The bottom feeders and other stories
by Aaron Polson
1: Everything in its Place
The mail boxes were labeled wrong. That was the first hint that Lucey should have canceled her reservation at El Hotel de la Trampa. She wasn’t too fond of other aspects of the lobby, either: cheap candy in gaudy foil wrappers sat in a glass fish bowl on the counter, the strange man on the sofa who kept looking at her…
“Can I help you?”
Lucey’s attention shifted to the clerk.
“Oh. Sorry…I was,” Lucey forced a smiled, “I need to check in.”
The man opened the guest book and pushed a pen across the counter. “Reservation?”
“Yes. Harrison. Lucey Harrison.”
He turned to the mailboxes, but looked over his shoulder. “What is it you do, Señora?”
“Oh…I’m not married. Why do you…” Lucey’s eyebrows knit together. “Well, I work with books.”
The clerk’s brown eyes burned into hers. “A teacher?” His hand slid into one of the boxes, fishing for the key.
“No. A librarian. Only an assistant, really.”
His hand stopped, crept out of the box, and plunged into another labeled with a ‘G’. “Si.” He moved to the counter and dropped a heavy brass-colored key. “Your room. Second floor.” With a nod to her bags, he asked, “Would you like some help?”
Lucey took the key and shook her head. Her peripheral vision caught the face of the man on the lobby sofa. Was he watching her?
“No, I’m fine. Second floor?”
The clerk smiled, showing a mouth of teeth mismatched and yellow.
Maybe next time I won’t travel on the cheap, she thought.
Lucey avoided the elevator and took the stairs. As she opened the door to the second floor hallway, a shadow moved at the end of the hall, perhaps someone entering their room. Goosebumps crawled up her arms. She read the key, simply labeled G, and felt the grooves of the embossed letter.
The first door on the right was labeled ‘H’; on the left she found the letter ‘A’. She walked further, dragging her suitcase across the worn carpet. Room designations descended on the left in alphabetically order, but ‘G’ came directly after ‘E’. Lucey felt the blood in her face.
“Disorder and chaos. Not very helpful at all,” she mumbled.
Her key slid into the lock, but would not open the door.
“Wait a second…”
The door was clearly labeled with a ‘G’ — a brass letter screwed to the center of the door. She touched it, and then tried the key again. Nothing.
Lucey shook her head at the thought of asking the clerk for help. The door was scratched around the brass letter. Maybe a prank, she thought. From the left side of the hall, Lucey counted seven doors. She was at the sixth.
With a soft click, the key slid into the lock of the seventh door. Lucey turned the knob, and pushed inside. The air was cool and clean. She worried about moldy smells or the lingering odor of tobacco after seeing the state of the lobby, but all seemed in order. Good.
Her folding screwdriver set — the miniature kit for repairing eyeglasses — was in the front pouch of her suitcase. Lucey Harrison wanted rest, but she also needed her room letter set right. It wouldn’t do to have some stranger try to enter in the night. Whoever played the prank could not be allowed to let chaos seep in to a logical world.
Worse than the books at work, she thought. She slipped her key in one pocket, and began unscrewing her letter ‘G’. Only three letters were out of place overall, and she fixed them. It was quick work really, as only one screw held each letter in place. Quick work and proper order.
Her job done, Lucey tried her own door — ‘G’ — again. The key would not work. She glanced down the hall and counted again. Seven. The key still would not work.
But my bag is inside, she thought. Lucey Harrison’s stomach began to knot, a prickly, unpleasant feeling.
She hurried down the stairs to the lobby — something I should have done immediately, she self-chastised. The first sign of things gone wrong sat in the fish bowl on the counter. Instead of the brightly wrapped candies, the bowl was now teeming with small snails — too many, really, for such a small container. Her eyes swept the rest of the room, noting the now-alphabetized mail boxes behind the counter, the artificial palm tree where once stood a display of vacation brochures. The old man still sat with his paper, but now the sofa was a deep burgundy.
“May I help you?”
The clerk was wrong, too. He smiled, and his teeth were too white. Perfect. His once-brown eyes had lost all color, and now reflected her startled image in their grey irises. Lucey looked at the key in her hand, but staggered a few steps away.
Lucey jumped as a hand patted her on the shoulder.
“Come with me,” the man with a newspaper said.
The clerk’s grey eyes sent a frost into Lucey’s chest. She allowed the newspaper man to pull her aside, close to the main entrance.
“Is this a joke?” She asked, her voice shaking.
“I wish.” The man smiled; not a warm smile, but one of knowing. “How’d they get you?”
“Can I see your key?” the man asked.
She hesitated, but held it out.
“Oh. Second floor.” He pushed a hand into his pocket and produced his own key. “Me, it was numbers. See.” His hand opened to reveal a silver key with the number five.
Lucey’s hands began to tremble. “I–I don’t understand…where am I?”
“I don’t know, really. But wherever it is you want to be…well, you can’t get there from here.”
Lucey blinked. “I’ll fix things. I’ll change the doors again.” She backed toward the stairs.
“Good luck.” The man crossed his arms. “I’ll be waiting in the lobby.”
2: In Hollow Fields
Rolling fields of golden wheat and green pasture swallowed a silver Honda as it sped along a stretch of snaking asphalt. The driver leaned forward and shrugged his shoulders, trying to stay awake after three hours in the car. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and tightened his grip on the wheel with the other. His passenger, eyes flitting from the asphalt ahead to the side mirror as if measuring the length of road, shifted in her seat.
“How far will we be from a hospital?”
Zach leaned back. “Don’t worry, Court. I think there’s a hospital in Springdale — about fifteen miles away.”
Courtney’s shoulders dropped. She rested both hands on the top of her bulging belly. “I’m just not really comfortable, you know.” She tilted her brown eyes out the window, watching acres of Kansas prairie melt in an amber blur. “I’m seven months along, Zach. Seven months. I don’t really want some redneck doctor delivering our baby.”
“Everything will be fine. If all goes well, we’ll be out of this little shit-hole in a couple of days. A week at most.” He smiled and patted her leg. “This could be it, Court. The goldmine. The old bastard had his fortune wrapped up in the farm. The land has to be worth thousands. Hundreds of thousands.”
The car crested another hill and sped into the valley below. The town of Broughton’s Hollow lay in front of them, a loose arrangement of graying houses and broken streets, a dying carcass of a village, left to fester in remembrance of an era when family farms, railroads, and general stores ruled the American Midwest. No fewer than four church steeples rose from valley.
Courtney shivered. “Well, at least we won’t be short on Jesus.”
Zach offered a meek chuckle, but neither spoke again as Zach steered the Civic through the dilapidated main street and out the other side, toward his grandfather’s farm.
Courtney stayed in the car. Zach promised a brief introduction to the lawyer and real estate agent, and then they’d be off to Springdale for the night. She picked at her fingernails while the three men stood and talked on the lawn in front of the family farm house, discussing, she hoped, the sum Zach could earn from a sale of the land his father left upon his death. Zach Galen was the last of the family line, his own parents dead from cancer and heart disease, and the farm with all its surrounding fields were now his.
Zach glanced over at the car, and Courtney waved with a return smile. He carried himself with ease, an amateur musician trying to make his way in Kansas City. Once they met, introduced by mutual friends after a show in a smoky club, she lost herself to the easy wave in his hair and the thick dimples that pulled back at the edges of his mouth when he smiled. At least he looked like a rock star.
The other two men appeared grey, maybe an effect of the pale sky. Since leaving the city, the world had looked less colorful, but Courtney couldn’t quite understand. The country air was supposed to be cleaner. Fresh air, clean living, right? She turned around and scanned the empty field behind the car. Clean living.
Zach approached the car and tapped on the window. She lowered it.
“I think we’re going to stay here tonight,” he said.
She opened her mouth, paused, and said, “I didn’t think the Hollow had any hotels.”
Zach smiled. “No, Court. We’re going to stay here, at the farm.” Zach glanced behind him. “Mr. Olson, the realtor thinks it would be a good idea, you know. Make it look like I cared about being part of the town.” He knelt so he could look at Courtney face to face. “It’s only one night, babe. Besides, Springdale isn’t much bigger. Just the one motel with twenty rooms.”
She nodded. “Just the one night.”
“C’mon, I want to introduce you.” Zach opened her door and led her from the car.
As far as Courtney was concerned, the men were bad clones of one another. Grant Olson, identified as such by the name badge he wore, emblazoned by the red and gold logo of Valley Realty, was slightly taller than the lawyer. Both were clad in the same sort of tan-grey suit, the color of which changed in shadow or direct sunlight.
“Gentlemen, this is my girlfriend, Courtney Bauman.”
Courtney winced at the mention of her as “girlfriend” although no more formal descriptor existed. She thought the men bristled a bit too, both glancing down at her stomach when Zach said the word. “Hello,” she offered.
“Grant Olson, but you probably already know that.” He tapped his name badge with pale, waxen fingers.
“Please to meet you, Miss Bauman.” The other man reached out his hand, his fingers painted with the same strange translucence as Olson’s. “My name is Joe Weedeman. Mr. Galen’s lawyer.” He blinked. “The deceased Mr. Galen, that is. Zach’s grandfather.”
She took his hand, surprised that it was warm. Both looked like they wore a good layer of frost.
“They were just telling me about the farm, Court.”
Olson stepped closer to Courtney, gently turning her to face the road across from the house. “I was just about to explain the legend of the hollow field,” he said, pointing toward the empty space just beyond the road.
“All I see is a bunch of dirt,” Courtney said.
The two local men exchanged a quick glance. They smiled. “Exactly the point, miss,” Weedeman said. “But it’s hungry dirt.”
“I don’t like those men,” Courtney said as she undressed. “And I hate these damn pregnancy clothes. This stupid elastic.” She snapped the navy band at the top of her jeans.
Zach wrapped his arms around her from behind, rubbing his fingertips over her bulging belly. “I think you look cute, especially out of the jeans.” He pushed against her buttocks.
“All I feel is fat. Fat and tired.”
Disappointed, Zach released her and grabbed his guitar from the case on the floor. “A lullaby, then.” He began at a moderate pace, finger-picking a gentle tune that soon faded into a slow, quiet rhythm.
Courtney crawled into bed and pulled the comforter around her neck. The house was silent save for the slow vibration of guitar strings. Dark too. She wasn’t used to that much darkness. After tonight, he’ll be ready to go, she thought. She tried to think more, but the trip had worn on her, the music rang too sweet, and she slipped into sleep.
She was in the driver’s seat of Zach’s Civic with her foot smashed against the accelerator. The needle on the speedometer had already crested eighty-five, and now flickered at the bottom of the gauge. Her eyes were stone. Her hands stone upon the steering wheel. Her foot was stone too, crushing the gas pedal.
I shouldn’t drive this fast — the baby. She glanced down at her flat stomach. The baby?
A flash, she lurched, found herself lying on her back, facing the stars. Faces surrounded her, grey, leering faces. They smiled, opened their mouths, and rats writhed out, crawling down dark limbs, pouring toward her —
Courtney woke, sweating, under the pinching discomfort of a Braxton-hicks contraction. “Shit,” she muttered. Zach was gone. When the contraction subsided, she slipped from the bed, bristling at the icy air in the farm house. The place reeked of dirt and mud with years of farm work floating in the air.
She found Zach in front of the picture window in the living room.
“It’s so quiet out here,” he said without facing her.
Courtney moved behind him, reached out to touch him with one hand, but drew back at the last moment. “Come back to bed.”
He nodded, a bobbing black silhouette against the blue-black night sky. “In a minute.” He turned to her, his eyes shimmering for a moment, catching the glint of star light. “Why do you think they call it hollow?” His hand rose and pointed to the field across the road.
Zach’s promised one night had become most of a week. Complications with the will, he said. Trying to squeeze the largest sum from the farmland, he said. Desire to know his grandfather’s land before parsing it out, he said. After four consecutive nights of Broughton’s Hollow Diner fare — the leftovers being both breakfast and lunch the next day — Courtney had enough. “I’m going to that little grocery, the one next to the only gas station in this god-forsaken hole,” she told Zach as she left the house.
He shrugged, eyes fixed across the road.
She took the Civic, leaving Zach on the porch with his guitar resting across his lap. He hadn’t played in three days. He hadn’t done much of anything for the last three days except take long walks around the property. Courtney pushed the accelerator into the floor, throwing a cloud of dust in her wake. She eased off as the car began to fishtail. “Careful, careful. Let it go Court,” she muttered to herself.
On the way into town, she passed one of the four churches. It stood like a battered sentinel on the edge of the village. Paint hung in limp strips and the roof over the front stoop sagged slightly. The marquee was empty save for a dangling lower case t and the permanent St. Joseph’s Church inscribed at the top. Courtney smiled as she drove past. Even the churches look dead around here.
The Hollow’s only grocery store was attached to the town’s only working gas station. Another two empty husks stood idle at opposite ends of the town, their abandoned pumps standing at attention like rusty soldiers from a forgotten war. Courtney circled the village twice before mustering the courage to pull into the parking lot at Earl’s Thriftway. Two older men sat on a bench outside the sliding glass door, both with eyes locked on Courtney as she climbed out of the car.
“Afternoon, miss.” One fellow touched the brim of his green John Deere cap.
“Lovely weather,” the other said.
Courtney glanced skyward without thinking. Grey, nondescript clouds blotted out the sky. “Yes,” she said. “Lovely.”
Inside the store, crackling speakers spread easy listening through the aisles. The shelves rested in the same color-sapping haze as the rest of the town; they were well-stocked, but devoid of color, like the cornflake boxes and cans of green beans had faded in the sun. If there was any sun in this godforsaken town, Courtney thought. She pulled a cart from a cluster by the door. It rattled free, wobbling on one gimpy wheel.
The clerk, a scrawny woman poking out of a blue Thriftway smock, smiled. “Don’t bother, miss. They’re all a little broken.” The skin covering her skeletal arms was of the same ashen color as everyone else in town.
“Oh. Yeah, thanks.” Courtney leaned into the cart, forcing the wonky wheels into a straightish line. The store was small, four aisles of the basics with a tiny meat counter and four freezer cabinets. She filled the cart with only the basics, cereal, bread, some bologna. Hoping for fresh vegetables and fruit, she picked only a handful of bruised red delicious apples and a browning head of iceberg lettuce from the meager selection.
“Most folks just drive into Springdale,” the clerk said when Courtney began unloading her cart. “We sell a lot of milk, last minute stuff like that.” Even her eyes were grey. She started punching keys on the register, ringing up each item by hand.
Courtney tried to say something, but her words stuck in her throat. She wanted the food and she wanted out. She wanted out of the town, away from the permanent haze and the grizzled old men out front. She wanted to forget the town existed. Whatever Zach thought would happen, needed to happen, and soon.
“Have you thought about the hollow field?”
“What?” Courtney bristled, caught off guard by the question.
“That’ll be $23.52, miss.”
“Oh, yes.” Courtney fished out the bills, handed them over, and took the change. The cashier’s hand brushed hers, the waxen, translucent skin warm — just like the men at the house.
“You need some help?”
“No — I’m fine. I can manage, thanks.”
After dropping the bags in the trunk, she drove away from the store, slowing as she approached the church. The marquee facing town was blank — not even one dangling letter. “Now that’s really odd,” she muttered.
She had tired of reading and watching TV, and nothing more interesting waited at the farmhouse, so she guided the Honda next to the curb outside the church. The sidewalk cried for help, too, cracked in places with weeds crawling from the dirt beneath. She only took a few tentative steps inside the front door — unlocked of course, as most places surely were in the Hollow. Stairs to her right led down with a second flight to her right going up. The sanctuary looked like the aftermath of a riot: pews scattered, some bits of trash strewn on the floor, and an overturned altar.
She felt a chill, a little thing kissing the back of her neck, and hurried back to the car.
Zach leaned into the table with hands outstretched as if pouring his will into Courtney. For her part, she sat with legs and arms crossed — a physical sign of her psychological reluctance.
“Listen, Court. It’s perfect. The house is mine. The basement is huge, and I can easily fit it for a studio with some of the cash we make in the land deal. This is my break.”
“What about the apartment, Zach?” She unfolded her arms and seized the sides of her belly with both hands. “What about the baby? Our baby?”
“He’ll be born in Springdale, at the hospital.”
And grow up in this shit-hole? She shook her head, slowly at first as though still weighing her opinion. “I don’t know. I’m not ready for this. A week and a half ago — ”
“I hadn’t thought it through then. I have now. I want to make music, Court. I feel a connection to this place.” He patted the table, calling for her hand. “I want you to be here with me.”
Courtney picked at her fingernails. “I don’t know. This town is kind of freaky. Look, Zach…I stopped by one of those churches today, after the groceries. I just had a weird feeling.”
“Lay off the bible-belt references.”
“No, that’s just it.” She straightened in her chair. “The place was mostly empty. Pews knocked over. A real mess. Isn’t that weird?”
Zach shrugged and left the table for a glass of water.
Courtney took the hint. “What about musicians? Where’s your audience out here…the ladies quilting club?”
Zach took a long drink and returned to the table. “Kansas City is only a few hours drive. I can stay with Jerry or Rick on the weekends.”
She dissected him with her eyes, really studied his face. Even under the bright fluorescent light of the farm house kitchen, he looked pale. A little colorless, like them. Glancing at her own hand to be sure, Courtney stood, moved away from the table, and put physical space between her and Zach. “I’m going, Zach. With or without you. I’ll give you until the weekend — if you want to have a future with me, our baby.”
His head dropped. “Don’t do this Court.”
She roused again that night — the house too silent, waiting for something. Zach had been sleeping in a different room the last two nights — too crowded in the double bed, he had said, but she was still startled at finding herself alone. A small silver wash of light crept into the bedroom from the hallway. Courtney followed it, allowed the glow to lead her from the bedroom into the hallway and living room beyond. He was there again, standing sentinel at the big picture window. The near full moon backlit Zach; he was but a blank, black form. He’d changed — grown distant, like something seeped into his blood since they’d arrived at the house.
“Zach? Come to bed, babe.” Courtney approached, reached out with her fingers and touched his arm. Cold. “Zach?”
He turned, spilling his gaze over one shoulder. “That field, Court. The hollow field. Look, it’s swelling.”
She slid next to him, wrapping her hand around his naked forearm. From the picture window, they had a fine view of the field — a darkling plain of black under the white fragmented moon. In the center of their frame, about fifty yards up from the road, the field did swell, a mild slope maybe, but definitely a lump in the earth that wasn’t there a week ago. Courtney brought her free hand to her stomach and caressed her own swelling.
“You should get some sleep.”
Zach’s head bobbed absently.
