After moving into the home of their dreams, Johanna and her teenage son Victor learn of menacing raccoons in the surrounding woods. Their wise and battle-weary neighbor warns against provoking the bloodthirsty creatures, but soon a friendly peace offering from Victor ignites a terrifying war that threatens the sanctity of their home and their lives.
The gun felt much heavier in her hand than she remembered.
The weight of steel beneath her fingers was comforting, but she was clutching the handle so tightly that a layer of sweat threatened to loosen her grip. Slowly, she moved the gun to her left hand so she could wipe her palm on her pants.
Her biggest fear was that the moment would come and she wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger. The scene played in her head on repeat; she saw herself running like Lara Croft, the gun blazing at the end of her outstretched arm, firing off shots that lit up the darkness of the backyard and ripped through the soft bellies of her tormentors.
Truth was, Johanna had never even removed the gun from its case until this night. And instead of a loaded magazine like a proper Tomb Raider, she had only one bullet in the chamber to risk it all.
But as the sound of angry chitters rose in the air and moved closer to her crouching figure in the dark, she realized that if she missed the shot, she would never get the chance to hold the gun again.
“Morning. I tried to catch you when you were moving in!”
A woman stood at the curb with her hands casually pushed down into the pockets of her overalls; visibly older and a face weathered with worry, she leaned her weight on one leg and frowned.
“I wanted to warn you about the raccoons around here,” she continued.
Johanna was smoothing number decals on the mailbox of her new home when the woman – presumably her neighbor—beckoned for her attention from just a few feet away.
“Hey there—raccoons you say?” She waved back.
The woman nodded. “Better watch out, they’re nasty little fuckers.”
“Oh? That’s…not really good to hear right now.” Johanna replied nervously. She didn’t know whether this strange woman in dirty Timberlands was being overly dramatic or if there was real danger at hand.
“Should I call someone?”
“Just stay out of their way and you’ll be alright. Been here 30 years but we learned the hard way. I used to flag people down when they viewed a house for sale, but the sellers didn’t like that,” she chuckled.
Raccoons? Johanna was cynical, but she listened politely as her neighbor rambled on. The grizzled woman’s hair was loosely pulled back into a scarf and Johanna thought she saw deep red welts across the side of her face before she pulled a clump of hair forward.
“Like I said, I’ve been here a long time so if you got any questions—I’m Roxy.” She stepped back up onto the curb and turned on her boot heel, walking toward the house directly across from Johanna’s.
Three days passed before Johanna met the infamous raccoons.
It was just before sunset when she and Victor, her 15-year-old son, were grilling on the backyard deck. Victor suddenly froze; Johanna followed his stare as the first creature stepped out of the tree line and sat in the grass. Baring its teeth in a menacing fashion, it seemed to challenge Victor to make the first move.
“Hey, Ma - we got company!” exclaimed Victor.
Instinctively, Johanna rose from her seat and placed a protective hand on Victor’s shoulder.
“Here boy!” Victor tossed a half-eaten spare rib toward the animal, amused as it quickly snatched the bone from the grass and scooted backward into the trees. Within seconds, more raccoons began easing out of the woods to sit on the grass, staring. Victor flung a few more scraps in their direction but it quickly became clear that the beggars far outnumbered the bones.
“Remember what Roxy said!” Johanna whispered, reaching for Victor’s arm to stop him from flinging more food; at this point, the bandits had tripled in number and were edging closer to the deck.
“She said to stay out of their way, but what better way to make friends than to feed them? Come on, it’s like paying the mob for protection!” Victor laughed, gently pulling his arm away to toss a piece of potato into the yard.
Johanna felt an uneasiness forming in the pit of her stomach. “I’m not kidding, Vic. Stop it NOW.”
