Salvation looked like hell. So it was exactly as Iris Danes remembered it. She steered her Jeep around a jagged crack in the asphalt just ahead of the faded sign that read Welcome to Salvation! Posted beneath the cheery welcome message was another, more ominous sign.
For your safety:
Turn on the radio
Keep your windows rolled up
Do not feed the monsters
“Good to be back,” Iris muttered, syncing her Bluetooth and cranking up the volume as she drove past the sign. Stevie Nicks’s voice blasted from her speakers, singing about white winged doves. The sky over Salvation was always dark; the foreboding black clouds hadn’t receded once in the last twenty years. In the five since Iris had been gone, they seemed to have gotten even darker. Jagged bolts of purple and red lightning forked through them like spears from time to time. And below the clouds, the southwestern desert sprawled out in every direction. Cacti stood like kings overseeing their otherworldly domain; sage brushes and the occasional tumbleweed serving as their sentinels.
Iris tapped her fingers against the steering wheel, humming along to the song. Out of the corner of her eye, Iris saw movement. She turned up the volume on the radio and pushed the gas pedal a little harder. She didn’t turn her head, keeping the monster in her periphery until it dropped out of sight altogether. She turned and drove the Jeep up to a large black gate strung with barbed wire and overgrown ivy.
Iris simply sat there, halfway wondering if the gate would just remain closed. After all, she’d been the one to walk through it and not look back, until now. After a couple of minutes the gate swung open and she drove through. She put the Jeep in park and stared at the house, at once as familiar to her as her own face and as foreign as a stranger. She’d been gone for five years but it felt like a lifetime. The garage door opened and she pulled inside. Once the garage was closed, she made herself get out of the car and walk inside the house. Her father had built the garage, and it was soundproof.
But as soon as she stepped inside, she was engulfed in noise. It wrapped around her like a safety blanket. She was in the kitchen, which was full of white noise machines. She could faintly hear the tinkling of half a dozen wind chimes outside the window. Her mother had loved wind chimes, and they had each hung a set out front like a shrine. Iris had left the next day.
She moved out of the kitchen, the sound of wind chimes and the memories of her mom making Sunday dinners trailing after her like ghostly sighs. Her feet walked the familiar path down the hall to the living room, the corner of which was occupied by a large monitor that showed the camera feeds from around the property. And seated in front of the screens was her father.
“Hi, Daddy,” Iris said. Her voice was loud though the words were quiet; she spoke them almost like a question. Or maybe a plea. Teddy Danes was a hard man to read, but he rose from his chair and studied her face.
“You came back.”
His voice settled on her like a weight, but then he hugged her, and she didn’t crumple under the burden of her grief and her guilt. She hugged him tightly, savoring the feel of his flannel shirt against her cheek. She had hoped to return home with some dignity but tears pooled in her eyes as soon as her father kissed the top of her head. She felt like a little girl again, nursing a scraped knee and needing Teddy to make it better.
“I’m sorry I left,” she said, her voice thick around the lump in her throat. “I guess I thought I had to leave Salvation in order to find it.”
Teddy’s chuckle rumbled through her since she still had her face pressed to his chest. He gently pulled her away, looking at her face again before squeezing her shoulders.
“You look even more like your mom than the last time I saw you,” he remarked and Iris knew that in the language of Teddy Danes, that meant “welcome home.” She wiped at her eyes and offered a watery smile. She glanced toward the hallway again, where the stairs led up to the bedrooms. A jumble of noise spilled down from up there, but she could tell the sounds apart. Grams was listening to Sinatra; Luck Be a Lady. There were strains of Beethoven, which conjured the image of her brother Simon. Cameron was the one with an action movie playing at full volume, and Jamie was wailing on an electric guitar. And of course, Teddy had Bobbie Gentry and Tammy Wynette keeping him company in the living room.
This was the soundtrack to Iris’s life. Her house had never not been full of noise, except for that night when the power had gone out and the monsters had stolen her mother in the moments of silence. These monsters didn’t hunt in the traditional sense. They slithered into people’s minds, using voices like snapping jaws to trap them. They made people do things. Terrible things. They forced their prey to do the killing and then feasted on the corpses left behind. Scavengers of fear. You had to surround yourself in noise to block them out, to prevent their projected voices from digging into your brain like a burrowing parasite.
