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.
Cover Art © 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 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 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 and started a new row.
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
Metal against flesh.
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.
Pain. Whatever his mower had run over, it was screaming in pain. Banks heard the scream, a high-pitched wail of surprise and pain. The creature caught unawares by his unforgiving blades.
Banks had never heard such a wail. It flowed, the pitch higher and high, into the silence, the noise swallowed by open sky.
Stepping down from his seat, placing his foot on the wheel as he hopped down, Banks landed in the uncut hay. He walked slowly through the hay that reached halfway 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 a weaker sound, less a complaint and more an acceptance, like air let out of a tire.
Banks’ stomach turned.
The sound ended in a whimper. Banks stopped for a heartbeat. Then another. He forced himself forward, remembering that a farmer was of the seasons, 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 here.
Mr. Banks stood, his hand resting on the blades, still warm from the morning’s cutting. Banks took a few slow breaths as he stared at the ground.
Then he looked ahead. There, in the cut hay, just beyond where Banks had lifted 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, Mr. Banks looked away, his chest heaving. He could feel the heat congeal in his stomach and the acid burst up his esophogus. 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 up, he wiped his mouth on his shirt and peered east, to the field’s edge lined with tall pine trees. Did he see movement in those shadows? Or was it just the nausea?
Above the tree line, 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 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 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 landed, heavily wooded forest where the 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, 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, which had consisted of a few cookies she’d had in her pocket from yesterday, 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 from the house to the Flints 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, Mrs. Flint 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. Meg had moved out to the sun porch, which was fine with her- it had windows on three sides, a comfy sofa bed, and a TV, which mom had said she could watch whenever she wanted, if she kept the volume low. Meg thought she’d enjoy it, since she could watch the moon rise over the trees and listen to the bug sounds, so loud this far out in the country, as she fell sleep.
But last night, she had hated seeing her brothers’ expressions as they closed the door to her old bedroom, watching her as they closed the door slowly, until she heard the click of the lock. So smug.
She almost didn’t feel guilty for wishing that the twins had stayed at camp all summer. She had loved the cabin without her brothers crashing around in it, destroying or shooting everything in sight. The days were peaceful, sunnier in the silence.
Mom had insisted that the boys return for the last two weeks of summer vacation before school began.
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 snide laughter.
Still dazed at her discovery and only half awake, Meg had heard feet shuffling and poorly 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 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. 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 along and turn into the road at the bottom where the runoff never fully dried and mosquitoes 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, on different tractors.
A breeze rippled across the field. Tall stalks brushed together, hissing in protest.
Meg’s ears perked up. Over the wind, she heard a distant 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. 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.
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 in the barn’s shadow near the wide sliding door. The red paint peeled in some places. Meg knew the barn was completely off-limits to the kids, forbidden to Meg and her brothers by Mom, under penalty of being grounded for life or worse.
But Meg was certain that Mr. Banks wouldn’t mind. That mattered more. He and Mrs. Banks invited them all to dinner at least once a week. He never minded when they got silly 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 and her brothers gallivanting down the road and get it.
Sitting by the barn, 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 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 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.” Pebbles hit the barn door.
“Who cares. Let’s go find that head.”
“Whatever. Come on.”
Meg heard 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 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 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. Had a neck tattoo that had been plastered all over the TV for the past two weeks of a
Ross’ 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 about that on the TV news.” He scratched his head and looked at the horizon. He needed to get milking the cows. “In for murder they said.”
“That’s right. This is one of them. I need to call this in. The state police will want to hear about this…Probably the FBI too.”
Ross took a couple shots of the deceased from his cell phone. It wasn’t pretty, he thought. But it was better than a desk.
As Ross walked back to the truck, he stifled a grin.
This wouldn’t be a slow Saturday after all.
The man stared at Meg, his eyes crazy with something Meg couldn’t place, had never seen before. She didn’t know what it was. Panic? Grief? Hunger?
She also didn’t know what he was talking about. His brother? She sure didn’t recognize this man from town. They’d met a bunch of folks these past several summers down at the Inn where the family went for lunch or dinner a couple times a week. Everyone in town went to the Inn, whether for a meal or a drink or just to say hello to friends or to play some pool.
This was a small town. You got to know faces. Meg was sure she had never seen this man before.
He was only inches away from her. His face was smudged and dirty, with greying stubble growing at crazy angles from his chin.
“No. I’ve been out by the tree all day.” She gestured in the direction of where she’d been hiding for most of the day, as if that might calm him down. “In the field across the street.”
He stared at her, his face hard and unbelieving. His eyes reflected no light. Then something in him shifted, 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 cool night seeped in through the cracks.
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 stuck out from the skin, stretching it to its limits.
He was skinny like that. Like 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 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.
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.
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 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 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 better see her in the darkness.
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 sharp antler tines that protruded from the bone at sharp angles. The being reached out to the man, catching him in the thick, still growing tines and lifting him up easily, as if he was no more than chaff. It threw him across the hayloft, where he hit the wooden wall with a crash. His limp body landed on a pile of hay. He lay still.
The Scare-It 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 caught a whiff of an unknown creature. 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.
