Yeah, this one was rejected for submission. I still like it. Hope you do to.
By Mike Wolff
“Are you excited to get back to your own home and sleep in your own bed, sweetie?” asked Maggie of her son, as she looked over her shoulder.
“You bet mom,” replied Johnny enthusiastically from his seat in the back of the car. He’d been bouncing up and down with excitement since they left the shelter 20 minutes earlier. It had been two week since the terrorist attack. Everyone in town had been required to report to the secured safe zone, be decontaminated, as the attack had been a biological this time, and then forced to live there until the all-clear had been given. This time it had been longer than the last. Jonny thought it was quite the adventure the first time they had to go to the shelter. The second wasn’t quite as fun. This third time had been torture for the exuberant youth.
Another ten minutes saw them pull in the driveway. Their home, on the outskirts of town, was in one of the older neighborhoods still occupied in town. Built in the ‘90s, the small two-story was just big enough for the family of three. No sooner than Johnny’s dad turned off the car, the 8-year old whipped open the back door of the Hybrid and rushed up to the door. Fingerprint scans matched, and he was soon in the house.
“Johnny, don’t make a mess,” cried his mother. “There will be weeks’ worth of dust to be cleaned up.”
“Give him a break Mags,” said Craig, her husband. “He’s been cooped up in that dank shelter for two weeks. We’ll get it cleaned up. We always do.”
“I know Craig. I just wish we didn’t have to live like this. All these attacks are starting to wear on my nerves.”
“Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in nowadays. Now, let’s not dwell on it. We need to get our supplies back in the house. And I need to get some work done.”
With that, they carried their bug-out packs from the car and entered their home. Maggie would have plenty to keep her busy, what with all the cleaning and laundry. Having had to use and re-use the same clothing for two weeks straight, even the piles of unwashed laundry that had been left behind was a welcome change.
Craig went through the kitchen and dumped all the old, rotting food that was left out or in the refrigerator, while Maggie tackled the laundry. Johnny, being only 8, was usually left to his own imagination during times like this, so he ran straight to his bedroom. In no time, the highly active young boy was bouncing up and down on his bed; a favorite pastime.
“Johnny, stop that,” said his mother as she walked by his room with an armload of laundry. “Just look at all the dust you’re kicking up.”
Sure enough, Johnny looked and could see dust motes floating in his room, like reflective little crystals in the bright sunlight that streamed through the window. “Wow mom, there must be bagillions of them!”
Shaking her head in resignation, she just smiled at her son and said, “Yes, Johnny. Bagillions. Now please, stop jumping around. It will be hard enough to clean all that up without you spreading it around so much.”
“Okay mommy.” As soon as she turned her back, he started jumping again, laughing as he did.
Later that evening, Craig and Maggie sat in the living room listening to the official report of the attack on the television. Johnny had been put to bed, but could still see the glow of the television through is partially opened door.
“…officials report that the attacks appeared to be ineffective. No negative effects to any living tissue has been reported or identified…”
“And for that they kept us in lockdown for two straight weeks? I don’t buy it.”
“Well what else could it be, Craig? Everything is normal around here. Maybe they are telling the truth this time.”
“It’s the government; they never tell us the truth.”
“Oh Craig, don’t get on one of those kicks again. Didn’t you get enough of your conspiracy talk in the shelter?”
As the parents continued to talk, Johnny was almost asleep when he heard something scrapping under his bed. His eyes popped open, instantly afraid. “Mom!”
A moment later, Maggie opened the door, “What’s the matter dear?”
“I heard a noise under my bed.”
“Maybe it was Nippers. We haven’t seen her since we got home.”
“Will you check? Please?”
Rolling her eyes, Maggie turned on the light and lowered herself to the floor. “I see you didn’t vacuum like I asked. Your floor is covered in dust.”
“I’m only 8, mom.”
