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Thirst: the first 100

 

 

 

THIRST

PART 1

 

 

 

a novel

 

KAE BELL

Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell

All Rights Reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.

 

 

Chapter 1

By acreage, it was not a large farm, 300 acres, plus or minus, depending on whom you spoke with at town hall.

Mr. Banks liked things small. He knew his ninety milking cows by sight, when they stepped into the milking parlor in the early morning, smelling of grass. He knew which ones were excellent milkers and which were mean bitches one poorly timed crap away from hamburger.

Most of all, Banks knew his land: Every acre of the rolling New York hills. Posted and patrolled.

In a light morning fog, seated on his tractor, Mr. Banks made slow progress cutting hay in his largest, eastern-most field bordered by the state land. This was the season’s second cut. Behind him, the mower whirred as it chopped the thin stalks. Banks squinted into the low sun, rising into a cloudless sky. Banks hoped the day was hot as predicted. Hay needed the dry heat.

Behind him, the mower’s metal blades turned, slicing hay with sharp edges. The engine droned like a snoring monster. At the row’s end, Flint turned the tractor to mow in the other direction. He was ten feet in when over the thrum of his tractor he heard a thump from behind.

It was a sound he knew. Thirty years on the tractor and you heard a few things in the field. Some sounds were welcome. This one was not.

Metal against flesh.

Banks braked, slowing the tractor to a hard stop. He turned to hear anything more from behind the mower, but heard only the engine’s chug. He cut the engine and in the morning quiet, he heard a second sound.

Pain. The creature caught unawares by his unforgiving blades. Whatever his mower had run over, it was screaming in pain. Banks heard its high-pitched wail of distress.

“Uuungh!”

The sound flowed, rising higher and higher into the morning’s silence, the noise swallowed by blue sky. Then it ceased.

Stepping from his seat, his foot on the wheel as he hopped down, Banks landed in the uncut hay that reached halfway up the large tractor wheels. He walked slowly back through the hay. Toward the mower.

He was ten or eleven feet away, when the sound came again, this time weaker, less a complaint and more an acceptance, like air let out of a tire.

Banks’ stomach turned.

“Uuuunghhhhhhhh…”

The sound ended in a whimper. Banks stopped. Some things were so damn unpleasant a man wanted to wait a moment before moving ahead, whether to steel himself against the inevitable or to simply enjoy one more moment of calm, who could say. Finally, Banks compelled his feet forward, one step at a time, reminding himself that a farmer was of the seasons, that which lived and died.

By the mower, Banks stared hard at the tree line, his hand resting on the sharp blades, still warm from the morning’s cut. The blades curved in an efficient harmony, reflecting the rising sun. The smell of cut hay was strong here. Birds sang in the high branches of the pine trees that lined the field’s edge.

Banks took a slow breath and looked down. There, in the freshly cut hay, beyond where Banks had stopped the blades of the mower and cut the tractor’s engine, lay a bloody pile of skin, blood, and bones. The smell of iron lifted on the breeze. Banks caught the scent. As he took one more step forward, he felt sick.

The jumble of what had clearly been a human was tangled in the cut hay. It was a bloodied mess.

Banks stared at the pile, as a breeze shook the treetops on the wood’s edge. Another step forward for him and the mess came into focus.

A bloody human face, the forehead sheared off, stared up at Mr. Banks. Mr. Banks didn’t recognize the man, which gave him a slight sense of relief amidst the panic he was feeling. The body, sliced to near ribbons by the industrial mower, was still.

In an early stage of shock, Banks looked away, his chest heaving. He could feel the heat congeal in his stomach and the acid burst up his esophagus. He bent over and lost his breakfast of three scrambled eggs and crisp toast with tart blackberry jam made from the berry bushes lining the dirt road.

When he stood, he wiped his mouth on his shirt and peered east, to the field’s edge, lined with pine trees. Did he see movement in the shadows? Or was it the nausea? The shock?

Above the trees, puffy white clouds had appeared, hiding the sun. Banks turned away from the blades and the body.

The uncut field stretched before him. What a shame, he thought, to lose the crop.

He walked through the uncut hay, down the hill to his farmhouse and his wife.

*******

At the four-way stop, a tractor stopped to turn right down a dirt road. The sports car idling behind it revved its engine and bolted through the intersection, its alloy wheels kicking up grit. A hand appeared from the front passenger window to give the farmer the finger. Already halfway down the lane, the farmer was unaware.

Meg watched this from the wood’s edge, her back set against a tree trunk. From here, she could see everything interesting: the road to town, the fields, and of course, the farmhouse itself, at the bottom of the hill. From the farmhouse, fields extended up the hill and east, to the edge of the dense state land, heavily wooded forest where coyotes yowled at night. The fields themselves were lush this summer, the hay flourishing in the heat. Flowers too. Purple, yellow, and orange wildflowers lined the fields. Clover, Buttercups, and Paintbrush. Drunk from pollen, bees stumbled among the blossoms.

The rough dirt road kept through traffic to a minimum. On a daily basis, only the milkman and an occasional hunter would pass by. Fluffy brown cattails grew in the road’s ditch, flooded from an earlier downpour.

From this spot, Meg could not see her own house, which was farther up the road, at the top of the hill. A thick wood separated the two properties. And happily, she thought, her parents could not see her. Specifically, her mother.

Nor could her stupid brothers.

In the shade of this tree, Meg felt like her family was a thousand miles away.

She wished they were.

Meg’s stomach growled. She was hungry. Dinner was a long ways off and breakfast, which had consisted of cookies she’d had in her pocket from yesterday, was hours ago. She’d missed lunch.

It had been two hours since Meg had heard her mom call her for lunch. Mrs. Flint had even walked down the hill from the house to the Bank’s farm, in that slow way she had, every limb registering the annoyance of having interrupted an otherwise delightful and carefree life to have three wayward children. She’d called for Meg several times, each time the name growing more shrill. Hidden by the tall hay, Meg had watched her mom’s head turn left and right, her eyes seeking movement. Finally, her mom had shrugged and walked back up the hill to the house.

Meg had felt a twinge of guilt. But she was still angry.

Her brothers had arrived last night, after five weeks at sleep away camp. Filled with bravado from campfires and night hikes.

Meg had been told (‘asked’ her mother said) to give the boys her bedroom, since it had the two twin beds. The summerhouse was cozy, with only two bedrooms for the family of five. In summers past, the boys had slept outside in a big tent. But the arrival of the coyotes had put an end to that. So Meg had moved out to the sun porch, which was fine with her – it had windows on three sides, a sofa bed, and a TV, which mom had said she could watch whenever she wanted, if she kept the volume low. Best of all, Meg could watch the moon rise and listen to the bugs, loud this far out in the country, as she fell sleep. This pleased her.

But last night, she’d hated seeing her brothers’ expressions as they closed the door to her old bedroom, smirking at her, until she heard the click of the lock.

She didn’t feel guilty for wishing that the twins had stayed at camp all summer. She loved the cabin without her brothers crashing around in it, destroying or shooting everything in sight. The days were sunnier in the silence.

Mom had insisted that the boys return for the last two weeks of summer vacation before school began, when Daddy took his vacation.

Her brothers had not waited a minute to begin their pranks.

When Meg had woken up this morning, her neck was itchy. She scratched her neck and felt around her pillows. In between the fluffy down pillows, her hand closed on a thick chunk of hair. Meg pulled it forward into the day’s early light.

It was her hair. Six jagged inches of it.

Staring at this, seeing her summer highlights catch the morning light, Meg had figured her brothers had planned this at camp. Had been waiting all summer to do this. Sneaking out after she was asleep, scissors in hand, concealing their snickery laughter.

Dazed at her discovery and still only half awake, Meg had heard feet shuffling and muffled giggling from behind the door into the main house.

Her brothers were hiding. And watching her. Waiting for her reaction. She knew from past experience, they hoped she would cry. Or scream. And, of course, tell Mom. They’d started calling her ‘tattle tail’ a year ago.

Meg clutched her cut hair. She would not react. She would not.

She must not.

Instead, Meg had slid off the bed. Grabbed scissors from the sewing basket. With jerky motions, the angle awkward but effective, she sliced off her remaining long hair. Strands littered the floor like autumn leaves. She’d felt the back of her head. Good enough. Then she’d slipped out the porch door, closing it gently.

Outside, she’d seen the farmer Mr. Banks already mowing in the field. Stop his tractor and hop down. Meg had hurried down the road to her favorite hiding spot.

She’d been gone since then.

She was getting hungry. Her stomach growled again. In the morning, she’d noticed the blackberry bushes on her way down the hill. Heavy with fruit. Meg pictured the berries, could almost taste the dusky sweetness. Her mouth watered. She should have saved one of the cookies.

From her perch, Meg watched the tractor drive along the curve at the bottom of the road where the runoff never fully dried and mosquitoes swarmed thick around dank puddles that remained days after a storm. Mr. Banks must be done for the day, she thought. She’d seen him come and go a couple times across the morning, on a different tractor each time.

A breeze rippled across the field. Tall stalks brushed together, hissing in protest.

Meg’s ears perked up. Over the wind, she heard a murmur of conversation. Careful to stay hidden, she poked her head above the hay to see who it was.

There they were. Her stupid brothers, walking down the hill, ambling along, filled with lunch and mischief.

Meg’s heart sank. They might take the shortcut across the field and find her hiding place. Of course, they’d laugh at her hair. They’d call her names. Just thinking about the possibilities, Meg despaired. Her afternoon was spoilt.

Once more, she poked her head above the hay. Her brothers were halfway down the big hill, still a good ways from the farm. They’d stopped to chuck rocks at squirrels.

She doubted they could see into the barn’s shadow that fell across the road like a blanket. If she moved now, she could make it. Staying low, Meg made a beeline across the field. Her feet made small footprints in the soft earth.

Stepping out from the field, she crossed the dirt road to the barn, glancing once up the hill. Her brothers were fixated on something in a tree.

She stepped into the barn’s shadow. A tall wooden structure, three stories high, the barn was the center of activity on the Banks farm. It housed the milking parlor, the cows, and the hay that Mr. Banks harvested each summer to feed his herd in winter.

Somewhere inside, cows lowed. This late in the season, the pastures were thin from grazing. Plus, it was almost time for chores.

Meg stood by the barn’s wide sliding door. The red paint was peeling in some places. Meg knew the barn was off-limits to the kids, forbidden to Meg and her brothers by Mom, under penalty of being grounded for life or worse. Dad had said it was fun, he’d played there as a boy. But Mom had prevailed.

But Meg was certain that Mister Banks wouldn’t mind. He and Mrs. Banks invited the family all to dinner at least once a week. He never minded when kids got silly and giggly at the dinner table or when Meg spilled juice on the floor. He was just one of those men that didn’t mind.

And more, she felt like Mr. Banks would understand. That he would see her new haircut, see her brothers gallivanting down the road and he would get it. He would wink at Meg like he did sometimes and say, “Now, you go right on ahead, little Miss.”

Sitting by the barn, a calico cat missing half an ear mewled loudly at Meg. Meg bent to scratch the cat’s head. Several feet away, in the safety of the weeds, other barn cats crouched, watching. Meg saw their cautious ears and tails poking above the tall grass.

The voices were closer now. Meg glanced up. Her brothers were almost to the base of the hill and had stopped to yell at the cows. Meg wished one would charge at them. But the cows stood, dazed by the heat, swishing their tails against the endless flies.

Meg grasped the edge of the barn door and pushed it sideways on its casters, making space to slip inside. She pushed the door closed and breathed in the dark barn.

Outside, her brothers’ voices grew louder. They were arguing.

“Dad said they didn’t find his head.”

“Naw, that’s not what he said. He said ‘hands’. They didn’t find his hands. They need to fingerprint him. What do they need his head for anyway?”

“It could be anybody if they don’t find his head. That head is still in the field. I’m gonna find it!” Her oldest brother Justin.

“They need his fingerprints, so can tell his family he’d dead.”

“And they don’t need his head for that?”

Meg heard their feet shuffle in the dirt as they approached the barn, Jason’s lazy gait dragging along the road, always a step behind Justin.

She wished they’d keep moving.

No luck.

Meg heard Jason call out in a falsetto voice: “Here kitty kitty kitty.”

The friendly calico outside the barn door meowed.

Run away, cat! Meg thought.

Footsteps approach the barn door. Then a sharp yelp of pain and a feline yowl of displeasure.

“Oww! It scratched me!” Jason whined.

“You were dumb to pick it up.”

“I’m bleeding! Stupid cat.” Pebbles hit the barn door.

“Who cares? Let’s go find that head.”

“The hands.”

“Whatever. Come on.” The cat forgotten, the boys shuffled away.

Meg heard their footsteps recede. She’d been holding her breath as they talked. Now she exhaled sharply and gulped in air. It smelled strongly of hay and fresh manure. Smells that reminded her of summer vacation.

She should go home now, she knew. She could explain to her mother what had happened. Her mother would have a funny story to tell her about a story she had read. Her father would look up from his computer and shake his head.

But it was so cool here in the barn. So inviting. So forbidden.

Meg stepped further into the barn’s interior. Although it was dark, sunlight snuck in between the barn boards, spackling the walls with lines of light. Her eyes had adjusted to the light and Meg could see the rows of empty stalls that stretched all the way to the end of the barn. In the winter the stalls would be filled with cows. But it was summer, when the cows spent their days and nights meandering outside, grazing on sweet grass and clover. Must be a couple hundred feet of cow stalls, one after the other. Meg would ask her dad. He knew that kind of thing.

She turned and walked along the inside wall, past the birthing pens, in the direction of the parlor. Poking her head through an open doorframe, she saw the source of the manure smell. Several cows stood together at the far end of the barn, shifting on hooves, in the cool darkness. This room too had long rows of stalls. Meg tried to imagine it in the cold months, the open space filled with the breath and stench of cows.

To her right, sunlight slanted through a square opening in the barn ceiling.

The entrance to the hayloft.

Her dad had played there as a boy, living on the hill. Sometimes at night, he would tell stories from the barn, before Mom shushed him.

