“Dick Clark did it better,” David muttered at the TV from the comfort of his recliner. Glancing down at his socks, he tried again to wriggle his toes; they moved, but he couldn’t feel them. That was probably a bad sign. Not that he really cared any longer. Live alone, die alone, that had evolved into his mantra. Some people thought it was sad and he pitied them for it. As far as he was concerned, the only people who hungered for relationships were those who needed others to define their self-worth. David knew his worth, he didn't need anyone to define it for him.
Turning to the dog curled up on the couch next to his recliner, he asked, “Bunkers, who thought it was a good idea to put this Seacrest guy on the New Year's show? He stinks.” The dog stared at him through glass eyes. His tail no longer wagged when David talked to him, but his presence was enough.
The stove dinged.
Pushing his footrest down and scooting forward as best he could—rocking the chair left and right as he did so—David took a deep breath and pushed his bulk up to stand. It wasn't easy, and he had to catch himself from pitching forward as his weight shifted. “You know, Bunkers, I think Dr. Tammy might be right.” At his last appointment, she’d stood in front of him and firmly explained that if he didn't do something about his weight, this would likely be his last New Year. It was nice that she cared, and he'd acknowledged her concerns claiming to have a plan. He didn't, but that was something you said when you wanted people to butt out of your business. If he didn't need to keep seeing her to get his medicine, he would have stopped going long ago.
Waddling into the kitchen, he picked up the mitt from the counter and opened the stove, pulling out the cookie sheet filled with churros dripping with various types of filling. “Ooh, this is going to be good,” he called over to Bunkers, “they have a new flavor this year, I bet you would have liked it.” Yes, he still talked to Bunkers; as he had explained to his sister, he knew that the dog was dead, he wasn't crazy. Besides, it wasn't like Bunkers actually understood anything he'd said when he was still alive, what difference did it make if he continued to talk to him now. It wasn't like the dog could understand him less.
It had been nearly six months ago that Bunkers died; Jill had visited him the day he brought him home from the taxidermist. She didn’t understand. She never understood. Like always, they'd argued about his weight and his diabetes, she'd expressed her concerns about him living alone. The way they’d left things it was unlikely he’d see her again anytime soon. Maybe ever.
Jill was a health nut. She spent her life in the gym and fed her husband and child tree bark and weeds. It was no kind of life, missing out on all the phenomenal tastes and smells that the world had to offer. And it wasn't like he didn't try to lose weight. It was something he'd struggled with for most of his life. As he'd explained to her, at some point the struggle just isn't worth it any longer, and he’d been at that point for a while now.
Ever since Mary.
Shaking the thought away, he pulled a fork out of the drawer and cut off the end of the churro, blowing on it before putting it into his mouth. “Ow-wow,” he exclaimed around the sweet treat, doing his best to chew through the pain. “This is hot, but it tastes so good.” Sliding the group of them onto his plate, David started back for his recliner and the crappy New Year’s Eve show.
* * *
In the middle of eating the churros and complaining about the show to Bunkers, David had fallen asleep. The plate was askew on his leg, dripping filling onto the arm of his recliner. The plate might have worked its way far enough over to fall onto the floor, had he not been disturbed by the scratching at the window.
Waking, with a start, his hands grabbed at the recliner’s arms, inadvertently smashing the remaining churros, but catching the plate. “Who's there!” he shouted at the living room window, his deep baritone voice booming in the small living room. With an apologetic look, he glanced over at the stuffed dog; Bunkers used to shake anytime he raised his voice.
The scratching happened again at the other window. “Goddammit!” Pulling the flashlight off the second shelf of the end table, he turned it on and shined it at the window. “Go away!” For a moment he saw something there, something small. Probably a squirrel. They could be annoying but were mostly harmless, and there were lots of them around. Hopefully it wasn't a raccoon; they could be destructive. Maybe it was a cat; there were a few that wandered the neighborhood. You’d think that they’d keep the squirrel population in check. Lazy cats.
