Nancy Olsen had never been bothered by the sight of blood, a fact she had always been proud of. Before now, though, she had never seen so much of it at one time, spilled in so violent a fashion. Smeared on walls and splattered across the snow-covered sidewalk like paint on an artist’s canvas, it was the red ink of frantic palm prints stamped on the windows and white walled storefronts of Main Street.
She stood in shock, her mouth agape. A dull horror, manifest as a nauseating heat, crept along her spine, beneath her scalp and into her temples, causing them to throb. A lump formed in her throat and tears sprang to her eyes, but she promised herself she would not cry. She would not cry.
Something, perhaps a sound, lingered just within earshot, low, rumbling and sinister. At first unaware of it, she listened now with increasing, panicky concern, her imagination working overtime to envision the nature of the spectre behind the sonance. Her eyes glimpsed her car, its door ajar, the headlights illuminating the ground behind and before her, its engine idling like the purr of some contented jungle cat. She sighed, slightly relieved and embarrassed by her fear, and walked back to turn the motor off. How long had it been running? She couldn’t remember. The key turned awkwardly toward her and its rumble ceased.
Fear threatened to overtake her again as a wave of silence swept the abandoned center of town. She reached for the ignition key again, intent on restarting it. The sight of her gas gauge made her hesitate, though. Almost empty. There was no way to tell what awaited her, and a quick escape later was preferable to a little mental reassurance now. She stood closer to the car, as though standing next to it would protect her. Inflating her chest, she drew in as much cold air as her lungs could hold and pushed it, warmer now, through her nostrils. Her eyes watered and her cheeks numbed. A strong night wind picked up and whistled in the gaps between the buildings. The howl was ferocious and bestial, and it made her shiver.
She wanted to cry out, to scream at the top of her lungs to anyone who might be lurking in the shadows, beyond the scope of the streetlights. She couldn’t, though, for she had no voice. Her fear froze her, slowed her thought processes and kept her from acting. A funereal solemnity had descended on what had once been a vibrant, thriving town of professionals, storeowners, and university students. But now, in her first five minutes back home, the peace she had sought so desperately seemed even more distant than when she’d begun her journey. She was lost here, too.
Moving cautiously, she walked away from the car, taking stock of her surroundings with each careful step. Snow crunched beneath the sole of her boot, a sound that resonated from childhood, reminding her of days off from school. Snowman making, fort building, sledding down the hill at McDade Park; a blissfulness that had ripened to ennui.
The pavement on this side of the street was no different than the other, a stomach-churning scene of carnage and bloodshed without bodies or, at the very least, parts. Her steps were cautious, each one planned out around the congealed and frozen puddles of gore. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, fighting to keep her gorge from rising. Was this the fate of her beloved friends and neighbors? Of her family? Was this to be her punishment, as well as theirs?
At the intersection ahead, a traffic light suspended by wires above the center of the road bobbed mischievously up and down in the wind, one side flashing yellow; the other red. It did that after hours, she remembered, when the traffic was light and the regular signals weren’t necessary. She considered this intersection, the one where she’d almost died.
She’d fallen off her bike and tumbled into the road, ten feet from Reverend Tannis’s old Pontiac. He saw her in time and screeched to a halt, the front bumper stopping mere inches from her forehead. He jumped out of his car and ran to her, shaken and pale, a faint odor of whiskey and cigarettes apparent on his breath. He’d helped her to her feet and examined her wounds – a few superficial scrapes – beckoning to others walking by, appealing to them for help. They were all too happy to oblige, and as the Reverend overcame his guilt, he replaced it with annoyance, asking what a nice girl like her was doing riding her bike so close to a busy road like Main Street. It had been summertime then, and the chill carried on the wind hit her like a cold slap to the cheek, bringing her back to the present.
At the end of the block, where she’d left it so long ago, was Bill’s shop. It was a men’s clothing store called Bennett’s. Inherited from his father, it specialized in business suits and formal wear; the kinds of things men no longer wore. It was the only one in town, unless you counted those chain stores in the shopping mall they’d built, just off the main highway, years before. She knew it would be here, where it had been for the last five decades, and perhaps she’d crossed the street with it subconsciously in mind, hoping to find it staffed and occupied, a shelter from the weather and whatever else was out here, stalking her.