Courtney crossed the room in front of him, but stopped at the hallway. He had only budged a few feet from where he previously stood. “Zach?” When he turned, Courtney flinched at the silver-grey wash of his skin. Just the moon, she thought.
“It’s beautiful, really, out here. I went to the field, touched some of that dirt this afternoon. I don’t ever want to leave.”
“Today, Mom. I told him I would leave today, after he meets with the realtor. Either he comes with me, or…” Courtney switched the cell phone to her other ear so she could work the fuel pump. “Sorry, I’m filling the car…no Mom, the gas fumes aren’t going to hurt the baby…love you, too. I’ll call when I — we get home.”
She shook the pump before pulling it from the car, a trick she’d learned from Zach to keep drips from the paint. She screwed the cap in place, snapped the fuel door shut, and gave a slight squeal as she looked up. A man, youngish with a smudged, two-day stubble, stood over her.
“Sorry. I could’ve helped you with that.” He pointed at a sign above the pumps that read “Full Service Only”.
“Oh, no problem, really.” She fished into her purse and produced a few bills for the attendant’s waiting hand.
“Thanks.” The man lumbered into the building.
She paced the parking lot while waiting for her change, wincing a little with the effort — her belly had begun to tighten on occasion; the baby would come soon. The sky had cleared, and an icy blue-white now rested above the town. Courtney pulled her jacket collar close about her throat. She felt the weight of the small town, all the eyes, pressing against her. Across the street, a playground sat empty, brightly painted swings and slides next to a brick building the color of dried blood. A school?
Courtney started. “Oh. Sorry.”
“Your change.” The attendant’s pale hand — too pale for a man whose trade involved greasy, oily work, held a few small bills and some coins.
“What is that building, there,” she said while pointing across the street. “It looks like a school.” She fumbled the change, dropped a quarter, and stooped to pick it up.
“The children are in the hollow fields.”
Courtney stood and handed a dollar to the attendant. “What?”
“I said the school is closed. The children are bused into Springdale.” He shoved his tip into a pocket in his blue coveralls and nodded. “Thanks ma’am.”
The hollow field whispered to Courtney as she guided Zach’s car into the driveway. It was a brief thing, like a soft breeze across her face or the brush of someone walking past, but the call sent a braid of terror writhing up her back — a hollow terror, a pervasive emptiness. She glanced at the house to verify Zach wasn’t home yet and walked slowly toward the road and the scabby earth of the hollow field beyond. The handle of a shovel could be seen poking from the mound in the center.
The fence separating the field from the road was old, loosely fitted barbed wire stretched between rotten posts of wood. Courtney hoisted one foot onto the top wire, careful to maintain her balance, and pressed down. It gave with a dull sproing, and she was able to step over the remaining wires.
The dirt gave beneath her feet, much softer than she’d expected. In her memory, Courtney saw Zach standing in front of the picture window, gazing out at the rise in the field. She worked through the loose soil, stumbling with one arm out for balance the other holding her belly. Waves of pain radiated, contractions, she knew, she should be back at the house, calling the hospital, someone, but she continued to stagger to the middle of the field.
When she made the mound, Courtney dropped to the dirt, scooped a handful, and let the small crumbles and clods trickle through her fingers. It was damp, not wet, but damp, and tickled as it fell to the ground. A pungent earthiness, a wholesome smell — not decay or rot, but a rich, dark odor surrounded her. She looked up and noticed a hole, a pit in the earth that had been freshly dug.
“It’s good soil, Court. Good land.”
She tossed the remaining dirt into the hole, and turned. Zach was walking toward her. “Zach?” Her abdomen tightened.
“It’s hungry land.” Zach held out his hand, helping Courtney to her feet. She doubled again, grimacing with another sharp stab of pain. “I’m staying here, Court. In Broughton’s Hollow. Mr. Olson and Mr. Weedeman helped me understand.” He smiled. “I want to be with you…I want you to stay, too.”
At the next wave of pain, Courtney staggered backward and bumped into the shovel. “Zach…”
“Grandpa didn’t understand, Courtney. He died here.”
Courtney’s hands wrapped around the shovel handle behind her back. “Everybody dies, Zach,” she sobbed, “everybody.”
“We don’t have to, not in the Hollow. All the land asks for is a little something in return…and we can stay here, forever. They explained it to me. The baby, Court. We give our baby to the land, a little sacrifice from both of us, and we live forever. You and me.” One hand extended to her; the other held a knife.
With a sudden gasp of air, she yanked the shovel from the ground, swinging in a wide, awkward arc. The blade caught Zach in the ribcage. He lurched forward with a dull groan, and one foot twisted into the small grave.
She ran, both hands squeezing against her swollen belly, eyes pressed tight as another contraction threatened to throw her to the ground. At the fence, she leaned against a post for a moment, catching her breath. With a glance over her shoulder, she saw him, staggering from the center of the field, clutching his side.
Weedeman and Olson were at the front door, but Courtney ignored them, hopping into the driver’s seat of the Honda. The car started with a groan and sputter. She reversed quickly and sped from the house, the tires throwing clouds of gravel and dust in her wake. Zach tumbled over the fence as the car crested the first hill.
Through town, out the other side, and safety, she thought. She pushed down on the accelerator, but the car responded with a shuddering groan. Something is wrong.
“No, no, no.” Courtney’s hands crushed the steering wheel. The fuel gauge showed full. The steering wheel wobbled back and forth. The knife in Zach’s hand. The tires. She began to coast at the city limit of Broughton’s Hollow.
Cringing with another contraction, Courtney guided the wounded car to the curb and looked in the rearview mirror. A set of headlights began to descend into the town. “No…” She held her breath against the pain and staggered from the car toward the abandoned church. Twenty more yards…ten more yards…the contraction slowed.
The inside of the church was dim with dusty beams of yellow light cutting across the disheveled sanctuary. She stumbled down the stairs into the basement, searching for a dark corner, some place to hide, to wait at least until Zach passed. Would he bring Weedeman and Olson? She pushed her back against a wall, hidden from the front steps behind an open door.
Moments passed. Her heart collided against her ribs. She rubbed both legs, sore with running and the contractions. The front door of the church clicked shut.
“Courtneeeey?” Zach called from above, his voice muted and indistinct.
Another contraction hit, waves of pain swallowing her abdomen. Courtney pressed even harder against the wall, holding her breath.
“There’s nowhere to go. I poked a nice gash in all four tires.” Zach’s steps thundered across the sanctuary above, a line of moaning wood following in his wake. With each uneven footfall, a sprinkle of dust trickled from the basement ceiling. Her eyes followed the trail of dust showers across the basement. He was limping.
“You got me good. I’m bleeding, babe. Probably cracked a rib.” The footfalls stopped. “Downstairs?”
The contraction lessened. She exhaled. He was at the back of the church. Downstairs? A second set of stairs? She glanced behind her, across the near black basement hall. Two dark doorways stood open. A second set of stairs.
Before she could think her feet carried her up the stairway to the front landing. She peered into the empty sanctuary. She looked outside. How far could she go on foot with the contractions?
“Courtneeeey.” His voice rose from the basement.
The choir loft. She scurried up the second flight of stairs. The old wood groaned and protested under her weight. In the loft she found two overturned pews, a broken bench, and remnants of a pipe organ. She needed a weapon, anything. The bench was too heavy. She grasped one of the remaining pipes — it was firmly set.
His steps thudded against the entryway below.
Courtney pressed behind the open door. As she did, her eyes found something she could use as a club leaning against the back of one pew: an old crucifix, the cross snapped with one arm missing. It was at least two feet long.
“Courtneeeey. C’mon…we can have other babies.” He was halfway up the stairs. “This one will feed the earth…we can be together…”
On cue, another contraction captured all her strength. She pressed a hand into her mouth and bit down, drawing blood — a warm, metallic taste in her mouth.
He stepped out of the stairwell with his face turned away from the door. The side of his shirt was dark and heavy with blood. He favored his right foot — a sprained ankle — as he moved to the front of the loft.
“Where are you?” he growled, surveying the sanctuary from above.
The contraction evaporated. Courtney swallowed her breath and summoned all her remaining strength. She crept a few steps from her hiding place, snatched the crucifix, held it aloft like a bat, and rushed toward Zach before he could turn around. His head cocked slightly, but jerked downward as the wooden artifact splintered across the back of his skull. With a howl of pain, he lurched forward, nearly tumbling from the railing. The knife fell from his hand and clattered to the floor below. Blinded with the ache in her womb and sheer terror of the moment, Courtney charged again with the remnants of her weapon, using it as a lance. The wood caught him in the small of the back, and he toppled over, landing in the sanctuary below with a wet thud.
She tossed the broken crucifix to the floor and caught herself on the railing. Another contraction rose from her belly. They were coming quicker now. She peeked over the edge at Zach’s body, broken against the scattered pews, arms splayed at awkward angles. She swallowed her breath and slid to the floor with her back pressed against the railing.
Footfalls sounded from the stairs. Her eyes flickered as Weedeman and Olson pressed close to her. The last thing she heard was Olson’s voice as he said, “my god, the baby. We have to get her to a hospital.”
When Courtney opened her eyes again, she was alone in a hospital bed. She shivered her body suddenly cold. The room was quiet, dim, the shade of twilight lying across everything like a thin shroud. Her stomach was dead — she touched the bulge in her belly, but the baby was gone. Gone. With trembling effort, she rolled off the side of the mattress and staggered toward the door.
“Honey, you should be in bed.” A plump nurse caught Courtney’s arms.
Courtney studied the woman’s hands — pink and healthy looking. She was safe. “My baby?”
“Yes…I suppose a little visit wouldn’t hurt.” The nurse smiled. “We have him in the nursery — while you were out, we were keeping an eye on him. The doctor was a little worried about his color…”
“Color?” Courtney shook.
“Just a little pale, but he’s fine.” The nurse helped Courtney to her bed and returned with a wheeled basinet. She lifted the swaddled infant into Courtney’s arms. “Here you are sweetie. I’ll check on you in a minute.” She stopped at the door. “Oh, and you have a visitor.”
Courtney nodded without thinking. He was hers, she knew. But the skin — his skin was grey, almost translucent — like all of them, the cursed in Broughton’s Hollow. Her arms shook. “No…no…no…”
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
Courtney bristled at the voice. Mr. Weedeman stood in the doorway, looking even more ashen than usual in the artificial light.
“He belongs to us. We buried his father in the hollow field.”
“No,” Courtney began to sob.
“Zach’s blood made a pact with the land. A little sacrifice. The baby belongs to us. The baby will stay with us.”
3: Tesoro’s Magic Bullet
Tesoro comes home with a bullet on a chain around his neck. Not just any bullet, but the bullet, the one that the doctors pried from his ribcage, the one that should have killed him, only it didn’t. It didn’t even look like a bullet anymore. Now, it is a lump of lead, a misshapen mass of grey metal in a small bag dangling above the Marine Corps tattoo on his chest.
“It’s a magic bullet,” he tells his little brother the first night. As he does, his breath reeks of stale blood like the stains on their father’s work clothes after a shift at the meatpacking plant. Saul turns away.
Despite the smell, the ashen hue in Tesoro’s cheek, they are brothers. Saul basks in Tesoro’s machismo and wants to be a Marine one day.
On the mornings after Tesoro’s late nights, Saul sleeps late and skips school. In Garden City, a place of pork and beef processors surrounded by Kansas plains, no one notices, no one wonders about another Latino kid missing school. The teachers lose count of their shifting student body, and Saul becomes less than a number. He sleeps late those mornings. He sleeps easier because the sun is up, warming his bed through the open window. Bad dreams hide during the daylight, so Saul sleeps a black sleep with no dreams.
It happened like this:
Tesoro was on foot patrol in Baghdad. A car exploded, bright flames pushing the sky. The other Marines tensed, took cover. Tesoro didn’t move, watching a woman stream from the flames with a tail of smoke. She screamed louder than the bellow of the burning wreck, and the sound solidified his flesh just long enough. Too long. When the bullet broke through his chest, tearing cloth and skin and bone, his ears lost everything: the screaming woman, his sergeant’s barking voice, the fire, and the crunch of his body on the rocky dust. His ears lost everything except the snap of that bullet, the sound coming after it cut into his body.
A moment later, return fire from the Marines sounded distant, like firecrackers under metal cans. The blue sky lay across his dying eyes like a shroud.
In the evenings, after all but Tesoro dine together at the table, their father listens to an AM radio station that broadcasts the news in Spanish. He sits in his chair, worn and tired; lines like wrinkled leather punctuate his face. His finger taps against his lips as he listens.
The radio announcer reads the police reports, and sometimes their father mutters, “Dios mio.” His head hangs as he listens to the report of another body, a dead Latino teen found in a ditch outside of town. The Spanish station alone reports the missing. The only pattern to the tragedy is that the victims have been the children of undocumented workers — killed by a bullet in their brainpans. But the bodies were mauled after death, mangled and partially eaten. He listens and tries not to think of the layer of dust on Tesoro’s truck. He tries not to think of his son’s late nights. He fights against the horrible visions of those victims — bodies that must share a raw, red color with the beef carcasses hanging in the plant cooler.
In the kitchen, their mother scrubs the sink, pushing hard with the wire brush to blot the sound of the announcer’s voice while Saul sits at the little table and ignores his homework. The kitchen stings of bleach before she is through. Tesoro’s truck rumbles in the yard — the ’62 Ford that he promises to paint one day and their father once joked was dead and resurrected. The joke died when Tesoro came back with the bullet around his neck. The truck still wears patches of rust like bullet wounds.
Saul knows when he hears the truck’s growl fade. He knows it will be a late night for his brother and an early morning for him. He closes that math book, knowing he will sleep in the morning sunlight and his teachers will overlook his absence. In his mind he counts the bullets in his father’s gun.
When his mother cries, Saul says, “It’s alright, Mama. He’s still our Tesoro.”
On some evenings, rare evenings, Tesoro joins the family and tells stories while his father drinks cold cerveza. He tells the story of the old woman in a black berka, the woman whose wrinkled fingers looked like wet tissue paper on a piñata. Unreal fingers. Fake fingers. Tesoro talks about the talisman, the blessed scroll of paper he bought and carried in his shirt pocket, a superstitious custom to bring him home alive.
Old magic, she said in her tongue. Dark magic.
The other Marines laughed. Tesoro smiled and laughed, too.
That afternoon, a car exploded in a small, Baghdad market.
That afternoon, Tesoro didn’t die.
Sometimes, in Saul’s nightmares, Tesoro’s eyes shine with a yellowish light, an amber light. He pulls his shirt open, and then pushes fingers into the scar where the bullet broke his skin. His fingers pull back, and the blood pours out like oil, thick and dark. Tesoro smiles, and says, “Magia.”
Sometimes, Saul wakes with a cold sheen of sweat and listens to the songs of frogs and crickets floating on the night air. He waits for the sound of his brother’s truck, but it doesn’t come. He sees the faces of the children from school in ditches outside of town, dead faces with open eyes, staring at him. He knows it is a nightmare when the dead reach out, clutching with gnarled fingers, accusing with their blank stares. His father’s old handgun hides under his pillow, an uncomfortable lump, but Saul keeps it close.
But Tesoro is his brother. The dead are strangers.
A night comes when the rumble of Tesoro’s truck takes away the dream. Saul wakes, creeps down the hallway, and listens at his parents’ door. Nothing. Another sound, a door clicking shut in the unfinished basement. Tesoro’s room is down there. Saul checks the locks on the door and glances out the window. The rusty Ford is in the lawn next to the drive.
His mouth goes dry. Tesoro is his brother. His flesh and blood. When he pulls the gun from under his pillow it is heavy and cold. A shudder crosses his body.
Saul starts on the steps, and a little creaking noise calls out with each. Halfway down, he stops breathing and waits for a moment. A light glows from under Tesoro’s door. Like a moth, Saul is drawn to it, likely to burn up in the flame. His hand rests on the knob, the other clutches the pistol grip. The smell of stale blood is back, worse now. Amplified.
“Saul?” Tesoro asks through the door, his voice cold like a block of granite.
Inside, Saul finds what is left of Tesoro on his bed. His shirt is off, bunched in a pile on the floor. Both hands rest on his knees. When Tesoro looks up, his face is streaked with blood. His teeth are dark and discolored, his mouth blotted. Tesoro’s face wears neither a smile nor frown — a blank expression with black eyes.
“You brought a gun?”
Saul looks at the pistol, his hand shaking. “Papa’s.”
Tesoro’s lips curl slightly at the corners and one hand stretches toward his brother, palm open. “They will come for me, sooner or later. They will need more than guns.” The other hand touches the lump of lead dangling from his neck.
For a moment, neither speaks.
In that moment, Saul understands; in that moment, he kneels to the old magic in his brother’s eyes. What crawls Saul’s spine is damp and black and dead. His eyes close and fingers uncurl. The gun drops into Tesoro’s open hand.
He smiles, showing the full horror of his tainted mouth.
Saul steps forward and touches his brother’s shoulder. The flesh ticks like a horse’s flank chasing a fly. The skin is cold and almost grey. “We can take your truck.”
“Si,” Tesoro replies. “Mi hermano.”
Saul hesitates, breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell. He looks at his fingers, imagines the skin peeling away from scrubbing. Blood makes a stubborn stain. “First the bleach. I will clean your clothes… the truck, and then we go.” He stoops, gathers Tesoro’s shirt, and leaves the room without another glance at his brother.
4: A Plague from the Mud
Oregon has always known plenty of rain, but that particular summer was unusually wet. Those relentless rains drenched Monument — a small scattering of houses swallowed by pine trees in the John Day River Valley. It was a tiny town with a population hovering around 150. They were loggers, mostly, or other folks that enjoyed the solitude and security supplied by miles of quiet evergreens. So small and nestled neatly into the valley, Monument could just vanish, and most folks wouldn’t notice.
One damp morning I sat in a small booth at Pine Peaks Café, reading my newspaper, poking at the soggy remnants of a short stack of pancakes, and trying to ignore a black beetle scurrying across the restaurant’s “sparkling” floors. Over at the counter, Randy Crouse, a bearded bear of a man who ran a small logging outfit that usually did piecemeal work on contract, sat sipping a cup of coffee. He perched on his stool with slumped shoulders, wearing the look of a man who witnessed too many wet days.
“Aw hell, Darla. You might as well fill ‘er up again.” Randy pushed his cup and saucer across the counter. “I don’t see as we’ll be cutting again today. Too, wet, even for Oregon.”
Darla Smith, a dark haired wisp of a middle-aged waitress, poured him another cup of black swill. “Yeah. This is a bit much.” She aimed her voice at my booth. “What d’ya think Professor, we going to drown out here, wash away with all this rain? Some kind of biblical flood?”
