/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Shut the Fuck Up and Die!

W Rose

The old house knew the taste of blood. It was as familiar with screams as it was the wind whistling through the desolate pine forest in which it hid. For within its walls, a sadistic evil had taken root in the minds of its residents: a family whose fiendish desires demanded blood, tears, and pain to quench their savage thirst for brutality.

Enter Matt And Mona: young newlyweds with the misfortune to have car trouble at the wrong place, on the wrong night…. As good samaritans lead them into the isolation of the woods, no one realized a nightmare was about to be unleashed…

Prepare yourself. It’s about to get very, very bloody.

“If you think you have the stomach for gruesome and graphic, give this book a spot on your digital shelf.”

~ Carl Hose, author of Blood Legacy

SHUT THE FUCK UP AND DIE!

by William Todd Rose

SCENE ONE

She had quickly learned to keep movement at a bare minimum; even the slightest jostle sent flares of agony racing through her hands and coaxed beads of sweat from the pores on her brow. As long as she sat perfectly still, however, the pain was nothing more than a dull throb that pulsed in time with her heart. She choked back the waves of nausea that flooded her mouth with bitter, stinging acids and kept her breathing as steady as could be expected. She was beginning to get cold, though: chills crept over her naked flesh and she felt the little muscle in her jaw quiver like a frightened animal. It was only a matter of time before her body was wracked with shivers; and with these involuntary movements would come fresh blasts of pain, a Hell that radiated from the palms of her hands and raced along her arms like fiery serpents. So she tried picturing a beach: the sun sparkled on the blue expanse of water, warmed the sand that stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see; overhead, a gull cried out and that salty aroma in the air was nothing more than the waves leaving traces of foam as they pulled back into the ocean. Nothing more than saltwater. Certainly not the lingering tang of blood or….

Why don’t they just kill me and get it over with?

She opened her eyes and looked, for what must have been the thousandth time, at the rusty spikes that had been hammered through her palms. The flesh puckered around the metal and the inner edges were crusty with congealed blood; her skin had become so pale and shriveled that it looked as though she’d been washing dishes for hours and this made the dark scabs seem as if they were floating just slightly above the wound. She knew better than to wiggle her fingers, but fought the urge to do so anyway. Part of her mind insisted that those couldn’t be her hands, that they were nothing more than some thrift store gag gift: her hands would never be nailed to a heavy, oak table; her hands wouldn’t look so small and old…. And they definitely wouldn’t just lay there with upturned palms as if praying to some cruel god in supplication.

This sort of thing simply didn’t happen to people like her. She was just Darlene Honnicker, ex-homecoming queen of Beaverly High and head cashier down at the Shop-N-Go. She lived a boring, predictable life that involved doing inventory on beer and smokes, watching TV in the evening, and occasionally splurging on the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel. No. It had to be some sort of a dream, some nightmare from which she’d bolt awake with phantom pain still tingling in her limbs. She wouldn’t even care that Chewie had slipped onto the forbidden bed at some point during the night or that the mutt was infesting her grandmother’s quilt with fleas. She would hug him so tightly that she’d feel the need to sneeze as his coarse fur tickled her nose and his breath would gust like a rancid wind as his tongue left a trail of warm slobbers down her cheek.

Yeah, that’s what you thought yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that, too….

Darlene glanced around the room even though the details had burned into her memor. The fake wood paneling looked as if it had been hung by a child and bits of yellowed rag stuffed gaps where the flimsy material should have lined up flush with the next section. These walls were covered with random rectangles and squares where the grain was lighter, as if pictures had hung there for years before being removed, and she’d come to the conclusion that the inset shelving had once been a window that had since been boarded over. The hardwood floor that felt so cold against her bare feet bowed slightly toward the center of the room and the entire space had that musty smell of time and age. If not for the butcher’s block table that her hands were nailed to and the chair she was perched on, the entire place could have been mistaken for an abandoned house that hadn’t known the warmth of a living soul for decades.

Nailed to, oh my God, my hands have been nailed to the table, sweet baby Jesus, they’ve been nailed, somebody please please help me, anybody, please….

Darlene’s heart fluttered with demon wings of panic and she wanted to scream, to run, to pry her tortured hands free, and fight tooth and nail until she was out in the fresh, cool air of winter again. She would thrust her fists into drifts of snow, let the cold freeze away the pain, and her voice would echo through the muffled silence of the woods like the wail of a banshee. Someone would come. They would hear and they would come with trucks and dogs and guns; they would wrap her in blankets as steaming cups of coffee were lifted to her lips, whispering that everything was fine now, that she would be okay, that it was over….

Through the cheap wood of the door behind her, she could hear the old woman whistling. It was some happy little ditty that tweeted and chirped like birds at dawn and sounded slightly familiar. It may have been one of the songs Darlene’s mother had used to hum before the cancer had claimed her. One of the snippets of tune that she’d clung to over the years, that she’d tried to excavate from the trenches of memory like a precious jewel. And here this old woman was, bastardizing it. If she managed to get free, she’d rip that cunt’s tongue right out of her mouth, would tear long strands of lip with her teeth if she had to. She’d make that bitch suffer and regret the day they’d ever zapped Darlene Honnicker with that taser.

Who the fuck are you kidding? You ain’t getting outta here, you’re never getting outta here. Just look at the damn table, girl….

She willed the frightened little girl in her mind to shut the hell up. Anything was possible, right? If she could just deal with the pain without passing out, maybe she’d be able to grab the spikes between her teeth and yank hard enough to….

Her faded, blue eyes betrayed her by flitting to the scarred tabletop. The wood was gouged with dozens of holes, each spaced approximately a hand’s width apart and surrounded by dark, inkblot stains.

That’s blood. Fuckin’ blood! You think they haven’t done this before? Look how many holes there are, damn it. Just look!

She squeezed her eyes shut so tightly that her teeth ground against one another and tried to take long, slow breaths through her nose.

Please, God….

From behind her, the door creaked like a sound effect from a horror movie. Feet shuffled across the floor and the room was flooded with a scent that smelled as if a garden of lilacs were growing in a bed of baby powder.

The whistling was directly behind her now, making her eardrums seem to vibrate with the high notes.

No, no, not again, please, no….

The song came to an end and Darlene could felt the old woman’s presence looming in the darkness before her.

“Open your eyes, girly.”

The voice was thin and raspy but sounded as if it had spent a lifetime having its instructions followed without hesitation or question.

Darlene raised her eyelids and looked at the woman standing on the other side of the table. Her hair was as white as the snow covered ground and, as always, was pulled into a bun so tightly that it almost seemed as if the bitch were punishing her scalp for some unknown trespass. Her skin looked as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper and she wore a yellow sundress today which made her normally pale flesh look jaundiced and sickly. At the same time, it also threw her eyes into sharp contrast: behind the wire-frame spectacles, they looked as hard and dark as two chunks of coal.

“There’s a good girl. You wouldn’t want to make Mary mad, now would you? No, of course you wouldn’t.”