Standing directly under the opening, Meg tried to see into the room above but could only see part of the vaulted ceiling. She had seen Mr. Bank’s workers loading hay bales on a long elevator ramp that dumped the bales in through a second story door.

No one would think to look for her there. It would be the best place to hide.

She stepped forward, slipping on something on the floor and nearly falling into the muck. She looked down. It was a rat, a very dead rat, slippery with blood. The barn cats had probably caught it earlier.

Meg stepped over the carcass. Above, the light from the hayloft beckoned.

Meg grabbed hold of the makeshift ladder, short boards nailed to the wall, dark with age. Spider webs clung to her fingers as Meg lifted herself up each step. One loose board gave way, a loose nail that fell to the floor. Meg caught herself and continued to climb.

Now, eight feet up on the ladder, nearly level with the hayloft floor, Meg stepped off the board and into a rectangular room. The hayloft ceiling stretched above, its highest rafters lost in the shadows.

Meg looked around. This was so different from the rooms below. Hay bales were everywhere. Hay bales lined the walls, seven and eight bales high and two or three bales deep. Along one wall, the bales stretched almost all the way to the rafters. Late afternoon light pierced slim gaps between wallboards, painting the opposite walls with lines of light. Dust motes rose on warm air currents.

It’s like a church, Meg thought. Except for the fluttering birds nesting high in the ceiling.

Meg climbed the bales of hay like steps to reach the topmost bale of a tower.

Outside, Meg heard a car drive fast by the barn, too fast for these dirt roads. She peered out a gap in the boards. Her throat tightened. She knew that car.

She remembered last summer when the same car arrived at the house. Uncle Phil. An uncle in name only. An old Army buddy of her dads.

“No explaining men’s taste in friends,” Meg’s mom would say under her breath, as she watched the two men drink into the night.

In the evenings, Uncle Phil would sneak up on Meg and ask, “Are the ScareIts coming, Megs?” Over and over, the same question. He’d talk with the twins about sports, even guns, after a few beers.

But with Meg, all he did was ask her if the ScareIts were coming.

Eight years, he’d visited them at the cabin. Always the same question.

“Are the ScareIts gonna get you, Megs?”

She could pronounce the word now, just fine. Had for years. But Uncle Phil didn’t care. Teasing was his thing, he’d say.

She watched the car drive up the hill, kicking up old stones.

Now she was definitely not going home.

Meg whispered the word to herself:

ScareIt.

The word felt small and silly. She said the real word. The word she couldn’t say when she was four.

Skeleton.

The words didn’t even sound alike, but a four-year-old doesn’t care, just wants to communicate with those around her. Meg had been afraid of ScareIts when she was four.

She wasn’t four any more.

And she didn’t believe in them anyway. She’d told this to Uncle Phil last summer. More than once.

He didn’t listen, just laughed. Drank more beer. Laughed some more. And Every time he got up to get a beer from the fridge, he’d walk by Meg’s chair and ask her again:

“Are the ScareIts gonna get you, Megs? It’s a full moon. Will they come tonight? Oohhhhhhaaa!!” He’d waggle his thin fingers at her.

Last summer, she had finally gone outside and sat on the patio, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, just to get away from him.

And now here he was again.

Meg leaned her back against the barn boards. They were old but sturdy. Sharp pieces of hay poked at her bare legs. From this height, she could see the entire loft. She looked around, at the heavy crossbeams, the high ceiling, the long barn boards that ran floor to ceiling, the dim corners of the room.

That’s when she saw the man. He was lying on a hay bale in a corner. And he was covered in blood.

Why hadn’t he said something? Was he asleep?

Meg spoke quietly into the rafters. “Hello?” The whispered word did not even disturb the birds. Meg stared at the prone man for several minutes. He did not move.

Outside, a few more cars drove by the dirt road. In the distance, the sound of a helicopter. She looked again at the man. There was no easy way to reach him from here. For reasons Meg could not explain to herself now, or later, she needed to reach him. She wondered, for a moment, if she should be afraid. But this was not one of the hazards that had made the barn off limits.

She could not reach him from where she was. She would need to navigate through the bales. Meg climbed down her tower, step by step, gripping each hay bale by its twine with her hands. The roughness of the rope stung and cut her hands.

At floor level, she could not see the man any longer. He was on the far side of several haystacks. She climbed these. Her hands had reddened and would soon blister from the twine. At the top of the last stack, she could see him again. For some reason, she felt relieved. He still had not moved, his arms and legs in the same position.

She clambered down the last mountain of bales, trying to stay quiet. There was dust from all her movement and she desperately wanted to sneeze. She held it, breathing in through her mouth the stave the impulse. Finally, she reached him. Yes, he was bloody. There was blood on his shirt and trousers, which were a same bright orange color. A funny outfit she thought. His headed faced away from her. In the dim light, Meg could see he had sandy blond hair and a terrible sunburn on the back of his neck. His inhalations were slow.

She took a deep breath and reached out to touch his shoulder. Her fingers passed through a sunbeam, trembling in the light.

“Mister, are you ok?” As her small hand touched his shoulder, careful to avoid any blood, the man rolled toward her. Before Meg could back away, in what little room there was between the tall bales, the man’s hand closed around her wrist. He sat up and yanked Meg close, his nose nearly touching hers. She could see his eyes were dark with lack of sleep. And something else.

Grief.

“Are you the one who chopped up my brother?” he hissed.

Chapter 2

Earlier that day

“Alright, alright. We’ll send someone out. Hold the line.”

Shannon punched the hold button and yelled across the room: “Danny! We’ve got a 911, farmer says he sliced up a man while mowing in his hay field. Can you go take a look? He says there’s a lot of blood. Probably just a deer. I’ll hold off on the ambulance until you call in a body.”

At his cluttered desk, Officer Danny Ross stared out his window at a black pickup truck pulling into the gas station. He could see that the truck had expired Florida plates.

Awfully far from home there, fella, Danny thought. It would make his day to give an out-of-towner a ticket. Fool didn’t know it was his lucky day.

From his desk in the corner, Captain Green yelled, “Danny! Get a move on! 911 means now. And no sirens out there. Don’t wanna spook the damn cows. Last month, a rookie cop over to Yates County blasted his siren chasing some fool kids from one end to the next. Cows barely gave a gallon of milk for a week. I got all kinds of shit from every farmer on 245 all the way to Penn Yan!”

“I’m on it.” Danny turned away from the window and nodded, his 6’1” frame dressed in his dark uniform. He’d been sitting all morning in that wooden chair and he ached from inactivity. He reached for the ceiling and feeling his back muscles extend and relax. Anything was better than sitting at the damn desk all day. Even chasing down dead deer.

“Address?”

Shannon glanced at her notes.

“County Road 16, turn right towards the end, before the dog leg, before, you cross the river.” Studying the map on the wall, she said “That farm borders state forest near where that bear charged hunters last year. But you should be ok. They moved that bear out of state.” She turned to Danny, who stood by the door. “Got it?” she asked, lifting her eyebrows.

Danny nodded at her, his lips pressed tightly together. Shannon always spoke to him in a casual way that he found annoying, coming from an emergency dispatcher and part-time secretary toward an officer of the law. She was the Captain’s sister-in-law, but still…she didn’t respect him enough.

He made a mental note to work on that.

Anyway, he was glad to get out of the station. Mornings were slow, especially on the weekend. Tonight, things would liven up. The weekend bar fights were usually good distractions, especially in the summer months when the weather was fine and people wanted out of the house. Pool, music, and of course drinking. It brought out the best in people, from a cop’s point of view.

But the day shift was a killer. Numbingly boring. Ugh. Danny had pulled Saturdays for two months in a row. He figured the system was rigged, as he was the most junior. He’d put in his time, like the rest of them. He reminded himself this was a stepping-stone.

Dues were dues.

Outside, his car was hot from the sun. Danny blasted the AC, turned music on low, and listened to the police radio as he drove. Nothing happening nearby. Sometimes local kids got crazy on Saturdays with fireworks, guns, or booze, or a combination thereof.

But not today.

On the police radio, there was ongoing chatter about the escaped convicts several counties to the northeast. Sounded like they’d crossed over to Canada. It had been two weeks of searching. Only fools would still be in the US.

A 911 call broke in. Danny listened. A domestic disturbance. Danny was glad he was already out on a call. He hated dealing with that personal bullshit. He was glad he was single.

The radio continued with news of the convict sightings. A couple folks in Toronto had seen the two men out celebrating their hard won freedom. Another woman, a local potter, had claimed she saw them near her studio by the railroad tracks. No one had pictures, but the descriptions were tight, the witnesses credible.

Danny had read a lot about two escapees. Truly bad guys, sounded like.

A breaking news update came on. A press conference, by the FBI agent leading the search. Danny turned up the volume.

“As we’ve detailed in our briefings, these past weeks, our search has been extensive and comprehensive. We have covered the county in which the escape took place, and beyond. Men and dogs have searched every square mile, extending from the prison out fifty miles. To the north, we extended the search to the border. This has been a costly manhunt. Costly in time, effort, and expense. Unfortunately, to date, it had been unsuccessful. Given the low probability of the escaped men still being in this area, we are at this time calling off the search. I want to applaud the men and women of the New York State Police, the local support of town police, and my FBI team who have conducted this search tirelessly. I’d also like to thank the public, so helpful with creative information and ideas.”

Danny thought he caught a whiff of sarcasm in that last comment. Wild goose chases, most likely. He kept listening.

“Ultimately, none of our efforts panned out. We can only hope to find these dangerous men in the very near future. While we are wrapping things up here, we will continue to monitor all leads. The photos of course will remain in heavy circulation in this and nearby states. Thank you.”

Danny had seen the photos. He figured every cop in New York state, hell, probably every person, had seen the photos. The pictures had been all over the news since the jailbreak. The purported leader was husky and bald-headed. A mean motherfucker, the guards had said, off the record. His associate was more wiry, a beanpole of a man, with grey hair and a trim beard. Both in maximum for the murder of two British tourists hiking Bear Mountain seven years ago. Life.

‘Brothers From Another Mother’, the headlines read.

After a twenty-minute drive from town, during which he saw not a single other car, Danny turned down the dirt road and spotted the Banks’ farmhouse. The barn sat next to the house. Equipment was parked along the side of the road, a red tractor, a mower, and a grain elevator that looked like it had seen better days. Beyond the house and the barn, the flat road gave way to a hill that rose steep and long, bordered on both sides by pastureland, up and up until it forked left and right.

The smell of bacon greeted him as he knocked on the screen door. A woman answered, her wrinkled face red from the heat of the stove. She smiled at the stranger on her stoop.

“Morning Officer. You here to speak to my husband, I’d guess. He’s eating breakfast. I was worried he’d lose his appetite after what he seen earlier. But he’s had two helpings already. Plus an extra biscuit. Death makes some people hungry I guess. You want some coffee? Come on in.” She pushed the screen door wide.

Ross stayed put. “Thank you Ma’am. But I need to see the body.”

Mrs. Banks stared. She could count on one hand the number of times someone had turned down her food, especially her breakfasts, what with the homemade jam in summer and all. But she’d learned that folks had their ways and it was best let it go and not take offense. You never knew what for.

“Alright. I can see you’re in a rush, pressure from the boss and all to get this sorted out. The dead never seem to go anywhere fast, but there’s always a first time. He’ll take you up there.” She yelled to the kitchen, “Mr. Banks! It’s the policeman here to see the work you done in the filed this morning!”

She turned back to Officer Danny and grinned.

A garbled mouthful of food replied in the affirmative.

He’ll be done in two minutes. Why don’t you come in to see the place? You can write about it in your report: ‘Spotless kitchen, smell of crispy bacon, one large useless dog by the backdoor.’” She nodded at a sleeping brown Labrador retriever that looked like it might be 1/4 Great Dane.

As Judy Banks led the way into a bright kitchen, her husband shoved one last piece of toast into his mouth. He stood, dusting breadcrumbs off his worn jeans. A trail of jam doted his blue t-shirt. He extended his hand to Officer Danny as he chewed. He took a big sip of coffee to wash it all down and cleared his throat.

“We’ll go in my truck. Don’t wanna get your car stuck in a rut.”

“That’d be fine.”

Banks led the way outside, Ross on his heels. The dog slept through all of this, even the screen door banging shut.

Banks started the truck as Ross buckled himself into the passenger seat. Seeing this, Banks chuckled to himself and Ross colored slightly.

“Habit,” Ross said.

“Somebody got to set an example.” Banks glanced at Ross, twenty years his junior. “You’re it, I suppose.”

Banks pulled out of the driveway. The morning sun was hot on the dirt road and dragonflies darted at the truck as it rounded the curve and went up the hill. Banks saw that the Flints were home, both cars in the driveway. He didn’t want to alarm them, so he drove the long way around, around the block to bypass the house and down the opposite hill, entering the field from the far side.

As Banks turned the truck of the road and into the high grass, a surprised frog hopped off a wide flat rock where it had been warming itself. It judged badly and landed in the path of the truck’s back wheel.

Banks had marked the field with his red bandana. He drove straight for the red, ignoring the neat rows he himself had planted. About twenty feet from the bandana, he shifted into park and nodded at Ross.

Ross ignored the pit in his stomach. He was fine with blood and death. It was a thrill, if he was honest. But he didn’t like surprises. He unbuckled his seat belt, hopped out and walked in the direction of the bandana.

Banks also hopped out but left the truck running to keep it cool. It was going to be a scorcher by late afternoon. He stayed by the truck, soothed by the purr of the engine.

Ross stepped through the un-mown grass, wishing Banks had made more progress on the field before slicing up the deer. His shoes picked up dust as he walked, losing their dark sheen.

“You’ll want to do a tick check later,” Banks called out.

Ross nodded, not really hearing anything, not even the wind rustling the hay or tossing the branches of nearby trees.

He had reached the bandana. He stared down. It was not a deer.

The dead body was a man, that was clear, but there was something else. He was dressed in prison garb. Had a neck tattoo that had been plastered all over the TV for the past two weeks.

Ross’ face went white. He turned around and yelled back to Banks.

“This man is an escaped convict. There’s a manhunt for him.”

Banks nodded. “Hmm. I wondered about that. Didn’t wanna say nothing about it over the phone. I’ve seen about that on the TV news.” He scratched his head and looked at the horizon. He needed to get milking the cows. His entire day would be late.

