Part 1

Introduction – Jon

Where to begin? So much has happened in such a hurried pace that the blur of it all makes the beginning almost irrelevant. The deterioration of society, other than some cultural components, happened immediately.

I suppose I will start from the moment things went south for us. The day was pleasant, to say the very least, and only became better once the chaos melted away.

My family and I needed some time to get away from the bullshit of every day life. Fortunately, my time off request was approved, and we were able to find a cabin at state park near in Wilburton, OK. This was in late September or early October; I really can’t remember the specifics. But, at that time of year, that part of the country was remarkable. The trees, the weather, and, definitely, the atmosphere of seclusion. That was what we needed.

Once we settled in to our cabin, the stresses of our busy lives flew out of the window. My wife, Liz, became a different person. She was happy again. Not that she was entirely unhappy before, but there was a noticeable difference between Busy Liz and Stress-free Liz.

For some damn reason, her mother, Janice, and step-father, Gene, tagged along. I don’t remember having agreed to this, but, in all honesty, I’m quite sure that I was never asked. Anyhow, it allowed us the opportunity to send the kids to their cabin for some moments of silence.

Enough of the irrelevant pieces of the story, though. Our silence ended with authority. Liz and I were about to start cooking lunch when Gene ran into our cabin. He was holding our youngest, Anna, and they were both covered in blood. I remember the difficulties of trying to decipher his words. That image, forever burned into my mind, along with the fog that comes with trauma, made it impossible to really focus.

I had been through a lot during my time in Iraq, but nothing can prepare you for the moment the seemingly lifeless, blood-soaked body of your child is before you. In all of the confusion, I hadn’t noticed that Janice was not with him.

Liz panicked. I never once blamed her for that.

I was fortunate to have the training to handle high pressure situations, but I must admit that I was ill prepared for this. However, I took charge. Gene, having also served in the military, still had his faculties about him. He gave me his assessment. Anna was alive, but we had to leave immediately. Thank God, there was a hospital within a short driving distance.

Gene helped me load her into the car. I barked at him and my son, Ray, as I would the soldiers under my authority in Iraq. By now, I had my wits about me. It helped knowing that Anna was breathing. I ordered Gene and Ray to help with Liz, who had collapsed in the cabin. She was sobbing and hysterical, but that was not my concern. She was a liability at the moment, and I left them all behind.

The trip to the hospital was instantaneous. I do not remember any of it; other than high speeds and bringing up the location of the hospital on the GPS.

I laid on the horn as I pulled up to the doors of the emergency room. Anna’s pulse was weak, but there was still life flowing through her. The amount of blood lost was staggering, and it’s metallic smell overwhelmed my senses as it finally hit me. It was the first time that I thought the worst.

Her face was blank. Her blonde hair; now soaked red. I had just pulled her from the car as the emergency room staff made it outside. They took her from me, mumbled something that my brain refused to hear, and rushed back inside. My legs fell out from under me as I attempted pursuit. With the focus on Anna, nobody had noticed. Looking back, that pleases me. I was not the one in need, and their attention was well placed.

Time stood still for me as my child’s life was all but lost. I still do not know how much time went by until everyone else arrived with me still on the ground. I remember not being prone anymore, but I was still down.

Gene was the first to get my attention. He knew, though, that I was not of any use. He urged me to focus on his truck, where my wife and son were. Liz was still an uncontrollable mess. Ray, however, snapped me back into reality with his resolve. He grew up on the ride from the cabin to the hospital. To this day, if I even begin to question who he is as a person, I think back to that moment. We locked eyes, and with a single look I knew his mother was in the right hands.

I swung myself around, regathered my thoughts, and marched into the lobby of the emergency room. “Where is she,” I demanded.

*****

Home – Jon

“Help Granny! Pawpa! Help Granny,” she screamed while slumbering deeply. To her, the screams were louder than a marching band, but, to those of us in the room, they were weak and muffled. It was all her little body could do at just five years old. She screamed again, inaudibly this time, as tears ran down her face. Her nightmares were getting worse.

It had been two weeks since we brought her home from the hospital, and a month since the incident. The hell she must endure while she sleeps. I couldn’t even begin to imagine. 