I hated the nickname. Most everyone in town over the age of twenty-five called me Professor because I taught English at Grant County Consolidated High School. I was the only teacher on the payroll who lived in Monument. “I wouldn’t know really, but I figure these things go in cycles.” I straightened my glasses and turned back to the newspaper.
“What do you mean, ‘cycles’?” Randy asked through his beard, sitting up on his stool to show his barrel chest.
“The rain. Some years it’s more; some years less.”
“Damn genius,” Randy muttered. He looked down just then, spotted that little black beetle, and crushed it with his size thirteen boot. “Hey, Darla. Don’t call the health department just yet, but it looks like the rain is driving ‘em inside,” he said, holding up the soiled sole of his boot.
“Shut up, Randy,” Darla said.
“Speaking of health codes, why don’t you sell that bread anymore, the stuff you used to bake right here in that big old oven out back? Somebody find a bug in a loaf?” Randy asked with a wide grin.
I saw Randy again about a week later. He stood at the back of his of his dented Chevy, leaning over the tailgate and talking to a couple of his workers: Pete Archer and Manny Swick. Pete and Manny were Monument’s Laurel and Hardy. Manny was the plump one with a constant smile lurking under his thick mustache, and Pete had a pale face — long like it had been stretched in a taffy machine.
“Hey Professor, get a load of this.” Randy waved one big paw in my direction as I crossed Main Street in front of Peterson’s Drug.
The sky still hung in a damp gray shroud around the trees, but Monument was as dry as it had been in weeks. A quick thought shot through my head: Randy, Pete, and Manny should probably be out in the forest cutting on a day like that, especially during such a wet year.
“What is it?” I stepped closer to the men huddled around the bed of Randy’s truck. Lumpy, Randy’s old, nappy hound, sat panting near the cab. There was something else, too — shiny and black like a dress shoe. Little legs like bits of broken black bamboo jutted out at odd angles. At the front was a smallish head with a set of nasty pincer jaws — not huge like a Hercules Beetle, but wicked enough. Its body was about the size of a large rat.
“This some kind of gag?” I asked.
“Like hell. We found a few of them out at the cutting site. All dead like this one.” Randy leaned in and I could smell a hint of whiskey just under the coffee stench. “A couple of them looked like they were stuck in the mud — like they were climbin’ out.”
“What do you suppose it is?” Manny asked, a hint of fear floating just under his words. His usual ruddy face looked whitewashed and pale.
I bent over the tailgate, a little shocked by the possibility. “A beetle, I guess.”
“Damn big beetle.” Randy stroked his beard.
“You should really show this to Lane, you know Nancy Albricht’s kid. He’s back for the summer, and he’s studying entomology at Oregon State.” I looked at Randy. “This would be like winning the lotto for him.”
“Anto-mol-ogy,” Randy spoke slowly. “What’s that, beetle breeding?”
“Entomology. The study of insects. Bugs. Let’s give him a call.”
“It kind of looks like a common black beetle — family Carabidae. They’re an import from Europe. Not native to the Pacific Northwest, that is.” Lane Albricht, blonde and broad, stood in the center of the small group of men gathered around his father’s workbench, poking and prodding the specimen Randy brought from the forest. “Damn it’s big. Where’d you find this?”
“There were a few out near our site. Maybe a half dozen. A couple of them looked like they were crawling up out of the ground.” Randy made a face and pantomimed a large beetle exiting a pile of mud. I figured the beetle in the woods didn’t have a beard.
Lane tilted his head and studied Randy’s acting. “Interesting. Most Carabidae species usually live under old trees, bark, or stones near water. Were the others the same size?”
“Yep, close anyway.” Randy ceased his beetle impression. “Look, these things are a little spooky, and we haven’t even seen a live one.”
“Yeah man. I don’t wanna be out there with these things crawling all over me.” Manny shivered, jiggling his protruding belly. Pete nodded.
Lane carefully looked at each man in turn, “Large insects aren’t unheard of. They found this other beetle, Titanus giganteus,in Brazil that was about seventeen centimeters long. This guy is easily bigger. I’d like to know if you find anything else. Especially a live one.”
“Whatever kid. If we do, it sure as hell won’t be alive for long.” Randy thumped Manny and Pete in turn. “I guess we better get to work fellas. We’re wasting daylight.”
Peter and Manny exchanged a look. “Look, Randy, I can’t speak for Manny, but I’m not really sure I want to go back out today,” Pete said, glancing back at the black critter on the bench.
“Yeah Randy, maybe we should…” Manny began.
“You’re both a couple of pansies. Ain’t nothing out there I can’t squash with my boot.” He started across the street toward his truck and climbed into the cab. “You sissies can walk home. And kid, you can keep that one. Call it a souvenir.” With a slight chuckle, Randy started the truck and rolled down the street.
The four of us stood in silence for a moment.
I turned to Lane, glancing first at the black specimen on the table. “Are these things going to be a problem?”
“Naw. Probably just some freaks, aberrations. I mean Carabidae is a carnivorous species, but…”
“Carnivorous beetles?” Pete’s taffy face stretched with surprise.
“Sure — they eat other insects and can run really fast to catch their prey. But they wouldn’t harm animals.” Lane ran his hand through his wavy blonde hair. “I’m gonna call my advisor. I know he’ll want to see this.”
Manny smoothed his mustache with one finger. “Look guys, I think we’re going to hoof it back downtown.” He turned and started walking with Pete.
“Take it easy,” I called after them and turned to Lane. “They seemed a little spooked. Do you think we should try to get in touch with the park service or something?”
“No. Not yet. This could be an important find. We don’t want the state coming in and mucking things up with paperwork. If these beetles really were crawling from the ground…I dunno, they could be a new species, something not studied.” He must have seen the confusion on my face. “You know about cicadas right?”
“Cicadas. Yeah, they make that buzzing sound. Only around during certain years.”
“Right. They spend most of their lives underground, only coming out to mate and die. A lot of insects go through early stages in the life cycle underground — natural protection from predators.” Lane looked at the beetle carcass, touching the tip of one foreleg. “I think this guy ‘grew up’ underground. Look at the forelegs.”
I examined the two segmented limbs closely, noting they were somewhat thicker, maybe sturdier, than the other legs. “How do they know when to climb out of the ground?”
Lane bent down and really scrutinized the beetle’s abdomen. “Probably just a chemical trigger…something inside that says ‘it’s time’.”
“Yeah. Sometimes these things happen because of environmental factors.”
“Not exactly. More like ground temperature reaching a certain point — raising a degree or two. Something like that. Something that would signal ‘everything’s ok, come on out’ to the little bundle of nerves in his ganglion — his insect brain.” Lane thrust a thumb toward the beetle’s head. “I guess enough rain, if it’s warm enough — could help boost the ground temperature. I don’t really know.”
We always had our fair share of community wildlife in Monument. Deer or elk would wander through town, especially in fall — during mating season, the “rut” as we called it. That summer, more large mammals wandered out of the surrounding woods, many more than I had experienced since living there.
The sheriff, a thick, balding fellow named Mort Kress, and one of his deputies, Benny Wilson, brought this large buck into town one day. It was dead — mauled. Something had torn the poor thing open, gutted it. I was sitting outside the café when they pulled up in the sheriff’s truck, and I could see the antlers sticking out of the bed. Curiosity drew me across the street. “What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing but road-kill, I guess. Benny and me figured we better load it up, get it out of there. Found it out on Deer Creek Road. Surprised nobody reported this one.” He slammed the door of his truck shut.
“What do you mean?” I glanced into the bed, saw the horrible strips where flesh was torn from the sides of the deer.
“Look at it. Must’ve messed somebody’s car up pretty good, by the looks of that.” The Sheriff turned and followed Benny inside the café. I stood for a moment, taking in the image of the mauled animal, and imagining the monstrous car that could do that kind of damage.
The rain started again, heavy floods from the iron sky. I sat in my booth at Pine Peak, munching on some burnt bacon and digesting a few short stories from my new textbooks for the fall. Randy perched on his usual stool with no sign of Pete or Manny.
“I don’t much mind the rain today,” Randy muttered to Darla. “Too many of those damn bugs.”
I closed my book, and turned my head slightly toward the counter, enticed by the word “bugs”.
“You’ve just been workin’ too hard,” Darla said, smiling. “Trying to make up for lost time with the weather.”
Randy tugged hard on his beard and said, “No. No, there’s something out there.” He wagged one rough finger toward the café windows. “Them bugs. They’re getting bigger.”
“Nonsense.” Darla chuckled — she wasn’t the kind of woman who giggled.
“Hell, I’m telling the truth. Old Lumpy came running out of the trees last Thursday evening, tail tucked between his legs. I started laughing at him, they way he looked all scared — I figured he pissed off a marmot or something. Anyway, this big son-of-a-bitch comes scurrying after him. Craziest thing, watching this beetle the size of that old hound come scurrying out of the forest.” Randy’s voice became a little distant. “The damn thing scrambled right over a downed tree, straight at me. I dropped the chainsaw right on it.” His coffee cup made a noisy clink when it hit the saucer.
“I think the only thing you’ve been dropping is a little too much of the old Kentucky vintage, if you get my meaning,” Darla said as she turned back to the counter and replaced the coffee pot on its warming plate.
“Randy?” I asked, standing now just a few feet from the counter. “Was anybody else out there with you?”
“Hell no. Pete and Manny totally turned on me. Won’t go out after talking to that kid — Lane. Shit, I’m not going back until I’m sure those damn bugs are gone.”
“I think you should call the sheriff. I mean if you _really_ saw something that big…”
Randy stood up, stretching all six feet of his barrel chest in front of me. “You think it’s the booze too, huh?” He pushed past me and exited the café.
I finished my meal in silence, walked home under a black umbrella against the rain, and called Lane.
“Yeah, Lane. It’s me Rick.”
“Hey Mr. Grinnich.” The kid still called me Mr. Ginnich even though he graduated three years ago. “I called my advisor. He was out of the office for the summer session, but I left a message and emailed him some digital pics of the beetle.”
“That’s what I’m calling about. Randy was down at Pine Peaks today, and he claimed he saw another beetle. He said it was bigger and alive.”
“Really? They couldn’t get much bigger. The ecosystem just couldn’t support them.”
“Randy does have a bit of a whisky problem, but that wouldn’t make him hallucinate…”
“What time of day was it?”
“I don’t know — wait he said ‘evening’. I know he’s been working late, trying to make up lost time because of the rain. That and his workers have chickened out on him.”
Lane’s voice grew distant for a moment, like he spoke away from the receiver. “That would make sense, most species of Carabidae are nocturnal…Listen, I’m going to call Randy, see if I can go out with him tomorrow.”
“If it stops raining.”
“Of course. I want to see these things myself.”
After a slight bribe — a fifth of Jack Daniels, Randy agreed to drive Lane out to the woods. Lane called that night and explained the deal, and I waved them the next morning as they drove west on Kimberly-Long Creek Highway. It was early on Tuesday, and I jogged around town, my usual workout. Something floated in the air that day, something quiet and watchful. The trees seemed closer, pressing in on the edges of Monument, swelling the town to some breaking point. After the jog, I ate my breakfast at Pine Peaks and spent a good part of the morning camped at the booth in the corner. Darla seemed a little distant that morning — distant and brooding.
Sheriff Kress came in around ten. “Mornin’ Darla.” He turned to me and nodded. “Mornin’ Professor.”
“Black?” Darla asked.
“Sure.” He settled onto one of the stools at the bar.
“Busy morning?” she asked while pouring the coffee.
“Not so much. A couple of calls on dogs.”
“No. Old Elmer Nowlan’s mutt got torn up by something. Probably just some over-aggressive raccoons, but it was a bit of a mess. The Hernandez family can’t find their dog — that old German Shepard…Zeb.”
Something clicked. “Sheriff,” I said while standing and walking toward the counter, “did Randy Crouse ever report anything strange to you? Call you about some large insects?”
“Bugs? No.” He sipped his coffee. “What would I have to do with bugs?”
“These are big. We brought one to Albricht’s place, had Lane take a look.”
“Randy hasn’t said anything to me. How big is big.”
I sat down on a stool next to the sheriff. “The one I saw was about the size of a shoe.” I held my hands up for a visual aid. “Randy claims to have seen larger specimens out in the woods.”
“Randy has claimed a lot of strange things over the years.” He stood, dropped a few coins on the counter, and patted me on the back. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Professor. Thanks Darla.” He strode from the café, climbed into his truck, and pulled away.
Early that evening, the quiet seemed to swell and fill the little clearing occupied by our town. I sat on my porch, trying to enjoy the end to a rare, cloudless day. It was the sort of day I’d moved to Oregon to find, the sweet pine smell, the buzzing aliveness from all the trees and close wildlife, but I felt anxious. I had been nervous since Randy and Lane left that morning.
I was startled by the shots — not the first time I’d heard distant gunfire, but this series of pops pushed all the blood from my veins for some reason. The sound came from Deer Creek Road, echoing through the valley to the east. I hurried down the hill toward Main Street, knowing that the sheriff would be there if he was in town.
Darla stood on the sidewalk wiping her hands on her apron. A few other townspeople, maybe a dozen, stood around in the gathering twilight, mumbling about the gunfire. Pete and Manny were there, by each other’s side as usual. Nancy Albricht, Lane’s mom, held a cell phone to her ear, pacing a small segment of walk just down the street from the café.
“What’s happened?” I asked Darla.
“Don’t know. I just heard the shots. Nancy’s worried, trying to call Lane.”
A slight pop sounded in the distance, and the lights flickered and went black inside the café. Darla rushed inside. The sun started to slip past the crooked lip of trees in the west, and a punishing silence crawled into Monument. A brooding silence.
“I got Lane. They’re on their way back.” Nancy crushed the silence with her nervous voice as she hurried into the small throng of people.
Darla stepped out of the café. “We aren’t just without power. The phone’s gone too.”
The sun completely disappeared behind the pine trees on the horizon, dropping night’s heavy blanket on Monument. I thought about walking back to my house up the hill, but the dark streets worked against me. I felt safer in the group of people. Clouds started to roll over the little piece of yellow moon in the sky. My stomach tightened. I looked at Nancy. “I think you should try the sheriff on your cell phone.”
Before she responded, someone in the group asked, “What’s that?” Everyone stopped breathing for a moment, listening to the shadows all around. A small scrabbling sound, like twigs scratching against asphalt and concrete, crawled toward town from the east. I turned to look, just missing the headlights as they rounded the curve behind me.
“Lane!” Nancy hollered, hurrying to Randy’s truck. The small gathering was blown bright from Randy’s headlights, and most looked pale and unnatural under the beams.
“Mom, look, what’s everybody standing around for?” Lane asked as he hopped down from the passenger seat. “You look like you’ve all seen a ghost.”
Nancy hugged her son.
“Awww, Mom…” Lane pushed away.
“Did you find anything today? Any more beetles?” I asked, moving closer to Lane.
He rubbed his blonde hair. “Yeah, but Randy couldn’t find the big one that he went Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the other day. All we found were shells, like the beetles had been molting…growing. Like the cicadas. A bunch of them. But no live ones.”
The crawling sound grew louder, just underneath our voices, a scratching from the shadows. I looked at Nancy again, “I think we better call the sheriff.” She nodded and started punching numbers on her phone. Feet shuffled on the pavement, a small gathering of nervous movement.
Randy climbed from his truck, engine running and lights still shining. Another set of headlights swerved down Main Street from the south. “Sheriff Kress!” Randy shouted, recognizing the police vehicle. Those lights clicked off, and Benny stumbled out of the driver’s door. Illuminated by Randy’s lights, I could see his face was ashen and dotted with dark spots. He held one arm close to his side, a dark streak spreading down his hand. In his injured arm he carried a shotgun.
“Get out, all of you! Load up and get the hell outta here!” He took the bloody hand from his arm and waved it wildly at the small crowd.
“Where’s the Sheriff?”
“Dead…shit…he’s dead. They were everywhere — those goddamn bugs — coming this way. Sheriff stood there, point blank, and unloaded his twelve-gauge. They didn’t flinch. Get the hell out.”
There was a singular moment of silence, and then the handful of citizens in front of Pine Peaks Café started in separate directions, slowly at first. That sound, that scratching, moving sound, grew louder, surrounding and swallowing us. Movement hovered just outside the light, and at the edge of my vision I saw small legs like black bamboo and probing antenna fingers.
Benny hit the pavement with a wet smack. His shotgun dropped to the ground, skidding toward my feet with the force of the blow. A beetle, an abomination the size of a desk, perched on his back, locked its awful pincers around Benny’s head, and twisted with a quick, wet snap and spurting gout of blood. Then the thing started on his body, scratching and snatching with its nightmare jaws.
Randy shoved me aside, and grabbed the shotgun. At the edge of the headlight beam, I could make out the black, moving legs of many more beetles. Randy took quick aim at the beast on Benny’s body, and fired into its mass.
“The light…they’re nocturnal! Stay in the light!” Lane yelled. It was too late. The headlights yanked away, and I turned just in time to see a shadow of Pete’s terrified face behind the windshield of Randy’s truck. With a quick turn and jerk, he pulled a U-turn on Main Street, heading north toward the old highway. The moon poked out from a little cloud, and I saw the shining black carapaces of a half-dozen beetles as they latched on to the vehicle. The street all around swam with the shimmering shells of the devil beetles as they swallowed the town, their little skittering feet chasing the soft padding of shoes on pavement.
Randy fired again, and I just caught a glimpse of a black monster rise up in his muzzle flash. Darla shouted, “Get inside!” Temporarily blinded by the shot, I stumbled toward the café. I pushed past her as she held the door open, the sounds of screams and frightened shouts at my heels. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw nothing but black on the street. With the moon gone, the beetles became invisible, just a scratching and snapping mass of black.
Choking on my burst heart and sucking in air to cool my terror, I climbed over the counter and pushed into the kitchen. The glass windows broke behind me with a thunderous crash. Darla screamed. Needing a hiding place, any place, I felt for the door of the large baking oven, the oven used last when Pine Peaks baked its own bread. I threw it open, yanked out the baking rack, and scrambled inside, pulling the door shut behind me. I hid in that oven all night, cramped and crying in darkness and sweat, listening to the muffled shouts of the townspeople — the screams that echoed into my oven tomb, horrible shrieks that slipped through the cracks in the heavy iron door. The screams faded to moans, and soon I was lost to nothing but the constant scuttling and scrabbling of antennae and legs as the unreal beetles swarmed through the wreckage of the café.
In the morning, after the world fell silent, I climbed out of that oven covered in soot and grease. Little bits of glass and broken furniture crunched as I crawled toward the smashed front of the café. Outside, the forest listened. Surely those awful beetles waited in the darkness under the pine boughs, waited for the night when they would move on.
