's 2019 Horror Write-off:

A Blue and Empty Sky

Submitted by C. Lonnquist

A Blue and Empty Sky

The dome of the world stretched above Hattie, cloudless and vast and
blue. It was edged by the flat nothing of the Great Plains, and she lied on the
back of the open wagon among the potatoes and the blankets and the tools, letting
it pass over her.

The sky wasn’t that big in the east. It wasn’t even that big in
Wisconsin, which she guessed was still the frontier of things, but was so full
of tall trees and rolling hills that the sky’s edges shifted and shrank
constantly. Even on top of big hills and bluffs, the ever-present pines would
interfere with the view.

Sometimes there were houses, sometimes small trees. The land, even in its
flatness, did roll slightly from time to time, dipping down where a creek cut
through the waving sea of grass.

But that didn’t stop the sky from reaching up and up and up, taller and
quieter and bluer than she had ever seen in her life.

Birds were specks; tiny flickers of white drifting like petals against
the wind. Hattie was surprised to see pelicans at one point. She didn’t think
they were near the Great Lakes and she knew they were nowhere near an ocean.
She couldn’t see the meadowlarks and prairie chickens and crickets, but she
could hear them all around her, near and far. Chirps, trills, and little melodies
punctuated the rolling susurrus of the wind through the tall grass.


She popped up like a gopher from her family’s belongings. Her father
wasn’t the sort to tolerate dawdling and he was almost done tending to the
livestock. She slipped off the back of the wagon and was at his side in
moments. He didn’t look at her as he patted one of the oxen on the neck.

“Where’s your brother?”

“Ran off with Molly Utecht.”

He stopped what he was doing. “How many Mollys are there around here that
you gotta go n’ point out which one you’re talkin’ about?”

Hattie grinned and they both laughed. It had been a while. Ever since her

“I’ll go find her,” Hattie said, clearing the thought away like dirt on a
white floor.

She trotted to the west, past the Utecht’s wagons, past the wagon where…
past the other wagon. She looked straight ahead as she went by, hearing sounds
coming from inside of it. She tried to ignore them, but they were dirt on the
white floor. Dark clouds in a blue and empty sky.

They hadn’t seen anyone in days. Not homesteaders, not travelers, not
Indians. The last house was far behind them, and her father had said it would
be a long way until they saw any other people, but that’s the way they were
going, and that was a bit of the point. There was a homestead far to the west
with their name on it, and any time Hattie asked her father to tell her where
they were going, he’d smile a somewhat distant smile and say, oh, far past
our troubles

Sometimes she was excited about going. Other times she wondered about how
there weren’t likely any other people where they were going and how a girl like
her would end up an old maid since the only other men around would be her
little brother, her father, and Mr. Utecht.

Right now, she was more excited, and it felt wonderful. She hummed as she
walked, and the smell of grass and soil and sun rolled all around her.

There was a little rise ahead, and she had seen Molly and Dale go that
way when they had stopped the wagons. Mr. Utecht was off somewhere trying to
rustle up game with one of the horses, and Mrs. Utecht was most likely with
Hattie’s mother, talking her ear off.

A locust popped past her, and she gave a momentary shout of surprise. She
caught it in her hands and looked at it as she walked. It was dust-brown, with
stubby little antenna and big eyes that didn’t seem to look at anything. It
kicked her hands with long, prickled legs, and when it buzzed its wings, she
could see that they were black and bright yellow beneath the uniform brown.

“Get on then,” she said and tossed it up into the sky with both hands. It
kicked as it lifted off and somehow seemed to bounce on the air itself before
falling back into the grass.

Hattie almost had to walk on tiptoes to see over the grass. She realized
she was coming up on the rise, and thankfully the grass was getting a bit
shorter as she went. She finally made it to the small crest of land, looking
back over her shoulder as she did. The grass was still tall, but the ground had
gone up enough for her to see the wagons. She could see Mr. Utecht riding back
from the north as well, with something slung over the back of his horse. She
hadn’t heard his rifle, but it looks like he had caught something all the same.

Something thumped into her and knocked her off her feet. The something
yelled, and she yelled, and it grabbed at her and she batted it away before
realizing it was just Dale. He was sobbing. Not loudly, but choked, terrified
gulps that matched his wide eyes and tear-streaked face.

“Hattie, Hattie don’t go that way, don’t go that way,” he begged, pulling
her. In the few short hours he had been gone, he had somehow become the
dirtiest little creature alive.

“Dale, what in heaven happened to you?” Hattie said, knowing full well
her father would have given her a stern word to hear her talk like that.

“Just don’t go that way,” Dale begged, “C’mon, don’t go.”

“Where’s Molly?”

Dale stopped talked and fumbled backward, as if question itself knocked
him off his feet. His sandy hair was full of grass and dirt. He had a scrape on
his cheek. He didn’t answer.

Hattie glared at her little brother. He was just entirely too useless
sometimes. With a huff, she stood up and looked down the rise, even as Dale
pulled on her arm and made small, annoying whimpers.

The world was a sea of long green grass, and in it, no more than a
hundred feet away, an island of black pulsated in the middle of a red shore.

Hattie blinked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Something
was moving? Something was alive? The black thing shifted and bubbled. The red
around it started to make sense. It was red grass. No, it was red on the grass?

Something rose up from the bubble. Something dusty brown and flat, with
two wide eyes that didn’t seem to look at anything. Below the eyes, hard plates
and little armored fingers shifted around a wet, vertical opening, feeding most
of a bloodied human arm into two crushing jaws.

