It was a beautiful night for July Fourth fireworks. Frank Manetti drank an ice-cold Bud as he sat with his wife, Kim, on a picnic blanket in the park. All around, over a hundred people had gathered on blanket islands, waiting for the big show in the sky. Giggling kids ran with sparklers. On a stage, the high school band performed ‘Stars and Stripes’.
Frank and Kim’s three-year-old daughter, Emmy, talked to a jar of lightning bugs that Daddy had caught with her earlier. His baby girl looked adorable with face-painted flowers blooming on her cheeks. Frank wished he could bottle up Emmy’s preciousness and keep it forever. His teenage kids had grown out of that stage.
Collin, his fourteen-year-old, sat off by himself under a tree, playing a damned video game on his tablet, oblivious to the festivities. Agitation gnawing his gut, Frank searched the crowd for his sixteen-year-old. Cassandra stood near the softball field bleachers, talking with her girlfriends and some older boys.
“Cass should be with us,” Frank muttered. “I’m going over there.”
“Leave her be,” Kim said. “You’ll just embarrass her and then she’ll hate us for a month.”
It pained Frank’s heart that his kids had grown distant. Whenever his family was all together, Cass was always texting and Collin rarely looked up from a digital screen. At least I have sweet Emmy a few more years. His youngest looked up, smiled at Daddy, then went back to talking to the jar of glowing bugs.
Frank fished out two more beers from the cooler and nuzzled next to his wife, handing her a cold one. He kept one eye on Cass and the boys. He wanted very much to enjoy the school’s orchestra, but a group of sketchy teens nearby were blaring god-damn rap music. Their cigarettes lit up the gloom like fireflies.
“Hey,” Frank shouted. “You wanna turn that down? We’re trying to hear the band.”
A punk in a sleeveless T-shirt and black bandana turned his head and blew out smoke. “Got a problem, dude?”
“Yeah, I got a problem. You’re upsetting the people who came for the show.”
“Here’s your show.” Bandana gave him the finger and turned the music up louder. His friends snickered and raised their beers.
A rash of heat spread across Frank’s face. Squeezing his fist, he started to get up, but Kim grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”
Back in his marine days, Frank would have pounded the shit out of these assholes. With his wife and daughter nearby, he refrained.
The band stopped and Mayor McKee stepped onto the stage. “Is everyone ready for our big fireworks extravaganza?”
Families cheered. The softball team raised their bats and gloves.
The mayor gave the signal and the band started playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The first bottle rocket launched a flare into the air with a whistle. White dots sparkled the night sky, followed by crackles. Emmy clapped and giggled. Next came starbursts of red, white, and blue. The audience gave an applause.
As bright lights lit up everyone’s faces, Frank watched Cass standing too close to some jock. The pungent smell of weed wafted across the Manetti family’s blanket. Frank’s glare shifted to Bandana and his gang of lowlifes. A big guy with a shaved head inhaled smoke from a joint.
Frank was about to confiscate the damned thing, when the gang members pointed toward the sky. Kaleidoscopes of colors flashed over the park. Then a shrieking flare shot down and exploded on the band. The music stopped as shattered instruments cut through the crowd like shrapnel. A piece of trombone speared into the mayor’s chest.
“Jesus!” Frank straightened.
“My God! What’s happening?” Kim asked.
He shook his head, stunned by the carnage of dead and wounded people. The blast had been too big for a poorly-aimed firework. More like a mortar. He’d suffered plenty of them in Iraq. His first thought was terrorist attack.
Two more flares shot from the sky and struck the blankets of the softball team. Kim threw her arms over Emmy as fiery body parts and sports gear flew through the air. A spinning aluminum bat shattered Emmy’s firefly jar.
Frank shielded Kim and Emmy with his body as more explosions erupted across the park. Screams and crying sounded all around. People trampled over one another to find cover.
A dozen flying objects emerged from the smoke. Long, sweeping red lasers burned holes through people all across the field. A man’s head glowed orange before it vaporized.
A running kid in a band uniform burst into red mist.
Kim cried, “Our kids!”
“I’ll find them,” Frank handed his toddler off to Kim and pointed to the woods that bordered the park. “You and Emmy get to safety.”
She hesitated, her eyes pleading.
He pushed Kim. “Go!”
Three small UFOs flew over and barraged the scrambling crowd. A blast hit Bandana’s gang, splattering the shaved-head kid all over the others. A singed arm with tattoos landed on Frank’s blanket.