I found no bodies on Main Street — nothing but broken glass and small bunches of debris washed into little piles by overnight rain. I walked through the dead streets, meandering toward my house, my car. Lumpy, his hair matted and wet, crawled from under a parked truck, sniffing my hand and wagging his tail weakly. That plague of awful, black horrors seemed to have devoured the rest of Monument. When I reached my house, I would call, warn anyone who would listen about the plague, and then load Lumpy in my car and escape that valley while the sun offered protection.
5: Care and Feeding of the Old Flat Mile
Some places were just born evil, and the Old Flat Mile slid easily into that description. Constructed shortly after the Second World War, that stretch of road was originally intended for glory. Architects and businessmen pointed to what they dubbed the “Golden Mile” as the linchpin in Springdale’s future rise to prominence. The luxuriant homes built there were sure to draw investors with the deepest of pockets. That was the plan until little Calvin Unruh was crushed under the tracks of a bulldozer while chasing his brother’s errant throw.
Construction halted immediately, investors clambered for their money, and the proposed housing development disappeared like a summer mirage. The county took over the road, dubbed it North 1800, and left it unpaved. The locals christened North 1800 “Flat Mile,” surely with no pun aimed at poor Calvin’s unfortunate accident.
Meanwhile, Calvin’s older brother, Daniel, lived with the knowledge that he threw the football his brother chased that day. He spent many years as a haunted, pale boy with black eyes. And as Daniel grew up, the road waited.
In time, Daniel’s guilt faded. Especially after he eased into his teen years and developed a penchant for tinkering with engines and blondes. Some said he tried to forget his brother with those fast cars and girls, and maybe they were right.
Daniel loved to drag race, and the level stretch of the Flat Mile was the perfect spot to flex his automotive muscle. There were other times, quieter evenings with full moons, during which he would ease his ’57 Chevy down that road to put his girlfriend in the mood.
On one of those nights built for romance, he steered onto the Flat Mile only to find his buddy, Jeb Harwood, waiting in his own hot rod, itching for a race. Something in the rumble of those two cars must’ve woken the road; it had tasted blood once, and its hunger must’ve grown.
Daniel ended up losing control on a patch of loose gravel, and the race concluded with his’57 wrenched around a tree. His girlfriend survived, eventually moving to Kansas City, marrying, and raising three children. Daniel, however, never really left the Flat Mile.
Unfortunately, Daniel wasn’t the last to smear his young blood in the dirt and sand. Teenage boys, full of hot blood, loved to prove their mettle with fast, reckless driving. After a few more fatalities, city officials blocked off the Flat Mile, and the road was left in loneliness and disrepair.
Over the next forty years, stories faded, signs were taken down, and the road slept. Eventually, a new generation of Springdale teens found a use for North 1800.
Oblivious to history, Jimmy Campbell, tried to navigate his father’s Chrysler through the thick April mud of the Old Flat Mile while his girlfriend, homecoming runner-up Maggie Bloch, complained. Beneath them, the road smelled engine exhaust, purred with the sweet rumble of a straining engine, woke, and called its children home.
“What the hell were you thinking, Jimbo?” Maggie asked. Her long fingernails carved deep into the smooth faux velvet bench seat as the car groaned, its wheels spinning in place.
Jimmy’s beefy paws clutched the steering wheel, gripping so tight that his knuckles turned white. “Look, I figured it hadn’t rained in a couple days, so it’d be okay.”
“Well, a couple of dry days don’t matter much when it rains for a week straight.” Jimmy ran a handful of stubby fingers through his sawed-off brown hair. “Hell, I thought the full moon would be nice.”
Maggie wasn’t ready to play nice. “Real romantic,” she said, glancing out the window and catching a ghost of her own, thin-faced reflection in the glass. “It isn’t even a full moon.”
“Like hell.” Jimmy released his foot from the gas, and the car sighed with relief. He pushed his face against the windshield and searched for the moon.
“No, it’s only about three-quarters.”
“Awww,” Jimmy moaned, dropping his head to the steering wheel. “I wanted to, you know, do something you might think was romantic.” His hands dropped to his chin. “I really fucked up. If the Charger was ready, we wouldn’t be stuck.”
Maggie’s face broke into a smile. “You think your dad’s old clunker could get us out of this mud pit?”
Jimmy’s face sprouted with red blotches. “First of all, it’s a ’69. A classic, not a clunker. And no it couldn’t get us out of the mud. Once I get that puppy humming, I’m not taking it out in this stuff, anyway. If the road was dry, hell yeah. I can’t wait to — ”
“What? Spin out on the flat mile and end up in the ditch?” Maggie shook her head and brushed her auburn hair away from her face, pulling back into a loose ponytail. “Listen, sweetie. You get me out of this mud-hole, and I’ll make sure we find a dark, quiet spot for some real romance.” Her hand slid onto his lap, and stroked the inside of his leg.
Jimmy slowly straightened in his seat. He glanced at Maggie. “I love you, babe.”
“I know.” She smiled, but her face suddenly dropped into a stunted frown. “What the hell was that?”
“What was what?”
“I saw something move behind you.” She shivered. “Look, the sooner we get out of here, the better.”
“Don’t freak on me.”
“I’m not, I just …want to get back to town, okay? Civilization?” She waved her fingers toward the blue glow of Springdale. “I don’t like this road. The stories — ”
“ — are mostly silly legends to scare kids; to keep people from driving too fast.”
“Well, they’re working. I’m scared.”
“Right. I’ll get us out of here, then.” Jimmy pushed his door open with a squeak of rusty hinges.
“Where are you going?” Maggie’s voice eked out with a taint of panic.
Jimmy had slipped from the car, but momentarily ducked back into the dim glow of the dashboard lights. “Just going to find some wood or something I can wedge behind the tires. You know — for traction.”
“All right,” she said slowly. “Just hurry, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
Maggie jabbed the automatic locks as soon as Jimmy slammed his door. She huddled on her side of the car, feeling a bit chilly in the April darkness. If he would just hurry, she thought. She twirled a bit of hair on her finger. This place is creepy, but the old full-moon trick is kinda sweet. He’s a —
Maggie’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud bang on her door. Jimmy’s face hovered just outside her window.
“Gotcha,” he muttered, loud enough to be heard through the glass.
Maggie snapped the door open, smashing it across his knees. “Damn it Jimbo, I nearly wet myself.” She stood up next to the door, and looked into the darkness, past her doubled-over boyfriend. “Jimmy …who's that?” she asked, shivering.
Jimmy let a pathetic little groan slip out of his mouth as he rubbed his knees. “Just some guys. They can help push the car.”
Three figures shimmered in the moonlight. They appeared to be teenage boys, somewhere between sixteen and nineteen, but they all seemed strange. Their faces were pinched together, too gaunt and pale, even in the moonlight. Maggie tried to muster a friendly smile, and the boys’ lips cracked open in response. They wore dirty clothing, streaked with dark stains.
Most likely mud, Maggie thought. Gross.
One stepped forward and stretched out a withered hand. His fingertips were stained black. “I’m Dan. This here’s Lonnie and Earl. We can help,” he said. Maggie couldn’t see his lips move. A taint floated with his voice, like the sound of a light wind cutting through a strand of old trees. The other two stood behind him like chimps; the one introduced as Lonnie poked a finger into his mouth and scratched at his gums, digging out something black that shone in the moonlight.
A rancid odor oozed off the boys. It was wet and fishy — the scent of a riverbank after a flood.
Maggie quickly slipped into the car and slammed the door shut. Jimmy said something to the three, and sloshed through the mud to the driver's side. He tried to shake the thick muck from his shoes before shutting the driver’s door and slipping the gear shifter into neutral, but it was no use.
“Who are those guys?” Maggie whispered. She caught herself with one hand against the dash as the car lurched forward. The back of her neck burned like some dull razor had plucked out the hairs one by one. “I haven’t seen them around school.”
Jimmy shrugged, maintaining a solid grip on the steering wheel. “Probably home-schooled or something.”
“Home-schooled? Really?” Maggie cast a curious glance at Jimmy’s profile. “They look a little freaky to me.”
“Yeah, well, some of those home-schooled kids are religious fanatics, you know. Maybe these guys are part of some wacky cult. They seem nice enough, though.”
Maggie turned to look over her shoulder. The yellow faces of the three strangers grinned in the back window, showing bent and browning teeth. Their eyes were cold and black, so she quickly snapped her eyes back to the front of the car. “They make me feel dirty. The way they leer at me.”
“Babe, if they’re religious zealots, they probably aren’t used to seeing hot numbers like you. Really.” Jimmy leaned over and kissed her on the neck. Maggie pushed him away and flashed a tepid smile.
“Look, we’re almost there,” Jimmy announced. He straightened in his seat and peered into the cone produced by the headlights. “We still on for that dark, quiet spot?”
“I’ll think about it,” Maggie muttered, crossing her arms across her chest. She couldn't shake the crawling sensation of the boys’ eyes on her back.
“See, safe and sound,” Jimmy said as the headlights lit up the yellow sign at the end of North 1800. “I’ll just thank them, and we’re off.”
“Jimmy, don't ….”
“Just a quickie. They really helped us out of a jam.”
Jimmy stepped out of the car.
Maggie stared at her feet for a moment, looked at Jimmy's open door, and slowly brought her gaze to the window next to her. A flat, leering face with bloodshot eyes and stretched, chapped lips floated an inch from the window.
“You're purdy,” the face gibbered, its voice muffled and cold. Maggie let out a small gasp, quickly turned away from the window, and reached for the door lock. Her thumb flicked the switch, but the lock wouldn’t cooperate with Jimmy’s door hanging open.
Jimmy poked his head into the car. “Hey, Maggie. This guy owns a ‘57 Chevy — stock everything. They other guys have nice rides, too. Vintage. They say I should come out sometime, race with them.”
“That’s nice, Jimbo. Once you get that old jalopy of yours running again, anyway.” Maggie’s voice crawled with sarcasm. “Can we go?” she implored. She heard a slight scratching sound.
Outside Maggie’s door, pale fingers felt for the handle.
“Yeah. Just a sec.” Jimmy’s face vanished again, but Maggie still heard his voice. “Look, is there anything we can do to thank you?”
Maggie’s door popped open, and she nearly collapsed in the mud. She would have, if not for the strong arms that caught her. She plucked at them with her fingertips, feeling cold, wormy flesh — they way she imagined the white belly of a catfish would feel just after it was pulled from the river.
Maggie’s mouth dropped open, but no sound escaped, as a rotten hand slipped across her lips. Another set of hands moved over her body, and she squirmed against the invasion. Jimmy's face was pale in the darkness, and she only saw him in profile as the arms dragged her into the thick, swishing grass around the ditch.
“You see, buddy,” Dan said to Jimmy, once Maggie was several yards away, “we’ve been out here a long time. Too long, really. Your girl there … she’s pretty. Earl, Lonnie, me — we’ve been dead a long time, but those urges just don’t go away. It’s real lonely out here.”
Jimmy turned to the car, and caught a glimpse of Maggie’s flailing feet as Dan’s greasy companions pulled her further into the grass. His stomach dropped, his heart throbbed frantically, and something big and hard crashed against the back of his head.
Dan stood over him holding a rusty tire iron. He bent down, breathing his filth on Jimmy's prone form. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he sneered. “We’ll take real good care of her.” Then, he raised the tire iron, and cracked it repeatedly against Jimmy’s skull, until blood and brain matter leaked out.
When he finished, he dragged Jimmy’s body to the ditch and joined his friends across the road.
And so, the Old Flat Mile filled its belly on hot, young blood once again, while its children enjoyed a feast of their own.
6: The Eyes Have It
Calvin sat at his computer with his face bent toward the flat screen, watching as an arrangement of glowing dots came together in the image of a young woman. Her body jutted from a car door at a queer angle, and dark streaks marred her face. The car was inverted, flipped upside down, and resting in a patch of mud. The woman was dead, and this was merely a photograph, a digital copy of the corpse. Calvin found something intoxicating about her eyes and guided the cursor to her face, enlarging the image with a few clicks.
Those eyes were blue, electric, addictive.
The doorbell sent a quick jab into Calvin’s ear. He closed the image and hurried to the door, surprised by a visitor on a Wednesday night. Gina worked on Wednesday’s, and he couldn’t imagine anyone else who cared enough to make a personal visit to the Sentinal’s photographer at home, especially after ten. The wreck, he thought, must be the cops. He shoved his camera bag behind a chair.
Calvin opened the door, and noticed Gina’s eyes were rimmed with red. She held her hands bunched in front and shuddered slightly before opening her mouth. “I quit, Cal. The boss, Brad…he made a pass. Touched me. I pushed him and ran out.”
“C’mon.” He pulled Gina inside, glanced into the night, and shut the door with a hearty click. She crumpled against his chest, sobbing. That son-of-a-bitch, he thought, wrapping Gina’s shoulders with his arms. Calvin had never like Brad, his roving eyes and plastic smile. “It’ll be okay…”
Calvin lay awake, listening to Gina’s breath as she slept next to him. He stared at the ceiling, but thought of the blue eyes in the photo. They had penetrated his lens and pulled his camera — one of those pictures that found him. Those eyes found him; they whispered to him. He was first at the scene of the wreck; the car lay in a ditch as he made his way home from a high school basketball game. Calvin had been the first to call the police.
The dead eyes screamed from across the room. He propped his head under one arm, and turned slightly toward Gina. The thin comforter rose gently with her breath. Calvin forced his brain to conjure her face. He tried to find her cheeks, the gentle curving slope of her chin, her swollen lips, and brown eyes, but the dead girl stared back at him instead, blocking everything in her blue gaze. His head began to ache, a dull, growing pain that squeezed against his skull. The whisper rose again, something white, nearly subliminal, but a voice. He rolled over and smashed his head under a pillow, trying to chase away the whisper.
“You’ll just have to move in.”
Calvin cobbled together his world-famous omelets while Gina leaned on his kitchen counter. She wore an old t-shirt, a knock off from Animal House that simply read “COLLEGE” in block letters. After a small sigh, she said, “Cal, that’s sweet, really. But…”
“But what? I’ve got a steady job. A little too steady maybe.” He glanced past Gina to the desk and his camera bag stuffed behind the chair. “We can make this work. You could start back at school — finish your degree.” He shifted the omelet with a flick of his wrist.
Gina closed her eyes and sighed. “I’ll pay rent, okay. And clean up a bit around here…earn my keep.” She pushed a dirty bowl across the counter to the sink. “Somebody has to.”
Calvin slid her omelet onto a plate. “If you want toast, the bread’s over by the ‘fridge.” He turned back to the stove, cracking two more eggs with a swift motion. “That was me ignoring your not-so-subtle jab, by the way.”
She slid around the counter and wormed between Calvin and the stovetop. “Thank you.”
He dropped the spatula on the counter and laid hands on either side of her face, trying to burn the deep mahogany of her irises into his brain. “I love you, okay? Now move before my eggs burn.”
Before he left for work that morning, he rummaged inside the top drawer of his desk, pushing away old pens and broken pencils until he found an old pocketknife. The blue handle was scratched, and the blade quite dull, but Calvin wrapped it in his hand and pushed it into the depths of his camera bag.
As one of only two photographers on the Sentinel staff, Calvin enjoyed the freedom to roam Springdale during his on-duty hours. A quick tag over his cell phone, and he could be anywhere he was needed in a matter of minutes. The small town life suited him fine — he’d never work too hard and still carry an air of celebrity. Medium fish in a tiny pond. Not wanting any interruptions, Calvin clicked off his phone when he entered the city morgue that morning.
“Well, well, Lenny. I can always count on my favorite minimum wage earning mortician’s assistant to be sitting on his ass.” Calvin worked up his best Cheshire grin.
Thin and pale and wearing a weak goatee, Lenny dropped his feet from the desk and eyed Calvin. “Shit. You gonna get me in trouble again?”
“Me? You’re kidding, right?” Calvin pulled a twenty-dollar-bill from his pocket and folded it in the palm of his hand. “How much laundry did you have to do at your mom’s place to save up for that jersey?” Calvin slipped the bill into Lenny’s boney grip.
“Screw you. This is vintage Magic Johnson. Got it on eBay for a steal. It’s all about timing, knowing what to look for.” Lenny smiled, a weak curling of his lips just above the beard. “Looking for anybody special today?”
“The girl…the Jane Doe…from the wreck yesterday.”
“She’s cold fish man. Tragic, she was kind of hot.”
Calvin teased him with wide eyes and a mock-shocked expression.
“Dude, you’re a freak — I’d never, you know…” Lenny popped off an obscene gesture. “You’ve got ten minutes. She’s in 14A.”
Calvin nodded and waited for the buzz before opening the doors to the morgue cooler. He wore a light jacket with a flannel shirt underneath, but the air poked through with icy fingers. The chill and a sickly lemon-lime glow to the lights really set Calvin’s fight or flight ticker humming. He had to see the body, look at those eyes again, and exercise the blue-eyed demon.
“14A. Hello, honey, I’m home,” Calvin joked to bolster his own flagging courage. With a quick click and then steady whirr, the drawer slid out. Blue Eyes was there, under the plastic. He peeled back just enough to see her icy face, an unnatural field of frigid grey. Her eyelids swelled a dark indigo in the shadows.
Calvin’s fingers quivered slightly before he touched her eyelids. Pinching one between forefinger and thumb, he pushed up gently, just enough to see the eye. It was lifeless now, drained of the hum and electricity from his photo. Curiosity worked magic in his fingers, and the thumb grew courageous, touching the cold surface of her dead eye. A hum grew around him in the cooler, a whisper that wasn’t quite the sound of the compressor or fans.
He closed his eyes for a moment and jerked from the body, quickly pulling the shroud over the young face and snapping 14A home. Calvin shivered, pulled his jacket around his neck, and hurried from the room. Later, he would remember the touch as a slight buzz — merely a pop of static electricity.
Calvin and Gina sat at the kitchen table that evening, poking at cardboard take-out boxes from The Happy Dragon, a flagging Chinese restaurant in a town where burgers and fries were considered fine cuisine. Gina tried to catch Calvin’s eye, but he avoided her, lost in his own thoughts and cringing at the growing pain in his skull — another headache.
“I interviewed for a couple of positions today. One is with a vet here in town. I thought, maybe, if it works out I could try school again. Finish my bachelor’s at least, then see what happens.”
Calvin glanced over the lid of a container, scratching the back of one hand. “Sounds great.” He winced as he spoke, and his voice was stale. His head throbbed again. “Why are we using spoons?”
Gina frowned. “The forks are dirty. Sorry, I forgot — ”
The phone buzzed, and Calvin sprang from the table before the first ring was a memory.