“Wondered what he’s doing round these ways. Had a partner I thought they said on the news. Both in for murder.”

“That’s right. I need to call this in. The state police will want to hear about this…Probably the FBI too.”

Ross pulled out his phone and took photos of the deceased. He’d seen his share of dead bodies. But the blades of a mower were unforgiving to the human form. Like a butcher making hamburger.

He thought to take a selfie but Farmer Banks was staring at him. Waiting. Ross slipped his phone back into his pocket.

“That’s all I need. Can you take me back to my car? I need to call this in. ”

Banks nodded and turned, his legs taking long strides away from the body.

As Ross walked behind Banks back to the truck, he stifled a grin.

This wouldn’t be a slow Saturday after all.

 

Chapter 3

The man stared at Meg, his eyes wild. Meg had never seen someone look so crazy. Was it from pain? Panic? Fear? And what he was asking about? How would she know anything about his brother? She didn’t recognize him. Not from town. Not from anywhere. She’d met some locals the past several summers down at the Inn where the family went for lunch or dinner a couple times a week. Everyone in town went there. You got to know faces.

She had definitely not seen this man before. So she was sure she did not know his brother. Or who had cut him.

He was only inches away from her face. His cheeks were smudged with dirt. Grey stubble grew at crazy angles from his chin.

“No. I’ve been by the tree all day.” She gestured in the direction of where she’d been hiding, as if would know the tree and as if that might calm him down.

“The birch tree on the field’s edge across the street. It’s the only one.”

He stared at her, his face hard and unbelieving. His eyes reflected no light. He held her wrist loosely, as you might hold a child you don’t want to lose in a crowd. He studied her face, trying to place her, though he knew he had never seen her before. She was only a kid. Something in him shifted, gave way, and he looked at her more closely, as if he had snapped out of a dream and was now fully conscious, and could grasp that of course this wisp of a thing could do no harm.

Meg was embarrassed by this man’s silent gaze. Dressed in a thin t-shirt and jean shorts, with her newly cropped hair, she felt exposed, in a way that made her stomach flip-flop. She could feel air on her bare neck, as a breeze seeped in through cracks in the barn boards.

Not certain what else to do, she stared back.

A word came to her mind as Meg looked at this stranger. It made no sense and she dismissed it at first. But the word persisted. It popped up again, like a bouncing ball. It’s just that he was so thin, Meg thought. She could see his ribs through his shirt. His clavicle outlined clearly, the long sharp edges. She’d seen pictures of super skinny people before, in history class at school. So thin, their bones jutted from the skin, stretching it to its limits.

He was skinny like that. Like a skeleton. All protruding bones.

“Are you a ScareIt?” she asked.

The man shook his head, to say no and to clear out the cobwebs.

He’d been sleeping hard. They’d been on the run for two weeks now, since they busted out. They’d gone almost clear across the state. He’d wanted to head north but his brother said no, the border would be impossible. They’d get to Ohio, then southwest. Then Mexico.

En route, they’d listened to the news. It played loud out of the car windows in the parking of truck stops and gas stations where they blended in with other misfits. They heard that the FBI was still searching the area around the prison, all the way to the Canadian border.

They knew they’d thrown off the dogs. They relaxed. They slept in the woods a mile in from the highway, to be safe from stranded tourists. It was late summer, still warm enough to sleep outside without cover. They’d stolen some guards’ civilian clothes but hung on to their jumpsuits, which they wore when they were on the move.

They’d spot a work gang on a highway median, clearing trash, and head a short ways down the road, pretend to do the same. A trucker would give them a lift.

He’d been in the woods. He’d seen Banks’ tractor role over his only kin.

Meg stepped closer to him. She felt something new. She wanted to know more.

He dropped her wrist.

She took one more step.

That’s when she stepped on the antler tine.

A five-pointer, the rack was laying on the floor. High quality. The man must have found it in the woods and carried it with him to the barn. People would pay for a pristine deer antler. Even more if he’d found its pair. It had not been gnawed on by small animals, hungry for minerals. It had value.

When she stepped closer, Meg had set her foot down on the antler’s third tine, which, at six inches long, easily penetrated the soft base of her foot, went through the tissue and muscle, and poked out the top.

Meg stared at the white tip of antler protruding from her foot, near her toes. Surprise registered, then pain, as the injury transmitted along nerves, sending a searing heat up her right leg.

There was no blood. Not yet.

A scream started deep inside her, building for years, like a wave traveling thousands of miles to crest on an unknown shore. As it worked its way out, to announce the pain, the scream was interrupted as the man grabbed Meg and cupped a hand over her mouth. He dragged her to him on the hay bale.

“Shut-up!”

He did not want to be found. He was not going back.

Held against the man’s thin chest, aware of his heart beating against her back, Meg watched her foot.

Something was wrong.

Her foot didn’t hurt. In fact, after the first jolt of pain, her foot and her entire leg went numb, like getting a shot at the dentist’s office before the drill. Her foot was impaled on an antler.

She couldn’t feel a thing

Meg wasn’t sure, in this dim light, but it seemed like something was crawling on her foot. She struggled against her captor, who held her tighter. The sun had dipped below the horizon now and the hayloft was in the throes of dusk.

Whatever had been crawling on her foot was now crawling on her leg. And had jumped over to her other leg. Both legs were numb, but Meg could feel some pressure moving up her legs onto her torso. She tried to scream and bit down on her captor’s rough hand. He’d felt worse pain than a girl’s teeth, much worse. He didn’t flinch.

Whatever the thing was that was crawling on her legs, it had moved onto Meg’s arms. She could barely see it and she waved her hand toward it, to swat it away.

Could watch it move, as it made steady progress, not crawling exactly, but growing, like a moss, or a fungus, on her skin. She watched it, not fully understanding, yet on some level knowing. Knowing that it was NOT GOOD. This thing. She could not put a name to it, even as it enveloped her. She could not name it as it encased her body. It would be some time before anyone did.

The antler tine that had penetrated Meg’s foot had sensed an ideal environment. In the richness of Meg’s young skin and oxygen rich blood, it had started to grow. Its cells multiplied quickly, like a virulent bacteria.

What Meg felt on her limbs was a sheen of cartilage extending itself over her body, across her arms and her torso. Up her neck, her mouth, her nose, her eyes.

Until she was encased.

As the white cartilage covered her eyes, Meg felt time slow, as if the day stretched out endlessly in front of her and nothing mattered. She felt giddy. She’d had several large sips of wine once, gulps really, at a Thanksgiving family dinner one year, and it felt something like this. She thought for a moment about the blackberries she had meant to eat.

The man noticed the girl had stopped fighting. He had removed his hand from covering her mouth. He shifted around her to see her better.

“What’s wrong with you, little girl?”

She didn’t answer.

“I said, what’s wrong with you?” he hissed again, leaning closer to see her in the dark.

Having completed a growth cycle, the cartilage shifted to bone. In the silence of the hayloft, you could almost hear the minerals deposit into shape and form, the nutrients pulled from Meg’s own body. The skeleton hardened.

The being stood and looked at the man, who stared in horror at this stark white creature with no eyes or mouth, only thick bones that shifted over each other with a disquieting creak.

Meg’s arms, or what had been Meg’s arms, had grown several antler tines that protruded from the arm bone at sharp angles. The being reached out to the man, catching him with its thick, still-growing tines and lifting him up easily, as if he was no more than wheat chaff. It threw Kyle across the hayloft, where he hit the wall with a crash. His body landed on a pile of hay and was still.

The ScareIt scuttled across the floor to the stairwell and leapt down the stairs to the ground floor. Huddled at the back of the barn, several cows lowed, smelling an unknown creature in their midst. The ScareIt traced Meg’s steps and shuffled out the sliding door, terrifying the barn cats waiting outside in the high grass. One cat howled in terror at the strange boney creature.

Now under the night sky, the ScareIt lifted its blank face to the darkening sky, sifting the air. It glanced at the Bank’s place. But the farmhouse next to the barn was dark and silent.

A cool wind across the valley came from the west, carrying the smell of a camp fire, burnt steak, and s’mores.

The sound of laughter.

The Scare-It turned away from the smell of flesh and crossed the road to the shortcut by the field, following Meg’s path from this morning. In the distance, a coyote howled, also having caught a whiff of an unknown creature in its neighborhood. It barked a warning to the others.

Moving in the moonlight, the Scare-It looked like a slim white cocoon with limbs. As if a giant butterfly might burst forth from the silvery bone.

There was no beauty in these bones.

As it lumbered up the hill to the Flints’ house, seething, stretching its tine-laden arms over its head, an eight-point buck stepped into the field from the woods edge to stare, curious at the creature that smelled familiar in a distant way.

The Scare-It fell on the buck, piercing the deer’s thick hide again and again with its sharp tines, slicing the buck’s belly until the insides ran out.

The buck was still.

The Scare-It stood, deer guts hanging from its tines. It continued loping up the hill.

The smell of the wood fire had diminished. The laughter had ceased.

The Scare-It hurried.

It had been so long.

It had been so long.

 

 

Chapter 4

Shadowed by local and state police, the FBI had arrived to the Banks’ property around 4 PM. They had converged in Binghamton. From there they had taken mostly back roads west, avoiding town main streets as they approached the farm. Caravans of black SUVs didn’t pass through these parts often. Eyebrows would go up. Phones would ring. The element of surprise would be lost in capturing the remaining escapee.

The senior FBI Agent in charge, Hank Santis, had brought forty men to the Banks’ farm, while the rest of his team were several hours northeast, still combing the woods near the prison for ghosts.

About an hour later, two reporters, tipped off by the Agents they were sleeping with, had set up shop in the Banks’ driveway. They’d first tried to drive up the hill to the Flint’s house but the road was already crisscrossed with yellow crime scene tape, wrapped around thin saplings on one side and sturdy pasture fence posts on the other. The reporters were turned away by several junior agents standing watch by the yellow police tape. Reporters watched as the tape was lifted for the homicide guys, forensics, and the coroner.

Leaning on a picnic table by the Flint’s house, Captain Santis ignored the press, his men, and the impending sunset. He was thinking about next steps. Darkness was never his ally. He glanced at the large tent at the far end of the hay field, erected around the body to allow work to continue on the scene. It glowed in the dark like a beacon. Fireflies blinked their cryptic messages across the cooling hay.

Santis felt confident. One down, one to go. It was a hunt for a lone escapee. Dangerous? Sure. But isolated. Desperate.

Just the way he liked them.

He’d seen the news clips earlier, breaking the story that one escaped convict had been found dead at an undisclosed location. The newscaster had said that the remaining escapee Kyle Cort was the worse of the two and likely the mastermind of the jailbreak. A nasty guy. Violent crime. Murder. Life-long criminal. No one who had ever met him was surprised. Worst of all, he was smart.

Santis had hunted worse men, with fewer resources. These two were slippery little suckers though. Two weeks they’d been combing the woods in Upstate, all the while the targets were headed west.

What in the hell were they doing over here?

Santis didn’t give a shit if he never knew why. He wanted this over. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Tonight. He was fed up with the chase. He wanted to sit in his worn leather chair, drinking a cold beer, or several, in front of large TV, with his phone as far away as possible. Pre-season was starting. The Bills were slated to have a strong start out of the gate. He’d be damned if this convict made him miss a game.

This would end tonight. He’d make sure of it.

*******

Sarah Flint stood outside, facing the horizon. A chill had crept into the air with the night. She could feel the cold on her ski, the tiny goose bumps.

Meg had missed dinner.

Since the FBI had arrived in force around 4 PM, the Flints had been under house arrest.

“My daughter is out there,” she said for the third time. Her face was lit blue by the cell phone she held in her hand, a picture of Meg on the screen, wearing her favorite outfit of jean shorts and grubby t-shirt.

The Agent swatted his hand at the air and dodged a horsefly buzzing around his head. The horsefly zipped away, held position like a helicopter a foot out of the Agent’s reach, then returned again, drawn to the Agent’s bare, sweaty neck.

“Ma’am, I’m sure she’s just run off. Probably at a friend’s house playing video games.”

“There’s no one nearby. We don’t know many people here. Except the Banks.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s for your own safety ma’am. This is an active investigation site. We believe an escaped felon is in the immediate area. We can’t have folks wandering around right now. I’ve got my men in the field searching for him. They now also have the description of your daughter.”

Mrs. Flint had seen the Agents earlier threading their way into the woods. They were armed and dangerous themselves. She had a thought.

“Have you searched the Banks’ farm?” Mrs. Flint had called to the farm earlier but there was no answer on the house phone.

“Yes, ma’am. We checked all the rooms. We’ve got men searching the entire area.”

“Did you search the barn?” She gestured down the hill.

“Yes, ma’am. I need to get back. I must insist you go inside. We need to let my men do their job.”

“And what is that?” Mrs. Flint snapped.

“Protecting you, ma’am.” He turned his back to her and walked down the driveway.

********

“Are you coming to bed?” Max Flint glanced out the window above where his wife Sarah was curled up. It was late now, after 10. The sky was full dark, though last light shone along the horizon.

Summer was ending. Every day would be darker than the last.

The twins slept in their room, exhausted from wandering outside all day. They had found neither the head nor the hands of the dead man, as the FBI arrived shortly after the boys planned their search and had cordoned off the field and the road. When the boys tried to sneak passed the yellow tape, the stern Agents had told the boys to go home. Justin and Jason had done so reluctantly, turning around to stare at the loose tape ends that flickered in the wind invitingly.

Max tried again. Perhaps she had not heard him. He couldn’t see her face, couldn’t see if her eyes were open or closed.

He couldn’t see that she was crying.

“Babe, are you coming to bed?”

Sarah’s back was to her husband. She had curled up on the old futon in the family room. She had squeezed her body into as small a space a 125 lb. person could occupy on the thin futon. She felt like she might break apart.

When she answered, her words were short and tight.

“I heard you, Max. No, I am not coming to bed. I’m going to sit here, awake, a prisoner in my own house because an escaped convict is hiding in the woods, while our daughter is lying unconscious in a ditch.”

