By Ken MacGregor 2013
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Grady stood by the garden, his major muscle groups rigid with rage. Every single Goddamn tomato half eaten on the vine. Cassie ran out of the house, still wearing the extra large men’s T-shirt she slept in, the picture of Tinkerbell on it so faded you could hardly tell she was even a biped. Someone needs to clap for that damn fairy, Grady thought and smiled despite the anger still bubbling in his blood.
“What?” Cassie said, looking around. “What happened? You okay, Grady? Honey?” She was looking for wounds on her husband, or for murderers in the bushes. Grady shook his head.
“Son-of-a-whore woodchuck got at the tomatoes again,” Grady said. “Every last one. Didn’t leave us any, except for this half a one right here.” He held it up, and the top of a bright red, ripe tomato rested on his calloused palm. Most of it was chewed away, violently Cassie thought.
“I’ll get some from the store,” she said, putting her hand on Grady’s arm. He shrugged her off, but gently; Grady wasn’t mad at her. Besides, Cassie was damn sensitive. You just never knew what would set her off an a twenty minute crying jag. Not for the first time, Grady wondered if his wife should be taking pills or something.
“It’s not the same,” he said. “There’s nothing like fresh tomatoes you grow yourself. I’m gonna get that son-of-a-bitch, I’ll tell you what.”
“I think my friend Jenny has a live trap we could borrow,” Cassie said. Grady looked at his wife like he wasn’t sure he knew her. Cassie shrugged, embarrassed and went in the house. She loved Grady, but she had to admit he was scary sometimes. Cassie was sure her husband would never hurt her, but someone else? Yeah. She could see that.
Around three that afternoon, Grady opened the padlock on his old footlocker. He lifted out his M40 sniper rifle and the cleaning kit. He also grabbed a box of .308 Winchester rounds; the 51mm military rounds seemed excessive. Grady opened the case holding the scope. He checked to make sure the nightvision still worked; it didn’t but he was pretty sure it just needed a new battery. He brought it all upstairs and spent a peaceful hour cleaning the rifle that had served him so well in the Corps. The scope worked just fine with a new battery. Cassie passed him several times as she tidied up the house, expressing her disapproval with weighty silence and pointed looks.
After they brushed their teeth side by side, Grady and Cassie climbed into bed and said goodnight. Cassie had only sleep on her mind, as usual. Grady sometimes resented her apathy, but not tonight; tonight, he was counting on it. Cassie got tired so easily these days. She was snoring softly in minutes. Grady gave it another few to be sure, then slipped out of bed. He made no sound as he went downstairs, his old training kicking in unconsciously.
Grady had left the rifle in pieces earlier, intentionally to allay suspicion. The bits lay there, spread on the white sheet across the dining room table. The oil glistened in the moonlight, shining with lethal potential. In the dark, Grady sat down and put the whole thing together; his hands knew the routine and could do it in complete darkness if need be. When the rifle was in one piece, Grady attached the scope. He tested the night vision once again, aware that it was a bit obsessive; it still worked. Grady screwed the long, fat silencer to the end of the barrel until it was tight. He loaded five rounds into the integral magazine, ratcheting each in as quietly as he could.
Grady pulled on a dark gray sweatshirt; the nights were getting cool now. He crept back up the stairs, past his room and sleeping wife to the attic stairs. Grady went up and over to the window facing the street. He pulled it open removed the screen. Grady slid outside onto the overhang. It was a mild decline, but his footing was good. Grady reached back in and pulled the rifle through after himself, careful not to bang it on the window frame. He crab-walked across the overhang, leaning in toward to the house for balance. Grady’s shoes made crunching noises that reminded him of sand in his teeth. At the edge, overlooking the garden, Grady lay prone and held his rifle at the ready. He turned on the green night vision scope and peered through the lens at the amplified ground. He could pick out individual leaves on the plants. Grady scanned methodically, checking the garden bit by bit. He was patient, let his mind wander but kept his eyes focused. It was a quiet night in suburbia, but most of them were. Faintly, Grady could hear pop music from a few houses over. Probably Nina and Tom’s kid who’s in middle school, staying up late and jamming. Grady smiled. He missed his kids now that they were grown, but he didn’t miss the noise.
There. Movement by the tomatoes. Grady breathed slowly. He relaxed his arms as much as his position would allow. The woodchuck was there, at the edge of his sights. Grady watched for a moment, wanting to be sure, wanting to catch the animal in the act. He tracked the woodchuck as it ambled over the 2X4 edge of the raised bed. Grady kept the green circle on the beast as it lifted itself on its hind legs, sniffing the air. Grady could almost hear its tiny, rapid intakes of breath.
A tomato, just barely ripe, that Grady was planning to pick tomorrow or the next day dangled on the vine directly above the woodchuck. The animal stretched up, grasped the tomato with its front paws and took a large bite. It stood there chewing.
“Gotcha,” Grady whispered. The woodchuck’s head snapped up and it seemed to be looking right at Grady. He squeezed the trigger and the beast fell on its side, left rear leg and a chunk of hindquarters blown off. The only sound was a muffled whump from the silencer; even the music nearby had stopped.
Grady watched the woodchuck writhe in agony. He was about to finish it off when movement caught his eye again. The night vision was still on, and he peered through the scope. Another woodchuck was in his garden. Son-of-a-bitch. Grady racked the bolt on his rifle to eject the shell and ready the next. When he did, the new woodchuck looked up. It rushed forward toward its fallen comrade and Grady shot it in the back. This time, Grady racked another shell into place immediately.
Two dying, floundering mammals wriggled in pain below Grady. Still, he waited. Grady had done this sort of thing before. Sure enough, another woodchuck soon appeared, furtively edging toward the garden and its dying brethren. Grady shot this one in the gut, adding to his collection of wounded woodchucks. He worked the bolt on his rifle once again.
