It was easily the worst storm Zave had seen since he’d moved to this town six months ago. So much rain poured from the sky that his windshield wipers could hardly keep up. Every time they pushed the rain away, he had less than a second of clear vision before the windshield was covered again.
Clueless whined, sitting in the passenger seat beside him. Ever since they'd left the store, she had been acting nervous. The storm must have been bothering her even more than him, he decided.
"It's just thunder, girl," he said, giving her head a pat. "Nothing's going to hurt you."
She looked at him, gave a halfhearted wag of her tail, and then whined again.
He couldn’t exactly blame her for being so worked up, Zave reflected. It wasn’t even eight in the morning, and it had already been a weird day. He'd almost managed to forget about the strange intruder from earlier. Talking to a cute girl could do that for you, he thought with a smirk. But now that the sky was dark, and the clouds were roaring and spitting fire, the image of that inhuman grin, and those unnatural eyes, loomed in his memory as if the smiling man were sitting in the back seat of his car.
Zave glanced into his rearview mirror just to make sure he wasn't there.
The warning he'd given Zave was echoing in his mind. They didn't know they were looking for him, but they would once they found him. A shiver ran down Zave's spine. In any other situation, he would have brushed it off as the ramblings of a weirdo. But the fact that he had been in Zave's house before vanishing into thin air made Zave—
A shadow darted out into the road.
"Shit!" Zave exclaimed, hitting the brakes. The car swerved on the wet road, spraying water as it spun to face the opposite direction while still careening forward. Without thinking, Zave threw one arm in front of Clueless, and squeezed his eyes shut.
There was a bump as the car left the road—and then a bone wrenching CRASH!
The airbag deployed, and Zave's head rocketed forward to collide with it. Stars erupted in his vision, followed quickly by flaring pain that started in his nose and rippled outward.
Zave wasn't sure how long he sat like that, face buried in his airbag, head spinning and ears ringing. Eventually he was pulled from his stupor by a cold, wet tongue sliding up and down his cheek.
He groaned as he picked himself up, and then groaned again when he saw what was in front of him. His windshield was shattered. It clung stubbornly to its frame for now, but it looked like it would cave in entirely if he sneezed on it. Just beyond the jagged cracks, the front end of his car seemed to have shrunk to half its original size. They had plowed straight into the biggest, sturdiest tree on this side of the road. White steam was billowing out from under the hood.
"Shit!" he said again. There was no salvaging this car—not that he would have had the money for repairs anyway. "Clueless? Are you okay?"
Clueless whined in reply and licked his face again. Zave winced, then reached up to feel his nose. It throbbed, but he didn't think it was broken. When he lowered his hand, though, his fingers were bloody.
"Great. Absolutely perfect," he muttered, killing the engine before it decided to catch fire on top of everything else. "What are we going to do now, girl?"
Clueless cocked her head at the question, then turned around and scratched at the passenger side window.
Zave sighed. "Yeah, that's as good a place to start as any."
Groaning again, he undid his seatbelt and pushed on his door. When it resisted, he threw his shoulder against it, wincing when it hit a bruise that was already starting to form, and it grudgingly popped open. He climbed out into the rain, and then patted his leg to call Clueless. As she hopped out and started to sniff around, Zave looked at what remained of his car. It didn't look any better from out here.
"What the hell was that?" he wondered, thinking back to the looming form he'd seen in the road. He hadn't gotten a very good look at it, but at first he'd thought it was a young buck with a good set of antlers. Deer were a common sight around here, after all.
But why had it looked like it was standing on two legs?
Zave felt a tug, and looked down to see Clueless pulling on the hem of his shirt. She whimpered, trying to pull him in the direction of the woods.
"What is it?" he asked.
She growled at him and gave another sharp tug.
"Cut it out!" he snapped, yanking his shirt out of her mouth. "I can't leave the scene of an accident."
He sighed again, gazing sorrowfully at what had once been his car, and pulled out his phone. He'd need a tow truck. And what about the police? Would he be in trouble if he didn't call them about this?
Not that it mattered, he realized. His phone has no signal.
"This just keeps getting better and better," he said. Normally the reception here was fine. The storm must have been messing that up too.
Thunder boomed from the sky, as if laughing at him.
Clueless barked. Zave turned and saw her standing at the edge of the tree line, doing an anxious little dance.
"If you have to pee, just do it!" he snapped. "We're going to be here for a—hey, get back here!"
She ignored him, sprinting into the woods as fast as her four legs could carry her. Zave moved to chase after her, but stopped. He still couldn't leave! Groaning, he watched his dog vanish behind the curtain of rain without so much as a backwards glance. Cursing to himself, he turned around—and found himself face to face with somebody.
"Son of a…" Zave exclaimed, stumbling backwards. At first, he'd thought it was the smiling man, back to make his bad day even worse. But even though this man was smiling at him, it wasn't the unnatural grin of the trespasser from that morning.
"Looks like you've had an accident," he said, eyeing Zave's wreck. "You okay?'
Zave had to take a few seconds to catch his breath after the scare, but he nodded. "Y- Yeah, I think so. My dog ran off, but—"
"You have a dog?" The man's eyes lit up. "What kind?"
"A, um, golden retriever."
The man beamed at him. "I love dogs!"
Zave paused to wipe some more blood from his face. This guy was a little weird, but Zave would happily take that over what he'd seen that morning.
"Hey, I hate to ask," Zave said, "but my phone doesn't have a signal. Do you have a phone I can call a tow truck with?"
