Gnarlets and Gorslings
I'm watching Harlan jog the fifty yards from the barn to the house. Stroking my Remington twelve gauge where it lies across my lap, I sit on the porch cross-legged on a wooden deck chair and watch him approach. Harlan's face has got that pinched sphincter look to it again; he always looks that way when night's about to fall.
He mounts the stairs to the porch, shoots me a look and a nod and says, "Nothing in the barn. . . well, nothin' I could see."
Harlan didn't actually go right into the barn; he just stood in the doorway squinching his face at shadows. If I was with him, we would have gone right inside, poked a gun barrel into every dark nook and cranny. Sondra and I cased the house, right down to the cellar.
Sondra is Harlan's woman, but they get little opportunity for intimacy these days—too many gnarlets and gorslings about. When the night's so thick with hellspawn, God's creatures can't risk privacy. But I hear them together some nights when it's Harlan's or Sondra's watch. They think I'm sleeping and they do it quick, then hop out of bed, hand around your gun, ears and eyes open till it's time for someone else to stand watch.
Sondra's very decent. No real beauty in the classic sense, but she's got spunk—a real frontier woman. Just three days past, she wasted two gorslings with the thirty-odd-six. Two shots. Greased them both, right through their bony chests, thirty feet away under moonlight. The gnarlets escaped. They're a lot smaller, a lot harder to shoot.
We haven't seen any gorslings since. Lots of spoor, though. Just this morning we came across a motorhome in a ditch. Inside we found the recently bone-gnawed corpses of three "Desperados". That's a name I came up with, a name to describe people like me and Harlan and Sondra. The last holdouts, the survivors—Desperados. We'll be gorsling vittles soon enough, unless we can make it to the coast and find ourselves a vessel stout and seaworthy. We'll sail as far away as we can. If Harlan has his way, we'll never leave the water.
Weeks ago, rumor said some of the Hawaiian Islands were still safe havens. But that was weeks ago. As far as I know, hellspawn have overrun all of the continental United States. Most of Canada, too. And they must have spread south well past Mexico by now. They can't have much of a foothold overseas yet; we see the high-altitude vapor trails of reconnaissance jets crisscrossing the true blue American sky every day. Harlan says it's the Russians, and they're going to nuke us one day soon. It would make sense—you're supposed to fight fire with fire.
I taught wood-shop in a middle school for sixteen years. I guess that's why hellspawn don't really scare me all that much. Not like Harlan. Hellspawn scare Harlan spitless. Of course, Harlan figures life's worth living.
Sondra comes onto the porch. She asks, "How are you menfolk doing?" She wears an ammo belt across her chest. The perfect accessory for her camouflage jacket and khaki pants. The army boots look nice, too.
I tip my cap to her. Harlan sidles over and wraps an arm around her waist. They kiss and I forget not to watch. Then the three of us stare into a darkening western sky, the sun clotting bloody lumps of clouds as it sinks behind toothy mountain peaks. Tomorrow we should make it through the foothills. If we drove, we could probably make it all the way to the coast. But Harlan insists we take it slow—less chance of attracting attention. Go overland, stay away from the population centers, and you don't see so many gorslings.
Harlan rubs his hands together and quips, "Well, let's batten down the hatches." He figures he's our leader (unless gorslings are about—then I call the play). Harlan would be movie-star handsome if the last five months hadn't aged him forty years. So let him bark like top dog—I'm not even cute.
We grab our packs, go inside and start rearranging the furniture. We push a big oak hutch against the front door. A china cabinet across the dining room window. Then Harlan and I nail shut the front and back doors.
Upstairs and we choose the bedroom with one window that drops twenty feet to the ground outside. I suggest we should nail the other bedroom doors closed, but Harlan waves it off. We're all tired; we must have hiked at least fifteen miles today.
We check our weapons, make sure they're all loaded up. If gorslings had brains, they'd know enough to get rid of any guns and ammunition they come across. But gorslings barely rival lizards for smarts. All they want to do is eat. Eat and let their gnarlets out for walks.
I can sympathize with them on that last one. If I had a gnarlet, I'd want it out, too. I read a few articles about gnarlets and gorslings when the hellspawn first appeared. Before they overran the eastern seaboard and then swarmed west.
It seems a satanic cult disaster that made Waco look like the flames of a two-year-old's birthday cake managed to rupture a mile-wide hole directly into hell. The first gorslings to stumble out of the smoking crater keeled over when sunlight struck them, sizzled to a crisp right in front of stunned and gaping onlookers. But then night-walking gorslings spewed forth. Those brilliant enough to find cover before daybreak began spreading out, looking for food; and there's nothing hungrier than a gorsling. Out of the abyss they continued to climb, one after another, a never-ceasing eruption of brainless, flesh-eating hobgoblins.
