Sara Alders punched out her time card and walked towards the mall parking lot. Like most sixteen-year-olds, she had her new phone out and was texting one of her friends about the upcoming pep rally at her high school. As Sara looked up at a cloudless sky, the stars were shining brightly and she loved it. At least it wasn’t thundering and lightning like it had been last week. Stupid thunder had cracked right over the top of her, causing her to jump and drop her phone in a puddle beside her car. It fried, and that destroyed her life till her replacement phone came in two days later.
Sara was very responsible for her age. She always parked in a well-lit area and tried to be aware of her surroundings. She was an extremely bright young lady, always on the honor roll, always active in her school functions, always happy, and about as well adjusted as a sixteen-year-old could be… for being sixteen.
She never suspected any danger. She was standing beside her car and had just hit send for the text message when she was suddenly wrapped in a stinking wet blanket. She felt the terrible pain as the first of many sharp objects punctured and slashed her young body.
Daddy… help me!! It hurts!!
Bob Hardy loved to sit on his backyard patio in the evenings, maybe barbecue a steak or some ribs, bring his Hungry-Man dinner out if he didn’t feel like cooking, or just bring his beer or soda out and sit in one of the glide rockers. Evenings in the autumn were best. The high humidity and heat from the day were mostly replaced with cool breezes and the scent of the leaves changing color. Not quite shedding like the northern states, no, south Texas trees were the last to shed their leaves and, for the most part, were the first to put them back on.
Autumn wasn’t the only time Bob sat there till late in the evening. He was out there almost every night unless it was raining, snowing, or the skeeters were trying to eat him alive. Snow was rare. Skeeters were more common than rain.
Tonight was different. His neighbor behind him had recently installed a backyard photocell night light. It cast a dim light from dusk till dawn on the back of Bob’s house, the patio that spanned its entire width, and on the fence that he shared with his next-door neighbor. The light really didn’t bother him—he rather liked it shining on that picket fence. From his chair, he could see the neighbor’s cat prowling across the top rail, looking to rob the food bowl of Bob’s favorite companion, Rufus. Rufus was his aging Labrador retriever.
Rufus was ten years old and had just started feeling the pangs of old age. This night, Bob noticed him refusing to go near the fence where the cat habitually traveled. This night, he backed away from the fence, growling and whimpering. Bob assumed it was a raccoon or possum, although Rufus had never been hesitant to bark loudly at these nocturnal critters. Bob walked to the back of the patio and looked toward the house. He saw nothing but shadows along the bottom of the fence where Rufus had backed away. “Come, Rufus,” he called, but Rufus stayed where he was. He was lying next to the back door, as if to say, “I am spooked and totally freaked out. Let’s go inside!!” Bob knew that pets acted that way when they were done being outside.
Bob grabbed his glass, and he and Rufus went inside. Rufus settled a bit but looked nervously out the side window. He whined and went upstairs to the bedroom he and Bob shared. At this point, Bob didn’t pay too much attention to Rufus’s emotions, as the dog had done this before when a coyote was in the neighborhood a couple of years back. Bob just assumed this was what triggered Rufus’s nervousness. He would be wrong.
Bob closed up the house and went up to bed. Rufus lay on his bedding with his head on his front paws and whined a bit when he saw Bob come through the door. “What’s up with you, man’s best friend and world’s biggest wuss?” Bob asked. Rufus just raised his head and whined, looking at the window that overlooked the fence that so disturbed him. Still, Bob didn’t pay any attention to the dog. He grabbed the television remote and clicked on the news.
The local headlines trumpeted the discovery of a young girl, murdered and cut to ribbons, lying next to her car in the parking lot of the mall where she worked.
Bob sat straight up in bed and exclaimed, “He’s back… the bastard is back!” He was positive that the same wretched, inhuman piece of waste that had taken his wife of forty years, as well as six other people, had returned. The murders were unrelated, not gender-specific, not age-specific, nothing other than the outright butchery of seven poor souls who happened to fall within this psychopath’s radar. Murdered in such a vicious and inhumane manner that the coroner was hesitant to uncover Betty’s body when Bob was called to identify her. Betty had been disemboweled and the underarms, neck, and upper legs shredded as if the killer had used hands full of razor blades. He was sure the murdered young girl in the news report had injuries consistent with the other victims. The news hadn’t stated as much, but Bob knew. He knew, and it shook him to his core.
Then the pain washed back in. It had been a little over five long years since that day Betty hadn’t come home from shopping. She had gone to the mall to get a special scarf that she wanted to give to one of her book club friends as a birthday present. She’d given just a simple “Be right back, gotta grab a present for Barb,” a peck on the lips, and rushed out the door.
She never came back.
Bob’s concern had started before the police had come knocking on his door. But it wasn’t a knock, was it? It was more of a hesitant tap, an I-don’t-want-to-do-this tap. The bearer of bad news rarely ever wants to be the one who brings ill tidings, especially if the bearer has known the recipient of the tidings and his recently violently butchered spouse for most of his life. Such was the knock on the door by Bob’s best friend, Archie Jenkins.
