A door slammed, jolting Terry Joe awake in the Sadlers’ musty armchair. His shotgun, which had been resting on his thigh as he dozed, clanked to the floor as the siren wailed. Is it a tornado or another swarm—he would know either way within 13 minutes. Terry Joe sprang to his feet, raced to the window, and peeled back the curtain in one swift motion. Rain pelted the roof, and milky clouds in a sepia sky spat lightning as if disgusted by Terry Joe’s lifetime of poor decisions. …Eight…nine…the thunder tumbled in low, the soft but adamant growl of a belly that ached to be fed. Almost 2 miles.

Terry Joe turned away from the window. The Sadlers were nowhere to be seen, their discarded tethers strewn about the sullied carpet where the family was held captive for the last few days. Terry Joe’s eyes darted around the home. Are they still inside? All four of the unlit gas stove knobs were turned to high.“Dammit!”

Terry Joe ran out of the backdoor and into the rain. He had maybe 8 minutes left, if he was lucky. He looked left to right, and made a quick, sharp turn on saturated Oklahoma red clay. His feet shot out from under him, and he landed flat on his back. Terry Joe rolled onto his side as he gasped for the air that the fall had slapped out of him. The storm cellar was so close—five long strides should get him there. The rising hum of wings in flight as sharp, strong, lethal, and loud as saw blades drowned out the siren, and Terry Joe knew he was screwed. Even so, he pushed himself up from the iron-soaked mud and made it to the cellar door.

It wouldn’t budge. Terry Joe pulled and screamed with desperation. He knocked and begged and shouted bargains that went unanswered. The door must be locked from the inside, and it sealed Terry Joe’s fate. He felt the mud begin to rumble beneath his boots. 

Windows shattered and wood splintered as the swarm flew through the second story windows and tore through the house. Upstairs, downstairs, trash or treasure, this swarm did not seem to care. The Sadlers’ sweat and tears no doubt permeated the walls and furniture as Terry Joe terrorized them—the beasts were on record as saying they could not resist the sweetness of fear-tinged meat. “I sssmell sssnacksss!!” A big one flew from the tree line behind the storm cellar, over Terry Joe, and crashed through a window.

“For Chrissstsssake, Fred. Sssimmer down. Sssave it for the feed.”

The humming stopped, and a dozen beasts sauntered out the front door, the big one carrying a lit cigar. He was clearly the alpha. The deluge of rain stung Terry Joe’s eyes, but he dared not blink, and he sure as hell dared not lift his trembling hands to wipe his eyes.

The big one lifted one of his six crusted hands to his jaw pincers. The claw-like appendages parted, revealing bloodstained teeth. He bit down on the smoldering log of dried leaves and allowed the smoke to fill his mouth. His bulging, red eyes found Terry Joe. The rest of the swarm began to shift their weight from one foot to the other, their saw blade wings beginning their low hum. The beasts’ eyes rolled back into their exoskulls, tongues lapping the air for a wafting taste of fear sprinkled with urine-soaked denim. The big one chuckled and turned the cigar around to look at the cherry. “Well, there you are, buddy. Don’t you look like a tasssty little nugget.” He raised the cherry to his mouth, pinchers snipping off the tip. He tucked the cigar under his wing. “For desssert.”

Terry Joe was frozen with fear. There was no way out. This was it for him.

The big one closed the space between Terry Joe and himself with one step and a quick rev of his wings, a motion so quick that Terry Joe would have missed it if he had dared to blink.

The big one cupped Terry Joe’s face in his hands. The swarm danced with giggles and delight at their impending meal, as one by one they flocked to the big one’s side. Hot tears streamed down Terry Joe’s cheeks as he closed his eyes.

“Thisss isss going to hurt,” The big one said. “Ssshouldonly take ten ssseconds, give or take a mile.”

The big one nodded and the swarm pounced on Terry Joe, pincers and hands tearing flesh from bone as tidy and efficient as a serial killer in the making, dissecting his first cat on a woodland floor. I wasn’t going to be this bad to the Sadlers. 

One of the beasts used his serpentine tongue to lick his fingers clean. “Well, that wasss right tasssty. Isss the little girl in the cccellar? I can sssmell more humansss.” He cocked his head to the side and stared wide-eyed at the storm cellar door, as if he could will it to open. 

“No. Period. Capital N, capital O,” the big one said. “I mean, yesss, ssshe isss there with her brood. We owe her for the phone call. Leave them be.”

Lindsey Neely is a technical writer-editor based in the Washington, DC metro area. Her work appears in Coffin Bell Journal, Dream Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Janus Literary. Find her on Twitter: @lindseyneely.

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