He turned off the flashlight and set it down. “I don't understand why everyone can't just leave me alone, Bunkers. I don't bother anyone.” Lifting his hand off the plate, he started licking it clean of the crushed churros. For the past three years, he'd been working from home; it didn't really matter from where he wrote and edited the technical manuals. Commuting to work, where he would have to deal with people and they're judgmental looks, was a waste of time. His sister had been right that working from home would rob him of some much-needed activity, but he'd told her that he had a plan, going so far as to write up a walking schedule he had no intention of following. It sucked whenever he had to admit that she was right about anything, and he'd never do it to her face.
“I never thought of mixing all the churros together, Bunkers,” he explained, swirling them around with his finger and then using a chunk of pastry to scoop the mixture into his mouth. “This is even better than eating them hot.” It was always great to find new ways to enjoy the things he loved.
Something set off the porch sensor, turning on the light, and causing his mobile phone chirp. Picking it up, he accessed the doorbell camera app, smearing churro filling across the screen. With a sigh, he wiped it across his shirt to clean it and searched the image. There was no one there. Gazing at the screen, he marveled at how much he could do without ever having to get out of his recliner.
A figure caught his eye as he was about to set the device down. Using his fingers, he zoomed the camera down towards the step. There was a small statue on his front walk, right at the edge of the light. “What the hell?” He glanced over at Bunkers. "Someone’s messing with me, I’ll teach them.”
* * *
David was already standing at the open door when the cruiser rolled up. When the patrol officer got out of his car and started up the brick path, he shouted, “Eleven minutes. Do you have any idea what a burglar could have done to me in eleven minutes?”
Relatively new to Coal Ridge, Officer Greg Rogers had sought out this job in this place because he wanted his daughter to go to a small school in a close-knit community. Having grown up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania as the son of the local police chief, he knew a lot about small towns, personally and professionally. He could count on making good friends, gossiping neighbors, and a lot of busy work. Between the folks who used emergency services like a party-line and those who reported things that were innocuous or not there—especially over the past few months—he was always on the move. It was good because it made time go fast, some of the people were challenging though. “My apologies, sir. New Year's Eve tends to be busy for us.”
A snorted harrumph fell out of David's mouth. “That's not very comforting to the hard-working people who pay your salary.”
That was perhaps the most obnoxious thing anyone could say to him, and as usual it came from a self-righteous townie who could probably trace his Coal Ridge lineage back multiple generations. People like David Givens made his job hard, but his little girl was worth it. “My apologies sir. The dispatcher said there were vandals? Could you show me what they did?”
“I never said vandals,” the large man replied. Up close Greg could see him holding onto the doorframe, with sweat beading on his forehead; for as cold as it was outside that was saying something. “I said that someone was harassing me. Probably more than one someone.”
“Did you see them?” Greg was the largest man on the force, almost a full head taller than anyone else, with the thick frame of an NFL linebacker, but he felt small next to this man. Givens was so large from the shoulders down that he completely blocked the doorway; it was distracting.
“No. But I don't think I'm the only one they're harassing. I think they may be stealing lawn ornaments. I have video of one of them at the edge of my security light.”
“One of the vandals?”
“No, one of the lawn ornaments. A statue I think.” The man started to pull one of those tablet phones out of from pocket and repeated, “Also, I never said vandals.” Working the screen with his big fingers, he turned it and showed a still of something in the shadows on the front path.
The resolution was good, but the screen was badly streaked with chunks of some type of food around the edges. Suppressing his revulsion, Greg did his best to focus on the image. It looked like a statue of a small dog, maybe a pug, most certainly something with short hair. He glanced over at the doorbell camera; it was an older model that looked a little weather worn. “Is there more to this, a video maybe?”
“Nothing that's useful,” David replied, pulling the tablet back. “Makes me wish I'd spent the extra on the one with the night vision though.”
“Well let me do a perimeter search.” Something about that image bothered him. “Is that one of your lawn ornaments?”
“I wouldn't waste my money on anything that cheesy,” the big man scoffed.
Doing his best not to roll his eyes, Officer Rogers nodded and started around the house. As he expected and to his relief, the big man didn't follow. Sweeping his flashlight along the ground, his feet crunching through patches of snow, nothing seemed immediately suspicious. It was a single-story house, maybe six rooms total. The landscaping was minimal but neat, likely from a service. Where there was snow, he saw plenty of small animal tracks, but nothing larger. Certainly, if someone were harassing the big man, they would try to avoid leaving tracks, but even with the recent melt, there was enough snow to make that difficult at best.