“You’ve vacuumed before.” Looking under the bed, she was disgusted by the amount of dust and hairs. Hardwood floors were the worst for that.
“Just a bunch of dust bunnies, honey; now get to bed.”
Pushing herself up, she leaned in, gave Johnny a kiss on the forehead and left the room. “Good night.”
“Good night mom.” When she shut the light off again, Johnny hunkered under his covers to try to sleep. But that sweet release was a long time coming, as he heard those scratching sounds again.
“Seriously Craig, you couldn’t clean up the dead mouse.” Maggie had gotten up a bit later than normal, letting Craig see his way out the door on his own. Having almost stepped on a dried up, desiccated looking mouse, she immediately got her cell phone out and dialed up her husband.
“I swear honey; it wasn’t there when I left. Come on, you know I wouldn’t leave that for you to clean up.”
She huffed, “Well, this is just gross. What the hell happened to it anyway? It looks like a dried up sack of skin and fur. Crap, it’s got no eyes.”
“I’m not sure Mags. I’m not there to see it, so I have no idea what happened to it.” He was trying to be as patient as possible, but after two weeks, he really did need to get some work done.
“Well fine, I’ll take care of it. But you owe me.”
Clicking off the phone, she walked around the carcass and opened up Johnny’s door. “Good morning sweetie! Are you ready to head back to school?”
The sleepy-eyed boy smiled at his mother. Even though he didn’t sleep much, he was excited to get back to school and his friends.
“When did you clean your room? The floors were covered in dust last night?”
Not having a good answer, he just shrugged and crawled out of bed, keeping his feet as far from underneath the bed as possible. While he grabbed some clothing from the dresser, his mother looked around the room. It was clean. Shaking her head, she walked to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. She’d need to make Johnny some breakfast while he got ready. Remembering the mouse too late, she heard a “COOL” from the hallway.
“Just leave that be, and get ready. You need to be at the bus stop in 20 minutes.”
As Johnny was getting on the bus, Maggie waved to him and walked towards her neighbor and friend, Nancy. “Hey Nance. When did you get home from the all-clear?”
“It was about 8pm. I think our shelter was released last. We saw your lights on, but figured we’d wait to talk until today.”
Taking a sip of her coffee, Nancy had a strange look on her face.
“What’s the matter?” asked Maggie.
Almost embarrassed, Nancy said, “It’s nothing really. It’s just – well, did you find anything weird in your house last night?”
“What do you mean weird?”
Sighing heavily for drama, “Okay, I just don’t want you to think I keep a dirty house, but, well, we found a couple of dead mice in the house.”
“Really? There’s one in my house right now. And of course I don’t think you keep a dirty house. You and I are both neat freaks; you know that as well as I.”
Laughing, Nancy was relieved. “Well, at least it wasn’t just me. I think there was more of an effect than the government is letting on.”
With a Tsk and an eye-roll, Maggie sounded disgusted. “Not you too? Craig was spouting off all night last night about some government coverup.”
“Well, it was a biological. Who knows what those terrorist freaks put in there.”
“The government said nothing, but who knows. Okay, I’ll talk to you later. I need to clean some more, and that dead mouse won’t take care of itself.”
As Maggie walked back to her home, she wondered on how strange it was that both she and Nancy had found dead mice.
Johnny was in bed and exhausted. With the lack of sleep the previous night, and the busy day at school, he was bushed. But sleep, once again, eluded him. That scratching noise seemed to be getting worse; stronger somehow. He dared not call his mother again, as she’d have none of it. So he mustered up his courage and leaned down over the edge of his bed. From the light that spilled in from the living room, he could just make out a huge pile of dust and hair. That was the biggest dust bunny he’d ever seen, and he’d seen a lot as an 8-year old that hated to clean.
“Just dust,” he said to himself. Rolling back into bed, he completely missed the pair of eyes that opened inside the clump of dust.
“Have you seen Nippers since we got back?” asked Maggie. The family was sitting at the breakfast table before work and school.
