Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction


[Originally published in E-scape.]

Dave Hackett had always felt safe in Equinox - a town so tiny it didn't even show up as a pinprick on most Michigan maps. Just a bump in the pavement along County Road 448. A gas station, a pub & grub, a bait & tackle… a few dozen shacks and trailers spread out through the surrounding woods, most of them pretty well hidden. A magical place. The name had something to do with Indian legends rooted deeper than the oaks, with a secret spot where the Ojibwa gathered to celebrate the rites of Spring.

It was not just a place: a place and time fused together. When day and night meet as equals…. When light and darkness battle for the soul of the World…. The legends were misty, hard to grasp. Dave had always preferred Mom's explanation. An equinox is a door between the seasons, Davy. Mother Nature stands there with a foot on either side, trying to decide whether to wear Her heavy winter coat or put on a summer dress. Until She walks through, anything can happen.

That Spring, anything did.

Dave loved wandering the woods when the snow began to melt and Mother Nature was ready to take off Her winter coat. First thaw unlocked the forest smells: faint spice of pine needles mingled with the dank, relentless odor of moldering leaves. He carried his Winchester out of habit, though he didn't expect to use it. Most years, at least a taste of sunshine spilled through the cracks at the edges of Mom's cosmic door; Equinox had seen nothing this Spring but an unbroken shroud of gray. The land echoed the heavens. Trees didn't show buds, undergrowth had not yet dug its way out of winter graves. Dave could not find so much as a sprig or shoot or seedling. The weirdest thing of all was the silence - no bird song, no animal noises. No squeaks or chirps or chatters.

Dave Hackett had hunted and fished the wildest places in the Upper Peninsula for thirty years, but he could not shake the feeling that the woods and marshes around his home no longer considered him a friend.

Once in a while, he caught a glimpse of motion out of the corner of his eye. He began to see them in the trees. Squirrels. Just squirrels. But these had fur as black as the Devil's soul on a Sunday morning - fuzzy balls of midnight skittering across the bones of winter-ravaged trees. He rarely saw them move, except for the rapid tremor of their breathing. The hairs on his neck and arms prickled like the quills of a cornered porcupine. He saw dozens in the surrounding branches. Motionless. Watchful. He heard movement behind him, spun around to see a horde of bushy statues with shiny buckshot eyes. He heard it again in back of him - the scratch of tiny claws on bark - whirled around to face it. Furry bodies clung to the trees like dark, malignant tumors. Not dozens… hundreds. They made no sound.

Dave stood there, fingers numb against the worn stock of his Winchester two-forty-three autoloader - a rifle he had once used to drop an eight-point buck at a hundred yards. Enough to blow any one of those little bastards back to Hell. And yet, his hands shook so badly he couldn't have hit the broad side of a Winnebago.

One large, slobbering predator he could have handled. But this… this was an army of critters too small and quick and numerous for any one man to stop.

The squirrels closed ranks, tightening around him like a noose. They scented blood. And fear - it soaked the lining of his camouflage jacket. He raised the rifle and squeezed off a shot, not aiming anywhere at all. For one horrible moment they did not move; then some primal instinct awakened, and they scattered. Dave's own instincts sent him sprinting for home, stealing glances over his shoulder as he stumbled over winter deadfalls. He did not see any black squirrels, but he could feel them. He could feel them.

After a muscle-searing run, he spotted the cabin through skeletal branches. He stopped beyond the tree line to catch his breath. The spicy aroma of woodsmoke wafted from the chimney; little Carrie squealed as Kevin pushed her on the creaking rope swing in the back. The sights and sounds and scents of home embraced him, mundane and comforting, until he felt like the biggest fool in the entire U.P. Shake it off, Davy boy. It ain't real. It can't be. He glanced at a clump of popple along the edge of the clearing, and his fear melted away like a June snowfall. Even from a distance, he could see that the slender branches were beginning to bud. He wandered toward them, grateful for any sign that the door between the seasons had really opened, and reached out for a stem. His hand sprang away like a startled doe. The door to Summer - to light and reason - slammed shut.

The buds worming their way through the flesh of every popple in the thicket were black. They were as black as coal.