Darlene glanced at the paring knife the old whore clutched in her hand and her eyes immediately darted to her own arms. Once, her skin had been as smooth and creamy as any fashion model’s; but now the flesh was crisscrossed with wounds. Some of them were crusted with scabs, but others still looked like lipless mouths that had somehow appeared on her body. If she flexed her muscles, they would pucker and blow kisses to her, revealing dark crags of meat within.

“Please, Mary, just let me go. I won’t tell anyone, I swear I won’t. Just let me go home. I’ll… I’ll bring you a replacement! My sister! She looks just like me, I’ll lead her here and let you have her, just please, please, please let me go.”

The old woman frowned, pulling shadows into the creases of her wrinkles.

“Let you go? Why in tarnation would I want to do that? No, I like you just where you are, girly.”

The room wavered in and out of focus as hot tears welled in Darlene’s eyes.

“Now, why do you girls always start a’crying on me? This will all be over soon. .”

The old woman raised the knife to waist level and took a step toward her prisoner.

“Mary, please… don’t….”

“Shhhh… you hush now child, hear?”

Darlene tensed as her heart spurted adrenaline through her system; the movement exploded her hands with a napalm run of pain, white-hot agony that engulfed her arms and raced toward her shoulders. A scream strained her vocal chords, made them feel as if they were being stripped away with glass, and she wanted so badly to pull away, to just shrink back into herself until nothing was left.

“Now, you cut that foolishness out right this minute! I could always sew that pretty mouth of yours shut. Is that what you want?”

Darlene whimpered and shook her head so vigorously that tears were flung from her face. She bit her bottom lip as her chest heaved with suppressed screams. Her breath escaped through her nostrils in rapid, staccato bursts and her wide eyes darted about the room as if searching for the appearance of some mystical savior.

“No, I didn’t think so. Now you just be a good girl and this’ll all be over quicker ‘n the lights go out.”

The old woman placed the cool edge of the knife against Darlene’s arm and smiled.

“I need this, you see. I reckon you know that by now, don’t you?”

Darlene closed her eyes again, squeezing out tears like water from a sponge.

“I said open your eyes!”

Her eyes snapped open again and she felt as though she were about to throw up. Cramps wracked her stomach and her legs shook so badly that the floor below vibrated in response.

The old woman smiled again, but there was no joy or mirth reflected in her dark eyes. In fact, she had the same hungry look that possessed Darlene’s father after the month’s welfare check had been pilfered away and the empty bottle of Slo Gin mocked from the trash can.

Without so much as a flinch, the hag pulled the blade across Darlene’s arm with a quick yank. There was a flash of pain as the honed edge severed nerve endings and blood oozed from the wound as if fleeing from the sting. A spark of excitement flared like an ember in the old woman’s eyes and she slashed again, opening a new furrow that quickly filled with crimson liquid.

Darlene tried not to whimper or scream, but instinct pulled her body away from the gleaming blade. She jerked back and a sickening torment erupted from her palms. And she did scream now, her throat raw and burning as the sound rattled from her throat.

Rather than reprimanding her again, Mary replied with another slice. The old woman’s mouth had formed a perfect O and her head was thrown slightly back, like a freeze frame from some geriatric porno. She held the pose for what seemed to be an eternity, but then burst into a flurry of movement: slashing, cutting, slicing, the blade opening her prisoner’s too-frail skin time and time again. Cuts overlapped one another and long gashes formed bloody patterns, like the letters of some dark alphabet that had long been purged from humanity’s collective memory.

Darlene’s heart pounded as if it were hammering out mayday messages in Morse code and she tried to regain control, to keep from recoiling from the fury of the assault. But with each new slit that appeared, the holes in her palms pulled against unforgiving metal with agony so intense that splotches exploded like dark fireworks in her field of vision.

Darlene’s once pale arms were now sticky and warm, coated in blood that glistened like liquefied rubies in the dim light of the room. Numbness blossomed in her shoulder and she felt it creep down her arm, devouring sensation like an insatiable swarm of insects. Her breath escaped in ragged pants and snot bubbled from her nose as tears washed over Darlene’s face and cheeks. Everything wavered in and out of focus as she slipped back and forth between the high definition reality of her torture and blessed, split-second blackouts.

The zeal of Mary’s assault began to lose steam. The cuts became less random, less frequent, and the old woman watched the blood pulse and percolate with the corners of her mouth turned up in the hint of a smile.

Placing the gore streaked paring knife on the table, she backed away, her eyes never straying from the carnage she’d wrought upon Darlene’s arm. The old woman’s chest heaved with each breath and her nostrils flared wide like an excited animal.

“Good… so good….”

Mary slipped the straps of the sun dress over her bony shoulders and the entire garment slid off her body like a curtain at the conclusion of a magician’s trick. It bunched around her feet in yellow folds of fabric and she stood for a moment, frozen in time.

Her naked body was just as pale and wrinkled as her face and her breasts sagged as if the nipples were actually lead weights that pulled them toward her round stomach. Sparse croppings of silver hair jutted out from the mound between her legs, giving the impression of an old dog beset by mange.

“Bleed for Mary, girly. That’s it… bleed.”

She stepped out of the tangles of her dress and walked toward the table with her palms out as if she were finding her way through the dark. Her arms trembled and a soft sigh escaped through her chapped lips as her fingertips brushed Darlene’s wounds. The thick liquid stained the creases and folds in Mary’s palms and left long smears along her victim’s bicep. Not satisfied with that, however, the old woman pinched the gashes between her fingertips and milked more and more blood from the hatch marks of slits and cuts. She rubbed her hands up and down Darlene’s arm: stroking, petting, swirling patterns like a child with red finger paint.

Then she leaned her head back, as if looking toward the heavens, and raised her blood covered hands like a prophet. Something abut her gave the impression of a woman who’d just had the best sex of her life, who was tired and spent and still tingled with remnants of pleasure.

She took a slow breath which quivered in the back of her throat and, with eyes half-closed, her hands traced lazy circular patterns over her naked body. Darlene’s blood left long streaks against the old woman’s alabaster flesh as if Mary were the canvass in an abstract painting of depravity. The valleys formed in her spindly neck, her cumbersome breasts, the tops of her thighs: all were swirled with red, smudged with crimson, and the old woman’s hands dipped again and again into Darlene’s never-ending well.

“I’m so pretty, now… so very pretty…. Just wait ’til the boys get home. They’ll be so pleased and tell me how beautiful and young I look. They love their Mama. Such good boys. Such fine boys. And I’m sure they’ll want to play with you again as well, girly….”

SCENE TWO

The trees on either side of the road were white, leafless, and reached up from the snow-covered forest like skeletal hands intent on raking the clouds from the darkened sky. A few pines were scattered throughout the collective, but on this moonless, winter night they were nothing more than cookie-cutter silhouettes with highlights of snow like frosting upon their boughs.

The worst of the storm had passed earlier in the day but random flakes still swirled like dust motes in the high beams that cut through the night. The car that was responsible for the light that splashed over the encroaching darkness of the woods was a blue hatchback. It wove along the snaking road, occasionally fishtailing in some of the sharper bends, as windshield wipers slapped away the slush that spattered against the glass.