“Nope,” said Johnny.
“Not a trace,” said Craig. “You know that cat. She could be anywhere. What’s on the agenda for you today?”
“More cleaning. I found another mouse last night, and Nancy found more in her house.”
“I told you. The government is hiding something. That biological did something; killing off all the mice.”
“I’m serious Craig. We’ve never had mice before.”
Smiling, “And we’ve had a cat around. Maybe it’s a coincidence.”
“Whatever.” She wasn’t happy with the way the conversation was going, so she changed it. “Are you ready for school Johnny? You look exhausted.”
“I’m okay mom. Just didn’t sleep well last night.”
“I heard those noises under my bed again.”
“Well why didn’t you say something?”
“You get mad at me when I do, so I didn’t.”
“He’s got a point there,” interjected Craig, as he looked up from his tablet.
“Oh shut up. Johnny, honey, you can tell me anything. Okay?”
“Okay mom. I will. I did see a huge dust bunny under my bed. It was massive.”
Shaking her head, “That’s not what I mean… Okay, get going, or you’ll miss the bus. I’ll take care of the dust bunny.”
After Craig and Johnny had left, Maggie made her way over to Nancy again. “How are you doing this morning?”
“Good I guess. I found another dead mouse in the house.”
“Me too. And we haven’t seen Nippers since we’ve been back.”
“That’s weird. You know what else is weird? I talked with Laura down the street yesterday, and they found dead mice in their house too; five of them.”
“Something weird is going on around here. Should we call the police?”
“What would we tell them Maggie? I’d like to report the murder of a dozen mice?”
“I’m serious Nancy. Something is weird.”
“I’m serious too. I am NOT reporting this to the police. I will talk to a few of the other neighbors though.”
“Me too. You take your side of the street, I’ll take mine.”
“Deal. Let’s report back and have some lunch together.”
“Okay. See you in a few hours.”
With that, the ladies went their separate ways, heading towards their neighbor’s homes to see if anything else funny had happened. At lunch, they were both shocked at the amount of dead mice, and even a couple gerbils and hamsters that had been found desiccated in the neighborhood; all with their eyes missing, or dried out so much that they weren’t visible. “This is really becoming freaky,” admitted Nancy.
“I told you. I still think we should notify someone.”
“Tell you what, you talk with Craig tonight, and I’ll talk with James. We’ll see what the hubbies think.”
“Bringing in the big guns, I see.”
Nancy laughed, “You and I both know if either of us called the police without consulting them, we’d stir up a mess.”
“I know; it’s still funny though.” The lunch proceeded as lunches will. Nothing else substantial occurred, so they waited until their husbands got home to discuss dead mice.
After a third day of little sleep, Johnny was almost stumbling out of his bed. “Do I need to keep you home from school?”
“No!” cried Johnny, as he looked back at his bed. He didn’t want to be in his room any longer than necessary. “I’ll go to school.”
“What’s keeping you up?”
“With you and dad arguing last night…”
“We weren’t arguing, sweetie.”
“Okay, well, with you and dad talking, and the noises under my bed, I just couldn’t sleep.”
“Tell you what. I’ll clean out under your bed and have a look around, okay? I know I forgot to clean that dust bunny out yesterday. I promise I’ll get it today. Okay?”
The conversation with her husband hadn’t gone well the night before. Craig was concerned, but didn’t think it warranted contacting the authorities. “They’d think we’re crazy,” he’d said. Taking Johnny to the bus stop, she looked over to see a distressed Nancy watching her daughter, Lizzy, get on the bus.
“What’s wrong?” asked Maggie as she walked over.
“I found our dog this morning, dead and dried up, under our bed.”
“Yeah, it looked just like those mice. We haven’t told Lizzy yet. Frankly, we’ve no idea what to do. What did Craig say?”
“He thought they’d think we’re crazy and said no.”
“James said the same think. But after we found the dog…I just don’t know.”