Covered in blood, Bandana and his friends joined a panicked mob that knocked Frank to the ground. Shoes stepped on his hand and back. Emmy cried. Kim screamed.
He watched helplessly as wife and daughter were caught up in a stampede that carried them away into a cloud of smoke. Two small UFOs zipped after them.
Frank scooped up an aluminum bat and ran into the haze searching for Cass and Collin. Scorched bodies lay scattered across the grass. Dodging blasts and debris, he scoured the ground, terrified of finding his kids among the dead. Bandana reached up, begging for help. Then a laser sliced the prone punk’s skull in half.
Six more UFOs whooshed overhead, shooting at anyone who moved. Frank ducked beneath a tree as lasers torched the branches. The treetop caught fire.
He ran toward the woods, screaming his older children’s names, “Cass! Collin!”
He spotted Cassandra running with a crowd through the forest. “Cass!”
“Daddy!” She made her way back and hugged her father.
Cass shook her head. “Mom and Emmy?”
“In the woods. Safe, I hope.”
Still gripping the metal bat, Frank led Cass along a creek. Their feet splashed through shallow water. Dazed survivors hid behind tree trunks. Others ran and took cover under a bridge. Frank and Cass joined them in the shadows. By the grace of God, he found Kim and Emmy among the crowd. They were badly cut and bruised, but okay. The four hugged, thankful to be alive.
“Collin?” Kim asked.
Frank’s heart sank, learning that his son was still out there. “Take care of the girls. I’ll try to find him.” He stepped out from beneath the bridge.
A metallic whoosh reverberated through the air. Red lights glowed. A small object flew low along the creek. Two robotic arms stretched out of its sides and turned into spinning blades. The UFO charged straight for the survivors under the bridge. Frank stood in front, wielding his bat. Just as the craft reached him, he swung, smacked the thing, and sent it rolling through the creek. Sparks skipped across the water. The spinning blades stopped and the red lights winked out.
Frank picked up the dead machine with both hands. Weighing less than fifty pounds, it looked like some kind of alien spacecraft with multiple weapons. He turned it over. “What the fuck?” Etched into its belly were the words, ‘Made in China’.
Frank returned to the crowd beneath the bridge, more confused than ever, and determined to protect his girls. As he watched several more machines fly off over the treetops, he feared for his son.
* * *
A few blocks away, Collin Manetti jogged down a sidewalk through the neighborhood. He could still hear distant laser blasts and screams as people sought shelter. Several houses had caught fire. A few smoking bodies lay on the road and front lawns.
One of the flying machines careened up the street and hovered straight above Collin. He admired the technology of blinking lights and arsenal of weapons that jutted from its sides like tentacles. The ASSASSYN-X9000 was the coolest drone he’d ever seen. He gave it a salute and typed a few commands on his tablet. The drone zipped away to create havoc somewhere else.
Whistling, Collin entered his best friend’s house. Matt and Toby sat in the living room with VR goggles on their heads. Both teens cheered as they rapidly thumbed their joystick buttons.
“Dude, this new video game is kick ass,” Matt said. “I feel like I’m flying a spacecraft.”
“The screams sound so real,” Toby said.
“That’s because they are, dipshit.” Collin dropped into a beanbag chair and put on a third set of goggles. He switched the controls from his tablet to the joystick console and resumed control of a handful of machines, sending them on a search and destroy mission through the neighborhood and into the woods.
“I gotta get me one of these,” Matt said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Bought it off a gaming website from China.” Collin felt the sensation of sitting in a moving cockpit, as he dive-bombed people running along the ground.
Toby yelled “Score!” when he obliterated another target. “How many drones did you say the game comes with?”
Collin grinned. “A dozen. And the box comes with plenty of fireworks.”
∼ Brian Moreland
© Copyright Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.
Manitou Forest, Manitoba, Canada
A damn good day of hunting, Angus Kujak mused as his bloodied hands steered the truck between snow-covered pines. The antlers of his most recent kill rattled against the hood. Kujak rubbed his mutton-chop sideburns, feeling proud. Through the rearview mirror he glimpsed the pile of carcasses strapped to the flatbed. Atop two elk bulls lay his prize trophy—a grizzly bear. Took five bullets, but he’d finally brought her down with a dead zinger through the eye. Definitely a story for the boys at the chophouse.
“Hunting’s been better than usual, eh Jeb?” Snoring came from the passenger seat. Kujak reached over and knocked his cousin’s forehead. “I’m not paying you to sleep.”
