Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Hank Malcome held tight to his stained Fedora as he closed the pig-pen gate. Two mud encrusted sows pushed against seven others and screamed like first time mothers giving birth. “You gots a damn crawl-under … get in there!” An ugly darkness called a black roller approached from the southwest, bringing night two hours early. Tangled clouds covered the sky like diseased blankets boiling in a kettle. With the sows finally secured in their pen, Hank gave a cursory glance to last year’s hams hanging from a rafter in the barn’s far corner, and double checked to make certain the all-important sacks of seed for this year was safely stored, along with Hank’s motley collection of shovels and rakes. Satisfied that he’d done all he could to guard against the approaching storm. It was a good thing he’d put-off planting. The air was already lifting dust. In fifty-seven years of farming, Hank had seen stolen top soil and seed from western Montana scattered as far as Nebraska. An eighty-four year old widower, he was too old to plow the four hundred and nineteen weeded acres he still paid taxes on. Two dozen animals and fourteen rows of vegetables got him through most winters.
An eight-foot piece of corrugated metal tore loose from a rusted granary and almost made a gift out of Hank’s head before it wrapped a sagging fencepost. “Christ! Send the Devil my name!” He gazed across last year’s withered corn toward a pasture as he straddled the broken porch-steps on the 1920’s homestead. Three milk-cows clomped with heads down into the wind. The open barn doors were weeded in place, but faced away from most rain. “King! Fritz! Where the hell are you?” Hank couldn’t see either dog. If they was too dumb to come home, they’d have to find a hill and howl their way through. He went inside the house and waited. An hour later the storm came … and it brought with it a monster.
Hank stirred a large pot of El Rancho stew on the ancient Home comfort stove. What he didn’t eat of the World War 1 recipe right-off he’d store in an ice box. Drops of wind-blown water pelted the cedar-shake roof like grain-seed pouring into a metal silo and then nickels and dimes filling a cookie jar as the rain turned into hail. Thunder shook the house. The lone light bulb swinging on a cord over the kitchen table flickered twice as lightning lit up the outside barnyard like a scene from the talking motion picture Frankenstein.
It had been over ten years since Hank had been to the Royal Theatre in Cloverdale. His wife had been alive then, hiding her face in Hank’s arm when a bolt of lightning on the silver screen made the stitched-together movie monster move its hand. Hank remembered the popcorn box tumbling between the seats and his own racing heart. Death in the movies is always quick and spectacular, not the slow twenty-eight months of heartbreak and pain that he and Emma endured.
A wet face against the window glass made Hank lose the grip on his spoon. “Damn you Fly Boy!” Hank cursed the yellow tom yowling on the back of the porch rocker as he fished the spoon from the boiling pot with a fork and still shaking hands. Lightning flashed and thunder shook the house again. This time the power went out for good. Hank felt his way into a kitchen cabinet and found a half-dozen candles tied with string. A minute later he located a box of Diamond safety matches.
He lit a candle and let the wax drip onto a saucer before standing it upright. A girly calendar hung crookedly on the wall showing a scantily clad girl wearing black nylons, proclaimed “In June there’s magic in the air and being on our toes this Varga guy made me supply "Black Magic” in my pose!” It was a birthday gift from his overseas son. Hank had circled every day up to June 10th. The month and the year 1944 were both almost half over.
Hank didn’t get many visitors and with the children both grown-up and gone it often felt lonely. Lewis was working in France at a village called Oradour-sur-Glane helping the French with agriculture problems and Bertha lived in California with her husband and two almost-grown kids. Hank hoped Lewis would meet up with some of his old army buddies soon … the small village in central France sounded like a lonely place to be. The roar of the wind outside grew louder … thumps, crashes and bangs as the farm was steadily blown apart.
Hank placed the candle and saucer on the table and ladled himself a bowl of the stew. He sat in a rickety chair and read last week’s the Vanishing River Tribune: ALLIES INVADE NORTHERN FRANCE. The dogs still weren’t back yet. The wood-box was half-full. “It ain’t winter and I ain’t likely to freeze,” Hank mumbled as he adjusted the spectacles on his nose.