“Hi Calvin, this is Maryann Spader. Is Gina around? I can’t seem to get her at her place.” He looked at Gina and mouthed, it’s your mom.
She shook her head.
“Um, she’s not here,” Calvin said, frowning at his girlfriend.
“Could you, um, tell her to call me,” Maryann said on the other end, her voice somewhat thick and slow.
“Alright, I’ll let her know.” Calvin clicked the receiver home and returned to the table. “You haven’t told your folks?”
Gina’s mouth crawled into a little smile. “I…wasn’t ready, yet. I don’t want them to freak.”
Calvin’s knuckles whitened as he clutched his spoon. He closed his eyes, and his neck tensed. “Are you ashamed of me, that it?” he snapped.
Gina recoiled. “No…Calvin.” Her weak smile vanished under a hurt frown. “What’s with you?”
“What’s with me? My live-in is hiding the truth — ”
The phone rang again, truncating his rant. Calvin pushed away from the table, glowering at Gina. He snapped the phone off the cradle. “What?”
“Whoa, ace. What’s up your ass?” Lenny asked on the other end.
Calvin sighed and tucked the receiver on his shoulder. He glanced back at Gina. “Nothing. Nothing. Sorry, just a little domestic squabble.” Gina walked away from the table. “What’s up?”
“Dude, the cops came in this afternoon. Crazy shit, man. They were asking about you.”
Calvin’s face flushed. A tense moment passed. He rubbed his index finger to his thumb and remembered how her eyes felt. “Me? Why?”
“Look, can you meet me later tonight, at the Idle Hour. I don’t feel really comfortable talking about it over the phone. I thought you might like to know.”
“Yeah, how about eight?” Calvin waited. “Twenty bucks work?”
“Great. See you then.”
Calvin stood at the kitchen table for a few moments, looking at the half-empty containers, and trying to remember what happened after he touched the eyes. He remembered the shock, the feeling of electricity, but then what? Calvin held his hands in front of him, examined the fingers, and scraped a bit of black dirt from under one nail. He scooped up the leftovers and stuffed them in the trash. When the kitchen was clean, he found Gina lying on their bed.
“Look, I’m sorry.” He held his head.
She looked up, her eyes puffy and rimmed with red. She nodded.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Really. I understand that you aren’t ready to tell your folks, okay?” He sat down on the edge of the bed, testing the space to see if he was welcome. “Congrats on the interviews, too.”
“I wasn’t ready…I will be, soon. It’s not just you — I haven’t even told them about my job.” Gina held out her hand. “I’m worried about that headache. You never have headaches.”
“No worries. I’ll be fine.” Calvin stretched one arm around her shoulders. “Take your time with your folks. I’m in no hurry.” He bent lower and focused on her brown eyes. “I understand, all right?”
“Look, I hate to go…that call was for work. I have something important to do.”
The inside of Idle Hour was covered with at least two generations of Coors Light and Budweiser posters, old enough that some of the women on the posters could easily be Calvin’s mom. A permanent cigarette haze floated in the air despite the public smoking ban two years ago. The building stretched half a city block with billiards tables lined up from front to back and old vinyl bar stools resting against the walls between a few upright arcade machines. A small area in front held a couple of tables for playing cards and the bar.
Calvin looked past the grizzled faces of the middle-aged regulars and saw Lenny at a billiards table under a cracked lamp in the middle of the hall. He was lining up for a shot and nodded toward Calvin as he approached.
“I thought this would be a good place.” Lenny looked at the ceiling, indicating the loud music. “Nobody will overhear us in here.” With a swift thrust, he sent the cue ball into the nine. “Join me?”
Calvin thrust his hands in his pockets and shook his head. “No. I’m terrible.” He slipped a twenty out of his pocket and folded it in his hand. “You’re getting expensive.”
Lenny sidled up to Calvin and snatched the bill. “Yeah, maybe. But this is good. 14-A, you know, Jane Doe or whatever, she was wanted for murder.” He bent to the table again and lined up another shot.
Calvin began to sweat and took off his jacket, tossing it on a chair against the wall. “Maybe I will join you.” He surveyed a collection of house cue sticks on a rack, held up a few, and made a choice.
“Arizona. She was wanted in Arizona. The car was stolen in Wichita. Sedgwick County plates.” He cleared the table, knocking the eight ball in the side. “I’ll rack.”
Calvin’s head swam, and he steadied himself using the cue stick as a crutch. He looked up, past Lenny and spotted Brad, Gina’s old boss, guffawing at the bar. Brad was short, but broad — he hit the local gym every day, mostly to work on his upper body by the look of his scrawny legs.
“Hey, zombie-dude, are you with me? Did you hear what I said?”
Calvin snapped to attention. “Murder,” he muttered.
Lenny walked around the table and stood close to Calvin. “Here’s the real crazy shit, okay? She killed this old dude and his wife. Cut their fuckin’ eyes out and left their bodies in the goddamn kitchen. The cops out there never found the eyes.”
Calvin’s eye twitched. “How do you learn all this?”
“Springdale’s finest think I’m some sort of idiot, I guess. They talk right in front of me, me sitting there with my Spiderman comic, shit. They must think I’m stupid.”
You’re not stupid — you took forty bucks from me this week, Calvin thought.
“Can you believe that? She didn’t look like some cold-blooded, freak killer.” Lenny chuckled.
“I need to do something,” Calvin said, almost in a trance. He drifted away from the billiard table and through the crowd. Calvin moved straight to Brad and tapped him on the shoulder.
Brad turned, “Oh, lookie, it’s Ansel freakin’ Adams. How’s your girlfriend, buddy?”
“You’re a dick,” Calvin said before blindsiding him with a right uppercut. Brad slipped off his stool, stunned by the sudden blow. Steel bands wrapped around Calvin’s arms before Brad could scramble to his feet.
Joel, the bouncer, dragged Calvin outside and dropped him on the damp sidewalk. “None of that shit, buddy. Go home, all right?” He towered over Calvin. Joel had played a few years of football in college before blowing a knee, and he still cast an imposing shadow.
Calvin nodded and started to pick himself off the ground.
Lenny popped out of the door. “What the hell were you thinking? C’mon, lets get you home before B-rad decides to come for round two.”
“Yeah…yeah.” Though sober, Calvin staggered to his feet, needing some help from his scraggly accomplice to keep from flopping back to the concrete. He felt dirty, dragged through a muddy field. Nerves pricked in his arms and legs like the tiny cuts from rolling in crisp grass.
“Look, champ. The cops were asking about you, too. You made the call the night Jane wrecked, right?”
Calvin nodded, his head swimming. “Yeah, first on the scene,” he muttered. As Lenny led him down the street, he imagined that girl — Jane Doe, the murderer — lying in the ditch with her eyes cut out.
“Shit, Cal. What were you thinking?” Gina stood in their bedroom doorway with her arms crossed, a dour look dragging her lips into a frown.
Calvin shook his head. “I just…something pushed me.” He eyed the room, resting his glance for a moment on the camera bag on the sofa. “How the hell did you know?”
She closed her eyes. “Megan called. She was at the bar, too.” Her eyes opened, looking black in the dim kitchen. “He’s a jerk, Cal, but starting a bar brawl — ”
“I didn’t start a god-damn bar brawl. I just decked that asshole, and they tossed me out.”
“Whatever. It’s just not like you.” She uncrossed her arms. “Is it the job, Cal? I was on the computer today. I stumbled on some pictures by accident…that young woman…” She shuddered. “Something like that has to…get to you. That wreck…”
Calvin’s neck burned. He shivered, feeling hot pinpricks again. Anger. “How the fuck do you know what I’m like?” His voice swelled, filling the kitchen. “Shit!” He balled his fists and thrust one through the sheetrock next to the phone. The knuckles stung, streaked with blood and loose skin. Calvin pushed the throbbing hand to his mouth and sucked on the wound. Gina disappeared through the doorway. He heard a slam and the distinct click of his bedroom door lock.
He stuck the injured hand under the tap and flipped on the cold, letting the water cool his hand and his temper. His brain swam inside his skull, lost at sea somewhere. Thoughts bounced and rocked, but he couldn’t grasp anything long enough to make sense. Calvin wiped his hand on a towel and tumbled to the sofa, kicking the camera bag to the floor. The camera bag.
He reached for the bag, but the vice tightened on his head again and his fingers wouldn’t obey. Something seemed to crawl through his veins, forcing him to lie down. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, for most of the night — not asleep, but not quite awake. Toward dawn, he drifted into a fitful sleep.
Calvin dreamed of Gina. She held the camera bag over one shoulder. Brad was in the dream too, bare-chested and smeared with oil like at a body building contest. He wrapped one well-muscled arm around Gina’s slender waist and pulled her closer. She giggled. Brad’s eyes swelled, fading to a sky blue. Watch this, she mouthed before poking her thumbs into Brad’s eye sockets, pressing until an oily black goo squirted out.
Calvin woke in a cold sweat. The clock above his mantle showed 6:30 AM. He rolled off the couch, snatched his keys from the counter, and left the house before Gina stirred. He wanted to be away; something smelled of rot and worked on his stomach, telling him to go.
The phone nearly knocked Calvin out of his chair when it rang. He had been dozing at his desk in the newsroom, but now he recovered, wiped some drool from his lips, and grabbed the receiver.
“Sentinel. Calvin Morris speaking.”
“Calvin?” Lenny’s voice questioned. “Shit, Calivn. I figured they’d probably locked you up by now.”
“Who?” Calvin shook his head to break the cobwebs loose.
“The freakin’ cops, dude. They just called. They want to question you about the girl. You know, 14-A, murderous Jane Doe?”
Calvin glanced at his cell phone, noting a missed message from the Springdale Police Department and one from his house. “What…did you — ”
“No. Shit no. Security told them you had been here. Crazy shit, man. Her fucking eyes were cut out. Rough job too, somebody must’ve done it with a dull butter knife or something.”
A ball of ice grew in Calvin’s stomach. The memory grabbed him, and he steadied himself against the desk. “What?”
“They want to ask you about it. They’re looking for something else, some evidence. A jar I think.”
Calvin scanned the area for his camera bag. Not here. When he glanced up, he spotted two police officers skirting around desks in the newsroom. “Look, Lenny…I gotta go.” He dropped the phone on the cradle.
“Calvin, what’s the good word buddy?” It was Jimmy Mann, cocky and ignorant, the cheese of Springdale’s finest.
“Just catching up on some paperwork. I’m sure you guys know all about paperwork.”
The other officer chuckled. Jimmy glared at him and faced Calvin. “Look, we had a little talk with your friend at the hospital…Lenny? Anyway, I’m sure you had nothing to do with defacing the body.” A moment passed in awkward silence, a verbal game of chicken. “Although I am a little curious as to why you had to go see her in the cooler. We would also like to know if you saw anything funny at the scene of the accident, before we arrived. Anything you didn’t tell us in your statement that night.”
Lenny, you lying bastard. Calvin straightened in his chair, meeting Jimmy’s gaze. “No. Why would I go and withhold evidence from you fellows.”
Jimmy smiled, trying to pull off some Hollywood-tough demeanor. “I dunno, Calvin.” He leaned forward. “But Jane was wanted for murder, and anything in that car could’ve been related to the case, and if you did — ”
“I took something from the scene — that’s what you’re implying, right? If I did, I’d be dumb enough to be a member of the Springdale Police Department. Hell, I cut those fucking eyes out with a spoon. Is that what you want?” Calvin stood up, his heart rattling inside his chest, pushed past Jimmy, and turned. “Look, I’m busy, got it? Play Sherlock Holmes on somebody else’s time.” He held his head against the mounting pain as he hurried into the afternoon sunshine.
Gina sat at the kitchen table, pale and washed like a sheet of clean paper. A mason jar rested on the table in front of her. It was filled with something, a clear fluid like water. Six eyes floated in the water like bleached grapes, bits of flesh clinging to each and clouding the fluid. Calvin took a few steps into the room and noted that two of the eyes had electric blue irises.
Gina tilted her head toward him. “I found this in your bag Calvin.” Her hand shook as she pointed at the jar. “I was going to call you. I thought maybe you needed your stuff for work.”
The burning started in his toes this time, slashing through every nerve in his body. He stepped closer to the table, Gina stood, and the jar seemed to grow. “I–I’m fine.” One finger touched the glass, and six eyes spun to meet his gaze. He remembered the whispers. Those eyes had told him what to do the night of the wreck, they told him what to do that day in the morgue, but they were quiet now.
“I found this, too.” She held out his pocketknife. “I–I think I know why you did it.” She moved behind Calvin and gently pushed him into a chair. He didn’t resist. “She had such beautiful eyes — such blue eyes. Electric. Intoxicating.”
Her fingers brushed across his cropped hair. “When I found the jar…it was like they were talking to me, Calvin. Whispering, telling me what to do.”
Calvin’s car was gone when the police arrived. They entered through the open door and found his body slumped against a wall in the kitchen. A dark stain swallowed the front of his shirt, a thick run of blood from his throat. Both eyes were gone, gouged out, leaving two rough wounds in his face. His old pocketknife sat on the table, alone, smeared and sticky with blood. The jar, the eyes, and Gina were nowhere to be found.
7: Grim Adaptations
On a late Sunday afternoon, Scab Hullinger caught an abomination in the Republican River about forty yards downstream from the old wrought-iron bridge south of Springdale. Glistening wet, heaving, and gray as a dislodged lung, the thing flopped and writhed in a cooler filled with murky river water. Three boys on the fringe of manhood, one thin like a twist of wire, one wide and solid like a bulldog, and Scab somewhere between — slender but athletic — stood on the muddy bank, staring at the thing.
“Damn Scab, that’s big. Nibbled like crazy on my fingers.”
“Did it get any of them?” Joel asked with a chuckle while rubbing his grubby hands across the front of his jeans.
“Naw. Just sandpaper gums like most bottom feeders.” Allen, a skittish rail of a boy with brown-black eyes bulging from his thin face, squatted next to the cooler. “I’ve never seen a channel cat that color.”
“Can’t be a channel cat,” Joel said.
“Like hell.” Allen spat in the mud. “Has to be. It’s got the flat head, whiskers and pretty grim looking spines on the sides.”
“Sure does. Cut myself on one of them.” Scab held the meaty part of his left palm, squeezing just hard enough to produce a thin stream of blood from a jagged gash.
Joel kicked the cooler with one muddy boot. The fish flopped slightly in the cramped enclosure, showing a wide, flat eye of green-gray. “You ever seen a channel with eyes like that?”
The three were silent for a moment.
“I’m gonna call Barry. He’s home this weekend.” Scab said, fumbling in his jeans for a cell phone.
Joel scratched his black hair. “Your brother?”
“Yeah, he’s studying fish and wildlife at college, right?”
Allen paced behind his garage while Joel cleaned the rest of the afternoon’s catch.
“You could help out, you pansy.” Joel wiped the filet knife on a rag. “It’s your house, your freezer, your fish.”
“You’re doing fine all by yourself.” Allen flipped open his cell phone. “Where the hell are they, anyway?”
“Hell if I know.” Joel rubbed his hands under the backyard spigot. He was shaking them off when Scab’s car pulled into the alley.
“Hey Scab,” Joel called. “Hey Barry.”
Barry Hullinger smiled as they climbed out of Scab’s Honda. Scab managed a cursory grin while cradling his wounded hand.
Gavin Hullinger earned the unfortunate nickname “Scab” in middle school when Cori Hamilton, still the prettiest girl in Springdale, caught him chewing on a bit of loose skin from his elbow in seventh grade PE. He grew out of his awkward, boney frame in the five years since and became starting linebacker for the Springdale Saints’ district championship squad. He was even the frontrunner for class valedictorian, but the name held on, as stubborn things will in small towns. His brother, Barry, had been one of the finest scholar-athletes to graduate from Springdale High School.
“Where’s the fish?” Barry asked.
The four young men stood around the stained cooler in Allen’s garage. The grayish fish-thing thrashed about, splashing a little water over the edge each time someone disturbed its temporary home, but otherwise floated motionless in the muck.
Joel picked mud from under his fingernails with a pocketknife. “So, channel cat or not.”
“If it is, it sure isn’t healthy,” Barry said, squatting next to the cooler. “This color…isn’t right. Those eyes…I think it might be dead.”
“Dead?” Allen asked. His voice shot up an extra octave.
“Well, it looks dead. Smell’s dead, too. I don’t know what’s keeping it going.”
“So what do we do? Filet the thing, have a fry up with some beers?” Joel chuckled and then shook his head.
“I’m not eating that shit,” Allen squeaked.
“No,” Barry said as he stood. “We aren’t going to fucking eat it. Are you really as dumb as Gavin says?”
“I’m going to call one of my professors.”
“Your professor?” Joel flicked the knife shut on his pant leg. “What the hell for?”
Barry shook his head slowly and scratched his chin. “I don’t know. But something’s not right.” He glanced at his brother who was leaning against the side of the garage. “Look, I better get Gavin home”
“You sure we should be doing this?” Allen asked as Joel steered his truck over the rough gravel roads in Greenwillow Cemetery.
Joel shrugged. “Look, do you want to keep that freak-o-fish at your place this weekend?”
Allen squirmed in his seat. “Hell no. But what if Barry wants to see it again — ”
“I don’t give a shit. The college-boy can fish it out of the pond.” Joel squinted into the gathering twilight ahead of the truck. “’sides, if it is a good sized channel — even a mutant one, it can take out some of the nasty little bullhead up there in Potter’s Pond. Maybe make the fishing worthwhile.”
“Yeah, I ‘spose so. But what if it is sick. Diseased or whatever Barry said?”
Joel smiled. “Well, it’ll clear up Potter’s Pond either way.”
Just beyond the city limit of Springdale, Kansas, in the woods beyond the boundary fence of Greenwillow Cemetery rested an abandoned farm pond. Years of disuse allowed the trees and brush — mostly crooked spruce trees, sickly cottonwoods, and gnarled redbuds — to encroach on the shores of Potter’s Pond. The name spun from the pauper’s graves, Potter’s Fields, of old. The boys understood little of the Potter’s Pond legend, only vague myths about the poor of Springdale being tossed to its green depths when they couldn’t pay for a decent funeral. That’s what the old men at Jenson’s Hardware joked about every time the boys bought a few dozen worms for bait so they could spend a Sunday afternoon catching tiny bullhead when they were younger. The pond teemed with those small members of the catfish family.
Joel brought the truck to a rough stop on the road nearest the barbed-wire fence marking the edge of the cemetery. “Look, you coming? Or do I have to lug that damn cooler all by myself?”
