The wind whipped around the tent, growling like a wolf. September in Virginia shouldn’t be this cold. Lyle Benson shivered in his knapsack. He was the last one left.
Maybe it was gone. Maybe it had had enough. If Lyle’s count was right, six other hikers had fed its hunger. It might just go back to where it came from. The wind was dying down. Maybe it would leave with the wind.
A dead silence covered the woods. Lyle began to cry. The barometric pressure dropped so quickly, his ears hurt when they popped. It was coming.
Lyle sobbed. He turned off his Coleman lantern, hoping it would not find him in the dark. The full moon shown through the vent in the top of the tent. A cloud passed quickly over the moon.
Only it wasn’t a cloud. It was the thing. The door flap trembled and suddenly ripped apart. Lyle screamed. It rushed into the tent, making that same awful ‘weer-weer’ sound Lyle had heard when it took the last camper. For one horrific moment Lyle saw a form that looked very much like a giant worm. It lunged at his mouth.
Lyle ran through it. He felt it break up into a million tiny pieces, each particle stinging his skin. Lyle pushed his way through the slashed tent. He ran toward the water, screaming.
The tent flew up into the air and, as the maniacal weering sound intensified, was ripped to shreds. The form was panther-like now as it raced after Lyle.
He dived into the creek. For a moment, the thing seemed to lose him. It split into two masses and swept up and down the surface of the creek. It could not find him. But Lyle could not stay under the water forever. He burst above the surface and gasped.
It was on him instantly. Lyle was lifted fifteen feet into the air. As he screamed, the thing rushed down his mouth, devouring his very breath. Every time he inhaled, the thing crawled deeper into his lungs.
Deeper and deeper, devouring his breath before he could exhale it. He belched forth a foul odor and screamed again. The thing shot out of his mouth and flew up his nose.
Blood spewed out of Lyle’s mouth. He fought to breathe with lungs that had already ruptured. He was thirty feet in the air now. There was nothing left to scream with. In a mercifully short period of time, Lyle Bensin was dead. When the thing was finished with the body, it dropped Lyle.
Traveling in the form of a translucent worm, the thing expelled a stream of fire from its mouth. There were no more hikers left and the air was far too thick around the creek. It flew high into the air. High above the clouds, where it had been born.
Nate Westley was standing in the doorway of his trailer drinking a beer. His son, Ben, was angrily raking the leaves in their yard. Considering the fact that their yard was more trees than lawn and that they were nestled in the middle of five acres of wood, Ben’s task was a little like cleaning the Aegean stables. He slammed the leaves into a wheelbarrow and stomped off to dump it.
“Hey!” Nate hollered after him. “Hey! Mr. ‘PSAT’s so high, it’d be a waste not to send you to college’! Have you learned anything yet?”
“I learned my life’s a living hell,” Ben muttered.
“What’d you say, boy? More back talk? That’s why you’re in trouble in the first place.”
“I wasn’t smart mouthin’ Mom,” he said in a louder voice.
“No, you were laughing at her.”
“Dad, she was lecturing me about ‘huffing’ She thought I was using aerosol sprays to get high.”
“Yeah, and I know you wouldn’t do that because that’s stupid,” Nate said. “What you really wanted to do was see if spray paint could be used to make a flame thrower.”
Both of them automatically looked around the yard filled with trees and dried leaves.
“You don’t know what I was planning to do with that paint.”
“Yeah, I do,” Nate said wearily. “You got your own special kind of stupid. You know, boy, you weren’t found in a basket somewhere. Your mom knows a little bit about being too smart for her own good. She was the smartest girl in our school.”
“That wasn’t so hard to be.”
“Hey! She was pretty darn smart, Mr. Wise Guy. Too smart. After a while she started getting a little crazy. Nervous breakdown crazy. You got to have a balance, boy. Good sense balances book sense. Otherwise, you go crazy.”
“If Mom did go a little crazy, I’ll bet it was because she got pregnant when she was sixteen and had to drop out of school.”
