Sarah gripped the revolver. It was heavy in her hands. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Brian guided her aim to his torso. “You shoot me here. Center mass. If that moment comes, you do not hesitate. Point and pull the trigger, got it?”
Sarah frowned, lowered the gun. “That’s not gonna happen, Dad. If you die, we all die.”
“Goddammit, Sarah. You’re a clever girl. A little too clever for your own good. You’ll work it out, kiddo.”
“No, I won’t. You can hunt. Forage. I’m fifteen, with zero survival skills. If you go, we’re as good as dead.”
Brian brushed a coarse hand across his chin. “Well, then you’re just gonna have to learn.”
Dusk settled over the lake. Brian cooked by torchlight under the weathered awning of the RV, swatting mosquitoes and praying these were the only critters they encountered tonight.
Sarah was busy washing the twins near the water’s edge. The two boys, Tom and Alex, were identical. At least on the surface; underneath they couldn’t be more different. Tom, like his sister, had a nose for books. Alex, on the other hand, had developed a keen nose for trouble.
Brian flipped the fish on the grill. “It’s getting dark. Keep close to the RV.”
The twins ignored their father as they splashed water at each other and giggled.
Through the ruckus, Brian heard the rumble of an approaching engine. He snatched his rifle. “Get inside.”
Sarah hurried the boys into the RV. Brian moved around to meet the oncoming vehicle, poising his rifle and resting a steady finger on the trigger.
A rusted pickup came to a stop.
The driver’s door opened and a short, sinewy man stepped out, hands held high. “I’m not armed,” he shouted with a nasal twang.
“Back in your truck and go.”
“My name’s Travis. I just need water. Food, if you can spare it.”
“There’s nothing for you here.”
Travis chuckled. “Yeah, except a whole freshwater lake.”
“I’ll say it once more…”
“Dad.” Sarah stood near the RV. “We can’t turn him away.”
Travis grinned at Sarah’s words. “Mister, you’re welcome to keep that thing pointed at me the whole time. All I want is to fetch some water. Maybe hook a fish or two.”
“Dad?” Sarah’s plea hung delicately in the air.
Brian sighed, lowered the rifle.
Travis picked the gaps in his teeth with a fishbone. Brian sat across from him, rifle resting on his lap.
“Fine kids you got,” said Travis. “That daughter of yours is something. Got a generous spirit, a real rarity these days.”
Sarah pranced around, sporting a knotted rope for hair as she performed Rapunzel for the attentive twins.
The shadows crept into Brian’s face. “Her mother used to say that one day she’d change the world.”
“I don’t doubt it. She’s quite the performer.”
“That she is. Would have been around the same age the boys are now, five maybe six, when she caught the acting bug…” Brian’s voice strained on the last word. He tensed in his chair, gripped the rifle. “Tom, Alex…bed.”
The twins protested but gradually made their way inside the RV. Sarah sat beside her father.
The three shared a long silence before Brian set his gaze on Travis. “Let’s get down to it: how did you survive this long? Alone, unarmed?”
“I was in Winston Falls,” said Travis.
“Winston Falls? Bullshit. That place would be a nest. Like everywhere else.”
“It is now. Weren’t before. There was a man who kept the crawlers away. We called him Mr. Moses, on account of him being able to clear a path through those nasty fuckers.”
“How is that possible?” said Sarah.
“He got infected then got clean somehow. Purged the bug. He reckons he had a stench about him after that, something that sent the crawlers packing. He was old, eventually got sick. Then sicker. Started ranting about how he used his monsters to beat theirs. I got the hell out soon after that. Didn’t want to be around when we lost our human bug repellent. Been on the road since.”
Brian nodded. “If it’s all the same, I’d appreciate if you got back on the road in the morning.”
Travis nodded back. “Understood. You’ve been mighty kind.”
Brian woke to screams outside.
One of the boys.
He leapt out of bed, scrambling for his rifle before realising it was gone. He grabbed the revolver from its hiding place and rushed for the door.