Allen glanced out the window, noting the heavy outline of trees like black fingers lunging toward the darkening sky. The trees around Potter’s Pond always lost their leaves earlier than the rest of town. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to swallow the deafening thud of his heart. “I’m coming. But let’s hurry up, all right?”
Scab missed school on Monday, and both Allen and Joel were a little concerned.
When he was gone Tuesday, Allen was worried.
“Do you think we should call him?” He asked Joel after PE.
Joel shook extra water from his hair and rubbed his head with a towel. “I did last night.”
“His mom said he was pretty bad. Stomach flu, or something like it.”
When Scab missed school on Wednesday, Barry met Allen and Joel in the high school parking lot.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Joel asked.
Barry, his eyes rimmed with dark circles as if he hadn’t had much sleep, cleared his throat. “Gavin’s not well.”
“Yeah, your mom — ”
“It’s worse than that. I drove in yesterday after class. I’ve been up with him all night. He’s been vomiting. Sometimes blood.” Barry slumped against his steering wheel and looked past the others at the school building. “She’s got to work nights at the new job, and didn’t want to leave him alone. I told her he needs the hospital, but she’s afraid they’d take him to Kansas City.”
Allen and Joel exchanged a look. Allen shifted his weight nervously.
“Hospital?” Allen asked. “Why not just go to Doc Carlton’s?”
“Mom lost her insurance when she was laid off at the plant.” Barry rubbed his eyes. “You guys need to see something.”
They followed Barry to the Hullingers’ house. The place was quiet, Scab’s mom gone for work, having left a note for Barry on the counter. Upstairs, the odor started, hanging in the air like a blanket of rot.
“What’s that smell,” Allen said, his voice pinched as he held his nose.
Joel punched him in the arm.
Scab lay in bed — Springdale’s all-league middle linebacker reduced to a pallid smudge under his sheets. The putrid smell radiated from his room. Joel and Allen both tugged their jackets off in the stifling humidity. Barry pulled the comforter down to show Scab’s left hand, and his brother’s eyes fluttered open.
“Hey…guys,” he managed to say.
“Look.” Barry held up Scab’s left hand, peeled back the gauze, and titled the wound into the light so the others could see. The area around the small cut in Scab’s hand had blackened, and little dark fingers stretched out from the wound. His face was pale, but his hand, other than the black gash, was utterly gray.
“God…” Allen backed toward the door.
“God doesn’t have anything to do with this.” Barry gently laid his brother’s hand back on the mattress. Scab’s eyes blinked open and shut a few more times. “Do you still have the fish?”
Allen flashed a nervous glance at Joel. Joel set his jaw and shook his head.
“What? Why would we need the fish?” Allen took a step away from the bed.
“We dumped it,” Joel said, his voice flat and serious. “We dumped it in Potter’s Pond.”
Barry nodded his head slightly. “Potter’s Pond?”
“It’s what the old guys in town call that pond out behind Greenwillow.”
Barry stood and moved toward the door. “I want to find that fish.”
Joel, noting the stoic determination on Barry’s face, nodded and followed him down the stairs. “I’ll drive,” he called.
For a moment, Allen hesitated. He glanced back at Scab, and then scurried after them.
Barry grabbed a fish net and a couple of rods from the garage and tossed them in the back of Joel’s truck. It was an extended cab, but Barry jumped in the front seat, leaving the back for Allen.
“What’d you catch that thing with?”
“Just worms,” Joel said. He turned the key and fired up the truck. “We tried blood, liver, all kinds of stink bait, frozen shrimp…nothing else worked.”
Barry shook his head. “Just a theory I have. Let’s go — this could take a while. Can we stop by Jenson’s and pick up some more worms.”
“We have some over at Allen’s place.”
As Allen slammed his door, Scab came shambling out of the house wearing a heavy coat and unlaced boots. He waved for them to stop.
“I’m…going…too. I don’t…want to be left…alone.”
Three of them spilled out of the cab while the fourth leaned against the small, rear window of Joel’s truck. Scab’s eyes were open, staring out at the field of granite grave markers. “I’m going…to die,” he muttered.
“Stop saying that negative bullshit,” Barry said. “Look. You stay here. Stay warm. We’re going to catch that god-forsaken fish and figure out how to help you.”
The three healthy men started toward the fence. Joel and Barry were laden with fishing poles, a net, and various tackle; Allen carried his shotgun, his hands squeezing the stock and barrel until the knuckles went white.
Joel set his rod on the other side of the fence and pushed a heavy boot against the loose barbed wire, pushing it down so the other two could climb over. “I don’t know why you brought that thing. Not like you’re going to shoot the fish out of the water.”
“I just feel safer.”
“You’ll probably just shoot yourself in the foot.”
Joel and Barry led through the winding path to the pond, their feet cracking fallen twigs and sucking against soft patches of mud. Allen trailed behind.
“Why do you need the fish?” Joel asked.
“Well…the doctor might need to see it, to help figure out what the hell is wrong with my brother’s hand. I’m taking Gavin in either way — with or without Mom’s permission.” Barry looked at the sky. “We don’t have long.” Sunset was still two hours away, but the maze of dark branches overhead blotted out much of the light.
“You said you had a theory — about the live worms.” Joel pulled back a limb so Barry could climb underneath.
“Yeah. It’s a little crazy maybe, but I figure all that run off near the Republican must have something to do with that weird fish. None of my professors had heard of anything like it, but all of the chemicals the farmers dump on their fields, all the crap folks in town dump in the sewers…add up to a pretty nasty cocktail.”
“So?” Joel asked as he stepped into a small patch of clearing by the water’s edge and laid down his tackle.
“It’s called non-point source pollution, and the ditches around the edge of the fields are full of it. If anything could survive in that shit, it would have to be pretty hearty.”
“The fish you mean? I still don’t get it.”
“No — not the fish, exactly. I think all that chemical soup has bred some sort of super disease, a virus or bacteria maybe. Something that thrived in the polluted water. When the river flooded last spring, some of the super bug spilled out. Something that zombified a channel cat — that’s why it only went for the live worms. You assholes caught it and brought it home.”
“Zombified?” Joel tried to laugh as he squeezed a wriggling worm onto his first hook. “That’s nuts.”
“I told you that it was a little crazy. I figure the super bug killed the fish, but animated it enough to help seek out a new host — another living thing to infect. That ‘fish’ my brother caught on Sunday is one of nature’s grim adaptations.”
“Do you think, well, is Scab okay? A germ like that couldn’t jump from a fish to a person, right?”
“I don’t know. If it was hearty enough to survive in that crap, it could adapt to almost anything.”
Joel stopped baiting his hook for a moment. “Look, Barry. Sorry I’ve given you some much shit for being a college boy.”
Barry shrugged. “I’m not sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.”
Both men turned around as Allen stumbled from the brush. Allen smiled briefly, but his grin drooped into a frown as he glanced beyond his friends. “Hey, what the hell is that.” He pointed with barrel of his gun.
On the muddy bank only ten feet from where they gathered, a group of gray, flopping things crawled toward them, using their fins as makeshift legs. Joel thought they were too big for the bullhead that used to live in the pond; these creatures, drained of color like the fish Scab caught a few days prior, were the length of a man’s forearm.
Barry picked up the net and took a few steps toward the pale, writhing lumps. “Maybe we don’t have to catch that big one after all.”
Allen raised his gun halfway, but Joel caught the barrel in his hand.
“Careful there General Custer.”
“Looks like Gavin’s catch contaminated the pond.” With a swift motion of the net, Barry scooped a few of the fish-things from the mud. He reached into the net, careful not to catch his hand on the sharp spines poking from their pectoral fins, and lifted one out. “They’ve learned to crawl out of the water,” Barry said, his voice tinted with awe. “This thing isn’t breathing — it’s not alive, but…”
“We caught some healthy fish out of the river. How’d the whole pond go bad so fast?” Joel asked.
Barry held the gray mass in front of his eyes, studying it as its gaping mouth flapped open and shut — not for breath, but trying to bite Barry’s fingers. “The pond is stagnant. The river kept a little clean because of the running water.”
“Watch out.” Allen stepped back toward the path, unable to keep his eyes from the squirming thing in Barry’s grip. Having crawled through the mud, it looked more like a giant slug or worm, and less like a fish.
At Barry’s feet, a few more inched from the water. He stumbled over one. “Shit…they’re everywhere.” As Barry glanced down and tried to regain his balance, the thing he held lunged forward, squirting out of his hand. One spine raked across his throat before the creature flopped on the ground. Barry dropped to his knees and immediately pressed his hand against his neck. A crimson stain, almost black in the twilight near the pond, throbbed from between his fingers. A thick moan squeezed from his mouth as more of the things leapt toward him, lancing him with the spines on their pectoral fins.
Allen ran. Joel took one step toward Barry, but it was too late. Within moments, Barry’s body was covered with what seemed like hundreds of the flopping aberrations. Joel’s eyes caught more crawling from the murk at his feet. The edge of the water boiled with them. He kicked one away, launching it into the pond with a plop. Lifting his right foot, he ground another into the soft mud. There were too many. Retreating slowly at first, he remembered the afternoons in junior high when they would catch dozens in just a few hours. He hurried after Allen, crashing through the trees, hesitating only slightly as branches snapped and caught him in the face.
Clearing the edge of the path, he tried to hurdle the fence, but the top of his trailing boot caught, and he tumbled to the ground. Pushing off with both hands, he staggered to his knees and glanced behind him. The ground under the trees seemed to be alive, a moving shadow, shambling toward the fence as hundreds of undead fish struggled toward him.
Joel scrambled to his feet and rushed to the truck. Allen was twenty yards away and still running. Without looking inside first, Joel opened his door, and the reeking thing that had been his friend lunged for him.
The living and undead crashed on the ground. All trace of Gavin Hullinger’s humanity was gone. Its face, ashen and wasted with visible, black veins beneath the translucent surface, twisted into a snarl with bared teeth. A fishy stench of rot and decay spilled out.
“Allen!” Joel cried, kicking against the ghoul. He dug his fingers into the dead grass, pulling out little tufts as he struggled to free himself. “Allen, you son-of-a-bitch!”
Allen skidded to a stop. Now nearly forty yards from the truck, he looked back to see two bodies on the ground. Scab looked to be hugging Joel around the lower legs, and Joel fought to get away. Allen clicked the safety off on his gun. “Too far to shoot.” Shame more than courage forced him closer; he ran back another fifteen yards and raised the gun again.
“Do it!” Joel shouted.
Allen, never a good aim under the best circumstances, cracked off a shot.
Instead of hitting the undead Scab, Allen missed his mark and peppered the meaty part of Joel’s upper thigh. Spatters of his own blood caught Joel across the face. Wincing with pain, he stopped struggling just long enough for the ghoul to sink its teeth into his calf. Joel managed to work his pocketknife from his jeans, snapped it open, and plunged it into Scab’s eye socket.
Allen began to cry, and through his tears, he saw the undead fish undulating toward him.
“Oh god,” he muttered. With a few backward steps, he turned to run, but collided into a headstone, wrenching his ankle and toppling to the ground. The shotgun skidded from his hands.
“No…no…no,” he sobbed through the pain. The gun had landed a few yards away, and Allen began to crawl toward it. His spindly fingers dragged the rest of his body, but the things were close. Flopping and writhing, twisting through the brittle brown grass, they worked their way to him. Allen’s fingertips touched the end of the shotgun’s stock, but he already felt their sharp spines and nibbling sandpaper mouths at his ankles. Abandoning the gun, he dragged his body upright against a granite cross. He shook a few of the putrefied fish-things from his feet, and began a slow, but panicked limp toward the gates of the cemetery and away from Joel’s fading cries.
The fat, gray former-fish crawled after him, slowly at first, but as they adapted to the land, their awkward movement became rhythmic. They gained momentum, hundreds of tainted and ravenous undead fish, following Allen in his terror, as he inadvertently led them, pied-piper like, to the rest of Springdale.
8: Bait Worms
Albert stood in his kitchen with a warm mug of coffee, peering through the window into the driveway and the street beyond, looking for the boys. The morning sun had burned away a thin layer of fog, revealing a pristine, blue sky. It was a perfect Saturday for two boys on bikes; a perfect day for mischief.
He took a small sip of his coffee, turned to his wife, and asked, “Where did they say they were going?”
“I don’t remember,” Meghan said. She tucked her light hair behind her ears and pushed away a bowl of soggy corn flakes. “I’m not sure they told me. They’re twelve now, Albert. Old enough.”
He set his mug on the counter and leaned down with elbows resting on either side. “Old enough for trouble.” He glanced to the window again. “Did they take anything with them? Fishing poles, or a ball?”
“Owen asked for my old garden spade, and I think Lonnie was carrying something, too.” She stood and stretched, flashing a sliver of her pale stomach where her t-shirt and pajama trousers usually met. “He’s not a baby anymore, bub.”
Later that morning, Albert squatted on his driveway in front of his side-turned push mower, scraping the bottom of the cutting deck with an old paint knife. As the knife blade scraped against metal, thick clumps of grass clippings dropped to the ground. He wore shorts and an old, ragged t-shirt despite the early October chill. He turned at the sound of rubber skidding to a halt behind him.
“Hey, Dad,” Owen said, dismounting his bike. The boy’s hair was his father’s color — brown and thick, but his features stretched long and lean like his mother.
Albert flicked a clump of grass from his blade and stood. “Hey.” He rubbed his smudged hands against his shorts. “You and Lonnie have a good time this morning?”
Owen looked down at his bike and set it gently on the ground. “Yeah, just fine. Planning on going fishing this afternoon, up at Potter’s Pond. After lunch.” He pushed the spade behind him, flushing slightly as though embarrassed.
“Nothing. Just Mom’s old spade. The little one, for digging in the garden.”
Albert nodded. “You guys dig some worms? For fishing?”
Owen glanced at the house. “Yeah,” he said, rocking from one foot to the other. “Look, I’m pretty hungry.”
“Where’d you find the worms?”
Owen shrugged as he started walking toward the garage.
“Owen, where’d you find the worms?”
The boy stopped, his shoulders dropped, and he turned slowly to face his father. “Just in this old garden. Nobody uses it anymore. Really.”
Albert flinched slightly as though bitten. “Owen, was it the old house just north of the high school, the little white one?”
The boy dropped his head. “Yeah.”
“You know it isn’t safe — that house is slated for demolition.”
Owen nodded. “I know, but Nick Snyder said the best fishing worms lived in that garden.”
Albert knelt to his son’s height. “I don’t care what Nick Snyder said. I just want you to stay away from there, okay?” He tried to mask the concern in his voice. The man and his son stood in silence for a moment, the space between them growing tense and heavy. The front door crashed open, and Meghan stepped out, wiping her hands against a small towel.
“Owen, Lonnie’s mom called. Said he wasn’t feeling well, and he needed to take a rain check on the fishing trip.” Owen slumped to the garage to replace the spade. Meghan turned to Albert. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” he muttered.
During dinner on Monday night, Albert watched his son poke the meatloaf on his plate for the fifteenth time before saying anything. “Not hungry?”
The boy looked up, his face washed with a white frown. He shrugged and dropped his eyes back to the plate. His fork jabbed into the meatloaf again. “Not really.” He dropped the fork with a clatter on his plate. “Look, can I be excused?” His eyes swelled, rimmed with pink, prompting Albert to nod. Owen pushed from the tabled, grabbed his plate, and carried it into the kitchen.
Albert leaned closer to his wife. “I’m worried about him.”
“It’s a phase.” She grinned before taking another bite, and her green eyes danced. “I think he was a little upset because Lonnie is still sick.”
Albert looked at his hands and rubbed a thumb across the opposite palm. “I wish they wouldn’t have gone to Jantz’s place.” He took a sip of water, closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’m glad the city has decided to tear it down.” His eyes opened Meghan’s smile. “Demolition starts next week, and the new lot should be up before the end of the school year.”
Meghan nodded and took another bite. They sat in silence for a moment while she chewed. Eventually she set her fork down and studied Albert’s face. “I know that place carries some bad memories. Why don’t you lie down, let that headache melt away a little?”
“I’ll handle the dishes. Go lie down.”
Albert obeyed, leaving his dinner plate on the counter next to that of his son. After staggering upstairs, he stood at the foot of his bed in the dark room, pushed off both shoes, and flopped onto the comforter fully clothed. His eyes drifted shut.
He remembered that little house when its whitewash was fresh and the old man spat at trespassers. Elroy Jantz was a squat, shriveled man with black eyes and a quick temper. They’d teased him before — throwing rocks at his windows, even breaking one once. But Elroy Jantz’s garden had the best bait worms in town, and the promise of fat, wriggling things pulled the young Albert to that black garden with his own partner in crime, a thick boy with blonde hair named Ralph Chapman. Their parents warned them away from that old hermit’s place — said he was strange and dangerous, but the boys were twelve years old and invincible.
In Albert’s memory, Ralph swelled fat and whitish-pink, just like the worms. The swollen Ralph poked a hand toward Albert and called his name, “Albert…Albert…Albert…”
He started awake and looked into Meghan’s green eyes. “Megs…”
“You were out cold. Thought you might like to shower or at least change before bed.” She pulled her t-shirt over her head and started on the bra clasp.
Albert rose, blinking heavily, trying to shake the malaise from his limbs. He watched Meghan’s muscled back and pressed his hands against her skin.
“Oh, feeling frisky?”
He spun his wife, pressed his lips against hers, and forced his wriggling tongue into her mouth. They tumbled into bed. After they made love, Albert lay with her pressed against his naked body for a time, sucking in her sweet scent, trying to forget the memories.
A week burned away, and Owen sat at the kitchen table, scribbling small robots on scrap bits of notebook paper. Albert slipped in through the front door, dropped his briefcase next to an old wooden desk, and sat down next to the boy. Owen wore a pale, unresponsive scowl.
“Hey, buddy,” Albert said.
Owen cast a quick glance at his father, muttered “hey,” and dropped his eyes back to the paper. His hands worked quickly, spreading dark doodles across the white page. Albert began to notice a different pattern to Owen’s robots. Instead of fighting each other, the usual motif, Owen had rendered a handful of large worms poking from the ground and devouring his creations.
“Looks interesting.” Albert smiled as he spoke, trying to engage his son in conversation.
Owen shrugged. “Guess so.”
Albert watched the boy work for a few more minutes before the silence ate at him. He moved to the stairs, glanced back at his son, and hurried to his bedroom. Slipping from his suit felt freeing; Albert was always happy to shed his work clothes and throw on a pair of shorts and a worn t-shirt. He took a deep breath and sat on the bed for a moment. The room darkened slightly, and Albert turned to the doorway.
“Hi.” Meghan moved from the doorway and plopped on the corner of the mattress.