The man's eyes gleamed, as if he'd been waiting for Zave to ask. "Absolutely! No trouble at all. I live right over here. Do you think your dog will come back?"
Zave looked back out into the woods, but there was no sign of Clueless. "I hope so. She can probably find her own way home, assuming she doesn't find a big pile of poop to distract her or something."
The man led him to a house across the street, and as soon as Zave stepped inside he was struck by the decor. Everything in the house looked as though it belonged to an old lady, from the unfinished knitting project on the coffee table to the numerous photos of young children hanging on the walls.
Maybe he's here visiting his mom, Zave thought, doing his best not to judge the man who was letting him use his phone. But then, where's the rest of his family?
"What's your dog's name?" the man asked from the living room as Zave wiped his feet.
"Clueless," Zave answered.
"Is she a friendly dog?"
"Oh yeah, she's never met anyone she doesn't want to be best friends with."
"Is there anything…special about her?"
Zave looked at him, confused. "Special how?"
The man gave him an unnerving smile. "How indeed?"
They stood facing each other, neither saying a word, for almost a minute.
Okay, maybe I can judge him a little, Zave thought. Out loud, he asked, "Hey, could I use your bathroom? Just…" He motioned at his bloody face. "Get cleaned up a little?"
"Sure," said the man, still smiling like he was trying to decide which wine would pair best with Zave-kabobs. "It's right over there."
Zave backed away, suddenly nervous about turning his back on his host. He mentally kicked himself as he went down the hallway. This was stupid. He'd just had an accident that he was lucky to have survived, and this man was graciously letting him in out of the rain to wash up and call a tow truck. What kind of jerk was Zave to accept that hospitality, only to think such horrible things about…
Zave paused outside the bathroom. A light was on at the end of the hallway, the door standing open to reveal a bedroom just as old fashioned as the rest of the house. That wasn't what had caught his attention, though.
It was the foot that was peeking around the doorframe.
Frail and wrinkled, with dark varicose veins contrasting sharply against the pale skin, it looked like the kind of foot that belonged to someone who would decorate a house like this one. It also wasn't moving. A pit formed in Zave's stomach and, after checking to make sure the man couldn't see him, he stepped over to look into the room.
What he saw would be burned into his memory forever.
He backed away, unable to look for more than a second. It felt like he was going to puke. It was the owner of the house. It had to be. And she was dead. He was more sure of that than of anything else in his life. And that meant that the man who'd brought him here…
"Everything all right?" the man called from the living room.
What was he supposed to do? What the hell was he supposed to do? He was trapped in the same house as a murderer—and an absolutely deranged one, judging by what he'd done to that poor lady's corpse. Could he fight him? Zave had never been in a fight, and this guy obviously knew how to take someone apart…literally.
He looked around, and spotted a candlestick sitting on a nearby shelf. Grabbing it and pulling the candle out, he pushed the cold metal rod as far as he could into his pants and then covered it up with his shirt.
I'll just walk out the door, he thought with sweat already pouring down his face. And if he tries to stop me, I'll catch him off guard and bash his skull in!
With trembling hands, he made his way back out into the living room. The man was still standing right where he'd been before, but now the smile was gone from his face.
He knows! Zave thought.
"I thought you were going to clean up," the man said.
Crap! I should have at least wiped some of the blood away!
"I- I need to, uh, g- get back to my car," Zave said, inching toward the door. "I was able to get a s- signal. The police are on their way."
The man smirked, but didn't move to stop him. "Well, if you're sure. I was just about to sit down for a bite to eat."
Yeah, I bet you were, you freak! Zave thought. He was almost to the door, and the man hadn't stopped him yet. Could it really be this…
He opened the door and found three other people standing just outside.
"Ah, my friends are here!" the man exclaimed from right behind Zave. Somehow, he'd crossed the room in less than a second without making a sound. "I insist you stay and—"
Without thinking, Zave spun around, pulling the candlestick from his pants, and slammed it as hard as he could into the man's face.
He didn't even blink.
"Now, what did I do to deserve that?" he asked, his voice insulted but his eyes shining with wicked glee. "Is this how you were raised to act as a guest?"
Zave stared at him in disbelief. He'd known fighting the man was a long shot, but how could he take a blow like that right to the face without so much as flinching? Before he could think too much about it, the three standing outside pushed him back into the living room. Behind him, Zave heard the lock click.
"I…I know what you…" he stammered.
"Did you catch it?" the man cut him off.
One of the others shook their head. "We chased it through the woods, but we lost the trail."
"That's fine," said the man. "It'll be back. We have its owner, after all."
Zave blinked in confusion. "Are you…talking about Clueless?"
The man turned sharply to him. "Son, I've been doing my best to control myself this whole time. But if you don't shut up right now, I might not be able to resist much longer."
His stomach growled, and Zave didn't have to ask what he meant.
"Now," said the man, turning back to his friends, "this punk is off the menu until we don't need him anymore. There's still some old lady in the bedroom if anyone's hungry, though."
"How long do you think—"
The kitchen window exploded, and everyone in the room spun around to look. Crouching on the linoleum floor was…
Zave shook his head, convinced that he was hallucinating.
It was shaped like a person, but it was covered in snow-white fur. A pair of jet black horns curled out of its forehead. Its face was a mix between human and goat, with a snout and two long, flexible ears, but enough humanity that Zave could easily read its expression—and it was pissed.
And if that wasn't enough to convince Zave that he was hallucinating, the final nail in the coffin was that he recognized it.
It was the girl from the pet store.