As they were talking, a scream broke the silence. “What was that?” asked Maggie.
The screaming continued; it was coming from the Walters home, three houses down. “Let’s go see what’s happening,” said Nancy.
Both of them jogged over, trying not to spill their coffee as they went. Others in the neighborhood had joined them.
“My baby,” came the screams from the house!
Dom, an elderly gentleman that lived next to the Walters was already at the door, pounding to gain entrance. The cries continued. Gloria Walters appeared to be hysterical inside.
“Break it down, Dom!” cried the gathering crowd. Looking over his shoulder at the mass of concerned people, he nodded. “I’ll try.”
Stepping back, he threw his shoulder into the door, but it was solid. “I’ll need help.”
Pushing to the front of the crowd, Daniel Peters, another of the neighbors, stepped up. “Let’s do this together.” On three, they both slammed into the door. After two more tries, the door opened; the trim splintering under the force. Daniel rushed in and found Gloria screaming while staring at the crib in the nursery. Trying to console her, he let Dom pass. “Good Lord,” muttered Dom.
Nancy and Maggie pushed through and stood next to Dom. Maggie inhaled, putting her fist to her mouth. Nancy just said, “Sweet mercies.”
There, in the crib, was the Walter’s baby girl, looking every inch like an ancient mummy. The skin was so desiccated that the lips had recessed to reveal the one small tooth in the baby’s mouth. The hair, what little there was, lay in clumps around the shrunken head. If they hadn’t known it was a little girl name Meredith, they would have not been able to identify it. Looking over her shoulder, Nancy yelled, “Call the police!”
An official looking man, tall, pale-skinned, perfectly cut hair, wearing a dark suit stood at the front of the assembly hall. The police had arrived within minutes of baby Meredith being found dead. They had interviewed a number of neighbors, including Maggie and Nancy, and could not come to any conclusions. The fact that multiple animals, and now a baby had been found desiccated was beyond their ability. So they had called the FBI.
Within an hour of that call, the pale-skinned gentleman had arrived in a large, black SUV. He had taken over the investigation and told the police to call a meeting. So now the members of the community sat waiting for him to speak.
With a nod to the police chief, the man stepped to the podium. “Ladies and gentleman, my name is Special Agent Wilcox. I’ve been working with Chief Matthews today concerning recent events. Unfortunately, we have very little to go on. Until we get conclusive results from the lab, there isn’t anything else we can tell you.
“Please understand that we will be doing our best to get to the bottom of these events. So, for now, please return to your homes. There is nothing else to report.”
As the Special Agent started to walk away, Craig stood up. “Seriously! That’s it? A baby dies just days after we are attacked by a biological weapon and you say there isn’t anything else to report?”
“Craig. Sit. Down,” demanded Maggie from her seat. But the crowd was behind him. Many stood and shouted the same questions.
Raising his hand is supplication; the Special Agent addressed them again. “I understand your concern, but this has nothing do to with the attacks. The government scientists found nothing that affected living tissue with the biological attacks. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about. Now please, go back to your homes and let us do our jobs.”
With that, the police moved in to direct the crowds out of the assembly hall. “They are covering up something,” said Craig to no one in particular. “I just know it.”
Nervous conversations were everywhere in the neighborhood. As Craig weaved his way through the crowds and approached his driveway, they could see that Nancy and James were talking to Dom and his wife Ester. When they parked the car, they sent Johnny off to play with Lizzy and joined the conversation. “What are we going to do?” asked Craig as he stopped to talk.
“We’ve been talking about that,” said Dom. “I, for one, have no idea.” Dom was a retired doctor and had been a key witness when little Meredith was found. He’d said he had never seen anything like it in his 35 years as a doctor. It had him baffled; well beyond his knowledge.
“You said yourself it wasn’t normal,” replied Craig. “What could have caused that? I mean” let’s be serious, where did all the bodily fluids go?”