“Hey.” A moment passed. “Is Owen okay?”
Meghan slipped one hand on Albert’s back and rubbed the knotted muscles between his shoulders. “You’re tense. Carrying too much extra weight.”
“What’s up with Owen?”
Meghan’s hand dropped. She moved it to Albert’s knee. “Lonnie’s been sick all week. I think Owen is just a little worried about his friend. Maybe you two should go see him after dinner tonight.” She patted his leg, stood, and walked out of the bedroom.
Albert pressed the Bowman’s doorbell, and waited in silence next to his son. Owen had brightened slightly at the prospect of visiting his best friend, but the trip to Lonnie’s house had been quiet, almost tense. When the door clicked open, Albert sighed long and slow. A well-etched face greeted them.
“Yes?” Lonnie’s mom was a plump woman, middle-aged with too many worry lines around her eyes. She brightened a bit upon spotting Owen. “Oh, Owen. Lonnie will be happy to see you. Come in.”
Owen moved closer to his father as they crossed the threshold. The Bowman’s house smelled of flowers and Lysol. “Dad, come with me,” he whispered to his father.
“Sure, buddy.” Albert unconsciously reached for his son’s hand.
“Lonnie? You have company,” his mother announced at a bedroom door. The odor of disinfectant swelled from the dark interior, overwhelming the hint of flowers. She reached into the room and flicked a switch, illuminating the room.
Lonnie, his face washed like a bleached desert, lay under a thin blanket on his bed. His cheeks had collapsed some, lost some of their childish blubber in just one week. Under the blanket, his body shifted like a loose pile of bones. His mouth opened as if he would speak, but no sound came.
Albert staggered, seeing his old friend in Lonnie’s eyes: Ralph, sick and fading, pale and dying, just like Lonnie Bowman. Ralph ballooned in his memory and blocked out the lamp. Some things were better left in the ground. “Owen, I…” He retreated into the hallway and blew out the sick air. “Owen, I’m going to wait in the kitchen. You two probably want to talk.”
The boy turned to his father, nodded, and stepped closer to what remained of his friend.
Mrs. Bowman offered Albert a glass of water, and he sat sipping in silence. For her part, Mrs. Bowman bustled about the kitchen, finishing dinner dishes and scrubbing the stove top. She tried to ignore his presence, but seemed haunted by something. The silence grew, Albert fidgeted on his stool until he finally broke.
“What does the doctor think, you know, about Lonnie’s condition?” he asked, blushing and embarrassed like he was a child again.
She stopped her bustle. “Doc Wilson doesn’t know what to think. His tests come back showing anemia and all sorts of malnutrition, but he can’t find any cause. He has these pink marks, swollen in places — little lines, but the doctor doesn’t know what they are.” She laid the dishtowel on the counter, and shook her head lightly. “I don’t know what to do — ”
“What to do about what?” Owen stood at the entrance to the hallway, cradling a white cube under his arm.
Albert turned. “Nothing buddy. We were just talking. You ready?”
Mrs. Bowman pinched her face into a forced smile. “Thanks for coming. Really. I’m sure it meant so much to Lonnie.” She paused for a moment, took a breath, and steadied herself. “He’ll be back in school before you know it.”
Father and son sat next to each other in Albert’s car, both riding in silence and staring ahead into the dark night. Something writhed in Albert’s memory, and every few minutes he would glance at the Styrofoam box resting on his son’s lap. His hands tightened on the steering wheel until the question burned from his mouth.
“What’s in the box, buddy?”
Owen opened the lid slightly. “Just the worms. The ones we dug out of old Jantz’s garden.” He pushed the lid shut. “I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about going there, lying…”
Albert closed his eyes for a moment, stuffing his memories further into his brain. He sighed. “It’s okay, Owen.” He directed the car into their driveway.
“I think some of the worms got out.”
“Some of them got out.” Owen pulled open the box again. “Only about half of them are left.”
“I made him leave them in the garage. For the night at least.” Albert thrust his hands under his head and closed his eyes. He tried to relax as Meghan contorted during her nightly yoga routine. “I think we should dump them in the morning.”
Meghan stood and stretched, exhaling as her fingers extended to the ceiling. With a light sigh, she moved to the side of the bed, flipped up the comforter, and slipped in beside Albert. There was a purpose in her silence.
“Meghan?” Albert propped his head on one arm.
She closed her eyes. “Yes?”
“Don’t you think we should dump the worms in the morning?”
“Look, bub, I don’t think those worms have anything to do with Lonnie’s illness. They’re not hurting anybody here.” She opened her eyes slowly and turned to Albert. “As for Jantz — all that happened long ago. Ralph’s death wasn’t your fault or Elroy Jantz’s.” Meghan touched his face lightly with her hand. “That was all a long, long time ago.”
The weekend filled with rain, but on Monday morning Albert stood on the sidewalk in front of Elroy Jantz’s old house, a weary bungalow just blocks from the local high school. The old man was dead now, had been for the past eighteen months, but Albert still heard the threats — angry words that kept him away from that sidewalk for almost twenty-five years. He listened as the bulldozer growled angrily, creaking and clanking toward the small structure. His eyes seemed fixed on the house, but they saw a different time.
He remembered years before — a bright Saturday afternoon when he rode to Jantz’s house with his friend, Ralph. They crept through the old man’s back gate, slipped past the no trespassing sign into his vegetable garden, and pawed in the rich earth for the best bait worms in town. Jantz burst from his backdoor, spewing curses at the boys, catching Ralph by the collar before he could scramble to his feet and run.
The voice yanked Albert from his memory. “Yeah — yeah, what is it?”
The foreman stepped forward, handing him a phone. “Your wife, sir. Something about a friend of your boy…in the hospital.” His voice was ground under the cracking and rending of old wood as the bulldozer crushed the small house.
When Albert came home that evening, he checked the container of worms, verifying that they were still there.
Elroy Jantz came to visit Albert in his dreams that night. The old man’s pinched and grey face swelled before him, just as it had twenty-five years ago. Albert was a child again, a boy cowering before the gnarled man that held his best friend. He wanted to run, to hide, but the magnetic pull the old man held him locked to the moment.
“I’ve been watching you. You threw rocks — broke my window, trampled my garden, and now you boys want some worms, huh? Well, have some, have some.” He forced Ralph’s jaw open and shoved a wriggling thing inside. “Eat up, boys.”
The twelve-year-old Albert panicked, burned with terror upon seeing his friend’s wide, frightened eyes. He turned and ran, left his bike behind the old man’s fence and sprinted home, lungs exploding all the way. The old man yelled after Albert. He closed his eyes, but Jantz’s face swelled again, and a voice rose in his head. “Your turn’s comin’ boy. You’re next.”
Albert woke with a thick coat of sweat covering his head and arms. He heard a sound, maybe small feet working up the stairs, and then a click of a door. Albert rose, moved quickly from bed, out his door, and through the hallway to Owen’s room. Inside, the boy lay quiet and still. Albert turned back to his bedroom, and noticed a small smudge of mud on the carpet. He returned to bed and stared at the ceiling until dawn.
On Tuesday afternoon, Albert stepped out of the hospital into the bright sunshine. Lonnie had looked worn and grey, much like his memory of Ralph from all those years ago. Albert felt compelled to make the visit — he had to check Lonnie’s arms, see for himself all the unnatural pink lines under his skin. In the parking lot, a man stepped from behind a truck — just a pale shimmer of a man, a flicker in the afternoon sun. Elroy Jantz.
Albert’s breath caught in his throat, and he forced his eyes away. The air fell heavy on his bare skin, loaded and icy — enough that Albert shivered and drew the collar of his jacket about his neck. A quick gust of breeze whispered past his ear, and curiosity ripped his eyes back to the old man. He was gone, devoured by the grey air. A voice spoke in his head as Albert rushed to his car.
Elroy Jantz’s ghost chased Albert home. His anxiety grew as he sped through quiet, residential streets, knuckles whitening as he clutched the steering wheel. The worms had to go — maybe back to the lot that once held Jantz’s little house or dumped by the roadside out of town — but they had to go.
He guided his car into the driveway and waited as the garage door slowly rose, allowing a growing bar of muted daylight inside the dark space. The worm box rested on the workbench, and Albert snatched it quickly and tucked it under one arm. Meghan’s voice punched at him from inside the house as Albert turned back to his car.
“Albert!” she called again, almost shouting to snap his hypnosis.
He stopped and turned. “Yes?”
“Albert, I’ve tried to call all afternoon. Your phone — ”
“I shut it off.” He backed a step toward the car. “I went to see Lonnie Bowman today.”
Meghan stepped into the garage, her face pale like fresh wax. “Oh. Albert, Owen came home sick today.” She pushed at her hair, an anxious gesture.
Albert blinked. The box felt heavy, and he dropped it on the hood of his car. “Sick?”
“He doesn’t look good. His arms…I’ve called Doc Wilson.”
The box seemed to throb. Albert pried off the lid and peered inside. He scanned the black earth, started clawing at the dirt, and only found a few, fat worms. He dropped the lid and dug a clump out with one fist, a writhing thing just visible between his fingers. “Not the boy…me…my turn…” he muttered before shoving the fistful into his mouth.
9: The Surgeon of An Khe
His name was Gerard Karnowski, and he hailed from Hoboken, New York. Legend held that some of the guys in the platoon tried to drop the nickname Carney — as in carnival sideshow freak — on him, but that happened before he was dubbed The Surgeon. Before he earned the name. I met The Surgeon during my time in-country, stationed with D Company, 1st Infantry, 22nd Regiment outside of An Khe, Republic of Vietnam. Regulars, by God.
During my first few weeks in the bush, we walked. We walked in the rain, in mud, orange creeping mud that sucked at your boots as a reminder that you walked on a foreign planet. The insects, especially the mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, swarmed and buzzed, harassing us day and night. We sometimes walked in the thick, humid night to set up an ambush, waiting for the invisible enemy. When we weren’t walking, we dug into that red-orange mud, trying to create a small pocket of security in an alien jungle. While on patrol one day, I unexpectedly stumbled on The Surgeon at work.
He hunched over the body of a lone Viet Cong, a sniper killed by a foreword unit in our column. Our platoon commander, Lt. Terry Wucker, this scared twenty-two year old fresh out of ROTC, squatted under a tree with the radio operator, calling in the enemy KIA by the book. A few of the men fanned out to keep watch on the perimeter, some whispered low, maintaining noise discipline, but I watched The Surgeon as he sliced into the dead flesh, removing the left eye from the body with the fluid motion of his bowie knife.
“What the hell is he doing,” I whispered to Tallman, a short-timer who had humped the boonies with The Surgeon for almost ten months. Tallman once said that ten months was long enough to sweat in Vietnamese for the rest of your life.
“Cutting the fucker’s eye out,” he said. “What the hell does it look like?” Curiosity, like strange but powerful gravity, pulled my eyes back to the body. The Surgeon’s hands worked quickly. His wide, flashing knife didn’t have the precision of a scalpel, but his fingers carried a swift and special skill.
“He collects them.” Tallman spat on the ground and rubbed his saliva into the dirt with the toe of his boot. “He fucking collects them,” he repeated, shaking his head.
I watched in silence as The Surgeon pulled a glass jam jar from his rucksack, a jar filled with clear fluid and a few floating horrible things — other eyes with small bits of flesh clinging to them, bobbing like bleached olives. After unscrewing the lid, he held the new eye in his palm, rinsed it with a splash of water from his canteen, and dropped it into the jar.
“Rumor is, they help him see,” Tallman said, laughing.
The Surgeon looked up and smiled at me as he rubbed the thick blood from his knife on a tuft of elephant grass. After he slipped the clean, glinting knife back into its scabbard and stood, I thought the man was a giant. He looked at me, and his mouth fell open in a wide grin.
When The Surgeon walked point, he wore the jar on a small leather cord around his neck like a special charm, and we never made contact with the enemy. He led us through dense underbrush, often hacking our way through the humming thickness of the jungle, but none of the grunts complained. He kept us safe.
One day, the lieutenant lost it. His college education blocked common sense — wisdom that even I, a straw-headed farm kid from Kansas — could comprehend. After stopping the column, the thin line of green men snaking through the leaves, Lt. Wucker steamed past me and moved forward, approaching The Surgeon as he knelt at the front of our unit.
“What the hell are we doing?” he asked in a near-whisper, his voice quavering enough to belie his frustration and insecurity.
“Avoiding traps.” The Surgeon didn’t speak often, but his voice was low, grinding like slabs of concrete rubbed together. He looked forward, into the jungle ahead, not really speaking to the lieutenant at all.
“Like hell. We’re heading the wrong direction.” Lt. Wucker squirmed a bit as he spoke, an effect of the jar of swimming eyes hanging around The Surgeon’s neck.
“Your mistake,” said The Surgeon.
“I’m in command. Decker, on point. Karnowski, you head to the rear of the column.”
We didn’t march long before we all realized Lt. Wucker’s error. While walking point, Nick Decker, nineteen-year-old high school dropout from Alabama, stepped into a small hole filled with sharpened bamboo shafts — a hole in the ground like the maw of some awful, prehistoric shark. The point of one stake punctured the bottom of his boot, slicing through his foot, and punching through the leather upper. Nick released a sharp yelp of pain and dropped to his knees. We spent an hour sorting out a medivac.
“Fucking Lieutenant,” Tallman muttered as we sat on the orange earth and smoked.
When we weren’t walking and digging holes in the dirt, we waited in the rear. The rear — sounds like we actually had a front line — only a newbie called it the rear for long. But short stints at base camp brought better sleep, quick showers, and nights of poker under a corrugated steel roof that amplified the rainy season.
“Linder, stop fucking around and deal,” Tallman said after biting the tip off of his cigar and spitting the brown plug onto the dirt floor of the hootch. I quickly tossed five cards to each of the guys around the table, Tallman, Dave Rowe, Mickey Hernandez, Cliff Manalo, and myself.
“Did you guys hear about Decker?” Rowe, a pale kid from Minnesota, asked in his slow northern drawl while the rest of us scrutinized and organized our cards.
“Lost his foot.” Tallman flipped open his Zippo and ignited the end of his cigar.
“No shit.” I looked past Tallman to where The Surgeon sat on his bunk, casually flipping through the pages of Hot Rod. The dim light of the barracks cast a pall over his face, graying his features like a silver gelatin print of some grim-faced old salt from one of my high school history books. The jar sat on a small shelf next to him, covered with a green towel.
“Fucking gangrene. Had to amputate.” The cigar tip glowed as Tallman inhaled.
“Fucking Lieutenant,” Manalo said, laying his cards face down on the table. He was a solid and square man with a dark face and smudged jaw.
“Should have listened to The Surgeon.” Tallman tossed five cigarettes in the center of the table. “Ante up, boys.”
I didn’t find much sleep at night, any night, but I spent that particular night stretched on my bunk, staring at the dark ceiling of the bunkhouse, thinking about Nick Decker’s missing foot and The Surgeon’s jar of eyes, eventually dreaming about one-eyed men marching toward me, each extending one hand. The next morning, as we saddled up for a return to the bush and our hide-and-seek game with a phantom enemy, curiosity ate at my stomach like I’d swallowed a fist full of nails.
“I don’t get it,” I said, clutching my M-16 like a lifeline.
“What don’t you get?” Tallman tightened the straps on his rucksack.
“Does he always just cut out one eye?”
“Yeah, since I’ve known him.”
“I don’t get it…”
“What’s there to get?” Tallman shrugged and shouldered his pack while the deafening thump of helicopter blades devoured us.
In the field, our lives resumed the predictable pattern of walk, dig, sleep for two, three hours, and repeat. Lt. Wucker received word from the CO that elements of D Company drew the job of flushing out a contingent of North Vietnamese regulars massing north of An Khe. To us grunts, all this meant was more walking with the chance that some violence would break up the tedium of routine. We were bait.
I sat on my helmet, cleaning my M-16 for the second time that morning. Around me, other members of the platoon milled around, smoking, flashing quick glances at each other without speaking. While reassembling my weapon, my roving eyes caught The Surgeon, standing alone, dissecting the pile of forest in front of him. The jar rested in the palm of his right hand, and I thought his lips moved a little, like he was talking to someone I couldn’t see. He turned and strolled toward the Lieutenant. I stood, snagging my pot and dropping back on my head as I meandered in the same direction.
“Lieutenant,” said The Surgeon.
Lt. Wucker looked at him, folded the map he studied a moment before, and stuffed it inside a plastic bag before speaking. “Yeah Karnowski?”
“Bad vibes today.” The Surgeon’s eyes wandered past Wucker.
“We have orders, Karnowski.” The Lieutenant tried to meet his gaze. “I don’t give a shit about your goddamn vibes, understand?”
The Surgeon thrust his thumb over one shoulder toward the thick trees behind him. “Sniper. Thought you should know.” With this, he turned and marched away from Lt. Wucker and over to a small group of grunts — Tallman and Manalo among them. Wucker stood like a whitewashed statue for a moment before turning back to the radio and digging his map out of the plastic bag.
Fifteen minutes into the thick canopy and a VC sniper split Private First Class Matthew Tallman’s head with one well placed shot. He walked only ten feet in front of me, and with one quick snap, his body dropped to the ground like an abandoned marionette. I instantly burrowed, clutching my helmet to my head, terror slashing and burning through my prone body. I inhaled the pungent mud and dropped my weapon. I scratched at the ground while some members of the platoon returned fire; the popping reports of M-16s sounded like little firecrackers lit under a Folgers can, seeming so far away.
After a few moments of fear, I scrambled for my gun. My eyes caught The Surgeon boring straight into me with an infrared glare. He pointed at me and then pushed toward me with his hand. Without thinking, I obeyed, rolling to the other side of a jagged tree stump. A small geyser of earth erupted where I’d been. I swallowed hard while my eyes were drawn by that small smoking crater.
Members of our platoon sprayed the treetops with gunfire until a slight man in black dropped like poisoned fruit. He hung in space, tied to a rope attached to the top of the tree, dangling in front of the tree trunk just feet off the ground.
Lt. Wucker sent a few men on perimeter watch while the medic attended Manalo, his right side ripped into a jagged, crimson wound by the sniper. Hernandez and Rowe zipped PFC Matthew Tallman’s nearly headless body into a black bag. Only then did the chattering jungle sound return. That was the odd thing, the quiet, listening jungle followed by the slow rise of distant monkeys, birds, and buzzing insects.
The Surgeon stood alone next to the sniper, rolling a toothpick in his mouth. He pulled the knife from its hilt, sawed the rope, and dropped the body to the ground. Kneeling then, with deftness and precision, he carved out another eye for his jar as the heavy beating of a medivac helicopter closed around us.
