By: Richard Jeter
In the ethereal pall of a fog-draped dawn, the barrel of the man's M16 materialized first. The rest followed, clad in camo and hazmat precautions. I kept my hands on the wheel until he had established a visual, motioning for me to roll down the window.
"Leverette Fox?" he called, voice muted by his gas mask.
"Yeah. Reaching for my ID," I declared, before daring to move my hand out of sight, to the console where my wallet and a manila envelope waited.
He shouldered his rifle to hop on to my running board, glancing at my cargo. The end of my flatbed trailer, and the mobile home resting on it, were lost to the mist.
"General Fitzpatrick radioed ahead," the muffled voice continued, satisfied with my license and documentation. "You know the way?"
I nodded at a map taped to my dashboard, marked by a thick line winding through the Carolina woods. All communications had been down in the evacuation zone since the incident; GPS would be useless.
"Understood. Travel only by day. Give yourself time to bunk. They briefed you on the impossibility of rescue?"
Jaw clenched, I nodded again, less confidently this time.
"Alright. Good luck, God speed."
He hopped down, waving me forward with one hand, saluting with the other. Soon, the ghostly visage of a barbed-wire barricade loomed, manned by identically uniformed soldiers. A gate swung open, ill-fitted metal shrieking ominously.
And then I was alone.
The facility was too far from the barricades to reach in one day. I camped on the abandoned highway when my alarm chimed 6:00, though the light outside had not changed. Grabbing my pistol and stepladder from the back, I sprinted to the door of the mobile home, hauling myself up, pulling the stepladder in behind me.
Fitzpatrick had insisted on reinforcing the structure. What had once been aluminum siding was now reinforced armor; the windows, bulletproof. The aesthetic remained identical, they were adamant about this. The scientists believed that if anything looked off, she'd become suspicious. The memory we were summoning her with had to be precise.
They came for me that night. Tapping the walls, exploring; then pounding, clawing, shrieking. I didn't reach for the gun. It would only have pissed off whatever was making those noises.
Then it stopped, suddenly as it began.
She was at the foot of my bed, dressed in the pink pajamas I last saw her in.
"I can't protect you forever, daddy. You should sleep. Then you should go."
Daylight crept through the windows. I waited to hear my wife making breakfast, my daughter watching cartoons, our dog--
I sat bolt upright, alone again, no memory of falling asleep.
Hands trembling, I washed my face from a water bottle before making a run for the truck, ignoring the gashes in the door, and pieces of armored siding curled back like paper.
I arrived at dusk.
The research facility was disguised as a nondescript Appalachian industrial park. The guard hut stood empty, save for a browning smear down the glass beneath bright green garland, and a boot jutting out of the door. The gate's arm bar had been broken off, crunching impotently as I drove over it.
I parked where instructed, making one final dash to the mobile home. Flipping the switch to draw power from the truck's battery, I plugged in the Christmas tree, lights twinkling surreally in the gathering dark.
The gift sat underneath, lovingly wrapped in my unkempt style.
"Merry Christmas, rabbit."
The scene prepared, I sat in the recliner I always had on Christmas morning, and waited.
I awoke, not to hellish shrieks, but to giggling. Eve sat at the base of the tree, shaking her present.
"What is it, daddy?!"
Time blurred. Pallid images of her fifth Christmas superimposed themselves over everything.
"Open it and find out, rabbit."
"I hate when you call me that!" she scolded, giggling all the same. She tore in to the wrapping paper--
--claws, tearing in to metal in the night, howling--
--and pulled out a helmet, covered in fine wire mesh, which she quizzically inspected.
"Daddy...what's this?" Her form flickered, wavered.
"It's to bring you home, Eve. Back from where you are."
The button nose that earned her nickname scrunched in thought.
"But we ARE home!"
Thick tears choked my response.
"Wait...no. They took me." All traces of the happier Christmas burned away like mist. Pale blue eyes turned on me. "Why did you let them take me, daddy?"
"We were scared, rabbit. Mommy and I were scared of what you could do. Some men we thought were nice said they'd help--"
"They did this to me."
A snarling howl from outside. Slamming against the door.
"They played with my brain until bad things happened. Until the shadows came."
A thump on the roof. Frantic digging, getting closer.
"You didn't come for me."
"I tried! Mommy got very sick after you left, and--"
My wife's body, dangling in the noose she'd tied using Eve's sheets, fell from the ceiling.
"You're lying, daddy. I don't like liars."
An arm of pure darkness, tipped with cruel claws, shattered an ostensibly unbreakable window.
I put my hands on my knees, got down on the floor in front of her, as I did before the really hard talks; about grandma, about her dog.
"No more lies. The bad men are sorry. They made that hat to start fixing things."
"Even mommy?" she asked. My voice caught. Another shadowy arm punched through the ceiling.
"No, rabbit. Not mommy. But we can protect a lot of other people's mommies and daddies."
She considered this for a moment, then set her tongue, and determinedly pulled the helmet onto her head.
Her edges, previously blurred and flickering, solidified. I stared, expectantly. Give me something. Anything.
A second arm of undulating blackness tore through the widening hole in the roof.
"I can't control them anymore."