It wasn’t a huge crash, really, more of a bump and skid. The soft whoosh of an object moving quickly through air, pine and hardwood trees being bent and broken in a long strip of field, and then a grind as the object pressed against the ground and slid nearly two hundred feet on the backs of bent brush and upturned earth. To an onlooker it would have seemed to be moving impossibly fast, and to have come from nowhere.
But there were no onlookers. The forest was shrouded in night. The sound of the ship’s descent through the timber was the only thing to betray its arrival. And as it happened, no human being heard it.
The one being who did hear it was a dog, and his name was Andrew. Andrew stood in the warm spot he’d been lying on and barked at the stands of trees. To his ears the falling ship was obvious. Had he the words, he would have told Esther, his elderly owner, about where in the woods lay the thing from the sky. But Andrew’s sounds of alarm were universal to Esther, and to her his barking could have signaled nothing more than a wandering skunk.
She rose from her chair in the livingroom with the help of a strong hand on her four-footed cane and shuffled to the porch to shush the dog like she’d done hundreds of times before. The routine was comfort, and she was a creature of habit as much as any other seventy-nine year old woman might be.
Barks coming from the porch were a prompt for a mild scolding, perhaps accompanied by an invitation inside. But since her husband Helmut had died four months before, she’d stopped snapping harsh words at Andrew and only prompted him to come inside. Anger was completely absent from her, perhaps gone for good, and even the hollow specter of it that she’d have displayed in a brief admonishment was simply out of character for her now.
The screen door creaked open a little and she heard Andrew trot toward the door by the clicking of his nails on the wooden porch.
“Come in then, Andyboy,” she said.
She let the door close behind him, judging his whereabouts by the sound of his feet. Her eyes had been bad a decade ago, and were dismal now. Her farmhouse was familiar however, and unlike in the outside world, she knew where everything was in here.
He headed for the kitchen where his water bowl sat full. She began her journey back to the chair in front of the television. The game show she watched had four contestants, all trying to guess a secret word from clues based on trivia. The noise of the applauding audience was near to constant. It sounded as if they spent the whole show clapping. Esther didn’t notice, even though the volume was turned up almost all the way on the television. She was trying to guess the secret word.
But Andrew noticed. He could discern the different parts of the audio streaming from the television, but to him it was all noise and only masked more important sounds. He walked back to look through the screen door at the outside with the safety of being inside. Tuning his ears to the edge of the copse of larches just past the sodium light that stayed on outside Esther’s lonely farmhouse, he waited for some evidence of the out of place event he’d witnessed from his resting spot on the porch.
He didn’t have to wait long. Though he could not hear the branches shifting, his dog eyes caught movement at the edge nearest the driveway. A clutch of saplings parted, and a large dark figure emerged. It took a tentative step away from the woods, in the direction of the house. In Andrew’s experience there were only two people who had ever spent time at the farmhouse after dark, and one had been absent a long time. The other sat behind him, occasionally yelling something at the television. This figure from the forest was neither of them. It was an intruder.
His barks renewed, and he now added raised hackles to the alarm. The increased urgency in his voice would be obvious to anyone listening, but Esther was not listening. She heard him, but to her it was an annoyance, and with her face still turned to the television she unleashed the scolding she had withheld when bringing Andrew in from the porch.
But he did not heed her. Even if he had, the ever-increasing threat would renew his barking. The huge figure was approaching. It stepped across the ridges and valleys in the dirt where Helmut’s pickup had dug lasting tracks in the springtime mud. It padded across the sparse grass that peppered the walkway and its surroundings. Despite the fury Andrew unleashed, it stepped up to the edge of the porch, only a few feet from the screen door, which seemed to him a less effective a measure of protection by the moment. Andrew’s barks turned to growls. He assumed an aggressive stance and lowered his head, eyes staring up at the face of the intruder.
