But then I heard a screech in the distance, an otherworldly pitch that rivaled the scream of a hawk.
The rising sun did little to warm the January morning and I tried not to shiver as I stood at the end of the street waiting for the bus. I shoved my hands into the coat pockets of my winter coat, the one I picked out more for its looks than its practicality, the wind managing to wiggle its way in through the light fabric to my skin. I was grateful to at least be wearing a hat - a fourteen year old boy could get away with a hat. It wasn’t nearly as pansy-esque as say, a winter jacket. We had rules to follow, us teen boys.
I sighed, trying to let the grating music that screeched out of my headphones distract me from the frigid weather. It reminded me how badly I needed my driver’s license, something to save me from the humiliating ordeal that was waiting for the bus. Still, there were perks. In fact, one of them would be approaching me shortly, I just had to watch out of the corner of my eye.
She finally came around the bend, her eyes cast to the ground as she stomped through the snow with her Doc Martens, barely glancing up behind her fringe of brown hair. I didn’t make eye contact. I never did, never even said one word to her, instead standing there, enjoying her presence as we both waited for the creaks and groans of the ancient school bus to signal its approach. If I was lucky, she’d look up and I’d see a glimpse of her aquamarine eyes before we boarded, perhaps even a polite smile directed my way. I figured maybe one day I’d talk to her, maybe when I had a car. It was hard though, she seemed as antisocial as I and we loner types do not like being disturbed.
This wasn’t an issue for the next one to join us, a stocky kid with spiked hair named Brad Bryant, whose energy burst the peaceful bubble of loud music and respective distance she and I had mutually created. As much as I didn’t want to, I lowered the volume on my MP3 player so I could hear him.
“What’s up, nerd? Listening to that Satanic shit again?” He grinned at Carrie, the object of my adoration, her eyes now fierce as they flew in his direction.
“Fuck off, Bryant.”
He laughed. “Someone’s PMSing. What’s up, Kieve?”
I internally groaned as he came up to clap me on the back. We’d grown up together, two boys the same age living on the same street and all, but I couldn’t stand him. We’d clearly gone our separate ways since the days of random football games in the street, him being the sporty jock type with a host of friends, me the quiet loner who’d rather listen to music than socialize. Yet, he didn’t give up on me, forcing conversation whenever he could. Honestly, I think he did it to mess with me.
“Think Marilyn Manson over here is PMSing,” he snorted, pointing an elbow towards Carrie, who was clearly trying to ignore both of us.
“Man, just leave her alone,” I said before I could help myself. I winced, realizing I’d given him exactly what he wanted.
He feigned a look of shock. “Kieve, my man! You actually like that creepy chick vibe? Hey, man, to each his own - I’m just glad to find out you’re not gay.”
My cheeks flushed, anger quietly radiating from my stomach and up through my veins. I had a million different retorts, springloaded with a million different ways I could imagine his slow torture and death, but she interrupted.
“Is the bus even coming, it’s been more than ten minutes.”
We checked our phones to discover she was right.
“Goddamn it, I can’t get another tardy or I’ll get fucking detention,” Brad cursed.
Before anyone could say anything else, a sound pierced through the winter silence, causing Carrie and I to pull off our headphones to listen. It was a distorted, warbling song that reminded me of something they’d play in a cheesy horror flick, as the camera pans over to show you the old record player that somehow played by itself. Don Knotts shit.
“What the fuck is an ice cream truck doing out in the dead of winter?” Carrie murmured from beside me, momentarily throwing me off by her close proximity. She smelled like Love Spell and freshly shampooed hair.
The broadcaster of the horrific melody surfaced, a hunk of metal whose peeling paint put our school bus to shame. It creaked and groaned as it hobbled its way through the street sludge, its warped version of Pop Goes the Weasel squeaking through its speakers.
The three of us simply stared as it slowed to a halt right in front of us, the song cutting off as the driver rolled down the passenger window.
“Do we look like we want any fucking ice cream?” Brad yelled at the driver.
“Then why are you standing out here?” the driver asked. I squinted, but couldn’t make out his face in the glaring sun.
“We’re waiting for the school bus, you idiot,” Brad replied.
“Bus #48 just turned down Peach Street,” the driver informed us. “You missed it.”
Brad cursed again and kicked a nearby mailbox. “Fuuuuck, I have a game tonight, I can’t get a detention.” He was struck with an idea. “Hey, buddy, can you give us a ride? You’re not going to sell any ice cream out here, but I have five bucks.”
The driver didn’t respond, just hit the unlock button.
Brad grinned, heading towards the hatchback.
“You can’t be serious,” Carrie sputtered. “You don’t know him.”
Brad laughed, the loud, obnoxious sound drowning out the sputtering engine of the idling truck. “That creepy old dude ain’t gonna do shit. You coming with me, Manson?”
She said nothing, her lovely eyes wider than normal as she shook her head.
Carrie’s hand clasped around my arm, sending a jolt right through me. “Don’t,” she warned me. I was cold, tired, annoyed, and definitely not afraid of some old dude in an ice cream truck, but the look in her eyes convinced me.
“Y’all are a bunch of pussies,” Brad snorted as he threw open the doors and climbed aboard. His voice echoed in the truck as he yelled out, “Hate to break it to you guys, but there’s nothing in here but cartons of ice cream.”
Carrie did not let go of my arm until the driver put the truck back into drive, summoning that awful sound back from the depths of whatever hell it came from, and disappeared back around the corner.