She wondered if she would see Bill. She wondered if he’d ever remarried. Not that she considered Bill an ex-husband. They had never been married, although they’d come close. She’d come close.
Fear often plagued her in times of great stress, something she knew only too well at the moment. It had paid her a visit that day, a warm and beautiful Sunday in June, a few hours before dawn. The Fear began as a small mass deep in the pit of her stomach, heavy and impossible to ignore, although she tried. When she awoke, it was there. As she languished in bed, tossing and turning, waiting for first light to come, it was there. When she showered and made herself pretty, it was there, though bigger than before. When she forced down a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, only to throw it back up soon after, it was there, by then ubiquitous in every vein and blood vessel, overwhelming and uncontrollable.
By 10, with her gown on and her hair in pins, she was alone with the knowledge that she would not be married that day. She was a woman who’d run screaming from her bridal shower, terrified by the prospect of becoming Mrs. William Bennett, the haberdasher’s wife, like a secondary character in some Faulkner novel. She was a woman who, as a result of the Fear, had done something that made her both the town joke and a walking cliché, all in the same day, by driving out of town with her wedding dress still on, its train haphazardly stuffed into the backseat behind her, blue rivulets of mascara trailing down her cheeks.
Bill deserved better. Perhaps a woman with more class and better sense than one who would mail the engagement ring back to him in an old breath mint tin, sealed shut with duct tape and packed with cotton plucked from an aspirin bottle.
He’d given her that ring on their one-year anniversary. At dinner, in a restaurant called Benjamin’s, in a little room with a table for two on the second floor. God how he loved her. And how did she repay him for that love? By not putting in an appearance at her own wedding. At their wedding. How cavernous his shame must have been. It couldn’t be deeper than her own guilt, which, even after all this time, was overwhelming.
Now the front window was dark. Mannequins dressed in suits and tuxedos stared vacantly over her shoulder, posed in ways no real man ever stood. From the look of things, Bill had redone the store’s interior and expanded into the space next door. Despite all that worked against him, his success had finally come to pass. Good for you Bill, she thought sadly.
She pressed her nose to the window, enjoying the sensation of cold glass close to her hot nervous face, trying to see further into the store. The glow from a fluorescent light left on inside a glass display case at the center of the room cast an eerie light on the inventory of jackets and pants, shoes and belts. Her thrill at seeing Bill’s shop again was abruptly replaced with horror, as her eyes adjusted to the strange luminance.
Blood coated the glass cases, was splashed across the carpet, and smeared on mirrors as finger trails and palm prints. Her resolve not to weep ceased to be enough, and the grip on her emotions was loosed. Through tears, she dropped to her knees and vomited onto the snowy sidewalk in front of the store, coughing between lurching heaves, trying desperately to assure herself that it could not – would not – get any worse.
A glimmer of rationality reminded her that she still didn’t know for certain what, if anything, was wrong here. Yes, there was blood, but this town was full of hunters and it was the first week of deer season. The omnipresent butchery wasn’t necessarily human. For all she knew, it was someone’s sick idea of a joke; perhaps Dickie Argyle’s disturbed misinterpretation of the phrase “paint the town red.” And of course there wasn’t anyone on the road. It was late on a cold, snowy night. Who in their right mind would be out in this?
These thoughts reassured her, and she knew that panic was the wrong reaction to have, as her father, the police chief, had always taught her. Still, she knew in her gut something wasn’t right. Something evil and horrid had befallen these people, these friends and family of hers (the ones she’d run out on) and she feared for them, as well as for herself.
Gathering strength from her clearing head, she knew that if something were happening, her father would be at work handling it, in the police station three blocks down. She stood up, instinctively checked behind her, and began the walk toward it and, she hoped, some answers.
Along the way, there was more blood. Dripped into the craters of shattered windshields on parked cars, congealed in puddles and drip trails down stone walls, splattered onto the Kiwanis and Rotary Club signs mounted by the side of the road off the town square. The reassurance she had helped herself to earlier was quickly slipping away. Now there was more than just blood. Here was real violence now or, at the very least, evidence of it.
Walking quickly, she reached it faster than expected. The sight of it felt like a warm glass of milk, washing relief into every pore of her body. She sighed heavily, smiled at the sight of the stone and glass-fronted building, and ran headlong to the door, feeling a mix of joy and terror. For the last five minutes, she had the unshakable feeling that something was following her. Glances over her shoulder assured her she was alone, but it had taken everything she had to keep from breaking into a panic run.
