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.
© Svetlanarib | Dreamstime.com – [+ Spirit Of Halloween+]
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 shuffled into the milking parlor in the early morning, smelling of grass. He knew which ones were excellent milkers and which ones were mean bitches a 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 a row of hay in his largest, eastern-most field bordered by the state forest. 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 as hot as predicted. Hay needed dry days.
Behind him, the mower’s metal blades turned, slicing the grain. The engine droned like a snoring monster. At the row’s end, Flint turned the tractor and started a new row.
Over the thrum of his tractor he heard a sharp sound.
It was a sound he knew.
Metal against bone.
Banks braked and the tractor slowed. He cocked his head to better hear, but heard only the tractor’s hum. Killing the engine, in the morning quiet, he heard a second sound.
The sound of pain. Whatever his mower had run over, it was in intense pain. Banks heard the scream, a high-pitched wail of surprise and distress. The creature caught unawares by his unforgiving blades. Cut by metal.
He’d never heard such a desperate wail. It ebbed and flowed in the silence, the noise swallowed by open sky.
Stepping down from his seat, placing his foot on the wheel to steady himself, Banks landed in the uncut hay with a light thump. He walked slowly, almost cautiously, through the tall hay that stretched up the large tractor wheels. He was ten or eleven feet away from the mower, when the sound came again, this time more or a wail. It was softer, less a complaint and more an acceptance, as if the air had been let out of a tire. Banks’ stomach turned.
The sound ended in a whimper. Banks stopped for a heartbeat. He forced himself forward, reminding himself that a farmer was of that which lived and died.
In a few steps, Mr. Banks was at the mower. The blades curved and gleamed in the sun. The smell of cut hay was especially strong.
Mr. Banks stood, his hands on the blades, still warm from the morning’s cutting. Banks took a few slow breaths and stared at the ground.
Then he looked up. There, in the cut hay, beyond the mower, where Banks had lifted the blades of the mower and cut the tractor’s engine, lay a bloody pile of bone, skin, and blood. The smell of iron lifted on the breeze to Banks’ nose. As he took a step forward, he felt sick.
The jumble of what had clearly been a human was tangled in the grasses. It was a bloodied mess.
Banks stared at the pile, as a breeze shook the treetops on the wood’s edge. A mourning dove announced the dusk. Another step and the mess came into focus
A bloody human face, the forehead sheared off, stared at Mr. Banks from a bed of freshly cut hay. Nearby, the torso, sliced to near ribbons by the industrial mower, lay still. In the early stage of shock, Mr. Banks looked away, his chest heaving. He bent over and lost his breakfast of fresh eggs and toast with blackberry jam made from the fruit of bushes that lined the dirt road along his farm. When he stood upright, he looked east, to the horizon, where the field’s edge was lined with pine trees. Above the tree line, puffy clouds concealed the rising sun. He stepped forward. His foot settled into the grass. He glanced at the body. And at the row he had begun to mow.
What a shame, he thought, to lose the crop.
The uncut field stretched before him. He walked through the tall 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 stones. A hand from the open front passenger side window gave the farmer the finger. Already partway down the lane, the farmer was unaware.
Meg watched this activity from the wood’s edge, her back set firmly against a tree trunk. From here, she could watch the road to town, the fields, and of course the farmhouse itself, at the bottom of the hill. From the farmhouse, fields extended south, up the hill, and east to the edge of the dense wood where the coyotes yowled at night. Purple, yellow and orange wildflowers lined the fields, clover, buttercups and paintbrush. Drunk from pollen, bees stumbled among the blossoms
The dirt road kept car traffic to a minimum, only the milkman and the occasional hunter would pass by. Fluffy cattails grew in the ditch, which were still wet from an earlier downpour.
From this spot, Meg could not see her house, farther up the road. A thick wood separated the two properties. And happily, she thought, her parents, specifically her mother, could not see her.
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 was hours ago. She had 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 to the 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. Hidden by the tall hay, Meg had watched her mom’s head turned left and right, her eyes seeking movement.
Meg 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. Meg had moved out to the sun porch, which was fine- it had windows on three sides, a super comfy sofa bed, and a TV. She’d enjoy it, since she could watch the moon rise over the trees and the bug sounds, so loud this far out in the country, put her to sleep.
But she hated her brothers’ looks as they closed the door to her room. Smug.
So she didn’t feel guilty for wishing that the twins had stayed at camp all summer. She had loved the cabin without the boys crashing in and around it, destroying or shooting everything in sight. The days were peaceful, sunnier in the silence.
Mom insisted that the boys return for the last two weeks of summer before school began.
Her brothers had not waited a minute to begin their pranks.