“Well, I guess we’d better walk if we want to get to school,” I said softly, when she didn’t move.
She broke free from her stupor, loosening her fingers. “Sorry,” she stammered. “I haven’t had a bad feeling like that in a long time.”
“No worries,” I promised. I was pleased to discover that talking to her was proving far less traumatic than I’d anticipated, despite the current circumstances.
“If I tell you something, will you promise you won’t think I’m nuts?” she asked me, brushing back the messy bangs that fell into her eyes.
I shrugged. “Not really one to judge.”
“I’ll tell you as we walk,” she said, guiding the way forward.
I wished I was wearing a better coat at this point, but I followed, hoping to warm up during the two miles it took to get to school.
She was quiet, as if trying to put the right words together. It gave me the opportunity to openly study her, enjoying her pensive face, and how her thoughts furrowed her brows and dimpled her nose. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead, stopped dead in her tracks.
I looked to see what had startled her, observing the same ice cream truck parked and silent on the side of the road. “Guess they didn’t make it very far,” I commented.
Carrie’s face had turned white.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She wordlessly resumed her march and I joined her, struck by a sudden apprehension I couldn’t explain. Peach Street was a pretty popular road and it occurred to me that we hadn’t seen a car nor another human the entire time we’d been out. Not a single soccer mom van pulled out of a driveway, not one late-to-work car went rushing past.
Carrie’s pace slowed as we got closer, heading around to the front to see if the driver was still there.
“He’s gone!” she called back.
My eyes settled on the handles on the hatchback, wondering if I should open the doors where we’d last seen Brad. Carrie seemed to read my mind, biting at her lip as she considered the same prospect. We moved in unison, two hands on each handle, ripping open the doors with a loud creak.
I didn't like Brad, not one damn bit, but when I saw him there, splayed out and held in place by rope, his skin torn from his muscles and hooked so all his muscles were exposed, I almost joined Carrie as she vomited her coffee and muffin into the snow. I had trouble tearing my eyes away, wondering what it felt like to be flayed, shuddering as I noted the skin had been evenly peeled and kept intact, meaning his final moments were spent in utter agony. Carrie’s arm grabbed mine.
“We have to go before it gets back,” she said frantically.
“When what gets back?”
But then I heard a screech in the distance, an otherworldly pitch that rivaled the scream of a hawk.
She and I ran as fast as we could from the truck, moving from house to house to pound on each door, each one with no avail. Finally, I grabbed her arm, pulling her back towards my house as the screeching sounds intensified.
I knew my back door was always left open and as I pulled her towards it, she slipped on a patch of ice, hitting the ground with a thud. She scrambled back to her feet, a patch of snow darkened by her split lip. I ran to help her up, just as I saw a looming shape behind her.
It was the size of a large human, but that was where the comparisons ended. Long, razor claws ended each finger and toe, its skin red and leathery like Brad’s poor mutilated corpse. Its eyes were like peeled grapes, pupiless but seeing as it lurched towards us, a bifurcated tongue slipping out from a wall of crooked, sharpened teeth. It smelled of old fish and spoiled milk.
“Heat!” Carrie screamed, trying to pull my attention back onto her. “It hates heat!”
I didn’t even pause to question it, grabbing the lighter out of my pocket to give it a flick.
The creature took a step back, narrowing its eyes as its tail twitched with agitation.
Carrie was shaking, but she opened my backpack and pulled out one of my notebooks. She tore the pages, using her own lighter to send them ablaze. The creature backed off, but continued to watch us as if knowing we’d soon run out of paper.
She and I edged back toward my house as I tried to come up with a plan. I wondered how I would tell it to Carrie, if the creature could understand our words if I tried. Fortunately, she didn’t need an explanation, trusting me enough to follow me to the garage. I slammed the door shut just as the creature, with no fire to deter it, slammed into it, scratching at the glass window with its claws.
Although the sound it made was earsplitting, I wasn't deterred. I was no longer in control of my body; sheer adrenaline had taken the reins, knowing there were only moments before the creature broke through. I grabbed the garage door opener out of the sports car my dad kept covered in the winter and tossed it to Carrie. Then I grabbed the bottle lighter fluid from the top shelf and doused the car and as much of the inside as I could. I caught her eyes and gave her a slow nod.
She pressed the garage door opener as I chucked my lighter at the car, the small explosion immediately sparking flame. The creature flew in through the opened door just in time to be blasted with building fire, while Carrie and I raced out the side door. We covered our ears against its frantic screeching until the sound dwindled to a low hiss and then, to nothing.
We collapsed in the snow, catching our breath as we watched the flames swallow my dad’s garage. How the hell was I going to explain this to him? I wondered.
I turned to Carrie, who wiped the blood from her lip, the fire reflected in her eyes. “What was that thing?” I asked her.
“We’re not in the real world anymore,” she said, matter-of-factually with a hint of dismay. “That’s not the last of them either.”
I bolted upright. “What do you mean?”
She sighed, pulling herself to her feet. She brushed the snow off her dark jeans. “Come on. We need to find more weapons and a place to rest. It’s going to be a long night.”
I stared at her, mystified, until she reached down to help me up. “How do you know all this?”
“This is not my first rodeo,” she sighed, pulling me to my feet. “So trust me when I say, we need to go now.”
No sooner had she spoken, did we hear the awful melody of an ice cream truck as it turned down out street. Carrie promptly ran, but I was frozen in place, staring with horror at the driver who waved to me out the window, wearing Brad’s face.