Vinegar


Gunshots. The men scream. Her heartbeat. It rings in her ears.

Her breath, shallow and quick as she runs, burns her throat. Her nostrils flare up, and her eyes tear up.

The bundle she holds against her chest moves a little, reassuring her that he’s still alive. She stops momentarily, her back against one of the many pine trees around her house, and checks on him. The boy holds his hands up against his face, as if to complain about being woken up. He doesn’t cry though. He’s been such a good boy so far. He needs to be quiet or the creature will pursue.

She glances back at her house. Through the windows, she sees the shadows move haphazardly. More gun blasts. Windows shatter. The men scream again.

“She’s too fucking fast!”

“Just distract her long enough for Jean to run away!”

More gunshots. A screech follows. It breaks the remaining windows.

The boy starts wailing, and Jean pulls him closer.

“Please don’t,” her voice is weak. “It’s going to be okay. Papa’s going to protect you.”

The creature screams again, this time louder. It nearly pushed Jean to her knees. Her legs are still weak. She shouldn’t be running or moving much, not since it has been just two days.

“She’s running away!” one of the men shouts. “Get that bitch before she gets away!”

Jean shakes as the smell of vinegar intensifies. The creature knows where she is, and she has to run. It’s going to come after her.

Her eyes dart around, looking for shelter, and spot the old tool where Wallace kept the gardening tools and some other things. It was small and windowless, but it was sturdy.

Locking the door behind her, she takes a deep breath. The gunshots and screams don’t stop and make her boy cry even more.

“Please, Wallace. Kill that thing.”

They had prepared against the creature. The doctor had been stationed outside her room and held a shotgun. Since they had reinforced the room’s window, if the thing wanted to get her and her baby, it would have had to go through the doctor. That should have been the only way in.

They also had Beatrice and Mitchell, the neighbors down the road. They had offered to help when they knew it was around time for the baby to come. They would make sure to keep them safe. The two were very good people. Country folk. So they were also good shots.

Still. The thing had made its way into the house. It broke through the foundation and moved around under the floor boards. It had outsmarted them.

Jean presses herself against one of the back corners of the shed and sits down. She cradles her baby and brushes his little hands. He has such strong lungs. The doctor claimed it had been the most perfect birth and the healthiest child he’d seen in his career. “By the books,” he had said. Now, they just have to survive.

***

Wallace smiled at the baby while holding Jean’s hand. They were so adorable together.

“You are just as beautiful as your mom,” Wallace whispered to the boy.

Jean shook her head. “She’s just as beautiful as his father.”

She sat up on the bed, still feeling weak even though it had been two days since the birth. Thankfully she had managed to sleep well because of Wallace. He was such a good father already. She had been blessed to have a boy. Now she could have a little version of Wallace.

Sudden gunshots made Wallace jump up, but Jean held on. “Maurice, is everything okay?”

The doctor opened the door, while keeping his eyes forward and his gun up. “It’s coming from the front. Beatrice must’ve spotted something.”

More shots, this time also from the back.

“It’s just one, right?” Wallace asked.

The doctor nodded. “Just the one.” His voice was severe. “You two don’t worry. If it comes in, I’ll get my revenge.”

Jean tightened her hand, and Wallace turned to her. He gave her a weak smile.

The doctor walked a little closer to Wallace. “Do you know how to use a gun?”

“Just aim and pull the trigger. I’ve played some video games,” Wallace answered.

The doctor blurted a grunt. “This ain’t no game, boy.”

Wallace turned back to Jean and leaned over. “I’m sorry to ask you this, especially when it’s your fault. Take care of him for a moment.”

Jean took the baby and pulled him in close. Even with the commotion, he was remaining calm. He was such a good boy.

“Take my revolver. Hold it with both hands,” the doctor said.

Wallace nodded.

“It’s not your fault,” Jean said.

He shook his head. “It is. I was selfish to bring you out here.”

