“Red Skies” by Jason M Tucker
August 04, 1961 – Stony Creek, New York
George Corey’s eyes snapped open. He stared up into the darkness and blinked a few times. For a moment, the boy wasn’t sure what had roused him. It hadn’t been a nightmare. At least not that he remembered.
He waited for his eyes to slowly adjust to the darkness. There was barely enough moonlight for him to make out the water stains on the ceiling. One of them reminded him of an owl staring back at him.
He started to fall back to sleep when he heard a whine and whimper from Blue, his dad’s hunting dog. He figured that whining must have been what woke him up before. It sounded like the hound was just outside his window and something was really riling her up but good. That wasn’t like Blue. She was tough and had treed plenty of bears in her day. She wasn’t afraid of anything. He was curious as to why she was so out of sorts.
George slipped out of bed and several of his new comics spilled out onto the floor after him. He’d forgotten he had been reading them before falling asleep. He walked across the wooden floor and flung open his window. The air that hit his face was surprisingly cool and filled with the sweet scent of the pine forest. It had been a hot day and the chill on his face and arms was refreshing. There was a stink, though. It was like rotten eggs.
He looked down and could see that Blue had pulled her chain taut. She was pressed right up against the side of the cabin, tail tucked under her. She didn’t look up at him, just kept whimpering.
His gaze lifted from the dog and he looked across the backyard, hoping he might be able to spot something. If Jimmy Apple was to be believed, there were big wolves prowling the outskirts of Stony Creek. He figured maybe wolves would have bugged Blue.
The full moon above made it easy to see across the backyard and even a few feet into the forest beyond. The world had that deep bluish-gray tint except for the deep shadows that seemed to crawl and slither through the tangled woods.
George had spent most of his ten years playing in those woods. He’d never been afraid before, not even at night. But this felt different. It felt like there was something out there. Like something was watching him.
He continued to scan the dark woods, a rising panic bubbling up in his stomach. Just trees and brush and shadow.
And then a thing that didn’t belong. Just at the edge of the yard, he saw impossibly long, spindly white fingers wrap around a thick hemlock trunk just as something started to peek out at him.
The world seemed to slow down then and several things happened all at once.
Blue began to bark as a great whirring, grinding sound filled the air. His father and mother began to shout and he could hear them coming toward his room yelling his name. They sounded strangely distant. Then, a bright red light filled the sky and the entirety of his room.
It was the last thing George remembered.
Two Days Later
“Hey, Winter, is it me, or do we always tend to get assigned cases in the rear end of nowhere?” Jack Mathias, tall and dark-skinned, stepped out of the passenger seat of my black ’61 Chevy Bel Air. He grabbed his fedora from the dash and placed it squarely on his shaved head.
“That’s the way it goes,” I said. “But that’s because you’re lucky enough to get partnered with me.”
“Fortune does bless me,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I’d been friends with the man for three years, but it was always hard to tell if he was being sarcastic.
Jack straightened his tie and smoothed his dark charcoal jacket and somehow looked like he hadn’t just spent the better part of the day in the car. Nothing ever looked out of place on Jack and few things flustered him, which was good for our line of work. His stint as a Navy corpsman during the Korean War probably helped with that.
By comparison to Jack, I looked decidedly rumpled. I had ditched my coat in the backseat somewhere around Albany when we had stopped for lunch. My sleeves were rolled up and I know I probably should’ve shaved before leaving my apartment that morning.
With my pale, lightly freckled face and slightly disheveled hair, I looked more like a deranged Howdy Doody than a government agent. After a quick look at my reflection, I grabbed my jacket from the back and stepped out into the late afternoon sun on a quiet street in the tiny hamlet of Stony Creek.
I looked out over the street in front of me. There were a couple of houses, a diner, a general store, and not much else. Calling it a town was generous. Even with the outlying areas, there might be four or five hundred people at most. It was nice, and the Adirondacks were beautiful. But rear end of nowhere was right.
The Warren County Sheriff’s office had told us they would send a deputy to meet us and then take us up to the site of the incident.
The deputy wasn’t hard to spot.
“Welcoming committee is here,” Jack whispered.
The deputy was something of a giant and was leaning against his patrol car, which looked like it could barely contain him when he had to get into it. He was even taller than Jack’s six feet by a good seven inches. Jack was built like a heavyweight boxer, though, whereas the deputy was built more like an underfed scarecrow that a good stiff wind might just bowl over.
He smiled and waved when he saw us. The deputy seemed friendly enough.
That wasn’t always the case. When incidents happened and people like Jack and I were called in to help, local authorities would sometimes take it as an affront to their authority. They really weren’t happy when they realized we were there to keep things quiet. The types of cases we investigated needed to be kept quiet. Sometimes, it took threats of violence to make that happen. It wasn’t something I relished, but there were times it was required.
“You’re them agents Sheriff Landers said was coming up? The ones from down in New York City? FBI or something?” He was already reaching out a hand toward Jack and me.
“We’re agents,” Jack said, smiling thinly and shaking the deputy’s hand. His voice was smooth and trustworthy. We were agents. That much was true. The agency we worked for didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, though.
