He stood at his sink washing up after his evening meal when he felt a tug on his right jeans leg, inside and just above his ankle.
It was back.
He paused a moment, then finished rinsing the plate he held, and placed it in the drainer. He followed that lone plate with a single fork, knife, and spoon.
Don’t look at it.
He picked up the threadbare towel and wiped each item dry in the order he always did: plate, spoon, fork, knife. He slid the plate into his empty cupboard, the flatware into the drawer, each in their divider compartment.
It plucked at the cuff of his left jeans leg, on the outside this time.
He held his breath, but the brief tweak was all. It was moving around him. Waiting.
He swallowed, looking out the grease-grimed kitchen window into his back yard. His lawn was dead, the grass the color of dried cow shit. The weeping willow was sobbing, most of its leaves having fallen to the ground from lack of water.
It had not rained in two years.
He backed a step from the sink, waiting for the tug. Nothing. He let out the breath he’d been holding.
Oregon. He had to get to Oregon.
The internet still worked; no one was sure why, since everything else had fallen to shit since they came. Sure, it was erratic, and sometimes was out for hours or days, but up till now it kept coming back. In the groups he frequented, everyone said, Go to Oregon. It’s your only hope.
The can of SpaghettiOs he’d eaten sat in his belly like… well, like the can of processed crap that it was. Before they came, he’d eaten organic; even had a garden with heirloom tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and herbs. Now, he ate whatever he could scrounge from the empty houses in his neighborhood.
In his town.
The internet wasn’t certain, but the ones who knew—or thought they did—said most of the people were gone. No one talked about where they had gone, or how, because that just seemed to antagonize them.
In the beginning, no one realized what was going on. People just vanished. Naturally, the overly-religious delusionals proclaimed that the Rapture had begun, and they were expecting to be taken up to heaven any second, bless your heart you poor sinner. Then, as more of the things seemed to arrive, the people who were left started seeing how the other people disappeared.
Before they, too, vanished.
He went out to the garage and clicked on the work light he’d hooked to the underside of the open hood on his twenty-year-old Honda Civic. It had taken him a month of bicycling around town and breaking into the various abandoned auto parts stores to find the new intake manifold to replace the cracked one on his Civic. No way could he get to Oregon—or even to the state border of Missouri—with that broken. He’d gotten the engine stripped and ready to accept the new manifold, and with that thing yanking at his pants leg, he would work all night if he had to, to get his car fixed and road-worthy.
He picked up a ratchet, and felt his jeans leg jerk to the side. It was getting persistent. It smelled him—or whatever it did—but as long as he didn’t react…
That was the theory.
He’d seen three people disappear, and the memories kept him awake most nights. It always started the same: a tug at the pants cuff, or a soft brush against a bare ankle.
Don’t look down.
Naturally, people looked to see what was touching them. That’s when they felt the bite.
That’s when they screamed.
He closed his eyes, the steel of the wrench cool in his hand. He leaned his head against the edge of the car’s hood, the metal putting a crease in his forehead, and breathed the stale oil smell rising from the old engine.
He remembered the three people he had seen across the street that day. They had been walking together—something the few people left had learned not to do—and one man yelped and brushed at his ankle as he looked down. The man’s foot had disappeared. For just an instant—just an instant—he had seen what looked like sharply-triangular metal teeth in an impossibly wide mouth. Then, just as the man’s foot disappeared and the blood from his severed arteries spurted a ketchup trail across the concrete sidewalk, the mouth disappeared.
But the man kept screaming and grabbing at his now-phantom foot, and the teeth reappeared. Took another bite. And another. And another.
More of the man disappeared, his screams growing scratchy like an old seventy-eight record, as the thing ate him bottom to top. He heard the crunch of bones as the thing munched the man’s ribs, the sound like celery and almonds being chewed at the same time. When the mouth with the metal teeth reached the man’s lungs, his screams stopped.
But his mouth was still open.
The thing ate him so fast that he was alive to the last second. When the mouth unhinged extra wide and popped the man’s head like a ripe grape.
And then the man was gone. Only things left were Jackson Pollock stringers of red in a pinwheel design on the walk where he had stood. And on the two other people watching and screaming.
And since they had been looking, the mouth opened and took them as well.
He had run, even though he knew it was pointless. Every second he expected to feel the brush at his ankle, the bite at his feet. He’d gotten lucky that day.
You couldn’t see them. You couldn’t tell where they were, or even what they were.
Someone on one of his groups had seen a news report early on, a scientist theorizing about what he called “the invasion”. That maybe the things existed on the other side of a thin membrane, a sister dimension, and had discovered a way to access a new food source—us. The person on his group who had watched this report said the scientist screamed mid-sentence as one of the things found him and ate him on the air.
He was glad he hadn’t seen that.
Since they came anywhere, at any time, and there was no defense, people just waited. Some people went ahead and snuffed themselves and their families to save themselves the waiting and the inevitable—they assumed—pain.
He said Fuck that. He wasn’t any kind of hero, but he was damned if he was going to just give up.