“You thought it would be better for us.”

“I was wrong and stupid. We should’ve stayed in the city.”

“And become drones? You’re being selfish now. You know it was both our decisions.”

Wallace smiled at Jean again. “I love you so very much.”

He looked odd holding a gun. He was thin and tall and had no muscle at all. He was a nerd with a capital n. But, after two years working a desk job programing, they had both grown tired of that life. So, they took their savings and moved out of the city.

It had been the perfect life so far. They grew their own vegetables without GMOs, bought everything else locally. The community had also been welcoming, embracing them as their own. They liked the idea of having city folk realize rural life was superior.

It was perfect.

She had never imagined she would see Wallace holding a revolver the way he did. He looked like a child who had just found his father’s jacket. It just didn’t suit him. He looked better holding the baby.

She could also see him shaking a little, probably a combination of fear of the gun and fear of the creature outside. But everyone was scared. Even the doctor looked scared, his fear doing little to mask it. This was not an animal they hunted. It was something worse.

“We should block the room from the outside,” the doctor said. “Safer for her to be locked up while we kill this thing.”

“Jean, keep him safe,” Wallace said.

Jean nodded. She wanted to trust him, but her own fears didn’t let her. She was watching her husband walk into the line of fire. She doubted he’d ever even seen a gun in person. He had not been raised like that. She, on the other hand, she had lived in the countryside before. She’d even hunted with her mother while growing up. She was a tomboy by most definitions. She should’ve been the one with the gun.

Suddenly, a wretched smell seeped into the room, making her nauseous. She glanced at the others for confirmation, and they too turned their nose at the hint of the smell.

“It’s her smell,” the doctor said. “She smells like vinegar.”

Paying closer attention, it was that of vinegar. But, it didn’t smell like the amount that you’d use in the kitchen or anywhere else. It was fowl, as if someone had filled a pool with it.

But it was strange. If the creature smelled like vinegar, then why was it in the room? Wasn’t the thing outside? Where was the smell coming from?

Looking at Wallace, Jean realized he’d come to the same conclusion, but she said it first. “It’s inside.”

Wallace ran to the window in the back. They’d boarded it up earlier, making sure it was as solid as a wall. He checked it around, glancing at jean every so often.

The doctor never stopped looking at the entrance to the house, his gun aimed up, as if to expect the creature to be seven feet tall. Just how bad was the creature?

Jean brushed her baby’s head, and kept him close. He had calmed down a little as the gun fire had stopped, but he moved his hands over his nose, the smell probably making him uncomfortable.

“It’s probably outside the window,” the doctor reassured. “That’s how it got in with me and Paola. It broke through the window. We weren’t ready.”

Wallace dropped his arms down, his gun held loosely to the side. “So we’re safe?”

The doctor didn’t respond. His silence said everything. They weren’t. There was no moment to even speak. If the other two weren’t shooting, that meant they had lost it, and not knowing its location was worse.

A thump on the floor board below made every one turn to the center of the room. They glanced at each other, as if to confirm what they’d heard. A second thump made Wallace raise his gun again and point it at the floor in the center.

“Shit. It’s under us!” The doctor screamed, but it was too late.

At the third thump, the creature—if it could even be called that—broke through the floor boards, and Jean saw it for the first time. Her blood drained and her heart froze momentarily, nearly giving her a heart attack.

The doctor shot out of reflex, but the shot hit the floor, missing his mark. He’d been too slow. Wallace shook and remained on the spot without pulling the trigger.

Jean could see the fear in his eyes. It was as if she watched a rabbit frozen at the sight of a fox. The creature radiated a sense of natural fear, like that of darkness or the unknown, the sense that something watches you from behind.

“Shoot!” the doctor screamed.

Wallace jumped alive, and pulled the trigger to the gun, all of the bullets hitting the roof. The creature, moved wildly as if it were a shadow from a flickering light. Their eyes were to slow to keep up with it.

