“Let us pray.”
“Heavenly father, we are the family of Holy Cross. Bless us and guide us as we pray together in our church. Teach us wisdom and give strength to our community. Keep our family safe and our moral compasses true. We ask this in your name. Amen.” The congregants voices rise in unison to echo off the rafters of the old wooden building off north Main, just outside of town square.
“You may be seated.” Pastor Thomas, with his palms up, extended, directs them. His wife Gwen mounts the steps to the podium.
“Just a few matters of business to discuss with you all,” she begins.
“Some of you may have already heard, but a comet crashed to the ground on the Jackson farm again last night. Most of you remember the last time that this happened. Hayes is a humble man, and rarely misses mass, and so even if you haven’t heard, some of you’ve noticed he’s not in his usual spot today. Of course, he’s fine, the thing landed in the back acres.” Gwen clasps her hands over the paper she’s reading from on the podium. I stifle a cough, admonishing myself quietly in my head for disturbing the silence. I feel my stomach churn. I imagine the sound of my insides squirming matches the intensity and noise of the cough. My brow drips with sweat and my head swims with the swirling tides of hangover. I will not throw up in the pews, and I will not climb over the knees of these good people around me to make my way to the restroom.
I will hold my shit together this morning. My own damn fault, anyhow.
“He is not here this morning because every one of his cows needs to be put down. That’s 43 head of cattle. Now, the last time this happened he didn’t know he needed to be doing such things and the damage nearly bankrupt Hayes. Jim and I will be headed to the creek just past his property after the conclusion of the mass to cleanse the waters. All are invited to join. Sheryl Montag will be baking her famous sweet potato pie, chickens from her own farm.” A murmur grows from the crowd.
“Y’all quit.” She says. “Our farm is clear on the other side of town and no place near the creek. Our livestock is fine. Each one of you knows how come this always happens on that end of town. It’s–”
Jim raises his hands, “Sheryl. Mind the rules.”
Panic paints it’s way across Sheryl’s face and she slowly sits down. “I’m sorry Pastor Thomas.” Then nodding to the podium she adds, “sorry Gwen. Ain’t my place to interrupt–I made my potato salad too, by the way.”
Gwen smiles. “No worries hon, y’all hear that? Potato salad? Still, I encourage everyone who comes to the cleansing to bring a dish. To make sure there’s enough to go round.”
I remember the last time this happened to Hayes Jackson. Most of the others here remember as well. I’m glad they, Hayes included, are being proactive this time.
Our sleepy town has never been a stranger to odd happenings that disrupt the natural order. If it ain’t Ansel Wagner climbing out of the goddamn sewers to talk your ears off, it’s the Shadow Springs or the stupid fucking cultists at the lake with their Blue-Eyed god…it’s always something. Most of us just been begging for the return of peace and quiet…more of us remember that there never was nothing like peace and quiet ever here to begin with.
The last time this happened was 15 years ago. They say the night of the full moon’s when all the weirdos come out the woodwork. That’s a bucket of horseshit. The worst stuff happens in the nights the moon’s gone. Past the last of the waning crescent. Those nights of no moonlight are the darkest and the horror in the black is better hidden. That’s how I remember what happened. There wasn’t a hint of light in the sky the night the stars flickered out.
That day was so much like any other. I was in the rocking chair on my porch. On our side of the street, there’s a half dozen houses I can see. The house to the right of mine, 467 was empty again. Nobody seems to stay in that place for long. Next to that was Paul and Rihannon’s place and a few others before the lake. She was pregnant again. They’d been trying for a couple years. This would be the third time and it wasn’t no charm for the two of them. Miscarriage, miscarriage and stillborn was how it worked out those first three times. Her family’s been here since the beginning. She ought to have known better, but that’s not my business. Why anyone would want to start a family here is beyond me, but the two of them kept at it and they’ve got three brats these days. 15 years ago they hadn’t quite figured out the trick. Aside from the few houses lined up against the woods on our side, the only thing I can see from my rocking chair on the opposite of Webber is Hayes’s farm and a bit further down to the left of that, the graveyard adjacent. There ain’t really much else out this-a-ways.