The bowl was only half finished when Hank began to nod; he pushed the bowl away, and rested his head on his arms. He’d just close his eyes for a minute and then he’d finish his food. The roar of the wind and rain outside suddenly stopped. The only sound was Hank’s gentle snoring. In the distance the scream of a feline fighting an unseen fore sounded briefly and then was stilled. The light-bulb dangling from the cord flickered twice and then popped. There was a smell of ozone. A shaft of green and silver light slipped through the windows, then through a crack under the door and searched the room like a hungry snake looking for mice and a place to nest. The electric clock hanging on the wall and half covered by Hank’s coat and chore overalls sprang to life, spun to exactly 4:19 AM and then stopped with a solitary click.
Outside a beam of light lit the yard like noon and then flickered like a torch as it moved to the barn. Hank could hear men’s screams mixed with those of women and children; his son among them. Hank snorted, moaned softly and swallowed as he whispered “Lewis!” But he did not awaken.
The bowl with the half eaten stew lifted from the table and turned slowly in the air followed by a salt and pepper shaker orbiting like moons around a celestial body. The sound of hail on the wood shingles returned but this time slower and louder like footsteps as it crossed the roof and stopped next to the chimney. There was a swooshing sound, the rattle and thud of things falling from shelves, and then a low plunk and the house began to fill with smoke.
The strange light in the barn moved outward and settled inside the shed where Hank kept his tools and seed. The latch that Hank had so carefully closed grew hot and then fell sizzling to the wet ground. A large bag containing smaller sacks of corn, beans, carrots, radishes and pumpkin seeds lifted into the air, spun for a moment as the door creaked open and then disappeared outward and upward into the night.
High above the farm ground in North Western Comanche County, a very large, oblong, some would say cigar-shaped, metal object floating in the sky, almost hidden in pulsing green and yellow vapors, caught the seed bag and pulled it inside.
Hank saw Lewis’ eyes, felt the silent screams and knew his son was burning. He woke with a start just as the bowl and both shakers fell to the table. His reading glasses lay twisted and the metal frames half melted on the floor. The room was filled with smoke. The house was on fire!
Hank fought his way to the front door and stumbled outside coughing. It was minutes later, splashing water on his face from a hand pump near the pig pen that he realized there were no flames. Smoke continued to pour from the house that smelled faintly like a bloated cow carcass Hank had burned two seasons before.
The sun was a glow in the eastern sky when Hank got the house sufficiently aired-out enough to investigate. The smoke had to have come from the Home Comfort stove. The stove itself was fine. The smoldering blockage Hank discovered in the chimney pipe dropped him to his knees. Fly Boy could be a pest sometimes … but who the hell could do something like that to an animal?
The yard around the house and barn was littered with broken tree limbs, muddy puddles and a torn canvas tarp that didn’t belong on the farm. His first job was to check on the farm animals. The three Holsteins huddled in one corner of the barn. Hank had never seen such malevolence in the cows’ eyes. When he reached out to rub one of the animal’s neck to sooth it like he often did before he started milking, the terrified creature bit him. “I’ve been bit by dogs, snakes, thousands of insects and that fortune telling woman at the County fair,” Hank said shaking his wounded hand in the air. “But this has to be a first!”
The pigs trotted in a frantic counter-clockwise circle inside the pen, making low squeals and agitated grunts. Hank counted eight before he noticed the sow down in the center. She lay in a tangled pile on the only patch of dry. Her head and bristled snout were cocked at an impossible angle. Obviously her neck was broken from a fall, but Hank didn’t know how. The highest thing in the pen was a crude wooden hut barely over two feet off the ground that the pigs were too fat to climb on.
Hank could see no trace of the dogs. He whistled and called as he checked the farm machinery and the chicken coop. Hank removed a broken willow branch from around the throttle lever and an empty milk-can rolled and lodged under one back wheel but the Ford tractor seemed intact. The chickens had not been so fortunate. Most lay in a tangle of legs, beaks and feathers. Several hung upside down, the muscle stiffening of rigamortis causing their icy talons to clutch the horizontal pole that crossed the back of the coop as a roost.
