The Sky So Strange/Chapter One

     Rose Wyatt, wrist-deep in pine-shavings, raised her head. What was that? A strange noise, something not normal, had caught her attention. She shook her hands free of the hamster bedding, sending the furry little creatures into a squeaking panic. “Shh!” she whispered. The dwarf hamsters, half-price this week only, paid her no attention.

     Rose took a couple of quiet steps away from the small-pet section, head tilted, listening for that strange sound again. It wasn’t thunder, for a change. All afternoon the skies had been grumbling, the outside light that filtered through the sign-plastered windows slowly darkening. A little rain would be nice, she thought. It had been a brutally hot summer, day after dry day. The clouds had been a welcome sign; so far, though, no rain. Wait til I get home, please – I don’t want to bike in the rain.

     There it was again. Rose hovered near a display of dog biscuits. The sound was coming from two or three aisles over. She concentrated. There was a muffled squeak, and then a – squish? squelch? – wet-sounding sound, and then a thump. Suddenly, goosebumps raced up her arms and she shivered. It came to her that she was alone in the small store, and that noise could be…well, anything.

     Rudy had left the moment she came in for her shift. “Boss is out this afternoon, and Ty called in sick!” the young man had shouted as he slammed through the door. Great. Not that Rose expected it to be busy today. It hadn’t been busy at the Critter Cupboard for some time now. Rose liked the job but she had started looking for something else. As much as Henry Stein, the owner/manager/boss, swore that business would pick up, it was obvious that this small, cramped, old-looking store was on the way out. The big chains were cleaning their clock.

     The sounds had picked up a steady rhythm now. Squeak, squish, thump, squeak, squish, thump.A cartoon dog stared mournfully at her from a box, pleading to be given a compressed block of bone meal and chicken bits and who knew what else. Really, Rose, knock it off! You’re in charge of the store. It’s probably just a leak from a pipe, or one of the aquarium filters going all wonky. She straightened, tugged on her t-shirt, and headed briskly for the sound. On her way she grabbed a box of dog biscuits. Just in case.

     Rose rounded the corner of an aisle that held the fish supplies, and came to a dead stop so hard her sneakers squeaked on the linoleum floor. Halfway down the aisle was a tank of green tree frogs Harry had just gotten in a couple of days ago. Standing in front of the tank was a big, round, man, bald and pale-skinned. He was wearing a dirty wife-beater and stained jeans. He was barefoot. There was a small pile of dead frogs at his feet.

     As Rose, frozen, watched, the man reached into the tank and grabbed another frog. He raised the struggling thing to his face, seeming to study it like a scientist studies new life forms, and then his meaty hand tightened on the frog. The frog squeaked and kicked. The man’s fist squeezed. The frog split open like an overcooked hot dog, frog guts spilling from the man’s hand. He dropped it and reached in for another.

     “Hey.” Rose said, and then cleared her throat, shook off her astonishment, and tried again. “Hey! You! What the hell are you doing?” The big man ignored her. Another dead frog joined the growing pile at his feet. Rose’s stomach churned and a welcome fire of anger kindled in her chest. She pulled her arm back and chucked the box of dog biscuits as hard as she could. “Take that, mother-fucker!” she shouted. The box bounced off the man’s head, bursting open in a rain of heart-shaped treats. He turned to look at her, and Rose flinched back in an automatic, animalistic response to danger.

     The man’s eyes were so deeply blood-shot they looked like cherries. Red tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, dripping down his jowly face and joining the blood that ran from his nose. His chest was mottled with bruises, blue-purple splotches that spread across his shoulders and arms. He stared at Rose, his expression as blank as a brick wall.

     Shit. Froggy there must have been in an accident or something. Brain trauma. No excuse to go killing frogs, though. Pushing down the urge to run away, Rose raised one hand, palm outward, and fumbled in her shorts for her phone. “Sir, I’m gonna call and get some help for you, ok? Just, you know, just stop doing that to the frogs.” Phone found, she looked away for a spare moment to thumb 911.