“Craig!” admonished Maggie.
“What? I’m serious. Where did it go? I don’t want to be callous, but this is serious. What could have done that? And all the pets and rodents? Hell, we haven’t seen Nippers since we’ve been back. “
“Look,” said Dom, “I know we’re all a bit scared. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it, but I haven’t seen everything. I’m sure there is a logical explanation. We just need to be wary and keep an eye on the little ones.” The last said as he watched Johnny and Lizzy play in the yard.
“Do you think they are in danger?” asked Nancy.
“I’m not saying anything like that, but I wouldn’t want any of us to let down our guard.”
“So what do we do?” asked James.
“What can we do?” said Maggie in disgust. “Set up a watch looking for what, a biological something or other attacking pets and our kids?”
“What we watch for is anything out of the ordinary,” replied the usually quiet Ester. “Watch your kids moods, their behaviors. See if your pets are acting funny. That’s the only thing we can go on. And it may help if we talk about what we find, so this doesn’t take any of us by surprise.”
“I’ve noticed Johnny is exhausted lately,” said Maggie. “He says it because of noises under his bed.”
“When did that start?” asked Dom.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. He was probably just freaked out coming back home. It started the day we got back from the shelters.”
“So not after he saw a dead mouse?”
“No. That was the next day.”
“Tell me something,” pondered James. “Did any of you see any dead mice or anything strange when you got home, or was it all after you arrived?”
Everyone looked at each other, trying to recall. “I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary,” said Maggie.
“There was a lot of dust,” said both Maggie and Nancy at the same time.
“Dust?” repeated James. Everyone found it strange they had said the same thing at the same time.
“Well, yeah. I guess I figured it would be dusty, but not really as much as there was when we got home. I mean, our houses were shut up. Nothing was going to get in through the windows,” said Maggie.
“Yeah, that was exactly what I was thinking. There was just a lot of dust; especially in the bedrooms.”
“That could be anything,” said Craig; frustration evident in his voice.
“Look, this is getting us nowhere. I say we all turn in and make sure to keep an eye on things. If any of us see something funny, we give each other a call. Maybe talk with the others in the neighborhood. It will be a neighborhood watch, of sorts,” said Dom.
“A neighborhood watch that has no idea what to watch for,” muttered Craig.
“That’s a great plan,” said Maggie to distract them from her husband’s negative mood.
“Alright,” explained Craig, his hands up in the air, as if he’d given up. “Alright! Come on Johnny; time to get home!”
With that, the families dispersed and went to their homes. As Johnny was getting ready for bed, Maggie went to his room and looked under his bed. There was still a bit of dust, but she didn’t see any of the dust bunnies, just a large stuffed animal way in the back. She didn’t really remember which stuffed animal it was, but then again, she couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast. It was just too hectic lately. “Johnny, I checked under your bed; nothing but a stuffed animal. Make sure to get that out tomorrow. Okay?”
Not really hearing her, Johnny just yelled, “Okay!”
Reluctantly, the 8-year old crawled into bed. He was so tired, he didn’t even think about the noises. He curled up under his sheets and was fast asleep before Maggie even had the lights off. “He must be exhausted,” said Maggie to Craig as she shut the door, plunging his room into near complete darkness. The only light in the room was from a small LED night light that Johnny had always disliked due to the eerie blue cast, and a pair of greenish cat eyes under the bed.
Hours later, as Maggie and Craig were finally settling into bed, Craig sat up and started coughing. The coughing fit continued to get worse, causing Maggie to sit up and turn on the bed-stand light. When she did, there was a cloud of dust easily seen floating above their beds. Inhaling from surprise, the dust rushed into her throat, causing her to start her own fit of coughs. It was then that they heard Johnny scream.
Still coughing, the parents struggled to compose themselves enough to get to Johnny’s aid. Between the dust cloud and dim lights, they coughed and tripped over things that should not have been in their way. When they finally reached Johnny’s room, their throats were raw from coughing, and their eyes were watering from the strain. But that was nothing compared to what they saw.