Her recovery, the doctors said, defied logic and reasoning. There was no clear explanation, but the evidence of something miraculous was apparent. Perhaps it was just the will and determination of a child that hurried her healing. Maybe it was divine intervention. All I know is, should my life be deemed worthy on my day of judgment, that will be the first question I ask whatever great being saved my daughter’s precious life.

One thing is for certain. I owe Gene a debt that I could never repay. We were fortunate that day to have him with us. Not only did he bring my child to me, but he supplied the blood that was so desperately needed for Anna to survive. He gave as much as they would allow, and then persuaded them to take more. How? They have ethical obligations to abide by, but they did it anyway. Another good question, though, and it goes on the list for the day I say goodbye to the ones I love.

“You can hardly see where she got hurt,” I said to Liz. “Do you think they’ll scar much?” I asked that question knowing she wouldn’t respond. She just laid there, holding Anna in her arms, with her eyes closed; nestling Anna’s head between her jaw and chest.

It was a beautiful scene, in my eyes, looking upon them. Their hair matched one another; which wasn’t always the case. Some days, Anna’s would appear darker. On this day, however, they both had gorgeous bright blonde locks with little streaks of light brown that peeked out from behind the golden strands.

You couldn’t see much else of them as they lay snuggled up in the bed. That was the only place Anna wanted to be. The only place she felt safe. So, she spent her days in bed, resting and recovering, with my loving wife, Liz, right by her side.

After school, you’d find Ray next to her. He’d play his favorite game on his phone, and Anna would watch and giggle any time he would die in the game. If they weren’t doing that, they would be watching her favorite cartoons. Liz would complain, but only for a few minutes until she fell asleep from exhaustion. This was her time to relax; knowing that everyone was at home and safe.

Anna’s nights were spent with me. I would send Liz to the spare room to sleep. It didn’t provide much time for Liz and I, but neither of us complained. It was the only logical solution since Anna’s sleep pattern had switched. That time did my little angel some good, though. It was not easy, but she would get out of bed at times. She’d want me to take her outside if the sky was clear, and I always did without a second thought. I’d take some blankets, and we’d lay out on the trampoline looking up at the stars. She would fixate on the moon, rambling about how pretty it made everything. I couldn’t argue with her. The moonlight made her glow.

Unfortunately, it was almost time for me to start back to work. My bosses were kind and generous. They allowed other employees to donate their time off so that I could be with my family, but those days could only stretch so far.

It broke my heart knowing that this was my last full day with them.

“What’s that sound,” Liz asked, startled from her sleep. She brushed the hair from her face as she struggled to find my eyes. A shadow rushed passed our bedroom window. “There’s someone outside.”

I saw it too, and stood up without hesitation. I could feel that something was off, and Liz sensed it as well. I slipped my work boots onto my feet, but left them untied. Liz, as best she could, reached for the drawer of the nightstand where I kept one of my guns. She slid it open. I grabbed it, and then slid my hand under the mattress.

In my hand were two full magazines, and the key for the lock on the gun. It didn’t take long before the lock was on the floor, the magazine was in, and a round was chambered.

I looked at my dog, Boss, who was already on alert. That red haired American Pit fur missile was ready to go. He was quiet, though. “That training really paid off,” I thought to myself. With a simple pat to my inner thigh, Boss was with me. He was with me every step as I walked with my legs spread; his place between my feet. Quickly, I shuffled forward down the hallways until I heard some rustling in Ray’s room. His door was cracked, so I simply stuck my hand in, pushing my palm toward the ground in an attempt to get him to stay still.

Our back door faced an open field behind the house. There was a housing development about to start construction back there, but, for now, there was nothing by ugly, displaced grass and dirt from the heavy equipment used to level it out. Liz used to love the view. Now, that view was our friend, the shadow, trying to look through the window in the door.

Boss and I steadily approached the door. My 1911 was ready to punch some holes through whoever was dumb enough to try the wrong house. I dropped my free hand toward the doorknob. At the same time, my finger started sliding down toward the trigger.

“Jon,” came a panicked whisper from the other side. “Jon! It’s me!”

“Gene,” I questioned, some hesitation in my voice.