“You ought to get down on your knees every night and thank God your Momma made the choices she did,” Nate snapped.
“Yeah, it’s a dream come true,” Ben said. He carted the wheelbarrow to the edge of the lawn and dumped the leaves into the ditch that bordered their property. He then returned to the leaf pile. Nate had an amused look on his face.
“And you’re just too doggone smart to be stuck in this miserable little place,” Nate said thoughtfully, “It’s so beneath your intellectual abilities . . and-uh- why do you suppose we have ditches?”
“So the water’ll drain off the yard,” Ben said quickly. Sometimes he was amazed at his father’s simplemindedness. “Otherwise this place would be a swamp.”
“To drain the water off the yard . . .” Nate pondered. “ . . . and what happens to the leaves that fall into the ditch?”
“They-um . . .” Ben stammered. He stared stupidly at the ditch which was almost level full of leaves. “It’ll-it’ll-uh . . . they just wash away into the Chesapeake Bay . . . every- everything washes into the bay . . . don’t it?”
“Naw, the leaves’ll decompose and turn into dirt,” Nate said pleasantly. “Then, without a ditch, the yard will flood . . . trailer will rot to pieces . . . the cat will drown . . . car won’t start . . . ”
Ben cussed silently under his breath. His father ignored this little indiscretion.
“But, not to worry,” Nate grinned. “My son has the highest PSAT score in his school. Why I bet someone that smart will be able to figure out that he has to RAKE ALL THE LEAVES OUT OF THE DITCH AND DUMP THEM IN THE WOODS. Then, the water will run freely in the ditch and all will be right with the world.”
Evelyn Westly stepped out of the trailer. She was a pretty blonde that didn’t look old enough to have a teenage son. Her classic good looks did much to hide her intuitive personality. Right now, she sensed the tension between her husband and son.
How could she stand to stay here? Ben thought. In this broken down trailer with a guy like Nate. Why didn’t she just get in the car and drive as far away as that 10 year old chevy could take her?
People were always shocked when they first discovered that Nate and Evelyn were together. Their unspoken message was clear: Evelyn could do better than this. Just because she got pregnant didn’t mean she was forever shackled to them. It was thoughts like this one that caused Ben to contemplate his worst fear. Maybe she was afraid to leave.
Maybe the vague talk of insanity was more than just talk. Maybe Evelyn Westly really was too unstable to stand on her own. Maybe her insanity was hereditary. Such thoughts scared the bejesus out of him.
“I’m going to town and I want you to come with me, Nate,” Evelyn said. “Ben can watch Amy.”
“Why don’t you take Amy with you?” Ben whined. “I’ve got enough to do without having to watch her.”
“She’s acting a little . . . nervous,” Evelyn said. “I’d rather she stayed here.”
Oh, crap, Ben knew what that meant. Amy listened to the beat of a different drummer. Even when no one else was hearing any music at all.
After they drove off, Ben looked for Amy. When she was . . . nervous, it was best to know exactly where she was.
The trailer seemed dark after spending the morning outside. The television volume had been turned down to a whisper. No one was in the living room.
“Amy?” he called. No one was in the trailer. Not even the cat.
He went from room to room, knowing she had to be there. Crazy as she might be, she couldn’t just disappear.
He couldn’t say why he looked under the bathroom sink. He just knew. Amy was hiding inside the cabinet under the sink. She was curled up in a tight little ball. Her jeans were torn at the knees, probably ripped on a sharp piece of plumbing. Her T-shirt said, ‘My attitude’s just fine. What the hell’s wrong with yours?’ Her blonde hair was tied back with a denim bandanna. She looked like she was expecting rough times.
“What are you doing?” he laughed.
“Hiding from the windwere.”
“Windwere? What the hell is that?” he chuckled. She was such a strange little bird.
“The windwere,” she said. “It lives up in the sky. Above where the airplanes go. It doesn’t belong down here.”
“You just made that up,” he said. “Come out of there.”