The man driving the car clutched the steering wheel so tightly that his fingernails dug crescent moons into the leather cover. He leaned forward in his seat, as if trying to peer through the cone of snow that seemed to rush at them, with his lips pulled into a tight frown.

The light of the dashboard cast a warm glow across his face and the woman in the passenger seat took a moment to admire him. His hair was dark and wavy and flowed down to the tops of broad shoulders. Even though they’d been in the car for the last nine hours, it had somehow managed to look as perfect and styled as if they’d only checked out of the motel moments earlier. It framed his narrow face perfectly, falling in just the right places to bring out the green of his eyes and accentuate those high cheekbones. She knew that if he smiled, a single dimple would appear just above his mouth and, not for the first time, the woman wondered how she had gotten so damn lucky.

It wasn’t that she was ugly. With only the smallest amount of foundation, she could cloak the scattered scars of teenage acne; and since she’d replaced her chunky, old glasses with contacts, her eyes had taken on an almost chestnut color. Or maybe that was simply her imagination… could eyes really change hue simply because they were no longer trapped behind thick pieces of glass? If anything, shouldn’t her eyes have seemed clearer before, when the thick slabs of glass had magnified them and made them seem oddly disproportionate to the rest of her round face?

She worked a tangle out of her long, black hair and then swept the wispy bangs away from her forehead as she glanced at herself in the mirror. She knew she was pretty now; she wasn’t the same frumpy nerd who’d chewed on pencils in high school, who tended to sit in her secondhand clothes at an otherwise empty table in the lunchroom. In the half decade following her graduation, she’d blossomed and was acutely aware of the catcalls that were sometimes hurled in her direction as she walked down the street. But Matt? He was the type of man sculptors aspired to capture in stone and granite. Rugged, so good looking that she sometimes got moist just looking at him, always so smartly dressed in his turtlenecks and blazers and crisp jeans. For all intents and purposes, he looked as if he were ready to grace the cover of some men’s magazine at any second.

“You want me to take over for a bit, darlin’? You look tired.”

His eyes shifted lightly, just enough so she knew he could see her from his peripheral vision. Something about that brief second of contact made her feel warmer inside than all of the air whooshing out of the heater vents and coaxed a smile. She looked at her left hand and wiggled it from side to side gently as she watched the light bounce off the golden band encircling her ring finger.

“I’m okay… just want to hurry up and get there, ya know? All this driving….”

His voice trailed off as his gaze shifted to the dashboard. He frowned again and pecked at the plexiglass with one finger, as if trying to encourage a stuck gauge into movement.

“Why don’t you see if you can find anything on the radio, Mona?”

She used to hate her name. It caused images of old, chain-smoking women to sprout like weeds in her mind. She always envisioned them so very clearly: fingernails stained yellow, hair all up in curlers, and loose dressing gowns dotted with pinhole burns from falling ashes. But when Matt said it, it made her feel as if she were framed in a gallery somewhere, put on display for long lines of people to admire as they discussed her more subtle features in low whispers. Funny how something as small as the way someone says your name could make you feel so special, so cherished and secure.

Her fingers flipped on the stereo and the car was flooded with static. She scrambled for the volume knob and lowered it until the sound coming out of the speakers seemed more like the hiss of a distant waterfall and began guiding the little needle across the dial with slight twists of her wrist. For the most part, there was only white noise and an occasional high pitched whine that seemed to surf the peaks and troughs of the atmosphere. But then there was a burst of noise and she turned the dial back more slowly, trying to narrow down the transmission into something that could actually be heard.

“… until tomorrow morning.” The disc jockey’s voice was soft and rhythmic, almost as if it were pulling itself into creation from buzz of background interference. “In other news, the badly mutilated body of a Fosterville woman was discovered early Thursday morning. Found in a dumpster at an I-77 rest stop by maintenance crews, police chief Robert Hallohan said it was too early to tell if this most recent murder is related to the string….”

“Turn that shit off, sweetie. I was thinking more along the lines of music.”

The announcer’s voice was swallowed in fresh burst of static that continued until Mona had reached the other end of the spectrum where it finally resolved into the twang of banjo and a nasal tenor that droned on and on about lost love and regret.

“Still can’t find anything but shit-kicker tunes, baby.”

Since they’d left the interstate, the selection and quality of radio stations had decreased exponentially. At first, they’d driven through quaint country towns that looked as if they’d sprung full-blown from a Norman Rockwell Christmas card: snowmen kept silent vigil in yards bordered by picket fences, people hunkered in the cold and shuffled along sidewalks while their scarves flapped like banners in the wind. Though it had still been daylight, it was obvious that the insurance agents and grocers had strung colored lights around plate glass windows and giant green wreaths hung from every other lamppost. Matt and Mona had found a classic rock station and they blew through these towns while the Beach Boys harmonized about The Little Saint Nick and The Boss informed everyone that Santa Claus was coming to town.

As the quiet little hamlets gave way to scattered farms and livestock, however, finding something worth listening to had become more difficult For about ten minutes, they’d tuned in to some station that had the cajones to assault its listeners with the breakneck rhythms of Slayer and old school Metallica; but they lost the station when they entered a stretch of road where the hills pressed against the blacktop so closely that it was like driving through the bosom of Mother Earth. By the time they’d emerged on the other side, heavy metal was nothing more than a memory and hard-drinking country ruled the roost. Now that darkness had fallen and the landscape was nothing more than snow covered mountains and trees as far as the eye could see, the Bluegrass that she’d found was almost like a Godsend.

“How much further did you say it was to this cabin, anyway?”

Matt sniffled and cocked his head to the side as if he’d developed a crick in his neck. He always did that when he was thinking and it was one of the thousand little things that Mona loved about this man.

“About an hour, hour and a half taking weather into account. Daddy liked his seclusion. I ever tell you about the time he brought me up here for my first hunting experience, darlin’?”

Mona giggled and rolled her eyes as she popped open the glove box. She was sure there was a half-eaten Snickers buried somewhere in all the paperwork and receipts and her stomach gurgled as she searched.

“Only about a million times, baby.”

“He was a good father. Maybe not a good man… but a good father, nonetheless.

Mona stopped rooting through the glove box and placed her hand gently on Matt’s thigh. She hated hearing that distant sound in his voice, that tone that made it sound as if everything within her new husband was as hollow and empty as the promises her own father had used to make.

“You miss him, Mattie?”

He looked over at his wife with a smile that somehow didn’t match that pain in his eyes. Steering with one hand, he placed the other on top of hers and squeezed so gently it almost seemed as if he were afraid of crushing her bones.

“I don’t know if I miss him, per se. But he understood, ya know? I could tell him about….”

“Mattie! Look out!”

Mona’s voice was a shrill squeal and her hands flew to the dashboard as if she’d suddenly realized it was rushing toward them and needed to be held back. Matt snapped his head back to the road just in time to see something large and brown in the road ahead. Its eyes were silvery in the oncoming headlights and its white tail twitched as its haunches tensed.