“I need help,” he responded.

*****

Anna’s Journal: 06.03.+12

Dad almost slipped up today. He almost told me the truth, but Ray had to barge in just in time to distract him. Yeah. Sure, Dad. No. I’m fine. I’ll just stay inside. Again. Forever.

It’s been over twelve years since the world lost its mind. Twelve long, unceremonious years of chaos. You would think things would be getting better, but that is looking more like a lie that we tell ourselves to get through it all.

All I can remember are small bits and pieces from that day Pawpa Gene came to get Dad. I peaked into the living room, and saw Pawpa Gene sitting on the couch; blood covering almost every inch of what I could see of him. He had a panicked look on his face. And Dad? He just paced the room.

I wish Mom hadn’t have grabbed me then. She picked me up and carried me back to bed. I remember Pawpa Gene murmuring, “It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.” And why was Ray allowed to be in there? I’m still pissed about that.

I just wish Dad would tell me what happened. I hate being the only one that doesn’t know.

*****

The Devil is in the Details – Jon

“This should do it,” I said as I handed Gene a plain white shirt. It helped to ease my mind as he removed the blood soaked shirt from his body, allowing the flashes of him holding Anna’s nearly lifeless body to subside from my mind. “Ya need a belt,” I asked him, more for my peace of mind than anything.

“I’ll manage,” he answered. He slid the shirt over his head, letting it fall over his shoulders. It was definitely too big for him, and my jeans that he was now wearing were a match in that regard. “Where was I,” he asked the air.

Office Matthew O’Rourke, a gray haired man in his late sixties stood on the other side of my living room. “You were just about to tell me what the hell happened.” His voice was calm and stern in the same breath. “You said you were outside gettin’ the mail.”

Gene nodded, held up his chin, and looked O’Rourke in the eye. It was not in him to look away when speaking to anyone. “Yeah,” he began. “I usually meet Terry, that’s our mailman, at the box. I guess I didn’t hear him drive up, and had missed him.” Gene drew a short breath, softly closed his eyes, and regretfully added, “That doesn’t really matter, though, does it”

“You continue with whatever details you can remember, Gene,” O’Rourke broke in. “Right now, it’s all important.”

“Right.” Gene continued to tell his memory of the events that led up to him blacking out.

I felt out of place. I listened to Gene talk to Matt about what happened, but never once did he mention how unwell he had been since the incident. It seemed as if he were deliberately leaving out those details. I had to say something, so I interrupted the man who saved my daughter’s life. “He’s not been feeling well,” I blurted out. “I don’t think he’s recovered from when he gave all of that blood to Anna.

Matt’s eyes darted over to meet mine. “What happened to my little angel?” His voice was full of sincerity and concern.

I began to tell him of that day. How Gene and Janice took Anna for a hike, and how they were climbing around on the large boulders and rock formations. I spoke, in minimal detail, of how Anna began to fall off of a high formation, and that when Janice reached down to grab her, Anna’s weight pulled her off balance. Matt began to take notice of the pain it caused when I mentioned that Janice lost her life in the fall. Both her and Anna crashed into the rocks below them, and, had she not broken her neck when she landed, that she might have survived.

Officer O’Rourke stood in disbelief while attempting to process everything he had just been told. ‘I…” he stammered, “I had no idea.” A short moment had passed before he turned his attention to the white haired, scruffy bearded Gene, “You never said anything.”

Matt had been a big part of my life for as long as I could remember. Growing up, he was the coach of my little league team. Him and Gene had served together, briefly, during their war, and I served with Matt’s son, Tommy, over in Iraq. It was not uncommon for all of us to spend holidays together, and you could almost visualize the hurt he felt that Gene had not told him of Janice’s passing.

“She had always wanted to go quietly,” he told Matt with a softness to his voice.

Matt’s attention shifted back toward me with an intentional professionalism, “What else can you tell me about today?”

At this moment, I knew that he was trying to take as much stress off of my father-in-law as he could. “Just what he has told me,” I started. “He had apparently blacked out, and when he came to he had someone tryin’ to attack him.”

His head and eyes turned back to Gene, “What did this person look like?”

