A story by Jack Bumby
A hand fell on my shoulder. It shook me.
“Marie, get up.”
I lifted my head. My lips were dry, my neck stiff. Susan was over me, her eyes wide.
“What time is it?”
“Marie, they’re back.”
I threw the covers off and swung my legs over the side of the bed. A flannel shirt was flung over the back of the chair, dark crimson in the moonlight. I manoeuvred into it and moved to pick up the discarded jeans on the floor. As I zipped the fly and buckled the belt, I gestured to the wardrobe.
“Grab my gun, honey.”
Susan jumped out of bed and flung the wardrobe open.
“The big one.”
Mount Molteau wasn’t exactly hospitable. You couldn’t fault the views. And the air was the freshest in the region. But the climate left something to be desired. On the best days it was muggy and warm, on the worst it was like living in a sauna with the heat set to maximum. You couldn’t go ten paces in either direction without sweating through your shirt – but the sheep loved it. And happy sheep are more important to sheep farmers than a few soggy shirts.
Our farmhouse sat on a plateau, about halfway up Molteau, surrounded on three sides by tall firs and an abrupt drop on the fourth. It was in the trees that the fires had started. Only small at first but growing every few weeks and soon destroying whole clusters. Then the sheep had started disappearing. And only pieces of them were ever seen again. Bits of wool would be found by the treeline, unidentified limbs a bit further in. Susan decided that there had to be more than one of them doing it, as the sheep disappeared from all over the farm and the fires spread in multiple places at once. But what they were was still a mystery. In those first months, I’d traipsed all over trying to find them or their den. But to no avail.
“Next time they come,” I had said to Susan a few nights earlier, “I’m going out. If you hear them, wake me.”
She wasn’t happy, but she agreed. We had to catch them in the act. So, I found myself at the crack of dawn, gun in hand and kissing Susan goodbye.
“Bolt the door,” I said.
The heat felt like a slap in the face as I stepped onto the porch. It was always hot on the plateau, but now, in the middle of this inferno, it was scorching. Sweat was trickling from my pores before I had the door closed behind me. I heard the bolt clunk into place. Straight ahead, the fires were raging at the treeline. There was a crack as one of the firs gave way and collapsed somewhere out of sight. In the darkness, a flock of Noctowls hooted as they fled the blaze. Elsewhere, towards the back of the cabin, there was the bleat of sheep. I gripped the gun tighter – an ancient double-barrelled monstrosity – and walked down the small steps from the porch onto the path. The drop was on my left, somewhere off in the darkness. At the back of my mind, I had an image of our little farm as seen from the other side of Kalos. They were probably all sound asleep down there. If any of them looked out of their bedroom window, perhaps on a midnight walk to get a glass of MooMoo milk, they’d see a small flicker on the side of a great grey tooth, rising from the ground. Those two are up late again, they’d think, and burning wood at this hour!
I approached the first few trees, which had nearly burnt down completely. All that was left were blackened stumps, thrust deep into the soil. The crackle of the flames felt close to deafening. I could feel sweat pouring down my back now. The gun barrel felt heated to the touch and was growing warmer each second.
Something moved beyond the burnt-down trees. I fired. The stump disintegrated. Splinters spun off in all directions. The sound was muted against the sizzling flames, but my ears still rang. The shape appeared again. I span, tracking it in the worn-down sights atop the barrel. I held off and lowered the gun. I wasn’t going to miss again, I thought, as I navigated into the trees, taking a wide berth around the worst of the flames. The shape darted past again, then another, and then a third, all around a metre tall. My careful stride became a run as I chased them further into the trees, away from the fire. It grew dark as I lost sight of the creatures. I slowed.
Something shifted beneath my feet. With a grunt, I threw myself backwards, away from the now widening hole in the earth. But it was too late. I caught site of a spreading maw, opening underfoot. Losing my grip on the gun, I fell into the pit. I smelt wet earth and guano before I blacked out.
