My father removed the needle from the fire, blew on it, then pinched it quickly a few times between his fingertips to check the temperature. Satisfied that it wasn’t too hot, he dipped the tip into the puddle of royal-blue ink he had spilled from a broken ballpoint pen. “All right. Give me your arm.”
“Can I hold Roger?” I pointed to the stuffed rabbit leaning against a dusty cardboard box.
“Of course.” My father bent down and picked up the toy. He handed it to me. “Squeeze him tight, okay? This might take a minute.”
I nodded, then tentatively extended my arm. My father turned my wrist toward the ceiling so that my forearm was facing up. After dipping the needle in the ink again, he poked the sharp tip into my skin. I winced, then jerked my arm away.
“Ow! It hurts!”
“I know. I’m sorry. But we have to do this, just in case.”
“In case of what?”
My father’s eyes glimmered in the candlelight. He pressed his lips together in a sad smile. “It’s just important you remember, okay?” His voice was scratchy. His throat sounded tight. I nodded. “Can we try again?”
He grasped my wrist and stretched my arm out straight. A whimper escaped my lips as he brought the needle close to my skin.
“Hey,” he said gently. He looked me in the eyes. “What do we do when we’re scared?”
“We go inside.”
“That’s right. Can you do that now?”
“Okay.” I searched my mind for a happier time, before the shadow-things. I focused on the details—the sounds, the smells, the colors—until the memory was as vivid as the day it first happened.
“Good.” My father dipped the needle into the ink once again. “Now, close your eyes.”
My lemon-yellow rain boots splashed into a giant puddle on the side of the road. A steady drizzle fell from the smudged charcoal sky, plastering my hair to the side of my face and soaking the dirty stuffed rabbit I clutched in one tiny hand.
I navigated around the husk of an abandoned car overturned on the shoulder of the road, momentarily straying over the white line and into the lane. It didn’t matter, no cars were coming. Not anymore. I could barely remember the last time I had seen one driving.
As I passed the wreckage, I ran my fingers along the telltale gashes sliced through the side of the car. The damage ran the length of the vehicle, from the front wheel to the taillight. Something had cut through the metal like it was made from soft clay. I examined the edge of the gashes. They were rusty. That was good—it meant the damage had happened a while ago. The shadow-thing that had attacked the car was probably long gone.
I dropped to my hands and knees to peek through the shattered driver’s-side window, hoping to find something useful inside: food, maybe, or a cigarette lighter. A blanket. A gun. But there was nothing, just a rosary in heap upon the upside-down roof, beads still coiled around the cracked rearview mirror.
I sat back on my heels and wiped the water out of my eyes. I was soaked. I wished my raincoat still had a hood, but my father had cut it off ages ago. It was too dangerous, he said. It blocked my peripheral vision. I would need to see, in case the shadow-things attacked from the side. They usually did.
At the thought of my father, I slid up the sleeve of my raincoat to reveal part of the tattoo he had hand-lettered on my forearm. I mouthed the words as I read them.
- Close your eyes.
“This is your mantra,” my father had explained, as he pressed the ink-tipped needle into my skin. “This is how you survive. Just remember to do these things, and I promise you’ll be safe.”
I hadn’t understood at the time. Why did I need it tattooed on my arm? Why couldn’t he just tell me to run when I needed to run, like he always did when the shadow-things came? The two of us would hide together, our eyes squeezed shut to avoid the monsters’ deadly gaze, waiting until the creatures gave up searching for us and moved on to easier prey.
A few months later, I found out why.
My father and I had done everything perfectly: we ran, we hid, we closed our eyes. But that day, for whatever reason, my father had opened his eyes just a little too soon. It was only for a split second—barely more than a blink—but it was enough time for the shadow-thing to burrow into his mind, to draw him out, to steer him helplessly into the open like some sort of puppet.
I didn’t see what happened, but I felt it: the rush of air as the shadow-thing swung its blade, the wet squelch of the scythe eviscerating my father’s body, the warm spray of his blood slapping across my face. Through it all, I kept my eyes closed. When I finally opened them, my father was nowhere to be found. All that remained was a dark stain on the ground, with drag marks that trailed into the woods and disappeared into the undergrowth. He was gone. And I was alone.
I felt a sob building in my chest. I didn’t want to be alone; I wanted to be home. I wanted to be in my backyard, swinging on the swings while my father cooked dinner on the grill. He’d be wearing his apron—the one that said “World’s Okayest Dad”—flipping burgers with one hand while taking swigs from a can of Diet Coke with the other. I’d hear my brother sloshing in the baby pool while my mother nursed my newborn sister on the lawn chair nearby. We’d be together again, as a family. All of us. Alive.