She heard her husband’s sharp inhale after her last few words. She didn’t care if she shocked him. She would not be going to bed tonight. Maybe not ever.

Max recovered enough to reply. “I’m sure she’s fine. She’s twelve. She’s almost a teenager. Kids grow up fast these days. She’s asserting herself.  Every kid runs away once in his or her life. I did. She’s probably up in a tree or something. Just blowing off some steam.”

Sarah willed her husband to Shut-Up. Shut-up. Shut-up. Shut-up. She found herself doing this more often recently. She wondered if it was a sign that she was growing impatient with age. But if one more person told her what her daughter was probably doing, Mrs. Flint was certain she would kill them. She put her hands over her ears.

Since they were born, her children made her crazy. Crazy with love. Crazy with exhaustion. With anticipation. With fear as she watched them move into each stage of their lives.

She could feel the crazy in her cells, part of the saline in which floated the chromosomes she shared with her daughter.

But this, this absence of Meg – it had only been a few hours – this was a new level of crazy.

Crazy with defense. With self-sacrifice.

She knew now. She knew she would die to get her daughter back. She knew this for sure. She’d read about these feelings in the women’s magazines found at dentists’ offices, magazines with the perfume fold ripped open and the scent rubbed away by some desperate someone needing a dose of second-rate magazine perfume.

Yes, Sarah had read those proclamations. Mothers who declared to the world that their own lives began with the birth of their children.

Sarah had always thought, get a life, every time she read this.

Until now. Until her daughter was gone.

Only Meg’s shorn hair lingered on the porch, the pile of cuttings collected by Sarah as she’d made her daughter’s bed after threatening the twins with lifelong grounding.

Sarah leaned her forehead against the cool wall. The paint was the color of mint ice cream. Normally it soothed her. But now, she wanted only to block everything out. She closed her eyes to stifle the color and the light. From the patio, she heard chairs shuffling on concrete, as the FBI agents moved about. Were they changing shifts? Did they even sit shifts? She didn’t know.

She had half a mind to run outside and scream up at the sky and the stars, where is my girl? She knew the stars would not answer back with stupid postulations on probably this or that, with no evidence to base it on. The stars would not answer at all. There would be only silence and the night.

She sighed. She hated when her husband was right. He was neither wise nor smart, he just seemed to get lucky sometimes.

But, no, she wasn’t coming to bed anytime soon.

She heard him finally shrug and give up, turn away to go into their bedroom. She could see the shrug in her mind. The lift and drop of his broad shoulders, a small frown on his tan face, which had begun to show the slight droop of middle age. She’s seen him give that little shrug a thousand times. More.

Watching his wife of fifteen years shake her head slowly, with her small hands covering her ears, Max got the hint.

He turned off the overhead light and went into the bedroom. He closed the door a crack, allowing a sliver of the bedroom light into the dark family room.

He’s a quitter, Sarah thought, as she heard her husband tiptoe away. That’s really what this is. He doesn’t know how to fight for something.

Or he doesn’t care.

She knew this was mean-spirited, that he truly loved his daughter. But the ease with which he acquiesced his lack of control irritated her. Control mattered. Even the illusion of control mattered.

She heard him shut their bedroom door and sit on the creaky bed.

Sarah glanced at her watch. It had been 12, maybe 14 hours, since Meg had slipped away. The woods and fields were peppered with armed men, seeking an escaped convict, not a wayward tween.

Meg. Meg, Sarah thought. Where are you?

*******

Down the hill at the yellow tape roadblock, three agents stood watch. The two men and one woman, all in their late twenties, had about ten years of Agency experience among them. They were stuck guarding an empty dirt road while their senior colleagues were searching dense terrain with night vision goggles and un-holstered pistols. Boredom had set in. They talked to pass the time, glancing occasionally up the hill, which was lit up by a spotlight at the crest of the hill.

“Hey Tina, what do you say we grab a bite after the shift. I saw a 24-hour diner outside of Corning.”

“Aw. Thanks Martin. I would but I’m totally beat. As soon as we find this guy, I’m clocking out for a week.” Tina tucked away the errant hair that had again escaped her ponytail. “Longer, if I can swing it. Course, there’s no guarantee any of us are going anywhere soon. Gonna be a long night.”

“Yeah, no problem. You’re probably right.”

As Martin’s smile faded from his soft face, he stepped sideways into the penumbral aura behind the SUV, grateful for the concealment. That was strike three in his attempt to start something with Tina. He was pissed. They’d been in training class together a few years back, and on two other assignments since. It’s not like they’d met yesterday. He’d hoped to get things going with her on this endless chase. But his attempts at creating an encounter of any kind had been rebuffed. Politely. Jokingly. Without doubt.

Ever the skeptic, Jamie said, “I’m thinking it’s a training exercise.” Seeing he had the other two’s attention, he pushed ahead with this. “Seriously, I’m waiting for them to blow the whistle, say it’s been an extended drill to keep us busy during a slow summer.” Despite being the most senior person in this threesome, in the field one year longer than the other two, he was known for doubting his superiors to anyone who would listen. He was always the smartest in the room. He wouldn’t go far, despite his self-inflated ego.

“Drill or not, we’ve got one dead body up the hill in that field,” Tina said.

“Do we? Have you actually seen the body? Could just be a further ruse to put us to the test, keep us busy.” Jamie lit a cigarette, another thing they were not supposed to do on duty.

“Woohoo, look at you with your fancy words. ‘It’s a ruse’!” Martin said from the shadows. Tina laughed, grateful for the levity. Maybe she would meet Martin at that diner after all, she thought.

From the shadow, Martin watched Tina take a long swig from her water bottle, her head tilted back, her face and body lit by the spotlight. He watched her swallow several times, the movement of the muscles in her neck showing the path of the cold water from her warm mouth down her pink throat. He felt himself get hard. He looked away, clenching his teeth.

He saw movement in the woods but too late to run. Too late.

He screamed as the Scare-It jumped out of the woods and its white tines pierced deep into his torso.

*******

Making its way up the dirt road from the barn, the Scare-It had slowed when it heard voices and scuttled off the road into the woods, stepping softly on the leaves lining the forest floor. In the minutes since it had left the barn, the Scare-it had grown. Antlers now sprouted from the bone skull.

From the protective darkness of the woods, it approached the lone agent standing in shadow. It listened to the banter among the three. Then, when the Agent turned its face into the night, the Scare-It leapt at him, piercing his back and stomach with the tines protruding from its arms.

It held the man until he was silent.

Its face deep in shadow as it pulled its tines out of the Agent, it watched as the other man and the woman ran up the hill. It followed in their footsteps, up the hill, increasing its pace as the two, glancing back at the pursuer, tried to run faster.

Its bony feet scraped along stones and pebbles.

 

Chapter 5

In the hayloft, Kyle woke with a splitting headache. He was lying on something poking him in several places and it did not feel good. It was dark, thin moonlight filtering in through the barn boards. Outside, insects hummed amidst the high-pitched ‘cheep, cheep’ of the frogs.

Kyle tried to sit up, but gave up. His stomach roiled. He felt nauseous, like he might throw up what little bile was left churning in his gut. He lay back down, annoyed at the prickly hay. Give it a few minutes. Over the night sounds, Kyle could hear those damn coyotes again. The pack had trailed him and Jimmy for near a week. Kyle guessed correctly that they’d caught a whiff of the blood spilled in the field this morning, as their calls and yips were frequent. Excitement in the air.

A kill.

He thought he heard the coyote calls coming not only from the east but also the west. Maybe there were two packs. Shame it there were.

Damn coyotes taking over the forest like weeds. No natural predators.

The gunshots, first one and then a second and a third, got Kyle’s full attention. He sat straight up, ignoring his aching head and ribs. He could feel a big bruise somewhere on his left side, but he couldn’t remember exactly how it got there.

Several seconds of rapid-fire split the night. Then two shotgun shots. Kyle could imagine the shotgun loading. Cha chunk, cha chunk.

Then silence. The insects had stopped singing. And so too the frogs, as they do before a storm.

Kyle shuffled off the hay bale. As he limped across the floor, wondering mildly why he was limping, he tripped over a deer antler.

He picked it up. He remembered now finding it along the forest’s edge right before his brother got all chop suey-ed. A tine was missing from the antler, several inches broken off. The little sharp nub was all that remained.

Damn it, Kyle thought. He’d been sure it was in perfect condition when he found it in the woods. He thought he might go back and look for its pair. But here it was, broken not worth a dime.

He dropped the antler. It landed with a thunk on the floor. It seemed to roll away or did it crawl…

The barn trembled.

Kyle had started down the rickety ladder and did not notice any of this. He’d had the craziest dreams, he thought. That’s what you get after four days of no sleep, stressed out, on the run, eating berries and probably one too many No-Doze or whatever those pills were his brother had given him to keep them both awake. He shoved aside bitter loss of his brother. He couldn’t think about that now. His brother would want him to fight, to stay free.

As Kyle stepped down the ladder, each foot searching for the step below, he felt the hard ache in his ribs. Climbing down the ladder, he felt a deep sense of vertigo, as if he might fall into a deep pit. His hands grasped the wood, felt the worn grain. Then the image of the Scare-It came rushing back at him as bright and clear as a crisp fall day. Kyle could see its bony white arms reaching for him now, impaling him on the sharp tines as it lifted him.

It hadn’t been a dream.

Kyle shook his head. His stomach churned. He tasted the bile again.

He wanted it to be a dream.

It wasn’t.

He had reached the floor. He could feel the slimy muck beneath his feet. Standing in the bowels of the barn, Kyle leaned his head against the ladder’s step. He wanted to stay inside the barn.

But what if that thing came back?

God, he was tired. He hurt. And that crazed creature was outside somewhere.

He heard more distant gunshots coming from outside. He lifted his head at the cracking sound.

He needed a gun. And he knew where he could get one.

*******

Meg was awake. At least she thought she was. She was aware of movement and sound, distant, but there somewhere in the background. She felt too tired to care where she was going. Like when she was little, sleeping in the back seat, as the family drove home from a road trip, the station wagon always slowing down to turn corners as they got closer to home.

She didn’t think she’d ever been so tired. In the deep mines of memory, she could remember being hit by a car and knocked unconscious.

But that wasn’t right. She wasn’t in pain. Not exactly. No. Perhaps that was earlier. Yes, that’s right. That was years ago, she thought.

Or was it? This underwater, submerged feeling was familiar. She was felt rooted in the darkness. It was so cool and comfortable, she felt she’d never want to leave.

Yet. Something demanded attention.

Yes, this was different. Similar, she decided. But time had passed. Perhaps a great deal of time.

Or a moment. She couldn’t be sure.

She remembered, or at least thought she could remember, fighting her way out of the soft, beckoning darkness once before. Lights and sounds coming at her like a flash flood, all of a sudden, drowning her in sensation again. Questions being asked, brightness in her eyes, first one, then the other. The heat of a lamp on her face. Rough, scraped skin. The awareness thrust upon her. She had no choice, she remembered that. What day is it? What day was it? She couldn’t remember. Her attempts to answer making no sense at all as the ambulance sped through afternoon traffic.

She tried to pay attention but her mind wandered. Her brain felt like it was full of cotton balls, stuffed in-between the synapses, like a mouthful of gauze at the dentist’s office.

She was awake. She knew this.

She tried to push through the haze. What was different about this? She felt like she was under water, but something was present that had not been before.

A smell. That’s what it was. She could smell. She had no memory of smell from the last time. None at all. No smell of burning rubber, or the pavement, or the blood.

But now, she could smell something distinctly.

What was it?

Burning. Fire.

A wood fire.

She felt tired again and thought perhaps she best to stop thinking. The sense of movement had quickened again and she was being lulled to sleep. The sounds – were they voices – grew distant. The smell too was fading. She felt an easy loping, as if she was being cradled on a ship at sea. Soft, easy movements.

She allowed herself to be lulled to sleep. To sleep a bit more. Yes. She’d have time later to figure this out, as she drifted away again.

There was always more time.

Chapter 6

Running up the hill, Tina and Jamie were neck and neck. Their feet pounded the dirt, slipping on the gravel as they sprinted to put some distance between them and that thing behind them. Tina had seen it impale Martin, had seen his eyes register surprise and then excruciating pain as the Scare-It’s long white tines pierced his internal organs. Even if she didn’t know what that creature was, she knew it sure as heck wasn’t the escaped convict. And she knew that it had killed her friend.

Now it was behind her and it sounded like it was gaining ground.

Beside her, Jamie was breathing hard as he sprinted up the never-ending hill. His mind raced as it does towards the end. He was wishing he’d stopped smoking, wishing he went more often to the gym. Wishing he was anywhere but here. A small part of him considered knocking Tina down so that thing would get her first. No one would see. His colleagues were stationed on the crest of the hill, but not yet in sight. His heard pounding as he struggled with this nasty idea. He pushed it aside and pressed on, Tina at his elbows, her long lean legs matching his, stride for stride.

Behind them, thirty feet, then twenty feet, the Scare-It followed. It was not trying, not too concerned about these two, it would catch them when and if it liked. They were leading the way. Leading the Scare-It to the source. The Scare-it took long easy steps, its bone-white limbs stretching in impossibly long strides, as its feet barely touched the ground. It bounded ever closer to its prey. This was child’s play.

*******

Santis heard his radio squawk. He swore under his breath and pushed the call button. “Come again?”

Holding the radio to his ear, he heard the sound of heavy breathing. Those fool agents of his! Goofing off again. How many times did he have to tell them-no matter how bored they got, how mind numbing the tedium, they needed to focus. It was hard. He knew. Tolerating boredom was the hardest part of this job. But goofing off was unacceptable. That’s how people died. As he felt his blood pressure rise to a near boiling point, he nearly shouted “quit it” back into the radio. But something, maybe that softly suspicious sense that made him excel in the field (his underlings called it paranoia) or maybe simple exhaustion, made him listen rather than speak. The breathing continued. But now he could distinguish two breathing patterns, not one. And there, through the radio, behind the breathing, like a drumbeat, were pounding footsteps. Santis listened as carefully as he could. Yes, he was sure. Two sets of footsteps. Running. From what?

