May 23, 1946
The Flock was out in the Sun. It had been a long time since they had moved in daylight. But this occasion required such a measure. They could not fail. Scattering in the tall grass, flashing between the longleaf pines, the Flock hunted.
Torelli had lost the wireless somewhere along the way. He wasn’t sure of the exact location, but he suspected it had been when they had crossed the small creek about half a mile behind. He hadn’t noticed, because that was where Bauman had been standing when one of those things had exploded from the brush. And before any of them could aim and fire, Bauman had gone down in a shower of blood.
The whole company had scattered after that, and Torelli had found himself afraid of being hit by the odd burp of one of the other soldiers’ automatics. His men were firing blind, shooting into the brush and into the trees and at one another. He was certain that Rainey had cut down Wilson out of pure fear, in his crazy panic to just get the hell away from whatever it was that was chasing them.
What were they?
Finally, Torelli found himself alone. It had been almost half an hour since he’d seen anyone. After Bauman had gone down, he’d caught a glimpse of Hopkins, the colored guy who had been added to the company the week before. Hopkins had been screaming; firing his weapon at every bush he passed as he ran like a crazy man. Torelli would have been hit by one of Hopkins’ bursts if he hadn’t seen where the guy was aiming and eaten dust. Soon after, he had gotten up and run again, racing across those weird grasslands with the palmettos and Spanish bayonet sticking up here and there among the pines. That had been Torelli’s last contact with his company. He was sure those final screams had been Hopkins.
It had been a brief sound.
Now, he was more worried than when the company had first encountered those things. If there weren’t anyone else to chase, they’d be after him, now. Torelli had glimpsed them. He’d never seen anything so big—not outside of a zoo. The largest ones were half again as tall as he was. And they were so fast. Jesus, he’d never imagined anything could move like that. Ralph Weiss, who’d just been made corporal, had been a sprinter at the University of Tennessee, and he’d been run down and stepped on as if he were sitting still. Torelli had watched, frozen, as the thing had stooped, its upper body vanishing in the grass, and had raised its bloodstained head holding a good portion of Ralph’s torso.
Stopping, peering at the tall prairie grass that shivered in the slight, Florida wind, Torelli was very afraid. He crouched, thinking that perhaps they hunted by movement and if he was out of sight, they couldn’t find him, for a while, at least. But there were so many of them. When the company had first started retreating, the things had spread out, like a well-trained platoon, cutting his squad into commander-less sections that could be taken down one by one. They were smart; that was certain.
Torelli got hold of his panic. He was a lieutenant in the United States Army. He was not going to let some kind of animal outsmart him. His men had panicked. They hadn’t listened to him. They’d been undisciplined. It was all Jenkins’ fault. If that idiot had listened to him, had stayed away from that bit of red in the brush…
Torelli hadn’t seen what Jenkins had seen, but he felt certain it had been one of their babies, several, perhaps. Because Jenkins had shot at whatever it was, and after that the madness had cut loose. The woods had swarmed with them. You wouldn’t think so many animals that big could have been all around them like that. Not and remained unseen. But they had.
He crouched down a little closer to the ground and tried to organize his thoughts. The teams were supposed to cross to the north side of the base and rendezvous with the D Company. He’d had the maps, and knew what route they were going to take. They’d been advised to steer east of the savanna that lay between the starting point and the rendezvous. Captain Stevens didn’t know that part of the base that well (nobody did, apparently), and he didn’t want anyone under his command slogging through unmapped swampy terrain. They’d lost some men in the swamps on the south side of the base the year before and they didn’t want that happening again. Now Torelli wondered if it had been just the swamp that had swallowed those men up.
The sun burned down on Torelli’s head, baking his jet-black hair. He rubbed his hand over his close-shaven scalp. Damn. He hadn’t even realized he’d lost his helmet. He pulled his gun tight to his bosom. That he still had, and he didn’t plan on losing it. He wasn’t going to panic like the others. When they came at him, he was going to fire steady, cold. He reached down with his left hand and made sure his spare clips were handy. They’d eat his rounds before he’d let them kill him.
Mosquitoes hummed at his ears, and gnats made their maddening song at the corners of his eyes. Florida was for shit, he decided. If he could just get out of here, he wasn’t ever coming back. He’d put in for a transfer to Alaska, by God. He’d go anywhere but bug-infested, hotbox, Florida.
And who would have bet on monsters? He had to stifle a laugh. He was cracking up. He had to be strong.
