I Have to Keep My Family Out or They’ll Kill Me
I swear I’m not crazy.
The holidays are a hard time of year for anyone. But for one young girl, they’re the stuff of nightmares.
Welcome once again to Original Worlds, where today we take a look into the remnants of a life filled with trembling.
Lock your doors. Don’t listen to the voices outside. They’re not who you think them to be.
Be ever watchful or you, too, might say, “I have to keep my family out or they’ll kill me…”
This time of year is always bad for me.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. The holidays are difficult for a lot of people, especially in this world we lived in, people disconnected from the roots that were once so important, and traumas became easier to understand.
A lot of depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and longings for home strike people in a big way around this time of year, and I can understand what they are going through.
I, too, have depression, and more than a little post-trauma that I have to deal with. And, yes, I do have longings for those days in my past that my family would spend every moment together, enjoying the love that is so important to a budding young girl.
But there’s so much more to it than that, and as I sit here listening to the knocking on the door, I am filled not with the sense of love, knowing my family is there, but with dread so deep it makes the shotgun sitting in my lap a tempting offer and hard to resist.
You see, every year, my family comes home, and I have to do everything I can to keep them out.
Two years ago, it was a different story.
I was seventeen and full of myself. I’ll be the first to admit that I had problems, not least of which was attitude.
Thanksgiving had passed and we were gearing up for Christmas, only a few days away. My father adored the Yule time, making a spectacle out of it from the earliest memories I have.
He would go out and find the “perfect tree”, as he put it, the one that would fill up half the living room and send the scent of pine and wood throughout the whole house. Sap would inevitably get everywhere and I would hear Momma complaining aloud about how hard it was to get out of clothes once it was stuck to them.
But he would not relent, taking on his “quest” to find the one that would be the best, like some hero looking for a mystic sword.
We — that is, Momma, Dad, myself and my little brother, Jake — would then spend an entire day decking the thing out with the huge boxes full of decorations he had taken years to collect.
Some of them were really old, antiques passed down from others in the family or things he had picked up at a store. The lights on strings were his real pride, “Italian twinkle lights” he called them, that looked like icicles hanging from the branches.
By the time the big angel went on the top, we’d have spent hours making it as perfect as we could, and fall into our respective chairs around the living room, exhausted but proud as we stared at the glow that filled the whole place.
The outside of the house, too, was festooned with lights and deco, and I wondered sometimes how much Dad must spend in electricity by the time all of it was said and done. He didn’t seem to mind, though. As I said, this was his time of year, and he loved it with a passion I admit being jealous of, sometimes.
I asked him, once, why he was so heavily into it, and he said it was because his own Dad always wanted to do things like that, but could never really afford to. My Dad worked a pretty good job, being a factory supervisor, and made enough to pay the bills and still have enough left over every month. He wasn’t one of those types who are jealous of their money. He was happy to spend it, if it meant putting a smile on someone’s face, as long as his family had been taken care of first.
That was probably why he felt okay with letting the guy come inside that day.
Dad believed in the kindness of strangers and would reach out to help whenever and wherever he could. I can’t tell you how many times I waited in the car, bored to tears, as he helped someone change a tire on the side of the road or how many meals we passed out down at the rescue mission.
That was fine for him, and Jake seemed to get into it, too, but I just never understood. I thought it was a waste, especially since there were so many things I needed.
You know, like that new game that came out, or some clothes that were in trend.
Jesus, how stupid was I, really?
This whiskey really burns going down, but I tell you, it’s about the only thing that relaxes my nerves any more. I’ll have to see if I can find more of it by the time next week comes around.
If next week comes around.
We had gathered around the tree that year, at the end of the day. Momma finished baking some of the cookies she loved to do up, making enough to last for a couple of weeks after Christmas.
I really miss those.
When the knock on the door came, I jerked my head, half asleep the moment before while staring at my phone. I didn’t even realize how tired I was, but I guess it was an after effect of staying up so late the night before talking to Judy about Steve.
That jerk cheated on her again, and I was trying, as I had three times before, to convince her to drop the guy like a lead brick, but she just would not listen. The guy was an ass and treated her like crap. Then to cheat on her on top of it?