Over the radio, finally, a woman’s voice, out of breath but coherent. “Man down, man down…being pursued…a monster…up the hill.” The words were high pitched and desperate.

Santis’s mind kicked into a higher gear. These weeks of searching and waiting to catch a convict had made him soft and sloppy. Someone had ambushed his team down the hill. He knew by Tina’s voice. Tina was a cool cat. Very little phased her. She was green, sure, but she was young. Overall, she was cool-headed, didn’t overreact. A superior agent in the making. The woman on the radio sounded panicked. Terrified.

Santis’ reflexes took over. He felt his stomach clench, his breathing rate accelerate, his synapses blast with adrenaline. Fight or flight kicked in.

Santis was always ready for a fight. Of course, some things were false alarms. Some things were real.

This sounded real.

The words “Man down” echoed in his head.

The hunt was on.

Santis barked at the agent standing closest to him. “Bales, get eyes on that hill. We’ve a man down at the checkpoint. Call an ambulance. And foot traffic headed out way, ours. And an unknown, presumed dangerous, in pursuit. Hold fire until further notice. Got it?”

“Yes sir.” Bales got on the radio.

Santis watched his agents respond to his messaging. In the moonlight, they jogged from their positions across the yard and around the Flint’s house, converging at the hilltop, a congregation, gathering to ward off a coming evil.

As he watched his men and women move into a defensive position, Santis studied the quiet house. Inside, the lights were out. A small glow, probably from a nightlight, illuminated one wall, barely enough light to see by. The family inside was locked up tight. Santis had been glad when the little missus had scurried inside after he’d told her to let them do their job. He had shut her down. He knew the type. The minute you listen, they won’t stop. Next thing you know, they’re making demands and questioning decisions. Nip that shit in the bud, was his way. Anyway, a Nervous Nelly, all wound up. Her little girl was five minutes late and she’s climbing the walls. Probably hounded her kids’ teachers. He knew the type. Hell, he’d married it. Control freak. Couldn’t loosen up. Santis cleared his throat and spat out a mouthful of phlegm and wiped the back of his hand along his lip. Those types were the same way in bed. Lights out. Missionary position. Control.

Honestly, he felt sorry for the husband. Couldn’t be easy, dealing with that. Like walking a tight rope.

But then again, he felt sorry for all husbands. He turned away from the dark house to his line of agents standing along the crest of the hill. The moon peaked in and out behind puffy clouds that flew across a wide dark sky.

From his team assembled at the hilltop, he heard shouting erupt. He couldn’t see what had caught their attention, but he could see them tightening up as a group. His physical appearance belied his fitness and despite the gut and the heft, he ran to his men and pushed his way to the front of the gathered. There, he saw his two agents had run into view and were about 200 yards away. They continued to sprint, their faces hard against the reality behind them, as their colleagues yelled.

Standing there, watching the runners, thoughts racing, Santis wondered where his third agent was. That would have to wait. For at last the Scare-it had run into view. The men’s shouting stopped and the only sound was footsteps.

Santis saw the creature in the moonlight. The thing chasing Tina and Martin was bone white. Transfixed, Santis watched as it approached, slowed its gait before it reached the group. It was without clothes, but was also without distinctive body parts. It had no hands or fingers, only tines that protruded from its arms, legs and back. Its surface, as far as Santis could see, was smooth and hairless, as smooth and white as the icing on a wedding cake. The thing moved slowly toward the assembled agents with jerky but efficient motions, its legs like stilts, shifting from left to right with no articulation where knees should be.

Most of all, Santis stared at its face. Or the lack of a face. It was simply a flat plate of bone that rounded in the back. It reminded Santis of the larvae you see on those gross nature shows his kids watched on weekend visits.

The Scare-It was heading directly for him and his team. For the house.

*******

Max sat on the bed. He knew Sarah would not come to their room to sleep. She would stay in the family room and sleep fitfully with her head against the wall until dawn. Then she would wake, put on her dressing gown, a fluffy pink robe that covered her from top to bottom, and step outside to ask the Agents if they wanted coffee and how did they take it. Cream? Sugar? Right away.

Sarah was good at meeting people’s needs.

Except his.

She was upset, of course. She blamed him for Meg’s absence. He could feel the blame like a polluted humidity. It was always this way. She would turn unintended slights into severe injuries, even insults, and review them over and over, her rabbit mind jumping in all directions, seeking guilt.

So many events, so much injury. Bottomless blame.

Max found it exhausting.

Like when Sarah had forgotten the twin’s tetanus booster a few years back and the boys had roamed wild for a year without adequate protection from rusty nails and sharp splashguards. Max had pointed out to her, after she had the boys re-inoculated, that the boys were healthy and fine, that it had all worked out.

Sarah had ignored him for a week, citing his lack of grasping what could have happened.

To forget was failure.

Now, Meg’s unexplained absence.

No, that wasn’t quite right, Sarah would tell herself. It was not wholly unexplained. The children had quarreled. Only then, the absence.

Max had heard her quiz the boys for an hour in the morning while he was on conference call. He had tried to focus. But she kept grilling them.

Then again before dinner. What had they done to Meg? Why had they done it? What were they thinking? Didn’t they love their sister? Did they think it was a nice thing? How would they feel if she cut off their hair? The boys had giggled at this, as the notion of being bald delighted them for its oddity and unlikeliness at their age. Max knew the twins’ responses to her query had angered Sarah further. Her interrogation had ended there, as she smothered her anger with grief for her missing daughter.

Max knew the boys would pay for their transgression, beyond the expected two-week grounding for serious behavior transgressions. He himself had learned this. He had made mistakes with Sarah. Before they were married. And after. Too many to count in a marriage.

“It’s why you stop counting,” a friend had said. “It’s not double entry bookkeeping. Nothing comes out equal.”

If something had happened to Meg, whether she’d fallen and scuffed a knee or hitched to town in a pickup with a buck wild country boy who gave her beer and tried to French kiss her, he knew Sarah would blame him.

Because he had brought them here. The house was his. His parents had given him the house when they’d retired to Florida. Sarah had made it clear she would prefer to summer in Amagansett, with City friends. Yet she indulged her husband this quaint cabin, agreeing, reluctantly that it was good for the children to roam free in the summer.

Until today.

He stood up and turned off the bedroom light. Outside, he heard shouting, the FBI agents changing shifts.

Walking to the window, he pulled up the blind and looked out. It was dark, beyond the lone streetlamp that barely illuminated the ground below, a single spotlight shone down the long hill. Max could see men in silhouette moving around the light. A few of them ran, as if late.

Sliding the glass window open, Max pushed out the window screen, which gave easily. He hoisted himself up to the windowsill and, with a surprising grace, pivoted on the window frame, and dropped his legs out the other side, propelling himself to the outdoors. He landed with a soft thud on the grass, his hands on the cool grass to steady his landing. The temperature had dropped.

Behind the spotlight, there was now a row of men, staring away down the hill, stoic in bulky combat gear. They stood ready for whatever or whomever might come over the top.

Max shrugged. He couldn’t think about prison escapees. It didn’t matter to his family. He had a single task.

To find his daughter. To find Meg and bring her home, safe.

He turned away from the light and ran quietly into the darkness.

*******

Standing on the hilltop in the unobstructed spotlight, the Scare-It was white as flaming phosphorus. The assembled agents has fallen back, taking slow steps backward, in the direction of the house, to fan out, as Santis had ordered in a quiet tone.

Beyond the light, there was night in every direction.

Seated in the front seat of an SUV parked on the Flint’s lawn, on a sleep break, Agent Murphy stopped chewing on the pork rinds. He put the half empty bag on the dash and flicked his colleague Glynn on the arm.

“What is that?” Murphy asked. Glynn’s face was bathed in blue light, as he played Candy Crush on his phone. He grunted. Murphy hit him again.

“Look!”

The Scare-It walked in a small circle. Its back and front were indistinguishable, flat bone, the antler tines pointing to the sky.

Glynn glanced out the window. “Sure as hell ain’t no escapee.”

From the backseat: “Dammit, I figured we’d be home by midnight.”

“Sorry to mess up your social life, son. We’ll do better scheduling our operations around you.” Murphy was sick of the complaining. He’d been stuck with these newbies for too many days.

Jackson whined again. “I thought it’d be an easy take down, is all. We’ve been looking for these guys for weeks. This was a solid lead.”

Murphy had pulled out his binoculars. He trained the glasses on the Scare-It. On the road and the law, his fellow agents were milling around, some moving closer, some farther away from the strange white thing. They would step into Murphy’s field of vision, blocking his view. Finally, Murphy got a clear sight. He could see the solid white structure that made up the body and the rounded tubular extensions of the arms and legs. The head looked like a Paper-Mache mask, all stuck together with weird creases and indentations in all the wrong places.

There was no mouth. No eyes or ears.

He lowered the binoculars. “Guys, I don’t think it’s human.”

Glynn guffawed. “Ohhh, are you getting spooked? Telling ghost stories. Let me see.” Glynn grabbed the binoculars.

In the back, Jackson: “Probably some new fangled body armor from China. Some biker high on meth put on his armor for some illegal night hunting. He’ll wake up tomorrow with one hell of a headache and maybe a bullet hole or two in his…”

Murphy waved Jackson to quiet. “I think we need to call in for back up.”

“Forget it. We are the back up. The rest of our guys are an hour away, still combing the woods. By the time they get here…”

“Just call it in, goddammit. Something is wrong,” Murphy barked.

The agents watched the Scare-It shuffle sideways off the road, toward the open field.

Anxious questions on the radio.

“What is that thing?”

“It’s sure as shit not human!”

“Where’s it going?”

With a crackle on the radio, Santis’ order squawked to all listening: “Shoot it.”

Shots cut across the night.

 

Chapter 7

Phil swirled his beer in the half-empty glass, as if the cheap ale were a fine wine. For once, he didn’t feel like drinking. He giggled to himself at the bar. Fact was, he was already drunk. He’d bought a six-pack at noon, shortly after he’d left the Flints. He sipped the warm beer and mused. It was not so much that he had left the Flint’s, as he had been run off.

Fuck them, he thought. Fuck her.

He sipped the warm liquid. That Sarah was a real bitch. After the morning’s argument, Phil felt his friend was truly lost. Every man was an island. Every man had to guard his own shores. But Max’s island had been overrun by that bitch of a wife.

Learn to take a fucking joke, for God’s sake, he thought. Yes, he’d replied, he would GLADLY leave. And he had done so, without a backward glance, pealing out of the driveway onto the dirt road, kicking up dust. He had driven right by the four black SUVs that were driving up to the Flint’s place, but had been so preoccupied with mentally telling Sarah what he thought of her, that he had not even noticed the stern looking vehicles, driving at a carefully paced two car lengths between them, 25 mph on back roads.

Once on the road to town, Phil had floored it, hightailing it to the nearest gas station, where he had bought a six-pack. First one of the day. He’d finished that off in less than an hour, as he drove aimlessly, looking for something or someone to occupy his time. He was sightseeing, he’d told himself. He scoffed and took a sip. Calling it sightseeing was a stretch. There was nothing in these small towns but churches, empty schools and sad looking antique shops. In the green spaces in between, only cows and cornfields.

He had even stopped at an Amish farmstead to buy a few ears of corn, not knowing where he might boil them. But the two Amish girls running the stand were too cute in their little black outfits to drive by. He pulled over and made a show of parking the car. He had stepped out into the sun and stretched, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Pulling out of his cell phone, he’d turned on some dance music. He figured even if they didn’t like technology, they were probably still fascinated by it. The girls had watched him as he sauntered toward the covered booth.

Not only did they have fruit, but baked goods. “How are your pies?” he’d asked, winking at them. The younger girl giggled but the older one, maybe 18, Phil guessed, had not even blinked.

“They’re delicious. Best in the county.”

“I bet they are. I’ll buy one…”

He’d chatted with them for a while, trying to convince the older girl to come for a drive. Few women could turn down his car. He’d been making progress when a brother or father or cousin – a burly fellow in faded overalls, looking like he needed a bath – had charged out of the barn, holding a long saw that could fell an old oak. Phil had quickly taken his leave of the young ladies but not before he’d leaned forward over the pies and grabbed at the older girl’s right boob.

Never leave with nothing was his motto.

In front of Phil, just to his left, the bartender was talking to the young couple next to him. She took their drink order and asked after their family. They mumbled something in unison and she laughed at their reply, a warm, tinkling laugh that reminded Phil of Christmas. Sipping his beer, he listened to the rest of the exchange between friends, about moms and dads, aging aunts and gay uncles. How long had she worked in this sad shack, Phil wondered, scoping her out. Nice ass. Big tits, too but kind of sloppy. She had pretty brown eyes though. Like a doe. Her mascara had flaked, the black snow littering her white cheeks, highlighting the laugh lines around her eyes. In the light, Phil could see that her bleach blond hair gave way to solid gray roots. Then she laughed and he felt that holiday warmth from the happy sound.

He’d see how the night went. She’d do all right in a pinch.

A high-pitched squeal of female laughter from behind him caused Phil to shift in his seat. On his other side, a young local beauty held court, wearing jean cutoffs and a tight orange halter top advertising her full, round breasts. Two young bucks sat on either side of her, watching her every move. Phil wondered which of the young men she was sleeping with and which one she would fuck tonight. Seeing Phil watch her, she winked at him. Phil looked away. Girls like that needed ALL the attention. They would do whatever they needed to get it. He’d been with women like that, women who would sleep with their best friend’s boyfriend just to show that they could. Hell, he’d been that cheating boyfriend, countless times. He’d never liked the women though. They were cheap goods.

The young men were rapt though. Phil watched them vie for the girl’s teasing. He felt a faint empathy for them. It’s not worth it, he wanted to say. It’s just smoke and mirrors anyway, damn push-up bras and that cheap blue eye make-up. That was part of the problem with women these days. You hardly could tell what you were getting, with make-up, spray tans, fake eyelashes, Botox, boob jobs, and the lot. Hope you brought home a real woman, and not some mixed-up dude on hormones. Phil had heard stories about that kind of nonsense.

Phil sipped his beer, which was warm. Waved at the bartender for another cold one. She ignored him, leaning in to the couple, to hear more of their local gossip. With a shrug, Phil slipped his wallet into his back pocket and stood. He wasn’t much of a tipper anyway. Tonight would be no different. Probably best to head out.