Archie Jenkins and Bob Hardy had been the closest of friends since they were in elementary school. They had grown up together, a single house separating them. Bob’s wife, Betty, had grown up with them also, living in the house between them. There was never a rivalry between Bob and Archie for Betty’s affection. They had always known that Betty was Bob’s and vice versa. It would seem the couple was destined for each other ever since Betty’s family had moved into that vacant house when they were in the fourth grade. Archie always knew his place with Betty, even when the hormones of adolescence raised their ugly heads and raged. He was thoroughly satisfied with being the “other brother” or even the “big brother.” Bob and Archie were a year older than Betty. It would seem the three were always together after she moved into the neighborhood and laid eyes on Bob.
When Archie met Eileen in college, they became the four musketeers instead of the three. Archie and Eileen married after he graduated, and the two couples were together constantly, growing in their careers, raising children, and later watching their grandchildren grow.
There was never a rift between Betty and Eileen—it was like they were always meant to be sisters. That was until Betty was no longer a musketeer, just a mass of shredded meat. After that, Bob had grown apart from Archie and Eileen.
Bob was the key factor in their distance. He had been totally consumed by grief for several years and mostly refused invitations from Archie and Eileen to get together. He felt the hurt was too great, the void left was too deep, the emptiness too complete.
The phone rang and brought Bob out of his reverie. He saw on the caller ID that it was Archie. He got out of bed and retrieved the phone from the nightstand. He had an unbreakable habit of pacing when he talked on the phone. It was a habit that had irritated Betty, mainly because he would walk back and forth in front of the television set with Rufus on his heels.
“What’s going on, buddy?” he answered on the third ring.
“Well, it appears I didn’t wake you. I assume you saw the news tonight?”
“Yeah, I saw it. It’s the same guy.”
“We think it may be the same perp, but we have to wait for the lab work. Same MO, same type of location, same everything. Not enough blood around the body.”
Archie had been a Livingston police department detective for over fifteen years and had headed Betty’s investigation with no results. The series of murders had begun suddenly and ended just as abruptly. No evidence to speak of, no residue on the victims that could be identified, all the wounds appeared to have been slashed with an extremely sharp weapon. There was never enough blood at the scene to compensate for the terrible wounds inflicted on the victims, and always the same type of injuries. The arms had been slashed as if opening the arteries in a suicide, and the slashing of the upper legs and groin had opened the femoral arteries. The victims would have bled out quickly, but there was never more than a smear of blood on or around them.
“Are you going to keep me in the loop on this one?” Bob asked hesitantly.
Archie took a deep breath before answering, “You know I will, Bob. I’ll do everything I can to catch this rabid mutt this time. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Eileen will be expecting you for supper tomorrow night. Let’s talk more about it then.”
“Yeah… I don’t know if I can make it tomorrow,” Bob started.
Archie cut him off. “You listen here, old son. Eileen and I are fed up with your excuses and your no-shows. We’re all family and we all miss Betty terribly. We will not let you curl up in a ball and die. You either have your old wrinkled ass over here at six-thirty sharp tomorrow night, or we’ll be at your house at six thirty-five to kick said wrinkled ass. Do we understand one another?”
Bob was silent for a moment. “I understand, Arch. I’ll see y’all tomorrow evening. Good night.”
Touching the off button on the wireless phone, Bob set it back in the cradle charger. He had no idea why he kept the land line in these days of cell phones. It was just something that had always been there. He had a cell phone, a fine one that took pictures, got texts, messages, and all the misery that accompanied that type of communication. It seemed like nobody ever called anymore—it was all text, text, text, even to say “Happy Birthday.” It was a sad state of affairs this old world had come to, for everybody but his longtime friend.
Archie touched the end call icon on his cell phone. He and his cell had become constant companions in these days of instant communication. Anybody who didn’t believe it had just better try leaving one in their car or desk and see how many messages piled up. The reason they were called portable was so you could have it with you and answer the damn thing when people were looking for you.
Archie had hated to chastise Bob and badger him to come visit, but it had been too long and the interval between each visit was becoming longer and longer. He and Eileen had decided enough of that. Eileen had been after him regularly to make Bob come to their home. She pleaded that she may have been a latecomer to the musketeers, but that she, too, had lost a very dear friend and sister. The men understood, but each was too wrapped in his own blanket of loss to offer much condolence. I’ll try harder, Archie thought. Then he put the phone down and went to tell Eileen to expect Bob the next evening.
Bob crawled back into bed and forced himself to watch the weather. The forecast said it was going to be another scorcher tomorrow, highs in the mid-90s and humidity about the same. The meteorologist gave the heat index temperatures in a “feels like” mode. Who’s the idiot that thought up “feels like” temperature? As if ninety-five degrees isn’t hot enough. It’s a psychological thing. If you hear it’s going to be ninety-five degrees, you can live with that. But add “feels like 105 degrees” and you just melt. Bob shook his head. He got comfortable in the bed, thinking he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but he dozed off almost immediately.