When Meg had woken up this morning, her neck itched. Feeling around her pillow, her hand closed around a big chunk of hair. Her hair. Six jagged inches of it. Staring at her cut hair, its summer highlights catching the light, she had envisioned her brothers sneaking out after she was asleep, scissors in hand. They’d probably planned this at camp.
From the couch, Meg had heard feet shuffling and some poorly muffled giggling from behind the door leading into the house
Her brothers were hiding. And waiting. Waiting for a reaction. She knew from past experience, they hoped she would scream. Or tell Mom. They’d started calling her ‘tattle tail’ a year ago.
Instead, Meg had slid off the bed. Grabbed craft 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 slipped out the porch door, closing it gently. Outside, she’d seen Mr. Banks mowing in the field. Stop his tractor and hop down. She’d hurried down the road to her favorite hiding spot.
She’d been gone since then.
Now she was hungry. 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.
From her perch, Meg watched the tractor drive up the road and turn into the road at the bottom where the runoff never fully dried and mosquitos swarmed thick around murky 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.
A breeze rippled the tall sheaves, which brushed together, hissing in protest.
Meg heard a distant murmuring. She was enjoying her afternoon and did not want to be found. Careful to stay concealed, she poked her head above the tall grain to see who it was.
There they were. Her stupid brothers, walking down the hill toward the farm, ambled along, filled with lunch and mischief. Meg’s heart sank. Her
afternoon was spoilt. They might take the shortcut she had found and discover her hiding place.
Once more, she poked her head above the grain. Her brothers were still a ways off, halfway down the hill. Chucking rocks at squirrels. Meg doubted they could see into the shadow cast by the barn. Staying low, Meg made a beeline across the field, careful to steer clear of Mr. Banks’ tractor.
Meg crossed the street to the barn. A massive structure, it housed the milking cows in the winter and stored the hay year round. It was off-limits, forbidden to Meg and her brothers by Mom. Somewhere inside, cows lowed. This late in summer, the pastures were thin. It was almost time for chores.
By the barn door, a calico cat missing half an ear mewled loudly at Meg. Meg bent to scratch the cat’s scruffy head. Several feet away, in the safety of the weeds, other cats crouched, watching. Meg saw cautious ears and tails poking above the grasses.
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 the door 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.
“I heard Dad say 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, a step behind Justin.
She wished they’d keep moving. But no luck.
Meg heard Jason call out in an fake high 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.
“Oww! It scratched me!” Jason whined.
“You were dumb to pick it up.”
“I’m bleeding. Stupid cat.”
“Who cares. Let’s go find that head.”
“Whatever. Come on.”
Meg heard their footsteps recede.
Relieved they had not found her, Meg turned from the door and slipped deeper into the barn. It smelled of hay and fresh manure in here. Sunlight snuck in between wallboards spackling boards white with light here and there. In the dim light, Meg could see several cows at the far end of the barn, shifting on their feet, waiting in the coolness of the barn.
Ahead, Meg saw sunlight shine down from an opening in the ceiling. The entrance to the hayloft. She’d never been up there. No one would think to look for her there. It would be the best place to hide.
She stepped forward and almost fell, slipping on a wet lump. She looked down. It was a dead rat, slippery with blood. The barn cats had caught it earlier. Meg stepped over the carcass. Ahead, the light from the hayloft beckoned.
Meg grabbed onto the makeshift ladder, old boards nailed to the wall. Spider webs clung to her fingers as she lifted herself up each step. One board gave way slightly, a loose nail. Meg caught herself and continued to climb.
Now, eight feet up, nearly level with the hayloft floor, Meg stepped off the ladder and into a large rectangular room with a high vaulted ceiling. She looked around. Hay was everywhere. Hay bales lined the walls, seven and eight bales high and two or three bales deep. Along one wall, the bales stretched 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.
Meg thought the room felt like a church. Except for the flutter of birds nesting high in the ceiling.
Meg climbed the bales of hay like steps to reach the topmost bale of a highest tower.
The tractor had stopped and Meg heard a car drive fast by the barn, too fast for these dirt roads. She felt her throat tighten. She knew that car.
She remembered last summer when the same car arrived at the house. Uncle Phil.
“No explaining men’s taste in friends,” Meg’s mom would say under her breath.
He would sneak up on Meg and ask, “Are the Scare-its coming, Megs?” 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 Scare-its were coming.
Eight years, he’d visited them at the cabin. Always the same questions, Meg thought. Enough. She wasn’t four any more.
She could pronounce the word now. Had for years. She whispered it to herself, as if to be sure: Skeleton.
Besides, she didn’t believe in them. She’d told him several times. But he didn’t listen, just laughed and laughed. And drank beer.
In fact, every time he got up to get a beer from the fridge, he’d walk by her chair and ask her again:
“Are the Scare-Its gonna get you tonight, Megs? It’s a full moon. Are they coming tonight? Oohhhhhhaaa!!” He’d waggle his thin fingers at her.