Behind him, the front door creaked open and slammed shut. A wave of warm night air swept through the bar. Phil turned to see the new arrivals. He sat back down on his stool.

Two ladies. Dressed in crisp black trousers and shimmery blouses. Looked like silk, he thought. One was a brunette.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, the women scanned the room, searching for familiar faces. Seeing none, they settled at a four-top by the window near the pool table. One carried a large leather bag on her shoulder, which she set on the floor. The other reapplied pink lipstick, using a compact to guide her efforts.

Late twenties, Phil guessed. Early thirties.

The best years.

Glancing out the bar window, Phil could see that the horizon had a faint orange tinge, hanging on to the summer day. He re-evaluated his plan to leave the bar. He had nowhere better to go. He wasn’t even sure where he’d sleep tonight.

But his options had seriously improved.

*******

His wife snoring gently beside him, Farmer Banks tossed in his bed. Images of the dead man pushed on his dreams, face twisted, eyes open, staring at the morning sky. Banks had woken several times, heart racing from something he couldn’t remember. Now, lying on his back, covers halfway off, he glanced at the clock. 2:00 AM. At this late hour, it was probably easiest to stay awake. He had to milk the cows in a couple hours. Up at 4:00 AM. At the barn by 4:30.

He rolled over to his right side, away from his wife. Light filtered in through the window from the streetlight.

He kept seeing the crop in his head too. That perfect field, ripe for mowing, but now completely off limits, cordoned off by yellow police tape that also blocked the roads up to the Flint’s house.

Banks was worried about losing the entire crop from that field. In his mind he’s started calling it the Dead Field. He’d said that to his wife at dinner and she’d shushed him, glancing over each shoulder and giving him a long silent look, as if it were bad luck to mention. But he didn’t think any more bad luck could come his way. His legs twitched. Goddamn bananas were supposed to do the trick, get his Potassium back up to where it should be.

The FBI agents, glorified cops Banks said to himself, had told him the entire field would be cordoned off for the next week, maybe longer. To look for evidence. What evidence, Banks had demanded to know. Evidence of foul play, evidence of a crime, they’d said. Clues.

What the hell other clue did they need besides a dead body in an oat field? Banks kept this opinion to himself. He’d learned over the years that city folk didn’t have too much common sense but they didn’t much care to be reminded of this. Cart the body off to the coroner and let a man get on with doing an honest day’s work. That was 20 acres of crop he’d likely lose, if they didn’t hurry things up. He’d wanted to remind those agents that this was an election year. Least they could do was reimburse him for the likely loss, pay him a market rate. The head cop, some fellow named Santis said he’d look into it. Banks knew what that meant. 

He tossed to his left side. His wife shifted in her sleep, her snoring taking on a softer breathy sound. She’d learned early in their marriage that her husband was a light sleeper. She let him get on with his nighttime fretting. He was a worrier, she said to friends when she met her ladies group for bridge. Her girlfriends cackled, all married to hardworking men like hers. “He could be a lot worse things,” they’d say to her. There’s a lot of things worse than worry.”

She would always tell him that when she came home from those night’s out, tipsy with some cheap spirit the ladies had poured into their Ginger Ale.

“I hear you fretting over there, your thoughts bouncing around your head like bowling balls.”

Damn woman, can’t a man be alone with his thoughts at 2:00 in the goddamn morning? Leave it. He cussed and sputtered, throwing covers onto the ground. And got up. He could fix his own damn snack, he muttered.

Uh oh, she thought. He’s in one of his moods. Rare as a unicorn but much more dangerous. Sure as heck wouldn’t want to be a cow today.

Banks grumbled into the kitchen. The light switch flipped and the overhead fluorescent light blinked on overhead.

*******

Kyle slid open the barn door. The crickets sang a night chorus in the high grasses by the barn. In the watery ditch, bullfrogs added base notes. Shaking off the dusty chaff that had settled on him after hours in the hayloft, Kyle stepped into the welcoming night. He breathed deeply. The air was cooler outside. Sweet.

The night was clear, the moon on the horizon brighter than Kyle would have liked. Glancing at the sky above, Kyle saw the constellations he remembered. The Dippers, of course, and the North Star. And there too was Orion’s belt, which his daddy had taught him, had explained that there was the strap for bad boys, even in heaven.

The sound of distant vehicles pulled Kyle’s attention away from the stars. He scurried across the dirt road into the woods, sliding in sideways between two maple saplings. He stepped several feet into the wood and stopped. Breathing was a gift, he thought, simply breathing this air as a free man. He recalled the stale smell of the prison, its grey walls steeped in decades of exhalations, the slow breaths of men whose hearts had died long before their bodies gave way. His brother had wanted to pick up where they’d left off, a small life of thievery. He’d been planning to rob the Flint’s that morning. Had taken a catnap, never expecting a goddamn tractor to come rolling along and chop his brains up. Kyle shrugged. If he’d learned anything all those years in prison, it was to let shit go that couldn’t be helped. Escaping had been easy, it was the planning that had been a bitch, deciding who had to fuck that hag of a guard and convince her he was in love. Kyle inhaled the night air, so cool and sweet. He could remember the putrid smell that he’d to pretend to want, every time she found five free minutes to spirit him away to a broom closet, where he would take her, quick, against a wall lined with dirty mops and buckets filled with grey water. Still, fucking was fucking and prison was a dry spell he sure as shit did not intend to repeat. He would do up it right. Get himself to Vegas; find himself the hottest thing going, maybe two.

His brother was dead. Kyle would do it his own way. He was not going back to prison. He pressed on.

This was old forest. No moonlight pierced its summer canopy. In four or five weeks, the green leaves above would litter the forest floor, dead and brown. But now they provided cover as Kyle moved slowly in a straight line, aiming for the dirt road that paralleled that by the Bank’s farm and that ran behind the Flints’ house. It was the same path he had taken early this morning to the barn. But now in the dark, it felt as if the trees grew closer together, as if for comfort or safety. Kyle reached out for the next trunk, feeling first and finding a handhold, stepping forward, pulling himself from tree to tree.

As he walked, he could feel that the ground was littered with branches, debris from fierce spring storms whose winds had shaken and broken the trees. Once, Kyle tripped over a fallen limb and stumbled forward into the pitch. Throwing his hands out to catch himself, Kyle fell and felt his legs impaled by tiny prickers poking through his trousers.

Ahead, shouting broke the rhythm of the insect sounds. Heavy leaf cover garbled sound and Kyle couldn’t make out any words. He pressed on through the brush, stepping more carefully now over fallen limbs. Beyond this forest was the back road that led up the hill to the Flint’s house. Beyond that, the long field where his brother had met his ugly end.

Sad, sure enough, but not undeserved, Kyle thought, though he wouldn’t say that out loud, not to anyone, for fear that his brother’s ghost, accompanied by whatever thugs he had met in Hell, would return to haunt him.

Even now, as he took steps to ensure his own freedom, Kyle wondered if it would be simplest to turn himself in. He had to be honest with himself-How much longer could he run, if he got away tonight, with some money in his pocket and a car to drive far as he could to the closest city? Buffalo? Cleveland? Could he make it to Chicago? If he was lucky – and luck was not his best friend in life- maybe he’d make it another day as a free man? A week, at the outside? His body ached and he was about as tired as he could remember being. He wasn’t sure if he had it in him to fight.

Above, a lone bird squawked at the night. Kyle glanced up at the sound. Might be a complaint against a raccoon disturbing a nest. A fisher cat. Or an owl in these woods.

The bird squawked once more and was silent. Kyle peered into the canopy. There was only the vaguest outline of leaf-laden, swaying branches, like shadows that pass cross the against eyelids when you close your eyes. Wind sifted through the treetops, sidling through spaces in between green leaves, sounding not unlike distant surf at a beach.

Kyle slapped his neck, where a mosquito had landed to take a bite. Fucking bloodsucker, he thought. He’d killed it. He could feel the smushed bug and his own blood on his hand. He wiped his palm on his leg.

It sure hadn’t turned out like he and his brother had planned when they sketched out the escape a year ago during lunch on a hot August day. There had been flies buzzing around the mess that day. Prison always seemed to have room for as many flies as wanted to show up to that party. Kyle hated flies.

Somewhere ahead of him, beyond the woods, Kyle heard distant voices. There, through the trees, he could see glints of moonlight peaking through, a clearing. Must be the back road to the Flint’s place. He slowed to listen. He had not heard any more gunshots. Had he imagined that back in the barn? Or had it simply been a heavy truck shifting gears on the main road that ran behind the Bank’s farm. Highway traffic noise traveled on a clear night. Or maybe he’d heard a local teenager shooting targets in his backyard or hunting squirrel?

Had he really seen that thing in the barn? Yes. He nodded his head to himself in the night. As addled as he was by hunger, fear, and fatigue, he was certain he had seen that odd creature.

Even now, Kyle could see in his mind that young girl…what had she been, maybe ten years old? Twelve?…disappear underneath the sheaves of bone as they covered her limbs like a fungus. He could see the look on her face as she watched her body be taken.

Was that creature ahead of him still? Or in his past?

His mouth was dry. Probably coated with wheat chaff too. Kyle spit sideways into the dark. Sure wouldn’t mind a big drink of cool water right about now.

The voices again from somewhere ahead, still muddled but louder. He could not see through the leaves. Approaching the edge of the forest, he could smell the blackberry bushes that lined the road. He could smell the dark fruit. His stomach grumbled. His pace slowed. Only a few more steps. Reaching into the darkness, he took hold of a sapling, to help guide his last few steps in the woods.

“Stop right there or I’ll blow your brains out,” a voice whispered to him from behind. The words turned Kyle’s blood to ice in his veins. He was found. He was captured. Again. He did not know by whom. He couldn’t see who spoke to him. But he sure could feel the cold hard pistol in his back. That was incentive enough for him to cooperate. For the time being.

*******

 

Chapter 8

Three bullets raced across the night. The first hit the spotlight shining down the hill, meant o discourage all vehicle traffic. The bullet sliced through the spotlight’s metal casing, shattering the protective glass, and shredding the light filament. The spotlight, which only moments ago had lit the road to safety for Tina and Jamie, went dark.

The second bullet hit the tall streetlight by the Flint’s house, blasting the glass casing into and knocking out the remaining source of light.

The darkness was complete.

Since it did not cause any observable effects or injury, the third bullet went unnoticed for some time.

But it too had found its mark.

*******

Santis had given the order to shoot. His order was followed. But not by his team. Someone, an unidentified party, had shot three bullets into the night. Shot out the light.

Santis swore at the darkness.

“Goddammit are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

The agents standing nearby heard and turned to see him, though everyone was invisible in the dark, eyes still adjusting, pupils widening millimeter by millimeter.

In the darkness, the shots’ origins were unclear. Logically, they had to be from somewhere below the lights, to take out both the spotlight and the streetlight. But on either side of the dirt road there was forest.

Had Santis misjudged the convicts? His mind raced. He knew what had reported on TV and in the initial briefing, when the manhunt began. The two escaped men were unpopular in prison, had a reputation for violence. They kept to themselves. But Santis wondered now, had they had outside help with their escape? He’d been certain they were two loners, that all he needed to do was isolate them. Now that there was only one, hiding somewhere on this hilltop, he thought the job would be easy.

Was he wrong? He already had one agent down. He needed to send a team.

But he had no light.

And still there was no sign of the convict. All he had was a rotting corpse

The moon, hidden by cloud, offered neither light nor solace.

“Goddammit. God DAMMIT! Hold all fire!” Santis pushed his way through his agents who were grouped together like nervous cattle before a storm. A few agents pulled out cell phones to shine as feeble torches against the dark.

“Get me a real goddamn light!” Santis yelled. “What the fuck is going on?!”

People ran to the cars. Two by two, headlights flooded the night.

*******

In the darkness following the gunshots, the ScareIt scuttled away, putting distance between it and the FBI agents who, in the sudden lack of all visibility, had forgotten about it. It loped across the field, its thick bony arms and legs shifting back and forth, the outstretched tines reaching toward the sky. It moved unseen through the uncut hay, always keeping the Flint’s house within sight. It knew from experience that darkness made detection less likely, capture less probable.

It had also learned that opportunity was often short-lived and required immediate action. It traveled quickly, covering.

Now on the edge of the field on the far side of the Flint’s house, the ScareIt moved onto the grassy yard. It slowed, its strides long and careful. Muted voices of FBI agents barking orders and responses carried across the yard to the ScareIt as it approached the house. SUV headlights offered haphazard visibility of the scene and cast light eclipsed by the deep country night. Here on the lee of the house, in the shadows, under the hidden moon, it was cool and quiet. Darkness reigned.

The ScareIt stepped onto the grass, feeling the cool wet grass against the dry bone of its feet. It watched as the shadows of two Agents approached the house, then turned away. It lay its body on the grassy yard and slithered, snakelike, across the grass, aiming for the porch door. The dew had already fallen on the grass as it moved across the wet grass, the ScareIt glistened in the night.

At the door, it stood, its white bones luminous in the darkness. It placed a sharp tine on the door handle and paused, as if to listen.

Earlier in the evening, Sarah and Max had argued about locking the screened-in sleeping porch. Sarah wanted the doors unlocked in case Meg decided to come home. She didn’t want her daughter stuck outside in the dark, terrified, surrounded by armed FBI agents.

Max had wanted to lock up. Habit. Even if the screens could be pushed in, a locked door was a locked door.

In the end, they had left unlocked the porch door unlocked. A cheap-after thought during house construction, the wooden porch had windows on three sides that were open most days, to allow a breeze through the flimsy screens. The porch door consisted of a thin metal frame with a Plexiglas window that would not have deterred anyone interested in entering. But the porch was protection enough from persistent mosquitos, chiggers, and the biting gnats. In summers past, the porch offered the family a bug free haven for deer gazing, as the shy animals ventured into the fields to graze in the cooling twilight. Later, after the children were in bed, Sarah and Max would watch the heavy moon rise above the tree line.

Holding the handle with a razor sharp tine, the ScareIt pulled the door. The door opened on oiled hinges.