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 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’s view was that the remaining escapee Kyle Cort was the more wanted of the two and likely the mastermind of the jailbreak. Violent crime. Murder. Life-long criminal. No one who had ever met him was surprised.
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 blazes 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.
Down the hill at the yellow tape roadblock, the 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 gabbed to pass the time, glancing occasionally down the hill, which was lit up by a spotlight shining behind the vehicle.
“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 brown hair that had again escaped her pony tail. “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.
Jamie, ever the skeptic, said, “At 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,” 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 shadow. Tina laughed, grateful for the teasing. 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 white throat 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 tines pierced his torso.
Making its way up the dirt road from the barn, the Scare-It had slowed when it heard voices, scuttled off the road into the woods, stepping softly on the pine needles lining the forest floor. It had added bulk to the bone. Antlers had sprouted from the bone covering its head.
It approached the lone agent standing in the shadow. It seemed to listen. When the Agent turned its face into the night, the Scare-It leapt forward at him, piercing his back and stomach with the tines lining its arms. It held the man until he was silent.
Its blank face was deep in shadow as it pulled tines out of the Agent, who fell to the ground. It watched as the other man and the woman ran up the hill.
The Scare-It sliced through the police tape.
The woman and man called ahead on the radio as they ran away.
Something was coming. It was not the escaped convict, considered armed and dangerous.
It was much, much worse.
Mrs. 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.”
“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,” he asked. It was after 10. Mr. Flint glanced out the window above Sarah. The sky was full dark, though last light shone along the horizon’s edge, outlining the edge of a dark day. It was August. Every day would only be darker than the last.
The boys were asleep in their room, exhausted from wandering up and down the dirt road all day. They had found neither the head nor the hands of the dead man, since the FBI arrived shortly after the boys hatched the plan and had cordoned off the field and the road. When the boys tried to sneak into the boys, the Agents had told the boys to go home. Justin and Jason had done so reluctantly, turning around to stare back at the yellow tape that flickered in the wind invitingly.
Mr. Flint tried again. Perhaps she had not heard him. He couldn’t see her face, if her eyes were open or closed. He couldn’t see that she was crying.
“Babe, are you coming to bed?”
Mrs. Flint’s back was to her husband. She had curled up on the old futon in the family room. Had squeezed her body into as small a space a 125 lb. person could occupy on the futon.
She felt like she might break apart. When she answered, her words were short and tight.
“I heard you. No, I am not coming to bed. I am 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 inhale after these words.
No, she would not be going to bed tonight. Not until she found her daughter. Maybe not ever.
“I’m sure she’s fine. She’s twelve. She’s almost a teenager. Kids grow up faster these days. She’s asserting herself. Every kid runs away once in his life. I did. She’s up in a tree or something. Just blowing off some steam.”
Mrs. Flint willed her husband to Shut-Up. Shut-up. Shut-up. Shut-up. She found herself doing this more often these days. She wondered if it was a sign that she was growing less patient as she got older. 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.
But she could feel the crazy in her cells, as if was part of the saline solution in which floated her DNA, her chromosomes she share with her daughter.
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.
But this, this absence of Meg – it had only been a few hours – this was a new level of crazy she felt.
Crazy with defense. With self-sacrifice.
She knew. She knew 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 office, magazines with the perfume fold ripped open and the scent rubbed away by someone needy for free things or consumed with a love for Eternity or another second-rate magazine perfume.
Yes, Sarah had read those proclamations. Mothers who stated that their own life began with the birth of their children.
Sarah had always thought, Get a life. Every time she’d 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, sh 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 ask the stars, where is my girl? She knew the stars would not answer back with stupid postulations on this or that, with no evidence to base anything 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.
Behind her, she heard him shrug and give up. The lift and drop of his broad shoulders, the small frown on his face, which was beginning to carry the 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 was a quitter, she thought. 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?
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 in the hayloft, thin moonlight filtering in through the barn boards. Outside, myriad insects hummed octaves below the high pitched chirping of frogs.
Kyle tried to sit up, but 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.
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. A 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 might before a rainstorm.
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 chopped 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 was remembering that he’d had the strangest dream. That’s what you get after four days of no sleep, stressed out, on the run, eating berries and probably one too many No-Doz or whatever those pills were his brother had given him to keep them both awake. He pushed the sadness of his brother’s death aside, he simply could not think about it. His brother would want him to fight on, to stay free.
He’d catch up on sleep soon enough.
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 long road trip, the station wagon always slowing down and turning 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. Was it. She wasn’t in pain. Not exactly. No. Perhaps that was earlier. Yes, that’s right. That was years ago now, she thought.
Or was it? This underwater, submerged feeling was so familiar. She was so deeply rooted in the darkness, was so cool and comfortable, she felt she’d never want to leave. Yet, something demanded attention.
Yes, this was different. Similar, perhaps, she decided. But time had passed. A great deal of time. Or a moment. She wasn’t sure.
She could remember, 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, scaped 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 under water, but something was present.
A smell. She could smell. She didn’t remember smelling anything last time. She had no memory of smell. But now, she could smell something distinctly. What was it?
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 cradled on a ship at sea.
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.