The black island shifted again, sidling around its prey, and Hattie could
see what was left of Molly Utecht. The other girl stared back at her with eyes
that weren’t looking at anything. Hattie couldn’t see the rest of her clearly,
but she knew at least that much.

The thing over Molly reached out with long pale arms and pulled her head
up with a pop, passing it into the waiting fingers around its mouth as it
cocked its flat, dust-colored face.

Hattie sat down hard in the grass next to her brother. Dale grabbed her,
pulling her into a crawl as they both scuttled down the rise of land, back
towards the wagons on the other side of the thing that was eating Molly.

When they had made it to the bottom of the ridge, they got up and ran.
The light was so bright all around them. Her eyes were so wide, and everything
seemed to glow an unnatural gold and sting her vision. Locusts and bumblebees
popped up around her as she ran. Dale started screaming and outpaced her,
somehow headed in the right direction despite not being able to see over the
tall grass. He was only ten, and hadn’t shot up, unlike Molly, who was twelve
and dead.

Hattie stopped at the thought. She stood there in the grass, staring at
the disturbance against the flow of the wind where her little brother stumbled
towards her parents. He was still screaming. Her father and Mr. Utecht were
running towards him. Even Mrs. Utecht poked her head out of the other wagon
while scolding the boy. Their mother needed to rest after all.

Somewhere inside her own head, Hattie felt a pushing sensation that
wasn’t her own thoughts and stumbled forward. She fell out of the grass into
the little clearing they had trampled down between the four wagons.

“It just fell,” Dale was saying. “It just fell outta nowhere and Mollie
didn’t say anything. She just looked up at it and it just kinda fell again, but
this time onto her. Didn’t make no noise. Pa, it didn’t make any noise and it
just fell on her and then her blood just came out everywhere and it just kinda dragged
her for a bit.”

“Where’s Molly?” Mr. Utecht was asking. “Hattie, where’s Molly?”

Hattie felt the sound of her name more than she heard it, like snow down
the back of her dress. She looked at Mr. Utecht and opened her mouth, but
nothing seemed to come out. Mrs. Utecht had climbed out of the other wagon and
ran towards her. She was looking Hattie in the eye. She was asking where her
daughter was.

“Ann,” her father was saying, “Ann you’re scaring the poor girl.”

His face was inches from Hattie’s. “Hattie, it’s okay, you’re safe here
with me. What did you see?”

Dale held her father’s leg and wailed. The Utechts stared at her.

“I saw it eating Molly.”

“Saw what, Hattie?” Her father asked. Kindness flanked by concern. She
could tell he was trying to determine if she was playing games but didn’t
believe that she was. “Tell the truth now, even if it’s scary. What did you

“It had a locust face,” she muttered. She saw armored fingers passing an
arm into mandibles. She heard the faint crunch over the sound of meadowlarks.

Wait, had there been birds? She looked back over her shoulder, out at the

“Why did all the birds stop?” she asked. “Why did all the crickets stop?”

The four people surrounding her glanced out across the waving grass.
There was only wind, and above them, only empty sky.

Mrs. Utecht was the first to move. She marched back to the wagon she had
hopped out of and grabbed a rifle. “I don’t think this is a very funny joke,”
she said to Hattie as she passed. Dale cried all the louder.

“Ann,” Mr. Utecht called after her, “Ann sit still for a second so we can
think about this.”

“I ain’t sitting still if these kids are causing trouble.”

“Do you need the gun, Ann?” her husband asked.

Mrs. Utecht stopped and studied the gun as if she hadn’t realized it was
in her hands in the first place. “Best to be careful,” she muttered and kept
walking towards the ridge.

Mr. Utecht scratched at the beard that had grown in coarse and black over
much of his face over the duration of the trip. “Well, suppose we should at
least get the kids in the wagon just in case.”

Hattie’s father nodded. “Up n’ in there with your mother, kids.”

“But,” Hattie started to protest.

“I know I’m not gonna have to tell you twice,” her father said evenly.

Dale was already halfway into the wagon. Hattie took a few tentative
steps towards it, but stopped and turned to protest, only to be met with her
father raising a single finger and flicking it in the direction of the wagon.

Hattie knew that she couldn’t win an argument against him, so she trudged
away from the two men, even as they walked back to the wagon she rested in
earlier and picked up a pair of rifles and a few pistols besides.

The other wagon was in front of her. She put her hand on the boards to
pull herself up.

She paused, thinking of what was inside.

Her mother had fallen hard from the horse. She had hit that rock hard,
too. There had been a lot of blood. They bandaged her up as best they could,
but her mother… Hattie could hear the mumbling, moaning, not-talking that kept
spilling out of the thing in the wagon. It didn’t have her mother’s face. It
wasn’t bandaged, it didn’t smell strange. It had a face like a locust and was
surrounded by red grass as it stood over the body of Molly Utecht.

No, that wasn’t true. Hattie shook her head and crawled into the wagon.
Her mother wasn’t a monster. Hattie wanted to believe that but could only
glance at the woman out of the corner of her eye.

Her mother stared up at the canvas with one eye that didn’t seem to look
at anything. It blinked every now and then. The other one was covered by the
bandage wrapped around the side and top of her head. The linen was pink in
spots. Dale had curled into her mother’s side, rolled up in a ball. He had
wrapped their mother’s arm around him, though her hand hung weakly against him.
She made wordless noises every now and then, her mouth opening and closing
around nothing.

Hattie couldn’t look anymore, so she turned around, as much as it made
the hair on the back of her neck stand up to have her mother behind her.

She remembered her mother singing her to sleep. She remembered her mother
holding her and telling her stories that made her jump as sat under the tall
pines in Wisconsin and the owls kept waking her up. Her mother laughed and
stroked Hattie’s hair and it wasn’t long before even the owls couldn’t wake her
up anymore.

