What's in the box: an intense monster story, and fan fiction.
Genre: Thriller, science fiction, short story.
Read Time: thirty minute read
Read Level: intended for ages thirteen up. Contains some adult language, alcoholic themes, and scary monster attacks.
Synopsis: Its summer in 2021. A virus is out, and the country is still on lockdown. But sometimes you just gotta stretch your legs and breath free air. A single mom decides to take a chance. She and her unruly child set out to see a late night movie at the local Drive-in theater. But they get a little more excitement than what they bargained for as they discover that there really is something deadly waiting for them outside. And a mask won't stop it.
By Jeff Arce
“This is stupid,” the boy sulked, crossing his arms and pouting out the passenger side window.
Amy was about sick of his sour attitude lately. But she was tired. She didn’t have the energy to argue with him again. So, instead, she tried the path of diplomacy.
“Oh, come on, Tommy,” she cajoled. “It’ll be fun. You know, me and your Dad used to go to the drive-in all the time when we were kids.”
He tittered. “Yeah, bet it was a real hoot when they brought out the color tv too, huh, Mom?”
She should have known better. You can’t reason with terrorists.
Tommy has had a major stick up his ass ever since the lockdown slipped into its second month without resolve. Well, to be fair, he’s been rather petulant ever since his father passed away last spring. That was a difficult time for them both. The navy had sent their condolences with a folded flag, a medal, and a stolid envoy to say, “Sorry for your loss, Kido, but here’s his pension check.” As if that wasn’t enough to grapple with alone, then came the outbreak of coronavirus to screw up everyone’s lives even worse. The pernicious effects of that godforsaken virus spared no one. Not even the kids. So suddenly, Amy was forced to juggle an all-new spate of plights like a sad jester at a circus. She was a grieving widow answering Zoom calls with her panicked coworkers and trying to play substitute teacher to her adolescent son. Not exactly how she pictured she would experience her thirties. There was no time left for her to convalesce when it was all said and done. Losing the love of her life was hard. Teaching was hard. Amy wanted to scream; she wanted to lament her inner anguish and break something. But losing her mind on top of everything else wouldn’t fix a damn thing. That would only make it harder.
Amy had barely finished high school herself, with bad grades and a good-for-nothing attitude. How the hell did they expect her to teach a growing boy with ADHD energy and zero patience for bullshit? She didn’t know, they didn’t care, and all the wine and toilet paper in the world were out of stock. So, she couldn’t drink, and she couldn’t cry about it. She just had to adjust.
Amy felt liberated when the schools, at long last, opened back up. It was limited hours, though, but that was just enough to mitigate her troubles. She caught a little more sleep before having to battle with her coworkers on Facetime again. Also, the wine was back in stock. Amy could finally get back to her favorite hobby of bawling her eyes out while binge-watching That 70’s Show on Netflix for the one-hundred-thousandth time. But you can’t drown all your sorrows in booze and nostalgia. That’s how you get yourself a very rude awakening. And the last thing that Amy needed was to be awake any more than what was already expected of her.
Dirk’s Drive-in nearly fell into destitute before the plague got out. The news saddened Amy. That place had history. It seemed like an inexorable fate for a long-celebrated American tradition. Going to the movies was going extinct. But sometimes, life finds a way. With everything boarded up to try and stifle the spread of the virus, Dirk’s saw an opportunity to capitalize on a bad situation with a good time. Availed of the loopholes inherent in the impetuous covid mandates, the drive-in movie theater had found its resurgence. Folks from all over the map piled into their cars and drove for miles just to experience something better than zombie-scrolling on HBO Max. To experience something tangible. Everyone was sick of streaming, and they were sick of being locked up in their houses. They needed to get out. Though, admittedly, being all cooped up in a car kind of defeats the point of going out, but at least the scenery was different. Amy had to download a new app on her phone just to order snacks, which was annoying but better than waiting in line forever to grab a refill of Sprite. Tommy wasn’t impressed, though. He thought the whole charade of going to the drive-in was a “dinosauric” tradition.