“It lives up in the sky. It eats the air,” she said, not moving from her position. “It doesn’t belong down here but sometimes the floor falls out of the sky. That’s why we have tornadoes.”
“Uh- huh,” Ben said. “Get out from under there.”
She reluctantly climbed out from under the sink. She was a fairly good size for eight. It was hard to believe she could fit into such a small space. There was a lot about Amy that was hard to believe.
“The animals know,” she said. “That’s why the cat hides when there’s a thunderstorm. She’s scared of the windwere too.”
“Who told you this garbage?”
“I’ve seen ‘em,” she said, taking off her bandanna and running her fingers through her tangled hair. “I watch them running around in the sky. Above the planes.”
“I’m not lying!” she yelled. “You never believe me when I tell you something I’ve seen myself! Ya know how when you’re walking on the beach all you see is sand? But if you stop and look . . . once you’ve seen one fiddler crab, suddenly the beach is crawling with ‘em. Ya just gotta learn how to see them.”
“Oh, and you see these windwere things all the time.”
“Well, what do they look like?”
“They look like wispy clouds . . . sometimes they look like dragons . . . sometimes cats. They’re like bees. It isn’t one animal . . . it’s a whole bunch of little animals sticking together to make a big animal. Like a hive of bees is really one animal . . . and also a whole bunch of little animals . . . like that.”
“How do you know so much about bees?” Ben asked. He was a little surprised that Amy would understand the concept of a hive mentality. They did not subscribe to the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet.
“I know about bees” she said, shifting from one foot to another. “All you have to do is look at ‘em. I understand animals.”
Unlike people, with whom you feel completely lost, Ben thought sympathetically, but all he said was, “There’s no such thing as a windwere and it’s not going to get you.”
“I’ve seen ‘em kill birds.”
“No! The windwere. Sometimes they drop down to the part of the sky where the birds fly. They eat the bird’s breath and it falls down dead. That’s why you find birds dead and nothing’s wrong with them.”
“Don’t you play with any dead birds,” Ben said.
The wind rattled the metal awnings on the trailer. Amy jumped like a frightened deer. She seemed strangely alert.
“I’m scared, Ben,” she whined.
Maybe this was the beginning of some kind of psychotic episode. Ben’s mother had been unable to finish high school, even though the school had been willing to put up with her untimely pregnancy. Had it been more than stress? More than depression? Evelyn’s condition had corrected itself- after she and Nate got their own place. Actually . . . after she had left her parents house.
Was Amy starting earlier with her sickness? Would it last longer? Be harder to handle? It was too much too think about. His own future frightened him; he couldn’t concern himself with Amy’s.
“Now, you just come out here and watch television,” he said, pulling her out of the bathroom. He turned up the volume on the television set. Some inane cartoon danced about on the screen. “Look! Watch this cartoon. I’ll be in after I finish raking the leaves.”
It was clouding up and the sky had an eerie green cast. They might be in for some weird weather. Amy was sensitive to changes in her environment. Maybe that was what was setting her off. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves about, mocking Ben’s labor.
Ben waded into the ditch and began raking the leaves. He would have to remove all the leaves he had dumped in here this morning. Life sucked. Why did his dad let him put all these leaves in here before he told Ben not to do it? Just because his father felt threatened by Ben’s high IQ.
His teachers loved Ben. They were always telling him he was special. That great things were expected of him. That he was nothing like the family that bore him. Then his dad would let him screw up like this. Just to make him work twice as hard to fix it. What was up with that?
He knelt down to pick up an armful of leaves and his ears popped. Painfully. He must be experiencing an unusual drop in atmospheric pressure rather suddenly.
Tornado, he thought. Instinctively, he dropped to the ground. The forest was deathly silent. The leaves on some of the trees closed up as if even the vegetation knew to cringe in fear. He had a creepy feeling that nothing was right with the world.