But now her mother wasn’t waking up either.

Mrs. Utecht was reaching the top of the ridge. She stood tall in the
grass, looked down the hill, and screamed for a minute before dropping over the
ridge and out of view. Mr. Utecht and Hattie’s father were already running
after her. Hattie’s eyes stayed glued to the line of the ridge, the place where
the empty sky met the ground.

The thing had a head like a locust and arms and hands like a man. Why was
it covered in a black shroud?

A minute later, her father and Mr. Utecht reappeared at the ridge. Mrs.
Utecht bawled between them, barely seeming able to walk. Mr. Utecht had both his
and her rifle slung over his back. All three of them stared at the ground in
wide-eyed silence.

“There ain’t nothing left,” Mrs. Utecht wailed. “There ain’t nothing left
of her.”

The three adults got back to the wagon. Hattie’s father looked at her. “You
said this was an animal? Not a person?”

Hattie struggled with the question. “It weren’t a person. It’s much too
big. It had hands n’ arms like a person, but its head was like a… like a big
grasshopper. Like a locust. But it was on sort of a neck and it was all just
covered in this black cloak, or black something. I couldn’t quite catch what it
was made of.”

The adults exchanged a look that made Hattie uneasy.

“I ain’t lying about it!” she snapped, even as she felt tears in her
eyes, which frustrated her even more. “Why would I lie about it? I like Molly!
There was a thing! Didn’t you see it?”

Hattie’s father frowned. “Hattie, weren’t nothing down there but blood
and a few pieces of gingham.”

Hattie blinked, scowled, and shoved past the adults. The thing was huge!
How could her father have missed it? It’s not like there was anywhere for it to
hide. She raced forward despite the protests of the adults, dropping onto all
fours right before she got to the top of the ridge so she could vanish into the
grass. She heard one of them chasing her, but she needed to see. She wasn’t
crazy. She saw that thing.

She stopped when she hit the edge of the ridge. A step, two more steps,
and she’d be able to see down the other side, but the image of Molly being
consumed sprang back into Hattie’s mind. What if it saw her? Hadn’t it already
seen her?

Her father caught up to her and pulled her to her feet. Not roughly, but
still unceremoniously. “Look,” he said, pointing her down the hill. “You see
anything down there aside from blood?”

The spattered circle of red rested in the middle of the trampled grass.
Bits of gore dotted the area, but there was no black thing in the middle.
Nothing with a locust’s face and human hands.

“But… it was there,” she whispered.

All around, the grass swayed. All around, the wind whispered. All around,
the sound of living things had vanished, and above her was a blue and empty
sky. She cocked her head back and stared up. The sun on the edge of her vision
made her eyes water, but she stared up and up and couldn’t understand what had

And far, far up above, a black spot marred the endless blue.

Hattie put her hand up to block the sun. A dot pulsed in the endless
upward reaches above, growing, moving.

“What are you looking at?” Her father asked. His hand tensed on her
shoulder as he looked up as well.

“What do you see?” Mr. Utecht yelled from the wagons. “What is it?”

The black spot grew. It pulsed and it grew, and it dropped.

The thing resolved itself into view as it plummeted from the sky. The
black cloak fluttered around its locust face. It fell, and as it fell towards
them, the cloak whipped open. Wings. Massive, black wings, with claws on the
joint like a bat, but feathers like a bird. The feathers themselves were
diaphanous; filtered, muddied light streamed through them as they spread wide
and the thing craned its long neck around to study them as it spread its white
arms as if to embrace them.

Hattie’s father knocked her aside. The thing’s fingers raked the air
above her, and it banked, sliding soundlessly down the incline of the ridge and
towards the wagons before pulling up, clipping the top of her mother’s wagon,
and then crashing down onto one of the oxen.

The bull lowed and screamed as the thing’s bulk pulsed higher than the
tops of the wagon. Mr. and Mrs. Utecht were yelling. Hattie’s father was
yelling and trying to push her down into the grass. Hattie could hear Dale
crying and her mother groaning and muttering in the wagon.

The thing raised its head over the wagon, feeding a dark strip of flesh
into its mandibles. Its long neck snapped back and forth from one person to
another and it kept eating.

“It’s a devil!” Mrs. Utecht yelled over and over. “It’s a devil and it’s
come for us!”

Mr. Utecht pulled her around to the side of one of the other wagons, and
the two hunkered down behind the wheel. Hattie’s father crouched low with her
in the grass. In a moment, the Utechts fell silent, huddled together as air
filled with the cries of Hattie’s mother and brother and the soft wet smack of
whatever the thing was doing to the ox amidst the cries of the other livestock.

“Hattie,” her father said, “I need you to stay here.”

Panic raced through her. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me!”

Her father grabbed her shoulder. She noticed he already had the rifle in
his other hand. “Your brother and your ma are down there, and I need to make
sure they can be quiet until that thing goes away. Here,” he handed her one of
the revolvers, “if that monster comes up here, you just shoot until it goes
away. Don’t try to aim at the head, just aim at whatever’s biggest and


“No!” Her father hissed. “Hattie, right now I need you to be the brave
one. Right now I need you to stay down and be quiet, because your mother and
Dale can’t be brave for themselves. Am I making myself clear?”

Hattie nodded. Her father smiled and pulled her in to kiss her on her
forehead. He smelled like the plains and sweat and cloth, and Hattie felt
herself relax a little as he held her close. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “You’re
the oldest, so you gotta be brave, okay?”

Hattie nodded, and her father was off down the ridge in a crouch. The
grass waved just above his head when he ran like that, but he made it back to
the wagon line.