Jeb, dressed in blood-stained camouflage and a winter hat with earflaps, sat up rubbing his forehead. “Sorry. Shelby kept me up half the night.”
“What’s she moaning about?”
“Usual. I spend too much time at the pub, not enough with her and the kids.” Jeb unscrewed his thermos cap. The smell of coffee and whiskey filled the truck.
“Man’s gotta have time with his friends. Pass that over.” Kujak took a swig from the thermos. The coffee was cold, but the whiskey went down with a fiery burn.
Up ahead, a white squall was devouring the pines. Snow pelted the windshield, threatening to bury the truck with the rest of the forest. He turned the wipers on full speed.
Jeb said, “Angus, I need to tell you something…you aren’t gonna like it.”
“What is it?”
“Shelby wants me to quit working for you and take a job building that pipeline.”
Kujak got a vile taste in his mouth. Jeb’s wife was always henpecking him. Soon after they’d gotten married, she’d cut off Jeb’s balls and stuck them in a drawer. She didn’t care for hunting—Killing animals is barbaric!—or her husband working for Kujak. They’d been hunting together since they were kids, long before Shelby entered the picture, and no woman should come between them. “You wouldn’t abandon your cousin, would ya?”
Jeb looked out his window. “I dunno. Thornhill Petroleum promises good pay plus benefits.”
“I pay you damned good, plus bonuses when you actually kill something.”
“Yeah, but pipeline work’s legal. Mr. Thornhill paid a visit to the pub last night. Said he had plenty of work for anyone interested.”
Kujak slammed his fist down on the steering wheel. “That blasted son’bitch! I’ve lost most of my hunters since that weasel rolled into town. I’d like to string him up by his ankles.”
“You gotta admit, his pipeline has helped business. Ever since they started blasting through Manitou Forest, he’s been driving game right toward our hunting ground.”
“That’s why I need you more than ever.” The road straightened. Kujak shifted into a higher gear. The truck’s engine howled in protest as it drove at forty miles an hour. “Jeb, I been thinking about making you a partner. You’d be surprised how much you can make. I’m selling more than just the meat and hides. The antlers, bones, hooves, and innards, I got buyers for all of it. We can earn…”
Something rammed the side of the truck. The steering wheel spun loose from Kujak’s grip. The truck careened 180 degrees, slammed sideways into a wall of snow. Elk antlers scraped across the hood and punctured the windshield. Kujak’s face hit the steering wheel. Dazed, he stared down at his blurry boots. Blood dribbled from his nose over his lips. “Jesus!” Kujak gripped the wheel until the forest stopped spinning. “You okay, Jeb?”
His cousin rubbed his forehead. “Hit my damn head, but I’m okay. What happened?”
“Felt like a moose broadsided us. See a dead one near the road?”
“Nothing. Not even blood.”
An animal howled from the snowy mist.
“Fuckin’ hell was that?” Jeb crouched in his seat.
Kujak rubbed his eyes. “I’m still seeing double. Can you spot it?”
“Something’s moving fast between the trees. Shit, it’s coming at us from behind!” Jeb yelped.
The flatbed rocked, shaking the cab. Kujak’s neck hairs rose to hackles as something snorted inches from the back window. Claws scraped metal. A blurry shape leapt off the truck.
Kujak’s vision cleared just as the beast disappeared into the falling snow.
Jeb trembled. “W-What the hell was that?”
“Grizzly.” The hunter’s pulse in Kujak quickened. “Let’s bag ‘em!” He threw open the door, grabbed his rifle, and hurried around the back of the truck. “Shit!”
The entire load of carcasses—the two elks and bear—were missing. “How the hell?”
Kujak followed a trail of blood and fur into a thicket of pines. Monstrous footprints made deep impressions in the snow. “Must be the granddaddy of grizzlies. Jeb, get out here.”
His cousin remained inside the cab, his back to the door that was pinned against the snow bank. “I don’t wanna chase a bear that size.”
“It’s running off with our game. Get your ass out here!” Kujak loaded a fresh cartridge in the rifle’s chamber.
Jeb climbed out with his gun. “Oh lordy, your face.”
Kujak wiped a sleeve across his bloody nose, then marched into the woods. He whispered, “I’ll follow the blood trail. Keep to my left.”
“What if he circles us?”
“Shoot the bastard. Now shush.” Kujak crept through the red snow. The drift beyond the road had piled two-feet deep. Sweet Jesus, he’d never seen paw prints that size. His boots stepped from one giant impression to the next. In some places he had to leap, due to the long stride. The claw marks looked abnormally long. The more Kujak studied the pattern, the odder he felt. What kind of bear runs on two legs?