But Judy was convinced she could change him and said how much she loved him, and I did my best to console her through tears she had cried so many times before.
By the time that was done, it was four in the morning and I was desperately tired.
I clicked my phone off while Dad got up and went to the door, his own tiredness evident in how slow he was moving. The turkey sandwich he finished off just a bit before probably didn’t help.
Momma, too, got up but stayed back with us kids.
Dad opened the door and the cold from outside swept in quickly, bringing the temperature down with a draft so hard goosebumps went down my arms and up my spine beneath my tee-shirt. Light had faded almost entirely from the setting sun but there was enough from the strands of decorations on the porch to illuminate a guy with a long beard and heavy clothes standing in the doorway.
Now, our house was at the end of a long drive, and there was little else around for about half a mile. Dad bought the place specifically for that reason. He hated apartments and wanted to “be close to nature,” in some kind of way.
So someone showing up at the door meant they had to either be there specifically for us, or were lost. Salesmen rarely came and, with as late in the evening as it was getting — plus being so close to the holidays — it likely was not the reason this guy was there.
“Hello?” my Dad offered, his strong voice passing through the living room as I sat up in the chair more, trying to peek around him for a better view.
The man was a little younger than Momma and Dad, probably in his late twenties or so, and not all that bad looking, if you can get past the beard. He had a parka on and a thick pair of jeans with boots that looked like they could see a lot of snow before getting overcome.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” he said, barely audible over the sound of the wind outside. A snow was coming, maybe. “I need … help.”
His voice was jilting a little, hesitant and hard to understand without really perking my ears up. Momma took another couple of steps toward the door and Dad, but she put our her hand behind her to indicate for us to stay where we were.
I squinted, taking in the guy and the way my Dad raised his hand to the door, unsure of what might be going on.
“With what, mister?” Dad’s body was in the doorway so the man could not just walk in.
“My… wife,” the man responded, still slowly, as if his breath were caught in his throat. “She’s sick. Got lost.”
Dad craned his neck a bit, looking behind the man, and nodded. I stood up and looked past him, as well, spotting the double headlights of a car down the driveway to our house. From the distance, I could not tell what kind it was or if it was on, but the headlights were lit and shining at an angle away from our home.
“Sick how?” Dad asked as he reached for his jacket on the coat rack near the door. “You’re a long way from the hospital.”
“Oh, no,” the man replied, his shoulders sinking down. I could see, then, a gauntness to his eyes that I hadn’t noticed before, dark edges rimming the sockets like he was completely exhausted or hadn’t seen sleep in days.
Maybe that really was the case.
“Be right back, hon.” Dad glanced behind him at Momma, sliding his jacket onto his back and strapping up the laces.
He put his feet into his boots, still dripping wet from when we were decorating, and stepped outside, pulling the door shut behind him.
Momma went to the door, herself, and stared out the small window embedded into the wood. Jake and I got up and ran to the windows in the kitchen, pulling the curtains aside to see what was going on.
I could see the pair walking through the few inches of snow that remained on the ground from the last time it came down, trudging slowly and carefully. The man’s steps seemed unsure, the hesitancy of his voice matching that of his feet, and it took them some time to get to the car. I could now see it was a sedan of some kind.
The man opened the back door and Dad ducked down to look inside, his hand on the roof of the car to support himself. He stayed there for a few moments, and I thought he was, perhaps, talking to someone inside, or maybe to the man.
Finally he stepped back again and gestured to the car, and the man reached into the interior with both arms.
He helped a woman get out, her body doubled over onto itself, as she clutched at her abdomen. I heard Momma gasp when she saw the scene. All of us watched as the trio came back to the house, one cautious step after another.
I glanced over to Jake, whose eyes seemed wide and, perhaps, a little scared, and I have to admit I felt a touch of it then, too. What was going on? Who were these people?
Most importantly, what was wrong with the woman?
Their boots crunched across the ice on the porch as Momma opened the door, stepping aside as the wind once again came into the house.
I moved into the archway separating the kitchen from the living room and watched as the strangers came into our home.