Making his way back around front without seeing anything, he shined the flashlight at the front shrubs and stopped. Both front window screens were torn along one edge; for as neat as everything else had seemed outside, that was suspicious. Stepping into the shrubbery to check it out, the big man shouted, “Be careful in there, each of those shrubs cost as much as you make in a week.” Having just purchased shrubs in the fall when they went on sale, Greg imagined that was true, but the way the idiot in the doorway said it made him want to put his taser to good use.
Having great difficulty caring, he called out, “Did you know your screens here are torn?”
“What?” Holding onto the doorframe, David leaned out as far as he could, without moving his feet. “I just had those restrung in the spring.”
Rolling his eyes, Greg stepped a little closer, intending to make it look as if he were thoroughly investigating the scene. There were small animal tracks in the snow on the sill. “It looks like a squirrel or cat probably did it.” Something about the tracks looked odd.
“No. Not possible,” the big man stated. “I bought the pet resistant netting. The guy told me it would hold up against a twenty-five-pound dog. There's no way a squirrel or cat could tear through it.”
“Sir, resistant doesn't mean—”
The radio on his shoulder squawked. “Delta-Nine, we have a ten-sixty-six at the corner of Shannen and Buckeye. Please respond.”
“Got it Margie. Delta-Nine in route.” He turned to the big man in the door, who somehow managed to stay upright after letting go of the doorframe and crossing his arms at his chest. “Sir, I don't see any evidence of trespassers, but—”
“No evidence? What about my screen?”
“We'll schedule some ride throughs in this neighborhood,” Greg continued. “In the meantime, if you feel threatened, please keep your doors and windows locked and give us a call.”
“That's the best you can offer? Hide in my house? Gee thanks officer, I feel safer already.” without saying anything more, David stepped back into the house and slammed the door.
When he got back to his car, Greg turned and looked at the front windows. From where he was, he couldn't even see the tears in the screens, but something was bothering him. Another squawk from the radio distracted him enough to get him going.
* * *
“Useless public servants,” David mumbled to himself, digging through the hall closet. He didn't find what he was looking for but did find an old hockey stick his brother-in-law had left behind several years ago. “You see this Bunkers,” he said, holding up the stick; he’d meant to throw it away and wasn’t sure how it ended up in the closet. “What kind of barbaric game requires the use of a weapon.” He swung it a few times; it was awkward, but he felt better with its weight in his hands.
“I guess this will do for now,” he continued, sitting back down in his recliner to catch his breath. He should keep looking for the lockbox. Thinking about it, he was pretty sure that it was under his bed, but that seemed like a lot of effort when the hockey stick would probably be good enough if someone were to come around again.
He had just picked up the remote to unmute the sound when he heard something scratching at the front door.
“Can you believe this, Bunkers? That cop just left and they're already back.” Rocking the recliner from side to side as he pushed himself up, he grabbed the hockey stick and grumbled his way to the door. Ripping it open, he held up the hockey stick and shouted, “Keep bothering me and I'll cave in your skull!”
There was no one there.
Feeling something brush his leg, he stepped back and looked down, seeing two small statues on his porch. When he realized they were pigs, David's mouth turned up in a snarl and his face took on a deep crimson hue. Turning the stick to use it as intended, he swept the statues off his porch and into the front lawn, and then slammed the door.
When he turned, there were tears in his eyes. “Rude little bastards,” he mumbled, dropping the hockey stick and shuffling over to his recliner. Wiping the tears away, he asked, “Why can't they just leave me alone, Bunkers?”
The dog stared at him with glass eyes.
In his mind, Bunkers was wagging his tail. For the moment, that was enough.
When the scratching resumed at his door, David didn't go back for the hockey stick, nor did he bother with the doorbell camera. He picked up the phone and dialed.