Victor scoffed but paused the feeding, and a significantly larger raccoon pushed its way forward and the pack seemed to part in acknowledgement of its authority. The size of a small boar and undoubtedly the largest raccoon that either of them had ever seen, the characteristic five long fingers extending from each paw more closely resembled human hands than those of a raccoon. It positioned itself at the front of the pack, its nose vigorously twitching side to side.
“What the hell is that—how did it get so big?” Victor whispered between his teeth.
Johanna grabbed the tray of meat and headed into the house, calling over her shoulder. “Get inside!”
He obeyed and quickly hopped over the threshold, sliding the patio door closed and drawing the curtains.
Something slammed against the door with enough force to shake the curtains, followed by a chorus of soft thumps raining across the wood deck. The kitchen floor beneath Johanna and Victor’s feet vibrated from the pandemonium on the other side of the sliding door. Ssst! Garrrll!
“What was that?” Her son asked, eyes wide with fear.
Her mouth gaped open but she couldn’t form the words to comfort him in the moment. A thought formed in the back of her mind, but…it couldn’t be, could it?
Lunging forward, she snatched open the curtain and recoiled in horror before stumbling two steps back. The raccoons were piled atop each other pressing against the glass, nearly blocking out all light from outside. Patterns of fur swirled in motion, accented by angry slanted rodent-like eyes; razor-sharp teeth snapped open and close, emitting growls from their pointed snouts. Slimy pink tongues lapped at the glass, leaving wet trails to be smeared by the wild mass of black and brown fur. Pale fingers tipped with pointed claws scraped against the door, adding a scree scree sound to the chorus of grunts and growls.
The entire deck was covered by hundreds of animals yet they continued to march out of the trees and crawl atop each other to snarl and claw at the door.
“They’re gonna get in!” Victor panicked, as fractures appeared along the bottom seam of the glass. His hand closed over the long handle of the grill fork and he quickly wielded it in front of him, shaking it aggressively toward the creatures. “Go away! Go AWAY!”
Down in the yard, the largest creature rose up on its haunches and blasted a handful of sharp piercing barks before quickly turning and scooting his wide frame back in the direction from which he’d came.
The attackers began an abrupt retreat, falling back from the glass—layer by furry layer— pivoting toward the steps and trotting into the woods.
Within minutes, the deck was clear. But deep gouges in the wood and clumps of wet fur stuck to the glass door were evidence that something unnatural had taken place on the deck that day.
From the safety of her living room window, Johanna studied the quiet community she and her son had fallen in love with at first sight. A three-mile-long swath of cottage-styled homes surrounded by lush forestry, it looked as if a two-lane road had been bulldozed through the woods and the houses dropped from the sky. There formed the sleepy little hovel that she had been so excited to make their home just a few months earlier.
But now, their dream home was a place of fear, as the raccoons stalked their property each night, mewling and hissing as if Johanna and Victor were the enemy. She could hear them chittering in the woods, sending messages—she imagined—about when next to attack.
Googling led to the purchase of a repellant spray made of coyote urine, but the scent was incredibly nauseating as it wafted through the vents and filled the house. A freshly ground paste of raw garlic and cracked pepper appeared to slow them down, but its effectiveness was diluted after a few hours exposed to air, and then the raccoons would trot right through it.
The spring-loaded cages proved to be quite effective, but the raccoons were so enraged at being caught, they would violently rock the traps back and forth making it impossible to get close to the cage to remove them from the property. Victor came up with the idea of using a cattle prod to neutralize them long enough to drown in a barrel of water. Effective, but also cruel and labor intensive. In addition, seeing their cohorts locked inside of steel traps seemed to anger the raccoons even more and they increased their harassment. Johanna had begun to notice deep trenches around the base of the house, as if the animals had attempted to dig in at the basement level!
While messages left for local wildlife exterminators had gone unanswered, there was one person that could help.
Roxy was sitting outside when Johanna crossed the street and approached her walkway; she waved her hand toward an empty chair to her left.
“You musta done pissed them off. I told you to stay out of their way!”
“We didn’t do anything! “Johanna weakly protested.