The day was sunny. A bit too hot from my recollection. July usually is pretty bad in these parts, but I guess that goes for just about every place really. The rest of the road crew and I got to ditch out early that day. It was just the four of us. Mostly we fucked off, taking months filling potholes around town that could be plugged up in a matter of days if we busted our humps… Moving slow enough gave time for new pits to form in the asphalt. There’d always be work so long as we didn’t work too quickly. Finish everything too quick and there was bound to be layoffs. Them other three guys got kids and families. Even Deke’s got a family. Bunch of weirdos, if you ask me. Not that anyone did ask me. I just keep to myself. That’s for the best around these parts. Get close to the people you like a lot and keep the rest at a safe distance.
That morning, we’d been making our way through downtown, pulling up and resetting sections of the buckled brick roads. The streets down there are murder on your back if you’re driving them…been needing it for a while. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was oppressive as shit as it glared down on us. Out of the clear blue sky, the afternoon shower came beating down, hot and hard, in giant stinging drops.
It seemed like it was probably only going to last a few minutes and the water was evaporating as quickly as it fell, but Deke Coffey is about the laziest foreman this town has ever seen. He called it quits right away and we all fucked off for our homes. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t be surprised he caused the rain himself. I don’t never see him in church. Most people you don’t see in church are members of The Order but they’ll just say they ain’t religious if you question it. I bet old Deke he hangs his hardhat on a hook right next to his door with his cultist robes. With the amount of shit you can link them to, fucking with the weather wouldn’t be very surprising.
I fixed myself an Arnold Palmer that was more John Daly than Arnold–my late Mama’s sweet tea recipe sure is better with a bit of lemonade and a whole lot of vodka–and pulled the shotgun from above the mantle, taking it with me to the porch out of habit. I shoulda known we’d be in for a strange night, just based off how the rest of the afternoon went.
“You take one more gotdamn step on my property, I’ll put a hole in you the size of a baseball, kid.” I stood, leveling the shotgun on the porch railing. I was probably too drunk at that point to aim it properly, but maybe the slurring added a bit of terror that worked in my favor. The boy stopped dead in his tracks, his watery blue eyes gazing back at the Radio Flyer he pulled in tow behind him. He turned to glance at the woman who was trailing a few feet behind, moving house-to-house with him.
“I just wanted to see if you wanted to buy a magazine subscription for our school trip, mister.” The stupid kid whined from the edge of my driveway. Ink from the squid inside his throat was slowly edging its way into the corners of his lips. You live here long enough and you become harder to fool.
“Yea, horseshit. Keep it moving, both of you. Nothing for you here.”
The woman craned her neck at me, a sour expression on her face. She opened her mouth, preternaturally wide, cracking the dry cheap lipstick and emitted a screech that rattled my windows in their frames. Then the two of them moved along.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening drinking on my porch, watching the assholes that lived around me do whatever stupid shit they were doing.
Around nightfall, I began noticing a low rumbling sound, coming from the fields behind Jackson’s house. He came outside, hearing the commotion as well.
“Earl!” He called out, nodding.
“Hayes!” I shouted back.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got your shotgun out with you.”
“You know I have.”
“Don’t suppose you want to come over here and help me with something?”
“I sure can.” I said, easing slowly to my feet. I’d been sitting for a while and nearly stumbled down my own steps, shotgun and all, from the drinks I’d had.
Together the two of us got into his truck and drove the perimeter of his plot, following the wire fenceline as it went.
They weren’t on his property, but they were pretty damn close to it, just on the other side of the creek bed, where the water was strangely low and running muddy and thick like syrup. I’d never seen it like that and I said so.
“Happens a lot,” Jackson said, coming to a stop. “Mostly cause of these assholes, but sometimes it happens when they’re not out here fucking around.”
“They ain’t on your lot,” I said getting out.