     A busy signal pulsed in her ear. Rose, dumbfounded, looked back at the man. Can you believe this shit? she started to say, but her words lodged in her throat, hard and angled and trapping her breath there too. The big man’s lips peeled slowly away from his teeth, and he grinned a bloody grin at Rose. Then he charged.

     Any other moment than this Rose might have laughed. Might have giggled and snapped a pic to shoot to her friends. Froggy didn’t look like he’d been winning any track events on his best day, and now? Now it should have been hilarious, this big, flabby man lumbering toward her.

     Any other moment than this.

     Froggy snorted like a bull as he heaved his bulk down the aisle. Bloody spray from his nose spattered the fish food containers and the replacement filters. His bare feet slapped the linoleum and his frog-gut-smeared hands pawed at the air in wide, swooping loops. The man didn’t say a word, didn’t scream or mutter or do anything more than grunt with exertion, but his red teeth shone in a rictus.

     Rose shrieked and back-pedaled. Her brain was still processing what was happening, stray neurons wondering mildly if this was some strange prank of Rudy’s or Harry’s, but her body knew what to do. She jerked around and ran.

     Unfortunately, the fight-or-get-the-fuck-out-of-here response of her nervous system wasn’t talking to her brain. Rose turned right at the end of the aisle instead of left. Right, toward the cramped interior of the store, instead of left, toward the front door.

     “Shit!” Rose screamed. There was no question of turning back; the sound of Froggy’s feet was growing louder by the second. She ran forward then, pelting down the small corridor and swinging right again at the hamster aisle. I can outrun Froggy. Easy. Get to the storeroom, then out the back door and grab the first cop I see. She had a plan, now, and allowed herself a surge of hope.

     Her feet tangled and she fell.

     “Oof!” All the breath in her lungs escaped in one jolt. Her forehead smacked the floor and bright pain blossomed behind her eyes. It was joined by pain in her knees, pain in her hands. Sharper than the pain was the knife-point of fear that stabbed Rose with every resounding slap of Froggy’s feet. He was still coming after her.

     Air whistled through her teeth as she hooked her hands around the edge of the shelving racks to the left and pulled. Her body slid along the linoleum. She swung around the short end of the aisle, past the endcap display of plastic playthings for small rodents, and down the other side from where she had just been.

     Then Rose stopped.

     She needed a moment to catch her breath, to get her body back under her control. Sweat was running down her face to drop in fat red spots on the floor – red? She touched her forehead and brought back bloody fingers.

     Heavy panting, deep and phlegmy, from the other side of the aisle. Rose stilled. Peering through gaps in the displays of hamster food and hamster bedding, she watched the bare, dirty feet of Froggy move down the aisle. Gone was the wild lunging run he’d taken at her. His steps were slow, halting. Is he hurt? Did he hurt himself chasing me? Or…did he lose me? Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, if he can’t see me he forgets about me?

     Froggy stopped in front of the hamster cages, and Rose’s stomach clenched. She could hear the hamsters scurrying, and with a sick feeling she remembered she’d left the cage top ajar. Froggy turned toward the cage. Pine shaving rustled, and then a high squeaky squeal rang in Rose’s ears. The noise climbed higher and then suddenly stopped. With a wet thump a crushed furry little body landed on the floor.

            You bastard! Sure, maybe she was being hypocritical, but frogs were slimy and gross. Hamsters were adorable. Rose shot to her feet, ignoring the pain aching in various parts of her body, and slammed her hands on the metal shelving. “Hey!” she shouted.

     Froggy grunted.

     She shoved plastic water bottles and salt wheels off the racks. They clattered off the linoleum, and in the cleared space she saw Froggy swing his bloody face around to look at her. He’d looked bad before, but now blood ran freely from his eyes and nose, and the bruising had spread over every part of his body she could see.

            He snorted, crimson mucus flying in ropes from his nose, and stared at her.