The woman was younger than the man, I think, but her face was so wracked with what I took to be pain that it was hard for me to tell. She was moaning as she kept her hand on her stomach, her face twisted and contorted from whatever was going on.
“Tom?” Momma’s eyes were wide as she took in the pair or strangers.
“Call the ambulance, Jean,” he said as he helped prop the woman up on one side while her companion held her on the other.
Momma blew past me, pushing me aside before I could react, and grabbed the phone from the wall while they took the woman to one of the couches and helped her sit down.
She screeched as her body fell, jarring her face into a horrible expression and the man’s hands held tight to her arm as Dad’s own drifted back. He moved a few steps away and glanced toward me and Jake, still waiting in the archway.
I heard the phone beeping behind me as Momma clicked it on and dialed 911, while Dad asked them what their names were.
“I’m… Greg,” the man answered. “This is Sally.”
“When did all of this start?” Dad reached to the back of the couch and pulled down the blanket we kept there, wrapping it around the woman’s shoulders.
“An hour ago,” he said.
I was a bit shocked by that The woman was obviously in a bad way, gritting her teeth and barely containing the agony she was in, and looked like she had been through hell and back a few times.
How could someone look this way after only an hour? Her face was ashy, the eyes that could have been pretty were sunken into her skull. Her skin pulled back, making it look as if her fat or muscles had been eaten away inside and left nothing but the shell.
She let loose another scream as Momma came into the living room again and told Dad the phone wasn’t working.
That wasn’t a real surprise. We lost service frequently in our remote location.
I finally moved, going to the chair I had been occupying before all this began and grabbed my phone from the cushion it had fallen into.
I hit the power button and blinked back as the bright light of the screen shot into my vision and brought up the tiny app that would let me dial a number.
What the hell?
“Dad, where’s your phone?” I asked as I scrambled toward him.
He pointed to the end table near the couch and I grabbed it up, turning it on quickly.
Nothing. Not a single bar available.
There was a cell tower not far from our house, and not once could I remember there being no service available. It was one of the redeeming qualities of being where we were; remote, but still civilized.
But for some reason, it had been interrupted.
I was about to ask Jake where his was when the power flickered three times and shut down altogether.
“Shit!” I heard Jake mutter, and Momma admonished him for his language as she, somehow remaining relatively calm throughout all of this, went back into the kitchen again.
She crashed around in there for a few minutes as the dimness of the light from outside would, I knew, soon fade entirely, though there was a little coming in from the car parked in the drive. Its lights remained active.
“Oh my god!” I heard Sally scream and wrenched my head her direction.
Her body was pulled back against the cloth of the couch and her teeth strained against each other as she started a seizure. She trembled, and after a few seconds it became so extreme the boots on her feet pattered on the floor with an echo that resounded through the the whole living room.
“Hold her down!” Dad reached for her legs, trying to keep them still so she would not hurt herself.
Greg was slower, grabbing for her shoulders but missing as she tipped over sideways and rolled.
Her body smacked into the floor with a slap, the wet fabric of her clothes and the skin of her face smashing hard against the wood grain Dad had remodeled a few years before. I gaped as traces of blood quickly began to pour out of her nose and her mouth, spreading from her in a rapid pool.
I don’t know if it was because she had broken her nose or maybe bit her tongue when she landed, but there was so much blood. I gagged when I saw it, having always been sensitive to the sight of it, even in this darkened room.
Dad desperately tried to pin her down, to keep her from shaking herself apart as Momma rushed into the room with a couple of lit candles. When she saw the scene before her, she gasped loudly and ran to her husband, trying to shed some light on what he was doing.
“Help me, dammit!” Dad shouted, tossing a desperate look at Greg, who was standing there numbly watching what his wife was going through. His gaze seemed distant, almost thoughtful, instead of panicked, and I wondered if he was in shock or something.
When he did nothing, Momma said, “Come here,” to me and handed the candles over when I neared.
I held them steady to keep them from going out as Jake started to moan behind me, too young to really comprehend what was happening in the home he thought he knew so well.