The thing also watched Hattie’s father. She couldn’t see it in the
thing’s eyes, but it craned its neck over the top of the wagon and followed the
top of her father’s hat. It put one hand on top a wagon cover. The canvas tore
from the thing’s weight, and it soundlessly scuttled back and out of view
before launching itself back up in the air, wings tight at its side.

Hattie could get a better look then. Its back legs were like a locust’s
as well, long and prickly and brown, terminating in two wickedly hooked claws.
It had another set of feet as well on long, feathered legs between the human
arms and the locust legs. Those looked like eagle talons, all curved onyx on
the end of scaly yellow toes. The thing’s body looked feathered in patches as
well, chitinous in others, and still too in other spots bereft of any covering
aside from pale, wet-looking sin.

The monster tore into the air, far far up above, and when it had reached
the apex of its leap, it spread its massive wings and proceeded to circled
silently above them. Every now and then, its four wings would flap, making the
aberrant black dot marring the sky pulse slightly.

Hattie kept looking up and up. What else could she do?

Her father’s hand on her arm jarred her back to reality as she let out a
small yelp. He put a finger to his lips and pointed back towards the wagons,
then tapped his palm downwards, mouthing stay low.

The two of them dashed through the grass and back to the wagons. The
Utechts had moved to her mother’s wagon as well. They stood outside as her
father lifted her back up into the wagon with her mother in Dale. He climbed in
after her and knelt next to her mother. His face creased as the sight of her.
He picked up her hand and rubbed his thumb against the back of her knuckles.

“Thomas, get out here,” Mr. Utecht said. Hattie’s father kissed her
mother on the part of her forehead that was free from bandages and hopped out
of the wagon.

Hattie scooted closer to her mother and Dale. Her father’s kiss had
quieted her mother, but Dale still moaned in a little ball next to them. Hattie
moved her mother’s arm and curled up next to him to console him but turned her
ear towards the open end of the wagon where the adults talked in hard, sharp

“So what, you think we should just wait it out?” Her father asked.

“Maybe it won’t be interested in us after a spell,” Mr. Utech replied.
Mrs. Utecht stood a little bit further to the side, muttering something about

Hattie’s father frowned. “Or maybe it’ll wait for us until it gets dark.
You want that thing flying over us when we can’t see it?”

Mr. Utecht didn’t have a reply to that. Instead he grabbed his wife’s
shoulder. “Ann, for goodness’ sake stop that noise. Molly ain’t coming back and
right now we need to set to making sure we don’t follow her too quick.”

“We can ride out,” Mrs. Utecht’s words spilled rapidly from her mouth.
Her tear-streaked face was almost luminous in the harsh sunlight. “We can grab
the horses and go as fast as we can. If we each go in a different direction, it
can’t get all of us, right?”

“We don’t have enough horses,” Hattie’s father said. “There’re only three
of them and six of us.”

“We only need three horses if you and I take one of the little ones.”

The adults said nothing for a long moment. Hattie looked at her mother as
the woman let out a strange, rattling sound somewhere between a sigh and a
haunted giggle. All three adults looked into the wagon at her.

“Ann, that’s the man’s wife,” Mr. Utecht breathed.

“And she ain’t gonna be getting better in the next couple hours,” Mrs.
Utech hissed. “We could make it with the horses if we… if we… you know.”

“Left her as bait?” Hattie’s father asked. His voice had a flinty edge to

“We could live.”

“Ann,” Mr. Utecht cautioned.

“She ain’t gonna make it the rest of this journey. Only thing waiting for
her on the homestead is a grave.”

“Ann! Their children can hear you!”

“Their living children!” Mrs. Utecht wailed. “And if they wanna
keep living, you’d do well to listen to what I’m sayin’. You two’re cowards,
sitting here all high and might as that thing,” she rammed her finger
upward, “just sits there, watching us and circling. You’re so worried about
their feelings but how come you ain’t shed a tear for Molly yet? Your
daughter’s dead, Will!”

Mr. Utecht stumbled back at that. He glowered at his wife and stalked
back towards her, opening his mouth to shout. He towered over his wife, jaw moving,
but no words coming out.

“Got something to say?” she asked.

Mr. Utecht seemed to deflate. “I ain’t got nothin’ to say except this;
Molly’s dead, and I dunno how to feel about that yet because there’s a damn
devil whirling above our heads like a vulture. I ain’t gonna take my chances in
running, and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to hide.” He slapped his rifle
against his palm. “Next time that thing comes back, we’ll see if it’s as
bulletproof as it is ugly.”

“Big words,” his wife said, and stalked away.

The two men watched her go before Hattie’s father turned back to his
children. “I’m sorry you two had to hear that.”

“Are they gonna leave ma?” Dale asked. “Are they gonna leave her here to
get eaten?”

“No one’s leaving your mother,” Mr. Utecht said. “Ann’s being a bit

Hattie heard hoofbeats and sat up. The two men heard it as well and

trotted out from the wagons. Hattie slipped down behind them and the three of
them slipped around the side of the next wagon just in time to see Mrs. Utecht
tear away on one of the horses.

“Ann!” Mr. Utecht. “Dammit Ann, what are you doing?”

Hattie called her name as well, despite the things Mrs. Utecht had said
about Hattie’s mother. Though she wouldn’t tell the adults, Hattie agreed with
her. They should leave the thing her mother was becoming. Hattie couldn’t put
the feeling into words, but there was something clawing at her about it. If
they left her mother, maybe they could be safe. Maybe Dale and her father could
get away and find other people or a cave or anything that would take
them out from that flat, empty nowhere and out from under that blue and empty
sky. Mr. Utecht and her father were far outpacing her as they chased after Mrs.
Utecht. The horse and its rider sped away, and while they were still close the
distance was growing.