* * *
There was no one wandering around outside the Red Check gas station and convenience store at the corner of Shannen and Buckeye. Whatever suspicious character had been reported, the clerk knew nothing about it or at least pretended like he knew nothing. The way he was staring down at his phone, it was probably the former. Another of those innocuous calls, which was just fine for Greg. Thinking about David Givens filling his doorway, he resisted the urge to buy snacks and hoped that the rest of his shift would go by quickly, so he could get home to his wife and daughter.
“Delta-Nine?” the radio on his shoulder squawked as he headed back for the cruiser.
“Yeah Margie, negative on that ten-sixty-six,” he replied. “If there was someone here, they’re long gone. I’ll circle the area before continuing the patrol route.”
“Sorry Greg, we got another 911 from Givens.”
Officer Rogers hung his head. “Acknowledged.” People like David Givens made his job so much more difficult.
* * *
When the scratching at the door turned to banging, David nearly went to it, but decided that he'd wanted to be armed with something more than a hockey stick. “They're messing with me, Bunkers,” he mumbled while down on his knees, struggling to reach under the bed. He didn't usually talk to Bunkers anywhere but the living room, mostly because the dog didn't follow him around anymore and it seemed crazy to talk to something that wasn't there, but he was upset and a little scared, and it made him feel better to talk. “They're trying to draw me outside for some reason, but I'll show them. When I find—aha!”
With one hand he began to pull the lockbox out from under the bed. Nicking a finger on something sharp under there, David grunted in pain as it slid into the light. Blood streamed from the finger; the sight of it normally didn't leave him squeamish, but he felt heat rising to his already sweating head as he stared at it. A crescent shaped chunk had been gouged out of his finger, he could see pulsating red meat.
A slew of curses fell out of his mouth as he set the safe on the bed and used both arms to slowly push himself to his feet. Sweat dripped off his face and blood flowed from his finger, spreading onto the comforter. Rage was building in his mind. His plan was to scare them with the gun, but they deserved more. “They're trespassing on my property Bunkers. I have a right to defend myself,” he justified.
Wrapping his finger in the edge of the comforter to slow the bleeding, he punched in the combination of the safe. When the lid popped open, David’s eyes went wide, and he took a step back. “Mary,” the mumbled named fell out of his mouth. This was where he put that picture instead of throwing it away, which is what he should have done. The gun was beneath it, but he regarded the picture like a poisonous snake that he had no intention of touching.
He stared at her smile. The way they had parted came back to him all at once. The unfounded accusation. The harsh words. It still hurt.
“Well Bunkers, maybe I’ll just leave the gun in there and wait for the police,” he muttered, shutting the lid and taking a good look at his finger. He tried to imagine what he could have scraped it on under the bed that would have left a crescent shaped wound. The flesh looked like it had been scooped out, almost like a bite, but that was ridiculous. “I pay a lot of money to make sure I don't get vermin, it better not be a goddamn bite.”
He should get back down on his knees and look under the bed to see if something were there, but that seemed like an awful lot of effort. Instead he started for the bathroom, feeling a little light-headed and leaving bloody footprints as he walked.
* * *
Greg pulled up outside the house and took a deep breath before getting out of the cruiser. He was a little surprised to see that the big man wasn't standing in the doorway with his stop watch, but what he saw have him pause. All the inside lights were on; earlier it had only been the living room and kitchen lights. It might be nothing, but when someone gets scared their first response is usually to turn on all the lights.
“Hey Margie,” he said into the radio on his shoulder, “this is Delta-Nine, I'm at the Givens place. It’s probably nothing, but something doesn't feel right, I'm going in to investigate.” Over the past several months Chief Carabelli had drilled the small force continually on call-ins, at first because Halloween brought out the pranksters and weirdos, but with the recent rash of strange reports, missing persons, and the couple of bodies that had turned up, call-ins seemed prudent.
With everything happening, Greg had been feeling like the Chief was hiding something and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that, so he'd made a phone call. He's almost certainly hiding something, his Dad had told him, a good Chief has to know when to share, and more importantly, when not to share. You have to trust that he's going to give you the information you need when you need it, and if he doesn't, you hope everything goes right and then find somewhere else to work. As usual his Dad made sense, and to this point he liked working for Chief Carabelli, so he chose to trust him. But for his wife and daughter, he would be cautious.
