The car slammed against an oncoming pickup truck after drunkenly swerving into the left lane, catching the front bumper with the right headlight, unbuckled driver soaring through the windshield and exploding across the branches of a sycamore tree in someone's front yard.
By the time I reached the scene, coming from the 7-11 on the other side of Shields Street, there was no one left to whom I could issue a moving violation. The ambulance arrived and scooped up the damaged, sobbing passenger, clawing her face at the giant hole in the windshield, the pristinely green grass of a front yard, and the tree where someone she knew was scattered. The truck was totaled, certainly, but the people inside it were uninjured. It fell to me to escort them home, as other police officers showed up, and the entire block was sealed off. I was grateful for it. The scent of the man in the tree made it hard to breathe without vomiting.
Later that night, a curious lack of radio communication left me with little to do, so I took my second break at the end of my shift. I returned to that 7-11 to idle and observe the cleanup. The "Lights Out" ordinance, put in place to cut energy bills for the city, felt darker on that night; the only glow came from my dashboard and the phosphorescent wash from the 7-11's broad windows.
Across Shields and further down Mulberry, two patrol cars with no lights on were parked underneath that sycamore tree. Two men stood next to these cars, slowly turning in opposite directions, scanning the whole block for passersby or people snooping from their windows. I could not see anyone cleaning the tree.
The leaves of the tree, almost impossible to see at this distance, swayed even though the night was calm, no breeze rustling any other trees. I stared hard, cupping my hands around my eyes, before I saw them--dark shapes crawling over branches. Big bodies shuffled up and down the tree, stopping at regular intervals for a second before continuing to move. The same bodies crossed over the same parts of the tree multiple times. Eventually, they stopped moving in unison and began crawling out of the tree. They were all men in uniform. How did they move like that?
Each car filled with four officers- one in the front, three in the back. The last of the officers who had been crawling in the tree stopped before getting in the car and stared down Mulberry until he was looking at me directly. I couldn't see his eyes or mouth, but I could feel his gaze as if he was in the car with me.
Michael, my only son, was very sick. He caught a virus from school that closed up his lungs almost completely, spending a week in a hospital bed before finally being allowed to return home. Even at that, he was in and out of consciousness constantly, confined to his bed for fear that he might be walking up or down the stairs, lose control of his breathing and pass out. I took what little leave I could muster to be by his side and await his needs. Money was tight, however. I knew that, between hospital bills and being off work, food was going to be scarce this month.
He was asleep, and I was nodding my head into an automotive magazine when I heard the scratching at the window the first time. When I stood up and threw back the curtain, no one was there. I am not a superstitious person, and I pride myself on my attention to detail, so it bothered me that I was unable to identify the source of the sound. If the wind made the sound once, it would surely happen again. I leaned back, stretched my arms and waited, staring at the window.
The next time I heard that scratching, I was ready. I leapt out of my chair and threw back the curtain.
A man in a police officer's uniform sat hunched on the sloped ledge of roof over the garage, right in front of the window. His fingers were long and thin, one hand crossed across a knee, the other hand drawing back from the window frame. He had no sidearm that I could see, and his uniform was consistent with the Fort Collins Police Department, but he was no one that I knew. He had a long face with no hair on it. Red eyes with no whites gleamed from underneath his cap. He grimaced, revealing bright, straight teeth, before leaping off of the roof and disappearing.
I guess I had an unusual reaction to this. Blame it on me being a police officer. I was livid. Either a man had stolen the uniform of a member of the department, or someone I had never met was investigating me or my comatose son. I grabbed my aluminum baseball bat and sat next to the window again, cracking it just a little bit this time, hoping that the man with the red contact lenses would be stupid enough to try it again.
In less than an hour, just as dawn was starting to break, the window slid open and the man leapt into the room. I slammed my bat against his face so hard that it seemed to adhere to him, dragging the bat to the floor as he fell. I closed the window behind him and then bent down to retrieve the bat. I couldn't remove it from his face. I flicked the light switch on and saw the man's tongue wrapped fully around the bat twice, flicking and licking drops of his own blood that were scattered along that length while his head shuddered, red eyes blinking away pain. His nose appeared to have been broken, his tongue casually flicking at it while streams of blood and tears rolled down his face. He was screaming, but he sound only came out like a hiss with a high, shrill pitch behind it. I placed my boot against his head and pried the bat away from his tongue, which began to flail wildly once free, slapping the hairs on my leg. The tongue was darker than a normal tongue, substantially longer, and abrasive like that of a cat. My sense of wrong twisted my judgment as I brought the bat down on his head three more times.
I thought I had killed him, but he still had a pulse. His tongue was still now, rolled across the carpet that he was quickly staining with blood. My fervor had not ended. I needed to know what this man-shaped thing was. I handcuffed him, threw a Toy Story pillowcase over his head and fastened it to his neck with bungee cables. Luckily, throughout this whole endeavor, I never woke my son.