Until the thing slammed out of the sky with a crash, enveloping both the
horse and Mrs. Utecht in the endless blackness of its wings. It danced around
tis prey, insect mouth open wide, armored fingers wagging around its mouth.
Hattie could see the horse trapped under its two talons, and Mrs. Utecht
squirming to free her pinned leg from beneath her mount.

The thing spread too-human hands and grabbed at the horse’s leg, pulling
it free and passing it to the waiting fingers around its mouth. They caught it
and guided the leg in as it wrenched another limb away. The horse hadn’t died
yet, and it flopped its neck back and forth even as its blood sprayed upward,
drenching the brown of the monster, drenching the screaming Mrs. Utecht below.

The beast cocked its head and looked down as if slowly realizing the
horse and Mrs. Utecht were two separate things. It lowered twitching fingers
towards the woman, and a piece of horse fell out of its mouth as it moved
towards her, transfixed.

There was a loud crack. A puff of smoke. The rifle in Mrs. Utechts hands
blasted upward, and the creature’s head snapped back. Green ichor poured from a
small hole in its torso, and the thing finally made a noise; a strange, low
chuckling, warbling cry. It sounded like the wind blowing over wide bottle but
punctuated with an infant’s wail distorted inhumanly low. It fell onto its
hands as well as its four legs and slid slowly back from the woman as she
pulled herself out from under the horse and stood. She raised the rifle and slowly
backed away, her tan dress soaked in red, her brown hair matted to her face.
Even from as far away as she was, Hattie could see her trembling.

She took another step back and fired the other barrel of the rifle, but
her shaking, bloody hands sent the gun spinning from her hands. It landed
softly in the grass next to her, and both the creature and Mrs. Utecht turned
their attention to the weapon, then back to each other.

The first note of a scream began to escape Mrs. Utechts lips, but before
any more could, the creature’s long neck shot out and it closed its mouth
around her head. It didn’t get all of it in one bite, and the monster’s jaws
smashed it like a rotten apple. Mrs. Utecht’s arms spasmed at her side before
the thing flicked its neck and tore her head free. Her body fell to its knees,
gore spurting upward as the creature retracted its neck and crawled forward,
white fingers reaching for the rest of the corpse.

Mr. Utecht said nothing. He stared wide-eyed as the monster gathered up
his wife’s body and leapt back into the sky. It wheeled there, skipping in
front of the sun for just a moment on each turn, and little bits of Mrs. Utecht
fell back to the earth with soft, wet taps.

The two men ran back towards Hattie, though all three of them wouldn’t
stop looking upward. Her father swept her up in his arms and they dashed back
to the wagon. Hattie kept seeing the thing’s mouth around Mrs. Utecht’s face, a
living vice crushing her life away in seconds. Up above them, the thing slipped
lazily through the sky, eating.

“Will,” her father started to say, but Mr. Utecht held up his hand.

“Later. For now, we know runnin’ ain’t an option.”

Hattie’s father nodded. The two of them and Hattie clustered by the back
of the wagon. Hattie didn’t want to go in. She didn’t want to look up at the
sky, but if she couldn’t see the sky, she couldn’t see when the black bruise
that floated on the clear blue would come next.

Thankfully, she realized that Dale couldn’t have seen anything, as one of
the other wagons blocked the view. The remaining oxen on the other side of the
wagons lowed fearfully, and Hattie could smell manure and the leftovers of the
ox the creature had attacked.

“Can’t run,” Hattie’s father said again. “Can’t stay here.”

“What if we cut the oxen free?” Hattie said.

Mr. Utecht nodded. “They bolt, then we bolt while it’s eating the cows.”

“How are we supposed to bolt?” Hattie’s father asked, nodding at his
wife’s wagon. “Even with the horses. We couldn’t get a wagon hitched fast enough.”

Hattie bit her lip. She thought of her mother lying there in the wagon.
She thought of the nonsense sounds spilling from the woman’s lips, the hole in
her head that was never going to heal right. The thing that was in her wasn’t
the person who sang to her and told her jokes and make her cornbread. The thing
in there wasn’t even a person anymore.

Mr. Utecht noticed her expression. “Tom, Ann wasn’t right in sayin’ what
she said, but you’ve got two kids to worry about. If scattering the oxen could

“No,” her father said. “Out of the question.”

“Tom.” Mr. Utecht’s voice was firm.

“Why don’t you just run?” Her father snapped at Mr. Utecht. “If you’re so
worried about saving your own hide, why don’t you just do it instead of
offering my wife as bait?”

Mr. Utecht’s frown deepened. “Might as well. I ain’t got a kid or wife to
protect anymore.”

Hattie’s father tried to find the words to respond but gave up after a
moment. “I can’t leave my wife, Will.”

Hattie balled her fists at her side. “Ma’s already dead!” she yelled.
“That thing in there isn’t my mother. That thing in there is gonna get us all
killed as good as if it’s that devil in the sky!”

Her father grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and gave her a hard
shake. “Don’t you dare say that about your mother!”

“My mother hit her head on a rock and died, pa!” Hattie screamed. “I
don’t wanna die because you can’t admit that!”

Her father’s face was flushed. Were those tears on his cheek? His gritted
teeth shone out through his beard and he let go Hattie before crawling into the

Mr. Utecht was watching the sky. Hattie looked up with him while the
thing circled above him. She could hear her mother making strange cooing noises
from inside the wagon.

“Wasn’t a nice thing to say about your mother,” he said.

