“We could rent a furnished house for the weekend.”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed as he considered my suggestion. “Good one, Maggie, but they know where we live.” He was referring to his parents who would be flying in that evening. Housecleaning was something we rarely thought about, except in emergencies like this. “I’ll take the kitchen, and you do the rest.”
I sighed. His voice told me he wouldn’t be open to considering another suggestion. The division was more than fair. The kitchen was home to grunge layered upon grunge. In the last few months, I’d gone through a vegetable canning period, deep-fry period, salsa period, and had recently entered the dreaded puff pastry phase. Ryan said an archaeologist would feel right at home in our kitchen, mapping our culinary history like fossils at Olduvah Gorge.
I dreaded cleaning the furnace room, so I’d left it until last hoping Ryan might have finished the kitchen and would offer to help, especially if I deployed my seal pup eyes. No such luck. He was still scouring away at the deep-fry period and refused to look at me when I suggested he could use a change of scenery.
Even the vacuum cleaner didn’t want to visit the basement. The canister refused to follow me until I yanked on the hose and gave it the excuse to slam into my shins before it tumbled the rest of the way down the stairs. The racket gave fair warning to all living creatures in the vicinity.
In addition to the spiders, the occasional field mouse migrated to the warmth of the furnace room using the musty dirt floor of the crawl space beneath our bedroom as a kind of rodent freeway. They’d plop over the edge of a long horizontal opening about five feet up from the baseboard, lured, I suspected, by aromas from the kitchen. Our Burmese cat, captivated by their nocturnal mutterings, would wait patiently for a victim, grab it in her mouth, and then trot to our bed. My shriek was used as an excuse for Starbuck to drop the mouse and enjoy an instant replay of the capture. But in spite of her successes, mice kept appearing which is why I found myself stapling eight feet of fine wire mesh across the opening of the crawl space when I should have been vacuuming the floor. In the back of my head, I could hear my mother-in-law chiding, “Maggie, those things carry diseases, you know.”
I was balanced precariously on the ladder and just starting to unroll the mesh when I noticed a pair of large red eyes at the far end of the crawl space. I knew they didn’t belong to Starbuck because she made it a rule never to raise her lids during daylight hours. Perhaps a skunk, I thought. There was no odour, but a house that sheltered a family of skunks was often the last to know about it. As I took the precaution of backing down the ladder, I was amazed to see the eyes spring towards me. This was not normal skunk behaviour, and I jumped the last two rungs and ran for the door, my feet hammering in time with my heart. As I pushed the door shut, it smashed solidly into a creature at my heels, leaving the front part of its body jammed between the door and frame.
It was the size of a large dog, but unlike any I had ever seen. The jaws were massive, slavering, and full of four inch long teeth that belonged in a prehistoric shark. It came equipped with powerful hairless shoulders and horrible sharp nails that were doing a great job ripping up my linoleum. Aside from the incessant snapping of jaws, the thing made no noise. I pressed my back against the door as hard as I could while keeping my legs well out of reach of the teeth and nails. I screamed to Ryan for help.
He came on the run but stopped short to gape in amazement. “Get the poker,” I shrieked as I tossed my head toward the fireplace. Ryan grabbed the poker and began vigorously banging the creature over the head, trying to make it pull back into the furnace room.
“What is this thing? What did you do to make it so angry?” he gasped, sounding more mystified than terrified. I had no ready answers.
Although I was cringing at each whack, the creature seemed unperturbed and the door wasn’t going to last long. I couldn’t believe that it might win a battle against two adversaries twice its size. When Ryan tried to spear it through the mouth, it snapped down on the iron poker, bending it effortlessly. I turned to Ryan with eyes so wide they hurt. He wedged the bent poker under the door. “Keep a foot on the poker and push hard on the door,” he ordered. “I’ll be back in a second”.
Ten long seconds later, he returned with his chainsaw. I was dubious, but it started up on the first try, and the ferocious head was lopped off in a single pass.
“Brilliant move!” I hugged him, feeling proud as could be. Clutching sweaty palms, we stared down at the creature lying in two pieces in an expanding pool of blood, and we tried to make sense out of what had just happened.
Adrenalin-shaken and confused, I phoned the police. I must have sounded distraught since the officer asked if I were on medication. Pulling myself together, I managed to describe the encounter as simply as I could, but as soon as I said that the creature was the size of a huge dog, the officer immediately assumed it was rabid, and since neither of us had been bitten, he lost interest. He told me the body would be picked up later that afternoon for rabies analysis. Ryan and I agreed that whatever was downstairs, it was not a rabid dog.
It was no surprise to us when a short hour after the “dead animal pick-up” we received a phone call from Dr. Carson at the Baltimore County Office of Disease Control. He had already examined the creature and was now anxious to see where it had been found.
A few minutes after Ryan left for the airport to pick up his parents, I opened the front door to a serious-looking young man wearing spotless white overalls with the Baltimore County logo stitched across the top pocket. I smirked when I imagined how clean they would be after a tour through our crawl space. I reviewed the incident with him, stressing how the animal was extremely strong and aggressive. “I did nothing to provoke it. It just came at me with those terrible fangs.” Dr. Carsan gave me a look that I had trouble interpreting.