All gorslings look almost identical, like a bald Keith Richards during his strung-out years. Basically humanoid in form. Starved-looking and crook-backed with stumpy, bowed legs. Dripping pustules pock their gray, scaly hides. The Catholics decided gorslings are the corporeal incarnations of souls damned to hell. So why are they all male? It makes you wonder.
I guess gnarlets are just one aspect of damnation. Gnarlets: slug-like demons living up your ass. Not a great way to spend eternity.
But gnarlets can also take human hosts. Human males, of course. Gnarlets wriggle up your asshole to take control of your mind. What few studies that could be undertaken before it was too late showed gnarlets residing comfortably in their host's bowels, hair-like filaments worming their way to spinal cords, tapping into the nervous system. And gnarlet-possessed hosts more or less function as normal men. They smuggle their gnarlet parasites into safe havens. Then they copulate with human females, raping their gnarlet seed into screaming uteruses.
Gestation takes only hours. Defiled women's bellies swell with tangled and writhing masses of gleaming black slugs that slowly gnaw their way through bursting membranes. Baby gnarlets slime away from Mommy to stiff out an asshole home for themselves. By the time scientists understood that nasty facet of gnarlet life, it was too late.
Harlan shoots the bolt on the bedroom door and then jams a chair up under the doorknob. His face unpuckers a bit, and he even manages a smile—there's two beds in this room; Harlan hasn't rolled Sondra in a while.
He says, "I'll take first watch."
I expected that.
He sits beside the door, up against the wall, blows out the candle when Sondra and I have pulled the covers up tight around our chins. I sleep by myself with my shotgun close to hand. The Colt forty-five never leaves my shoulder holster. It's a bit lumpy, but the discomfort is comforting.
Darkness closes in. Outside the window, a crescent moon cuts a lopsided grin at us. I close my eyes and wait for dreams to take me. I know Harlan wants me to fall asleep fast, so I do what I always do—I pretend to snore.
He stands up, slips off his pants and slides in beside Sondra. She giggles a little. I hear lip-smacking.
Then I hear something else.
Outside the window and below, on the ground. The out-of-rhythm flip-flopping of gorsling feet. I tell myself they were hiding in the barn.
From downstairs, the sound of shattering glass. Then a pounding against one of the nailed-shut doors. Harlan leaps out of bed, pulls on his pants. Sondra is already up and working the bolt of her rifle.
I yawn and pretend that I've just woken. "What's up?"
Harlan hushes me. He gets so stressed when gorslings are about. He doesn't hear me snigger as I swing my legs over the side of the bed. Downstairs, the pounding continues. Now you can hear the sharp screech of nails being torn from wood.
I whisper, "It sounds like only a couple of them. We should rush them now, before they have us trapped in here. Get them as they're coming up the stairs."
Harlan gapes at me. Stress lines press his eyes, nose, and mouth into a constipated monkey grimace. He doesn't move, so I pull the chair from under the doorknob and snap the bolt. I step into the hall. Behind me, Harlan whispers something to Sondra. She argues with him, keeping her voice low. But Harlan's insistent. Then he's at my back, a shivering hand on my shoulder. I hear the bedroom door close and Sondra locking herself in.
My flashlight dances a ball of light along the floor. I try to spy out gnarlets. They can sometimes sneak up on you while you're busy blasting gorslings.
I hear the snotty respiration of at least two gorslings sniffing around at the foot of the stairs. Then a window shatters behind a bedroom door off to our right. Harlan grips my shoulder in a vice. I shake it off and signal for him to check it out. I've got more immediate concerns.
I can see ugly, bobbing heads over the bannister rail; luminous eyes seemingly float up the stairs. The gorslings are burping that strange falsetto burbling they can't restrain whenever they're in close pursuit of prey. I switch off my flashlight, boldly stride to the top of the stairs. Behind me, Harlan kicks open a bedroom door. Good for him, but I don't have time to see what he does next.
The two gorslings have caught sight of me. Their barking climbs to an excited chirrup. They lurch their twisted bodies up the stairs. I snap on the flashlight, flash into existence details of two faces that could be used for shark repellent. The gorslings fling up their skinny hands at the sudden brightness. I hold the flashlight tight against the shotgun barrel and let loose with twelve gauge shot. The topmost gorsling takes it right in the gut. He explodes stinking entrails and stupefied gnarlet all over the gorsling behind. This gorsling stumbles against the wall and then tumbles thumpety-thump down the stairs.
I'm already after him. Careful not to slip in the stinking gore of my first victim, I reload and fire before number two can pick himself off the floor. He's tried to jerk away and takes the full force of the blast in the hip. He spins like a break-dancer, bleats like a castrated goat. I see a dark, glistening shape shoot out of his ass and know a gnarlet is making a break for it.
