Here’s a little taster to tide you over until the book is officially released. Enjoy!
– J.R. Schuyler
It came with a strong wind on All Hallows’ Eve and again for a thousand moons thereafter. The lesser-educated among Morton’s citizens spun frightful tales of a shadow monster with crimson eyes and claws more than two feet in length. The scholars spurned their words, publicly declaring them to be nothing more than the fanciful imaginings of youth. But in the privacy of their homes, even the scholars tossed and turned and whimpered in their sleep, haunted by phantasms of a creature they knew was all too real.
Billy Porter shivered and burrowed deeper under his blankets as raindrops beat against the tin roof. He was ten years old today—quite old enough for his own room, thank you very much. After months of whining, his parents had finally, if reluctantly, granted his request. The small space only allowed for a wire-frame bed and a moth-eaten dresser, but he treasured it nonetheless.
“Don’t open the curtains after dusk,” his mother had warned, handing him a brass candelabra. “Light the candles if you need to, but don’t turn on the lights or go near the window under any circumstances.”
The candelabra stood on his dresser now, casting ghostly shadows across the bedroom. He’d lit the candles at nightfall, but the sullen flames were no match for the howling wind that seeped through the tiny gaps in the window sash. The light had flickered and died, but the faint odor of smoke lingered on.
I’ve got to be brave, Billy told himself firmly. He pulled the covers up to his eyes and peered into the all-encompassing darkness. I can’t go crying to Mom every time I hear a scary noise. I’m not a baby anymore.
If Mother Nature heard his thoughts, she interpreted them as a challenge. Wind whipped the house with increased intensity, lifting garden furniture and hurling it against the weatherboards. A child living in any other part of Kansas would assume a tornado was on its way and make haste for the storm cellar. Things were different in Morton. Here, the raging gales were a sign that something far worse was coming.
A faint snick met Billy’s ear, and he jumped out of his skin. Dark shapes flitted behind the curtain, performing an unnatural puppet show. He squeezed his eyes shut. I can’t do this. The monster’s right outside. It’s going to eat me, I just know it. I’ve got to get out!
The pressure in his chest grew until he realized he’d forgotten to keep breathing. The resulting inrush of air came as a bittersweet relief. Sweet because he was no longer on the verge of fainting; bitter because he still had to deal with whatever lay in wait.
Two minutes passed before Billy dared to make his move. He peeked out from under the blankets, wide eyes fixed on the silhouette at the window. Its jerky movements reminded him of the skydancer at Foley’s Gas Station. The accompanying squeal of claws on glass sounded like something out of a horror movie. He threw off the blankets and made a blind dash for the door. The metal handle struck the center of his palm, and he wrenched it open. He risked a glance over his shoulder, heart thudding. It’s gone. It must be looking for another way in.
Spurred into action, Billy tiptoed past the room he used to share with his two younger brothers. James and Hamish could sleep through anything, be it a thunderstorm or a rock concert, but he didn’t want to risk being the exception to the rule. As long as they stayed put, their boarded-up windows would keep them safe. In theory, anyway.
Billy shuffled into the kitchen without turning on the lights. His mother’s warnings echoed through his brain. The monster’s attracted to electric lights. It senses these things. It knows…
He shivered, rubbing his arms with both hands. Nightfall sent local temperatures plummeting by at least eighty degrees Fahrenheit, even at the height of summer. Mr. Graham, Morton Elementary’s science teacher, claimed it was due to climate change. Billy wanted to believe him, but his father insisted the whole thing was a load of rot. The real cause, he insisted, was “those demons from out East.” Confused, but too afraid to question him, Billy accepted the explanation and let the words rattle around his head when he couldn’t sleep.
“Where are the matches?” Billy whispered. Mom usually keeps them in the top drawer, but we used the last box to light my candles. There’s got to be spares somewhere.
He fumbled with the cupboard doors one by one and reached inside. Unable to see in the dark, he let his hands do the work. A stack of porcelain plates and a glass mixing bowl met his fingertips. He explored a bit farther, feeling along the shelf until he found a rectangular object. A mousetrap? He pulled back in alarm. Even with his quick reflexes, it nearly flayed the skin off his hand.
No matches here, he thought, wincing. Is it even worth finding them? If I relight the candles, the wind will just blow them out again.
Theoretically, he could block the gap in the window with an old T-shirt, but that would require going near the window in the first place—an action that, aside from being expressly forbidden, was too terrifying to even consider.
I’ll have to sleep on the sofa tonight, Billy decided, abandoning his search. I don’t want to go back to my room with that monster creeping around, and I’m too old to crawl into my parents’ bed. I’ll sneak back at dawn. Before my brothers get up.
The more he thought about it, the more confident he felt. He closed the cupboard doors and padded down the hallway, carefully avoiding the creaky floorboards outside his parents’ room. The lounge door was ajar, which gave Billy pause. His mother always closed it before she retired to bed. He tiptoed toward the door, fear creeping back into his chest. His parents’ hushed voices emanated from inside.
“I used to think Bowers was a respectable fella,” Mr. Porter rasped, his Texan drawl more pronounced than usual. Billy froze, not wanting to miss a word. “‘Course, now we know he’s one of them. Why else would he let those two devil spawn join the police? Answer me that one, eh?”