Hank had heard wild stories about flocks of fowl being thunder struck, sometimes falling right out of the sky, killed by the sheer magnitude of a storm’s violent rumble, but had never seen it happen until now. “Ned Winchester is going to get both ears full the next time I go in for a shave and haircut,” Hank mumbled as he rubbed two days stubble on his chin.
By afternoon the sun was peeking from behind a few clouds and the puddles that littered the farm were now but damp smudges on the quickly drying soil. “Best get them taters in the ground before the rain comes back.”
Hank cranked-up the Ford tractor, pulled out the dead sow and then plowed and rowed the garden area one more time before he went for the seed. The large sack, that Hank was sure he’d left on a shelf, sat on the floor by the door but looked unharmed. The bag felt heavier than he remembered. “Must be age,” Hank muttered, “like them bib-overall legs that grows a quarter-inch every year after fifty.”
The sun was shining brightly as Hank used a rake handle to make a furrow for the seed to drop into; corn, beans, peas and taters slipped under a half-turned shovel… fourteen rows in all. He was tired and without his glasses, Hank didn’t notice the light coming from the seed, a diseased fire from within each plant cell making the future vegetables glow with bizarre life and radiant energy.
Hank poured some of last night’s stew into two bowls and set them on the porch. He called and whistled for the fifth time that day. The two dogs were nowhere to be found and night was coming on again. He shucked off his overalls and crawled into bed this time. Moments later he drifted off to sleep with the steady clicking of the clock behind the coat rack. Time was still unexplainably stuck on 4:19 AM.
The next morning Hank dug the 1936 Oldsmobile out of the potato cellar where he’d stored it for the winter and went looking for the dogs. None of the neighbors had seen anything of King or Fritz. Mrs. Adams was hanging laundry on a line when Hank stopped next to her mail box. “Ain’t you too old to be driving a car?”
“I’m only sixty-eight. I’m not in the grave yet!”
“You will be if you don’t slow the hell down … and stop lying about your age!”
“I haven’t taken the Olds over forty for ten years!”
“Speed don’t make a fool, the years grow ‘em. Are you the one who ran over Felix?”
Mrs. Adams pointed to a platter sized circle of fur lying next to the road, flattened like a pancake.
“You know if I’d done that I would have stopped and confessed my crime!”
Hank didn’t tell her what had happened to his own yellow cat. Rose Adams was a suspicious woman by nature; she might think that Hank was making up stories to cover his own tracks. Hank shook his head as he drove to the next farm. Rose had been a real beauty at sixteen; he’d thought seriously about courting her. Age brought out all the wrinkles in a person. It became harder and harder to hide who you were.
The bowls filled with stew were still uneaten when Hank returned home. Most of the animals had settled down with the evening coming, all except the pigs. When Hank walked out to the pen they was all still running circles. He threw buckets of water to cool them off, but it made them run faster.
Hank had a hard time falling asleep. The clock on the wall next to the coat hook was ticking louder than ever but the hands were still frozen on 4:19AM and refused to move. He brought the bowls of stew inside and emptied them into the slop bucket for the pigs. The radio was updating reports of the Allied Invasion of France interspersed with commercials for Old Dutch cleanser. Hank finally fell asleep during the broadcast of a radio drama called Helpmate.
Outside in the garden area under the light of a waning moon the earth began to tremble. Corn sprouts broke through the soil at the top of the garden rows. The vegetables grew at an alarming rate, faster than any plant on Earth. In less than an hour the corn plants were more than three foot tall, twisted and malformed with jagged barbs running up and down the stalks like spider legs. At six foot the plants began to uproot themselves. Swollen ears appeared bursting through the husks with the kernels enlarged and misshapen. Hank snored softly, ignoring the screams of the pigs and the cows as they kicked the sides of the barn stalls. At 4:19 AM the hands on the clock behind the overalls began to move again, and over twenty corn plants began a deadly march toward the house.
To be continued …