“You were gonna say we should leave her behind anyhow,” Hattie replied.

“No,” Mr. Utecht said, “I was gonna say we should scatter some of the
oxen, then I’d take one of the horses out, and then you n’ Dale could take one
of the other horses, and have the last two oxen haul your ma’s wagon with your
father. That way, you two would be the smallest target, but your dad could
still try to keep your mom safe.”

Hattie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the black dot circling above in
the sky. She kept seeing long white arms and clawed feet. She kept thinking she
could see light glinting through dirty, translucent feathers. Everything around
it was blue. Everything around it seemed to magnify and diminish the creature
at the same time. It was the only thing she could see in the sky, but it seemed
to pull further and further away, almost vanishing as if it were never real in
the first place.

Mr. Utecht’s face told her it was real. His eyes, their tiredness, the
haunted expression of loss, told her it was real. “Why would you try to save my

The man refused to tear his gaze from the sky. The corner of his mouth
crooked up in a rueful grin. “Because I’d do the same thing for my w…if my wife
was still alive.”

He pointed up. “That there. That’s death. Death ain’t a rock and a bad
fall of a horse. Death ain’t even starving on the trail or freezing during a
bad turn of luck in a mountain pass. That’s just passing on. Death is brutal.
It’s claws and tearing and suffering. Ain’t usual you can look up at the sky
and see death hanging there.”

“I don’t understand,” Hattie said.

Mr. Utecht finally lowered his gaze and met hers. “Your ma might not win
her fight, but she’s fightin’, same as us. Ain’t right to take that choice to
fight away from her. It’s one thing to step in front of death for someone. It’s
another to throw them in front of you.”

He glanced back up at the sky before walking away. “I’m gonna go hitch up
the oxen.”

Hattie frowned stood at the back of her mother’s wagon. She peeked
inside. Her father was holding Dale in his lap and stroking his wife’s hair.
Her mother was staring at the canvas above her, seeing nothing, and useless
sounds were dripping out of her mouth. Her eyes were sunken, lips chapped. She
seemed so much frailer than before her fall.

Mr. Utecht was wrong. Hattie’s mother wasn’t fighting some brave fight.
She was dying, plain and simple. She wasn’t standing up to death, death was
just taking its time with her. It repulsed Hattie, even more since her father
wouldn’t listen to reason and leave his wife behind. Mr. Utecht was right; Dale
and Hattie couldn’t get by on their own. Hattie knew she could maybe survive a
day or two, but as she once again noticed the vast, empty land around her, she
knew there was no way she could find civilization without them.

But they could find it without her mother.

She thought about her father, smiling as she asked about their
destination. Oh, far past our troubles.

How could they go past their troubles with her mother in tow?

She looked back up to the sky, blue and empty.


A twitch of motion caught her eye, and the thing slammed back down to
earth on the side of her mother’s wagon. She heard the oxen cry out and Mr.
Utecht shout and fire his pistol. The creature uttered the strange crying
chuckle again, and then one of the wagons careened over the top of her mother’s
wagon and shattered into the earth at Hattie’s feet. She screamed in terror and
leapt back into her mother’s wagon, but even as she did, the whole wagon rocked
to the side. The canvas cover tore away, and a flat face and blank, staring
eyes peered down at them as long, white fingers gripped the edge of the wagon
and pushed it over, dumping the four occupants onto the ground.

Dale wailed in terror. Hattie’s father grabbed her and Dale and scrambled
to one of the other wagons, quickly jerking everyone inside even as the monster
threw her mother’s wagon away. It soared through the air, crashing to the
ground yards away.

Hattie could only see the monster’s feet. Its white hands dipped down,
picking up clothes and bags of feed and canned goods. Each motion was followed
by crunching and tearing as it ate everything it lifted. It paced, eagle-talons
digging into the dirt as long grasshopper legs dragged behind them, seemingly
useless in any locomotion that didn’t serve to send it airborne.

And below it all, between the legs and hands and the grabbing and the
chewing, Hattie’s mother lay on her back on the beaten grass and stared at the
beast’s underside, uncomprehending.

Hattie clamped one hand over Dale’s mouth as he tried to scream, the
other over her own for the same reason. Her father lay next to her, wide eyes
locked onto the prone body of his wife.

“Hattie, Hattie stay here, okay?” he whispered. “I gotta get your ma.”

“No!” she hissed. “No you’ll die, it’ll eat you, you’ll die!”

“I gotta get your ma, just stay here,” he said, his whispers as desperate
and manic as Hattie’s.

She clutched at her father. She couldn’t let him go. “Why are you leaving
us? She’s already dead!”

She stopped when she saw his face. She had seen her father happy and sad,
angry and frustrated and silly and quiet.

In that moment, he didn’t look like her father. In that moment, he looked
like a scared man trying to be brave. A terrified man simply trying to do the right

“Because she’d save me if I was the one out there,” he said quietly,
grabbed the wheel of the wagon, and slid himself out from under it. Hattie
grabbed for him as he went, but he was too fast, and he was already
half-running-half-crawling across the flattened patch of grass.

The creature had already turned and was picking through the wagon it had
torn through on accident when it killed the first ox. Her father crept in
through the noise, but as he did, one of the monster’s clawed legs stepped
directly between him and his wife.

Hattie’s father came to an abrupt halt, even pinwheeling his arms to keep
from falling over. Even so, he rocked back and sat down hard, crunching in the
grass and flicking a terrified look at the monster. The thing didn’t seem to
have heard him, though, and a moment later its leg lifted and slid away.