Matt slammed his foot onto the brake as if he intended to ram it through the floor and jerked the wheel to the left. At the same time, the car seemed to be embodied with a life of its own: the tail end swung around in what seemed to be a slow motion spiral while the world outside the windows blurred.

Something hit the front of the car with enough force that Mona felt the dull thud within her chest and there was something rolling across the hood, something with antlers and spindly legs that clattered against the windshield. The glass shattered into a spider web of cracks and she vaguely heard Matt cursing. A tree seemed to hurl itself toward them and Mona’s scream was drowned out by the crash of the car’s hood crumpling around the trunk. She pitched forward so sharply that it felt as if her head were about to wrench free from her neck and for a moment everything seemed to still be spinning even though she knew perfectly well that the car’s inertia had been brought to a halt.

Mona watched steam drift from underneath the buckled hood of the car and it almost seemed to possess some sort of gravity that drew her in. It was so pretty, so ethereal against the dark backdrop of the night. It was how she’d always imagined a soul would look upon exiting the body: soft and billowy, seeming to be trapped somewhere between substance and a dream.

Perhaps it actually was her spirit. When their little Honda smashed into the tree, maybe she’d hit her head or snapped her spine. Maybe she was simply sitting there, watching her soul drift off into the atmosphere while her body struggled to come to terms with the fact that she was dead. Within minutes, her empty shell might simply collapse onto the seat as a great and final darkness settled her world. She had no delusions about Heaven… not after the type of life she’d led. But Hell would be fine; just as long as Matt was there by her side and they could spend….

Matt.

The thought of her husband was like a splash of cold water on Mona’s face. She jerked, as if startled from a dream, and then scrambled for the seat belt.

“Matt! Are you okay, baby? You okay?”

Matt had his head thrown back over the seat and one hand cupped his nose. His eyes were squeezed shut so tightly that creases formed at the corners of his eyes, giving subtle hints of the old man he’d someday become.

She scampered across the seat and grabbed him by his shoulders.

“Oh shit, baby… oh shit… you’re bleeding.”

Spurts of blood leaked between Matt’s fingers and trickled through the grooves formed by his knuckles.

Mona’s head whipped to the side where she saw the battered animal kicking in the snow as if it could somehow find the strength to rise up on its shattered bones and scurry into the night.

“Fuckin’ deer! Fuckin’ piece of shit, apple eatin,’ salt lickin’ son of a bitch!”

Her voice was a shrill screech and she punctuated each word by punching her fist into the foamy covering of the roof.

“Mona… baby… I’m oday, sweetie.”

Matt’s hand muffled his voice, yet it still sounded as stuffy and congested as when he’d caught the flu a few months earlier. It robbed his voice of hard sounds, smoothing Ks and Cs into something that sounded more like a D and dropping the letter G altogether.

“Fuddin’ busted my nose on the fuddin’ steerin’ wheel. You oday, baby? You hurt?”

Mona had leaned over the seat and pulled clothing from one of the duffel bags hurled forward upon impact. She snatched a t-shirt as if ripping a tissue from its box and wiggled her way back into the front of the car again. Bunching the shirt up, she pulled Matt’s hand away from his face gently and winced. His nose had already swollen to the point that it looked as bulbous as a drunkard’s and his palm had smeared blood across its bridge. Crimson finger marks trailed across his cheeks and his nostrils looked so much smaller surrounded by the puffy flesh that imprisoned them.

“Damn, baby… you whacked yourself good.”

She pushed the t-shirt against his face and, for the first time in her life, wondered exactly what was meant by apply pressure. How much pressure? Did she need to press the cloth against his injury so tightly that she risked hurting him? Or could she simply dab it against his face and allow the fibers to soak up the blood so it could begin clotting?

“Does that hurt? Shit, Mattie, this ain’t right, it just ain’t right.”

Matt took the t-shirt from her and pushed it onto his nose with both hands.

“You oday, baby?”

Mona had begun stroking his hair almost before the shirt was even out of her grip. She needed to be doing something… anything. She just couldn’t sit there and watch her man bleed: she wanted to scoop him into her arms, to bury his face into her chest as she rocked back and forth, to somehow reach deep inside him and take the pain away.

For the first time in the last year and a half, Mona felt as powerless and ineffectual as she had during the majority of her life. She felt small and quiet, like a shadow that had fooled everyone into thinking it was a person… but this man had saved her from all of that. He’d shown her that she could be strong, that she was worthy of being loved, that she deserved to be treated so much better. And now, when he needed her most, she was trembling like a child as she sniffled away the tears that blurred her vision.

“Mona! Are you oday?”

“Shhh… I’m fine, baby, I’m fine. I just can’t stand to see you hurtin.’ Do you need something cold? I think there might be a pop in the cooler or I could dunk a shirt in melted ice or get some snow from outside or….”

Matt chuckled and glanced at her from the corner of his eye.

“I been worse. ‘member that time outside Ronoade?”

Mona forced herself to smile as she continued to run her fingers through hair that was as soft and fine as individual fibers of silk. It splayed over her hand, tickling the little webs between her fingers.

“How could I forget something like that?”

It was typical Matt, reminding her of a time when she had been strong and fearless. He’d been hurt so bad back then… much worse than a nose that bled like a staked vampire and which probably wasn’t even broken. He’d really needed her and she had risen to the occasion.

“Turnin’ oudda be one helluba honeymoon, huh?”

By the time the couple staggered out of the car, the deer was dead. Its body lay motionless in the snow; only the unnatural stiffness of its legs and an antler that looked as if it had been snipped off with a bolt cutter betrayed the fact that it simply hadn’t laid down for a little rest. Mona expected to see red stains that had seeped into the drifts around it. But there were only a few drops, like tiny rose blossoms, directly beneath the beast’s dark mouth.

“Piece of shit!”

She kicked the carcass and her combat boot thumped hollowly against the tawny fur… its dark eyes never blinked, never shifted in panic or fear. They simply gazed into whatever void its spirit had slipped into as flakes of snow slowly melted on their surface.

While they had still been in the car and waiting for his bleeding to stop, Matt had suggested that she put the thing out of its misery. They’d been able to see it clearly: the way its body twitched with spasms of pain, the quick plumes of steam that snorted through its flared nostrils, how it had gradually lost the strength to even hold its head up any longer. It probably had been suffering… but, in all honesty, Mona had been perfectly fine with that.

Let the damn thing finish out the remaining moments of its life in pain and fear. Served the fucker right… it had derailed their trip, wrecked their car, and—most importantly—hurt Matt. Why should it be allowed peace when the man she loved, the only man in the world who mattered, probably felt like his face had gone twelve rounds with Rocky Balboa?

“Didn’t realize we went off the road. Seemed like there was suddenly just this tree in our way.”

At some point during the wreck, the car had apparently went over a small embankment. Not steep enough to have caused them to flip, thank God, but the hillside was marred with deep, muddy ruts that looked like open wounds on the snow-covered earth.

For a moment, they stood with their arms wrapped around one another and listened to the soft ticking of the cooling engine. Though the clouds of steam had long since dissipated, the smell of antifreeze still hung in the air like the scent of a sweet flower.