            Rose moved down her side of the aisle, keeping the shelving between herself and Froggy. The big man followed, snuffling and panting. She looked ahead; the end of her aisle was getting closer. Now what, smartass? Try and outrun him again? That seemed like her best bet; if nothing else maybe she could lead Froggy away from the hamsters.

            Pain sank sharp teeth into her scalp. Rose gasped and jerked back, to find that Froggy had reached through the shelving and grabbed a hank of her long hair. “Let go! Let go, damn it!” she screamed, leaning away as much as the pain from her head would allow. Froggy snorted and huffed, pulling Rose’s head slowly forward. She screamed again, a sound of fear and fury. The metal shelves were getting closer, and an abrupt and eerily clear image of her body being forced through the thin bars like so much hamburger bloomed in her mind.

            Rose slammed her hands on the shelves, locking her elbows and trying once again to break free of the crazy man’s grip. There was a terrifying moment where she could actually feel her scalp rising as if to spring free of her skull. A scratchy grating noise that she at first took for her hair tearing off wrenched another scream from her. Then Rose felt the racks move a little beneath her palms, and a desperate idea came to her.

     A half-formed thought ran through her head – fuck this is gonna hurt – and Rose pushed at the metal shelving with all her fear-fueled might. The shelf, a stack of wire racks just a hair taller than her own five foot ten, wobbled for a moment. The weight of assorted pet supplies kept the shelf upright. She shoved again at the same time that Froggy took a good, hard pull on her hair. Rose, knocked off-balance, staggered against the shelving, and that was enough force.

     The whole contraption, the shelf in front of Rose and the three others that attached to it and made up the rest of the aisle, tipped forward. Whatever the hell else was going on with Froggy enough sense remained for the man to realize he was in trouble. His hand released its grip on Rose’s hair and reached up to stop the shelving. Rose, screaming without knowing it, threw her whole weight forward and sent the shelving and all its products crashing down on Froggy.

     The big man hit the floor with a loud exhalation of breath and a mess of small rodent accessories, the shelving pinning him down. His large, round body bucked once, and then lay still.

     Rose didn’t waste any time. She pushed herself away from the fallen shelves, reversing until she felt more shelves at her back. The adrenaline that had been fueling her for the last few minutes dissipated in a rush, and it took all she had not to drop to her knees. “Holy shit,” she whispered.

     The smash of thunder outside, a great booming assault that seemed to last forever, sparked her back into action. This was no time to stand around aimlessly – she needed to get out of this damn pet store and get some help. Rose looked at the big man’s body, trapped beneath the tipped shelving, and allowed herself a small smile. And if Froggy gets a little squished, so much the better. She stepped up on the shelving and trotted forward, balancing automatically against the roll and sway of the metal beneath her feet.

     And then, like a bad dream that she couldn’t wake up from, Froggy’s red-clotted eyes snapped open as Rose passed over him. Looking down into those feral eyes Rose felt fear clench hard at her stomach. One hand shot up through the shelves and wrapped around her right ankle. “Oh, God damn it, just die!” she shouted, trying to tug her foot free.

     Froggy bared crimson teeth. His grip tightened around her ankle and she had a flash of him killing the frogs with that grip. “Let go, you bastard, let go!” She pulled away harder. Her other foot slipped on metal and she fell. The shelving dug into her chest, her stomach, her neck, and she screamed again, a breathless little grasp. Pain shot through her ankle as Froggy’s hand clenched harder and harder, and she thought she heard the bones creak.

     I am not going to die on the dirty floor of this damn pet store! Rose, shoving the agony in her leg aside for a moment, ran her gaze with growing desperation around her. The top of the tipped-over shelving unit ran under her neck. Lying on the floor just above it was a ceramic castle, as big as her hand, intended for some lucky fish’s tank. Overstock, she remembered, stored on top of the shelf across the aisle, knocked down whole and unbroken. And, she also remembered, it was very heavy.