The next two he killed outright. Jesus. How many are there? he thought. Grady almost wished he had brought the ten-capacity external magazine. Movement caught his eye on the ground. Woodchucks, maybe twelve or thirteen moved into view. As one, they looked up, right at Grady. Then, they began to gather the dead and wounded bodies, carrying them away.
Grady was dumbfounded. He watched them lift the ones he’d shot and drag them to a hole by the neighbor’s garage. Another one popped up from the hole and eased the bodies down. With one last mournful look toward Grady, the one remaining woodchuck retreated down the hole.
They claimed their dead. Grady picked up the spent casings and carefully retraced his steps to the window. He put his rifle in, climbed in after it and sat on the floor in the dark. Woodchucks. Claiming their dead. Huh.
Grady’s tomatoes grew unmolested for the rest of the season. He was able to harvest enough for Cassie to can some, too. Cassie loved canning things. It was a passion alien to Grady, but he liked having the food in the dead of winter and not having to buy it.
Life went on, as it does and Grady forgot about the night he shot the woodchuck. He never told anyone about the animals and their weird behavior; Grady decided he must have imagined it.
Winter was settling in and Grady was in the backyard, hoping to chop some wood for the fireplace. He carried a log and the axe to the big stump. Grady noticed the ground was uneven here and he was having a hard time getting his footing. Worried he’d have a mishap with the axe, Grady looked for a better spot. He couldn’t find one. Grady’s entire back yard was filled with dips and lumps and soft spots. It looked and felt unhealthy to him. Grady walked around, testing the earth with his feet, poking at the dying grass with the axe handle.
His backyard was a mess. Something had been digging the whole thing up, just under the surface.
Grady hunkered down and pushed the axe handle into a soft spot. It went down half a foot, met some resistance and then sank fast all the way to the head.
“What the hell?” Grady moved around, repeating the experiment. It happened again, three times. The more Grady poked at it, the softer the ground seemed to get. Thinking he would call the people at the county about it, Grady stepped toward his back door. His foot sank in the lawn and he fell forward. Grady caught himself with his hands, but his face missed the axe blade by less than inch. He stayed like that, poised over his axe blade, breathing hard. Grady twisted the handle so the blade fell flat on the ground and he got up. He went inside, leaving the axe on the ground.
Grady picked up the phone, but the line was dead. Grumbling about still having a damn land line, he tried to remember where he’d left his cell. Upstairs, he thought. Grady brushed the dirt off his hands and clothes, kicked off his boots and walked up the stairs. Cassie was folding laundry on their bed, spread out and separated in piles of his, hers and communal. She looked a question at him, but he shook his head, focused on finding his phone. Grady saw it on the bathroom by the sink. He stepped through the door to get it and stopped short. Something was wrong.
Grady shot a look at Cassie. She felt it too. Movement. On a big scale. Earthquakes were not unheard of in Michigan, but they were pretty rare. Cassie put her hand on the footboard to steady herself. Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated. Cassie was barely keeping it together. Grady positioned himself in the doorframe. He remembered somebody saying that doorframes survived earthquakes.
“Come here, Cass,” he said and held out his hand. He didn’t want the ceiling to come down on his wife. She started toward him like a frightened deer, but the whole house pitched and they both fell.
They were moving all right; if this was an earthquake, it was rocking it California-style. Grady knew you weren’t supposed to go near windows, but he had to know what was happening out there. Holding himself up against the wall, Grady inched across the floor to the window. Outside, in the backyard, the earth was dropping, sinking before his eyes. His back lawn was turning into a massive sinkhole and the house was sliding into it.
“Come on,” he yelled, making a grab for Cassie’s hand. He snagged it and they stumbled their way through the mad funhouse of tilting walls and buckling floorboards. The stairs were intact, but warping, twisting. They weren’t going to last long. Grady and Cassie took them as fast as they could, nearly tumbling headfirst several times.
One step shattered under Cassie’s foot and she broke her ankle, crying out in pain and surprise. Grady held her up under her armpit, the extra effort putting strain on his muscles, heart and lungs. The windows on the back of the house all shattered at once and Grady and Cassie were slammed against a wall by the house dropping in that direction. With heroic effort, Grady slammed open the front door; he hauled himself and his wife over the threshold and down four feet to the front walk. He sprained his wrist and cracked three ribs on impact. But, Grady managed to protect Cassie from any more harm.
Cassie was crying softly in his arms. Both were breathing hard and sweating despite the cold air. It occurred to Grady that they didn’t even try to save anything. But, he reasoned, they saved themselves and that’s what counted. He looked around, expecting widespread devastation. There was none.
Their house was the only thing moving. And, it was still going, inexorably sinking into the back lawn. Wood crackled, glass tinkled, steel groaned and drywall dust filled the air. Where they had lived was no longer recognizable as a house. It was debris, rubble and nothing more. Over the low pile of junk, Grady could see the fence that separated their yard from the Morgan’s. It looked weird, and for a moment, Grady didn’t understand why. Then, he saw it.
It was moving.
The fence, the ground around it and the surrounding neighborhood yards were covered in a carpet of light brown fur. Grady blinked but the image stayed. The fur moved, en masse, pouring over the ground toward Grady and Cassie. She saw it now, too and stared open-mouthed with her husband. The sea of brown fur funneled into a narrow hole by the garage next door. The same hole Grady once saw five dead woodchucks being carried into. Like fallen soldiers.
Grady had killed those soldiers, and their military force had struck back. They used the weapon they had to undermine their enemy. Literally.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Grady muttered.