Hattie’s father pulled his remaining pistol from his belt and snuck
forward as Hattie watched. He was two feet from her mother, then one, then
inches. He pulled off his riding coat and slid it under her head, then clutched
his pistol in one hand and grabbed his wife’s wrist with the other, trying to
tug her back to the wagon. Frail and slight though she was, he strained to pull
her from a crouch with one hand. Frowning, he holstered his pistol, and grabbed
both her wrists, trying to pull her along, adjusted the coat under her head
with every step.

The movement was excruciating to watch. To Hattie, it seemed like he was
barely moving at all. Her mother was dead weight in his hands, and as he
dragged her mother, her father’s attention flipped constantly between the thing
he was hauling and the thing that towered above them, fingers long as rake
handles picking through the wagons.

He made it back to their wagon. He ducked his head down, looked at Hattie,
and smiled.

Her mother let out a long, loud string of babbling nonsense.

Her father’s smile vanished. White fingers encircled his waist.

“Hattie,” he stuttered, “Hattie don’t let it take me.”

Hattie grabbed for his hands.

“Hattie, please, Hattie!”

His fingers slipped from hers as the monster wrenched him up into the
air. She heard him holler, and then the sound of his pistol followed by the
gurgling noises that the monster made when it’s wounded.

Then, Hattie’s father slammed head-first into the ground next to his
wife, his body crumpling like a crushed tin can as the monster mashed him
against the dirt and continued to make furious pained warbles.

His head had been fully ground into the dirt to the point where it looked
like he had been buried upside-down. The rest of him was compact, leaking
fluids, with bones protruding through his shirt, his pants, his arms.

Dale screamed.

The monster’s face slammed onto the ground next to their father. It
completely ignored their mother and instead focused its blank, compound eyes on
Hattie and Dale. She saw herself reflected there, terrified and dirty. She
didn’t remember cutting her face. Maybe it was her father’s blood?

The thing slithered back silently, lifting its head up out of view.

Long fingers slid with lightning-fast speed under the cart. Hattie
screamed and shoved herself back, pulling Dale awkwardly with her. The hand
raked at the ground, fingers twitching independently like a fist of branches
blowing in a gale. Hattie screamed and kept sliding back.

The hand retracted, rotated, grasped the bottom of the wagon, and then
tilted it up as the thing’s flat locust-face snapped towards them on its
serpentine neck.

They couldn’t slide back further because of the way the beast was tilting
the wagon, but Hattie shoved Dale to one side and dove to the other as the
monster’s face slammed between them. She could see that her father had done
good work to it before he had died. There was a leaking hole in one of the
giant eyes, green ooze dripping from its neck, and one of the little fingers
around the mouth had been blown away.

She didn’t stop to admire his handiwork. She dashed around the wagon as
the monster reeled from missing them. It pulled its head back, twitching it
back and forth, before knocking the wagon away. Was it having a harder time
seeing them?

Hattie slowly realized she was out on the open. She couldn’t see where
Dale was but spotted him after a moment hiding under the one wagon that was
still intact. Her mother still lay near the creature’s feet, near her father’s

The monster hunkered down for a second, grabbed the one remaining horse
that hadn’t bolted, and leapt back up into the air. Hattie watched it lift and
shrink, tainted light streaming through its wings, a dark blot on the empty

Slowly, she stumbled back to her father. She fell to her knees in the
dirt next to him. For a moment, she wondered if maybe he was still alive, but
it wasn’t possible. The Utechts were all gone. Her father was gone. Her mother
was good as gone.

Hattie balled her hands up at her side and screamed into the wind. She
pounded her fists against the ground and cried, staring up at the thing that
hunted them far above. There was nowhere to go. It would come back. Even if
they ran, how far would they have to go before it would stop chasing them?
Would it even let them run?

She screamed and swore. She pounded her fists on the ground and cried.
She was going to die here, among the shattered wagons and the tall grass. She
was going to die with the blood of her family all around her, with her
terrified brother and a mother who had died days ago. There was no ‘far past
their troubles’. Their troubles hung above them like a burn on the blue of the
sky. Their troubles were the vast nothingness of that grass sea and the horror
that it had spawned. There was no ‘far past’. There never would be.


She almost didn’t hear the voice over her own. She swiped a dirty hand
across her face, choked back her tears.

Her mother was reaching for her. She still was looking straight up, but
her right arm was outstretched. She hadn’t fallen like that.

Hattie crawled over to her mother, and while the woman was looking
straight ahead, into the hollow sky above them, for a moment, she focused on
her daughter.

“Help… Dale.”

Hattie grabbed her mother’s hand. The woman kept breathing, but her
eyesight was far away again. “Ma!” Hattie cried. “Ma, wake up!”

Was she alive? Could she come back?

Hattie located Dale under the other wagon and ran to grab him. She lifted
him up into the wagon and then looked back at their mother. The woman gazed up
into the sky, uncomprehending, half-bandaged face placid and empty.

But she had said Hattie’s name.

Hattie growled and looked up at the sky. Death hung there, flapping idly
every minute or so as it turned circles above them. She looked back at her
mother. Death was there as well, in the remains of her father, in the wounds on
her mother’s head. But maybe her mother was fighting death. Maybe she could
beat it.

Hattie shook her head and dashed back to her mother. She was too heavy
for her to carry, but Hattie slung the woman over her shoulder and started
drag-crawling her back to the wagon. The grass crunched under her hands, woody
stems and edged leaves nicking and poking her palms and knees as she stumbled
back under her mother’s weight.

The weight lifted. Hattie screamed and fell away, expecting to see the
beast holding her mother. Instead, Mr. Utecht had lifted the woman into his
arms. He had a cut on the side of his head, but it seemed superficial despite
the blood that caked his left.