Matt held his hand out and the keys jangled softly as he pressed a button on the black fob. Two quick chirps filled the night in perfect synchronicity with the flashing of the taillights. Mona shook her head and laughed in a way that only Mattie could coax from her: it was as if the sound simply bubbled up from inside her, as light and free as a bird in the sky.

“What?”

He tried to suppress his own grin as he looked at his wife, yet his voice still quivered with amusement.

“We wouldn’t want anyone stealing that fine automobile of ours, now would be?”

“Oh, no. Heaven forbid. I hear there’s quite a market for crushed up Hondas. All the cool kids are driving them these days.”

Matt squeezed her as best as he could through the thick layers of parka that separated them and then touched the tip of her nose with the cold, vinyl finger of his glove.

“Stick with me, kiddo, and we’ll own five crushed up Hondas.”

He pulled the zipper on her jacket so that it was snugly beneath her chin and then cinched the drawstrings of the fur-lined hood.

“Come on, Nanook… let’s get going. It’s fuckin’ freezing out here.”

“Tell me about it. You reckon we can find help, baby? I haven’t seen a car since we turned off that four lane.”

Matt held Mona’s hand tightly as he helped her up the incline, taking care to ensure that she didn’t slip in the mud.

“We better.”

Once they’d crested the hill, Matt looked in both directions as if trying to decide which way they should go.

“Otherwise there’s a good chance that we’re gonna die out here.”

SCENE THREE

The truck bounced over the ruts in the country road with enough force that the passenger had to brace himself with one hand against the dashboard and the other pressed into the roof. The suspension creaked and popped as tires crunched through snow and every so often there was a loud thump from the bed at the same time the man bounced off the ripped vinyl seat like a rodeo cowboy.

“Damn it, Earl, slow the fuck down!”

The driver grinned but said nothing as he gripped the steering wheel with hands so large that it made the cracked leather look like a child’s toy. Perhaps the extra weight the man carried around his midsection achored him more solidly to gravity than his lanky companion: his gut spilled across his waistline, overlapped a belt buckle shaped like a confederate flag, and caused his white tee shirt to ride up just below his navel. . The broad ass that spread across the seat, however, remained firmly planted in the trough it had forced into the springs and cushion over the years. Even the trucker’s cap perched atop his scraggly mass of brown hair stayed in place, not so much as even jiggling as the front wheels plummeted into another snow-encrusted groove.

Whereas the driver’s unshaven jowls were exaggerated even further by a smile, the passenger’s narrow face held the expression of a man who expected to meet the Grim Reaper just around the next bend. His eyes were wide and round with pupils dilated both by the darkness of the night and also by the panic that made him his heart feel as if it were about to leap into the narrow confines of his throat. Thin lips quivered beneath a mustache that randomly curled over the chapped, pink flesh below them and his sunken cheeks were flushed with the warmth of fear. Even beneath the green coveralls that engulfed him, it was obvious that the man’s entire body was trembling.

The truck slid around a curve in the road, the rear wheels drifting in a way that made it seem as if the back half of the vehicle were moving independently of the front. The driver jerked the wheel in the opposite direction as he let out a whoop and his passenger slammed into the door. From the bed of the truck came a sound like plastic sliding across metal, immediately followed by another thud.

“You’re gonna kill the both of us, Earl! If you don’t slow the hell down, I swear t’ God I’m tellin’ Mama.”

The smile disappeared from the driver’s face as quickly as the flakes of snow melted on the warm windshield. He shot his brother a glance that could have flash frozen that same slush as his lips pulled back into a sneer.

“You ain’t telling Mama shit. I’ll pound your ass so hard, Daryl, you won’t see straight for a week, hear?”

Daryl stiffened and dropped his gaze to the empty beer bottles that clinked against one another in the floor board. He swallowed hard and then looked back up.

“I… I don’t care. I’d rather take an ass whoopin’ than die. And Mama would have your hide if she knew you were drivin’ like…”

“I ain’t scared of Mama, you little pussy.”

Earl’s voice was softer and his foot eased off the gas pedal just enough that the bumps would no longer jar his brother’s spine and cause his teeth to clack against one another. He adjusted the brim of his hat with one hand, looked at himself in the rear view mirror, and scratched his chin. For a moment, neither man spoke: now that the truck no longer clunked with the washboard like ridges in the road, the soft strains of Willie Nelson singing Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain crackled through the dashboard speakers, fading in an out through the hiss of the heater like a memory that refused to surface.

“I ain’t scared of Mama.” Earl finally repeated. “But, at the same time, I reckon she could live the rest of her life without knowing ‘bout this little argument of ours. Sound about right, Daryl?”

Daryl only realized he’d been holding his breath when he let it free with a quick sigh. The air pulled the tension that had gripped his muscles for past ten miles from his body and he slouched back in the seat as he closed his eyes.

“Right as rain, brother… right as rain….”

Ten minutes later, the rusted Dodge pulled onto a wide place on the shoulder of the road. Its headlights punched holes in the darkness that surrounded it, illuminating the trunks of trees that were clustered together so tightly that it almost seemed as if they were seeking shelter from the frigid wind that whipped through their boughs. Some of the branches glistened beneath sheaths of ice and they clicked against one another like chattering teeth as the truck’s engine rumbled and sputtered below. Except for these sounds the night was silent: no owls or whippoorwills called out from the forest, no insects chirped amid the rustle of unseen creatures slipping through the underbrush. It was almost as if Winter had laid claim to everything living thing within those dark woods, swallowing them into the glacial caverns of its gullet where the warmth and light of the sun would never touch them again.

A soft glow lit up the cab of the truck and revealed the snow that swirled around it. Inside, Earl shifted his bulk and stuffed his meaty arms into the sleeves of a flannel shirt that looked as if it had been tailored for a giant. The cuffs were ratty and frayed and the pieces of fabric that formed the left lapel peeled away from one another, revealing the batting within; but it was as thick as a jacket and was quilted with smooth, red lining.

The passenger door opened, then thunked shut as Daryl zipped his coveralls almost entirely up to his chin. His hands were covered now in a pair of leather work gloves which he used to pull a gray toboggan over his ears. At the same time, Earl eased out of his own door and the front shocks seemed to groan with relief as the entire left hand side of the truck raised half a foot higher.

The pair walked around either side of the truck, their feet crunching through the icy crust on the snow, and plumes of fog curled from their mouths and noses. They worked silently, each seeming to instinctively know what was expected of him. Earl removed the black bungee cords that took the place of a busted latch on the truck’s tailgate and the shrill screech of rusted hinges was like the fingernails of a demon raking across the blackboard of the night. Almost before the tailgate had been fully extended, Daryl scrambled into the bed of the truck and walked to the other end in a half-crouch. Lying next to the rear of the cab was a large, blue tarp that had been rolled into a burrito of canvas and tightly cinched with twine. Daryl slipped his fingers through the cord and grunted as he pulled the tarp backward. It slid toward him a few inches and then he took a deep breath and repeated the process. Again, the bundle inched closer and he shuffled back a few steps before pulling again.