Starting up the path, he flashed the light around looking for footprints. Recognizing his own from earlier, it looked like there were more small animal tracks and something new; a blood trail ran around the edge of the house. Leaving the path to have a look, he found bits of fur and part of a squirrel’s tail. Where he expected to see the soft paw prints of a cat or long fingered tracks of a raccoon, he saw those same odd tracks that he'd seen on the window sill. Looking closer, he noted that there were no contours, no pads, just round flat indentions in the snow.
“What the hell?” he mumbled to himself. Something in the shrubbery behind him moved. Greg was up with his hand on the grip of his pistol in a flash. His light swept across the shrubbery without revealing anything. He took a step forward to get a closer look. His wife’s voice played in his mind, warning him that the people who died in horror movies were the ones who stuck their faces in first. When he'd reminded her that it was his job to investigate, she'd laughed and told him that's why so many horror movies started with cops dying. She wasn't as funny as she thought she was.
The shrubs over by the living room windows rustled. “Stop!” he commanded, rushing over there, his hand still on the gun at his hip. He didn't want to draw it in case it was kids playing around; the last thing he wanted to be was that guy caught on cell phone video with his service revolver pulled on a kid. Again, the light didn't show anything.
Squatting down, he pointed the flashlight at the base of the shrubs. There were four—no five, small plastic pigs lined up along the edge of the house. “What the fu—”
* * *
David looked in the mirror. There were dark bags under his eyes that hadn't been there earlier. He idly wondered if he were having a heart attack, but his chest didn't feel heavy and he wasn't having trouble breathing, at least not beyond the recent effort of searching for the lockbox. He'd finished washing out the wound, added a glop of antibiotic cream, and bandaged it, but was still feeling foggy.
“Bunkers, I think my blood sugars are off. We better test that.” He seemed to be talking to his dog more than was usual; that concerned him a little. While he didn't really care if people thought he was a bit crazy, since it generally kept them away, he didn't want to actually go crazy. That sounded awful.
A giggle slipped past his lips, but he wasn't sure why. He watched as his reflection slapped itself hard enough that his jowls rocked back and forth. The pain was there but dulled. Being certain not to invoke his dog's name, he muttered, “This is not good.”
He kept a blood sugar tester in the bathroom but had never refilled the test strips. Turning to head back to the bedroom, he noticed the bloody footprints on the floor. Glancing at the bandaged wound on his finger, his brow furled. There's no way this could have bled that much.
A horrifying thought struck him.
It had been a long while since David had last seen his feet while standing. Worried about the effects of diabetes, he used to inspect them while sitting in his chair until the black blotches started showing up. That was back when he cared. Wearing socks all the time was a big help in his overall denial. Leaning forward was not enough to allow him to see his feet, and he knew from experience that leaning too far forward would send him to the floor. Stepping back, he eased himself down onto the toilet and put his right foot up on the bathtub.
The white sock was dripping red, with several of those crescent shaped wounds where the fabric was torn away.
“No.” The thought that whatever had bitten his finger was eating his feet filled him with revulsion. “Oh-no-oh-no-oh-no.” In addition to the fog over his mind, an unpleasant warmth filled his face, and he saw darkness gathering at the corners of his eyes. Using the sink and wall to steady himself, he struggled to breath and might have passed out, but something caught the corner of his eye. When he turned, he saw a plastic pig sitting on the floor staring at him; behind it was Bunkers.
Stuffing had been torn out of the dog in several places and one of the glass eyes was lying on the floor.
“Mother fucker!” That fear and revulsion turned to rage. With his face twisted in a scowl, David used both arms to push himself up. The pig looked a little closer. He stomped towards it and kicked out with his left foot. The pig rolled down the hall and landed on its feet, with a piece of his sock in its mouth. When he tried to step towards it, intent on stomping down, he had trouble balancing himself. That was when he realized that in addition to the bloodied tatter of sock, one of his toes was hanging out of its mouth, and he hadn't felt a thing.