He heard a faint whirring noise. Or, as Amy had said, something went ‘were-were-were’ as it made its way through the forest. The noise resonated in his skull, causing his head to ache. He buried his head in the leaves. His body flattened to the ground as if he did not control it. Something more basic than the human mind--the part of his brain that housed his sense of survival--controlled him now. The same part of Amy’s brain that made her climb into the cabinet under the sink.
Something leaped over the ditch. The whirring sound was everywhere. Ben was too afraid to move. The leaves were whipping all around him until he was almost completely covered. The ditch smelled like a swamp and he was drenched in ditch slime. He cautiously peered out from his hiding place. Then he saw it.
It seemed to shimmer but, with close inspection, Ben saw that it was thousands of tiny little organisms swirling together to create a semi solid form. It was, at that time, shaped like a cat, but the thing was continually changing.
The area that looked like eyes glowed and the mouth area opened when it hissed. Why they stayed together, Ben couldn’t figure. He knew that when life began on earth, way back when in the primordial ooze, life had once been only single cell animals. At some point they had banded together to form larger creatures. Is this how they did it? At one time on earth, were advanced life forms more like a sophisticated colonies than a multi-cellular organisms? Was Amy right?
But that didn’t matter now, the thing was trying to get into the trailer.
The cat-like figure dissolved into an amorphous mass. It split into three groups and sought out the open windows and heating vents.
“Amy!” Ben whispered.
He ran into the trailer. There was a pungent odor that was somewhere between low tide in the marsh and a gas leak. The trailer was silent except for the television.
Amy was in front of the television. She floated about two feet above the floor, suspended by the wispy appendages of the windwere. It now was shaped like a jelly fish. Its tentacles flowed around Amy’s trembling body as it searched for her nostrils, her mouth. It was sucking her life’s breath out of her. Her lips were turning blue.
‘They eat the bird’s breath and it falls down dead,’ Amy had said. Just as a mosquito is attracted to the CO2 we exhale, this thing was feeding on her CO2. It was taking her breath away.
Ben grabbed the pineapple shaped lamp that sat on the end table by the sofa. He ripped the lamp from the electric cord but left the plug remaining in the outlet. The bare copper wires sparked dangerously. He jabbed the live cord into the center of the windwere.
It sounded like someone stepping on bubble wrap. Many of the individual creatures were fried by the electric current but, as with a hive, killing several of the individual organisms doesn’t kill the whole entity. The windwere expanded away from the cord and remained unharmed. However, it did drop Amy.
And came after Ben. Evidently the thing was able to learn because it now knew to avoid the business end of the live cord. It swirled around Ben, looking for a chance to get passed his weapon.
Amy rolled on the floor, pulling herself up into a fetal position. She wheezed and gagged, sounding more like a flock of geese than a little girl. Ben told himself, if she can make any sound at all, she must be breathing.
The windwere assumed the shape of a dragon. Was this a psychological ploy? The eye sectioned glowed angrily. Then it hissed. Its foul smelling breath sparked the cord and flames shot towards Ben. He dropped the cord.
In some distant corner of his mind, Ben thought the thing might be devouring CO2 and excreting methane gas. What was wrong with him? There was no time to be thinking intellectual thoughts. This thing was dangerous!
Amy had crawled into the kitchen. The windwere wasn’t interested in her anymore. It not only was hungry for Ben’s carbon dioxide, it was mad at him. It jumped onto Ben’s face. He could feel it crawling down his nasal cavities, exploring the regions of his mouth, moving down his throat. He wanted to puke but, if he did, he would inhale and those things would be in his lungs. He knew he could not scream. For that matter, he knew he could not breathe.
Amy staggered out of the kitchen with the fire extinguisher.
“Get away from my brother, you sumabitch,” she said. She sprayed the fire extinguisher in the direction of the windwere.
It turned around as if it really saw with its eye patches. Amy gave it another shot. The windwere leaped onto the fire extinguisher, digging into the foam. Amy dropped it. The handle caught on the edge of the rug and dispensed a continuous spray of CO2 foam. The windwere was all over the fire extinguisher.