Amy’s hard-used car speakers were old and crackly. The soundtrack came through as graceful as sandpaper grinding against a chalkboard. She couldn’t believe they were still doing it this way. She hasn’t navigated for an AM radio channel since the last time she visited Dirks. Satellite radio and Spotify superseded that burden a long time ago. She forgot what a pain in the butt it was trying to decipher the cacophony that snarled through her car stereo during a movie. But then again, it was still better than dealing with those god-awful window speakers that Dirk’s used to subject them to. The ones that hung from stationary poles at each space since the late seventies. They were a whole hell-of-a-lot worse. Nevertheless, Amy found it mordantly humorous that Dirk’s would go through all that trouble developing an app just to order snacks, but they couldn’t find a way to update their sound system. The high S’s made them both cringe, anguished by the callous feedback. One pinnacle moment in the film where the iron-suit-guy collided with the big purple creature with the magic glove left the whole frame of the car rumbling from the blast. Both Amy and her son stirred uncomfortably in their seats. They had to close their ears with both hands, wincing from the pain. That was probably why they hadn’t felt the thing’s heavy footfalls shaking the earth as it closed in on their location.
“I need…, to pee,” Tommy whined, chomping on a mouth full of popcorn.
Rapt by the action unfolding on screen, Amy couldn’t pull her eyes away as she answered dreamily, “Can it wait?”
Tommy huffed. “Mom, if it could wait, I wouldn’t be complaining about it now.”
When the boy was right, he was right, Amy knew. She turned the car off and said, “Alright, but let’s make it quick. I don’t wanna miss the hammer guy.”
“He looks like a girl with a beard.”
Amy grinned devilishly at that. “Well then, sweety, Mommy might be gay.”
The boy groaned. “Gross.”
“Mask,” she said as she walked around to meet him at his side.
They both put on their masks, wondering every time the impulse became just a little more instinctual if this truly was the new normal. Then they were sauntering off toward the restrooms.
Suddenly, Tommy stopped in his tracks. He was still clutching onto his bucket of popcorn. The kernels went spilling over the rim when he haulted, landing around his feet. The ground was still wet from a storm that had passed through only an hour before the movie started. There were small puddles filling holes in the gravel here and there. Somewhere off in the distance, they heard the propellers of a helicopter beating across the sky. With wide, disbelieving eyes, Tommy looked up at Amy.
“What is it,” she asked, concerned.
“I think I just felt something.”
He turned to face the screen. The trees that bordered it were shifting and chattering, but he felt no breeze. He said, “I don’t know… I felt something move…in the ground.”
Amy set her hands on her hips and listened. After a few seconds had passed she decided, “It’s probably just the movie. Now, come on.”
The boy wasn’t sold.
Gripping his bucket of popcorn tight against his chest, he wandered away from her side. The light from the projector was streaming behind him. Prismatic colors danced across the back of his head. A fireball shot out from the iron-guy’s metal hands on the big screen. Its blazing impact sent the purple one tumbling backward. The reverb from a dozen or so car speakers undulated. That staccato sound of helicopter rotors chopping the sky seemed suddenly closer than before.
“Tommy…,” Amy said before she, at last, felt it.
She gasped. Something rattled the earth beneath her feet. It wasn’t from the movie. She was certain.
“What the fuck was that?”
Tommy tucked the popcorn under his arm and reached up to withdraw the mask from his face. It distracted his senses. He wanted to smell the air, to taste it unburdened by the stink of his own breath. And his heart was racing. He needed to breathe. He focused on the trees jigging behind the screen. The echo of working rotors confused his ears. He couldn’t quite tell from which direction it was coming from. Then, the trees stilled. Tommy waited a moment longer. When nothing happened next, he shrugged his shoulders and turned to face his mother.
He said, “I guess maybe it could be…”
Amy wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was recoiling, creeping backward on her heels. Perspiration on her brow, her bottom jaw lolling in utter shock. She was murmuring as if she couldn’t find the words to speak. Her face went sickly pale, and her eyes were two big incredulous moons. Tommy followed her daunting gaze. His startled fingers lost their hold on his popcorn. The bucket splashed in a small puddle. Yellow kernels plumed over its rim. He dropped his mask.
The monster’s enormous, scaled head was bobbing up and down, its massive nostrils pumping in huge gulps of air and snorting it out. The otherworldly beast stood six meters high, with a staggering length of twelve meters across. Even under the cover of stark shadows, Tommy knew exactly what he was staring at. He knew its dimensions, and he knew it weighed somewhere between five to seven tonnes. He knew that because he had a television. The great Dino Exodus was national news. He heard speculation that put some of the escaped dinosaur refugees right in his backyard. But never in a million years did he expect to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the flesh stomping around at Dirk’s Drive-in.