Torelli tried to remember where he was. He looked up, and figured he’d come about a mile west of the point where the company had come apart. If that was true, he was close to Aiken Creek, which emptied into Aiken Lake, which usually had half a dozen off-duty soldiers fishing out there or just lying around dozing with no sergeant to bother them. If he was careful, he could follow the creek down to the lake and yell for help, or commandeer a jeep if someone was there. He’d swim, if he had to, even though they’d all been briefed on the alligators that lived in the water on the base. The base was one of the few places left where you could see a gator; they’d been hunted out everywhere else.
He wondered who knew about these things. Someone had to know. Maybe they’d been sent out to test them, see how a couple of fire teams could stand up to them. If so, the things had passed with an almost perfect score: eleven men dead to none for them, unless Jenkins had killed a baby one. But he was still there. Anthony Torelli’s boy was still kicking, and he was damned if some animal was going to take him down without a fight.
Well, he’d rested enough. It was time to move out. Aiken Creek couldn’t be but a quarter mile or so away. That wasn’t far. He could do that, easy. All he had to do was look and listen, and watch where he stepped. That was all. Piece of cake.
Slowly, Torelli stood.
He was in the middle of a grassy plain. The young man, born and raised in a Philadelphia row house neighborhood, didn’t know that he was standing in the last upland longleaf savanna in Florida; all the rest of it had been cut down and plowed under and either planted in slash pines or had been paved over. This was the last, and it was a very strange thing to look at: primal. On a purely instinctive level, in something that tickled at some dim and faded racial memory, Torelli knew there was danger lurking out there, out in the tall grass.
Carefully, he took a step. Looked behind. Was intensely aware of what he picked up in his peripheral vision. He breathed slowly. Fear was in him, like a smoldering fire that threatened to flare into panic. He controlled it. Torelli took another step. From his right, he heard something. He tensed, bringing his gun up. Saw a gently sliding movement on the ground, in the grass. He breathed out a sigh as a long, brown water snake moved swiftly by like a living band of liquid. If the snake felt safe enough to move, maybe Torelli was safe.
He took another step.
But that snake had certainly been in a hurry. Torelli froze. He pivoted slowly, looking. The wind blew the tops of the grass so that it made patterns like breaking waves in the acres and acres around him. He was not alone. He felt it. If he was going to live, if he was ever going to make it to the lake, to the barracks, to a day when he would see his mom and dad and that Philadelphia neighborhood again, he was going to have to move and move fast.
Torelli broke into a run. The creek couldn’t be more than a quarter mile away. He could do that, easy. Just go. Don’t think about Hopkins (he’d screamed) or Bauman (his arms had been bitten right off) or Jenkins (run down like a rabbit) or the others (they were all dead). Torelli bit his tongue and refused to scream. He bit down hard and tasted blood in his mouth. Someone was screaming; he heard it, but it wasn’t him, it couldn’t be him. It was, though. Torelli was running, screaming.
And something was behind him. It was going to catch him. It was going to eat him. He stopped, skidding in the sandy soil, drawing his gun to his shoulder, and he fired a long burst into whatever it was that pursued.
Into thin air.
Nothing was there.
The Italian kid stood in this ancient, forgotten land and gasped and moaned. Alone, he cried. And, crying, he turned back along his path and trotted toward the creek, not looking back again.
So he did not see them as they rose up from the tall grass where they’d been crouching. He did not see them lift their huge heads high above, their long legs taking them swiftly over and through the sea of grass. Only at the end, at the very end, as three adults struck at him with heads as large as those of a horse, did he suspect what was coming. The sensation was intense and painful, and mercifully brief.
The Flock consumed the men. They left nothing. Bodies were sliced into small pieces and swallowed up. Clothing, too. The guns and other metal bits were gathered together. Yellow and Brown and Egg Mother lifted up the men’s metal things and carried them to the water where they let them sink. In time, the current would take the metal things down to the lake, into the swamp. There was nothing left but vague red stains in the grass and the brush. And Walks Backward took care of even these minor signs, as was his task.
Soon, there was only the grass again. There were only the things that belonged in the grass and in the trees and at the verge of the great pine and oak forest. There was only the Flock and all with whom they lived.
The danger of the men was gone.
The Flock would bed down for a few days and watch the young ones. It was good to watch the young ones. It felt right to see the future.
THE FLOCK Copyright © 2006 by James Robert Smith