Finally, she had gone out to the porch.
And now here he was again.
Meg leaned her back against the wallboards. Sharp pieces of hay poked at her bare legs. From this height, she could see the entire loft, even into far corners.
That’s when she saw the man. He was lying on the floor. And he was covered in blood.
Why hadn’t he said something? Was he asleep?
Meg spoke quietly into the rafters. “Hello?” The word was a whisper and did not even disturb the birds. She 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. It must be getting on three o’clock, Meg thought. 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.
Meg climbed down her tower, step by step, gripping each hay bale by its twine with her hands. The roughness stung her hands.
Back 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 among the tall bales, the man’s hand closed around her wrist. He sat up and yanked Meg close, his nose 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.
Earlier that day
“We’ll send someone out. Hold the line. I’ll be right back.”
Shannon put a hand over the phone and yelled across the room: “Danny, we’ve got a 911, farmer says he sliced up a man in his hay field. Can you go take a look? He says there’s a lot of blood. Probably just a deer.”
At his desk by the window, Officer Danny Ross watched a black pickup truck pull into the gas station next door. Florida plates. Expired tags. A little far from home. Unfortunately, he’d have to let it slide. This time. He watched the driver hop out and start to pump premium gas. Fool didn’t know it was his lucky day.
Captain Green called out from his desk at the back of the room by the wall. “Danny! No sirens. Don’t wanna spook the damn cows. Last month, some rookie cop over to Yates blasted his siren across county chasing some fool ass kids. Cows barely made a gallon of milk for a week.”
Danny turned away from the window, his 6”1’ frame dressed in a spotless uniform. He reached to the ceiling to stretch. Anything was better than sitting at the desk all day. Even chasing down a dead deer.
Shannon looked at her notebook.
“County Road 19 and Amity. Borders state land.” She looked at the map on the wall. “Near where a bear charged that hunter during duck hunting season.” She went back to the call to explain that help was on the way.
“Roger that.” Officer Ross grabbed his keys. He was glad to get out of the station. Tonight, it would liven up, the weekend bar fights were good, especially in the summer when the weather was fine and people wanted out of the house, for diversions of any sort. Pool, music and of course drinking. It brought out the best in people.
But the day shift. 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 summer sun. Danny blasted the AC, turned on some music, and listened to the police radio as he drove. Nothing exciting happening nearby. Sometimes local kids got crazy in summer with fireworks, guns or booze, or some combination thereof.
But not today.
On the police radio, there was some chatter about the escaped convicts several counties to the northeast. Sounded like they had crossed over to Canada. It had been two weeks. Only fools would still be in the US.
Then another 911 call came in. A domestic disturbance. Danny was glad he was already out on a call.
He’d been reading about those two convicts online. A couple folks in Toronto had seen the two men out celebrating their hard won freedom one night. 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.
The music on the car radio had stopped and a news update came on. More on those convicts. His ears perked up. He turned up the volume. A press conference under way, the FBI agent leading the search.
“As we’ve detailed in our briefings, these past weeks, our search has been extensive and comprehensive. We have covered the county. 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. Unfortunately, it had been unsuccessful. Given the low probability of the men being in this area, we are calling off the search. I want to applaud the men and women of New York State Police, the local support and the FBI team who have conducted this effort tirelessly. I’d also like to thank the public, so helpful with information and ideas.”
Danny thought he caught a whiff of sarcasm in that last comment. He kept listening.
“Ultimately, none of the 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 pics 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 ride from town, Danny turned down the dirt road and spotted the Banks’ farmhouse at the base of the hill. The barn next to the house and the fields extending up. He saw the equipment, the tractor and the mower.
The smell of bacon and eggs 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 was part Great Dane.
As Judy Banks led the way into a bright kitchen, her husband was shoving one last of toast into his mouth. He stood, dusting breadcrumbs off his 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 struck in a rut.”
That’d be fine.”
Banks led the way outside, Ross on his heels. The dog had 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,” he 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, past the house and down the opposite hill entering the field from the far side.
As Banks turned into the high grass, a frog, surprised by the motor, hopped off a 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 filed before slicing up the deer. His shoes picked up dust as he stepped his way through.
“You’ll want to do a tick check later,” Banks called out, as Ross reached the bandana.
Ross nodded, not really hearing anything, not even the wind rustling the grasses or tossing through the branches of the nearby pine trees.
It was a man, that was clear, but there was something else. He was dressed in prison garb.
Ross’ own face went white. He turned around and yelled back to Banks.
“This man is an escaped convict. There’s been a manhunt for him for the past two weeks.”