As it had crossed the open space between the forest and the farmhouse, it had maintained the look of complete shadow. A featureless black. But now, bathed in the cold light from Esther’s lamp and television, Andrew could finally make out the wrinkly texture of its skin, the presence of a garment that looked to him like overalls and suspenders, and the features of its inhuman face. Though Andrew did not have the imagination of a human his age, he did have a set of instincts based in the same reality.
And they told him this thing was menace.
He backed away from the door, finding his formerly safe spot to be too close to danger. The thing’s footsteps were too quiet for a creature of its size. It seemed to be masking the weight of its bulk by walking lightly. This subterfuge fueled Andrew’s distrust. He turned his head toward Esther for a bark here and there, varying his method as he backed into the livingroom, hoping to catch her attention. The television had absorbed her completely.
The thing on the porch reached what might have been an arm but for its lack of a hand toward the screen door, grasped it somehow without touching the spot where the handle was, and slowly creaked it open. Andrew allowed furtive moments of silence to break up his stream of vocal cacophony so that the creaking could be heard by Esther, assuming the television did not simply drown it out. Finally, her attention was drawn to what was happening.
Andrew glanced her way to see her face turned up toward the hulking creature that now stood fully inside the doorway, and if any of the features in its face were eyes, was staring directly at her, ignoring him.
She stood, leaning on her cane but never taking her eyes off the visitor. Andrew let his barks compress into growls. He could hear the thing breathing, and noted that the sound was different than when it had approached the porch. It was more labored now, like it had caught a cold in a span of seconds.
Esther stepped toward it, looking at its face, squinting. Andrew’s eyes flitted from one face to the other, waiting for what was about to happen. His level of fear was immense, but like any good guard dog he translated it into aggression, and held it back until his master commanded it to be unleashed. He could not fathom life without Esther, and was ready to lay down his life to save her, should it be necessary. It seemed to him that tonight, it just might be.
He gnashed his teeth as she extended an arm, raised a shaking hand, and placed her palm flat against its chest. He had already selected a target on one of its legs. He could be there in one bound, clamped down and thrashing. This thing might carry its weakness in its legs. It was bigger than Esther by several times, and bigger than Andrew by many times, but every creature had its weakness. He would find it even if it killed him.
The mammoth visitor seemed to rock back and forth on its feet, then it raised one of its counterfeit arms slowly, and uncoiled its end like a child does with a fiddlehead fern. It lay a tentacle-like appendage over Esther’s wrist, then re-coiled it around her arm gently. It made four wraps before it completed its grasp.
Andrew could no longer hold back his fury. He dove in, closed on his target instantly, but was stayed by an open hand from his master, a rare thing. He halted hard and looked at her unoccupied hand, signaling him to stop. She was in charge, and did not want him to attack. There was no mistaking it. He took tentative steps backward, growling with a throat that was now sore from growls.
Esther’s eyes were on the face of the creature. Her hand still lay on its chest, wrapped in its own embrace. Its breaths came hard, and it seemed to shudder with each exhale. Andrew’s muscles were tense and they shook.
Then Esther did something that stopped Andrew’s growling instantly. She spoke, and her voice was soft.
“H….Helmut?” she said.
Andrew knew the name, but its implication here was beyond him. He stood frozen, not knowing what to do, or what to think.
The word’s effect on Andrew was potent, but its effect on the creature was devastating. It took a single, hitching breath after Esther addressed it, then it seemed almost to deflate. It listed to one side as one leg appeared to crumble, and its hulking body fell to the floor in a heap. Andrew jumped backward to keep his distance, but Esther stood fast, watching its face wither and go slack as it fell. Her outstretched arm was freed as its tentacle slid off and bounced to rest on the floor. The wheezing and choking sounds of its breathing ceased at once, and the blaring television noise drowned out any residual sounds coming from the visitor.
Andrew stood straight again, cautiously. The fur on his back lowered. His anger turned to curiosity, and he began sniffing about the beast. It seemed that it had died.
His attention was pulled away for a moment, but no longer, to look at Esther and make sure she was alright. Though she seemed uninjured, she had wilted to a sitting position on the floor. Her hands had drifted to her face, and her breath came in sharp heaves.
She was crying.