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There’s a sort of soothing peril to most small towns that call s you back. As a teenager you hate every life-killing minute of it -the boredom, the bugs and pollen, the blistering, July weeks when it's so dry and hot the trees bribe the dogs, the dusty roads and drawn-out, summer afternoons when the sun seems to misstep and lodges thirty degrees above the western horizon like a repellent, hissing varmint that won't budge from the corner no matter how much you poke it with a broom handle. You eagerly look to the day you get your sheet of parchment from the local diploma mill, pack your bags, kiss your folks goodbye, and never look in the rear-view mirror as you speed headlong towards the the city.
But most come back. Not all, but most, enough to keep the heartbeat of the stories they heard as kids vital and pulsing. Like Black-Eyed Allen. Sure, we all heard about him as we grew up, but only after we came back and had kids of our own, and mortgages, and dandelions in our lawns, and audits from the IRS, did we stop to really think about him. And on those Summer nights when the scary, creaking sound of the corn growing can be vaguely heard over the croaking frogs and the treble whine of mosquito wings, you wonder. After the pretty strangers have finished the nightly news, the kids are packed off to bed, the clothes are laid out for the next morning, and the loving is done, you think about him. Was he alien or entity? Vampire or zombie? Angel or demon? And before you slip into the fretful, half-sleep of the adult, you don’t wonder if he’s real.
You wonder if he’s still out there.
Dan Carter had no wife to share these thoughts with. His wife, Laney, well, she was…gone. The best word for it. Denny was his and his alone now, for the past three years. All the late-night vomiting spells, the broken bones and scraped knees were his to deal with.
And the bullies. The spoiled titty babies, unrepentant and incurable joy killers; foul-tempered brats whose most urgent need was to be hosed down with a flamethrower. They were, Dan believed, the greatest arguments for abortion he had ever seen and every twelve year old kid had to square off with them eventually. Dan was a quiet guy, but always able to shoot out an elbow to the jaw or a knee to the groin when one was necessary, legacy of his own lost youth at any number of slash and bash honky tonks. He didn’t need to get wound up.
On the last day of school Denny had come home with a fat lip and a few scrapes, the battle scars of a dusty, playground scuffle with some hick kid. Nothing major. Dan could almost see it: the kid in the stained white T-shirt and blue jeans, the dirt drawn in the sweaty folds of fat on his neck, the greasy hair and red blooms of exertion in his fat cheeks. They were always named Jeff, or David, or Mike. And Denny, mostly a loner like Dan himself had been, had stood his ground alone, an unknown held outside the protective circle of the crèche. When asked about it, Denny had said, without elaboration or refinement, “I fell off my bike.”
Well, what else would the boy say? Only babies ran to mommy and daddy. Denny was no rat, and if the word got out that he’d snitched, Dan knew the next beating would be even worse. He’d learned that lesson at Denny’s age when he’d seen a dog hit and rolled by a car. The vehicle had sped away, leaving the mortally injured dog yelping, immobile, but not yet dead. As if conjured by some grim magic, the dog’s agonized baying had summoned every other wretched cur in the neighborhood. They’d appeared like malignant revenants mustered from every point of the compass, scrambling from secret boltholes and dark spaces to lay into the broken dog with savage snarls and growls and saliva-shiny, bared teeth. Dan had watched in a sickened trance as the injured dog was torn apart by his sound brethren in a brutal frenzy of pack survival instinct. As years passed, he learned that people were no better.
Dan had pressed a little more. Instead of answering his questions, Denny had asked one of his own.
“Who is Black-Eyed Allen?”
Dan kept a brave face, though his son’s troubles had abruptly taken on a less than dreary relevancy. The stifling heat of the summer day chilled to just above ice water. He was afraid of what could come next, the ghost of which had gently haunted all his life. There were demons and monsters of terrible countenance that were easy to reject under normal circumstances, but when the darkness came, some seemed Angels, dark-eyed and smiling, hungrily whispering “Let me come in.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Joe told me.” Denny's eyes had started to well -just a little- at a memory so fresh and raw it was still bleeding, and he wiped his red eyes with the back of his hand. “The new kid at school. He was the only one who came to help me while everybody else stood around laughing. I guess he didn't know any better and now he'll get beat up for helping me.”