I led him down to our furnace room. It was none too clean after a hasty mopping, and apparently not yet dry since he struggled with his balance and finally grabbed the ladder for support. I had to force myself to enter the room, and I shifted continuously from one foot to the other, trying to convince myself that, logically, there couldn’t be another one of those creatures on the planet. “What do you think it is?” I asked, not really expecting him to reveal much.
“No idea. Never seen anything like it,” he shrugged. “We’ll need to compare DNA sequences with our database, but I won’t have the results for at least a couple of weeks.”
“So it’s not a dog with rabies?” I drawled, a satisfied smirk spread over my face.
He ignored me and pointed to the crawl space. I nodded, so he climbed the ladder and switched on his high intensity flashlight, but he was at the ledge for only a moment before he jumped down and stared up the opening, his face as white as his lab coat.
Within seconds, the entrance to the crawl space was filled with the drooling jaws and muscular shoulders of several creatures. So much for logic, I thought. I streaked from the room again, but Dr. Carsan didn’t move fast enough. A beast leapt from the wall and bit through his neck, and when I turned to pull the door shut, I saw his lifeless body drop to the floor and disappear under more creatures.
I stumbled upstairs and ran for my Honda civic. My trembling subsided briefly until I saw more of the beasts digging out of the ground and heading for our neighbours’ homes. Just up the road, a car had pulled over and inside, a woman I thought I recognized was waving her arms and screaming for help. Several creatures were tearing their way through the metal of her rear window frame, and all I could do was press down hard on the accelerator.
Closer to town, I heard the sounds of shots and sirens mingled with screams. Although the elevated expressway was clear of the beasts, thousands of them loped below me. Then the car flew past the sign for the Baltimore zoo and I shouted, “Hallelujah!” The safest place for me was behind bars.
Veering off the road, I drove into the zoo parking lot, but the zoo was closed for the day and the main gate was locked. Luckily, Starbuck had taught me a thing or two, and with the car wedged tight against the fence, I climbed up on its roof and hoisted myself over. I landed noisily on top of the corrugated iron roof of the concession stand, hung from the edge, and dropped to the ground.
The large mammal building was closest and I ran to it. Several cages were unoccupied and one was unlocked. The smell of excrement in the recently vacated gorilla enclosure was painful, but some of my dread subsided when I closed the door to my cage and collapsed in a corner. In my panic, I’d forgotten my cell phone and could only imagine what was happening to Ryan. My neighbours were an orang-utan two cages down and a cougar opposite me. We looked at each other anxiously.
Just before sunset, the zoo was discovered. Several of the beasts slavered around the place for a couple of hours, but surprisingly, they paid little attention to us. The only time they turned in my direction was when a bout of self pity caused me to sniffle noisily. Needless to say, I stopped.
For two days, I sat in a semi-stupor while trying to block out the distant screams of slaughter. I drank from a water bucket and, like the cougar, I reserved the far corner for a litter box. The cougar never stopped growling at me and the orang-utan sat almost immobile with his back pressed against the wall and his two large pink feet pointing at me. Both my neighbours seemed to be trying to direct any attention my way.
I spent most of my time scratching flea bites and trying to figure out where the creatures had come from. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been torn apart by those dreadful jaws. Remembering how the first one had so easily bent the iron poker, I knew they could get to me if they’d wanted. I imagined a galactic sporting event where our planet provided the prey while aliens gambled on the outcome. The score was not looking good for the humans.
About noon on the third day, all was ominously quiet with the exception of my grumbling stomach. I had almost talked myself into making a short foray to the concession stand when the creature I was watching suddenly froze in position. I stared at it for several minutes, but it remained lifeless. Finally it dawned on me, accompanied by some mental kicking of my backside, that the creatures must be machines. While considering the implications and my next move, a thrumming noise started overhead and became progressively louder. Something large settled down nearby, shaking the building as it landed.
Minutes later, a tall spindly-looking humanoid appeared at the door of my building and lurched towards my cage. My swollen eyes warily followed his movements, and my robot-sensing organ, finally in working order, was dinging a warning.
“You are safe now and can come out,” it said in a monotone, the words originating from a small device at throat level. When I failed to respond, it said, “The custodians are no longer active.” I watched in a state of confusion as the creatures slowly morphed into compact irregular masses that resembled harmless rocks rather than monsters.
I stood up shakily but felt no desire to leave my cage. First I needed some answers. “Why am I alive?” I squeaked. I had been brooding over this question for days. Now I’d been told I’d somehow avoided being butchered by custodians from hell.
“Custodian vision is sensitive only to movement. We remotely programmed them to detect human smell and human vocal sounds before they attack. You survived because your smell was masked by the odour of other creatures here, and apparently you did not talk.” It paused briefly before adding, “You are now free to join the others who avoided detection.”
Not so fast, I thought. I waved my arms wildly, “So you are responsible for this carnage? Why?”
At my outburst, the alien stretched himself taller as if surprised or perhaps perplexed. “We saved your planet by eliminating the excess human population. Your species would have consumed everything.”
My jaw dropped. “But the creatures appeared all at once, from below ground. How did you do that?”
“Custodians were placed on this planet at the time your species first evolved in order to manage certain inevitable situations. They made use of available raw materials and planet core energy to multiply and then lie dormant beneath the crust of your planet. We sent activation signals only when it became necessary.”
He started to leave, but paused at the door and turned back. “We sincerely hope that it will not become necessary to activate the others.”
This is the kind of dream I’m glad I don’t have very often.