Banks nodded. “I’ve seen that on the TV.” He scratched his head and looked at the horizon. “In for murder they said.”
“Yes, that’s right. This is one of them. I need to call this in. The state police are gonna want to know.”
Ross took a couple shots from his phone. It wasn’t pretty, he thought. As he walked back to Banks’ truck, he stifled a grin. This wasn’t going to be such a slow Saturday after all.
The man stared at Meg, his eyes crazy with…something, Meg didn’t know what. Panic? Grief? Hunger?
She didn’t know what he was talking about. His brother? She sure didn’t recognize him from town. They’d met a bunch of folks these past several summers down at the Inn. Everyone went there for dinner. It was small town, you got to know faces,
He was only inches away from hers. His face, Meg saw, was smudged and dirty, with greying stubble growing at crazy angles from his chin.
“No. I’ve been by the tree all day.” She gestured out to the filed where’d she’d been hidden for most of the day, as if that might help.
He stared at her, for a moment his eyes hard and unbelieving. Then something shifted in him, gave way, and he studied her more closely, as if he had snapped out of sleep mode and now, fully conscious and awake, could grasp that of course this young wisp of a thing could do no harm.
In the dim light, she felt self-conscious as the subject of his gaze. Dressed in her grubby t-shirt and jean shorts, with her newly short hair, she felt exposed, in a weird uncomfortable way that made her stomach flip-flop a little. She could feel the air on the back of her neck, as the cooler night air seeped in through the cracks.
Not knowing what else to do, she returned his gaze.
A word came to mind as Meg stared back at him. It made no sense and she dismissed it at first, but it popped up again, like a bouncing ball. Meg tried again to ignore it, but couldn’t. She rationalized it. He was so thin. She could see the bones of his ribs through his shirt. Could see his clavicle outline clearly, the sharp edges. She’d seen pictures of skinny people before, when they’d studied war at school. So skinny, their bones stuck out, stretching the skin to its limits.
He was skinny like that. A skeleton.
“Are you a Scare-It?” she asked.
The man shook his head, to clear it. He held her wrist loosely, as you might hold a child you don’t want to lose in a crowd.
He’d been sleeping hard. They’d been on the run for two weeks, clear across the state. He’d wanted to head north but his brother said no, the border would be a problem. Ohio, then southwest.
They’d listened to the news. It played loud on cars driving by, teenagers and single middle-aged men soothed by the volume. At truck stops and gas stations where they blended in with the other misfits. Knew they’d thrown off the dogs.
They had relaxed.
The jumpsuits were helpful. They’d spot a work gang on the highway median, clearing trash, and head a mile 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 ten-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, ten-point deer antler. From the looks of it, it had value. It was in excellent condition, not yet gnawed on by small creatures hungry for the minerals.
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, just beyond her toes. Surprise registered, then pain, as the injury was transmitted along nerves, sending a searing heat up her right leg. There was no blood. Not yet.
The scream started deep inside her, as if it had been building for years, like a wave traveling thousands of miles to crest on a distant and unknown shore. As it worked its way out, as a reaction to the pain, the scream was halted, interrupted when the man grabbed Meg and cupped a hand over her mouth. He dragged her to him on the hay bale.
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 not 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 see it. 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.
What Meg was feeling on her limbs was a thickening 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 growth 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 thought about the blackberries she had meant to eat.
The man noticed the girl had stopped fighting him. 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.
“What’s wrong with you?” he hissed again, leaning in to see her in the near darkness.
Having completed a growth cycle, the cartilage shifted to bone. In the silence of the hayloft, you could practically 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 creature with no eyes or mouth, only thick bones that shifted over each other with a disquieting creak, as it reached for the man.
Meg’s arms, or what had been Meg’s hands, had grown several sharp antler tines that protruded from the central bone at sharp angles. The being reached out to the man, catching him in the tines and lifting him up. It threw him across the hayloft, hit the wooden wall with a crash and landed on a pile of loose hay. He lay still.
The Scare-It, the first word it had heard, leapt down the stairs to the ground floor of the barn and shuffled out of the sliding door, terrifying the barn cats waiting in the high grass.
In the night, it lifted a blank face to the darkening sky, sifting the air. The farmhouse next to the barn was dark and silent.
A cool wind came from the southeast, down the hill, carrying the smell of fire, burnt steak and s’mores.
And the sound of laughter.
The Scare-It followed the smell of flesh up the shortcut by the field, retracing Meg’s earlier steps from this morning. In the distance coyotes howled. One coyote picked up a whiff of an unknown creature. It barked a warning.
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, a ten-point buck stepped into the field 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.
It stood, guts hanging from its tines, and continued up the hill.
The smell of fire had diminished and the laughter had ceased.
The Scare-It hurried.
It had been so long.
It had been so long.