“Get the oxen hitched,” he said.

Hattie nodded and ran to the wagon, fixing everything so they could dash.
Mr. Utecht helped Dale into the wagon and found a stable place for Hattie’s
mother to rest. The thing above them circled, winding through the sky over and
over, flickering in front of the sun like a momentary eclipse.

“We set the last horse to running,” Mr. Utecht said as Hattie crawled
into the wagon behind him, “and then we make a dash for it in the wagon. I
think that could give us our best chance, but I won’t do it unless you agree.”

Hattie studied the man. She was just a child. There wasn’t a reason for
him to ask her to weigh in.

“It’s your family,” he explained.

She nodded and hugged Dale. She held her mother’s hand for a moment, and
maybe the woman smiled. Maybe she didn’t. Mr. Utecht watched her with narrowed
eyes. She grabbed a shotgun from the wagon and checked to see if the revolver
was still tucked into her dress.

“I’ll get the horse going. You just be ready to bolt,” she said.


“You just be ready to bolt,” she repeated. “You know the way and can
drive the wagon better than I ever could.”

The man looked at Dale and Hattie’s mother, then at Hattie. He nodded
solemnly. “Godspeed, Hattie.”

She smiled, dropped out of the wagon, and ran.

Her legs felt like they’d fly out from under her as she tore across the
beaten grass. Above, something dimmed the sun, and Hattie ran all the harder.
She made it to the horse and managed to swing herself to its back, thankful
that her father had already saddled it earlier. She dug her heels into its
side, snapped the reins, and hunkered down.

Hattie allowed herself a momentary glance back at Mr. Utecht, who nodded
at her one more time before calling out to the oxen. She saw the wagon begin to
tear away into the grass sea.

And then the monster crashed between them.

She had counted on its bad eye to make it lose track of the wagon as she
ran. She had counted on it following her, and as her horse broke into a gallop,
she turned back over her shoulder and fired, winging the creature along its
flat face, tearing a trench through its left cheek.

The beast gurgled in pain and fury and surged after her. She kicked her
horse again, willing it to go faster, but the terrified animal needed little
prompting. It bucked, throwing her wide, and tried to run, but the monster’s
head snapped out over her and sank its jaws into the horse’s neck. The rest of
the creature’s body followed, talons and insect legs alike thumping around
Hattie as it pulled closer to the horse.

Hattie slid out from under the thing and stood up. She risked a glance
back at the wagon and smiled to see that it was already slowly shrinking away,
white canvas top mingling more and more with the green wave of the grassy
plain. She looked back at the monster.

They couldn’t run. They couldn’t run if that thing was alive.

Hattie gritted her teeth, clenched the shotgun in her hand, and grabbed
onto a fist of feathers on the thing’s back.

The beast felt her immediately. It reached back with long white hands,
twisting its long, narrow torso to grab at her. Hattie responded by blowing off
one of its slender arms with the shotgun.

The kick from the weapon nearly threw her from the thing, but she
steadied herself and raised the gun again. It swiped at her once more, and she
fired the gun. She didn’t get the whole arm this time, but the spray of shot
tore off three of the thing’s fingers and scraped along the edge of its face.
It gurgled, cooed, and threw itself into the air.

Hattie dropped the emptied gun as they shot up, clinging to the patches
of feathers on the thing’s back, digging her other hand in a gap between two
plates of dust-brown chitin. Huge wings flapped along side her as the thing
propelled itself up. The force of the jump made her eyes water and pushed her
back hard, but she clung on. She had to hang on. For Dale, for Mr.

For her mother.

She glanced back down as the monster reached the apex of its jump and
began to glide. Far below the endless expanse of grass rippled and shimmered,
the wind visible in waves as the green stalks bent and stood like one single,
living thing moving in tandem with itself.

A tiny white rectangle pushed west. It seemed to move so slow below her,
but she knew Mr. Utecht was driving the oxen as hard as she could.

And all around her…

The colossal sky hung everywhere. It was no longer empty space, but a
thing in and of itself that reached out, arms stretched wide, pushing the
distant horizons down and lifting itself up and up forever. There were no
clouds, and the sun shone with a painful intensity that threatened to blind her
whether she looked at it or not. There was nothing there, and everything, and
everything beyond that; a universe far beyond the firmament.

A place far past their troubles.

Frigid air whipped past her, and she crawled forward, her breath catching
in her lungs as she pulled towards the monster’s head. It still cooed and
warbled its pained sounds, and as it did, Hattie pointed the revolver at the
back of its head and fired.

And missed.

The thing whipped its head around and stared at her with eyes that didn’t
seem to see anything. It swatted at her with its broken hand, managing to catch
her and drag her off its back. She screamed as its fingers crushed down on her.
It raised her to its mouth, and plated jaws opened as little fingers pushed her
closer to the opening.

Hattie wrestled her hand free. She rammed her arm into the creature’s
mouth, and even as it bit down, she pulled the trigger over and over.

Green ichor and darker matter burst from the back of the beast’s head. It
went limp, and she slipped from its fingers. Her right arm was mangled, but she
still clutched the gun. Her chest screamed in pain from being crushed, but she
still sucked in breath.

She fell, and the beast fell along with her. She had killed the death
that hunted them.

The ground was a world away, and it almost seemed to come towards her
slowly despite the speed at which she knew shew as falling. She tried to see if
she could spot the wagon one more time, but there was nothing but endless,
wafting green. The corpse of the monster plummeted next to her, and Hattie
twisted her body around to look up.

The dome of the world stretched above her, no longer marred with a
pulsing back stain.

Hattie fell for what could have been forever, laughing up into a blue and
empty sky.