Dan’s eyes narrowed.
“Who did this to you?”
“Like I said, I crashed my bike.” A bare twinkle broke through the red of Denny’s eyes. “Besides,” he said, “you should see the other guy.”
Dan would let it rest for the moment. He wondered what -and how much- he should tell Denny about Black-Eyed Allen. He would, he decided, just have to wing it.
“Black-Eyed Allen,” he began. “Just a story every kid around here has heard. Even if he was real, it might not be such a good thing to put a wolf in the middle of the doves.” Dan weighed his next words. “You always take a risk in holding the tiger by the tail. If you lose your grip, it can turn on you.” He smiled and tried to lighten the mood. “Instead of relying on a fairy tale, maybe you should take boxing lessons instead?”
But Denny would not be swayed. The stoic look of hurt and intractable resolve remained depressingly steady in his face.
Dan sighed. “Maybe,” he said, “Black-Eyed Allen is like a Ouija board: something in between worlds. And like a Ouija board, maybe you better know about him before you open a door to something you don’t understand. I first heard the story a long time ago…”
It was the last day of school and Dan stared at the round clock on the wall, urging it to go faster, sure that he could see the second hand beginning to run backwards. Out the big windows of his classroom, he could already see some of the kids on the dusty baseball infield gathering for a pick up game.
School was a drag. The little micro-universe of grownups at John Jayce Elementary was a hostile and alien place. You sometimes caught a glimpse of their secret world when you walked by the teacher’s lounge and the door was open a crack. Like the day he heard Mr. Fagg (he pronounced it “Faig”, but you could bet on what everyone else called him), the lanky, pretzel-necked, pompadoured geek with peckerwood sideburns and yellow, buck teeth, remarking after the zealously endowed Becky Conyers, the Math teacher, “if only her tits were brains.”
Another time he had peered into the storage room of one of the classrooms between classes and seen his Health teacher, Mr. Harris, smoking. On another occasion he had heard Mr. Watson poking fun at the retreating figure of Mr. Fagg -that luckless splice of Elvis and Pee Wee Herman- trying manfully -and failing- to lug a heavy typewriter. Mr. Watson remarked to a tittering Mrs. Conyers that “there goes a man among men.” After this illustrative peek into the adult world, Dan was in no hurry to grow up.
The hands of the clock finally stood at three and twelve and the last bell clanged, shooting mobs of squealing kids out the door into the summer recess like wads of showering confetti.
Dan wandered over to a gang of kids gathered around the first base bag, choosing up sides for a baseball game. Although a good hitter and fielder, Dan was always among the last chosen. Of course Mike and David were the team captains, the playground kingpins with their lackeys and sycophants sucking up to them. Jeff was the enforcer for both of them and he looked the part, his fat forearms crossed across his Buddha belly, his grease and sweat clotted curls lying lankly on a jutting brow that could provide shade for a small town.
Even now as he thought about it, Dan couldn’t really remember what or who had started it, though it was most likely a series of insults. Whether the first or last jabs, Dan could only clearly recall Jeff saying: “It must be tough to only be able to afford Raspo-brand sand and toilet paper, and Nothing Burgers and Coke Zero for lunch,” and Dan replying:
“You might want to try it. You’re such a fatass that if you were an inch taller, you’d be round.”
His dad had always told him that if he stood up to the schoolyard Morlocks they would back down. Dan’s experience had been that that was hardly ever true and, when their numbers were multiplied by three, it was never true. Most bullies were big and loud to begin with, they didn’t fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules, and they generally harassed smaller kids. They never picked a fair fight. That’s why they were bullies.
Dan had held his own pretty well, but three against one -especially when all three were fat and stinking of androgen- were not betting odds. It hadn't been bad as schoolyard scraps go, but when you're outmanned by three, the attackers didn't need much of an edge.
Dan got shoved back and forth between the three of them, bouncing and flopping like a rag doll that had somehow become a pinball, before Jeff tripped him and down Dan went, the small of his back thumping on the first base bag, his breath driven out of him in a puff of dry dust. Jeff wasted no time in pressing his advantage, practically leaping on Dan and pulling his arms up to where he, Jeff, could pin them down with his knees.