Despite the ribbed bed liner, it took the man several minutes to drag the tarp to the very rear of the truck; by the time he was finished crystals of frost had formed on his mustache and he was huffing like a man who’d just finished a marathon. He stood there for a moment with his hands resting on his kneecaps, slightly bent over the large parcel at his feet. Sucking in gulps of the cool night air, he motioned to the tarp with one hand almost as if he were swatting some unseen insect.

In response to this gesture, Earl grabbed the knotted string with both hands and yanked. For a moment, the blue canvass slid toward him but then he was falling backward, his arms flailing in the air like Goliath after David’s stone had found its mark. He fell onto his ass into a drift of snow and cursed beneath his breath as he looked at the severed pieces of cord he held in either hand.

“Cheap ass shit. Where the fuck did you get this, Daryl?”

He pushed himself off the ground and dusted the snow from the seat of his pants with hands that were now as cold as the metal on the truck’s frame.

“Shed. Was a whole spool of it out there and…”

“You dumbass mother fucker. You know how old this shit is? We was using this to tie off ‘maters when you was knee high to a grasshopper. Stupid son of a bitch….”

“May be stupid,… ‘least I ain’t fat and ugly.”

Earl glared as his hands balled into fists and the red glow of the taillights seemed to be the fires of Hell raging just beneath his skin. His jaw was clenched so tightly that it was almost as if he were trying to keep these flames from shooting from an opened mouth and incinerating his little brother on the spot. His massive frame trembled with what could have either been either the cold bite of the air or repressed pressure building up within.

“Look numbnuts,” he finally spat, “just turn on the damn flashlight. I’m cold and tired and not in the mood for any more of your shit.”

Daryl patted the pockets of his coveralls like a man who just realized he’d misplaced his wallet. His eyes shifted from his brother to the darkness of the forest that surrounded them before his shoulders drooped.

“I… I’ll go get it. I left it in the…”

“Sweet Jesus, you retard! Can’t you do anything right?”

“I said I’d go get…”

“You just never mind. I’ll get the damn thing myself.”

Earl stormed around the truck, his stream of mumbled curses muffled by the shuffle of feet that cleared snow out of their way like a plow. Throwing open the driver’s door, he saw the Maglite instantly. It was half burrowed into the crack between the bench seats and the backrest and he snatched it so quickly that it almost seemed as if the man thought it were trying to get away from him.

Glancing back through the rear window, Earl saw Daryl hopping from one foot to the other as he rubbed his forearms with gloved hands.

“I’ll teach ya to fuck with me, you little pansy.”

And, with that statement, Earl pushed in the little knob that turned off the truck’s lights.

Darkness rushed in from all sides like a ravenous pack of animals. At the same time a shriek cut through the night. The shrill sound came in short, quick bursts and rattled with the force of terror. In the blackness, it was all too easy to imagine that the cries were coming from a frightened, young girl instead of a full-grown man.

Earl closed his eyes as the corners of his mouth turned up into a smile. If anyone had been present to observe the way he stood with his head cocked slightly to the side, they may have mistaken him for a man lost in the appreciation of a particularly moving piece of classical music. He held this pose for close to a minute before snapping on the flashlight and returning to the rear of the truck.

Before he’d even closed half the distance, Daryl scrambled into the narrow beam of the Maglite like a moth hopped up on speed. His cheeks glistened with a sheen of tears and his eyes were wide and bloodshot as clouds of breath belched from his quivering lips. The younger brother had his hands cupped over his groin, as if expecting to be kicked at any moment, and he almost seemed to cower in the safety of the flashlight like a beaten animal.

“What the….”

Earl wrinkled his nose as his nostrils were stung by a sharp, pungent stench.

“Did you piss your damn self again?”

Daryl whimpered softly and recoiled from the force of the words hurled at him.

“You little fuckin’ pussy. Pissing yourself like a baby.”

“You know I don’t like the dark, Earl. You know it.”

“I got half a mind to make you ride home in the back… what’cha think of that, you candy-ass son of a bitch?”

“I couldn’t help it.” Daryl’s voice raised in pitch as he pleaded with this brother. “Why the hell did you turn of the lights anyway, Earl? Why’d ya do that? You know how I am and…”

“Shut your booger hole and take the damn light, you stupid piece of shit.”

Earl thrust the flashlight at his brother and for a moment the younger man seemed almost afraid to touch it; he reached forward and then pulled his hand back as if expecting the black cylinder to come alive and strike at him. He looked from the beefy hand wrapped around its base to the scowl of the man at the other end of those arms and blinked back the tears which still shimmered in his eyes.

“I said fucking take it!”

Without further hesitation, Daryl snatched the Maglite from Earl’s grasp and held it close to his chest like some sort of magic talisman. Relief brought color back to his face and he wiped away the film of ice that was beginning to form from the tears with the back of his hand. At the same time, Earl returned to the bed of the truck and hoisted the tarp over his shoulder with a grunt.

“Come on, wussy… let’s get this shit over with.”

Now that they were back on familiar territory, Daryl’s heart began to slow its breakneck rhythm and his labored breathing started to even out. The surge of fear had momentarily overridden all other sensations: he had known only the fluttering of panic deep within his stomach, the tenseness of muscles that felt as if they had been pulled so tightly that they were mere seconds from snapping, and the feeling of that he had somehow been reduced to the size of a small child. But now that the adrenaline was receding, Daryl became aware of the chill that seeped into the wet stains on his coveralls and his face warmed with shame. He’d have to do better, have to really pull his own weight. He needed to show Earl that he wasn’t some sniveling little coward, needed to remind him that he was capable of….

“Just up this path a bit. Almost there.”

The two had walked into the woods, Earl leading the way with the blue canvas draped over his shoulder and Daryl bringing up the rear. The flashlight bobbed and weaved in the darkness, illuminating a narrow trail that had been beaten down into the snow. A few tracks could be made out and they were embedded into the packed down powder like molds: the split-toed hooves of deer, cat-like prints left by foxes, and even the large, perfectly circular toes of a black bear. But, for the most part, the game trail had been so widely traveled that the moisture had been squeezed out from the snow underfoot, creating a surface that was as slippery and treacherous as oiled glass.

The men inched forward with short, quick steps; perhaps it was the added weight, but the slick surface underfoot didn’t seem to have much effect on Earl. He headed deeper and deeper into the wilderness with the confidence of one who’d been born into the ice and snow. Almost as if he knew Nature would never dare humiliate him with another tumble into the cold. Daryl, however, didn’t fare quite as well: several times he felt as though he were the dinner plates in a parlor trick as the tablecloth was yanked out from beneath him. He slid, pinwheeled his arms for balance as the flashlight splayed crazily over the trunks of trees, and cursed to himself in the darkness. As long as he held the flashlight within his hands, the panic was kept at bay; but, in his imagination, he saw the Maglite tumbling through the air as the safety of its beam spiraled away from his grasp. He imagined the black of night rushing in, squeezing him from all sides, suffocating him with like a wet towel around the face. As a result, his hands trembled more than what could be contributed by the freezing temperatures and the beam of light quivered as if it, too, were terrified of what might lay within the shadows and gloom.