Ben coughed out some phlegm that was filled with tiny wriggling windwere cells. He pushed Amy out of the trailer door. Inside, he could hear the hissing of the fire extinguisher. He didn’t know how long it would continue to dispense its foam.
They ran to the utility shed. He tore open the screen door. The place smelled like paint and solvents of every kind. Ben hoped the smell would confuse or even repel the windwere.
“We’ll hide in here,” he told Amy. “Don’t say a word.”
Amy was just able to see out the utility shed window. She stared at the open trailer door.
“What about Sparky?” she whispered.
“Sparky will be fine. She’s a cat. She’ll know where to hide,” Ben said. Actually, he thought the windwere would devour the CO2 in the extinguisher and Sparky, too, if it was still hungry. Better Sparky than them.
The windwere burst out of the trailer, blowing the door off and shattering the windows. It was now in the form of a cat. Colors shimmered across the feline body. Having fed on the CO2 dispenser, its imagery was more flamboyant. Like a rainbow.
The windwere glanced around the yard, looking for something else to devour. Looking for them.
Amy backed away from the window. She bumped up against a wall shelf, knocking down a box full of aerosol sprays. Ben’s mother had confiscated all the aerosol sprays from the house because of Ben’s suspected huffing. The box hit the floor with a terrible crash.
The windwere whipped around and headed toward the shed. Amy sat down on the floor. She could no longer see out the window but she could hear the windwere coming closer.
“I don’t think we have to worry about Sparky anymore,” she said in a voice far older than her eight years.
Their parents drove up, parking their car between the windwere and the shed. Nate jumped out of the car and gaped at the damaged trailer. He seemed unaware of the windwere even though it was directly in front of him.
Evelyn Westly saw it. She threw herself on the ground and cried, “Nate!! Get down!!!”
But the windwere was upon him. Nate thrashed about within the body of the windwere. Even then he didn’t seem to see it. He cried out in frustrated confusion until the windwere rushed down his throat. Then he could only make guttural noises as his breath was stolen from him.
Everyone else was screaming. Ben picked up a can of spray paint and ran to his father. He sprayed a burst of paint. The windwere turned toward the hissing sound.
“Yeah,” Ben said, “just like the fire extinguisher.”
It came toward him. Ben shook the can and aimed it at the now bear shaped creature. A red cloud of paint merged with the cloud of windwere, covering each tiny animal with an enamel sealant. The red goo fell to the ground and hardened.
Nate threw up, expelling the rest of the windwere. Ben sprayed that with a good coating of paint too.
“What the hell was that?” Nate cried.
“It’s a . . . I don’t know,” Ben stammered. “It’s from up there.”
Ben pointed to the sky. He froze. It was like Amy said. Once he saw one, he could see the sky was teaming with them. Like the crabs on the beach.
Nate looked up too. All he saw was a stormy sky with a few patches of blue. He shook his head.
“You’re seeing things,” Nate warned, “like your mother.”
It was like those pictures that you have to stare at until you see the hidden design. Some people never see it. Obviously Nate couldn’t see them. Why could Ben? Maybe it was a new evolutionary step. Maybe the human nervous system was just beginning to be able to pick out these patterns. Maybe Ben would spend his life watching creatures the rest of the world could not see.
It was overwhelming. Ben fell to his knees and wailed, “Momma! I can see things! Wonderful . . . awful . . . things!”
Evelyn Westly smiled. It was the first time in sixteen years that she knew she wasn’t crazy. She patted Ben on the shoulder and said, “See that it doesn’t kill you.”
Amy watched the windwere leaping and diving as they played high up in the stratosphere. Above where the airplanes go.
“Don’t worry about them, Ben. They are harmless as long as they stay up in the sky,” she said. “Actually they’re kind of pretty.”
As long as they stay up in the sky.
x x x
And we welcome Adrienne Ray back to our pages with this windy tale. Hey, Adrienne, don't be a stranger--but stay strange. Comments to our BBS, please. GM