This story is by Robert Smiley and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
At nightfall on the farmhouse, Don and Cheryl were watching football in the living room. Don finished off a beer when Sadie started to bark. Probably just barking at a car, he thought.
After a few minutes, “I think she has to go, Don,” Cheryl said.
“She can wait ‘till commercial,” Don replied. Unfortunately, Sadie only started to bark more incessantly.
“Don!” Cheryl gave him a look.
“Alright. Fine,” Don grumbled. He stood up and went to the kitchen to retrieve a trash bag and flashlight. “I don’t see why I’m the only one that has to clean up after the dog,” he muttered.
“I heard that!” Cheryl yelled from the living room.
“Kind of the point!” he shot back. Don found the collie yapping at the front door. He put a hand on her back to calm her down. “Alright girl, let’s do this fast before we miss anything.”
Don flicked on the porch light and stepped out the front door. He walked halfway down the driveway before he realized that Sadie hadn’t moved from the front door. “Come on, Sadie,” he cooed. Sadie shifted, but remained rooted to the spot. “Come on, you stupid dog,” Don said frustratedly. Instead, Sadie started to bark again. Don realized that Sadie might be barking at something. He turned around and raised his flashlight. Don’s blood turned to ice. There, bathed in the streetlamp’s light, crouched a mountain lion.
The flashlight’s beam reflected the cougar golden eyes. The big cat hissed and Don promptly let go of the flashlight. Fear immobilized Don, but his mind began to race. Cougars rarely attack people, he recalled, unless they’re starving. He stared at the mountain lion, but had no idea what a famished cougar looked like. Are you supposed to look big cats in the eyes or is that a sign of aggression? I’m only a few feet from the door, surely, I can make it if I run. How fast are cougars? Why did school teach me how fast cheetahs are, but nothing about predators I can actually encounter?
In his peripheral vision, Don saw movement. Slowly, while never looking away from the cougar, he turned his head. Underneath the next streetlight, stood a second mountain lion. A chill ran down Don’s spine and a single thought popped into his head: Am I being hunted?
“Don?” he heard Cheryl say behind him. Don suddenly became aware that Sadie had been continuously barking.
“Don’t come out,” Don breathlessly whispered. He cleared his throat and summoned his courage. “Don’t come out here, Cheryl,” he yelled. Both sets of yellow eyes continued to stare at him.
He heard a sudden shriek. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,” he heard Cheryl’s scared chant.
“Cheryl, calm down,” Don said as calmly as he could, “It’s gonna be okay.”
“There’s a cougar,” Cheryl whispered somewhat shrilly, “How’s it gonna be okay?”
“There’s two cougars,” Don absently corrected. Cheryl whimpered. Don ignored her, distracted by movement near the first mountain lion’s feet. He had been so disarmed by the big cat’s stare that he failed to notice the collection of fauna surrounding it. Jackrabbits, gophers, squirrels and frogs huddled under the radiant streetlamp’s light. “See, Cheryl. The cougars aren’t hungry, otherwise they’d be eating the rodents,” Don assured her. Of course, that doesn’t explain why in the hell, prey would be cuddled under the light with a predator. “I’m just gonna pick up the flashlight and walk slowly to the door so that they know that I’m not a threat.”
Don deliberately reached down to pick up the flashlight from the grass, never breaking eye contact with the cougars. A croak caused him to break his gaze. Illuminated in the flashlight’s beam, dozens of frogs stared up at him. The bizarre sight gave Don pause. Why is the ground moving? A millisecond later he realized that the movement was hundreds maybe thousands of worms. The worms squirmed over each other in a desperate attempt to be in the light.
“Oh my God, Don!” Cheryl screamed, breaking Don’s fixation. Don quickly looked at the mountain lions, but they hadn’t moved. He grabbed the flashlight, scattering the worms and frogs. He slowly started to back up.
“Don! Stop!” Cheryl yelled, “Rattlers.”