“You can find out for yourself. I left ’em lyin’ on the ground in my yard.”

Horror washed over Matt’s entire body. He had just came from Gene’s place a few blocks down the road. Stiffening up, he eyed me like he had something to say. His eyes motioned over to Ray, sitting quietly next to Gene. It caught me as funny, because I had forgotten that Ray was even in the room.

“What is it,” I authoritatively asked, assuring that it was okay to say it in front of Ray.

O’Rourke’s head went from side to side, checking to see if anyone else was in the room before saying, “There’s no gawdamn body there, Gene! Sure is a hell of a lot of blood, but there’s not anyone there to match it!”

That same horror had now fallen over Gene. “Ain’t no way,” he demanded. “I ripped the fucker’s throat out with my teeth! I swear to God he had no way to survive that, but he was on something crazy.” My jaw dropped hearing what I had just heard. I knew my father-in-law was rumored to be a little off when it came to combat and hand-to-hand fighting, but I don’t think ripping out someone’s throat with your teeth is a move taught by the Marines.

“What do you mean,” Matt asked in another attempt to do his job.

“Did you ever see that news piece about the guy on bath salts? They said he went nuts and chewed another man’s face off. That’s what this guy was acting like.” Gene leaned forward before adding, “This idiot took everything I could throw at him. I rolled him up once, snapped his arm, and he just kept coming. I rolled him again, but I was already pretty exhausted. Hell, it was just a matter of old training kicking in that he didn’t get a good jump at me.”

These are details that Gene had left out before I had called Matt to come to the house. Ray and I could only try to remain calm and quiet, but it was clear that Ray was a lot disturbed by what he was hearing. I was fortunate, if you can even call it that, for my years of service, and having had seen cruel and gruesome death with my own eyes.

“And he just kept comin’,” Matt asked with an awed tone.

“It was him or me,” Gene answered without a stumble. “The position we were in, I had to keep his arms pinned, and all I had was an exposed neck. So,” he paused to find the right words, “I survived.”

The room had fallen quiet after that. Ray, sure as hell, wasn’t about to say anything, and I couldn’t lay an ounce of blame on him for that. Matt, though, was a surprise. This was a man that always had something to say. Then again, what is there to say when one of your oldest friends, a brother of war, just told you that he ripped another man’s throat out with his teeth? Better yet, what do you say when you can’t find the body?

“I can trust you won’t be leaving town anytime soon,” he finally asked. Gene nodded to confirm he has no plans to go anywhere. “Alright. I guess I’ll just sit on this. If we can find the body, or if anyone comes in to press charges, we’ll give you a call.”

A thousand thoughts raced through my mind as I shut the door behind Matt. Chaos had consumed my mind before my eyes met Gene’s. In an instant, we both knew we had to find the missing piece of the puzzle. “My .45 is in the safe,” I told him.

*****

Eye’s Up – Jon

It was a clear and brisk fall afternoon as we made our way to Gene’s house. I had noticed, at least fifty yards out, that something had happened. Blood had tinted the grass a dark red, but there was nothing else to show a struggle had taken place. I stopped the jeep in front of his neighbor’s house, having already made the decision with Gene to make the final approach on foot.

We left Ray in the jeep; a precaution in case the threat of a highly-injured, drugged-out maniac was still in the area. “You can do this,” I assured him. “You haven’t popped that clutch the last two times we’ve been out. Just keep it in gear, and keep your eyes open.”

Hell, four weeks ago I wouldn’t have even considered bringing him along for his. Then again, four weeks ago he was just a little turd adolescent that acted dishonored if I forced him to turn off that damn video game. Things changed. He changed. I can only try to imagine all of the things I could accomplish had I been forced to grow up in an instant, and at such an age where my balls probably hadn’t even dropped.

“Eyes up,” Gene said, speaking strictly from a tone of combat readiness. “If he’s still ’round, there’s a chance he’ll be comin’ down from that shit he was on.”

Two words. Six letters. That’s all it took for my mind to snap me into the world of vivid detail. I had not noticed the lack of color surrounding my reality over the last month, but the muted vision that my eyes had relayed to my mind was gone. In all honesty, I did not hear whatever came out of Gene’s mouth once those two, seemingly insignificant, words floated through the air and into the satellites on either side of my head.