Dan lay there helplessly with the small of his back arched painfully over the first base bag, his left leg bent gracelessly beneath him. The fat oaf straddled his chest, the sweat dropping from the bully’s forehead onto Dan’s face. That was the worst thing. Not the dry taste of dirt in his mouth, not the burning from the cuts and scrapes, not the stabbing pain in his back, not the critical eyeballs and jeering laughter of the kids gathered around enjoying the fight. The worst thing was having the fat fuck’s bodily fluids dripping in his face. It was almost like being pissed on. That more than anything evoked Dan’s first thought: Where was Black-Eyed Allen when you needed him?
And, like most schoolyard scuffles, this one ended with the bullies eventually letting Dan up and strutting off with their cohorts in crime to laugh and brag about their conquest and mutter in self-righteous tones about how he had it coming, leaving the shamed kid to lick his wounds.
Dan pulled himself up, testing his bent leg. Something in there was twisted and he would have a limp for a while. A brief touch survey of the damage found a few cuts and scrapes on his face and a swollen lip, maybe a forthcoming bruise under an eye. He tried not to look at anyone before gimping away. That was just the way the schoolyard hierarchy worked.
As a loner -the outsider in the world of adults as well as kids- Dan had found a place to decompress. There were lots of old, falling-down houses around. Many of the old codgers had huge tracts of farmland that had been willed to them by their forebears. Opting for the nine to five life instead of the backbreaking labor of farming, the codgers had let forest reclaim farm, and old homesteads at length yielded to the elements and deteriorated to derelict shacks with sway backs, rusty tin roofs and siding as gnarled and knotted as broken toes. It was a simple enough thing to pick one out and use it as a clubhouse, even if the club had only one member.
Dan went there now, preferring Nature’s dangers to man’s. His limp diminished as he walked in the June heat the half mile away from the school, but the cuts and oozing scrapes on his face still sizzled with salty sweat.
The old homeplace was set apart by itself in the woods, just out of sight of the road. Ivy and Morning Glory had completely carpeted the old brick chimney and soft moss coated the rotting porch pillars in green velvet. As he approached the house, walking the path worn between thorny Blackberry canes and lush Kudzu vines, the first wrong thing he saw was a murder of crows, perhaps six or eight, flitting and hopping on the drooping front porch. The crows cocked their heads and appraised him with their black eyes. The crows leisurely flapped off, lighting in trees just a few yards away, and looked down on him with a God’s eye view. A little odd, but not unheard of.
The creaking floor of the house was gray and rippled, thinly dotted with patches of pine straw that had drifted in through holes in the roof. Even after a hundred years the heat sometimes made the nostalgic smell of pine resin ooze from the wood. He’d made a makeshift table from a medium sized wire spool he had laboriously rolled and lugged to get here, and his only chairs were a couple of milk crates. No-one had ever sat on the second one. He retrieved his worn deck of cards from the sloping ledge over the long-cold fireplace.
Dan replayed the thing over and over in his head as he laid out his solitaire columns. You could shuffle it a hundred different ways but coming up with a winning scenario was as futile as a cat trying to cover shit on a marble floor. He’d been outmuscled, outweighed, and outnumbered. He’d had no chance. That realization, instead of comforting him, brought up his anger and dishonor all over. It was like trying to get an honest roll at the Roulette table with the carny holding a magnet under the wheel. He switched from solitaire to poker as the sun settled below the trees and the coming night darkened his modest abode with cooling shadow. Playing two handed poker against yourself was a fool’s game. You always knew when the other guy was bluffing. But when he drew the eights and aces, a crawling dread raised goosebumps. That’s when he first heard the soft rustling in the room next to him.
He looked up from his cards. Probably just a ‘coon he thought, or, worse, a snake. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now he did. The second odd thing. Some of the pine straw on the floor had shifted from shapeless islands to “V” patterns on the floor, pointing almost like arrows towards the next room. It looked as if someone without the strength to lift their feet had shuffled slowly and painfully through it.
He hadn’t heard the sound again and he wasn’t really afraid (well, only a little). If there had been anybody there, they were long gone by now. After the thrashing he had taken today, he was going to muster up the guts to at least look, if for no other reason than to make himself feel better.