The ScareIt slipped onto the porch.

*******

Jason woke feeling guilty. He was sweaty and his heart pounded against his thin rib cage. He’d been dreaming of summer camp. He and Justin paddled a canoe on a smooth lake. Meg was in the canoe and an argument had started about who got to paddle. That’s when Jason had woken, as the fight started. Something had stirred him awake. Lying in his bed, feeling his heart slow, he couldn’t remember what it was.

A steady knocking sound filtered down the hallway. That’s what it was, he remembered. Knocking. Someone was knocking to be let into the house. In his dream, he’d heard a soft tapping on the canoe. It had distracted him, the boat had gone off course, and that’s why they were fighting.

Now the sound had started up again, a gentle but insistent sound, as if to signal only the lightest of sleepers.

Jason waited for the tapping to stop. His heart had slowed and now beat steady. Oddly, the tapping seemed to be twice the rate of his heartbeat.

Jason figured it was an FBI agent who didn’t want to sleep in his car or needed to use the toilet. Mom and Dad had explained that the FBI agents were outside the house but that they would stay outside. They finish what they were doing and would leave in the morning. Jason knew about the convicts but the parents had not mentioned the manhunt, saying only that there had been an accident in Mister Bank’s field that was under investigation.

Jason pushed his three pillows into a stack and leaned into the soft mountain against his headboard.

His glasses were on the night table by his bed. He reached for them and knocked them off the nightstand.

The knocking continued. Everything was a blur without them. He thought of a word he heard his dad say while driving.

“Shit.”

In the dark (it seemed darker than usual), he looked over at Justin, asleep in his bed. Jason could make out the dim outline of his brother, his mouth open, sprawled on his back, a blue coverlet kicked to the bottom of the bed. Soft breathing sounds.

“Jason,” he whispered as loudly as he could. “Someone is knocking. It might be Megs. Should we get it?”

No answer. Justin slumbered on. Jason knew Justin would be pissed if he woke him up. Justin was a grumpy sleeper. Too many times Jason had received a punch in the arm when he had tried to wake his brother to ask him something in the night. Justin needed his sleep.

The tapping again. It sounded like a fingernail on a window. Tap-tap-tap.

Jason pushed off his covers and got out of bed, stepping over the pile of muddy clothes, from adventures.

He open the bedroom door a sliver. He peered into the hall, lit by a faint glow of a nightlight. His parent’s bedroom door was closed.

The tapping continued. Tap-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap-tap.

Glancing back at Justin who was still fast asleep, Jason stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door behind him. He paused and listened.

Tap-tap-tap.

He walked down the hall, cautious of the squeakiest floorboards, sidestepping the loudest ones.

At the end of the hallway, he stopped and peered into the living room. His mother snored softly on the couch, oblivious to the world.

Without his glasses, Jason could see only fuzzy shapes as he moved down the hall and into the living room. He had the cabin pretty well memorized, since nothing much changed year after year. Still, he was careful not to bump into the chairs or side tables. He didn’t want to knock over a lamp and wake up the whole house. Most of all, he didn’t want to wake up his mother. Meg would be in trouble for sure, for running off and worrying them all.

No need for the yelling right now. Meg could at least sleep it off before she got into trouble. They would all be grounded for the next week.

He stepped by the stacks of paperbacks his mom had borrowed from the local library. The model airplane project Jason had brought home from camp. Dad’s briefcase, open on the floor, filled with a pile of legal pads covered in Max’s scribbles, phone calls with clients.

Jason had nearly reached the door when the tapping stopped. He hesitated, waiting for the tapping to start again. Somehow the sound had been soothing to him, like a beacon. He listened but the tapping did not start. Worried that Meg might have given up, might go back and disappear again into the night, he fumbled with the door lock, bending close to it so that his face was two inches away from the latch. He closed his eyes, as his fingers struggled with the deadbolt. There it was. The metal was old and needed a good shove to release it from position. Jason’s small hands gripped the metal as he slid it aside. Next, the turn piece on the knob. He twisted it.

“Are you ok, Meggie?” he whispered as he turned the handle and pulled the door open, expecting to see his sister, disheveled, hungry and repentant.

Through the open door, Jason saw only the dark porch. No one was at the door.

He took a step forward, through the doorframe and onto the porch. Was she hiding somewhere? It would not be the first time. Two years before, when they were all still friends, the kids had spent the summer playing hide and seek, each night amidst the blinking of the lightning bugs. Jason had almost always been ‘It’. He was not good at hiding. He remembered all those times counting to fifty, as he rested his forehead against the oldest pine tree, his eyes screwed shut so he would not be accused of cheating. He could smell the sap.

His brother and sister had been very good at hiding. They would climb high into the trees. Hide in the road’s murky ditch. Brave the painful pricker bushes for concealment in the bracken. Anything to evade him.

And Jason, the younger brother – by only minutes, he would remind Justin – had learned how to seek. How to capture.

Was Meg playing hide and seek again, now, in the middle of the night?

“Megs?” he whispered again.

No one answered. No one was here. Someone had been knocking. That had not been a dream.

Jason heard car engines starting up, on the road on the other side of the house. All those people were out there in the night. Long shadows appeared from the bright car headlights that flooded the yard as cars turned around.

With his blurred vision, Jason studied the porch. The clouds had moved on, spurred east by a strong wind. The moon gave away its light. Jason could see the fuzzy outline of the table and chairs, the utility cabinet where Dad kept his tools, the empty gun rack. The couch where Meg had slept.

The porch was empty. There was no one here.

Maybe the tapping sound had been a tree branch hitting the window. Or a bird flying in the night. Either way, it had stopped.

Jason yawned. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find. But now that he knew it was nothing, he was ready to go back to bed. His limbs felt heavy. He would lock the door and go to sleep. Maybe tomorrow, Meg would come back and everything would be better.

As he shut the porch door and turned to go to his bedroom, he stared directly into the blank face of the ScareIt. In horror, Jason saw it had no eyes, nose, or mouth. A small sound of shock came out of his mouth.

Inches from his face, the ScareIt grabbed for Jason’s throat. Jason ducked and ran into the center of the living room. The ScareIt turned and raced toward Jason, it’s tines reaching for him.

Over the couch and across the coffee table, Jason scrambled. He could feel his heart pounding. He knocked a few books off the table and land on his mom’s neat stacks of paperbacks. The ScareIt was looming over him. its boney tines wrapping around the boy’s neck like a snake. Jason’s eyes popped out of his head as he struggled for oxygen. He tried to yell, but did not have enough air left. Only a quiet garbled sound came forth.

The ScareIt squeezed, lifting Jason by the neck and carrying him as it stepped into the living room. Its head scanned left and right, as the multi-point tines stretching up from its shoulders twitched like bug antennas. Seeking.

Chapter 9

The voice urged Kyle forward. He could feel his captor’s breathe on his neck. Kyle stepped forward, feeling the ground ahead with his foot, afraid to look down. Pricker bushes on his left and right grabbed at his trousers and his bare forearms. The road was bright, lit up by a light farther up the hill. Kyle wondered, as he stepped over a dead tree limb, why the light was there.

“Stop,” the voice hissed, several feet before the road. Kyle felt a hand reach around to him and check him for weapons. Check him like an expert. Then the hand grabbed Kyle’s left arm and wrenched it around his back. Kyle thought to fight back but the pistol was still firmly pointed into his back. He heard the clink of metal-he knew that sound. Handcuffs. The cold metal was a shock on his skin.

Too late, he decided he preferred to get shot. He tried to whip around but his captor had closed the other cuff around another wrist.

This time, her own.

She pushed him again, pointing the gun at him with her left hand.

“Let’s go meet the welcome party, shall we?” They walked forward, toward the road.

They stepped over the drainage ditch when the spotlight went out.

The night went dark.

This time, Kyle did not hesitate. He slammed his first into the face of his captor, crushing a nose and cracking a cheekbone. His captor collapsed on the ground. Kyle stooped over her, feeling in her jacket pocket for handcuff keys. He found her gun, her flashlight, and car keys, which he hoped would be a good escape car. He sifted through the keys, feeling for a small metal fob. No luck. Kyle felt outside those, all the way down to her ankle. There, in a zip pocket, were two slim metal keys.

The woman groaned. Kyle shoved the keys into the lock and popped the cuff off his wrist. He slapped the empty cuff around a nearby sapling and chucked the keys deep into the woods. The woman groaned again.

He was not going back to prison. He hit her once more across the temple. He stepped into the dark road. Up the hill he heard voices again. That must be where the cars were parked. He would go that way.

*******

Chapter 10

Parked behind a row of shrubs at a highway turnaround, a parked police car appeared to monitor traffic. Alert drivers caught sight of the car in their peripheral vision and tapped their brakes. Some drivers were going 65 mph, some 90 mph. They assumed it was a speed trap. As each driver hit his brakes, he hoped he had done so before he was detected on the radar. As the cars sped by, neither the lights nor sirens switched on. The car stayed put. Drivers breathed a sigh of relief. NY speeding violations were a bitch.

But the car was empty, its hood cold. It had been parked there for three hours.

Passersby would not have known that its driver was a mile in from the road, hunkered down in a wooded deer blind, fifty feet from the Flints house, aiming a shotgun and smiling.

********

Route 17 stretched east – west across New York State, starting around Newburgh and ending unceremoniously at the state’s intersection with Ohio. The road 17 is surrounded on both sides by rolling green hills, desolate rest stops, and convoluted highway interchanges as roads occasionally branch to the north and south. The freeway passes through cities that New Yorkers would never visit. Binghamton, Horseheads, Bath. Corning can draw a crowd, but that’s as far west as most New Yorkers might go. Beyond are cities les well known: Oneonta. Unadilla. Uncasville.

These villages and hamlets were a parallel New York, where people lived and worked as teachers, lawyers, nurses, bankers, and firemen. The small towns along the emptier stretches of route 17 were places where people knew their neighbors. Folks knew more about their neighbors than anyone cared to admit. Such is village life. People raised families, kids grew. Sometimes they were lured away to the City. But mostly they stayed. There was no rush hour here. There was no rush.

Officer Danny had stayed in his home town. He liked the easy pace of New York’s rolling hills, the seasons changing right in front of you, the snow drifts deep and quiet in the winter, the corn tall and green in the summer. And then there was hunting season in the fall. He was a hunter, had grown up hunting on family land, with cousins. Hunting was his way, in his blood, all the men in his family hunted.

Policing too was in his blood. Some little boys grow out of wanting to be a policeman or a fireman. Danny had not. Sure, he’d lost a few years to partying after high school but had gotten back on the road to being a cop.

His family wasn’t too big, only one brother and one sister – but they were tight. He had followed his brother into the police force, though his brother was a few towns north. His sister had married young, had a few kids and dumped her loser husband for a California tech genius turned vineyard owner over to Keuka Lake. Danny visited now and then for free drinks and a view of the lake on a sunny summer day.

All else being equal Saturday had not unfolded as he had expected. After he had found the body, he had called it in.

Events had not unfolded as Officer Danny had hoped. One finding the dead convict, he had followed the correct procedures. He had notified his boss, he had written up a report, he had waited to be commended and sent back to the scene.

But that had not happened. His boss immediately called the State Troopers, who had called the FBI. Within a half hour, the scene was of his reach. Beyond his purview.

A FBI agent had called the station, talked with the top brass.

Then the FBI Agent asked to speak with Danny.

“Officer, I understand you were first on the scene and called the body in.”

“Yes, that’s right. Well, Mr. Banks of course. But yes.”

Danny waited for the praise. He wasn’t sure what but something good would come of this.

“Can you please walk me through your exact steps, from the time you arrived to the Banks Farm to the time you left the property?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

The agent repeated the question, as if a tape recorder played it back.

Officer Danny felt the heat rise to his face.

“I arrived, went to the farm house. Banks drove us to the field, I saw the body, ID’d the body as the convict, and drove back to the station.

The Agent on the phone was silent. Danny heard a pencil scribbling on a pad of paper.

OK. That’s a start, now take me through it again, filling in the details you are leaving out.

Officer Danny scoffed.

“I don’t care for your tone…”

The FBI Agent cut him off.

“Nor I for yours. But, I am in charge here. Not you. So I don’t care if you don’t like my tone, my face, or my momma. Answer the fucking question. Walk. Me. Through. It. Again.”

Danny’s face burned. He walked through his drive to the farm, his arrival at the house, his truck ride with Banks, and his discovery of the body. He could see it as he explained it. The white farmhouse, the dusty road, the dark woods, the mowed field.

The call ended with an admonition to stay away from the Banks farm. Not to mention this incident to anyone. Not to speak to press if it called wanting details or a statement. The Bureau would handle it from here.

Danny hung up, seething.

As he talked, he remembered a couple details. He had an idea. The barest outlines of an idea. He tucked it aside to think on later. It made him feel better as he replied to this FBI agent who didn’t know much about country folk.

*******

Chapter 11

Janet Reins wanted a cigarette and she needed a story. Or she needed a cigarette and wanted a story. Either way she was fucked. She’d been trailing this convict manhunt for weeks, following FBI agents on rainy trails through the woods. So far all she’d gotten from it was a nasty cough.

Well, that and a crick in her neck from banging one of those flak-jacketed FBI guys in the back of an SUV. Even if the windows were blacked out, it wasn’t her idea of an ideal first date.

But she needed a source.

Unfortunately, so far he hadn’t panned out. She still wasn’t sure of his name. Granthers or Gathers. Ganson? Janet was bad with names. Not like it mattered if she knew his name or not, she’d promised him anonymity.

Plus he sure had a big dick.

But she hadn’t seen him for over 24 hours.

Latest news was that the convicts had been found but those reports were unsubstantiated. Beyond that the FBI agents were being mum. But something was up. When half the FBI detail on this manhunt had skedaddled from upstate near the prison. They left on the quiet, pulling out in their SUVs en masse, hoping to avoid tipping off reporters who were staked out at nearby hotels.