The curious creature thumped heavily toward the projector window, unknowingly cutting off Amy and Tommy’s path to the restrooms. It rocked its massive body like a grazing bird without wings, bouncing along on its gigantic talons almost whimsically. Its long, hooked claws sank easily into the sodden earth with every step. Its tiny little arms hung from its massive torso, twitching like two futile nubs that wanted to help but couldn’t. Every inch of the Rex was rippling with striated, bulky muscle that gave the beast life. It moved far too perfectly to be an illusion. This thing had weight. This thing was real.
The percussion of the mysterious helicopter propellors were suddenly back again, still too distant to decipher. The creature began to open its serrated jaws just over the lighted pathway of the movie stream. Its menacing silhouette eclipsed the screen.
Amy and Tommy realized that very second that this movie had just turned into a horror.
At last, Amy’s words took shape. “Get back,” she screamed. Tommy was too stunned by what he was witnessing to heed her.
“Tommy,” she shouted.
The boy snapped out of his daze. His head was on a swivel, turning to look at her and then back again at the dinosaur. As people began to spill out of their cars behind them, their terror rose like a wave. In a panicked stupor, they ran and screamed. The Rex stirred like a startled chicken. It whipped its huge, ovoid-shaped head toward them. It opened its ferocious mouth and bellowed a roar that shook the movie theater. It sounded like an elephant’s trumpet fused with the snarl of a mighty lion, and it scared the hell out of them all.
In the next second, hundreds of people were scurrying westward toward the movie screen in every direction opposite the projector. Their frightened shrills and shrieks were deafening. Now it was the behemoth’s turn to be anxious. It oscillated its gargantuan head this way and that, agitated by the noisy chaos. Tommy saw its big yellow eye probing, trying to understand what it saw. Its black pupil swelled before it shrank again as it caught the boy in its line of sight.
Amy saw it too. “Get back to the car,” she pressed, reaching out to grab Tommy’s collar and shake him out of his fascination.
Together they whirled back in the direction of the parked cars and ran as fast as they could. The Rex’s implacable predatory instincts found only Amy and Tommy on its radar. Seeing no one else, the creature growled and gave chase. It lowered its head and collided with the left sidewall of a vacant family van. It bucked its jagged snout deep into the vehicle’s frame, crushing it like tinfoil before lifting its back end high off the ground to clear the van from its path. As they ran, the crash of twisting metal and the scream of exploding glass behind Amy and Tommy was jarring. They could feel the ground rumbling as the dinosaur leaped onto the gravel-covered pathway that cut between the lanes of parked cars. A percussion of mini earthquakes grew with each determined thump and thud of the monster’s talons. Amy got to the passenger side of her car first, gasping and sobbing as she fumbled for her keys in trembling hands. When she found the right one, she jammed it in and disengaged the lock. She tore open the door and then turned around to search for her son. Tommy was sprinting and heaving her way. He felt the heat and smelled the fetid stink of the monster’s breath blowing across his calf muscles. Something warm and wet splashed across his backside as a swift puff of wind beat against him. In the same instant, he heard the snap of the Rex’s hungry jaws only a few inches shy from his legs. Tommy yelped. Amy reached out with both arms and snatched him away from the beast. Then she dove inside the car with her ululating child cradled tight against her chest.
The Rex bulled its gnarled, scaly skull into the side of the sedan, crushing it inward behind them like a wad of clay. The plastic that lined the inside of the passenger side door shattered into a thousand shards and shoved Amy’s legs into her son’s hide. Tommy’s crown bashed into Amy’s bottom lip so hard that the blow sent a wash of swimmy stars to inundate her vision. Suddenly their equilibrium was flipped as the car rolled over on its side. The gnashing, snarling abomination relentlessly thrashed against it outside. The steering wheel gripped Amy awkwardly at the back of her neck as they tumbled. Her spine crackled, and her tendons tightened, but she only cared for Tommy, shielding him with her body as best as she could manage. Amy was lying in a heap when the beast began tackling the car's undercarriage, entangled with her squalling son. They were now laying on the ceiling of the car. She covered Tommy’s mouth with her hand and shushed him. Wide eyes blinking furiously over her grip, Tommy obeyed, silencing his mewling at last.
