Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#62



Jeffrey Blair Latta, PDF's "Supreme Plasmate". has cooked up this scarifying tale featuring a monster that'll put the rats up your spine for sure. But for our hapless hero, the end of the world is just the beginning when humanity meets the...

 
 

Sky Babies

 

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


IT WAS SHAPING UP TO BE A SCORCHER, no doubt about that.  Come noon, it would be hot enough to poach eggs sunnyside up outside Bailey's Eats on Clearview.  Or damn near, anyway.

Don paused in his work and, raised his eyes, squinting into the burning glare.  Should have remembered my hat, he thought grimly, swiping away the beads on his forehead with his wrist, careful not to touch his face with his greasy hand.  Maybe it didn't matter if he got grease on his face, but some habits just refused to lie down and die.  That was the boy his mother raised and he wasn't about to change now.  Now that she was gone.

He lowered his gaze, taking in his surroundings in a lazy pan.  A string of silent black birds settled one by one on the telephone wires by the road.  They bobbed back and forth in unison as the wind set the wires swaying gently beneath them; like dancers doing the can-can.  He smiled lightly, then tightened his grip on the tire iron and threw his weight against it.  Five minutes and three lug nuts later, he had the front tire off the Malibu.  Breathing hard, he had to rest against the warm rubber a minute just to catch his breath.  No mistake, he thought.  There was a time you could have done that without breaking a sweat, Don-ol'-son.  Oh, yes, the years are definitely catching up with you.

Definitely seen better days.

He gave the tire a gentle shove and watched it rotate clear across the gas station parking lot, finally fetching up against the unleaded pumps.  It knocked over the "Free Summer-Mug with Every Filler-up" sign but the sky baby didn't move.  Not so much as a twitch.  Don smiled.  

He wasn't sure why he'd done that.  Normally he was so careful.  Testing it maybe.  Taunting it.  Maybe.  Or maybe he wanted it to respond.  Just to get things well and truly done with.  Of course, a fellow would have to be short a brick or two to want something like that, wouldn't he?  A fellow would have to be shy a load, that was for damn sure.

He cast a glance to his left.  Another sky baby sat beside the road next to the telephone booth.  A third squatted motionless in the open doorway of the garage.  He looked to his right and counted three more, all lined just inside the chain link fence that separated the gas bar from the dump.  All in a line just like the black birds. 

At least the black birds bobbed when the wind blew.  The sky babies just sat there.  Well, maybe "sat" wasn't really the right word.  But then, what verb would best describe a six foot tall gleaming wad of green chewing gum doing what these were doing right now?  If they weren't squatting or sitting, what were they doing?

Sticking?

He smiled wryly, and nodded slowly.  Sticking, he thought.  Sticking would just about cover it.

Quickly he rolled the brand new sidewall tire over and heaved it into place.  He collected up the lug nuts and began screwing them part way on with his bare fingers.  There was a time he could have done this whole operation in under five minutes.  But, back then, he would have gotten paid for it.  That was before the sky babies arrived, of course.  Before they took away everything, job included.

Sometimes, he still found himself thinking back to that terrible July five years ago.  He could still recall where he'd been when he'd first heard about the sky babies: in the express-line at Safeways.  Normally he didn't pay attention to supermarket tabloids but somehow that one headline jumped out at him: "Toxic Waste Ate My Baby, Malaysian Mom Cries!" Of course, it wasn't really toxic waste, but, other than that detail, the story had been remarkably accurate, as things turned out.

For two weeks the tabloids played it up, provoking lively discussions in check-out lines and not much else.  But then came the CNN report direct from Malaysia.  There was no picture except a file photo of the reporter on the scene, but that man's voice had been enough.  

"John," he said, with remarkable control, "there are no words to describe what is happening here." Then he went on to describe it just the same.  If it hadn't been CNN, no one would have believed it, not a word of it.  People dying by the thousands.  Green gobs of some jelly-like substance slithering down city streets, flowing up through drainage grates, sliding under doorways, and that sound...that horrible sound.  Like drinking.

Then, as if just in case anyone back home had any doubts left, the reporter's monologue had cut off with a giggly squeal and the audience got a chance to hear that horrible sound for themselves.  There was no doubt about it.  Yup.  Like drinking.