But Janet had noticed. The detail usually ran in shifts, cars would come and go in a 24 cycle. She knew who was on and who was off. She herself preferred the night shift, had learned that sources loosened up at night, from fatigue and th intimacy of darkness. She had been sacked out on her couch when she had heard the sound of tires on gravel. Not a single vehicle, coming back from a shift. No. The rolling gravel sound was soft but insistent, as car after car rolled out. With her curtains closed, she had snuck a peak to see the convoy of SUVS rolling out. As the last one turned the corner onto the main road, she’d grabbed her gear, throwing jeans and sweatshirts into a duffle. She’d followed them down the side streets, all the way to edge of this sad little town.

En route, she’d picked up her sister, who lived in Corning, worked at the museum there. “Come with me, it’ll be fun. See how the other half lives,” she’d promised her kid sister Marley, whose loser boyfriend had recently dumped her. Anything was better than sitting home wishing some jerk loved her enough to stay.

But Janet had lost them somewhere between a pit stop for gas and a drive through McDonalds. How a caravan of black SUVs could disappear, Janet did not know. But she’d hit a dead end and had nothing to go on. Her source refused to answer his phone. She knew they were somewhere nearby. All she had to do was listen to people talk.

She navigated the car through the town’s tree-lined streets, staying under 20 mph like the sign said. She’d seen a cop car on her way to town, waiting to trap the unlucky. She didn’t need a ticket. Hard enough to pay the bills. She needed this story-if she could break it, she could push for that promotion.

Now if they could just find a decent bar. She needed a drink.

“Hey, there’s a bar! Looks like a total dive,” Marley said, pointing to a large grey house on a corner. A neon sign blinked in the window. The parking light on the side was filled with pick-up trucks.

“That’ll do.”

*******

The sound of a broken muffler announced the old pickup truck’s arrival into the bar’s crowded parking lot. Through the open windows, the huff-huff-huff sound filled the bar, drowning out the jukebox. A couple of young bucks looked up from their game of pool, rolled their eyes when they saw the truck.

The engine stopped and the car’s driver stepped out, shoving his keys into the pocket of his tight jeans. His beer gut hung over the edge of his belt but everywhere else he was lean. Skinny arms stuck out of a tight white t-shirt. As he strutted across the parking lot, he caught the attention of the young ladies seated by the window. They giggled when he waved.

The old man pulled open the door. His face was red from the sun and high blood pressure and the two whiskeys he had downed before he got into his car to drive to town. His short hair nearly matched his face, though the hair dye was a shade of red not normally seen on any human, let alone an 80-year-old man.

At the bar, he slid onto a bar stool and banged his gnarled fist on the wood.

“Madeline, get me a beer! P-R-O-N-T-O!”

At the far end of the bar, Madeline the bartender glanced up from dishwashing. She rinsed the mug she was holding and dried her hands on a towel. She nodded his way.

“Right away, Tony.” She turned to open the cooler and added, “You stinky old coot.” A few nearby patrons snickered.

Tony shifted on a stool and tapped his finger tips on the bar, humming a tune out of sync with the 80s pop playing on the jukebox.

“Ba, ba bum, ba, ba da dum…” Tap, tap.

Phil ignored him. This was not the company he was seeking. The arrival of this geezer was not going to help his case. His repeated glances at the women had yielded nothing. No sign of interest.

The young bucks finished up their game and brought the pool balls back to the bar. Madeline opened a beer, handed it to Tony, and took the rack from the young men and set it on the back bar. The young men stared at her. She stared back. “Waddaya want? You played four games, not two. I’ll hang on to your deposit. Next time, don’t try to sneak extra games when you think I’m not looking.”

Unfazed by the chastisement, the young men shrugged and sidled outside to smoke.

“Jerks.” Madeline wiped down the bar. “Come in here, drink water, and try to cheat me on a game of pool. Who does that?”

Tony had no answers. He guzzled his beer and looked around the bar.

“How’s it lookin’ tonight, son?”

A moment too late Phil realized Tony was talking to him. He learned away , hoping he could pretend he had not heard the old man.

But Tony, who was hard of hearing himself and figured others might be too, just repeated his question. He moved to the stool directly next to Phil.

“How about those two fillies by the window? Haven’t seen them in here before. I dunno about you, but I could use some fresh meat. Thirty years of banging the same woman night after night, I done my time. And I’ve banged all the ladies in this town. Every one, even the married ones. But not those two. No. They’re not from around here.” He licked his lips.

Madeline flicked a towel in Tony’s direction. “Tony, keep it down. No one wants to hear about your conquests.”

He waved a dismissive hand at her, said, “Yes, yes.” He leaned conspiratorially over to Phil.

“Correction. I hadn’t banged her YET. But she wants me. She’s holding out.”

As Tony leaned in, Phil smelled the decay: the dry, dying skin, putrid breath with notes of mint, drug store cologne, failing antiperspirant – the old guy needed a shower. The strongest smell was a base note of whiskey, from this night and many nights previous. The man reeked of dying. Death has a stink that no perfume can hide.

But he was hanging on tonight and would not leave Phil alone.

“Whaddaya say, one for you and one for me? Huh?” Tony nudged Phil’s arm. “I fancy the blond. Always had a thing for blonds – these days the drapes never match the carpet. Heh heh.” His laughter morphed into a juicy coughing fit that ended as Tony hawked up a ball of phlegm, which he spit into a cocktail napkin.

Tony guzzled his pint in large gulps, the pale liquid disappearing into his hard gut. His throat worked at a clip to keep up, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with each swallow. When the glass was nearly empty, Tony set it on the bar, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and looked at Phil. Feeling the old man’s gaze, Phil sat very still, and stared straight ahead, studying the bottles of vodka, gin, and bitters stacked in rows on the back bar. Phil figured if he didn’t engage or reply, the old guy would leave him alone, finish his beer, and drive home.

“You don’t say much, do you? Not interested in those lovely ladies? Maybe you’re one of them city faggots that drives out this way on your day off looking for antiques. Huh? Is that what it is? Where’s your boyfriend, faggot?”

Phil turned to look at the old man, whose mouth opened and closed as he chewed on some left over something in his mouth. Tony’s right eye was watery and blue. A chunk of yellow sleep crust protruded from the corner of his eye.

Phil clenched his fists and stared straight ahead. He knew if he spoke, it would be words followed by fists, and they would both be thrown out.

“Hi fellas.” Phil felt a soft hand on the back of his neck. He turned at the sound of the sweet voice. The blond woman was staring at him. He saw she had deep blue eyes. She was about five foot five in heels.

Her companion stood behind her.

“We saw you gentleman over here and thought you looked like you needed cheering up. I’m Janet. This is my sister, Marley.”

Tony’s grey face light up and he wiped his weepy eye on his sleeve.

“How de do, ladies, how de do! We was just talking about you, weren’t we?” Excited, Tony started to cough uncontrollably.

The two women settled onto the free bar stools, setting their drinks on the bar.

Phil watched the brunette fondle her long neck beer.

“Er, so…you from around here?” he asked.

*******

Chapter 12

Sarah had slept fitfully. For a long time, she had heard the FBI talking outside, their voices muted by the cabin windows. She caught a few words: ‘Santis’ and reporter. Eventually the voices quieted down. Car doors slammed as shifts changed. When she had finally drifted off, exhausted by adrenaline and worry, the voices had filtered into her dreams.

Now, she was awake again. Wide awake. The talking outside had ceased. Perhaps the FBI agents had all finally decided to sleep. That Santis jerk had promised her he would keep her family safe and find her daughter – he was probably snoozing in the back of one of those oversized SUVs.

It seemed too quiet. Or perhaps it was in the quiet that she heard something else. Sarah listened. It wasn’t voices. But it was…something. The faint protests of floorboards.

Movement.

It was footsteps. In the house.

Having identified the type of sound, Sarah listened again.

Some nights, Max raided the kitchen for potato chips. Or ice cream. Or whatever she had told him at dinner that he didn’t need another helping of.

She listened harder.

It was not Max – these footsteps were light and quick. Must be Justin or Jason. The dust of sleep still on her eyes, she blinked. Her eyes groped at the darkness for familiar shadows.

At the sound of breaking glass, she bolted, fumbled with the lamp on the side table, searching along the cord for the switch. Her hand found the plastic piece and she pushed it with her thumb, turning on the lamp.

Light filled the room.

On the floor, the stained glass lamp that had graced the family room for fifty years. It lay in pieces, the colored glass shattered in sharp edges.

She saw the ScareIt. It stood still, as a statue, except its tines twitched, the white bone plates covering its body catching the light from the headlights outside.

In front of the ScareIt, standing guard, was Justin. His soft cheeks were flushed. He squinted at the thing before him. He didn’t turn his head but he spoke.

“Mommy?”

Sarah heard this. Her heart beat a double beat and then clenched, as if a cold hand had seized it, death reminding Sarah for a moment that this boy must one day live without her.

As she stared at Justin bravely standing in front of this creature, Sarah couldn’t inhale. She felt like all the air in the house had been sucked into the vacuum of fear that gripped her.

Justin turned his head this time. “Mommy?” he asked again. Sarah saw now that he held a gun, a pistol that Max was supposed to have locked in the safe but liked to take out to show off his shooting skills,

Of course, He had taken the pistol out to show Phil.

As Sarah locked eyes with her son, who was showing her how he could be brave and he could be good, she saw herself this afternoon, yelling at Justin for cutting his sister’s hair. Screaming at him in her panic and worry. The feel of the brittle pieces of Meg’s hair that she had held in her fingers, shaking them at the boys as she asked them, “Why did you do this to her?”

She watched her Justin guard his family’s house against this intruder.

Her Justin, who did not blink or flinch as the ScareIt leaned in close to him, as if to whisper a secret. Her Justin, who did not whimper as the ScareIt forced its sharp tines through the flannel pajamas covering Justin’s slight torso and pierced the boy’s soft belly.

The boy’s strong young body resisted the intrusion for several seconds. But as the boney tines sliced through Justin’s intestines, his liver, and his left lung, the boy collapsed.

Sarah watched her son crumple by the broken glass lamp. She saw that his head landed on the purple pane, which was smashed into a pile of small pieces that radiated out from the impact. Justin’s head landed in this glass debris.

The gun fell on the floor and slid toward Sarah.

Sarah felt the panic rising in her but stronger she felt her instincts kick in. She was first and foremost a mother.

The ScareIt stood waiting, watching her, its tines shifting slightly.

Meg, Sarah thought

Where was she? Why had she run off? Why had she stayed away?

This invasion was too much. In a fluid motion, Sarah grabbed the gun and screamed as she charged the ScareIt.

The ScareIt appeared to smile, the bones of its face shifting first sideways then up, like a puzzle game. As she got closer, Sarah saw that an antler grew out of its right cheek. It smelled of dust.

As Sarah approached it, the Scareit reached for her, its tines dripping with Justin’s bloody tissue. Sarah could smell the blood.

She lifted the gun and aimed it at the ScareIt.

Outside, gunshots. Sarah turned. The wide picture window showed the mayhem outside, headlights flashing and men running. In the spotlight of a helicopter Sarah saw one man racing toward the house. Toward her. A man whose face she knew only from TV news reports. The convict. The one the FBI had taken over her house to find.

He was yelling as he ran, but over the noise of the low flying helo, Sarah could not hear him. She tried to read his lips but the words were indistinguishable. She thought he was saying, “curl” or “hurl”. In the back of her mind, she wondered why he was running toward her house, which was at the moment the brightest point on the hill. There was no safety for him here.

He kept running. Sarah watched the agents behind him move and coalesce, as if dancing in slow motion.

At the same time, she felt cold creep across her skin. The ScareIt had grabbed her wrist and was pulling her toward it. The tines seemed to sharpen as they poked her skin.

The running man had reached the window. He looked straight at Sarah. At her hand that held the gun. He was still screaming.

A sharp sound and the man’s face disappeared from the window. A second man stood behind Kyle. Santis. Holding his gun.

Santis had followed the convict’s mad dash toward the house. As Kyle ran, Santis couldn’t get a good shot. Until Kyle stopped at the window.

He would explain later that he felt Kyle was an immediate threat to the family. But now he stared in the window at Sarah and the ScareIt.

In the bright kitchen light, the ScareIt shone white and clean, as if it were bleached bone on a deserted beach. It stood six inches over Sarah.

Sarah stared at the ScareIt’s tines on her arm. The tines did not hurt her or perhaps she was now numb from fear that could not feel pain. She looked at the ScareIt’s head.

Was the light playing tricks on her or were the bones of the head moving, as if tectonic plates shifting.

Yes, she was certain, the ScareIt’s face was shifting, the bones changing color, from white to grey as the matter moved. Sarah thought she could almost see the bones cells flowing over each other, streaming down the shoulders of the ScareIt.

A small hole appeared on the front of the ScareIt’s head. Sarah watched as the cells flowed even more quickly away from the hole. The hole grew in diameter. Sarah felt drawn to the hole.

The hole in the boney plate grew larger. It was dark inside, which meant that it was not solid bone. There was space. Perhaps it was a hollow cavity.

The cells continued to stream away from the hole in the bone plate of the ScareIt’s head. In a matter of seconds, the hole was now three inches in diameter, then four, then five.

Sarah’s heart stopped. She felt it stop, she was sure she did, though she remained standing and alive, staring at the ScareIt, staring at its bony head.

It was a hollow casement. As the bone plates had shifted aside, like curtains on a stage, it had revealed its main event.

Sarah stared at the human face inside the skull.

It was the face of a sleeping girl.

Her girl.

Her Meg.

Meg’s eyes opened wide. She stared past Sarah, the whites of her eyes shining bright in the darkness of the ScareIt’s skull cavity.

She screamed, “Help me!”

Sarah fainted, her arm still held by the ScareIt.

The sheets of bone reformed, closing the facial cavity. The ScareIt dropped Sarah’s arm and watched her fall to the floor. Turning, it ducked out to the screen porch and away into the welcoming night.

*******

 

 

 

 

End of Part 1.

 

Part 2, coming soon

 

AFTERWORD

If you enjoyed this work of fiction, please look for my first full-length novel, .

Thank you.

Kae Bell

@bellsnwhistles


Thirst: the first 100

  • Author: Kae Bell
  • Published: 2017-02-26 05:20:11
  • Words: 24303
Thirst: the first 100 Thirst: the first 100