Rufus didn’t sleep much. He concentrated on keeping an eye on the window closest to the evil he felt outside.
A Week Earlier
The thunderstorm built higher, clouds boiling from the warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico rushing up and the cool dry air from the north rushing down. Lightning flashed everywhere, striking the trees, striking the ground, striking man-made objects, striking anything that completed the circuit and relieved the static charge in the huge thunderstorm clouds overhead. One very specific type of lightning struck a mound (some locals called it a hill) just at the edge of the town of Livingston, Texas. It was a powerful positive cloud-to-ground lightning strike carrying almost a billion volts and three hundred thousand amps—nearly ten times more powerful than negative lightning, which is more common. All this energy would be dissipated wherever it struck. This maverick strike electrified the mound and penetrated deep underground. Emanating from a huge anvil thunderstorm cloud that had risen all the way to the tropopause some ten miles into the heavens, it hit the “bullseye” needed to charge the creature and awaken it. It had slept just five years this time, till the precious lightning struck in an area a fraction over seventy-eight square feet, a mere ten feet in diameter, and awakened it. The super voltage and amperage lasted just a fraction of a second, but it was enough—enough to charge the creature and increase its volume to the point where it wasn’t trapped in its cavern lair. It captured the positive energy from the strike and refused to follow it to the heavens. The creature absorbed it and converted it into a mass it used for its own purpose.
Another type of lightning had beaten the odds to hit its lair and put the creature back to sleep nearly five years ago, draining its energy and reducing its volume. It wasn’t aware of the types of lightning, polarity, or intensity. It was aware only that it woke hungry.
The sun’s intense light hurt its sight organs and body and made it seek the depths of the soil to protect itself from the different electromagnetic radiation the huge yellow orb emitted. If it had a human’s education, it might recognize the ultraviolet rays from the sun as the ones that hurt it so, the ones that would diminish it.
Its original resting place was beneath the town above. Entombed hundreds and hundreds of years ago for its crimes and cruelty, it had been buried deep inside a cavern, then the cavity had been filled in and sealed. Human, once upon a time, it found it had a yearning for hot blood and bodily juices. The feeling it got from wrapping its body around a victim was almost sexual, opening the body, and sucking the juices out till the source was almost completely depleted. It would leave only a dried husk if it could. It had been punished for crimes it had committed against its own people, whoever they were. The memories of its past and the reasons for its execution were dim and rarely remembered. They had no relevance to its current existence and it felt no rage or need for revenge. It had been a long, long time ago.
It was compelled to always be anchored to its original grotto. Whatever forces saw fit to breathe a form of life back into its freshly buried corpse decreed that its body’s final resting place be that anchor. The creature could venture out from that given spot, but it always had to have a leash attaching it to the source. With more volume came a longer leash and more range for hunting.
Damaging energy coming from the sky wouldn’t kill it—it would just reduce its volume so it couldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t die of starvation even if bad lightning dealt a direct hit. The lightning strikes didn’t last long enough to completely deplete its volume and boil its body away. And they were never powerful enough to reach its anchor point. It could survive and grow by feeding on earthworms, moles, or an occasional rabbit. Anything that burrowed, it could reach and feed on it. By absorbing these smaller insects and animals, it increased its volume and its range.
Its rudimentary brain was fluid, as was its body with all its tentacles, just barely more viscous than kerosene. It had discovered hundreds of years ago that, with a little chemical manipulation, it could change its tentacles to serve different functions. Tools for stabbing, hacking, hooking, and suctioning could all be formed at will by saving the chemicals in the bodies of bugs, crawfish, scorpions, spiders, and even crabs before the Trinity River was dammed. It formed these tools from chemicals these animals used for their exoskeletons. It couldn’t move around underground while these implements were in a hardened state, but it could convert them back to a liquid quickly and flow through the underground like so much gelatinous fluid. It could go deep, come shallow, and flow around obstacles. It couldn’t flow through layers of clay or rock. A body of water was impossible to maneuver through as it couldn’t gain traction with the cilia-like hairs it used for movement. But those were about its only limitations.
Centuries ago, it discovered that it could travel up the external skin of the trees that were rooted the deepest. It could do this only at night, when the sun was on the other side of the world. Direct sun burned it and caused parts of its body to vaporize quickly, and robbed its power. On very rare occasions, it could follow the roots of the trees during the day when it was heavily overcast and the clouds blocked the sun, but it had to be very heavily overcast. After modern technology started using electricity, it discovered the deep earth grounding rods that were an integral part of electrical devices. It had made this discovery just before it had started feeding over five years ago. Grounding rods provided much easier access to the surface than tree roots. It didn’t know what purpose light posts served; it just knew it was simple to access the surface and its prey seemed to be drawn to them.
The beast, demon, creature, whatever the humans called it, awoke from its slumber. It had no memory of any of its victims and, most certainly, felt no pity for them. It was a primal predator and knew only one thing. It was hungry.