“I don’t give a shit.”
He trudged through the grass to where the wire fence sagged a bit and hitched his leg over, motioning for me to follow.
On the other bank of the wide span where the creek was meant to be, just beyond an ancient oak tree whose tangled roots were knotting their way into the mud was a bonfire. Circled around it were 20-some-odd people in hooded robes. They were chanting something strange and incomprehensible.
Shog t’lokreth hanna. Sheg luth’reth hanna.
One of the most bizarre things I’d ever seen in my life. They each held in their hands an individual, slowly pulsing tentacle, dripping with something milky and white. Each of which seemed to originate from the blazing wood at the center. Jackson and I just stood there for a moment trying to make sense of things. It was when each of the mumbling robed figured began to move the slowly writhing feelers to their mouths that the two of us had seen enough.
Jackson swung his Winchester by its pump action one handed. I remember suppressing a chuckle at the move. It was something ridiculous and adept at once and I couldn’t help but imagine him practicing the move in his living room on his spare time. Mine was a simple side by side and didn’t need any action to fire after it was loaded.
“Knock it off.” Jackson bellowed.
“Yea, cut the horseshit, you gotdamn freaks.”
We shot off a few rounds into the air and doubled over as they turned. The tentacles slurped their way into the fire as the cultists dropped them and scattered. Jackson and I doubled over laughing, me sliding down the embankment of the creek to land in the muddy bed below. One of them tripped on their robes as they darted into the woods. Nobody stopped to help.
Heading back home, we thought that was the extent of the weirdness for the night.
The comet fell while we slept.
The next morning was a Saturday. A day off for me meant another day spent drinking. Hayes come over that morning before I could get started.
“You won’t believe the thing I found this morning, Earl.” He told me.
And he was right. When we pulled up in his truck on that rock I couldn’t believe what I saw.
“What you s’pose it is?”
“Looks like a gosh darn meteor er somethin. Probably a present from them boys with The Order.”
“Wait? That was real? I thought that was a dream.”
“Maybe you should quit drinking so much.” He said.
“I’ll quit drinking the day I can fuckin leave this hellhole.”
He laughed and said, “That settles it then, you ain’t never gonna do neither of them things.”
The comet or meteor or whatever the hell it was was about six feet across on its longest edge. Oblong and lumpy in appearance and pitch black.
“What you think? Fell out of the sky?” I wiped the sweat of cheap vodka from my brow. The day was already a scorcher and it was just getting started. I touched one side of it with my hand, drawing my arm away quickly.
“Fuck! It’s freezing!”
“Yea, couple of the cows was out here licking on it. I had to chase them off. Tongues all stuck to it and shit.”
I rummaged around the junk in the bed of Jackson’s truck, finding a stray glove I had a feeling would be there among the other junk. There was no apparent sign of it’s twin. I found it was much lighter than it looked like it had any business being as I lifted one end of the thing.
A hundred tiny flat worms, white as alabaster wriggled their way into the dirt and away from the sunlight as I did. I looked up at Hayes, my expression said everything I couldn’t.
“Yea I see it.” He said. “Weird as shit.”
Some men came later in the day. We’re pretty sure they were from the government. What branch, they wouldn’t say. They didn’t seem to keen on answering any questions, and as such, they simply went about pretending we wasn’t asking any. Jackson didn’t protest none when the men in hazmat suits showed up shortly after they placed a call in to whoever was supervising them. They hauled the thing off. That thing changed the very air in that field, like it was somehow depressing and hard to breathe. I think Jackson was just happy to be rid of it. We thought that was the end of it.
I heard about the cows the next day.
Back in the present, Gwen continued on with the church announcements… “He wouldn’t approve, on account of him being so humble, but in his absence we are taking up a second collection for Mr. Jackson today.” She says, “If you’ve got anything extra to give we sure would appreciate giving him a little bit of help in this time of great need.” I can’t help but think of old Hayes knew she was asking the congregation for handouts, he’d be furious. He’s a proud man. She’s kind of an asshole for doing this.