The stench of charred bark and leaves woke me. Looking up, I could see a circle of orange light a half dozen metres above. Fragments of wood lay in the soil around me. I’d fallen through into the old well, straight through the cover that the previous owners had presumably put in place. I picked up one of the pieces of debris that was half-buried beside me. The wood was rotten and there were claw marks on it. Something had been coming and going, using the well as its entrance and exit.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the flames above were throwing a flickering glow down the shaft, I realised that part of the interior wall was missing. Something had clawed out a small tunnel. The smell of ancient animal excrement wafted out. It was barely big enough for a Mewtwo, never mind a person. Something glowed, perhaps ten metres into the tunnel. Shadows flickered. A cavern. But it was a tight squeeze. I considered my options. Stay there and wait for Susan to find me in the morning – assuming I didn’t choke on the smoke first – or squeeze into the tunnel.
I thought of Susan finding me the next day, dead from smoke inhalation at the bottom of a well. Or she’d find me alive and I’d never hear the end of it. I didn’t know which was worse.
I pulled my heavy boots off and wriggled my belt out from the loops. Looking at the gun, I felt a pang of sadness at having to leave the heirloom behind. But I wasn’t willing to chance anything getting caught. The thought of getting trapped in the tunnel, unable to move forwards or shimmy back… I pushed it out of my mind and squirmed into the opening on the wall. Once my head was fully in, I noticed how much more pungent it was in there. Creatures had lived down there for a while. Through the stench of living things, the scent of cooking meat wafted up from the chamber at the other end. My shoulders were in the tunnel now, scraping along the muddy walls, rocks and stones ripping my shirt. I had my hands in front of me, grasping the walls, wearing my nails down to the quick. My hips and thighs next, squeezing into the tunnel and filling the space, blocking out the last dregs of light from the well opening.
My hands dug into the dirt and clay and I pulled my body forward to the halfway point. I buried my fingers in and prepared to drag myself again. My arms burned with the effort, but I didn’t move. I kicked with my feet as best as I could, burying my toes into the dirt. But the ground had grown slick and soggy, and I couldn’t find purchase. I began trying to push myself backwards, to no avail. I tried spinning but the space was too thin. The breath caught in my throat. I tried to calm myself. My arms scrabbled, punching against the walls. I couldn’t breathe.
But then, a hand on my foot. Then one on the other. Tiny leathery paws. They pushed and I began to move. Another set pushed my legs. The exit approached, nearer and nearer. I fell out of the tunnel and into the chamber at the other end. I scrambled away from the opening and put my back to the wall, looking at the creatures that had come to my aid. Four eyes looked back at me, set back from two scaly snouts and two sets of sharp teeth. Behind them, two small flames bobbed up and down. The two Charmeleons poked their heads from the hole.
“Hey,” I moved forward. The Charmeleons edged back into the darkness of the tunnel.
“Have you guys been causing all this damage?”
They whined softly. I examined the small chamber I was in. It was no more than five meters in any direction. I could feel a breeze coming through it. In one corner of the chamber, there was a collection of bones, stripped clean. In the opposite one, two small bundles of wool made makeshift beds. Another, wider, tunnel led off in one direction.
“You two been living in here?”
I sniffed. It was even more pungent than I thought. The eyes in the tunnel stared at me, hesitating.
“C’mon,” I crouched down to their level in the opening. “We’ll work something out.”
“You should have shot them,” Susan said.
We were stood on the porch, looking out over the farm. The blackened trees looked like stakes stuck into the earth. The smell of smoke still hung in the air.
“You should have seen them, Sue. They saved me down there.” I turned to her. “Plus, we have less sheep to look after now.”
In front of us, the giant pasture had been split into two. On the one side, sheep grazed, munching on grass and slowly moving in lazy circles. In the other pasture, two Charmeleons chased each other, ducking in and out of their covered enclosure. One of them shot fire at the other, it went wide, over the sheep. They bleated in disgust. The two siblings wrestled, swiping at one another. The sun beat down on the plateau.