Tory could not control his shaking body as he hid in his closet. He could not stop his tears or his running nose. Crying was not manly, and god knew he was coming close to being a man. The palm of his hand hurt terribly, so he wrapped it in the comforting softness of his blanket. Bringing his blanket into the closet was another non-manly thing to do, but this incident scared him more than he had ever been scared before.
“Breathe deep,” he thought. “Get control of yourself. You’re safe here.” He was safe here, and he knew it, and as much as he loved being out of doors, this was the first time he blessed the safety of the farm compound. Yet even here he could hear the incessant chirpings of those creatures outside his tempered glass window. This was the first time he had stayed outside at dusk too long and had seen a Kurut without a barrier of protection between him and it. It wasn’t even an entire Kurut that he saw. It was just an eye, but that was enough to send him running to safety.
Kuruts arrived on the North American continent thirty years prior. They were approximately three feet in height and looked like half-cockroach half-praying mantis creatures. They attacked their prey in packs and were ugly, vicious and voracious. They sang as twilight arrived, came out at night and were gone by the first hint of dawn. No one had been able to rid the North and South American continent of them.
“Koo-Root, Koo-Root, Koo-Root.” As twilight began, the Kuruts sang faint and sweet. Then as the evening darkened, their song turned into a raucous cacophony of sound. Finally, came the hush, where all went silent, until a sudden sound of screams broke the false peace. Some unlucky animal or human would meet their death by being devoured by a murder of Kuruts.
Tory refused to stay cowered in his closet, but as he entered his darkened room, he saw one of the Kuruts pecking at his window. Disgusted, he pulled the shades, snapped an additional night lock on the window, then ran to the bathroom and vomited. He needed fresh air, but that wasn’t going to happen right now. Donning his running clothes, he took off toward the gym to run off his adrenaline and fear. That wasn’t going to work either, because his hand hurt so badly. He thought of showering, but instead he took a strip of gauze and wrapped his injured hand and headed for the dining hall.
“What am I doing here?” he thought, as his eyes scanned the dining hall. “I can’t face people tonight.”
There were at least 30 family units in different stages of dining. Some were just sitting down and others were busing their tables. There were no real rules about where you dined or with whom, and children were running around everywhere. He recalled his own youth and how much fun he had had with his peer group. Most of them were still here and still laughing and hanging out together. They haled them over but he just waved his good hand and continued on to the buffet.
Nothing was appetizing, in fact it was making his stomach feel queasy again, but to put on the appearance of normalcy he grabbed an entree and a salad. On his way out, his mother spied him and called him over to sit with them. He made his excuses and was about to leave, when she noticed the bandage on his right hand.
“You hurt yourself,” she said with concern in her voice. “Let me take a look at it.”
“It’s okay mom, and I can’t stay.” He hesitated at the lie he was going to tell. “I have a lot of homework to finish up.”
“You have homework?” She chuckled. “You’re the brightest kid in your class, and you never have homework. Now come here and let me see your hand.”
“Mom, I’m fine and I need to go.” He looked at the startled hurt that showed on her face. “Sorry mom, I really do need to go. I’ll let the doctor take a look at it, okay?”
When he arrived in his room, he locked the door, hung the ‘do not disturb sign on the door knob, dumped the contents of the tray in the garbage, and turned off his cell phone.
Farming had changed after the arrival of the Kuruts. Instead of individual farmsteads, compounds had been erected for the many the families who had been displaced from their unprotected farm houses. They merged all the farms and farmland together and now were run cooperatively by the members of the community. They by twilight, everyone was inside the compound, safe from the Kuruts.
No more sitting on the porch in a rocking chair to watch the night arrive. It was hardest on environmentalists and those who remembered what it was like to embrace the night. It devastated the parks and outdoor economic markets. Yet through it all, there were always those who managed to take advantage of a disaster.
Tory turned on the television, but nothing silenced the insistent nagging of the Kurut issue that had become very personal. Flipping channels he realized that this was a way of life for his generation and frankly, they were fine with it, not knowing what they were missing. Now it was the America’s that were on the rest of the world’s banned list due to this unforeseen contamination.
Staring at his flat screen mounted to the wall, he switched from television to video games. Killing imaginary enemies kept him thinking about Kuruts. It didn’t work to shoot them or blow them up or throw napalm on them. They reproduced on the cell level and created a greater problem when they were blown into pieces. Each piece became another, fully whole, Kurut. If you left them alone, their population did not grow greater than their food source.
Speaking of food source, protecting the food source for humans and for our domesticated animals became the Americas’ utmost priority. Tory couldn’t even begin to grasp the enormity of the damage to the wildlife population, and no one really wanted to talk about it anyway. Restless, he switched to the internet and typed in the word, ‘Kurut’.