A gust of wind drove a blast of stinging raindrops against my face. The rain was falling harder. Before long, it would be a full-blown monsoon. I looked through the broken car window again. Water had pooled in the angled corner of the crushed windshield, but the back half of the car was dry. It would be a good shelter from the storm.
I crawled inside, clutched my stuffed rabbit to my chest, and listened to the thunder as it rolled through the hills.
It was still light outside when I awoke. I had dozed off, but not for very long by the looks of it. The downpour had subsided to a light gray sprinkle. A low ground fog drifted along the asphalt outside.
My stomach rumbled. I had to keep moving, to find another abandoned house or store from which I could scavenge some food. I would hunt if I had to—I had done it before—but I was hoping to find a cache of canned goods instead. My father had warned me that hunting should always be my last resort. It was dangerous. I could be hurt, even killed.
With my stuffed rabbit in hand, I crawled out through the car window
and into the road. I looked to my left and my right, checking for anything dangerous that might be approaching me from the sides. There was nothing. Satisfied that I was in the clear, I stood, yawned, and stretched my arms towards the sky.
Suddenly, my yawn was cut short by an unexpected sound.
I froze, listening.
The patter of raindrops on my jacket sounded like a thousand tiny footsteps approaching from all directions. But under that, there was something else. A scraping sound. Heavy and metallic, the sound of a blade dragging along the ground.
I heard my father’s voice in my head.
I didn’t hesitate. I bolted down the road, sprinting straight ahead at first, then curving into the parking lot of a gas station on my right. My rain boots slapped on the ground, sending great geysers of muddy water up to my knees as I leaped over the median and slipped between the gas pumps. Something crashed behind me. An alien shriek of pain and rage pierced my eardrums. The sharp smell of gasoline stung my nostrils. I didn’t look back.
The bottom half of the gas station door was shattered. I ducked through the opening, my boots crunching on broken glass as I entered. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light of the convenience store. The shelves were empty. The doors of the coolers stood open. A pair of bare feet, their skin mottled and gray, protruded from the end of one of the aisles. A dark red chunk of one heel was missing, seemingly gnawed by some type of rodent.
I scrambled behind the cashier’s counter. The doors of the cabinet under the cash register were open. I pulled myself into the cramped space, then drew the doors closed behind me.
The cabinet was dark except for a sliver of light that slipped through the crack between the doors. I clutched my stuffed rabbit to my chest, then buried my face in its filthy fur and tried to muffle the ragged rasp of my breathing.
My heart pounded in my ears. I listened for the sound of the shadow-thing.
Broken glass crunched. The metallic scraping drew closer. The sharp odor of gasoline wafted through the air. A figure paused by the doors, blocking out the sliver of light. My ears reverberated with the guttural, resonant clicking of the shadow-thing. I recognized the sound. My father had called it “echolocation.” It was searching for me.
Close your eyes.
I squeezed my eyes shut and willed myself to disappear, to fade into memory. To go inside, as my father used to say, losing myself in the happiest memory I could think of. The shadow-things couldn’t touch me there. I would be safe.
I thought about the backyard: the smell of the grill, the splash of the pool, my brother’s laugh, the wind in my hair as I swung on my swing, higher and higher, the whole world disappearing beneath me as I arced towards the brilliant blue sky…
The scraping started again. This time, it was moving away. The gasoline smell faded. After a while, all that was left was the gentle drumming of the rain on the roof overhead.
I opened my eyes and pressed my face to the thin seam of light between the cabinet doors. The shadow-thing was gone. Quietly, I slipped from the cabinet and crawled over to the gas station window. I could see the shadow-thing outside, its back turned to me, moving slowly towards the street.
My stomach rumbled again, cramping with hunger. I slid up the sleeve of my raincoat, again reading the tattoo my father had placed there.
- Close your eyes.
I slid the sleeve further up my arm. There was one last step. It was written in a different ink, in a different color blue. It read:
My father had added it a few months after the first tattoo, shortly before he died. I remembered looking into his eyes as he pressed the needle into my skin.
“We aren’t scared of them anymore?” I asked.
“We are. But now we know we can beat them. They’re strong. But you’re stronger. When the time is right, you know what to do.”
I reached into my raincoat and drew out the long, curved blade that my father had salvaged from one of the shadow-things we had killed. Strips of purple
rubber—the remnants from my raincoat hood—were wrapped around the handle. The blade was stained yellow-brown with the shadow-things’ blood. It looked like mustard, but the taste was surprisingly sweet.
Especially when it was fresh.
My stomach growled again. I gripped the blade’s handle in my fist, then propped my stuffed rabbit up into a sitting position in the window. I would need both hands free for what I had to do next.
“You wait here,” I whispered to the rabbit. “When I get back, we’ll make a fire.” My eyes narrowed as I looked out the window at the shadow-thing. “Then, we’ll eat.”
Copyright © 2022 Warren Benedetto