A thin layer of snow had fallen; the first of the year. At three ‘o’ clock on a still, Sunday afternoon, the snow, along with a faint grey of fog that hung in the air had transformed the landscape into a lost memory from an old photograph. The winter air blew no wind over the white patchwork of the furrowed fields that disappeared into the horizon; nothing moved, save for a faint plume of smoke that rose from the chimney of a small farmhouse. The house was nestled at the end of a winding, single-lane track, flanked by waist-height dry stone walls, over which spilled high, swollen hedgerows, alone in the freezing landscape.
Once upon a time, the farmhouse used to be a barn, a sturdy stone square that provided shelter for cattle for as long as anyone could remember. The land surrounding it was exclusively used for grazing until the early nineteen seventies, when a spate of deaths amongst the herd almost bankrupted the farmer, who sold off the remainder of his livestock and filled the fields with crops. The wheat didn’t pay off and eventually the farmer sold the barn and its surrounding fields to a young couple who spent several years converting the barn into a home, where they raised their only son amongst the desolate, rolling countryside.
Thirteen year old Cal Edgeton sat on the floor of his attic bedroom; he was motionless, focused, staring through an ancient pair of binoculars into the fields that stretched into the horizon. Beside Cal, stood a rickety coffee table, upon which perched a long-cold cup of tea. Outside was stillness, but Cal was far from impatient. Cal felt calm, collected, nearly peaceful; inside him still rattled the faint anxiety from the snarling argument between his mother and father over dinner. Cal had devised a way of distancing himself from the rows that tore through the house on a nearly nightly basis; he would close his eyes slightly, letting the world blur before him; a deep, inner voice reverberating from somewhere inside him that begged them, pleaded with them to stop, that whatever it was; usually money, it didn’t matter. Cal would try and catch their sniping voices and placate them with this inner calm, using every part of his unconscious to stop the row, to make them quiet, peaceful again. When the argument stopped, Cal would always feel that he had had some part in it.
Right now, the argument was the last thing on his mind as Cal moved the position of the binoculars slightly, casting their view to the edge of the far field, bordered by a deep ditch and surrounded by a dense crop of foliage. His breathing always increased slightly and bubbles of excitement would begin in his stomach when he stared at this place. Adjusting the focus slightly, with one finger, Cal gazed desperately for any sort of movement at the base of the greenery that was now covered in an unspoiled icing of snow. It was in this very spot, a few weeks ago, he had seen one of them.
It had taken Cal by surprise the very first time one of the creatures had come slinking out of the bushes; its body close to the ground, eyes bright and nostrils flaring to take in the scent of the air. If Cal was honest, he had been terrified, despite his distance and the obvious caution of the animal itself. Seeing the feline ink-black fur, pointed ears and twitching tail of such a creature in this part of the world was disconcerting to say the least. At one point, Cal had pulled his gaze away from the binoculars and punched himself hard in the thigh, in the obvious and clichéd manner of making sure the sight of the big cat was not a dream. On looking again and seeing the creature as it crept, shadow-like across the field, Cal’s next instinct was to tear downstairs and tell his parents; some deep longing inside him hinted that this might just be the thing that would stop the fighting, at least for tonight. However, another thought began creeping into Cal’s mind, a defiant, alien thought that told him he should keep the sight of the animal a secret for now; the sighting of a potential man-eater in the idyllic surroundings of the house, had the potential to raise more discussion and disagreement than it solved. This deduction was mature for a boy of Cal’s age and he knew it; a lonesome-tinged sadness passed through him as he decided, for now, to stay quiet.
A few minutes went by; Cal remained fixed on the spot where he had last seen the creature, it was definitely some sort of big cat, he had checked in one of the dog-eared encyclopaedias his father had simply left beside his bed one night whilst Cal was asleep. He wondered whether the cold had forced the animal (or was it animals?) to seek refuge somewhere warmer, or even been their death, but some yearning inside him gave him trembling hope that he would see them again.
A movement in the binoculars and Cal shifted, excitedly in his seated position, he was sure that something had just shaken the branches of one of the snow-clad bushes on the left of the ditch. He stared hard, his eyes straining to catch any trace of movement through in the white of the unspoiled snow. Five more long minutes and Cal remained still and silent; no sound from downstairs permeating his relentless concentration; this had to be it.
This moment, any moment now.
* * *
His mouth was dry; so relentless was his thirst, that Cal gave a grunt of frustration and broke his stillness, turning from the window and gulping down the cold cup of tea he had abandoned earlier. So consumed by this sudden parchedness, was Cal, that he paid no mind to the lack of cramp in his legs. Usually, when sitting for such an extended time, staring into the fields, he would become numb from the knees down. The inevitable pins and needles as the blood began to circulate in his lower legs was strangely pleasurable. Right now, however, Cal’s only impetuous was to hydrate himself. Staggering to his feet, he took a few strides into the corner of his bedroom, pushing his straggling hair away from his face and bent beneath the tap of the small sink in the corner, turning the tap and letting the water stream deliciously into his mouth. After a minute or so, a terrific pain took hold just above his left eye; it was so sudden and so intense, that Cal gave out a cry and fell to the floor, clawing at his face. The pain was a devilish throbbing, its depth causing him to give a whimpering sob. Stunned by confusion and agony, Cal crawled forward, his whole body shaking; the window before him was open, wide; a freezing draught had enveloped his bedroom. Cal clenched his teeth, trying to stand and realising, with confused horror, that the sky outside was pitch black; the only sight was his blurry reflection in the bottom half of the window’s glass. He managed to stand, the world lurching violently around him, heaving the heavy window down to its closed position. The pain above his eye was lessening and Cal was beginning to fill with a terrible confusion; silence still reigned through the house, but it felt much later, the darkness outside as testament to this. Cal stared around him to the digital clock radio beside his bed; its red digits flashed double zero, like a pair of blank, startled eyes. Another throb of pain from his head and Cal crashed to his knees. The agony flared with such intensity, that he did not hear the thunder of footsteps on the stairs and the shuddering crash of his bedroom door flying open.