“I could tell by the suits,” he said, grinning wide. “I’m Deputy Richie Sweetwater. “I really hope we can get to the bottom of all this mess and find them folk. They’re friends.”
“Good to meet you, Deputy,” I said, adjusting my sunglasses and smiling as best I could. “I’m Agent Nathan Winter and this my partner Agent Jack Mathias.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said. He gestured to his patrol car. “I can take you out to the Corey Place over on Roaring Brand Road. It gets a little rough on the way. I wouldn’t want you to mess up your car none.”
I looked at my poor Bel Air. It was already covered in dust, and I was lamenting having taken it this far instead of one of the agency vehicles.
“Yeah,” I said, trailing a finger through the grime. “That’ll do. We just need to grab our equipment.”
Jack was already heading toward the trunk. I tossed him the keys and he gathered our briefcases that were tucked away.
The Corey family lived at the end of a winding dirt driveway that split off Roaring Branch Road. It was only about a mile and a half from town, but it was desolate and getting there took a while since the dirt road was riddled with divots. A mix of different types of trees, mostly pine, maple, and oak loomed over the road, making it seem darker than it was.
Sweetwater drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I know Sheriff Landers promised you that we’d stay clear, so you could investigate. But I’m gonna be on that property with you to figure out what happened.”
“It doesn’t concern you,” Jack said.
“Hell it don’t. I know this family. My boy goes to school with George. It’s my job.”
“We’re handling this now,” I said. I hated when the locals tried to get too involved. Yeah, it was their county, technically, but locals tended to make things difficult.
“No offense, Agent Winter, but I’m gonna help you,” Sweetwater said. I could hear the tension and anger rising in his voice. His small town Andy Griffith yokel façade was falling away.
“That’s not a safe course of action,” Jack said. Like with sarcasm, I never did know when Jack was showing concern for someone and when he was issuing a veiled threat.
“Because of that light?” Sweetwater said.
“You saw the light?” I asked.
“I saw it, called it in, and I was the first at the property to see what was happening. Like I said, they’re my friends. That’s why Sheriff Landers had me meet you.”
“What do you make of it?” I asked. I wondered just how much he had seen. What he might have thought he figured out.
“I don’t know. Neon red skies in the middle of the night and a whole family goes missing,” Sweetwater said. The car rattled and bumped down the road enough that I could feel my bones rattling. “Strange days.”
“Indeed they are,” Jack said.
We rode in silence the rest of the way to the Corey place. It was a well-built two-story cabin with a couple of old patchwork Ford pickups in the driveway. There was a doghouse out back, an old ramshackle barn, and a yard half-filled with weeds and brush. The snarled wilderness beyond seemed like it was ready to reclaim the area.
The Corey Place
“Where’s the dog?” I asked. I scanned the vicinity, as I opened one of the briefcases. I could see the doghouse and chain but no dog.
“Took her home, the poor thing. She was whimpering and shaking. Calmed her down for a bit, but as soon as the sun had set last night, she started doing the same thing. Something spooked her but good. She’ll be better when we find her family.”
Sweetwater opened the front door to the cabin, reached inside and flipped on a porch light. It cast a dull yellow radiance that lit up the porch and about five feet of the yard.
I replaced the standard revolver in my holster with the “special-issue” sidearm from the briefcase. Jack did the same. The weapons looked similar to a typical revolver, but they had been back engineered with alien tech to provide a bit more kick.
Jack was assembling the Smythe-Chen Machine. It was similar to a Geiger counter in appearance, but it could detect more than just ionizing radiation. Jack said it detected waves emanating from alternate dimensions, certain types of alien weaponry, and a few more things I did not fully understand.
“I’ll head inside to investigate if you’re going to check the perimeter,” I said. I took a quick glance around the yard in the dying light. Some of the treetops looked like they had been cut away. Maybe burned. I hadn’t seen that before. “Check the trees.”
Jack nodded. “Already seem them. Keep alert. Sun’s getting low. They are probably long gone, but like I said. Fortune blesses me.”
I still wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.
“Right. Holler if you need me,” I said, as I headed into the cabin after Sweetwater.
The interior was comfortable and homey. There were pictures of the smiling family on the mantle above the fireplace, and several taxidermized fish and deer heads adorning the walls. The place smelled like fresh cookies and cigarette smoke. I could almost hear their laughter. Conversations around the dinner table. Going to school, taking family trips. Being a family.
“Be honest with me. What do you think happened to them?” Sweetwater was at my side.
I hated cases like this. They were rare, but they never ended happily.
“Will we get them back?” he asked.
“We’ll try,” I lied. Most of the time, people didn’t come back. When they did, they tended to be changed in some way.
We hadn’t been inside the cabin for more than ten minutes when I heard Jack call out. His voice, unflappable as usual, said just one word.
Still, it was enough to send a ripple of fear through me.
I took off toward the door and burst out as the last vestiges of light faded to darkness. The scent of brimstone suddenly filled my nostrils.