‘Eyes up’. Those words were the precursor to Hell while in Iraq. L.T. would usher that thought to our patrol as we stepped into our Humvee, and began our slow roll through the front gates of our forward operating base. ‘Eyes up’. It meant anything and everything was about to happen, and we better see it before it sees us.

After coming home, I had gotten into the habit of repeating L.T.’s words for any scenario. “Love you, Babe,” I’d tell the wife as she opened the door on a simple errand to pick up some milk. “Eyes up,” always followed. It had become a secondary ‘I Love You’ between us.

Gene had caught on, and he began using it. Sure, I had explained the origin, and he understood completely. His lieutenant had practiced the same thing with a similar phrase during his time in. And this time? He knew what I needed to hear, and the tone I needed to hear it in.

Life exploded around me. The November air was crisp; even inviting to a degree. For us, it was short sleeves and blue jeans weather, and we were fortunate enough to be dressed for the occasion. A few clouds paced themselves in the soft blue sky above. I could see the trails from commercial airliners as they raced hundreds of people to distant destinations.

The ground beneath me was spotted with green grass, but much of it had already browned due to the tormenting summer that kicks the ass of most everything in Oklahoma. I had Ray in the Jeep behind me, and Gene was already leading away toward the scene of the scuffle. He moved quick for an old timer. As I took a step in pursuit, the grass beneath me made a crunching sound, and the realization that he was also a lot better at being quiet slapped me in the face.

I looked back at Ray, “That old man hasn’t been completely truthful about what he did in the military.” He just looked at me with a blank face. He had no idea what I was talking about. He didn’t see the same thing that I saw. He didn’t see a man in his sixties practically gliding across the ground. His movement was graceful; cloudlike.

As I turned back toward Gene, my eyes caught the snapping of a window blind from the house directly across from where we were going to investigate.

“Left.”

It was simple and direct, and it had his attention. We had known Mrs. Carr for years. She had moved in after her husband passed away five years ago. Thankfully, she was a kind and trusting person, and, once she recognized who we were, she opened her front door. Oddly, she refused to come out and greet us. She just pointed between Gene’s and his neighbors’ house before quietly stepping back inside and closing the door.

We confirmed with one another. Gene continued the short trek toward the driveway of his house, and I pressed on toward the space between the two houses. I kept flashing a look back toward him, and then to Ray, but never stopped my approach. As I reached the edge of the two buildings I knelt down with my gaze focused on what might wait for us just ahead.

A blood trail, as expected, ran from the direction of Gene’s front yard to my location and beyond. A short moment later, the familiar tap on my shoulder let me know that he was with me. “Whaddya got?”

His tone was confused, “No sign of the body being dragged. He carried himself away.”

Having been the first in a series of planned housing developments, we had the advantage of sight. The same fields that graced the backyard of my house also ran around and bumped into his. Development there was still several years out, however, and the fields sat unmolested for the time being.

They were open and grassy with only a handful of trees reaching toward the sky. That was good for seeing whatever might be out there, but we both acknowledged the lack of anything other than nature.

I looked down at the blood. It stretched to the back of the houses. That much was as clear as the blue sky above.

We followed the trail, and it didn’t take long to see it veer right into his neighbors’ backyard. I approached the corner, my back to the wall, and peered around to see Gene’s backyard empty of anything noteworthy.

Gene came to the corner, and we prepared for anything. If this man had survived, he would be in a desperate state of mind; primal and destructive. Our only hope was to have him lying face down and dead after a failed attempt to flee.

I was ready. Gene was ready. On my count of three, we would clear the neighbor’s backyard.

“One,” I signaled.

Two naturally followed. As I raised my hand slightly to sprout a third finger, my heart stopped. Ray screamed for my attention and honked the horn. Only, this was not just for my attention. It was for my help.

I sprang into action, but Gene had the first step. It took a moment for my mind to decipher the events unfolding before me. Ray’s friend, Marcus, was running scared toward the jeep. We couldn’t immediately see what Marcus was running from, but as we reached the front yard our field of vision widened.

They were coming from every direction.

Ray was trapped.