The dead grass shimmered with an early morning frost. A distinct set of footprints led from the far side of the open field. The man stumbled forward, each labored step as unsteady as the last. His legs felt distant, heavy, like they belonged to someone else. In fact, his whole body felt strange, disconnected somehow. Rubbing his hands together, he tried to regain some feeling in his cold, bloodless fingers. These felt as unresponsive and foreign as his legs. The cold morning breeze bit through his thin jacket. Twice he tried unsuccessfully to button his suit coat. He thought it odd to be wearing only a suit jacket on such a cold morning.
Odd feelings and thoughts aside, he realized he was hungry. No hungry was too mild a word; he was ravenous. He tried to remember when he last ate. He couldn’t. Thinking about anything was difficult, almost impossible.
Reaching the other side of the field, he approached a set of concrete steps. He stopped. The wind rose, tugging at the bare branches of the trees. A single brown leaf twirled on the end of a branch, spinning like a whirligig. Clouds filled his head. He recognized the stairs, knew what they were for, but couldn’t remember how to use them. Glancing to the left and right, he saw the slope leading to the road was gentle. He thought he could walk up it without too much trouble. He began to scramble his way slowly up the slope, using saplings as handholds. He reached the top of the slope. Winded, he bent over at the waist, and tried to catch his breath.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” He thought. “Body feels all jacked-up, can’t think clearly, and gasping for air after a little climb.” The man walked haltingly on the shoulder of the road. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the woods and stepped onto a sidewalk. He still couldn’t clear the fog from his mind. He continued forward. The hunger in his belly burned like a chimney fire. He needed to eat.
The man heard a noise behind him. Something big. He stopped and tried to turn his head. The stiffness in his neck wouldn’t allow it. He rotated his upper body and saw a large yellow car.
“Not a car. That one is a bus. A school bus,” he thought.
The bus slowed and stopped next to him, air brakes chuffing. The door popped open and he saw the driver.
“Hey buddy. You okay?”
The man didn’t understand what he meant. A red rage filled his brain. He took a lurching step toward the open door. He felt his mouth open wide and a guttural roar burst forth.
The bus driver let out a little yelp of fear, jammed the bus into gear, and pulled away. The man howled in frustration as the bus disappeared. Getting himself under control, he returned to the sidewalk and continued walking.
“Why did I act like that? It must be because of the hunger. I’m so hungry.” Drool ran down the side of his face and froze instantly in the cold air. The man looked ahead. Someone was coming. Not another bus. This was a bicycle. Someone was on it. A boy. A boy riding a bike. His name is Jayden. A boy of about ten, sporting a backpack and headphones, pedaled lazily toward the man. He sees the man and slides over to the outside of the sidewalk. The man feels the return of the red rage. His gut writhes in pain. The hunger intensifies. He stumbles forward as fast as his traitor legs can carry him. As the boy passes, the man reaches out and pulls him from the bike. The bike continues on for a moment then crashes into the street. The man pushes the boy to the ground. He can smell the odor of damp earth and decay. Struggling to get away from this crazy man, he lashes out with his feet. One of the boy’s sneaker clad feet connects solidly with the man stomach. Pain explodes, radiating throughout his body. The boy scrambles into the street. The man, scrabbling on all fours, moves toward the boy. He screams in frustration and hunger. The need to get this boy is great.
Jayden crawls to the far side of the street and stops. He sees the man closing in on him, but he can’t move. He hears a noise. A school bus is coming down the road. It seems to be going too fast. He realizes the bus is going to hit the man.
The man sees the bus, knows it may hit him, but the hunger is too great. He crawls closer to Jayden. The bus strikes him at the waist and he feels the tires roll over his body, first the front tire, then the double rear wheels. Strange, it doesn’t hurt as he expected. The air brakes hiss, the door opens, and the driver yells to the kid, “Get in.” Jayden breaks his paralysis, jumps to his feet, and climbs into the bus.
“That man, he, he…” “I know son. Sit down.” He glances into the rear view mirror. The man, who should be smeared like grape jelly on the road, is standing behind the bus. He can see him through the rear emergency door. He grabs the gearshift, throws the bus into reverse, and stomps the accelerator. The bus lurches backward. Jayden is thrown to the floor. The man stands and peers into the bus. He can see the boy and the bus driver. The hunger. He needs to get them. He turns his body to the right, moving toward the open door. Engine roaring, the bus moves backward. Knocking him down, the rear wheels roll over his head, turning everything to black. The hunger is gone. Everything is gone. He is at peace.
A.T. Pence was born in Kentucky, grew up in Southern California, and currently resides in Texas. He is an army veteran, retired police officer, and police advisor in Afghanistan. He has published two short stories in online literary journals. A.T. lives in Central Texas with his wife, son, two dogs, and a herd of deer. His interest in writing horror fiction, strange as it sounds, began during his career as a 5th grade reading teacher.