Upstairs, Harlan's Winchester sings out its crisp, decisive crack, but I can't be distracted. Leaving a shiny film on the hardwood floor, the gnarlet's slipping toward the battered-in kitchen door. The hip-shot gorsling's still screaming and thrashing about as I reach the bottom of the stairs. He tries to grab me as I rush past, but I just give him a steel-toed boot to the face. The gnarlet has splapped up against the wall and is sliming along the baseboard. I sight and shoot. At that distance, I can't miss. The slimy black slug erupts into a wet mess that squirts waist-high up the wall.
The wounded gorsling is clucking like a razor-laying chicken now. He's got one wiry, desperate hand locked around my ankle. I pull out the forty-five and put a slug into each of his gleaming gorsling eyes. They pop like boils.
I look up to see Harlan standing at the top of the stairs. He shines his flashlight right into my face, blinding me.
"I'm okay," I say, shielding my eyes and holstering the smoking forty-five.
Harlan turns and walks down the hall.
I start up the stairs. The sulphurous stench of splattered hellspawn nips at my tongue; I hold my breath until I've reached the last step. Walking down the hall, I glance into the bedroom Harlan must have been so heroic in. I see the huddled mass of a dead gorsling below a smashed window. Tricky bastard must have climbed onto the porch roof.
Score one for Harlan, two for me. I feel a sense of pride at this very necessary accomplishment. Teaching shop never made me feel so good.
I hear Sondra heaping praise on Harlan. She knows he likes that. I step into the bedroom and see her giving him a big kiss. Harlan breaks the embrace and turns to me. Still that same could-be-handsome sphincter-face, pale and sweaty. How can Sondra kiss something like that?
I close the door behind me and set the bolt. We should be okay for the rest of the night. Gorslings tend to keep away from the stink of their own dead. If they don't, they're compelled to eat their fallen comrades, and it makes them puke to death.
Harlan's lying next to Sondra now. I flop on my own bed without saying anything to him. There's not much point. Incidents like tonight leave Harlan speechless sometimes for days. I don't mind that.
I cuddle up to my shotgun. The barrel's nice and warm. The crisp fragrance of cordite is like a lover's perfume. Adrenaline drains from my system, and I slip easily toward sleep.
But then I hear Sondra mouthing protests. Harlan's still horny, and she's not liking it. Then Sondra screams.
I toss the sheets off and whip around. Harlan's got his pants down around his knees. His buttocks gleam round and hairy and white. He's tearing at Sondra's clothes while she screams and claws at his face.
I grab Harlan by the shirt collar and fling him from the bed. He lands in a crouch and glares up at me. Hellfire burns in his eyes. But I've got the Colt out and don't hesitate to give his squinched face a permanent forty-five caliber pucker. The back of his head sprays into the corner while he does a spastic backflip that has him landing on his knees, his ass crack facing me like a bike stand.
With a sound like Grandma Moses passing a two-quart can of baked beans, a gnarlet spurts from Harlan's ass and splats to the floor at my feet. This startles me and my aim is off. I blast two holes through the floorboards, almost shooting off my big toe. The gnarlet makes a beeline for the door. I fire again and again and sonuvabitch if I don't miss each time. The gnarlet's trying to ooze its way under the door. I get pissed off at the Colt and curse and struggle to untangle my shotgun from bed sheets. Just as I finally get it free, the roar of Sondra's thirty-odd-six wallops me in the back of the head.
When I look, Sondra's got the rifle and a flashlight trained on the gnarlet. It's beating like a ruptured heart. Black ichor pumps across the floor in glistening arcs. It squirts shorter now. And shorter. Then oozes. The gnarlet lays still and deflated, a lifeless slab of raw liver.
I smile at Sondra. What a girl—Harlan tries to pump her full of baby gnarlets, and she barely breaks a sweat.
I go to her and wrap a comforting arm around her shoulder. She leans against me and stares up into my face. In that light and at such close range, I decide I was wrong about her; she's beautiful.
She kisses me.
Then, with rifles and shotguns in hand, we tiptoe across the floor, trying to avoid the dark, greasy patches. Sondra unlocks the door and squelches it over the gnarlet as she pulls it open. She finds Harlan's ass with her flashlight. For an instant, it's Harlan's face I see.
Then Sondra pulls me through the door and closes it behind us. The silence seems to fill the darkness with molasses. Sondra slices a sticky path through it with her flashlight. There is one other closed bedroom door down the hall. With my shotgun leading the way, I ease it open. Sondra sweeps the shadows with the flashlight. Nothing in here except a king-size bed and a chest of drawers. Not even a closet. We step into the room, closing the door behind us.
We check under the bed, lay our weapons on the comforter. My breath catches in my throat as Sondra starts to disrobe. She says, "Harlan was an asshole. I never really liked him." She takes off all her clothes. Her eyes hold a lover's gleam as they meet mine.
What the hell. . . .
I strip too. Even remove the shoulder holster with the forty-five.
Sondra kisses me with urgent lips, jolting my body with her passion. I crush her to me, deciding this new arrangement is just fine. As we tumble to the bed, I realize now I've got something to live for.
And a tickle of fear crawls up my asshole.
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