Using the wall for balance, he lumbered into his bedroom and pitched forward, catching himself on the bedframe, which creaked as the wood flexed. Reaching out, he grabbed the lockbox in one meaty hand and poured the contents out onto the bed. As he picked up the gun, the picture of Mary fell away and floated to the floor. When he turned, the plastic pig was standing in the doorway looking up at him.
“Fuck you!” David exclaimed and pulled the trigger.
* * *
Greg jumped back and immediately grabbed the radio on his shoulder. “Margie, this is Delta-Nine, shots fired at location. I'm going in.”
With porch lights coming on and doors beginning to open around the neighborhood, Greg ran to the door and banged on it. “Mr. Givens. This is Coal Rid--” he ducked as several more shots rang out. After checking to see if the door was locked, his first kick did nothing but cause his teeth to clatter. The second kick cracked the frame. He moved inside after the third slammed it open, staying low with his gun up, but without his finger on the trigger. The last thing he wanted to do was accidentally shoot someone he was there to protect.
“David?” he shouted, noting that the air was thick with the odor of some type of sweet pastry. There was an oversized recliner, a couch, and a couple of end tables in the living room, along with a big ass TV playing New Year's Eve show. A cookie sheet sat on the stove and the sink was full of washed dishes. “Mr. Givens?”
Greg turned down the hallway; the big man was standing at the opposite end with a gun in his hand, its barrel pointed right at him.
For the Coal Ridge police officer, time slowed. He looked into the other man's eyes; there were thick bags there that he hadn’t noticed before. Sweat dripped down the man's face, which was drawn tight in a scowl. His arms were shaking, causing the barrel to sway. “Mr. Givens,” he commanded, keeping his tone even, “lower the gun.”
As the gun began to drop, Greg felt the pressure in his shoulders begin to relax. “What's going—”
David's gun snapped back up and he fired. Greg fired back. Something exploded near Greg's shoulder; debris struck him in the face. The other man's eyes went wide as blood began to pool through the hole in his shirt, and he fell backwards against the wall, sliding to the floor.
Rushing forward, Greg kicked the gun away and reached for the radio on his shoulder, certain that it had been destroyed. His fingers closed around the microphone. “Margie, eleven-um. Shit! I need an ambulance to location now! Forty-year-old man. Gunshot wound to the chest.” To the big man he said. “Hold on, help will be here soon.”
A giggle slipped out of David's mouth, the spittle that accompanied it was pink. “It was my last bullet, but I got it.”
Putting pressure on the gunshot wound, Greg turned and looked. There were shards of plastic on the floor and part if what looked like a pig's head. An image of the plastic pigs lined up along the house flashed through his mind, but he shook the thought away. His bullet had struck the big man in the upper right torso; so long as he didn't bleed out or have a heart attack, it should be survivable.
The sound of approaching sirens filled the night.
* * *
Minutes after the ambulance left and the police cars drove away, Bobby and his sister Bea snuck around the corner of the house. He was carrying a reinforced dog crate and she a pair of long metal tongs.
“Are you sure they came here?” Bea asked. There was a shiver in her voice.
The teenage boy nodded. “I overheard them talking, Mr. Rogers said that Fat Givens shot a plastic pig. It had to be one of ours.”
“Don't call him that, Bobby. It's not nice.”
“Grow up Bea.” He ducked down to look under the shrubbery in the front of the house. “If Mom finds out they got out, we're going to Bea grounded forever.”
The girl rolled her eyes, and then got up on her toes to look in the window. “You're the one who let them out—hey they're inside,” she whispered, “I see them.” She ducked back down. “I think one of them saw me.” Moving to the door, Bobby pushed it open and stepped carefully around the police tape to enter. Bea stood at the threshold. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”
“Do you want them to go around killing people?” he asked, anger flashing on his face. “Do you want that on your conscious? I sure don't.”
“They’re just standing there, this is weird. Maybe we should call Mom,” she said, reaching for the phone in her back pocket.
“No! We got this. Give me the damn tongs.”
* * *
It was a bit of a chase, but the two kids collected the five pigs without incident, picking up the pieces of the shattered one, just in case. As they left, being sure to close the door and replace the police tape, a shadow slithered down the hallway floor.
Minutes later, Bunker's tail slowly began to wag.