I lifted him and shoved him in the back of my car, driving as quickly as I could to the station. When I arrived, I ignored all procedure, so mad and scared I was, carrying him over my shoulder to the back room where Major Jenkins' office was located. I didn't knock.
The Major was a white man, likely in his forties, with a carefully trimmed goatee. He was not startled by this early morning intrusion, as I tossed the unconscious thing into the chair directly in front of him.
"What is this?" he asked slowly, as if he was waking up.
"I would very much like to know the answer to that question, Major," I replied. My face was hot and my nerves were twitchy, as if I was not finished fighting yet.
"It looks like you've captured Officer Daniels and bound him in a Toy Story pillow case, Paulson."
"I had no idea our force even had an Officer Daniels, and when this--" I snapped the pillow case off of the thing's head, letting his head nod to the side with the tongue lolling all the way down to his chest, "--man showed up at my window, trying to get inside, I took care of him. Can you please tell me who or what he is, sir? Is he an officer?"
"Take a seat."
I sat a reasonable distance away from the unconscious creature. I could feel the pent up tension beginning to spiral out of control as reflexes gave way to clear thoughts. What the hell is going on? I wondered.
"You have just witnessed something that few on our force and even fewer in our community are even aware exists." The Major stitched his fingers together and spoke with an almost reassuring calm. "This is called a Gasp. Our station has been working with them for about two years."
"How did we not know--"
"Let me finish, officer. I know you are stressed, and you have good reason to be. But you need to hear me out completely, because what I will tell you is extremely important."
"Good." The Major took a sip of black coffee before continuing. "Two years ago, we started to catch people in situations similar to that which you have described. It was about the time the 'Lights Out' ordinance took effect, and it is my belief that these events are somewhat connected. Homes would be broken into without contents disturbed, except that people would go missing in their sleep. No signs of struggle or prints of the individuals exist outside of these crime scenes. You were lucky. Somehow, your intuition as a police officer enabled you to see the Gasp before it attacked. If you hadn't, your son would likely be dead."
"How do you know it was my son and not me?"
"I know all of my officers better than you think. I know you've been on leave for about two weeks now, and I know that your son is sick. I know the results of your last physical, performed only a month ago--I know your health is just fine. Furthermore, I know that the Gasps smell the imminence of death."
"That is not comforting to know."
"No, you're right. It makes them hungry until inevitably they snap and consume that which is dead or dying. They feed on every dying aspect of a human. Their teeth are much stronger than they seem, and they can easily crush bone with their jaws."
"Why are we working with them?" I asked, too shocked to process all of the details he was conveying.
"A sensitivity to death can prove highly useful. Once we began to identify these elements that were invading homes throughout our city and managed to catch a few, mostly after the deed had already been done and post-meal sluggishness had set in, we received a classified order from a superior. All officers that had been involved in capturing these creatures were to be employed in a very particular way in incorporating the creatures as officers themselves."
"How does that even work?"
"We reserve them for night projects. A month ago, right around your beat, I believe, a car crashed and a man died. We used the Gasps then, to clean up the extensive ensuing mess. It was very efficient, and it kept them from having blood urges."
"When a Gasp goes too long without feeding, his risk of breaking routine becomes great. They comprehend ideas and follow directions like people just as long as they've been fed recently. So you see, we serve a dual purpose by maintaining these officers: they help us clear away blood and gore, and we keep them away from our citizens. Do you understand?"
"Very well." The Major paused, sliding out one of his steel desk drawers after unlocking it with a key, pulling out a manila folder before calmly opening it and sliding a paper towards me. "I will need you to sign on this line, please."
It read: Change of Job Status--Overwatch
"What does this mean, sir?" I asked.
"It means that you are now responsible for what you have seen and heard. I am putting you on Overwatch, a taskforce designed to monitor and carry Gasps wherever they are needed. You will notice a substantial pay grade increase."
Indeed, I briefly considered that this month might not be that tight after all. Then I shook my head and said, "I'm sorry, I refuse. I can't be in charge of a monster," I said, gesturing to the empty seat to my left. "What? Where did--"
"I am sure you will find them eager to work with you, Paulson," the Major stated, looking at me and then looking to the doorway behind me where the Gasp stood, arms crossed and tongue flicking across his face and head to clear away dried blood. "If you don't sign, how will you go home to tend to your son?"
"What do you mean?" I demanded, standing up.
"They sense death, Paulson. If this one broke away from his unit just to come to your house, it's a strong smell. Likely one of your son's organs is failing. You may be able to save him if you sign this paper and join the Overwatch. You will not leave this room without signing. Otherwise, I can't imagine having to find something to do with your clothes after the Gasp is finished with you. You had the advantage last time. Not now."
I looked at the Gasp. His eyes, blood red in entirety, were smiling back at me.
I signed the line.