Iris’s mother had been awake, downstairs in the kitchen when the power went out. The voices had taken her, urging her to grab a knife from the drawer and walk outside. The rest of them had been startled awake by the deafening hush, and Iris had spotted her mother from the window. She screamed for Teddy and the power had stuttered back to life, filling the house with noise again. But Laura Danes was caught up in the whispers weaving through her mind, and the music blaring from the house and even the anguished shout of her husband as he’d tried to reach her wasn’t enough to break the spell. Laura had slashed the blade across her own throat. Iris had run down the stairs after her father and watched from the back door as her mother’s body fell, graceful but limp and blood-stained; like a fallen angel.
A week later, Iris left home. She’d been nineteen and her heart had become a shredded piece of raw meat in her chest. She’d felt as if she’d been buried alive, the house crowded with noise and memories a sealed crypt that she needed to escape. She had craved silence. A place where when people spoke of their grief, they could do it in whispers instead of shouting the pain to be heard over the clatter of unending sound. She’d just wanted to be able to scream and actually hear the echo of her own pain instead of it being absorbed by everyone else’s noise.
“Are you ready to see the others?” Teddy asked. Iris didn’t think they were ready to see her but she nodded anyway, wiping her eyes again. Teddy went upstairs to bang on bedroom doors. Footsteps pounded on the stairs and Jamie rounded the corner, stopping short when he saw her. He laughed.
“Holy shit, I thought Dad was messing with us. You’re really back.”
Jamie was across the room in two quick strides of his long legs, embracing her in a bear hug that lifted her clean off her feet and almost broke her back. He set her back down and promptly tousled her hair in that affectionate but annoying big brother way. Iris scowled and swatted his hand away.
“Leave my hair alone,” she complained, trying to fix her now messy ponytail. Jamie grinned.
“Picking up where we left off. It’s like you never left,” he said.
“But you did leave.”
Simon had appeared in the doorway, emotions flickering wildly behind his glasses. Iris took one hesitant step toward him, like he was a horse that might spook and run from her.
“I did,” she agreed. “But I won’t do it again. I missed you.”
Simon pursed his lips into a hard line but he was forced closer to her on the tide that was Cameron and Grams and Teddy.
“Oh, baby girl,” Grams said. She came forward and pinched Iris’s arm.
“Ow!” Iris yelped. “Grams, what the hell?”
“That was for leaving, Iris Katherine Danes,” Grams said sternly. “You worried this family half to death.” Then she wrapped Iris in a hug. “And this is for coming back.”
“Are you back for good?” Cameron asked, and Iris nodded.
“I’m not leaving again,” she said. “I promise. I shouldn’t have left in the first place, but at the time it felt like it hurt more to stay. Everything reminded me of Mom and I kept forgetting she was gone and then I’d remember again and I just…I couldn’t breathe. I wanted some peace and quiet so I ran. It was selfish and unfair. I’m so sorry.”
“Did you find it?” Simon asked. “Peace and quiet?”
“I found quiet. And I realized that silence isn’t always golden,” Iris said dryly. “And I realized too that the only place I’m going to find peace, if it even exists, is at home. Even if that home is filled with obnoxious, weird looking creatures. Not to mention the monsters.”
Teddy’s lips twitched and Jamie laughed. To Iris’s relief, the laughter spread and Cameron came forward to hug her. Simon tried to hold out but he finally cracked when Cameron suddenly held Iris in place so Jamie could mess up her hair again. Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Simon came over and they all nearly group-hugged her to death.
“Can I pinch her for leaving, too?” Simon asked. “Grams got to.”
“No, you may not pinch your sister,” Teddy said. Simon did it anyway and Iris elbowed him in the ribs.
“So what made you decide to come home?” Jamie asked.
“I had a dream about Mom. I think she was trying to warn me.”
“Warn you about what?”
The world knew about the monsters, in a, “far away problem” kind of way. They had even become something of a tourist attraction for the thrill seekers and the dumbasses; hence the town’s welcome sign. The monsters had never left Kettle County. Twenty years ago a chunk of meteor landed in the desert not far from the town, and it brought the monsters with it. They seemed content to terrorize Salvation and the other few small towns that were scattered across this small stretch of desert. But Iris suspected that was about to change.
