A large gust of wind blew through the park, nearly shoving everyone off their feet. The wind that followed after it wasn’t much kinder. They soon realized that that first gust was the vanguard of a storm.

Nico climbed to the top of the boulder to survey the area. “That’s not good.”

“What isn’t? What do you see?” Tanya asked him.

Shavonne joined Nico then reported, “Fog. Clouds. Smoke. Something like that.”

“It’s coming from all directions,” Nico added.

Lights in the surrounding buildings blinked out in waves. Shouts of surprise sprang from further inside the park. The other survivors must have taken notice.

Mia screamed too, hopping from foot to foot. Everyone looked down and saw their feet disappear into the black smoke coiling around their ankles.

Tanya’s three bodyguards had had enough. They ushered everyone toward the center of the park. “Get to the tree! All of you!” they ordered.

The smoke followed them into the park, shepherding the survivors into a tight knot around their tree. The clouds piled layer upon billowing layer till they blotted out the moon. People clung to each other in the darkness, bracing themselves against the screaming winds.

After several minutes, the winds finally calmed. The clouds parted, revealing three men standing before them. Three steel canisters the size of propane tanks stood at their feet. All of them were eerily still and silent.

The man in the center wore a black business suit and sunglasses. The middle-aged man on his left was dressed similarly, though without the blazer or sunglasses. He had dark, almond-shaped eyes, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his elbows. The third man wore ripped jeans and a leather jacket. He looked roughly the same age as the man with the sunglasses.

Voices within the crowd piped up. Their words gave the impression that everyone here knew at least one of the men.

“Isn’t he the owner of that coffee shop? The one on Crystal Plaza?”

“Mr. N? It can’t be.”

“You owe me forty bucks, Alessio!”

“What the fuck, Carrara? What are you and your buddies trying to pull?”

“Isn’t that our neighbor Martinez?”

“Mr. Martinez, are you behind this?”

“Shades? Bubblegum?” Shavonne wondered aloud.

“Who?” Sakari asked her.

Bern called out, “Hey, Mr. N! What’s going on?”

“That’s Mr. N?” Rianne asked.

Cara repeated the question to herself. She felt a memory stir in the back of her mind, just out of reach.

“Why are they just staring at us?” Mia asked. “Why aren’t they saying anything?”

David stared at the three men wide-eyed in shock.

Nico asked him, “You swear you’re not behind this?”

“I’m not,” David answered.

Nico motioned to the three men. “Then why are they here?”

“That’s not Mr. N. That can’t be Martinez or Bubblegum either.”

“Then what are they?”

A woman next to them cried out in pain. She fell to her knees, clutching her head. One by one, other survivors also collapsed, screaming, clutching parts of their bodies. Slowly, their skin darkened to inky black then turned to shades of an unnaturally fluorescent rainbow. Neon pink and purple, electric yellow, radiant red and blue, or sickly orange and green. Some ossified into scales. Others sprouted fur and feathers. Nails and teeth grew into claws and fangs. Clothes ripped and tore, revealing paws, hooves, talons, tails, and wings. Their screams morphed into bestial roars and howls.

In the end, half of the survivors transformed into beasts. The remaining humans retreated fearfully from their former comrades. The beasts soon locked inhuman gazes upon them, growling. All that was left in their eyes was painful rage.

Shavonne didn’t know she was backing into Martinez until she heard him groan. “Shades?” she asked, turning around. He grimaced like he was having a headache. “Shades?” Shavonne repeated. But he didn’t answer. He grew quiet again, and his face returned to the same blank, emotionless expression that Carrara and Nishimura had. Shavonne flinched. Something was off with them too.

Which beast lept first, no one saw. They charged the humans in clusters, mauling them. The humans panicked, split up, and ran to the corners of the park, searching for any way out.

Three loud pops sounded from where their nightmare began, like small bombs exploding. Streams of white light flew into the fleeing crowd of humans. Their right hands burned as it passed over them. Those who looked saw a sinister brand shaped like a thorny spiral appear on the back of their hands. The brand reminded Nico, Shavonne, Bern, and Rianne of three years ago.

Cara called out, “Mia! David! Sakari!” Her sister and the two boys slipped through the opening in the hedge Cara had found. Bern, Rianne, Nico and Shavonne followed close behind. The eight of them raced down the gravel path and the moonlit streets beyond.

©2021 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.