But they managed to push it back to the corner of the room, where the two shot over and over again.

“Run!” Wallace shouted.

Jean didn’t want to leave him there. He didn’t have the strength to fight this alone. He and the doctor could barely contain the thing. They weren’t enough.

“Run!” he shouted again, this time his voice stern and severe. “Save him. I will protect you with my life.”

Jean’s eyes widened. She had never seen Wallace like this. He was never like this. He was always soft.

“Run, god dammit. Save our boy,” he said and glanced at her. His eyes curbed, a forced smile on his face. He was trying his hard to show courage though he obviously lacked all of it. “Please,” he said softly.

***

Jean rocks the baby on her arms, but the boy doesn’t stop. He gets worse with every moment, as if he’s somehow come to learn mortality, realizing he could die even though he’s been alive for two days.

“No, please, don’t cry. Dad is going to protect you. He promised,” Jean says, but it does nothing. Her words, as sweet as they are, pale against the smell of vinegar.

A scream, and the gun shots intensify. Something happened to the people outside. More screams, and the gun shots come to a halt instantly. Something really bad is happening outside.

Jean shakes on the spot, the sudden silence shilling. Her breath quickens. Maybe something good happened. Maybe they managed to kill the thing. Maybe one of them landed a lucky shot. Maybe it’s dead. She lies to herself.

A knock on the door makes her jump, and push back against the wall more. Maybe it’s one of them. Maybe it’s Wallace coming to get her.

The child cries, and the vinegar smell bleeds through the door.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she says. “He promised.”

The knocking stops. Silence reigns again, but the smell intensifies. It is so strong that it makes her want to throw up. It is as if she were drenched in the thing.

Slowly, the door sizzles and buckles into a lump of metal, the creature floating in front of her. Even though she’s seen it twice now, its form is still that of aa thing of nightmares.

A head, it’s organs hanging bellow, morbidly twisted and stretched to form the wings it flaps. It moves slowly, but defies the eyes, moving as if skipping time rather than anything living.

The chemicals on its dangling parts seep the same liquid it used to break through the door and burn the floor. The cement cracks and breaks where the substance touches. Nothing can withstand whatever acid it bleeds.

But the worst part is its grin, its fangs on display. The teeth, though within a human head, are razor sharp, like that of a tiger or some other violent creature.

It licks its lips with a snake-like tongue.

The child screams, and Jean starts losing consciousness. The smell is too much to bear, and the sight too much to accept. Death is eminent, and she’s hopeless. Yet, with one final push, she reaches for something nearby. Like a cornered rat, she prepares to bite back, even if it is the last thing she does. She cannot go down without a fight. Not after Wallace sacrificed himself.

Grabbing the first thing near her, a pair of sheers hanging off the wall, jumps up, her baby held tight against her on her other arm. She can’t let him die. He’s too young. He’s got a long life to live.

The creature shrieks at the sight of her improvised weapon and moves back. It seems to be working. Jean takes a few steps forward. Maybe she can do this. Maybe there’s a way to beat it.

She celebrates too soon. The creature, in its madness, whips some of the things in the shed with its entrails, and Jean flinches, an attempt to shield her son, an action that costs her. Taking the opportunity, the creature lounges at her, its mouth opened wide enough to swallow the baby whole.

A shotgun blast freezes the moment and silences the monster. Jean turns around, to find the monster slowly descending onto the floor, twitching in silent pain, it’s mouth completely gone. Behind it, Wallace stands, the gun held weakly with both arms.

His face is half burnt, covered in boils, and his clothes lie in tatters. His legs look worse than his face, and so does his torso. It’s a miracle he moved in the first place.

“Wallace!” Jean screams.

Wallace smiles. “I promised.” He falls, and the gun tumbles loose out of his hand.

Jean runs to him, her baby against her, still crying and in deep fear, her husband below. Dead.

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