Along with all the disappearances, it eventually seeped into the survivors’ brains that all of the deaths happened in dry, sunny weather. On rainy days, you could look at your ankles all you wanted, and you never felt a tug. No one knew why for sure—no more scientists went on TV to make educated guesses—but it seemed the things didn’t like the rain. Or couldn’t operate in it, for some reason.
People learned to be careful when skies were clear. Until people started noticing the skies had started being clear all the time in most places, even formerly wet climates like Florida and Hawaii. Somehow, the mavens on the internet said, the things had learned to control weather.
Most of the time.
For whatever reason, the things hadn’t been able to stop the rain on the north coast of Oregon, and that was where the survivors headed.
Where he was heading, soon as he fixed his car.
He slipped the manifold gasket over the studs, then fitted the new manifold he’d found at AutoZone on top of that. He snugged the nuts up with the ratchet, then used the torque wrench he’d lifted from NAPA Auto Parts to make sure they were tightened exactly as they should be. He put all the other parts back on the engine, checked the fluid levels, and closed the hood.
It was two AM, and he was exhausted. He thought about going back inside and taking a nap till dawn.
His pants leg pulled sideways, then nearly wrapped around his ankle. He heard a rip.
It had hooked a tooth into his jeans that time, probably exploring. There was some fucked-up, nearly incoherent explanation that they couldn’t come all the way through the membrane till they were observed, or some convoluted Schrödinger shit like that. He didn’t understand it, and didn’t care to.
Just don’t look at them.
He wasn’t going to wait any longer. It was human nature to try and put distance between yourself and a threat, even though, in the case of the metal-mouths, it made no difference—something to do with the membrane, and that there was no distance on their side, or something like that.
Bottom line: once they found you, you couldn’t run.
Unless you could get to the rain before they bit. And that was what he was going to do. He got in the Civic and closed his eyes in a silent prayer to nobody as he turned the key.
The engine fired up on the first try; his careful repair work had paid off.
The thing dogging him must have sensed something, because his jeans leg was whipping like there was a tiny tornado on the floor of the car. He stared straight through the windshield at the wall of his garage, with its shelves full of boxes of memorabilia that didn’t matter anymore, and he put the car in reverse.
He didn’t even look at his house as he drove away.
Interstate 70 westbound was deserted. He climbed the Civic up the entrance ramp, having to ease around an eighteen-wheeler that blocked the ramp, the tractor canted into the storm ditch. No one was in the cab, of course, but its windshield was sprayed with dried blood.
If he’d been driving on a normal night before they came, tired as he was, he’d likely have fallen asleep and driven off the road. But nothing was normal anymore—the goddamn thing kept as his pants leg, worrying the Wrangler denim like his jeans were cheese-flavored and he had a rat loose in the car.
But this was no rat, as he heard his pants tear again.
The thing was getting persistent, and he had to force himself not to peer down through the darkness. It was like the thing was saying, Look at me! I promise I won’t eat you.
Fuck you won’t.
Dawn started up behind him, a lot clearer these days without all the pollution clogging the air. The golden light falling across the back of his head and over the dash almost made him feel hopeful.
His jeans yanked again.
Don’t you ever sleep, asshole? he thought.
As if in answer, he felt two fast yanks, and a nudge on his left inside ankle bone.
He pressed the gas pedal to the floor.
In Kansas City he jogged north on I-29, picking up I-80 around Omaha. He stopped only to gas up at the deserted stations along the highway, and to grab snacks—chips, jerky, Slim Jims—from whatever leftover stock there was.
All the apocalyptic stories he’d ever read usually had some form of people rioting and looting—every man, woman, and child for themselves. But the things happened so fast that hardly anyone was left to loot, and the few survivors were hiding under their beds, metaphorically speaking, because no one was quite sure what activities might get the things’ attention.
And their hunger.
He pulled over and slept when he could not drive another mile without doing it off the road and in the ditch, and he was always awakened by the thing nagging at his pants leg. It seemed like it had become frantic to eat him; his own personal monster.
At Salt Lake he got on I-84 and rode that all the way over the Cascade Range towards Portland, Oregon. And the rain started. His wipers—so long unused—squawked back and forth in worn rubber agony over the road-filmed windshield. The wipers were the one thing he’d forgotten to replace.
And blessed be, the damn thing stopped jerking at his pants while the rain fell.
He’d driven almost two days straight, and he was finally here.
The rain stopped, but he didn’t care as he pulled in at a Chevron station near the Oregon Zoo and topped off his tank so he could get to the coast—Cannon Beach or Manzanita—where the rain was reputed to be near constant.
The sun came out and glinted off the diamond droplets on his windshield. Water drip-dripped off the Civic’s fenders and plopped on the oil-stained asphalt.
He stretched. It felt good not to have his person tugged and worried at.
Good riddance, asshole.
Maybe the thing had given up and gone back to wherever it fucking came from. He looked up the highway, the trees lush and thick as a painting crowding both sides of the road, rainfall dripping from their leaves, and let out a breath. His stomach unclenched for the first time in two years.
“So fuck off and die, asshole,” he told the thing.
And as he felt the bite come that took off his foot, and his leg, and his hip, his last thought was:
Guess talking to them isn’t a great idea, either.
* * *