He clickedon the Wikipedia link and read the history of the Kurut. He knew most of it by heart, just as every living person knew. What they did not know was where they came from, except that they arrived at the same time a comet came relatively close to the North American continent. He read about the initial devastation to people and how some politicians had said that the Kuruts had at least taken care of the homeless population, as they were the first ones eaten by the Kuruts.
In the beginning everyone was at risk, because the Kuruts could get into any building that had a crack open to the outside. Eventually all windows were replaced with jet glass or Plexiglas. This change came first to the wealthy and then trickled down. Of course those same self-serving politicians claimed that our poverty level was extremely low compared to other countries.
“How crass and insensitive and…” Tory sighed. He thought about the Mafia. “No more cement boots. Got a problem with someone? Just leave them outdoors for a night and the problem was solved.”
He continued to read about the different attempts made to eradicate the Kuruts. Nothing had worked, except protecting ourselves and figuring out how to survive the international trade embargos. Now, the Americas were doing well, in spite of and because of the Kuruts. We were not as reliant on international imports and exports and our borders with Canada and Mexico had softened. Few terrorists wanted to infiltrate either. We were isolated, except through the internet.
He pulled up his “One Notes” software and copied everything he could from the internet. He copied the experiences from emergency vehicles as they were attacked trying to bring people to hospitals or to put out fires. The emergency vehicles were now like armored tanks with extension corridors to allow safe entrance into buildings. The Americas could not even receive aid from other countries because of the potential of these Kuruts hitchhiking on returning ships. Through it all, Tory could not find anything coming close to what he had experienced earlier that evening.
The greatest gnawing question scientists continued to work on is where did the Kuruts go during the day? Tory knew he had an inkling that he was on to something. He pushed his mind to go into whatever that inkling was and knew his first step was to continue pushing that edge of twilight when the Kuruts came out to feed.
He propped the pillows up on his bed as he stared at a picture of a Kurut. Then he chose to go back and relive the day’s twilight experience. In his ecology class he had learned about riparian zones, those small gullies with rich vegetation, where there is a more diverse species population. Water was the operative word. Everything needed water. Tory had been wandering along the edge of a field that had poor cultivation potential. It had been set aside as a riparian zone, but later identified as a place frequented by Kuruts. There were a few noticeable tracks in the snow, but mostly hawk prints as they caught mice from under the snow.
Tory loved being outdoors, but this day he stayed beyond the PTA, the Pending Twilight Alarm. Why? He was a romantic and wanted to know what the poets experienced in the dusk before the arrival of the Kuruts. A small just of wind had picked up, skittering a dried Sumac leaf across the frozen ground. He smelled the night air as it prepared for the cold night to come. He watched how the sky was hazed by the loss of light. It was beautiful and he didn’t realize how late it was until he heard the Kurut sound. He stood for just a moment longer trying to identify the place in the riparian zone that he heard the first faint “KooRoot.” There was the sound again, not three feet away in the young maple tree. By this time his heart was thudding loudly in his ears. He knew he should run, and just as he was about to turn, something glistened in the waning sun.
Tory stooped down so as to be eye level with a large water droplet that was hanging off one of the tree’s lower branches. Not only had it caught his visual attention, but the wrongness of a water droplet in winter had also halted him. It was a little more than three feet off the ground and growing larger.
“Larger?” He question. “What about physics. It should have dropped to the ground.”
Soon the droplet was the size of a ping pong ball. Using the palm of his hand, he gently lifted it and the branch for a closer look, and noticed something dark inside. Tory carefully rolled it in the palm of his hand, squeezing it slightly to get a better look. He was surprised to see an eye bulge out. It reminded him of the toy eyeball he played with as a kid, where he would squish it just hard enough to see the blood vessels and to make the eye pop out. He wondered how this toy had gotten so far out in the middle of nowhere and stayed stuck to the branch.
He gave it one more squish before turning to run for shelter, but this time he was jolted with fright upon seeing its menacing look. He stopped as though held in a trance, and then his knees began to shake. The eye was not fake or a toy. It was the eye of a Kurut, and he could feel its vibrancy and energy as it stared back at him. He had never seen something that emitted such foul intent and evil presence. He knew if he didn’t leave now, he was the next meal for the murder of Kuruts that inhabited this riparian zone.
Tory looked at his surroundings as though he had never seen it before. The zone felt alien to him. He could hear the sound of the other Kuruts. There was a chirp here and one closer to the little creek that ran through the brush. As far as he could tell, there were four separate ones and he spied another of the eyes clinging to a branch.
“Now,” He thought, as he threw the eye to the ground. “Go now!” As he turned to run, he gasped at the sudden pain in the palm of his hand. Where the pain was, so was the Kurut. He tried to shake off the Kurut ball and he tried wiping it on his pant leg, but neither action worked. The Kurut ball, now the size of a softball was also stuck to the tree branch.