I’d read other case reports that talked about a sulfurous scent accompanying sightings. It was very rare, but I knew it did not bode well. In the distant past, the scent was associated with the visitation of demons and devils. Turns out the devils didn’t come from below, though. They came from above and brought with them strange technology and alien appetites rather than horns, pitchforks, and sin.
“Can you see them?” He called out to Jack, who didn’t respond. Sweetwater pushed past me to get off the porch first. I grabbed at him to hold him back, but he slipped through my grasp and leaped down the five stairs to the ground.
His long legs took him across the yard and to the edge of the dark tree line quickly. He kept shouting out their names.
“George! Dinah! Harlan! We’re here.”
He needed to shut up.
Jack was backing away, and I could see that he was already drawing his sidearm. I did the same even though I couldn’t see anything in the black forest.
I believe that fool Sweetwater might have run headlong into the woods if it hadn’t been for the red light that suddenly burst into existence. Instead, he stopped at the edge of the woods and turned his head toward me, mouth agape with a puzzled and frightened expression on his face.
I couldn’t see the source of the hellish glow at first. It seemed to be everywhere, just like the low grinding sound that was slowly starting to get louder and louder.
Something was coming.
Jack grabbed Sweetwater by the back of his uniform and yanked him back toward the patrol car, which was where I was heading.
It took about thirty seconds of scanning the woods, but I finally found the source of the light. A deep red and white spinning diamond about thirty feet high and twenty feet wide that made its way toward us over the tops of the trees, carving away another section of them as the vegetation withered as the shape passed it. The diamond shed pieces of what looked like hot, red slag down into the forest, but it did not start any fires that I could see.
The sight was strangely beautiful. In fact, it was almost hypnotizing. I felt my eyelids go heavy for a minute before Jack slammed a fist into my shoulder.
“Stay with me, Winter. Glasses!” he said, yelling the words to make himself heard above the grinding.
I snapped out of it, reached into my pocket and fumbled for my sunglasses. Sweetwater was not so lucky. He was staring up at the diamond and I watched as his eyes melted from his head and his body dropped.
I quickly checked on Jack. His sunglasses were on and he was firing up at the diamond. Blue bolts of plasma from his back engineered handgun sank into the craft. I started to aim at the diamond, as well, hoping we would be able to take it down, or at least get the thing to leave until we had more agents and some bigger weaponry.
As I raised the weapon to fire, a flash of movement caught my attention. Something made of pale flesh was rushing at us from the forest’s edge, perhaps hoping to take advantage of our preoccupation with the object in the sky.
I took aim at the creature reflexively and felt my stomach drop when I saw the thing. I’ll be honest, it took me a moment to gather my wits and fire. Time seemed to slow down, as I took in the full visage of the creature.
For some reason, the red light did not seem to touch the monstrosity. This was why it still looked so pale rather than being bathed in red. It was about seven feet tall and had long, bony fingers, four spindly, multiple-jointed limbs that looked vaguely spiderlike. It moved hunched over, sometimes using all four limbs to rush forward and sometimes coming forward on two legs. It had a wolf-like head and bits of fur sprouting off the scaled back and shoulders.
From what I knew, which wasn’t much, a number of species of aliens created these creatures. They used some type of science our specialists had not been able to reverse engineer. Essentially, they were a mishmash of different creatures. I called them Amalgams, but they didn’t have a proper name since there were so many types and configurations.
“You better kill that damned thing,” Jack said, loudly, as he continued to fire at the diamond.
Just before I pulled the trigger, I noticed something I wished I hadn’t. Starting to press out from the smooth white flesh on the thing’s underbelly were faces. Human faces. One looked like it could have been a little boy. I figured out where the Corey family had gone.
I readjusted my aim as the thing continued to come toward me, mere feet away at this point. It leaped into the air, the wolf jaws open and coming toward my throat. The other faces that pushed forward screamed voicelessly from beneath the beast’s skin.
Three bolts of blue plasma slammed into the creature’s chest, but it still bowled me over, slamming me into the dirt. I pressed one hand under its throat, trying to keep the snapping jaws from sinking into me. It was heavy, and I could feel the pop of one of my ribs. I jammed the pistol into its mouth and fired. It screeched and then stopped moving, but its full dead weight pressed down on me.
The thing stank like garbage and sulfur, and I thought I might die beneath the monster. Not a great way to go. Fortunately, Jack rolled the Amalgam off me about thirty seconds later. I gulped air, and it caused a cascade of pain to course through my body. Stupid busted rib.
“Where did the craft go?” I asked, slowly pulling myself to my feet and leaning against the patrol car. I was covered in grime, the creature’s blood, and who knew what else. I looked over to Jack. He still looked crisp. His hat wasn’t even out of place.
“Left once you killed its pet,” Jack said. “Took off like a damn flash. You know how it goes.”
“What brilliant cover will the agency choose this time?” Jack said, taking off his sunglasses and putting them in his jacket pocket. Even I could tell he was being sarcastic this time.
“Who the hell knows.” Swamp gas, plane crashes, brush fires, propane explosions… the agency had pushed those excuses and countless others to the media, local authorities, and even the military.
I wondered just how long those excuses would last, though. How long could we keep the world in the dark about the truth out there?