“You’re letting your imagination get away with you, Jerry,” Mrs. Porter replied. “If Chief Bowers thinks they can help, then maybe it’s for the best.”
“‘Course they can help! They’re in on it, aren’t they? We didn’t have no monsters before the wraiths came, and after they showed up, boom! Monsters. Their little pet is tearing this town apart. We oughta do something about it.”
“The wraiths! If we kill ‘em all, maybe their pet will go away too.”
A coughing, spluttering fit came over Mr. Porter, followed by short, breathy wheezing. He’d developed a bad case of bronchitis the previous winter, and it never went away. Every time he got worked up about something, he coughed until his eyes watered, and his face grew redder than a tomato.
“You need to calm down,” Mrs. Porter said. “You’ll wake the children with the way you’re carrying on.”
“There’s too much excitement in this town,” he said between gasps. “I’ve got a rifle and a night vision scope in the gun safe. A couple hours’ hunting and we can live in peace again.”
Mrs. Porter’s voice hardened. “You want to murder innocent children?”
“Nothing innocent about ‘em. They’d do the same to us if we gave ‘em half a chance. Let me guess. You want to get a government man in to do everything nice and proper. Well, sweetheart, we’ve already tried that. Ol’ Winston sent a petition to the White House and you know what they gave us? A bunch of white coats. Head shrinks. To them, we’re nothing more than a bunch of superstitious backcountry hicks in league with the UFO nuts. They ain’t gonna do nothing to help us. Meanwhile, those things are terrorizing our neighborhood.”
“I mean, they’re not even human, are they?”
Another coughing fit seized his body, and this time, he kept spluttering for several minutes.
“You really need to get that cough checked out,” Mrs. Porter said, the frown evident in her voice. “What will happen to us if you come down with pneumonia?”
“It’s just… just bronchitis. Don’t you fuss over me.”
“If you say so. Where’s your inhaler?”
“I must have left it in the study. I don’t need it… I don’t want…”
“I’ll get it for you. If you keep this up, no one in this house will be able to sleep tonight.”
The sound of muted footsteps brought Billy rushing back to the present. She’s coming! I’ve got to hide! But where?
The clothes tree at the end of the hall looked promising. He dove behind his mother’s faux-fur coat mere seconds before the lady herself opened the lounge door. She passed him in a blur of pink, unlocked the study, and went in. Before he could so much as think about moving, she exited with the inhaler and returned to the lounge. Billy sighed in relief. She’d been too focused on her ailing husband to notice her eldest son’s presence.
Billy freed himself from the coat and crept over to the study. He’d been forbidden from entering without supervision, but a wild new idea took hold of him and he ignored the rule.
The gun safe…
Mrs. Porter had left the keys on the desk, right next to the keyboard. Easy pickings, as long as he didn’t get caught. Without hesitation, Billy unlocked the safe. LED strips lined the interior, illuminating the plethora of firearms crammed inside. Billy reached for a gleaming revolver, then paused, listening for any hint of danger. Other than his parents’ muted voices, he heard nothing.
Sucking in a deep breath, Billy took the revolver and hid it in the waistband of his pajama pants. His father wouldn’t miss it. He had two more exactly like it, and he preferred to use a rifle anyway. Now I just need some ammo. Dad usually keeps it in the other safe, but I don’t know the combination for the lock. Maybe I can find some lying around his office instead.
A few minutes of quiet searching turned up a handful of suitable bullets. Billy took them and crept down the hallway. His parents still occupied the lounge, but the gun gave him the courage to return to his room. If the monster dared to show its face, he’d take it down. I’ll be a hero! And Dad might give up on his plan to shoot the wraith kids!
None of the adults seemed to like the wraiths, but Billy couldn’t understand why. Sure, they looked a little strange, and they had funny names, but most of them minded their own business. If he could take out this monster, whatever it was, then things might settle down for a while. Life might return to a semblance of normalcy.
Taking a deep breath, Billy inched the door open to his room. He half-expected the monster to jump out at him, but the attack never came. He shuffled inside and shut the door with a quiet click. The bullets were heavy in his hands. I should have loaded the gun before I came in here. Heart racing, he found the courage to look at the window. The monster hadn’t returned.
It’s probably moved on to another house, Billy thought. That’s what it always does. I could turn on the light to bring it back, but Mom and Dad would have a fit if they noticed. I’ll lie down and see what happens. If it doesn’t come back, there’s always tomorrow.
He bundled himself into bed, grateful for the warmth his blankets provided. The chamber of the revolver popped open, and he placed the bullets inside. For a moment, he thought about cradling it in his arms as he slept so he’d be ready if the monster came back. Even through his drowsy fear, though, his father’s lecture on gun safety came back to him.
“You’ll blow your own head open if you keep it under your pillow,” he’d said. “Better to keep it on your nightstand with the safety on.”
Billy hadn’t expected to need the advice, but he was grateful for it now. He placed the gun on the dresser, keeping his eyes fixed on the curtains. Anxious seconds dragged into uneventful minutes, and as the minutes stretched into hours, he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
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