The pungent odor of gasoline pervaded the air around them. It hurt to breathe. Somewhere in the distance, the strange sounds from the superhero movie were still playing out, but nobody was around to enjoy the show. Not anymore. Bird-like talons that should never be that big were prancing around the car outside, kicking up small stones and broken glass. Amy and Tommy followed the creature’s monstrous footsteps through the car’s empty, warped window frames. Then they saw the creature’s huge jaw, with its hauntingly sharp, hooked teeth redolent of a Great White’s. They were stained by ages of bloodthirsty carnage, lathered in oozing saliva, and begging to bite into something soft and feeble. Its nostrils began flaring, thirstily sucking in the perfume of its prey’s fear.
Tommy reached up and pulled his mother’s hand from his mouth. She allowed it. He asked in a whisper, “Is it hungry?”
Then there was that strange chopping sound in the sky again. The dinosaur lifted its head. It seemed rather troubled by that sound. It bellowed a trepidatious roar. Its cry came out wavering and ended in what almost sounded like a whimper.
“Sssshhhhhhh,” Amy hushed. “I don’t think it wants us… I think it’s scared.”
Tommy was confused. How could that beast be afraid of anything?
As the silence settled around them, the only thing left to be heard was the movie’s irrepressible soundtrack. The Rex did not seem to like it. That antagonizing helicopter was chopping its rotors this way and that. The dinosaur’s head followed it, looking for it. The creature was alert and distraught. Then the Rex found it there on the big screen, taunting her. The Rex snarled before loping straight for it, like a ram preparing to test its horns against a foe. It bounced on heavy talons, causing the earth to THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! Amy howled in agony as the metal beneath her back rattled to the beat, feeling like the sting of a thousand punches along her spine.
The Rex heard rotors clapping at his left, and then it was on his right. She couldn’t comprehend how the sound could be pelting its eardrums on both sides at once. But the Rex could trust the motion flitting right before its eyes. The helicopter was on the screen. It had nowhere left to go. Her long tail stood erect, swinging high over the parked cars as the creature sprang after her foe. With its head hanging low, it roared again, warning the incoming pest that it was about to pounce.
On the big white screen towering before her, there was a freakishly hulking monster with bulging muscles, green skin, and a bad haircut charging at the helicopter. It had terrible rage swirling behind its yellow eyes. The helicopter lashed at the beast, hurling a fiery missile at its huge chest. A plume of fire erupted against its massive belly. The Rex slowed in its pace, bewildered. She watched as the blast staggered the creature on screen, knocking him off his haunches. The Rex didn’t want to find out what the helicopter could do to her, so she wasted no more time dithering. She went lunging at the screen, stomping steel fenders, wheel wells, and engine blocks into the dirt like they were nothing more than mounds of mud in her way. The gigantic chopper was then eclipsed by her black silhouette, only serving to disorient the Rex even more, stealing the momentum from her muscles. But it was too late. The creature was already in the air. Her shins collided savagely with an old rusty swing set planted at the foot of the drive-in movie screen. They tangled her up as the metal folded around her ankles. She stumbled. Her huge skull smashed into the screen, buckling its frame and throwing cracks across the chaotic canvas. The angry green hulk in the movie was suddenly grappling with the defiant helicopter. The image raged across the Rex’s scaly back as she tried to regroup.
Just then, the actual helicopter and true source of the Rex’s anxiety emerged, rising menacingly from behind the screen. The foliage that bordered the screen bowed and swayed under the pressure of its propellers. Its staccato beats tormented the beast. She let out an earth-shattering roar that Amy and Tommy felt all the way back in their overturned car. In a fit of fury, she scrambled back onto her feet. She rammed through the screen, ripping its iron scaffolding out from the ground and sending it crackling back into the wall of trees that had been standing behind it. The projection rolled along the dinosaur’s thrashing body as it wrestled through the shrubs and debris to break for the clearing on the other side. The helicopter spun in the air and followed the Rex. A passenger was hanging from the side of it pointing a blinding spotlight at their target’s head. The armored soldier was whipping the light on either side of its face to disorient the Rex’s internal compass. Like a sheep herder, they were trying to get her going only where they wanted her to go.
When its earthquaking footfalls were dissolved by distance, Amy and Tommy released their breath and relaxed.
Panting, Tommy groused morosely, “I—I told you this was stupid.”
“Well,” Amy answered breathlessly, “not as stupid as bringing back dinosaurs.”
After reflecting on that, Tommy shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s true.”
Amy thought, as a parent, locked in an eternal bond with an ever-maturing, pugnacious child, you are bound to win at least one argument now and then. It’s the small victories that matter.