Somebody should frag that son-of-a-bitch.” Mickey Hernandez scowled as we hunched outside our tents and smoked the last cigarettes of the day. I looked from him to Dave Rowe, and then The Surgeon.
“Yeah, fuck him. He should listen to The Surgeon.” Rowe looked at me, and my stomach squirmed.
“Can’t be helped,” said The Surgeon as he tossed the smoldering butt of his cigarette into a stand of damp grass and ducked inside his tent.
“I still say we should frag that son-of-a-bitch.” Mickey Hernadez puffed out his chest and sucked in a long drag. Through the shadows just inside his tent, I could see The Surgeon’s face, eyes open and staring beyond the green canvas.
After a few weeks of intense search and destroy, the company returned to the rear for a week of rest, part of the constant cycle. During that month of combat, The Surgeon continued to collect eyes until a full school like little fish swam inside that small jar. After Tallman’s death he withdrew, talking little to anyone, not even the Lieutenant. Tension in the platoon mounted with causalities, and we would never wash the orange earth from under our fingernails.
The Surgeon approached the officers’ hootch the night before we were scheduled to ship out again. While sucking on a cigarette and enjoying the night sky in relative safety, I watched him knock on the door, say something to the man that answered, and wait. Wucker came to the door when summoned, and The Surgeon seemed to be explaining something to him, gesturing with his arms more than I’d seen in the past. The Lieutenant shook his head, returned inside, leaving The Surgeon to turn and wander away. He walked toward the perimeter, and my legs started in that direction without conscious thought.
“Hey,” I said, sidling next to him, “how’d you know…”
“…it was you? Easy.” He held the glass jar toward me, white orbs dancing as the liquid jostled inside. “Take it. Give it a try.”
I moved my left arm to take the jar, but hesitated, a vice squeezing my lungs.
“They won’t bite.” He dropped the jar in my hand, and I felt it as a small electric pop — like static electricity but moving through my arm and chest. The eyes bounced and jumped. I looked at him, his rectangular face, washed with an even pallor in the twilight, and then his face faded, the sharp coil of concertina wire in front of us faded, even the night faded like so much color washed down a drain.
I glimpsed snatches of jungle, trail, rice paddy, and even here in the camp through dozens of eyes at once. I reeled for a moment, spinning and lost with no solid substance beneath my feet, then, looking down, realizing I had no feet. My skull burned, but I heard his voice saying, “focus, focus” inside my brain. The ground rushed at me, and I fell to my knees, my perception suddenly thrust back behind my eyes as I doubled over, retching, on the hard ground.
“It gets easier Linder.” He held the jar again, and offered a hand to help me stand. “Focus on where we are right now.”
I took the jar again, cold and heavy in my hand, and concentrated. Again, the world faded, but this time the colors melted together again in an eerie, not quite daylight glow. My eyes seemed to stretch their scope and vision into the jungle, reaching out almost like fingertips. In the strange space, people — soldiers — walked from between the trees. The whole scene vibrated inside-out, like a shimmering photo negative.
Some of these shadow soldiers approached me and reached out with black fingers. The jar vibrated in my hands, almost dancing as the figures approached. Each had one eye, the other just a space, and empty circle of white. I didn’t really feel anything — no fear, no repulsion.
One of the shadows stepped in front of the others. He touched the side of his face, the space next to his intact eye, and I suddenly stretched like a thin filament through space, drawing into his vision. Daylight burst in normal colors. Our company lined up outside the bunk houses, and an unfamiliar officer paced in front of the line of ragged grunts. I saw faces I knew, but no Gerard Karnowski or Lt. Terry Wucker.
Suddenly, blackness and stars leapt at me while The Surgeon chuckled at my side. “You’ll learn.” Then a pop, a nearby but muffled sound. I hugged the earth, fearing sappers — a surprise attack. As I hunched to the ground, my eyes were parallel to his boots, black but caked with too much of the red-orange dirt. The Surgeon hadn’t even flinched.
“That’ll be the Lieutenant.” He knelt down next to me as I pushed myself into a sitting position. His eyes flashed for a moment, almost fading to bright red before dissolving into his usual brown. “I tried to warn him.” I looked into camp and saw dark forms rushing about in the night as the raid sirens began to crank.
“Look. You keep this.” He set the jar on the ground next to me. “I’m tired. It’s gotten too heavy.” He strolled back toward the hootches, tumult, and commotion, vanishing in shadow and movement. I sat on the ground next to the jar, just studying the eyes for a short while before scooping it up and heading for shelter.
Gerard Kowalski was gone the next morning. In his bunk lay his clothes and bowie knife, but nothing else, no letter, no clues to his disappearance. Lt. Wucker died, officially, at the hands of a VC sapper. Most of the members of D Company knew the truth. One of us — hell, all of us — fragged him for not following The Surgeon’s advice.
In time, I learned to rely on those shadow-soldiers. I learned to “see” like The Surgeon: avoiding mines, snipers, and helping to make the platoon one of the most efficient in the 1st Infantry. Our new Lieutenant learned to value the gift The Surgeon left behind. At the end of June, 1970, I boarded a Freedom Bird and came back to The World. The jar, wrapped in brown paper, rested in my lap on the plane. Disconnected from war, its power faded, but it sits, my one souvenir, on a shelf in my basement, next to old Christmas ornaments and board games — still wrapped in plain brown paper.
10: Bottom Feeders
We rode our bikes to Potter’s Pond on lazy Saturday afternoons in the spring, before school let out for the summer and the heat grew too oppressive. I struggled on my brother’s ten-speed while Joel raced his red Huffy. We traveled with our fishing poles balanced on handlebars, jutting out in front of us like antenna. Potter’s Pond was a forbidden place tucked behind Greenwillow Cemetery, a secluded spot to fill Saturday afternoons. Joel’s dad had lectured him about trespassing and how much trouble we could find — but we laughed at his warnings, and Elroy Jantz, the old owner of the bait shop, told stories that drew us like moths.
“Hope you’re not planning on heading up to Potter’s Pond,” he told us as he scooped baitworms into a brown paper sack. “It’s a pauper’s grave, full of folks who couldn’t feed their families or buy a small hunk of land of their own.”
We snickered at first.
“Dressed ‘em in old throwaway suits and dresses from the DAV for a quick service, then tossed the bodies straightway in the water, just as soon as the dead man’s folks left.” The old man leaned forward, examining us with his black gaze, and then laughed in a thick tone that killed our smiles but roused curiosity. “They died hungry, and they’re still hungry.”
The sky was clear, and the bright sunshine chased away any shivers spawned by Elroy’s story as we wound through the gravel paths of that immense cemetery. Generations of Spring County residents lay under the rolling grass with plenty of hills and trees blocking the view, so we couldn’t take in the whole place from any one vantage point. I struggled on the gravel roads because of the narrow ten-speed tires; Joel rode ahead and would mock me over his shoulder with lines from B-movies we watched on late night TV.
“They’re coming to get you, Denny,” he said that day.
We left our bikes at the back of the cemetery as usual, laying them down just outside a barbed-wire fence hiding in the tree line. That fence marked the border between Potter’s Pond and Greenwillow. Erected years ago out of crooked tree limbs and poorly strung, the fence wouldn’t hold our weight, so we took turns squeezing between the sharp wires while the other pried them open, crossing the threshold one at a time.
Through a path between trees — tall oaks perfect for climbing with low, untrimmed branches, dying brown pines, and knobby arthritic redbuds — we saw the green of the pond. The odors of dirt, moss, and decay floated in the air. Stout Kansas wind rarely broke the water’s surface because of the trees that encroached on its lip; only two small bare patches of packed dirt remained open for fishing. The pond wrapped around at the eastern end, bending out of sight. I’m sure it would be a sort of gourd shape if seen from above, with curved stem hidden from view by branches and aggressive undergrowth. The land around the pond was so green and alive, yet somehow twisted, crooked, and diseased. Sometimes old man Jantz’s stories were easy to believe.
Joel sat and busied himself with knots and fishing line. I worked a writhing earthworm onto a single barbed hook. We never used treble hooks in that pond anymore; the bullhead, these runty catfish, had small mouths, and we lost many hooks before learning our lesson. A worm threaded on a thin hook worked well enough on those eager bottom feeders.
“How many you shooting for today?” Joel asked as he tied the nearly invisible knot with his adept hands.
“At least a dozen.” I chuckled, casting my line into the slime, studying my orange cork bobber, waiting for the inevitable action.
After a few moments of silence, Joel stood and tossed his line in, angling away from mine. “I’m going for something big today.” He sat on the packed earth, staring into the water. “Something big has to live in there.”
We waited. Joel’s bobber was the first to dip below the still surface. “First blood,” he said. As he yanked the pole to set his hook, the line held.
“First snag,” I replied. Potter’s Pond may have been full of hungry bullhead, but it also contained more than its share of snags — bits of log, vines, and roots of trees that undoubtedly created a thick underwater labyrinth. This made a perfect home for bottom feeders, scavengers lying in wait, and a perfect spot for snags.
Joel tugged hard, walking his pole up the bank. “Whatever it is, I’m pulling it out.”
I glanced into the stinking water. “Are you sure you want to?”
“I don’t want to tie another damn knot and lose a hook if I can yank this out.”
I watched the spot where his line broke the surface. Slowly, steadily, the water split open and something green-black under the afternoon sun grew out of the pond. At first I thought it was a log, a mossy bit of fallen tree until the heavy vulture’s head of a massive snapping turtle rose from the surface.
“Cut the line.” I scrambled up the bank toward Joel.
“Cut the line!” When I felt a safe distance from the water, I turned and watched the monster sink below the surface. Joel sat behind me with his pocket knife still clutched in his hand, and I joined him on the ground.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I wonder what else is in there.”
I turned to look at Joel, his eyes wide and curious.
If he hadn’t pulled out that behemoth snapper, we would have never searched the uncharted end of Potter’s Pond for a new spot to cast our lines. As we walked through the underbrush, any lingering sign of a path disappeared. Our pant legs caught on thistles and sandburs, swishing and snagging through the calf-high grass. The high branches began to hoard sunlight, and despite the clear sky beyond, swollen shadows darkened around us. The far end of the pond always rested in the shadows.
Below the sound of our tramping feet and whisper of the grass, another sound grew and spread. This sound reminded me of camping trips: the buzzing of a thousand flies around a trash bin after Dad cleaned the day’s catch.
“Do you hear that?” I asked Joel.
“The buzz,” I whispered to him. I don’t know why I whispered, other than the feeling of being swallowed by the shadows and trees. He stopped ahead of me and balanced his pole on the ground.
“Denny.” He slowly turned his head to look over his left shoulder all goggle-eyed. “Come here.” Maybe his quavering voice, seeing too much white around his eyes, or the claustrophobic trees spurred my fear because I wanted to leave, climb on the bike and go. But I obeyed him against the growing storm in my stomach.
He said nothing more; he didn’t need to say anything else. Lying on the ground, jutting out from behind a low, scratchy bush, I saw two legs. Pants really, and shoes, but they had form and shape unlike they would if they were empty. The pants were black, dirty with mud, and torn in places. I thought of Grandpa’s funeral, the black suit in which we buried him, and suddenly remembered the legions of dead on the other side of the short barbed wire fence behind us. Old man Jantz’s stories of the poor, unhappy dead swirled in my head.
I can’t exactly explain the feeling, but the body drew me to it like some sort of obscene gravity — like a lure, a worm on a hook for a curious twelve-year-old boy. Joel stayed behind, but I rounded the bush and looked on the rest of this grotesque thing. The torso was still covered by a filthy suit coat that had once been black like the pants. My eyes traced the left arm to a white bloated hand covered thickly by black flies, the source of the buzzing sound. Corrupted by insects, water, and occasional shafts of warm sunlight, what flesh remained seemed shiny and waxen, like melted fat. I stood for a moment and stared. Maybe the motion of the files fooled me, but the hand seemed to twitch and move, curling those awful dead fingers.
Joel poked me in the ribs and shouted, “Gotcha!”
My body burst with terrible fire, all my nerves lit with fright. I screamed, dropped my fishing pole, wheeled, pushed the laughing Joel out of my path, and ran without thinking. It was pure fight or flight. No thought impulses broke through to my higher brain until I had scrambled over the barbed wire fence, tearing my pants and carving a long red scratch on my right leg. Behind me, someone — surely Joel — crashed through the brush. I thought I heard his voice, but I already pushed furiously against my bike pedals, racing for the stone pillars at the exit of Greenwillow.
By the time I rode the five blocks home, my terror had cooled to the point that I even questioned whether I saw a body at all, almost laughing at myself for fleeing. The pond, those trees, and the midday darkness became so surreal, so far away. Mom knelt in her flower garden, and she watched as I coasted down our hill and into the driveway.
“You and Joel have fun dear?”
“Yeah,” I answered. In the post flight hangover, I didn’t feel like talking, and I certainly didn’t want to try and explain anything about the forbidden pond. When I stretched out in bed that night, trying to sleep, I kept seeing that white flesh and the buzzing flies floating in the shadows of my room. Once sleep came, I dreamed of that snapping turtle and the hideous white hand. I woke in the morning like I had swallowed a heavy stone; I’d left my fishing pole at the pond.
Blaming Joel for the lost pole, I ignored him at school on Monday. He had a different home room teacher, and I took band, so our class schedules were thankfully unaligned. He approached me in the hallway twice, maybe with a well-planned apology, but I turned the other way each time I spotted him. That night he called the house. Mom answered I had her lie and say I was out. She should have suspected a falling out between Joel and me, but she played ignorant well.
But Joel cornered me after school on Tuesday. “Look Denny, let’s talk,” he said.
“I’ve got nothing to say.”
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“Great.” I looked at him, anger boiling behind my blue eyes.
“Okay.” His voice sounded unconvinced, skeptical, but he continued. “I think we should go to the police.”
“The body, remember.”
“I remember you scaring the shit out of me.” I really wasn’t ready to play nice, and I’d spent the last two days trying to convince myself that I didn’t see a rotting corpse — just some old, discarded clothing. His witness to the thing brought it to life again, the white hand moving, twitching.
“Look.” He shifted his weight between legs. “I said I’m sorry.”
“I left my pole. I want it back…” I didn’t think before adding, “asshole.”
He looked at me in silence. The blood sucked out of his face, and his mouth hung open slightly. “Fine,” he eventually said. “Fine. And I’ll make sure that dead guy is still there before I call the cops. No problem.” His voice trembled at that boundary between anger and tears, that special emotional cocktail unique to adolescents. He turned and walked away, lost in the mass of students laughing and slamming their lockers in the hallway.
The phone rang after dinner that night, and Mom answered. Five minutes later she stood in the doorway of my bedroom with arms crossed. I paused the game and met her grey gaze, and I squirmed in the gravity of that moment.
“Dennis, that was Joel’s mom.” She uncrossed her arms and sat down on the corner of my bed. “Joel didn’t come home after school today.”
I thought about the argument in the hallway. In my mind’s eye, I saw the pond, the body lying in wait just at the edge of the dark water, and the rotting hand opening as I crept closer. My stomach deflated, cast aside like an old balloon. I knew where Joel went, but the rational, logical part of me still wanted to forget about the dead pond and pretend he was safe at home.
“His parents want to know if you have any idea where he is.”
“No.” I broke her gaze and searched the pile of laundry on the floor across the room. “No, I don’t really have any idea.”
“Where were the two of you on Saturday?”
My neck was hot now, and sweat tingled under my arms.
“Dennis?” She rose from my bed, but felt miles away from me.
“Just riding around,” I lied. “We just rode around.”
Joel wasn’t at school the next day, but the rumors flowed freely. I walked in the fog, struggling to pay attention to anything the teachers said, breaking two reeds in band, and dropping my tray at lunch. After lunch the pressure building in my chest became too much. I told my English teacher that I needed to see the principal before fifth period. He called the police.
Mom and I rode together, following the squad cars through the winding gravel pathways in Greenwillow Cemetery. A red Huffy rested against an old junk pine. The police, a few city cops and three or four sheriff’s deputies, waded into the grass and ruined trees around Potter’s Pond. Aside from his bike and my fishing pole, they didn’t find any sign of Joel. I shook at Mom’s side, broken in my chest because I had sent him back to that place, alone, in the late afternoon. Elroy Jantz’s words, “…they’re still hungry…” rattled in my skull.
I begged her to bring me back the next day, let me skip school. She consented — Joel and I were close, and she heard the fear on my quivering voice. The sheriff’s department brought a small boat and the hooks they use when dragging a river. I knew what that meant, but tried to avoid the thoughts.
They found his body that afternoon. Mom and I were held on the other side of the yellow tape, but cries and shouts made the announcement for us. I squirmed from Mom’s grasp, darted under the tape and through the gap that the police had opened in the fence. The officers stood around, one of them kneeling on the ground, examining two bodies. Between the officers’ legs I caught a snatch of Joel’s face and his arm. His swollen, too-pale flesh was covered with pink marks — torn patches from cuts or scrapes, places where his skin had broken open. The other body was covered, but one arm hung out from underneath the plastic — a horrible arm ending in a slick, rotting hand — just like the body we’d found a few days before.
One of the police officers saw me and pushed me back towards the fence, but as I backpedaled, squirming against the push toward the cemetery, I overheard the deputies as they discussed how a body would usually float for a few days after it fills with air, but something held Joel’s body under. When they pulled it from the murk, the other corpse came too — the corrupted body of a man wearing the strips and tatters of an old, black suit. A cheap suit like something you’d pick up at the DAV. The decaying hands of that body had been wrapped around Joel’s ankles, locked tight; it had lured Joel closer, just as I felt drawn on Saturday, hooked him, and pulled him under for the hungry bottom feeders.
“Everything in Its Place” © 2009 first appeared in 10Flash, edited by KC Ball.
“In Hollow Fields” © 2009 first appeared in Return of the Raven, edited by Maria Grazia Cavicchioli
“Tesoro’s Magic Bullet” © 2009 first appeared in Nossa Morte, November 2009.
“A Plague from the Mud” © 2008 first appeared in Monstrous, edited by Ryan C. Thomas.
“Care and Feeding of the Old Flat Mile” © 2009 first appeared in The Black Garden, edited by Christopher Allan Death.
“The Eyes Have It” © 2009 first appeared as an audio podcast at Well Told Tales.
“Grim Adaptations” © 2009 first appeared in Dead Bait (Severed Press).
“Bait Worms” © 2008 first appeared in Niteblade Fantasy and Horror, edited by Rhonda Parrish.
“The Surgeon of An Khe” © 2009 first appeared in Absent Willow Review.
“The Bottom Feeders” © 2008 first appeared in Cemetery Moon #3, edited by Chris Pisano