THE GUARDIAN

When I was twelve, I got an air gun for my birthday. A Red Ryder bee-bee gun, more precisely. It was a noble work of art, from the engraved wooden stock to the tip of the polished muzzle. My dad could get away with giving me such a heinous weapon because he'd divorced my mom four years ago.

I sat through the formalities of the birthday party for awhile, bubbling with anticipation like a kettle threatening to boil over. Finally I slipped out with a group of my friends, armed with the Red Ryder. I loaded the chamber until it almost overflowed and we vanished into the thin band of woods that formed the boundary of our backyard. We didn't know if we were breaking any laws, nor did we care.

We took turns shooting at beer cans teenagers left in a clearing. Soon the cans were torn and riddled with holes, and frankly, the whole thing was getting boring. One of my friends spotted a squirrel on a fallen tree. Its big eyes watched us with something other than the constant paranoia of most squirrels. It moved little, even when we edged closer to it.

I'd seen this squirrel too many times. He was an ancient-looking gray thing that crawled up the bush outside my window to chatter before the sun rose. Sometimes he even scratched on the screen, as if he were trying to wake me up two hours too early. I would hit the window and yell and cuss until the sun came up, but it just gazed at me with those inquisitive eyes.

A smirk danced on my face as I trained the sights on the rodent's head. My friends protested in shocked voices, but none raised a hand against me. Something clicked in the old squirrel's tiny head and his eyes glazed with fear. It dove off the log and tore through the underbrush towards an oak. I took two blind shots through the leaves and bramble and took off after it. It scrambled halfway up the tree and stopped, its sides heaving and its bulging, terrified eyes facing me.

Something primal gripped me. Thoughts of compassion simply did not exist. I was a predator on the verge of success, thrilled and utterly calm. I raised the barrel, fixed the sights for a moment, and pulled the trigger. My aim was true. The squirrel squealed and fell, then hit the ground with a limp thud. I paced over to my prey and cocked the gun again. It twitched its last few moments away and moved no more.

I regained my senses as my friends caught up to me, but I still could not feel sorry for the little tree rat that woke me up early. We headed back to my house, saying little. My friends ended up staying the night. Since it was my birthday, I didn't have to sacrifice my bed. I fell asleep around one in the morning.

I sensed something outside of a dream and jerked awake. The first thing that hit me was the stench. It was like a hundred animals in different stages of decay, with the hint of a living snake and sulfur mired somewhere in the middle. I gagged, and my eyes began to focus. Something huge loomed over me, its white eyes appraising me with cold anger. A second gag died in my throat. My petrified eyes could make out little of the thing above me. Parts of its immense figure seemed to be nothing more than swirling black clouds. Other parts were covered in what looked like thick, oily fur, short feathers or peeling scales. Its head became clearer as it drew closer to my own. It had three horns that curved into utter darkness. The rest of its head looked like an unholy union of crocodile and bull, with bent yellow teeth. Its odor grew unbearable, and I could barely bring myself to breathe.

After a long moment, it reared up and roared. The roar will haunt my nightmares until I die. It was like a masculine thunderbolt and the squeal of a freight train trying desperately to stop. With a massive claw, it tore off a tiny gray patch of fur from itself and held it inches from my face. It was no patch of fur. It was the squirrel I killed. Anguished, bloated eyes met mine. I screamed and screamed.

I woke at nine the next morning, more tired than when I went to bed. But I stumbled out of bed and ate some cereal half-heartedly. As I finished off the bowl, one of my friends staggered over to me, pale and wide-eyed.

"You have to come see this," he said.

I followed him out the front door and we froze. The gray squirrel lay on the porch, eyes still wide with death.