He stood up from his cards and crept across the uneven floor, thinking that every moaning board was now amplified to rock concert levels. Some shadowy dread made him avoid stepping in the same path as the shoved-aside pine straw. As he slowly stepped through the listing doorway into the next room, he was at once startled at what he saw, and unsurprised to hear his mother’s voice speaking in his head: Speak of the devil and he turns up.
The body on the floor was a kid, maybe ten or twelve, Dan's age. His eyes were closed as he lay supine, his arms across his chest, just like Dracula in all the old movies. His coffin was a mat of pine straw carefully pushed up -by someone- into a gentle berm that outlined his body. Straight blond hair tumbled in coarse bangs over his forehead, the color and consistency of straw, but straw with the thinnest green tinge before it spins to gold. His skin was moon-pallid and, against that bloodless canvas, his lips were too red and too fleshy, distorted into a cold, sardonic sneer that had paralyzed into permanency. His nose was a curved knife, hooking to one side as if it had been broken. The kid was obviously a boy, but just a little asexual. Sort of elemental, as if he had been patchworked together by the trees and the bees and the leaves of the forest. As Dan edged closer, eventually standing over the kid, he noticed something above the pungent pine resin. The kid smelled worse than Old Man “Simple” Simons at the rest home when his diaper overflowed. But this wasn’t a shitty smell. It was more like…decay.
“Christ,” Dan breathed. His eyes were wide and his sweat, despite the heat, was a cold, fear sweat. He didn’t need to get any closer to know the kid was dead. He had to beat it out of there and tell somebody. The kid’s folks were probably worried sick about him, and his killer, why, his killer might still be here!
Dan was within a split second of turning and scurrying away when the kid opened his eyes and looked at Dan.
“Only the poorest host,” the kid said, “would flee from a guest he has invited in.”
The kid sat up with no evident effort, pulled his legs beneath him in a semi lotus position, and stared at Dan.
The kid's eyes were black -all gun metal black- and round, with no distinction between pupil, iris, or sclera. Dan stayed pegged to his spot. Not by fear, but by... curiosity? And maybe some kind of trance. There was something more hypnotic than scary about those black eyes and Dan couldn’t look away from their charcoal briquette opacity. The kid’s voice, coming from that small and boyish frame, was a deep, out-of-place bass. Even after only the kid’s first utterance, Dan sensed a subtle humor in that demonic timbre.
“Geez, kid,” Dan said in relieved greeting. “I thought you were dead.” Black eyes or not, at least Dan wasn’t dealing with a corpse. Maybe the kid had some kind of freaky genetic condition. “I haven’t seen you around here. Where’s home?”
“Home is many places,” the kid answered. “But I come when I am named.”
“And what name would I call you?”
“Allen,” the kid said. “If it will put you at ease.” The kid held himself back at the thin edge of a dry smile. “Black-Eyed Allen.”
At ease was hardly how Dan felt as he choked down a dry lump in his throat.
“And, did I…call you?” Still not really afraid (he didn’t know what he was), it was dawning on him that he had been thrust headlong, and with no warning or preparation, into something otherworldly here.
The drooping sun had dimmed the room to the cloudy twilight of a dream, but Allen seemed to be encircled in his own soft glow that picked him out in a gentle spotlight. The rustling noises had increased and, with his peripheral vision, Dan saw the black shadows of the crows from outside darting around the floor near Allen. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he caught sight of the slithering tails of retreating snakes vanishing beneath piles of pine straw, and heard the shivering maracas of a Rattlesnake’s rattle.
“ Your pain called me,” Allen said. “Your pain at the hands of predators bloated on the blood of others -no better than Jackals or Hyenas that prey on the weak and helpless. It cried for me to tell you that even the smallest have claws and fangs. Even the smallest can strike back.”
“I can’t,” Dan said, giving in, somehow intuitively understanding the dark trade this stranger offered. “It would only make it worse.”
“Ah,” the kid said. “You misunderstand. I would do the heavy lifting. Your thirst for the blood of those who wronged you would be quenched.”
