They found the monster hiding in the only tree that was left standing.
A flash flood had destroyed most of the grove. Nick Volstad was the first to lay his eyes on the wreckage. Tim Hinds and Sarah Ward held their breath when they saw him throw his rifle to sand with a dull plush at the top of the drift and curse furiously toward the dry thunderheads that were recoiling southward. The sun smoldered down over them, baking the dusty desert. It was burned so brightly that even the moon had come out to watch.
They knew what was waiting for them on the other side. They’d seen the huge, dark rivulets of caked mud carving up the valley like the ugly, varicose veins of a junkie, the forests of stunted cacti and salt flats laid bare to the white rock beneath, like bone.
Oranges were scattered everywhere, crusted and split open. The clay walls surrounding the grove had melted. The splintered pole of a cottonwood tree was jutting through the south end like a battering ram. A few cacti and juniper plants were strewn about the ruins, half-swallowed by the mercurial silt.
Tim thought that he should say something. Beside him, Sarah Ward was crying. A full third of their harvest was gone, and they might not be able to recover even half the seeds for the next season. Nick Volstad was still panting, his eyes wide and filmy with unfocused rage as they drank in the scene.
It felt like an act of God. The colony would be devastated.
Before Tim could say anything, Nick snatched up his rifle and swiftly descended the sand drift. Something had caught his eye. Tim and Sarah clambered down after him, carefully picking their way through the jumble of boughs and severed stumps.
Tim froze as he caught sight of the Gaborl. It was perched in an orphaned tree at the peak of the north rise. The creature’s shape was unmistakable, blotted against the spiderweb of orange-laden branches. The tree provided pitiful shade. It was dark green and amphibian-like, though it was a bipedal organism. Its eyes were as big as goose eggs and as black as oil. It was hairless and ribboned with muscles. Fangs as large as a sabertooth tiger’s were sheathed behind its gums. Tim’s grandfather had shown him a picture of a tiger, once. They must have lived in Nevada when he was a boy.
“How did it get here?” Sarah asked wistfully.
Gaborl were nocturnal amphibians. The largest ones in the world, but nocturnal nonetheless. The sun blistered them. It didn’t kill them. Didn’t turn them into pillars of salt or clouds of ash, like vampires. But it caused them excruciating pain.
“The flood,” Tim mumbled, saluting to keep the sun off his face. “Some river, somewhere.”
Above them, the moon floated aimlessly across the sky, like a drunken actor lingering onstage after the curtain had fallen.
The creature looked like a goblin. That was how he’d come to think of them. The Gaborl had been discovered in an extensive subterranean system in Indonesia at the beginning of the twenty-first century, geographically isolated for god knows how long. Small domes grew on their skin, like great blisters, isolating deadly diseases that their immune systems used to perform bodily functions, over a million years worth of infectious nightmares. When the first creature stepped into the sunlight and its skin split open, all of the horrid little monsters that they had been keeping prisoner for so long swept the globe, eradicating civilization with the same relentless proficiency as smallpox flattening the Native-Americans.
Overhead, the moon continued to behave oddly, moving like an iceberg across the blue infinity. A few stars winked down out at them.
Who understood such things anymore, though?
“It’s all your fault!” Nick screamed madly. “The wars–the plagues–the flood–everything!”
Volstad raised his rifle and shot off the nubs of a few branches. He seemed to miss intentionally. Maybe to frighten the thing, toy with it. Behind them, Tim heard the rest of the group arrive, a hush falling over them as they surveyed the carnage. Slowly, one by one, they seemed to realize the monster’s presence.
The creature shivered, either in pain from the unrelenting sun, or fear of what would become of it as the human mob began to mass beneath the tree.
“Torches!” Someone yelled, and surely enough there were torches.
“We shouldn’t–” Tim murmured. But no one listened. They were angry. They wanted blood. The creature’s presence seemed predetermined. A gift from the gods. A sacrifice to sate their bloodlust. The thing might as well have fallen out of the sky, because that’s exactly where it was going.
Tim didn’t fear the Gaborl so much. They were lethal, but only when provoked, and mostly when confused. They were like great white sharks. They only attacked when they backed into a corner, or mistook people for something else.
They set the torches to the base of the tree, but it didn’t burn, the bark still damp from the night before. So they fired off a few more shots and hooted menacingly. Tim wanted to say something…
Darkness suddenly fell across the desert. Dumbfounded, Tim glanced up into the heavens. Something had abruptly moved in front of the sun, directly centering itself over the star’s white-hot corona.
It was the moon. The sun was a black halo, scalloped by a ring of liquid gold. How odd. They fit almost perfectly.
There was a fierce, inhuman caterwaul. There was a crash. Someone screamed. Gunshots glanced off into nowhere. More screams. Bodies hit the ground with sick thuds. Before Tim could think, blood sprayed the left half of his face. He felt hot breadth on his neck.
Slowly, he turned to face the beast, the words of a childhood story whispering through his terror.
“Why grandma, what big teeth you have…”
© 2013 Thomas Peter McCarthy
Thomas Peter McCarthy is a fiction writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org