Pastor Jim Thomas closes the mass out with another prayer and I find myself musing on the fact that there used to be another man named Jim in town and wondering what happened to him. He was kind of an asshole too.
Most of the people that live here are kind of assholes. Even sometimes Jackson is one…I’m probably an asshole too. I just try not to really think about whether I am or not much.
That day 15 years ago, the cows all went wild. It wasn’t just the ones that Hayes had chased off of the meteor. It was all of them. They trampled the perimeter fence and spread off in different directions the next morning. I woke up to the sound of Tawnie Downs, addressing the whole neighborhood via the loudspeaker of her patrol car. She took charge of the whole situation. I think the memory of that day’s how she wound up becoming sheriff just a few years later.
“Attention Webber Street. This is Captain Downs of Bradenville police. If you can hear the sound of my voice, stay in your homes. If you see any of Farmer Jackson’s cows, you need to back away slowly. Do not make eye contact. Do not approach them. We believe they are sick. They are very dangerous…” she repeated the message over and over as the car crept along the road at a snail’s pace. “Attention Webber Street. This is Captain Downs…”
They didn’t actually kill anybody, but they came pretty close. Someone called out to me as I opened up my front door to peek out.
“Earl Kurtis, you better get your ass back inside.” It was Rihannon, running barefoot though the street from town, towards her own home. I never did ask what happened to her shoes. “I was just up at Rife’s Grocery, Brenda Mahofski had her sundress ripped right off her as she made her way to her car in the lot. I couldn’t believe it. I dropped all my shit and ran.” Two hundred years back, a young heifer came tearing down through a side-yard and down the street after her. She glanced over her shoulder and doubled her pace. Taking her advice, I shut my door and bolted it. I went upstairs, suddenly afraid one of them would come plowing through my front door. Could cows climb up stairs? I couldn’t remember.
Once I was upstairs, I did remember. They could make it up the stairs, but I think I remembered hearing something about how they couldn’t go back down once they did. Something about how their knees bent. I felt the thrill of giddy panic take hold of me. Deciding if they made it inside, they wouldn’t make it through a window. The roof was the safest place, so I climbed out and sat up there and watched. Shit, did I need a drink, but I was too skittish to go back inside to risk it.
Otto Heinz, the undertaker, must have been interrupted doing a funeral service. I missed the first part, but I could see his portly shake dodging between headstones in his clever black suit, a calf bound wildly between the markers to his right as an aged dairy cow charged from further back in the cemetery, leaping the stout granite monuments with little effort for something her size, her udders scraped raw at the effort, she was undeterred and caught him by the arm as he entered the wrought iron gate of a mausoleum. She only loosed her grip on him when he began using the door as a weapon, smashing her head with it over and over again until finally he was safe behind it. It was hard to tell if the blood was his or hers, but he was covered in it, panting and clutching his arm. The heifer and the calf battered at the gates like a couple of rams until the smaller fell dead from exhaustion and the larger gave up to look for easier prey.
I thought I was smart, climbing up on my roof like I done, until three of them began to circle below like a trio of hungry sharks sensing blood and waiting for me to slip.
Captain Downs came rolling through in her patrol car, she and her partner armed with rifles hung out of the windows. Her first shot missed, but her second found a home between the eyes of a bull as it began to charge them. It took four more shots to put the thing down and I swear when it fell it’s head split open and a hundred of those wriggling tapeworms spilled out, beginning to sizzle and cook in the sunlight.
All in all, 7 people including the undertaker were hospitalized. Brenda Mahofski was sorely embarrassed. The only people the cows seemed to be afraid of was that kid Damien and his friend Lucy. Weird kids. I don’t blame the cows. I’d steer clear of them too. (Get it? Steer?) The whole ordeal nearly cost Hayes Jackson his entire farm. Not just because he insisted on paying for all the damages, but because his entire herd had to be put down. They piled the bodies in the woods and burned them all the next day. The neighborhood smelled like hamburger for nearly a week.