“I think the monsters are going to start spreading,” she explained. “I think they’re going to destroy Salvation, and then they’re going to finally move on. To the entire world, maybe. We’re the line of defense. I wanted to be here, to help. I am the best shot in the family, after all.”
“Wow, that five year sabbatical really humbled you,” Jamie quipped.
“And if the world is going to possibly end, I want to be home. With all of you.”
“Depressing, but kind of sweet,” Simon said.
Iris was home for three days when her prediction about the monsters proved to be true. She moved through the house as if on eggshells, still plagued with the guilt of leaving. It was a dark fortress built inside her chest, the rough stones scraping her bloody and weighing on her heart. But every moment she spent in the company of her family chipped away at the stones, wearing the fortress away to ruins. No one dismissed her dream or her warning, and on her fourth day home they found a monster lurking at the front gate.
It was rare to see one right in front of you; they usually preferred to exist in the shadows and the corners of your eye. A long body on four legs; the hind legs were considerably longer than the front and they ended in feet that looked like a cross between human and raccoon hands. The six toes were long and bony. Its skin was the same, slightly nauseating shade of gray that appeared on spoiled meat. The head was small and seemed vaguely featureless aside from the impossibly long mouth full of tiny teeth that never quite closed. It looked like the edge of a saw blade. But the very worst part was the tongue. It was long and bloated and tapered to a narrow point. It unfurled itself from the mouth and flicked through the air like a snake’s.
“Never seen one just standing out there like that,” Jamie commented. As the day wore on more monsters appeared at the fence. By sundown there were ten of them.
“Christ, how many do you think there are out in town?” Cameron asked. Grams whacked his arm.
“Language,” she scolded. But her gaze was locked on the monsters. They were all gathered in the living room, locked in a staring contest with the demons at the gate. Twenty minutes passed in silence, aside from the wind chimes and the noise machines and the speakers.
“What the fuck do they want?” Jamie said, his voice the closest to a whisper that Iris had ever heard it. Normally Grams would scold him but she said nothing. She was incredibly still, face almost pressed up against the glass. Abruptly she reared back and then smashed her head against the window. Iris jumped two feet in the air.
“Mom!” Teddy yanked her away before she could head butt the glass again. She thrashed a little in his grip as he dragged her away from the window and closer to the speakers, which were currently blaring Patsy Cline at high volume. He cranked the dial up higher, yelling at Grams to snap out of it. The blank stare on her face morphed into confusion.
“What happened?” she asked, touching her forehead.
“They almost got you, is what happened,” Teddy said. “Simon, get a towel for your Grams.”
“That’s why there are so many,” Iris said, glancing back out the window with her heart pounding. “They’re trying to overpower the noise.”
“Why don’t we get even louder, then?” Cameron suggested. Soon they had the walls vibrating with the volume of the music. Metallica and Johnny Cash and Dean Martin and Kansas and Mozart all overlapped with each other, creating a discordant mess of noise. But it may as well have been a choir of angels with those stretched, ugly creatures outside. Their bruise purple tongues kept reaching out to test the air; Iris wondered if that’s what they looked like when they were “talking;” planting violent compulsions inside people’s brains.
“They’re climbing each other,” Simon said. “They’re trying to come over the fence.”
“Then let’s make sure they have a welcoming committee,” Teddy said. It was ordinarily difficult to put down a monster. They didn’t usually show themselves so blatantly, and if they did it usually meant you were already dead. But the Danes were armed and prepared all the same. Teddy popped open the safe and distributed weapons like Santa handing out presents.
“As soon as any are in range, shoot it,” he ordered. “We hold our ground until they’re all dead or we are, understood?”
They moved as a unit out onto the porch. One monster had managed to get over the gate, its feet trailing blood from the barbed wire. The Danes raised their rifles almost in unison. Iris fired a shot that ripped through the creature’s head. Its body fell, twitching, but another was already scaling the fence. Jamie glanced at her and grinned.
“Welcome home, Iris.”