“And I would go to hell for it?” Years of hellfire and damnation Sunday School lessons hadn’t gone unheard.
“ You strain at gnats while swallowing elephants,” Allen said sorrowfully. “You cower -as you cowered today- behind vain morality while hot blood streams down your face and those who humbled you laugh. They call you a wimp, a pussy, expecting you to grovel through life kissing their rings and being grateful that they make you go no further. Do you think they will grow up to be virtuous citizens of the community? Or will they be putt-putting down the aisles of Wal Mart on their obesemobiles, their teeth rotted with meth, beating their children and raping their wives? It is not just your pain, your well-being at risk. They may be acting at this moment while you delay.” Allen shifted his black-eyed gaze to include the assembly of crows gathered around him. The ruffed-up feathers around their necks were cheerless black stoles and the crows stared wisely at Dan with somber acumen, a Star Chamber of hanging judges. “And none of us are promised tomorrow,” Allen continued. “It would be so unfair for you to forbear requital -for your sake and others'- if you were to live no longer than the next minute.”
Dan’s mouth was dry and sticky when he spoke.
“Are you talking about murder?”
Dan should have been horrified, but wasn’t. This wasn’t a timeout on the naughty step. This was serious. Yet, he was still darkly intrigued. Did he really grovel behind “rightness”? It should be so easy to pick up this club and swing it. If the shoe were on the other foot, they wouldn’t hesitate to brain him with it.
“Murder is your word,” Allen answered. “I offer balance to a world where the predators outnumber the prey.”
Dan was wavering. That bass voice was persuasive, those eyes eerily captivating. “Why would you do this? What do you want?”
“Only to help. To make the world a better place.”
“I mean, what do you want from me?”
Flowering beneath those black eyes no smile could be anything but feral and Black-Eyed Allen's first distorted grin stalled a hundred degrees short of warm. Dan saw him reveling in the night's adoration, the grave core of his being all black and cold and void. Again, Dan noticed the deliberative crows, now in plain sight. Webs sparkling with dozens of deadly-shiny, black widow spiders decorated the corners of the room, and a dozen serpents now coiled around Black-Eyed Allen. The acid, unmistakable smell of snake skin -a smell that smelled like nothing else- came to Dan and made his skin crawl, but he didn't run.
Black-Eyed Allen held his hands up as a pair of vipers coiled their scaly bodies around his arms and flicked out their serpent’s tongues.
“When all is done,” he said, “we will come to an accommodation.”
An unvoiced bargain was struck and, as Dan turned to leave, he saw Allen for what he really was: one of the Black-Eyed Children, a reaching race outgrown in evil their sleepy looks. He was afraid as he left that he had unbound a dragon to brood over a pile of bones that would never be big enough to check its rampage.
There was nothing to do now but wait and see how it all played out.
While Dan slept, the theater of the tragic played out upon its wild venue.
It was year one of what they hoped would become an annual tradition on the first day of summer vacation. With their sleeping bags rolled up into packs on their backs, Jeff and David and Mike had tramped out a mile into a clearing in the woods. The glass bottles of a six pack of beer, now the same temperature as the muggy air, clanked cheerily in Mike’s backpack. Jeff had the cigarettes and fishing gear while David toted the provisions (hot dogs in a plastic baggie and assorted chips and junk food). A tent would have just been too much baggage for them. From not far off, the light breeze carried the smell of water from Old Man Brooks’ pond, where they would go fishing in the morning.
They sat around the fire they had built, smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes. Not a word was said about the poor kid they had worked over during the day. He was nobody. He wasn’t important. He was forgotten. They huddled close to the fire, not for warmth, but to be close to the heat and the smoke which kept the bugs away.
After a couple of hours, as two beers apiece had made them a little glassy eyed, a great fluttering arose in the trees around them, almost like a stormy wind and Jeff looked at the others.
“Owl?” he asked.
Mike looked up into the trees and named the birds of ominous bearing.
“Crows,” he said slowly. “A lot of them.” He saw the orange firelight reflecting in their eyes and off the oily black of their feathers. He considered. “Shouldn’t be out at night, should they?” Mike looked to the others to buck him up, to tell him that this wasn’t creepy.