Momma bent down and put her hands across the woman’s head, helping Dad turn her over so she was on her side, rather than face down on the hard wood. The shaking seemed to be easing but her eyes were wide open and staring into my own from the feet between us.
Her teeth were bared as the skin was pulled back from them, receding gums exposing the white beneath them to the light of the candles in my hands. That was quickly overtaken by the blood that kept pouring out of her, though, low guttural sounds emanating from her throat.
Some of the blood poured across Momma’s hand as she held Sally’s face steady, and though I saw the revulsion on her lips, she did not pull away.
How many times has the next few minutes played out in my head? A hundred? A thousand?
More than enough.
Dear God, more than one person should have to see.
Sally stopped moving as Greg became unsteady, his legs wobbling and cantering backward.
One step, then two. His calves hit the end table and he stumbled more, his arms barely moving to steady himself as a darkness came across his face. His body tumbled backward until it fell, in a weird sort of way that would have made me laugh if it had been under any other circumstances.
Jake screamed and I dropped one of the candles as Greg went down, his head smacking against the floor with a thump I felt through my feet. The wick extinguished at the same time the stranger to our home fell into unconsciousness.
Well… what I took to be unconsciousness.
Seeing someone die in front of you is something that will etch into your memory forever. There’s no getting rid of it, no moving past it.
You can, perhaps, come to terms with it and accept that it happened, but even those who deal with it on a constant basis like doctors will tell you of the many nights they wake from the nightmares that plague them afterwards.
If they will talk about it at all, that is.
Greg’s life slipped from him in those few moments, punctuated by the sound of Jake’s screaming and my horrified gasps. Like Sally, he, too, quaked, his arms flapping against the floor like a crazed bird, the meat of his hands tap-tap-tapping as the bones in his knuckles rapped.
Sally’s own breathing ended at almost the same time, one final giant gasp releasing as the blood spewed out of her, dark and coppery smelling.
And something else came, too. Something more akin to bile and crap, a dank, fetid odor that overpowered me and made me spill my own guts across the living room.
Jake sprinted then, finally moving his legs toward Momma and Dad as he screamed again, calling for them to comfort him.
I’m not sure why I am still alive, really.
Those of us who were able to manage surviving that night get together sometimes while the sun is still high in the sky above. We ask ourselves if anyone has been able to figure it out yet, if anything has come across the few remaining radios that work.
No one knows, really, just like no one understands what caused it all to begin with.
Maybe it was a scientist somewhere who got a little too antsy to get home to their Christmas party and got careless. Maybe it was something intentional, some final act by crazed terrorists with an agenda and a vial.
We’re pretty sure it was something viral, since the infection spread so quickly, taking out nearly everyone before finally burning itself out. There are only a few dozen of us in this town that managed to be immune or in the right place at the right time to avoid exposure.
Has it burned out? That’s one of our biggest fears. None of us are sure that the thing is gone entirely from the air. Maybe we’re doomed to start dying again as soon as babies start getting born.
Who knows. So far, no one around here has taken with child. No one wants to risk it, I think, and, as for me, I have no interest in being someone’s beta test.
Besides, we have enough on our hands as it is, dealing with the remnants of that time, the leftovers of that experiment gone wrong or whatever the hell it was.
See, those bodies, those things that were left behind when the spirit of the person went to the great beyond? They don’t rot. They don’t fade away, sinking into the ground. No, maybe the ground is too smart for that and rejects them.
Because the ground doesn’t keep them. They rise up again, every year around the same time as they died, coming back up to suck on the air that once kept them healthy and whole.
They come back home, and they want to come in. They want to “visit” with their loved ones.
I guess everyone wants to spend the holidays with their families. Isn’t that the way it’s always been?
They’re knocking now, those things that once were my Momma, my Dad and little brother, Jake. They whisper through the doors and the windows I have barricaded as tightly as I can make them, clawing at them ineffectually.
These beings, these strangers, want to come home again, and this year, I might just let them.
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Keep striving to “be the best you that you can be” at this moment. Remember, no matter who you are or what you’re going through, you are worthy of being loved. Don’t let anyone teach you anything different.