I drew a careful, winter chilled breath as the barrel of his gun stared me down. The mist which escaped from my numb lips drifted into the air, and I spoke a mindful, cautious sentence, "Maybe..." I hesitated, worried even a statement as unoffensive as this could upset his suddenly unpredictable temperament "Maybe put the gun down, Stan."
He responded harshly, though not so harshly that I'd find myself dead, "Put the gun down?" he shouted, "Put it down? And then what? You're gonna try and tackle me?"
Speaking still carefully, I replied softly, "No, Stan, we're all friends here. Just put it down." His eyes darted to the right, probably over to Janice who stood mere feet from me, estimating whether she posed any imminent danger. She didn't, of course, she and her husband were cowering, terrified they'd be shot. I kept talking, trying to get Stan to focus back on me, "Why don't you just put the gun on the ground, Stan?"
His head immediately shifted back in my direction, his gaze landing on me, and for a moment I thought I could see regret and indecision in his eyes. My friend Stan had to still be in there somewhere, I reasoned. After all, what were the odds that someone would go so completely insane while doing nothing more than walking to the corner store to pick up some drinks?
"No, man," he replied. His voice was shaky, as if he was afraid, perhaps afraid of following through with murdering his friends so cruelly, "no. I can't put it down, it's my protection." He said sternly.
"Protection from what, Stan?" I asked, "None of us are gonna hurt you, come on. You know us. We're your friends." I didn't know what else to say, but knew that if nothing was said the danger would only escalate.
I looked over at Janice briefly, only just long enough to verify she was okay. Like me, and like her husband now, she had her hands up. But she'd had them up so long they were growing heavy, she struggled to hold them higher than her chest. I felt the weight of my own arms and felt pity for her, but there was nothing more I could do. She locked eye contact with me for a few seconds, as if pleading silently for help.
I looked back at Stan, he was no longer aiming the gun directly at any of us. In fact, though it was surprising, Stan was scratching his head with the hand holding the gun. He said, "My god, it's hot out today."
Ignoring his statement, I noticed the gun was pointed at a weird angle toward the ground, and I recognized this as my chance, and kicked him in the shin. The gun was hurled several feet from us as Stan, shocked, cringed backward in pain. He looked at me as though I had betrayed him, but my only thought was to grab the gun before he could recover.
I leapt into the snow where it landed, grabbing it with more determination and satisfaction than I'd felt, honestly, in years. I stood back up, gun in hand, and practically cheered in victory. But it was then I heard the low, uneasy growl. It was a shaky and unsettling noise, like a massive stomach groaning for sustenance. I heard Janice's voice for the first time since the start of our little predicament, she said my name with a bit of a stutter, "B-b-b-bill..." I turned, slowly, around.
Stan was face down in the snow. I approached the group again, taking each step with great care, though I didn't have any particular reason why. The noise I'd just heard coupled with Janice's shaky rendition of my name, and now the sight of my strongest friend, Stan, laying in the snow, unmoving, had left me with an uneasy feeling I couldn't shake.
Upon reached Stan, I knelt down and reached out to touch him, but stopped inches from him. I could feel heat radiating from him, as if he were somehow generating it. I stood back up and carefully poked him with my foot, but the man didn't budge. I poked him again and still found no response. I shoved him with enough force to roll him over, and that's when we saw his face. Janice screamed and her husband covered his mouth with one of his hands. Stan had somehow been burned to a crisp, smoke was still wafting from the flakes that once composed his forehead. "I've read about stuff like this," I said, "spontaneous combustion."
Moments later I was standing in front of my friends, Janice and her husband Cain, pointing a gun in their general direction. Janice was crying, and the smell of burnt meat permeated the air. I was feeling dizzy, though not unable to stand, and felt as though we were being watched. I was suddenly brought out of my stupor as I heard Cain say, "Maybe... Maybe put the gun down, Bill."
I shot a look at him as though he'd lost his mind and mockingly said, "Put the gun down? Put it down? And then what? You're gonna try and tackle me?"
"No, Bill, we're all friends here. Just put it down." he replied. I heard a noise to my left and looked toward it, Janice stood there, cowering. I meant her no harm but she couldn't understand that. It was the pale white creature which now stood behind her that I was worried about. It stood on hind legs and had no arms or neck, but had a massive, gaping mouth and large round eyes of pure blackness. It hunched over and stared into my soul. "Why don't you just put the gun on the ground, Bill?" Cain continued.
I immediately turned my head to look at him, hoping the beast would leave us alone if we ignored it. I looked at him and hoped that the fear I was trying to project through my eyes translated smoothly to him.
“No, man," I replied. My voice was shaky, I realized, as the terror took root in me, "no. I can't put it down, it's my protection." I said, trying to sound stern.
“Protection from what, Bill?" he asked, "None of us are gonna hurt you, come on. You know us. We're your friends."
Suddenly it felt as though the temperature had risen by at least 30 degrees, and was still steadily rising. I wiped some sweat away with my left hand, the one holding the gun, and said, "My god, it's hot out today."
No one seemed to hear me, though, and worse yet, Cain kicked me in the shin seconds later. Before I could react, though, my vision began to fade. I could feel myself losing consciousness, but I knew I was in intense pain. Though I couldn't seem to scream. I fell over, and suddenly, there was only blackness.