     Rose reached for the white castle. It was just beyond the tips of her fingers. Her ankle, tired of being ignored, screamed at her and she screamed back. Froggy heaved beneath her and she slid forward a little more. A new pain joined the creak of bone in her leg, something that felt like sharp little blades peeling the skin away. Her mind kicked over into blind fear and sheer animal panic, and she stretched her body as far as she could.

     Her fingertips grazed over cool ceramic. She hooked a finger into a castle window and pulled it closer until she could wrap her hand around it. It was as heavy as she remembered.

     With a wild shout of exertion Rose swung the castle over and slammed it down into Froggy’s bloated face. A sharp turret punctured an eye with an audible pop and watery blood geysered forth. Froggy roared, and Rose raised the castle up and brought it down again and again. The big man’s body thrashed and twisted as the heavy ceramic piece smashed against his sweat-and-blood-spattered forehead. On the fourth blow the castle shattered. Rose held onto the biggest chunk and kept hitting Froggy until finally his movements stopped and his hand slipped free from her ankle.

     Only now did Rose realize she was screaming. Her throat ached as her voice trailed off. She was bent forward at the waist, and her hand and the chunk of ceramic rested on Froggy’s face. She looked at what she had done, and her stomach turned over. Bile surged into her mouth and she turned away and vomited. When the last of her tomato-soup-and-cracker lunch had come up she pulled herself away from the dead man.

     Sitting on the linoleum, surrounded by scattered hamster food and toys, Rose wrapped her arms around herself and fought back tears. Through watery eyes she surveyed the damage. She had worn a t-shirt and shorts to work today due to the heat, and that had had the unfortunate consequence of leaving more of her body open to being injured. The drip of blood from her forehead had slowed. Scrapes from the metal of the shelving racks dotted her arms and legs. Her ankle, the one that Froggy had attacked, was bruising already. Several long, shallow, gouges marked her ankle, thin strips of her own skin peeled away by Froggy’s fingernails. Or teeth. Her whole body was one big ache.

     I may look like shit, but Froggy looks a whole hell of a lot worse. At that thought Rose glanced over at the dead man. Froggy’s head was a bloody mess. Her blows with the heavy castle had shattered the bones of his face and skull. Pulpy meat, shards of bone, bits of gray matter – that was all that was left of his head. Rose jerked her gaze away and found herself looking at the expelled remains of her lunch. Kinda looks like Froggy’s head and Rose slammed her eyes shut, willing her mind to just shut up for one damn minute.

     A rolling blast of thunder overhead brought Rose back to her senses. You killed someone. Oh, fuck, you killed someone. It was self-defense, right? Rose nodded to herself as she slowly rose to her feet. “Self-defense. Right. Of course.” she whispered to the empty store. “Not a jury in the world will convict me.” But you didn’t just kill him, you smashed his head in. Who knew you were capable of that? “Shut up, shut up. I didn’t have any choice.” Didn’t you?

     No. Of that Rose was sure. Froggy was…well, Froggy was nuts. Brain injury from an accident, maybe, or high on drugs. Bad drugs. Sure. She started toward the store entrance, wincing and hissing at the pain that stabbed here or spiked there. Her ankle didn’t want to hold her weight, and she limped and lurched from side to side. “Just gonna get outside and call the cops. They’ll take care of everything.” Your phone – where’s your phone? She started to search her pockets, and discovered that she still held her phone in one hand.

     Leaning against a display of dog leashes Rose dialed 911. Just like before, all she got was a busy tone. She checked the signal strength; it was strong. “Come on, come on, please.” Rose said, tears running down her face. The steady burring beep thrummed in her ear. With a curse she hung up.

     Ok. It’s ok. Just get outside and get help. She shoved off from the display and moved toward the door, forcing her rebelling body to go faster. Thunder was almost constant now, and the little bit of sky Rose could see around the signs advertising dog and cat food on the windows and door was a dark and ominous gray. With an almost palpable feeling of relief she reached the entrance. The glass was cool beneath her hands, and she pushed the door open and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

     And found that the nightmare she had just gone through had followed her outside.

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