Johnny was still on his bed, but barely. His arm was hanging over the side of the bed, with a large glob of wet, hairy mud covering most of his arm. But the worst of it was that the mud had eyes – cat’s eyes. The glob was visibly pulling Johnny under the bed. When a desperate Craig rushed to grab his son, the glob shot forth a cloud of dust from a pore on its back. The dust went right into Craig’s face, starting him to coughing once again.
Struggling through the coughing fit, Craig grabbed his son and pulled. Aside for the shock of this horror happening to his family, he was surprised and how difficult it was to pull his son free. “I can’t get him free,” coughed Craig.
Maggie grabbed a baseball bat that was leaning up against the wall of the room and got down on her hands and knees. Jabbing the bat into the mass of dirt, muck and hair, she aimed for the eyes. Once again, the creature of filth spat out another cloud of dust. Fortunately Maggie was able to shield her eyes and mouth in time. With one more jab, she hit the creature. It loosened it’s grip on Johnny’s arm just enough for Craig to get him free.
Scrambling back, Maggie and Craig half dragged – half carried Johnny from the room. As they left the room, still coughing, they were hit again by another puff of dust. There was another creature in the hallway. This one had not just a single set of cat’s eyes, but multiple sets of tiny mouse sized eyes. “We gotta get out of here,” cried Craig.
Hoisting Johnny onto his shoulder, Craig jumped over the creature that was considerably larger than the one under the bed. Maggie followed as best she could; staggering from exhaustion and lack of sufficient oxygen. As they burst through the front door and out into the yard, they noticed all hell had broken loose in their neighborhood.
Two homes were on fire, sirens were blaring everywhere, and not just in their part of town. Neighbors were screaming, many were crying; some were holding the desiccated bodies of small children. And everyone was coughing. One thing was remarkably clear. No one was in their home. Everyone was outside in the fresh air.
Craig, having composed himself somewhat, handed a crying Johnny to Maggie and said, “Stay here.”
“Don’t go back in their Craig.”
“I have to. I need to see what’s going on.”
“Mommy, you promised you’d take care of the dust bunnies…and you didn’t!” cried the boy into his mother’s shoulder. All she could do was comfort him and wonder what to do next.
Taking off his shirt, Craig walked to the outdoor spicket and drenched the shirt in water. After wringing it out, he held it over his mouth and nose, and entered his home. What he saw was beyond belief. There, in the middle of the living room, just feet from the front door, was a huge mass of dust, hair, fur and all matter of filth. He could see smaller globs of the stuff slowly moving towards the one mass. Dust was pouring out of the floor and wall registers, adding to the mass. “What the hell…”
“…scientists admit that they’ve made a mistake in their assessment. When they first investigated the biological fallout from the attacks, they only focused on living tissue. They never imagined what it would do to dead tissue…”
“I can’t watch this nonsense anymore,” said Craig as he walked away from the TV monitors set up at the shelter.
“Craig, what are we going to do?” asked Maggie. “We can’t go home.”
“We have to wait in this stupid shelter until the government figures it out. And a lot of good that did the first time around.”
“All those people died. And the houses burned down – I just don’t get it. They are blaming it on animated dust! Like we’re supposed to believe that dust bunnies did all this?”
“Relax Maggie. I’m as mad as you are. There has to be an explanation for this. Someone needs to get to the bottom of this mess. I’m gonna ask around. Why don’t you go check on Johnny? See how his arm is.”
“I was just going to do that. I can’t believe his arm shriveled up like that. I’m just glad we got to him when we did. Who knows what that thing could have done?”
Scientists suggest that upwards of 80% of the dust in your house is composed of dead skin cells. The rest is dust mites, dirt, insect waste and other such vile things. So, when was the last time you cleaned your house?