Tory realized that he had been captured and as far as he knew, there was nothing he could do to get away. His hand felt like acid was eating it away, layer after layer, getting down to the muscles. He saw stars and felt as though he were going to faint. Yet Tory was more afraid of dying by them then he was weakened by the pain.
So Tory made a decision to cut it out of his hand. If he lost the entire hand, it was better than his life. He had heard of people that had done these kinds of sacrifices in the past and he too would do that, if he had the nerve. He took out his pocketknife and began scraping away at the portion connected to his hand. It hurt, but not as bad as the Kurut pain. Then suddenly the Kurut ball let loose. It had eaten through his skin layer so there was little resistance past the edge of the ball. Tory was free and he ran, urged onward by the sounds behind him. He was good in track, but this would have broken all of his best times.
As Tory continued to pump his arms and legs to run faster, the Kurut sound changed from the gentle chirping to the cacophony, which was normal just before the calm and the screams. They knew the race was on. He saw another Kurut sac; it was the size of a basketball. He could clearly see some of the legs and the entire head now as the weight of it bent the branch lower to the ground.
He sprinted the last few feet to the door, which was now sealed against the night. “What’s my pass code!” he muttered as he started punching in numbers. He turned to look back and saw a Kurut running in his direction. “Come on, open up!” he said, dancing from one foot to the other. He heard the click of the lock, jumped inside and slammed the door behind. He put his forehead on the door and caught his breathe. A moment later, he heard the screech of the Kurut as it slammed its body against the impervious door. He could hear the thing scream. Tory had cheated death.
Tory felt sick as he sprinted up the steps to his own room. Once again he punched in his security code and thought about the fact that he had punched this code in daily for years, yet in his panic, he had forgotten it. Restlessly, he paced his room, wrapped himself in his blanket to ward off the shock and the chill. Without thinking, he had jammed himself in his closet and closed the door behind him.
Now back in his room, still sitting on his bed after replaying the whole scenario in his head, he felt the throb of his hand. His blanket was bloodied where he had wrapped it while hiding in the closet. He wondered if he had left a blood trail up the fire stairs when he had fled the entrance. Tory unwrapped the protective gauze and stared at the bloody pulp of his palm.
“This is a nightmare,” He said to himself, as he squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to yell because of the pain.
The edges of the wound were a sickly gray and he wondered if it were dead skin or part of the Kurut. If this was part of a Kurut, then he and the entire compound were in danger, knowing that they could reproduce at the cellular level. He couldn’t keep this hidden so he went down to the medical clinic.
Tonight there wasn’t anyone in the waiting room and the receptionist sent him back to see the doctor. When the doctor examined the wound, she grimaced.
“Oh that’s bad.” She said gravely. “How did you do this?”
He told her everything, including his concern about the gray skin around the edges. The doctor nodded, continued examining the wound, and kept silent for a while.
“Okay,” she said, breaking the silence. “This is what we will do. First, I am going to have to deaden your hand so I can clean and examine it further. I want you to come back here tonight before you go to bed because I want to check it to see if there is any abnormal growth on the edges. Next, this wound is too deep for it to heal properly on its own. We will have to do a skin graft and we should do this soon. So tomorrow morning at 8:00, I want you back here. Since you are underage, you will have to get your parent’s consent.”
“Dr. Bradley, I don’t want to tell anyone how I did this.”
“Right,” She said. “I will bandage it well and I don’t want you to take the bindings off until I see you tonight. What you tell your family is your business and I will respect that. But what has happened here is very important to all of us in the Americas. We need to do more research. In safety of course,” she said quickly. “Let’s use this calamity to everyone’s best advantage.”
Tory nodded in agreement.
“But first,” she continued, “let’s get this taken care of and make sure it heals well, without a hitchhiker.”
Tory went back to his room. He felt weak, and even though he had no appetite, he knew he should eat something. He grabbed some beef jerky, drank some milk and laid down to rest until his next appointment. His hand was numb, so it did not keep him from the sleep he needed.
He awoke later that evening and went down to see Dr. Bradley. There was no identifiable change in the wound so she gave him pain medicine to take home and he slept through the night.
Morning dawned blissfully beautiful. He grabbed breakfast, got an approval slip from his parents and headed back to see the doctor. After removing the bandaging and checking the wound, they sat together in her office to discuss the incident from the previous day.
“I have also been doing research on line, including checking a number of journals. As far as I can tell, there are no records of eye witness reports.”
“Of course not,” Tory interjected. “The eyewitness didn’t live long enough to tell.”
Her eyes twinkled at Tory’s attempt at humor. Then she continued. “There have been analyses on Kurut scat and I have submitted your skin tissue to a friend at the University of Minnesota. I will let you know what the results are as soon as I find out.”