Don never found out for sure where the name "sky babies" came from.  He'd heard it was the title of a Bruce Cockburn video made to collect money to help the Malaysians.  If so, the money never reached them.  Bruce had his own problems soon enough.

It seemed as if the sky babies arrived in every North American city all at once.  What TV stations managed to stay on the air didn't know much more than their loyal listeners.  A statement hurriedly released by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta insisted that six foot green man-eating blobs did not fall under the heading of "communicable diseases" and so wasn't their problem.  In Canada, the Prime Minister announced the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the potential threat posed by the sky babies to national security.  When a sky baby caught the PM on the steps of Centre Block, the leader of the opposition demanded that an election be called.  A short time after that, a hundred or more sky babies innundated the House of Commons, snacking on all present regardless of party affiliations.  The Parliamentary Channel broadcast the whole thing and cleaned up in the ratings.

Then there came one final night of madness.  Don crouched in his basement next to the GE washer-drier combo, clutching an aluminum baseball bat his brother had sent him for his last birthday.  Even with the windows closed and locked, the screams filtered down to his refuge all night long.  At one point, he heard frantic pounding at the front door up stairs but he didn't move.  Abruptly the pounding stopped and a hideous, hopeless wail of despair washed down to him.  Then, every once in a while, he thought he caught that horrible, soul-destroying sound -- like something drinking.  Which something was, of course.  Drinking a lot.

He only left his hide-away two days later when hunger forced him out.  The sounds had long since given way to an ominously lonely hush.  Don stepped out onto his front porch.  He went cautiously, but no more so than if he'd just stepped out to get the morning paper while dressed in his bathrobe.  There he discovered a sky baby hidden just beside the door.  He should have expected it, but somehow it still managed to take him by surprise.  He froze stock still and his blood slammed to a halt in his veins.  Two quick strides would have put him back inside the house, another second to close the door.  But, of course, sky babies could flow under doors, everyone knew that (had known that, anyway).  He was as good as dead.  There was only one choice.

Leaping down the steps, Don cut across the lawn and took off down the street for all he was worth.  Passing Mavis Henriksen's postbox, figuring he had put enough distance between him and that thing by now, he snapped a glance over his shoulder.  If he'd had any breath left he would have used it.  The sky baby was right on his tail.  It wasn't even clear how it could possibly move so fast.  It was as if it were sliding along on a layer of grease -- not making a sound.  And, what was worse, he had the sense that it wasn't half trying.

The chase continued for another five minutes before his left leg cramped and he lost his footing.  He tumbled, rolling onto the blacktop, and then just lay there expecting to feel that great, green mass slide slowly over him and to hear that horrible drinking sound as it did whatever it was sky babies did when they made that sound.  But, nothing slid over him and, after a few seconds, he dared to look up.

The sky baby sat there in the middle of the road.  Though it had no eyes that he could make out, he felt as if it were watching him -- almost scrutinizing him.  But it didn't move.  It didn't attack him.  It let him get up and it followed him all the way home, but it didn't attack.  None of them did.  He quickly found that, wherever he went, they would follow, but that was it.  They just watched.

One month later, he found someone else.  His name was Lionel Wilmot and he'd used to sell insurance for a company that was being investigated for tax fraud.  They met at the Safeway (yes, the same Safeway) in the frozen produce section which, thanks to the power outage, wasn't very frozen anymore.  Lionel, it seemed, had his own entourage of sky babies, but he had no better explanation for their behaviour than Don did.  As near as they could both figure it, the sky babies had killed off just about everyone on the planet -- everyone expect a precious few.  This precious few they would follow constantly, but they wouldn't attack.  Something about Don and Lionel gave them immunity.  In a way it was a miracle.

The two of them decided there wasn't much point in leaving to search for other survivors.  If they were out there, they would show up sooner or later.  The dead bodies weren't a problem, either, as far as the spread of disease was concerned.  Whatever the sky babies did to them, the corpses left behind were completely dessicated and shrivelled like mummies.  There was plenty of food and water, and Lionel wasn't bad company once Don got used to him.  He even knew how to cook.