Sarah was hugging Tom on the grass. Both were crying. Dust roiled in the night air as the truck’s lights swerved off the trail and onto the main road.
“He’s got Alex!” screamed Sarah.
Brian’s jaw tightened. He held the revolver out to her.
They spotted the pickup truck a few miles down the road, tucked into the parking lot of a crumbling roadside motel.
Headlights were on, both doors open.
Alex stood next to the truck, his small body wracked with sobs. There was no sign of Travis.
Sarah blanched. “He left him there?”
Brian scanned the rooftops. Dark shapes were gathering. “It’s a nest. He wanted bait, a distraction for looting.”
Sarah gasped at the shadows. “Dad, they’re coming!”
“Hold on.” Brian floored the RV, gunning for Alex. Shrieks pierced the night as crawlers rained from above. Chitinous forms with disproportionate limbs and barbed talons scurried toward the RV as it screeched to a halt near the pickup.
Brian raced for the door and out into the parking lot.
Alex was several feet away, whimpering while the monsters closed on him. He spotted his father and made a terrified dash toward him.
Brian scooped up Alex and pushed him into the RV. He was set to follow when a creature hooked him from behind. Something forced itself into his mouth and he gagged as it frantically wriggled down into his stomach. Brian yelled, broke free, and threw himself into the RV. He kicked the door shut, locking it as the first crawler rammed against the other side.
Brian jabbed a pair of fingers down his throat, hoping to vomit the thing that was rapidly unfurling inside of him. No such luck.
“We’re surrounded.” Sarah was next to him, the boys cowering behind her.
Crawlers bashed at the sides of the RV. Talons raked the ceiling as it buckled under an increasing weight.
“Sarah, I got one in me. You know what to do.” Brian glanced at the revolver in her hand before buckling to his knees. The creature within was fighting for control.
More crawlers charged the outside of the RV, causing it to crack and splinter as it threatened to give.
Sarah regarded the revolver, tears spilling down her hot cheeks. She shook her head. “I can’t.”
Brian was on all fours now as the darkness bore into his brain. He snarled at the children, suddenly aware of their enticing scent. “Sarah…please.”
The roof at the rear of the RV collapsed. Crawlers spewed in, thrashing and gnashing on their path toward them.
The twins screamed, hysterical with fright. Sarah stood in front, shielding them from the encroaching swarm and the thing that used to be their father. She raised the gun, trying to steady her shaking hand.
Sarah spoke through sobs. “We need you, Daddy.”
She watched the last of her father’s humanity dim in his eyes as he prepared to pounce.
The monster had beaten him…
Sarah blinked as if someone had slapped her in the face.
You’ll work it out, kiddo.
Her breathing relaxed. The tremble in her hand was gone. “They need you, Daddy…”
She cocked the hammer, just like he’d shown her, slid the barrel into her mouth and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot rang out in the narrow confines of the RV. The twins squealed as Sarah’s body hit the floor.
Brian roared, utterly monstrous at first, then emotion flooded in as his mind snapped back and reeled at what had just transpired. He shuddered, heaved, and all the vileness rushed up his throat and expelled itself onto the floor, a writhing mass of blackened bile and alien viscera.
The crawlers pouring into the RV shrieked, flounced, scrambled over each other in their desperation to climb back through the hole in the ceiling.
Brian pulled the twins in, hugging them tightly as they wept. He then crawled to his daughter’s body, cradled it in his arms and started howling as he rocked back and forth.
The first pale tinges of dawn were seeping into the sky when they emerged from the RV.
Brian carried Sarah’s body. Tom and Alex clutched either side of their father’s pants. The boys whimpered when they saw the swarm of crawlers lurking in their way.
“Don’t be scared,” said Brian, the tears drying on his hardened face. “You don’t ever have to be scared again.”
As Brian and the twins approached, the crawlers parted before fleeing back to the nightmare they had escaped from.