“I will tell you,” she continued. “Your experience has brought some fresh light on where they go during the day and how they devour their prey.”
“It’s almost as though they absorb their victims,” Tory said.
“Yes, and that kind of explains why we don’t even find bones left behind.”
“Everything is absorbed, right?” Tory asked.
“Wow! I would hate to have had a murder of Kuruts eating me cell by cell.” Tory shuddered.
“You are one lucky kid.” She sat for a while, and then she said, “Which brings us to the next event; the large droplets on the branches. There has to be some connection between the Kuruts slowly excreting themselves from the branches and the way they absorb their prey.”
“I wish there was a way to watch them come out.” Tory said.
“And there is the rub; they won’t come out if there is any kind of light. Even infrared failed.”
“What about going out in your emergency ATV? That’s been Kurut protected.”
“All we would be doing is chasing after the sound of screams, and if we got too close, they would move.” Dr. Bradley continued.
“What if we brought the ATV, stayed inside with the twilight behind them and videoed them coming out?”
“That’s a great idea.” She said. “Are you up for a little excitement and danger this evening?”
A look of panic crossed Tory’s face before he said, “Your sure the ATV is safe?”
“Yes, but it will be a little rocky. I’ve been out in it at night before and they slam their bodies against it, trying to find an entrance. They tipped it over once and I had to stay lying on my side until the sun was up and I could get out and set it upright and head for home. It was a long night and I still get the jitters, thinking that there may have been the tiniest crack or hole somewhere and I would be their next dinner. But the technicians have been out recently and said it was 100% secure, and I haven’t been out in it since, so I know I haven’t made any cracks.”
That night and for many nights after that, Tory and Dr. Bradley sat near the riparian or Kurut Zone and videotaped every action and activity. Although they were attacked by an entire murder of Kuruts, the added weight of Tory’s body kept the ATV from tipping.
During Tory’s recovery period after Dr. Bradley did the skin graft surgery on his hand, the two of them spent many hours reviewing the videos.
In some of their experiments, they cut off the eye droplet to watch the effect it had. True to known experience, the eye reproduced itself into a whole new Kurut. The Kurut that had been hanging on the branch rebuilt its missing eye. They had just added another of those foul creatures to the riparian zone.
“You know,” Tory began. “We now know three things about them.”
“What is that?”
“Well,” he continued. “One, they absorb their prey cell by cell. Two, they can move through tiny cracks, which indicates they can seep into places until their collective cells make them whole again. Three, somehow they do the same thing to hide themselves. They must find cracks in trees to hide during the day.”
They had finally found the connection. After a few unsuccessful experiments and unfortunately adding a few more Kuruts to the murder, they came up with a plan that worked. Just at the moment when the Kurut was almost free of the branch, they cut the branch off of the tree. The branch was place in a sealed Plexiglas box. They watched as the Kurut tried to escape. In the morning, the Kurut had liquefied into a brownish puddle on the bottom of the box. They left the box open the following night but the Kurut did not revive.
At this point, they began harvesting Kuruts from the riparian zone. The box was half full of the gooey mess, which they sealed and brought to the University of Minnesota. They attached the box to the roof of Dr. Bradley’s car. The last thing they needed was to put it in the trunk and somehow the Kuruts came alive again. When they arrived at the University, an entire cluster of emergency vehicles met them led them to a building, where the research would be done. The box was placed in a sealed contamination room, where robotic arms could open the box and analyze the contents.
Dr. Bradley brought their copious notes and their videos, which were reviewed by the scientists. At night, they were guests at a local hotel and during the day, they side by side with the staff. The small pockets of forests on campus were the first place they tested. They were successful and began ridding all three campuses of the Kuruts. What to do with the waste would be researched and dealt with at a later time.
The world watched their progress and discussions were under way about opening borders if this was the real thing and the danger was being eliminated. It would take some time, but the Americas seemed to be feeling lighter as hope began to stir in the air. Dr. Bradley and Tory became world renown and both had received grants for further education and study. Tory was offered full scholarships at every notable college in the Americas.
Things had begun to wind down. The media was finally leaving them alone and the kids at Tory’s compound stopped looking at him like he was some super hero. His hand had healed well and even the scars from the skin grafts were beginning to fade. He breathed a sigh of relief, as he turned on his TV to watch an action movie. Compared to the excitement and danger he had experienced in real life, the movie was boring him. So he fell asleep.
Sometime during the night, Tory awoke from a nightmare. He had seen a Kurut eye, just as he had that first time in the riparian zone. He sat up in bed and waited until his breathing was normal. His scarred hand was itching so he turned on the lamp to examine it. The scar edges had begun to turn a sickly gray.