“Cal!” his mother towered in the doorway as he curled into a protective ball in the middle of the floor. She was in her dressing gown; black bags hanging low under her haunted eyes. She raised her arms wide beside her, mouth turned down, a girlish terror on her face.
“Cal! Where on earth were you?” She sounded hysterical, her voice cracking into a dangerous high pitch.
“Wha...” Cal tried to rise again, his head still throbbing relentlessly.
“There were men here Cal, looking for you! Where did you go for all this time?”
“What men?” Cal’s confusion overbore his pain and he knelt up, trying to comprehend the bizarre panic of the situation. His mother shrieked this time.
“I don’t know what men, Cal!” she yelled, “Men! Police, government, I don’t know! Six of them, Cal, they tore the house apart looking for you! What the hell is going on?”
“Mum....” Another throb of pain and Cal felt light, his head began to droop as he spoke. “what is the time...?”
His mother’s screams were becoming faint as a grey fog of unconsciousness began to collect at the edge of his vision. Cal heard something about ‘the middle of the fucking night’ as the world’s edges folded into a slow motion collapse and everything went dark.
* * *
Occasional crumbling sounds and the skitter of ruined brick on brick from the walls; Cal had stayed awake, curled into his corner of the basement, listening to the breathing of Louis, Erik and Jess, grow steadily deeper. Silently, Cal pulled himself to his feet, a heavy wave of weariness melting through his limbs. He had dared not sleep, for the dreams had been becoming steadily more horrific as the nights passed beneath the skies; he could not bear to see these three survivors dead before him in the nightly visions that plagued his dreams. He ran through, in his head, the instructions he had given them for the approaching dawn; to leave, to head north to the cover of the forest. He knew that beneath the forest lay an abandoned mineshaft; it would be safer than here, beneath this scorched shell of what was once a building.
Pulling his rucksack gently onto his back, Cal’s heartstrings pulled taught as his eyes regarded the three, sleeping shapes on the basement floor. He knew not what was to become of them, but he knew he could no longer accompany them on this journey. As he mounted the first step that would lead him away from them, back into the emptiness that was outside, he took one last look, his eyes alighting on Jess; coiled tight, her face turned to the mildewed wall. In the days they had travelled together through the countryside, he had managed to keep a safe emotional distance from her, the dreams of her mutilated body that had burned nightly through every synapse in his brain growing ever more vivid. He had found her companionship through Erik and Louis, found them all somewhere to flee and now he could continue on his own path. Choking back the lump in his throat, Cal turned reluctantly from the sleeping trio and climbed the stairs back into the world; the breeze of the night air cool on his face.
* * *
Cal woke suddenly, a scream caught tight in his throat; the triangular walls of his tent were billowing inward like the inside of a vast, khaki lung as the rain lashed fervently against them. In the days since Cal had left the others, his dreams had begun to trouble him more and more; they had grown in stature, in content, become more intense; it had scared him to sleep and through his tiredness, the images of death hung in the forefront of his waking mind. Instead of the occasional, faceless corpse before him, Cal would be crouching, triumphant on a grotesque pile of human corpses, the stench of burned flesh and the bitter fug of scorched hair all around him; the foulness was overshadowed by a disconcerting sense of honour. That was how best to describe it, honour, as if the mass death he had inflicted was all for some higher cause. He felt as if he were beheld by something, as if this destruction he had undoubtedly inflicted was under scrutiny from something that watched him, something that stuck a nameless horror into his heart. As the nights went on, he tried to sleep less, but every dream grew more vivid, the blurry unreality of nowhere in particular had given way to a barren, endless landscape where he stood before the dead.
As Cal tried desperately to control his breathing, the sound of the rain and the howl of the wind bearing down upon his tent, he could not shift from his head what he had seen this time. He stood atop the corpses, just like usual, but this time it was more vivid, terrifyingly lucid; he could not only smell the reek of death around him, but felt his weight bearing down upon the soft flesh of those he had destroyed. That sense of duty was churning inside him; this death was appeasement. This time, in this state between dreaming and consciousness, Cal had forced himself to look skyward to observe the presence that hung over his macabre glory. A hideous, pulsating orb of fire burned above him; its light was that of a sun, casting black spots across his retina, yet cast no real illumination across the charred landscape and pulsated in a sickening heartbeat. The orb felt not like any sun or star, but organic, conscious and despite every instinct inside Cal, telling him to close his mind, some foul voice inside his head began chanting words that he knew to hear, would be to lose himself completely.
His hands shaking, Cal took a long, deep breath, trying to quell a hopelessness, the presence of which was increasing around the edges of his consciousness since he had left the others. He had pored over the maps he carried with him, the carefully cross-referenced sightings he had been noting since childhood and found nothing. His patterns were a childish scribble, no links, no patterns, just a relentless myriad of confusion and suspicion that built to a dark and painful end that’s approach he could feel prickling at the edges of consciousness. Through the rain, Cal heard the sound of approaching footsteps and could not bring himself to move; he closed his eyes and tried to care.