The window blew out in an explosion of shards, cascading onto the lawn like glittering rain. The shotgun kicked back against John’s shoulder but he carried it soundly, barely blinking as Sam’s ears filled with a piercing static whine. The buckshot screeched off the chain-link fence in a dozen places, sparks scattering like frightened yellow stars.
The dark shape moved quickly. Its green eyes streaked in the dark, leaving wet emerald trails like car headlights. It leaped away, back towards the shadows of the tree line.
So fast, Sam thought. And we’re slow, too slow…
John dropped the shotgun from his shoulder and thumbed back the second barrel ‘shammer, his eyes fixed on the trees. He returned the gun to his shoulder, squinting down the sights. With the crippling first blast still ringing in Sam’s ears, John fired a second.
Another sheet of sparks slid off the chain fence. This time there was a flash of green fire from the darkness beyond, as bright and intense as a photographer’s strobe.
In the dark beyond the fence, it screamed.
John dropped the shotgun, cracking the breach; the hot shells cartwheeled away, smoke trailing through the air. His hand moved methodically to the leather buckshot belt secured around his hip.
“One,” he said.
The window beside him shattered inward. John ducked sideways as a silver streak flew passed his shoulder, missing his head by inches. Sam fell against the cot, another streaking missile shattering the glass above him. The pointed shard of steel shrapnel skidded off the concrete floor, gouging a deep rivet where it struck its jagged edge. It careened by Sam’s foot – spinning on its point long enough for him to identify it as an industry-grade carving knife – before disappearing into the dormitory with a clang.
“This is new,” Sam said, his teeth set tight together.
John slipped two fresh shells into his gun and didn’t reply.
Sam pulled himself upright and looked carefully over the broken sill. The cold night air cut across the heat in his cheeks like an open-palmed slap. Shadows moved at the edge of the tree-line, branches drifting in the breeze. Something closer caught his eye, a sleek black motion etched in sharp relief against the frost on the lawn and the darkness of the trees.
On the inside of the fence.
Sam’s breath caught the back of his throat like a razor blade. “Inside!”
“I see it.”
John jerked the gun up and pulled the trigger, igniting the night with another crack of yellow thunder. The shape jerked away, gliding across the grass; it fell back towards the fence and vanished into the shadows.
Sam gripped his rifle with both hands and knelt by the window, watching the night move. He strained his eyes, trying to count. There would not be many of them – there never had been before – but that was no reason to believe that would always be true. Best not to take things for granted.
Life, quite recently, had become… unpredictable.
A shadow leaped through the branches above the fence. Sam followed it with his rifle, barrel resting on the windowsill. How many were out there? Impossible to tell.
There were more than the two of them… and that was more than enough.
There was a crash from above, the tin roof buckling.
“The roof,” said Sam.
“No shit,” said John, and swinging the shotgun up, fired.
Buckshot punched dimes of moonlight through the thin tin ceiling. The roof thundered as something fell hard against it, rebounded, tumbled down the incline towards the gutter. An ear-bursting shriek split through the centre of Sam’s head – the scrape of its nails digging for purchase against the frost-slick roof – and then a black shape fell outside the window across from him. It hit the ground with a bone-crunching thud.
Let it be dead, Sam thought, although he was already walking across the room at an unhealthy speed, legs moving on an automated path of pessimism, rifle clutched by his side. Let it break its back, or split its skull, or shatter every bone in its body, just like any normal person, any person alive inside it…
The barred window grew tall in front of him, swallowing his reflection like a yawning mouth, edges ringed with blunt metal teeth. Sam raised the gun halfway to his shoulder and held his breath. The end of the barrel hovered in darkness, his reflection staring back at him in the ersatz looking glass. All he saw was a scrawny kid, average height, messy hair, lacking sleep and losing weight. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing… unreal.
Then a pair of green eyes opened in the centre of his forehead. Sam stepped away, raised the gun up to his shoulder, and fired
The rifle leapt in his hands with a short, animal snarl. The eyes blew out in a lick of green flame. The whipcrack of the rifle snapped around the room, the recoiling hammering his shoulder hard enough to jolt his skull.
This time last week, you didn’t even know what recoil was…
“Two,” said John, from somewhere behind him. From further away came the sound of breaking glass, the creak of rusty pipes, the crack of porcelain tiles.
Sam spun towards the dormitory doors, rifle raised. “The washroom.”
John moved quickly, a dark shape moving swiftly between the rows of low beds. His shoulder hit the dorm door as it began to swing inward, pushed open from the other side. It flew back against the jamb, slamming shut with a definitive sound, kissing cousin to the snap of Sam’s rifle.