Finally, the two came to a small clearing and Earl hoisted the tarp from his shoulder. He allowed it to thump into the snow and took a moment to catch his breath.

“Good enough.” he panted. “Don’t have to go any further.”

Daryl eyed the trees and underbrush circling them as if he expected some vile and twisted creature to leap out at any moment.

“You sure? I mean, we ain’t been walkin’ but ten minutes and…”

“You want dry pants or not?”

Daryl nodded his head and snapped his mouth shut.

“Okay, then… as far as Mama knows we went the whole twenty minutes, okay?”

Rather than waiting for a reply, the man grasped one end of the blue canvass in his meaty mists and, without hesitation or ceremony, gave it a sharp pull. The rolled up canvas spun away from him like toilet paper across the bathroom floor, growing smaller with each revolution, until it was laid out flat against the forest floor.

Now that it had been unfurled, the body that had been wrapped tightly within its confines stared up at clouds the color of dirty cotton with eyes that would never see again. Its flesh was pale and bruised and sections hung from the carcass like tattered ribbons. The thing’s mouth was opened in a silent scream and barbed wire coiled around the skull like some sort of grisly gag. The little twists of metal dimpled the skin around the cheeks and the corners of the lips and dried trickles of blood surrounded the punctures like rust stains. Constellations of stab wounds dotted the torso and a wide gash curved across the stomach as if someone had attempted to carve a smile into the thing’s gut. Below this was the severed stump of a penis, cut so cleanly that it looked as if the organ had been cleaved off near the base of the pale and wrinkled sacks that hung just below.

“You sure this is far enough, Earl? I mean, if someone finds him, we….”

Earl grunted in disgust and rubbed his stomach as he looked over the body.

“Ain’t like nobody’s gonna smell him or nothing. Not as cold as it’s been. And Hell… you see them tracks. This time tomorrow and it’s gonna be picked clean. We come back in a week’s time, gather what’s left of the bones, and nobody will be none the wiser.”

“Sure died hard, didn’t he? Glad we still got the bitch, though….”

Earl ignored the grin that spread across his brother’s face and began freeing the tarp from the weight of the corpse. It’d been nearly forty minutes since he’d had an opportunity to relieve himself and his bladder felt as if he were about to pass shards of ice; he wanted nothing more than to be done with the work at hand, back in the truck, and heading toward the warmth and comfort of home. Mama would have a fire crackling in the hearth, hot coffee, and maybe even soup if they were lucky: she tended to reward the boys when they’d been exceptionally good and, in Earl’s mind, going out on a night like this counted as above and beyond. Maybe she’d even let him have a go at the woman after his numb skin had a chance to thaw.

“How much life you reckon she got left in her? She’s been lookin’ pale lately. Probably have to find another before long.”

The sound of Daryl’s prattling buzzed in Earl’s head like an annoying gnat that had become lodged somewhere between his eardrum and skull. Each syllable caused him to inwardly cringe as his muscles tensed in response: couldn’t the fool ever just shut the fuck up? Even for a minute?

“Hope the next one’s just as pretty. And brunette. I loves me some brunettes….”

Earl took a deep breath as he rolled the tarp back up and tried mentally counting to ten. A wind had picked up and between its chill and the barely suppressed urge to beat the mortal fuck out of his little brother, he’d begun to tremble. The quivering caused his already stressed bladder to tingle and ache, as if the flow were building pressure within his body and would soon burst free.

“Remember that one brunette, Earl? Had the tattoo of the little stick figure and lawnmower right above her bush? ‘Bout the cutest damn thing I ever did see. Wonder if Mama would let me draw one of them on the next one?

Earl would be damned if he was going to stand out there in the cold and piss himself like his sorry excuse for a brother had. . Kicking the tarp to the side, he unzipped his fly and closed his eyes as the warm liquid surged out. The entire lower half of his body felt as though a great weight had been lifted from it and he sighed; tendrils of steam rose from the now-wet corpse at his feet and, with the urgency of his bladder relieved, his aggravation with Daryl also receded and he could think clearly again. Though he hated to admit it, his brother was right: the girl back at the house was fading fast and wouldn’t last much longer.

SCENE FOUR

The cold bit through the slick vinyl of Mona’s parka and crept through the layers of batting and her sweatshirt. She and Matt had tried walking for a while with their arms draped across one another, but the futile attempt at sharing body heat had been awkward; they tended to fall out of step and had staggered along the road like a pair of drunkards weaving home from a bar. Despite the freezing weather which numbed their noses and lips, both of them had worked up a sweat beneath their clothes as the grade had grown progressively steeper. The last thing they needed was for one of them to fall: the loose powder would sneak its way down into their clothes, melt against their warmer bodies, and plunge their internal temperature to the point that even the icy drifts would feel warm in comparison. So they shuffled forward, shoulder to shoulder instead, each one hunched over in an attempt to keep the wind from peppering their faces with flurries.

“H-humans should r-really consider hibernation.”

Mona’s teeth chattered as she spoke, infusing her words with a slight vibrato. She tried to smile but her skin felt as if it had been pulled like plastic wrap against her skull; her flushed cheeks stung and the corners of her mouth felt as if they were about to crack open.

“Hang in there, baby. Someone’s bound to come along sooner or later.”

Matt tried to make his tone sound light and cheerful, but a fear had gripped his insides with a hand colder than the frosted guard rails that lines the edge of the hill. He wasn’t exactly scared of dying; he’d come to grips with his own mortality long ago and harbored no illusions about the frailty of life. But the thought of Mona lying in a snowbank with blue lips and ice encrusted eyelashes kept haunting his vision. In her, he’d found the perfect partner: she was beautiful in her own quirky way and always made him feel like a nervous schoolboy eagerly awaiting his first kiss. She was the only person, in fact, who he had ever truly cared about. Everyone else in the world was simply looking out for themselves; they would stab you in the back with a smile and then dance a jig on your grave if given half a chance. They were devious and self centered and could barely be considered human at all. But Mona… she was like an angel who’d been sent to help guide him along his chosen path. She touched him in ways he’d never realized he could be touched, both literally and figuratively. She was the one person who knew all of his secrets, every nook and cranny of his mind… and life without her would be unbearable. He’d been down that road before: it was full of brambles and briars that raked at the soul, traps and snares… but with his woman by his side, those obstacles bowed like servants to a greater power.

“How long do you think it’s been, Matty?”

“Nine, ten miles maybe. You tried the cell lately?”

She nodded her head, causing the fur-lined hood of the parka to bounce with the movement.

“N-no signal. Not out here in Bumfuck… you sure do know how to plan a honeymoon, babe.”

He glanced at her to see if she were truly angry with him, but her eyes twinkled beneath the shadows of her hood like a pair of jewels.

“Only the best for my wife.”