“I dunno,” Jeff answered. “Maybe they’re attracted to the fire?”
They all had the sudden feeling that there was something in the woods, watching with studied coldness, as if measuring them for a strike. The three boys gathered together, peering uneasily into the endless darkness of the forest. There was no obvious movement from any large, four legged creature, only crackling flitting from flame and fowl.
“Man,” Mike said with a nervous laugh, “this is a bad time to say it, but I gotta piss.”
“There’s the woods,” Jeff said. “Have at it.”
“Asshole,” Mike said. He took a brave step away from the safety of the firelight and immediately jumped backwards as the heart-jolting sound of a rattlesnake’s rattle trilled though the night.
“Holy shit,” Mike cried. He peered anxiously down at his jeaned ankles to make sure he hadn’t been bitten.
“Where is it,” David asked, his voice a sudden, tinny recording. “Did it bite you?”
“I don’t think so.”
The three boys huddled together, scanning the ground with frightened eyes. Rattlesnakes were fairly rare, but not altogether missing. Copperheads were far more common. They heard the damn thing, but they couldn’t see it. It could be anywhere outside the fire’s revealing light.
The rattle came again, from a different direction this time, and more than one. The three boys looked at each other, their eyes scared, red moons in the firelight. The rattling intensified until it filled the air in an unbroken drum roll. The crows frumped and rustled busily in the trees and coyote packs yipped in the woods not far away.
Then the snakes came. Slithering black shapes, thick as a man’s arm, that first revealed themselves at the edge of the firelight, weaving back and forth as they advanced, leaving “S” shaped wakes in the loose soil of the glade. Hundreds of venomous Copperheads, Moccasins, and Diamondbacks writhed from every point on the circumference of the clearing, their cold reptilian eyes sunken behind pits, tongues flicking.
The boys backed away, bumping into each other with sharp elbows and bony knees, dodging the fire, desperately looking for any avenue of escape. Their hearts raced and, had they had more time for the futility and terror of the situation to really sink in, they might have been crying. They had thought they were so tough and worldly, but in the end they were just three scared, twelve year old boys, mortal fear turning their legs to mush and their hearts to pumping blocks of ice.
Jeff made a desperate break for it, darting over the twisting field of snakes and was instantly ankle deep in the serpents. Trying to walk on the constantly shifting bodies of the snakes was like trying to stand up in a rolling hammock. He stumbled and pitched forward, sprawling in the midst of the roiling ball of serpents.
The other two boys watched their fallen comrade for a moment in sickened terror as the snakes boiled over him like a nest of deadly worms.
The snakes seemed to actually slow and linger as they wound their way leisurely towards the trapped David and Mike, as if knowing the game was up. As terrible as their deaths were going to be, they were made even worse when something made the shaking boys look up from their approaching doom and at the edge of the clearing.
Black-Eyed Allen, the fiend of schoolyard legend, stood there on the opposite side of the fire like some demon emerging from hell. He grinned his sardonic grin, his once pallid face rosy with healthy color, and stared at them like some horror from a fever dream.. Though their deaths were now only seconds away, both boys knew that this was the worst thing: that they had to die while hearing the croaking gloating of the sated leech, and knowing why he had been summoned.
Then the snakes overran them in a killing tide.
It was late on the afternoon of the next day before the story of the boys’ deaths made its way around town. It was told with wide eyes and hushed tones and much clutching of pearls and clasped hands, jumping from person to person like a disease. Their mamas and daddies cried about it a lot and there was much tut-tutting and renewed admonitions from parents to their children about snakes and the other dangers of a rural area. Dan was surprised to find he actually felt a little bad about it. But the feeling, the bad feeling, faded very quickly. What made him more uneasy was his own personal sword of Damocles perilously poised over his head.
But that was eventually rectified when, years later, he finally saw Black-Eyed Allen again.
“And you never know what the payment will be,” Dan finished. “Because no-one has ever lived to say. So promise me, son. Promise me you’ll put this crazy notion of Black-Eyed Allen out of your head.”
Denny smiled. “Already forgotten,” he said. “Something that isn’t real can’t help me, anyway, can it?”