“Uh uh. You did something. I see them over there circling your house at night.” Roxy tilted her head and stared at Johanna with accusing eyes.
“My son just tossed them a few bones—”
Roxy slapped her knee and exclaimed, “There it is! You tried to be friends with them. Now they done locked in on you.”
She turned sideways and pushed her hair back to reveal more scars; several of which looked to be covered in fresh dried blood. “I have my battles with them ever so often.”
“You’re not afraid?” asked Johanna.
Roxy chuckled. “I can’t go nowhere so I had to learn how to live here. Those demons been here longer than these houses, even longer than the streets we walk on. We invaded THEIR world, so I think they’re trying to take it back, a little bit at a time.”
Johanna listened as Roxy explained how she and her husband had hired contractors to push back half an acre of woods to begin construction of a greenhouse. Roxy’s hands trembled as she clutched the fabric of her jeans at her thighs. “I guess they didn’t like that,” she concluded.
“My old man was out there trimming the edge of the grass right where we had started laying the foundation but the woods were at the line—that’s when they took him.“
“I heard him screaming like I ain’t never heard him scream before. Like he was scared to death. The edger was just-a whirring whirring all over the place like it does when you let go of the handle and it runs off without you. And my poor Jimmy...He wasn’t no small man either…” Roxy’s voice trailed off.
“They took him.” She said again, quietly.
“But…they’re just raccoons…”
“No…not just!” Roxy interrupted her. “They pulled him into the trees and we ain’t never even found his shoes. Not just nothing!”
Johanna shuddered at the vision of what she imagined Mr. Jimmy might have looked like, a big strong man being pulled screaming into the trees by dozens of…raccoons?
“You said you can’t leave—why not?”
“I wanna be here in case he comes back. In case he comes walking back out of the woods and into my kitchen with those dirty lawn mowing boots that I used to yell at him about. I know, I know, I sound like a lunatic. But I can’t leave his soul out there alone.”
The women sat in silence for a few moments, just looking out into the empty street, and Johanna realized for the first time how utterly quiet the entire street was. From the day she toured the open house and even moved in, not a single car had rolled down the street.
“Is it always so quiet?”
Roxy pointed to the house sitting several yards away. “Mr. David is there. I think. I ain’t seen him in a while. But I ain’t seen him move out either.” She shrugged.
Victor disappeared a few days later.
Thankfully, Johanna had been spared the agony of helplessly witnessing her only child dragged into the woods. The police had written him off as a teenage runaway, but Johanna knew better. And the realization of her son’s true fate drove her to her knees in despair, as she wailed in the night and cursed at the trees.
“GIVE HIM BACK TO ME!”
Blinking eyes like tiny dots of light opened up throughout the pitch-black yard; she thought she could hear them laughing at her, but that couldn’t be true because raccoons didn’t laugh. But then again, these raccoons could do things far beyond her wildest nightmare.
Now she crouched on her deck in the dark, aiming the barrel of the gun toward the 10-gallon propane tank sitting at the edge of the woods.
A deep growl came rolling from between the trees.
Leaves rustled and branches bent forward as it came rushing forward, galloping on four legs. Shocked at its size up close, Johanna clumsily tried to stand and take aim, but it took the stairs in two jumps and the swing of one hefty paw sent Johanna flying over the railing onto the gravel at the deck’s edge.
She screamed as the monster dropped its full weight on her legs and dug sharp claws through her pants into her skin; pulling itself up her torso to hover its dripping snout above her face. With jaws open, it could easily swallow her head in one bite. Johanna had just a few seconds to aim at the tank and squeeze the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot was deafening and the kickback so great that her back scraped violently against the gravel. But the kaboom! of the bullet hitting the tank made her entire body release with satisfaction, fear, pain and joy.
The trees burst into orange flames and the air seared her lungs as she let go of it all; surrendering to the rows of teeth closing around her head before the fire would take them both away.