Her joy ran out as she reached the front door.
They hung open, the windows in them destroyed. Shards of glass littered the floor of the portico. Lights illuminated several windows on all three floors, but the lobby was silent. No officers loitered on the steps outside the station or in their cruisers, drinking coffee and checking out the chief’s daughter, the usual scene she’d grown accustomed to in her youth. She moved inside, careful not to touch the door.
She walked slowly, as though every step would alert whatever had done this to her presence. Deep down, though, she knew it didn’t matter. Whatever had done this already knew where she was and would be coming for her, the last detail in a town already dead. She knew, without seeing it that it was too late. But she needed to see it anyway. She needed to see her father.
Chaos had visited this place. Phone handsets were off their cradles, hanging by their cords. Blood was splattered on paper, reams of it, that littered the floor like a carpet. In drip trails down crème-colored walls, in splatter patterns on the ceiling, the building itself was wounded.
“Daddy?” she cried out through gritted teeth, her grip on rationality slipping fast. She felt dizzy and unsteady, each step more challenging than the first.
Silence, save for the electric buzz of the overhead light fixtures and the squeaking of her shoes on the tile, filled the hall. Melting ice and snow from her boots mixed with dried blood on the lino beneath her feet and make it slippery. Her steps became unsteady, threatening to topple her. If she lost her footing, she thought, whatever lurked behind her – now in the building, she was sure – would pounce and attack. Her life, her mistakes, her very substance, reduced to a red stain on the wall of this godforsaken building. No, not before she found her father. She walked quickly through the lobby and past the desk around the corner to the end of the hall.
She stopped ten feet from his door.
With the smoked glass partition, lettered in black with his name, it was closed but not latched, a sign he was in but welcome to disruptions. The light inside was on.
Her sobbing was uncontrollable now. Fear flooded her brain, making rational thought impossible. Behind her, something crept through the lobby. It had followed her into the building, and it would be here in moments. She ran the rest of the way, hand outstretched to grab the knob, but halted just short of it.
A trail of blood, thick and congealed, trickled along the edge where the wall met the floor. It began inside the office, under the threshold of the barely open door. Something inside was bleeding.
An insect, its silhouette plainly visible through the glass, buzzed around the light inside his office, making dizzy, drunken orbits around the glowing orb above the Chief’s head. It was bigger than any fly she had ever seen. Could it be a bird, or even a bat? No, she thought. Bats and birds didn’t buzz like that.
Despite her fear, the answers she sought were inside. The horror of seeing them, though, could be more than she could handle, and her body no longer responded to her commands. Her feet felt glued to the floor and her hands stuck to her side, her joints full of metal.
Behind her, a heavy wet slapping, like footsteps, two at a time, came closer and closer to her. She shook, but didn’t – couldn’t – turn around. She couldn’t go forward, and she couldn’t go back. This was the end, she thought.
In the room directly before her, shielded from her eyes by a flimsy wood and glass-filled door, was a ten by twelve office filled with a desk and three chairs. From there, her father had spent the last twenty-five years watching over the people of this town. Those people, in turn, had made sure his chair was always comfortable and his staff was always happy. They loved him for what she couldn’t bring herself to love him for. His protection, at any cost.
She had run with a burning desire to see what was out in the world, beyond the darkness at the end of Main Street. And she had seen it. It was brutal and ugly and blood thirsty, and it had followed her home.
Despairingly, she fell to her knees and rolled onto her side, hugging herself in a fetal position, squinting her eyes and closing herself off to the horrible sound of the creature behind her, padding slowly, breathing heavily, a growling much fiercer than any dog she’d ever heard its only vocalization. It’s claws clicked on the tile with each step closer.
Her last moment would be in her head, and the clicking of claws faded to her own footsteps, creaking as she packed snow into patterns the shape of her boot tread. She saw this town, her home, the place she’d grown up in. It was the town she’d grown to hate, the town she’d learned to miss. In one panic-stricken morning, dressed for the happiest day of her life, she’d made the biggest mistake imaginable. The weight of that decision, its consequences and its results, now pressed in on her, wet and evil, an unimaginable beast of her own creation.