After a while, Don found, from time to time, he even forgot about the sky babies, always hovering in the shadows at night, or just outside the store windows when he went "shopping", or on the lawn outside his house.  But Lionel didn't forget -- no, not for a second.  Don could see the way his friend watched them constantly, never letting up his guard, sleeping so lightly that the slightest noise would wake him, usually with a shout.  It got to the point where Don wondered if fear itself wasn't going to finish the job the sky babies had opted out of.

But a year passed and then two more, and gradually even Lionel seemed to accept the sky babies as an unpleasant fact of life.  Don found they became a part of the scenery, just like the birds in the trees.  Rather, like the trees themselves, since, unless required to change location, they stayed as motionless as trees.  Only from time to time would one of them catch his eye, and then, for just a moment, he would feel that old sense of being watched -- scrutinized.  And then he would go back to whatever he was doing at the time and forget all about them.  He had no choice.  It was either that or lose his mind.

Then, one year ago, while raking up the fall leaves from the front lawn (another habit that refused to lie down and die), Don asked Lionel to bring the wheelbarrel around from the back of the house.  Lionel nodded and sauntered off without a word.  A moment later, a black bird settled on a branch in the maple tree overhead and began raining down imprecations on Don's head.  Laughing, Don scooped up an armful of autumn leaves and heaved them up at the startled bird, which took to the air in a flurry of black feathers.  Then, as he watched it fly away, the laughter caught in his throat.

A shrill scream broke the stillness.  For a moment, Don couldn't move, while the scream went on and on and on.  Then, abruptly, a gear caught inside his head and he spun and raced around the side of the house to the back.  By the time he got there, though, it was too late.  The screaming had stopped.  Over a dozen sky babies covered Lionel in a single rippling mass and, together, the sound they made nearly drove Don mad...

Don tightened the final lug nut, breathing hard but glad the job was almost through.  While he knew it didn't make one wit of difference, he wanted to get back inside where he wouldn't be so out in the open.  He pulled on the tire iron, tightening the nut a little more; thinking about how he'd tried to piece together what had happened to Lionel.  The only clue had been the over-turned wheelbarrel and that wasn't much help at all.  Something had made them attack; something Lionel did.  But what?  It was so hard to know.

He pulled on the tire iron again, tightening it just that extra little fraction, straining at it, his knuckles white against the pressure.  Suddenly his grip faltered; the tire iron spun out of control in his arms and flipped up onto the hood of the car with a flat metal retort.  Don made a grab for it...

Then froze.

With exquisite grace, the tire iron glided across the hot surface, then see-sawed off the front, caught the bumper on the way down, flipping end over end and clattered to a halt on the blacktop beneath.

His arms were stretched out in a last desperate reach, like a football player stretching for a flying ball.  His throat closed up tight, holding the air in his lungs like a pop bottle.  He felt he would explode if he moved too suddenly.  But he didn't move.

The ruckus startled the black birds, who burst skyward in a frenzied, squawking mob and soared off over the satellite dish on the television rental across the road.  He watched them go, then noticed the telephone wires still swaying as the wind caught them.  A solitary black bird remained, tiny feet gripping its uneasy perch, its wings flapping in spurts as it bobbed back and forth, back and forth.  Trying to keep its balance.

Trying to keep its balance.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could just make out the sky baby by the phone booth.  The one by the pumps was easier to see, straight ahead.  But there was no way to check the three by the fence without moving.  As for the one in the garage door, the one behind him...

The sun pressed down on his head like a damp palm.  Wet beads traced fingers down his forehead and collected in his eyes, making them water.  Deep inside, something built.  Like someone was blowing him up the way they'd blow up a party balloon.  A coppery flavour washed over his tongue and he realized he was biting on his lower lip.

Trying to keep its balance.

The sky babies sat, not moving, just watching, scrutinizing but without eyes.

Movement overhead caught his attention, as the black birds one by one returned, settling on the swinging telephone wires in a comfortable, bobbing line.  Like can-can girls.  Slowly the something inside went away, like air leaking from a tiny hole.  The pressure subsided.

After a moment, Don let his breath out in a slow, shuddering stream.  Slowly, carefully, he retrieved his tire iron and completed the job he had started.  The sky babies -- his sky babies -- simply watched as they always did, not moving, not making a sound.  Just sticking.

And Don thought about Lionel and wished there had been more to go on.  But it was so hard to know. 

The End.


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Sky Babies is copyright by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)