John dropped with his back against the door, feet planted wide on either side of the jamb. His rubber boot treads squealed with friction as they slowly inched inward, his body riding the opening door like the crest of a slow wave.
“Sam,” he snapped, teeth clenched. “Move your ass. Now!”
Sam took the door at a run, skidding the last two yards on his knees. He thrust the barrel of the rifle in the widening gap between door and jamb – catching a glimpse of malformed calf muscle, a leg or shape like it through the hair in his eyes – and pulled the trigger.
The rifle flash flared across a creature made of metal curves and jagged edges, the gun retort snatched away by a piercing metallic screech. The door suddenly went slack beneath him. John’s hands slammed it shut.
“The bed. Quickly.”
Sam grabbed the frame of the closest cot and hauled it toward him, its wire springs chattering like cold teeth. Tearing off the thin mattress, John flipped the cot on its edge, pushing it flat against the closed door.
Sam scrambled across the floor, his jeans sliding on the linoleum. He threw his back against the cold metal struts, the twists of wire poking like thin fingers through his sweater. Something pounded on the dorm room door, sending a stabbing jolt up Sam’s spine. The door shuddered. It began to open.
Sam was sliding forward; his weight and the cot combined made no difference. Sam dropped the rifle across his lap. Planting his hands on either side of him, he pushed back against the door. The cot springs dug into his shoulder blades, the wire fingers growing nails; he felt one puncture the skin in the small of his back and clenched his teeth.
John stood a few feet away, calmly folding the open shotgun across the crook of his arm, oblivious to Sam’s struggle with the door. Sam watched as he fished another pair of shells out of his belt and slowly began to reload.
The door shuddered again, woodwork groaning. Sam glanced up. Above his head protruded four silver knifes, their tips thrust through the inch of solid hardwood. Their edges glimmered in the moonlight, catching on each tiny serrated tooth.
John snapped the gun closed and raised it to his shoulder. Sam stared down the length of the twin-cylinder barrel, both hammers cocked, its wide muzzle aimed barely a foot above his head.
“Get down,” said John.
Sam did as he was told. He squeezed his eyes shut and tucked his head between his knees.
The air above him exploded, torn apart by a swarm of roaring lead. Sam felt the dorm door give like it an extension of his own body – felt the recoil strike it hard as if he were suddenly punched through with an invisible fist of buckshot. Splinters and flaming gunpowder rained down on the back of his neck in a stinging shower. He wondered if his head was still there at all, or whether he himself was part of the shower.
Sam opened his eyes, his hands on holding his head. It felt solid, filled with weight, still there. His ears were packed full with thick noise, oozing blood. The world in front of him was a mess of streaking moonlight. He blinked, and it came back into focus.
John stood in front of him, impossibly tall from Sam’s position at his feet. The shotgun was lowered casually by his side, both barrels sighing hot blue smoke. John’s hand was at his belt again, removing two fresh shells.
Sam looked up slowly, unsure of what he’d see but expecting something bad. A wide smoking hole had appeared in the centre of the dorm room door, right where the claws had been. The claws themselves were no longer there. Sam had a fair idea of where they could be.
“Move away,” John repeated, removing a silver pinecone from his bag.
Sam’s reverberating mind made a slow connection. His hands fell to his lap, finding his rifle without feeling it, and he scrambled to his feet. Lurching away from the door, he turned, rifle raised and clutched tight to his chest. His head reeled; he almost fell, his legs a spastic tangle.
The dorm room spun in blurred streaks around him, and he squeezed his eyes shut again, willing the fluid in his ears to dissolve. When he opened his eyes, the crisp moonlight picking out the hard outline of the cage wire cot against the door with the clarity of an artist’s relief. Through the ragged hole, one green eye began to glow, followed by another.
“Eat shit, monsters,” John said beside him, and pulled out the pinecone’s pin. Sam saw his arm go back in fluid slow motion, the dimpled metal ball held firmly between each calloused finger. His mind approximated something like dull surprise.
I didn’t know he still had one of those, he thought.
But it didn’t matter. John’s arm unwound with liquid grace. With the precise dexterity of a speedball pitcher, John threw the grenade through the hole in the dorm room door. Moonlight glimmered off it in an oily streak, and then it disappeared into the corridor, swallowed up by the shadows.
Sam heard it hit the ground, once – a dull metal thud on the otherwise ordinary high school floor – and then it exploded.