Dan smiled back, but it was forced. No more than he could have stopped himself as that long ago boy, he knew Denny would call out to Black-Eyed Allen, and Black-Eyed Allen would answer. The lure was just too great. Dan sighed inwardly and ruffled Denny’s hair. He decided then that his last day with Denny would be a good one.
And it was.
They went to bed, Dan knowing the dark would bring the end. It was always like that. It had to be dark. As a kid he had basically wanted to see where this kink was headed. Now, as an adult, he didn’t know how to unfuck this football.
Denny had been nine when Black-Eyed Allen came for his mother. Nothing Dan could do about it, of course. The sinister bargain had been struck. But what really gnawed at him was that he had done nothing. He hoped it had been easier for her than for the others, but whenever he thought about it (which he tried not to), he knew it hadn’t been. So much pain. He had tried to wash his hands of it, reasoning that it was all beyond his control. But it was hard to keep your hands clean when you kept washing them in blood. He had hoped that would be the end of it, that it would be enough blood.
But it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
He was downstairs, Denny asleep in his bed upstairs, when the first crow thumped into the window, cracking the glass. The clocks all stumbled and crashed at the same instant, blinking red abstractions trapped in a repeating loop. He knew he should be brave; he should finally swallow his medicine like a man. But the fear was still there in his dry mouth and shaking knees. There would be no balm to soothe the passage of this bitter pill.
He stood up as the lights went out. Without the sounds of air conditioning and electronics, he could clearly hear the glottal hissing of the snakes as they gathered on his porch. Hundreds of them, he imagined. He even chuckled, covering a broken heart with laughter. Now it was just him and Black-Eyed Allen, mano a mano. Black-Eyed Allen’s lying time to charm, his utterings of sweet falsehoods, was over.
Dan saw the dark shapes of the crows at his windowpanes as they slowly slid up, untouched by anything visible, in their tracks. They hopped into the room and stood on the floor before him. They had always been the precursor. They cocked their heads at Dan and he, comically, cocked his head back.
The crows, apparently insulted, frumped and ruffled up their feathers.
Dan couldn’t see him at first, but felt the presence growing in front of him, like some vaporous hologram slowly materializing out of thin air. He waited, heart thumping, but outwardly calm. When the manifestation was complete, he saw immediately that something was different. And very wrong.
His wife, Ellen, known affectionately as Laney, had come back to him.
“No,” Dan uttered miserably. “It should be Allen!”
“Allen?,” Ellen answered. “You mean Denny’s new friend, Joe. His penance is done. Your business is with me.”
“But what about…” Dan began.
Ellen’s black eyes grew even darker.
“Taken care of.” Her smile was wolf-like, gruesome. “A mother protects her children. And a husband should protect his wife.”
Dan stood, numb with fear as that long ago snake skin smell filled the room. They poured in over the sills of the open windows like water pouring over the transom of a sinking ship of the USS Dan. He heard the deadly rattles, and the rasping of scales on the floor. They were everywhere, slithering and writhing over each other in a sinuous nightmare, all the while advancing on him like an unstoppable breaker.
The first strike got him in the calf muscle, the fangs burying themselves an inch and a half deep in the flesh. The pain was incredible, multiplied by the heat of injecting venom. In rapid succession the serpents fell on him, sinking their fangs into arms and legs. A Cottonmouth Moccasin, its gaping jaws exposing its snow-white mouth, struck him in the right cheek, just below his eye, and hung on.
Dan toppled and was immediately engulfed in a roiling ball of snakes. Not to miss the party, ranks of Black Widow spiders scuttled across the floor and crawled eagerly over the serpent ball, finding tiny bits of exposed flesh and injecting their venom.
Dan thrashed and rolled weakly for a few seconds, but never cried out. His struggles ended quickly as his plundered heart gave out. The venom was too potent, too much.
As the snakes moved off, Ellen looked down at Dan. Her eyes had cleared and were the same cool blue they had been before the long darkness. After what he had done, -to her, to those long ago kids, to Denny- she couldn't feel sorry for him, but the whole thing was out of her hands.
One day Dan would come for her -in a year, or three, or twenty- but she wouldn't think about that now. It was time to be with her son.
She’d spent enough time in hell.
It was Dan’s turn, now.
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