of fuzzy balls in the clearing they’d made, the strange pink hands and arms lolling at lifeless angles.

“All the ones down here, yeah,” one of the hunters replied. “We’ve been through this stretch of woods twice, front to back.”

The warden looked up into the treetops and watched the branches swaying under the weight of the dark clumps in the uppermost branches. “How many are up there, though?” he thought out loud.

“God knows,” was the terse reply.

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