Ahead, the evergreens huddled close together. Snow dropped like a million down feathers. As he weaved between clumps of spruce, Kujak tried to imagine how a bear could run off with the carcasses of three large animals. Scattered across the bloody trail lay broken antlers, a severed elk leg. Tufts of fur clung to branches high above Kujak’s head. His adrenaline pumped with the thrill of the hunt. He had to bag this granddaddy.
Wind howled, long and hollow, like a baying wolf.
Kujak glanced at Jeb, who moved parallel between the trees. Every few feet his cousin disappeared behind pines, then reappeared in a new place.
Jeb froze and pointed frantically.
The brown flanks of a bear moved between the trees twenty yards away. There you are. Kujak locked his scope on the beast’s back and fired. A hole opened in the dark brown fur. The beast roared.
Kujak squeezed off another shot. “Take that you bastard!”
Instead of dropping, the bear in his scope shot toward him, snapping branches. Kujak got off two more shots before a jarring impact knocked him to the ground. His vision went blurry again. More shots fired. To his left. Or was it his right?
His cousin screamed and fired wildly, bullets whizzing through the forest.
“Jeb!” Kujak sat up. The forest spun. He tried to stand, but something heavy and furry pinned his leg. “Shit!” Blind, he stabbed the animal with his knife, but it lay there without a struggle, already dead. Kujak felt along the hairy behemoth that lay on his foot. His hand found a bear’s head; his fingers plunged into a bloody eye socket. It was the bear he’d shot earlier. The granddaddy beast had hurled her twenty yards through the air.
What kind of animal can throw a grizzly?
The gunshots stopped. So did Jeb’s screams.
Kujak scanned the forest, stopping on what looked like a bloody human thigh.
Jeb’s body lay on the ground, an elk carcass covering his head and upper torso. His legs were hidden behind a copse of blue spruce.
Kujak’s scrotum tightened when he heard crunching.
The beast snorted, then yanked Jeb’s body into the thicket. As if taunting him, a severed arm in a camouflage sleeve smacked the tree next to Kujak.
He felt in the snow for his rifle. Found a shattered scope and broken nape. Tossing the useless weapon, Kujak tried to lift the bear’s carcass. He screamed in frustration and immediately regretted it.
The bone crunching stopped. Heavy footfalls stomped through the woods.
An idea came. He soaked his hands in bear’s blood and rubbed his ankle inside his boot. He crawled backward, pulling his pinned foot. After a few yanks, the greased ankle slipped free. He bolted for the truck, half running, half stumbling, his bare foot sinking in the snow.
Tree limbs snapped behind him.
Kujak didn’t look back. Kept his eyes on the truck. Thirty more feet.
A roar like nothing he’d ever heard echoed across the valley. A whirlwind of snow blasted around him.
Twenty more feet to the truck. Kujak charged up the hill.
An elk antler whirled past his shoulder, skidded across the road.
Kujak jerked open the driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel. He fumbled for the keys, his fingers greasy with bear’s blood. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded.
Another antler struck his door.
He turned the key, ignited the engine, and jammed the accelerator. The truck slid sideways as the passenger side wheels spun. He shifted into reverse.
Beyond the frosty windshield a giant shape loomed in front of the truck.
The wipers pushed away the snow, revealing a skeletal creature with pale skin. It had long white hair and a horrid face with black holes for eyes. Its lips had been chewed to shreds. A serrated mouth grinned as it pointed at Kujak and shrieked. The sound pierced his eardrums with ice-pick stabbings of pain. His skin crystallized with frost as a chill coursed through him. Kujak felt his belly caving inward. The muscles tightened around his bones.
The beast picked up what was left of Jeb and ran off into the woods.
Kujak sat behind the wheel, shaking. His Cree friends had warned him not to hunt in Manitou Forest. That’s the Wendigo’s hunting ground. He’d always laughed off talk of Indian superstitions.
His heart turned to ice in his chest as he shifted into drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. The old Chevy flatbed fishtailed then finally straightened. It took a mile before he found the nerve to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was gaunt, his plump cheeks sunk inward. The irises of his eyes had turned pure white. His teeth grew sharp as icicles. He thought of Shelby, the boys at the chophouse, and that bastard Thornhill. Kujak’s bloody hands gripped the wheel. With a voracious hunger for meat gnawing at his belly, he drove back toward town.
~ Brian Moreland
© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved