By Frank D. Vincent
Alice wakes up. Her eyes are dried out and blurry, her contacts sting. As she opens her eyes, she realizes that she is laying supine on a wooden floor. There is a dull feeling in her back that makes her long for her memory foam mattress. As she awakens, so does her injury; a far away dull ache begins to rouse itself in her right leg, just below the knee. She rolls her head to her left and can see her boyfriend Craig his forehead resting against the single-pane window of the children's tree-house. He has deep, dark circles around his eyes, suggesting to Alice that he is sleep deprived. His eyelids slowly flicker over his bloodshot eyes, as he floats between sleep and consciousness. The treehouse sways ever so gently in the wind that precedes the storm. Dark storm clouds approach from the northwest. If Craig were to look, he would see the thin trails of faroff rain; gray brush strokes peeled off from the clouds, as gravity pulls out each drop of water. Pulls it out to fall through and cleanse the air. His shotgun lays cradled in his lap, devoid of shells. Spent shell casings lay scattered on the wooden decking that serves as the treehouse floor. Alice can see several boxes of ammunition, stacked up against the wall, well within Craig's reach.
She spots the trapdoor, bolted and barred from the inside. The screws that hold the hasp of the lock into the wood are loosened from their fittings. Tiny wood shavings lay around the exposed screw-heads that have been forced out of the wood. Someone or something has been trying to force its way inside this tree-house, but she can't remember what. In fact, she has difficulty recalling anything from recent memory. Alice gingerly sits up, aware that the pain on her leg has shifted from an ache to a throb, and looks around the room to see if anything will jog her memory.
She sees a bloodstained backpack off in the corner, and she tries to stand up to go and retrieve it. The moment she puts weight onto her right leg, the throbbing leaps into a snarling white-hot pain that twists up through her bones, and around her hip. The sheer intensity of the pain causes a small cry to escape her lips, and she drops back to the floor with a thud. Instinctively, she curls her leg into her body in a partial fetal position and cradles it with both hands. As she struggles with the pain, she feels a hand suddenly grip her shoulder. She cracks open her eyes and sees Craig's face, inches from hers.
His bloodshot eyes search her own, his brow is wrinkled in fervent worry. He holds his left hand in front of his mouth and shakes his head quickly back and forth. His shaggy brown hair whips across his dirty face. His message is clearly, "NO!" No noise. He cocks his head sideways and listens intently. His right hand is still firmly holding her shoulder, his left is motionless in front of his face. The pain in her leg is dying back down to a sharp ache, but Alice feels incredibly confused. She cannot remember where they are or how they got here. She wants to ask Craig, but he is intent on silence and she isn't sure what is going on. He is obviously worried or scared of something or someone. Maybe the same someone who was trying to get into the tree-house? But who would do that? And what's with the shotgun shells?
A loud animalistic moan of desperation comes bursting from under the tree-house. Loud shrieking begins outside, in all directions. Craig's expression of fearful worry breaks and tears quickly spill out of his eyes and cascade down his face. His eyes meet hers, and as another tear slips down his face, he says, "I'm so sorry Ali. I'm so sorry!! I've killed us." He chokes on his words as the din outside raises itself toward a crescendo. Craig half crawls, half leaps over to the shotgun laying on the floor a few feet away. He roughly brushes his hands across his tear filled eyes and reaches for the shotgun. As he reaches for it, something slams into the trapdoor with an awful crash. The little trapdoor thrusts itself upward, held only by the hasp and hinges. The wood rattles as the entire floor beneath them shakes with the impact. Alice can't stop the yelp that bursts out of her. She claps her hand over her mouth and her eyes dart over to Craig. Her looks at her over his shoulder, his hair obscuring part of his face. Alice takes her hand away from her face and mouths the words, "I'm sorry". Craig gives a slight nod and begins to grab shotgun shells and feed them into the magazine under the barrel. He inserts seven shells rapidly, one after another and then comes the tell-tale, CLICK-CLACK of the pump slide, as he chambers a round.
Craig looks into Alice's face. He knew that they shouldn't have stopped here, but she was in such pain and so feverish. There was no where else to go, nothing else to do but either, stop here or leave her to die. He had made a choice and had been prepared to live with it, but he didn't realize how the past few days could change and how dire their situation would become. As Alice had healed, those things had begun to gather below them. Drawn by sound or smell, he didn't know. As she seemed to gain strength, so did their numbers. He'd made a choice. Unfortunately, it may have been the wrong one and it looked as though his choice would probably cost them both their lives.