Don whirled around. Basking in the porch light lay roughly a dozen snakes. Don eyed the tails and a few were definitely rattlesnakes. A gut-twisting sense of dread filled Don. One of the diamondbacks started making its way toward the door. Cheryl quickly closed the door, stranding Don outside. The dread in his chest suddenly became suffocating. Oh God, can’t have a panic attack now. Don barely registered that the snakes had been joined by various lizards and frogs. I’m trapped.
Cheryl appeared in the window looking distraught. The sight of her had a calming affect on Don. I need to get in the house. He tried to motion to Cheryl that he was going through the back. I hope she understands.
Don turned and took one last look at the cougars. Well they haven’t attack me yet and they definitely could have. He turned his flashlight to the ground, just in time to see a huge rattlesnake slither past him. The diamondback ignored him and slithered up the stairs to the porch. Don had never seen a snake climb stairs before and found it deeply unsettling.
He methodically began walking around the house. Their backyard technically ended at the start of the forest. When he reached the back, a herd of deer greeted him. At this point, the deer didn’t even phase him. He headed towards the back door.
As he reached for the doorknob, every fiber in his being screamed danger. This overwhelming sense of danger was far stronger than with the cougars or the rattlesnakes. Judging by the panicked bleats, the deer could sense it too. Don heard a loud bellow and whipped his flashlight toward the noise. A hulking stag corpse was rotting away, exposing bones and entrails. The decaying face had peeled away, exposing a bleached skull. That couldn’t have just happened. The body must have been there days ago and I just …never saw it. Don looked over his shoulder at the forest, trying to peer into the trees. Grizzly, maybe wolves? he conjectured, but his intuition told him that was wrong.
Don opened the back door, spilling light across the back lawn. The deer bleated and started to rush the door. One stag started to charge toward the opening. Don hurried through the door, slamming it behind him. He heard a massive thud and a splintering snap.
“Don!” Cheryl embraced him. “Thank God.”
Another thud occurred accompanied with a resounding crack. The impact had splintered the door near the hinge. “They’re gonna bust down the door,” Don said.
“Don,” Cheryl said tugging at him.
“What,” he snapped.
“Look,” she pointed. Don followed her finger. The house was swarming. Spiders, termites and centipedes crawled across the walls. Moths and mayflies covered the lamps and multiple ant colonies claimed dominion of the floor. The leftover food teemed with flies. Insects that wouldn’t dare be out in the daylight were covering the house.
While Don took in this new development, a doe crashed into the back window. Cheryl screamed as the doe fell into the living room. Don grabbed her arm and ran to the stairs. He heard another crack and assumed that the stag had finally made it through the door. As they reached the stairs, Don habitually turned on the stair light. He and Cheryl raced up the stairs, not turning around until they reached the top. The herd appeared to occupy the entire ground floor. Even worse, many of the small animals appeared to have followed the deer. Their home was infested with rodents, frogs and snakes.
Cheryl stifled a scream as a rattlesnake started to climb the stairs toward them. Don turned off the light, plunging them in darkness. The snake quickly retreated down the steps. Cheryl looked questioningly at him. “They’re attracted to the light,” he explained.
“Why?” she wondered.
Because there is something out there. “Not sure,” he said instead. “Cheryl, get the gun and call…Animal Control. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on them” Wordlessly, she left for the gun safe in the bedroom. Don noted that she didn’t turn on any of the lights.
A cluster of black widows fled down the stairs. He spied a familiar collie among the animals. “Sadie,” he called, “Get up here.” Sadie pawed at the stairs and whimpered, refusing to go into the dark. Why are you so afraid of the dark? What’s out there?
Don heard glass breaking from the bedroom. Don ran towards the room. He heard Cheryl scream and nine shots rang out. He burst through the door and turned on the light. An incomprehensible shadow vanished through the broken window leaving behind the decayed desiccated corpse of Don’s wife.