They walked in silence for a while, listening to the rhythm of each other breathing and the shuffle of their footsteps. The snow seemed to muffle everything, to make it sound as if it wasn’t quite real. It was all too easy to imagine that this was nothing more than a dream: that one of them would wake up to the drone of the heater and the lull of tires rolling over pavement. However, the wind would occasionally gust and the needles of pain it jabbed into exposed skin were enough to drive home the reality of the situation.

“I’m so tired, Matty. So tired….” Mona’s voice was barely a whisper. “I feel like I could just lay down right here and go to sleep.”

Fear clenched Matt’s heart and he whipped his head toward his new wife. She’d begun stumbling, her heels kicking up these little eruptions of snow as her knees buckled. His own calves felt as if the muscles had turned into overcooked noodles and spasms formed hard little knots in his thighs.

“Don’t you do it, Mona, you hear me? Don’t you lay down on me, girl.”

“I don’t regret anything, you know. I just want you to know that, Matt. In case… in case anything should…”

“Don’t talk like that! You’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay. We’ve been in tougher situations than this, right? Remember Rock Hill? Remember Townsend? Just hang in there, babe.”

Panic fluttered Matt’s heart and blood surged through his veins, causing his temples to throb with a whooshing so loud that it drowned out nearly all other noises. Even his own voice sounded as if it were being heard by a fetus within the womb.

“I’ll carry you, baby. Want me to carry you for a while? I’ll do it.”

He saw Mona’s trembling lips move, but her voice was as lost as if he were watching a silent film.

“Come on, piggy back, baby. I can do it, really I can.”

Tears shimmered in his eyes and he felt their warmth trickle down his cheeks. Mona shook her head and everything within Matt felt as hollow as the chocolate bunny he’d surprised her with last Easter. He couldn’t let her give up, couldn’t allow her to leave him….

Through his veil of tears, it almost looked as Mona had begun to glow softly. As if Heaven were shining down through the darkness and calling his angel home. She tripped over her own feet and fell to her knees in the middle of the road.

As Matt rushed to her side, another sound encroached upon blood swishing through his head. This was a low rumble that sounded as if the earth were about to crack open. Perhaps Satan himself was rising from his subterranean lair: he would appear in plumes of sulfuric smoke and bathed in the flickering fires of Hell, ready to do battle with his timeless nemesis for the possession of this single soul. At the same time, the glow around Mona intensified, like God was readying himself for this struggle and calling upon a legion of angels to watch His back.

Scooping his wife into his arms, Matt closed his eyes and clenched his teeth so tightly that it felt as if they were only moments away from shattering like porcelain. They couldn’t have her, either one. Jehovah, the Devil: he would fight them both, would pull ethereal arms from sockets to use as a clubs as he beat back the heavenly host and hordes of demonic warriors. He would stand over his dear, sweet Mona and unleash a fury that would make the Book of Revelation look like a lullaby.

The rumbling was now so loud that he could feel it vibrate within his chest and he opened eyes that were now as hard and cold as the chunks of sooty ice lining the road.

“They can’t have you, baby.” he whispered. “You’re mine….”

The glow was now so bright that it almost seemed as if they inhabited an island of daylight amid a darkened sea. And was it just his imagination or could he hear the frenetic squeal of fiddles, like a muffled call to arms for the gathering armies? But would either side actually choose The Devil Went Down To Georgia as the armageddic equivalent to fife and drums? For Matt was sure that’s what it was now: the Charlie Daniel’s Band turning an epic struggle between Good and Evil into nothing more than a hoedown.

The volume of the music increased and a thin voice wavered through the hillbilly onslaught.

“You folks need a lift?”

The words came from a thin, mustached man who leaned out the passenger window of a battered truck. For a moment, Matt simply crouched there as he blinked his eyes. Part of him was certain that it was nothing more than a trick of his mind; that if he were to run up to the truck it would dissipate like a mirage in the desert.

“That your woman, buddy? Looks like she’s ‘bout to freeze her tits off. C’mon… get your asses in here. We’ll give ya a lift.”

Matt threw up his hand to indicate that he’d heard the man and whispered to Mona as they struggled up from the snow.

“We’re gonna be okay, sweetie. See? Didn’t I tell you?”

The cab of the truck was cramped and had the lingering stench of urine for some reason. The driver, whose name they’d learned was Earl, took up most of the seat with his wide girth and the smaller one was wedged between him and Matt like mortar between bricks. Mona sat on her husband’s lap with her legs slightly off to the side and her head resting on his shoulder. Despite the warm air that had gusted over her face for the past ten minutes, she was just now beginning to regain feeling on the tip of her nose and earlobes.

“You folks are lucky we came along when we did. Highway patrol done closed down the road down near the bottom of the hill. You musta passed through just a short piece before, I reckon. Where you headin’ anyway?”

The one named Daryl seemed to do most of the talking with his brother only grunting a reply every now and then.

“Hunting cabin up near Slater’s Pass. Used to be my dad’s place back in the day.”

Earl glanced away from the road and studied the new passengers with a quick sweep of the eyes.

“Don’t look like no hunters to me.”

Mona giggled and hid her face in Matt’s hair as she shook her head. Patting his wife’s thigh, Matt grinned and a private joke seemed to pass between the two before he replied to the driver’s statement.

“You’d be surprised.”

“We’re on our honeymoon.” Mona finally chirped in. “Just got married the day before yesterday.”

“Hope your husband there fucks better ‘n he can drive.”

Earl’s words hung in the air for a moment and dissolved the smile from Matt’s face. His jaw clenched and Mona felt him stiffen beneath her as he took a slow breath through his nostrils.

“Now you wait just one minute, Mister, that’s my wife you’re talking—”

Daryl slapped him on the back and laughed as easily as if they were old friends sharing a joke over beers.

“Earl’s just ribbin’ ya, mister. Don’t pay him no mind.”

For a moment, the four of them sat in silence and listened to Dolly Parton beg Jolene not to take her man. The radio crackled and popped as the music struggled to maintain its dominance over static. Within moments, the song faded and was replaced by the deep baritone of the DJ.

“Comin’ right up, we’ve got some Waylon Jennings on tap followed by a shot of Patsy Cline. But first, the news….”

“How much farther did you say it was?”

“About eight, nine miles I reckon. ‘Course five of ’em are off the hard road. Be in for bit of a bumpy ride before we get to the house.”

“You sure she won’t mind? Your mother, I mean?” Mona asked.

When they’d first gotten in the truck, Daryl had said that a whore had a better chance of keeping her virginity than they had of finding a tow this time of night. The nearest town was Chester and, apparently, the sidewalk was rolled up right around the same time the sun went down. So the offer had been made for Matt and Mona to spend the night at their place and then, providing the coming storm didn’t knock the lines down, they could call for help in the morning. The newlyweds had balked at first, arguing that they couldn’t impose upon their kindness any further, but the brothers had insisted, countering that the only other alternative was dropping the two off alongside the road where they’d be in no better shape than when they were first picked up.

“Oh, Mama won’t care. She just loves company. ‘Specially a pretty young thing like you.”

“… unconfirmed reports that evidence was found at the dump site that may shed light on the identity of the murderer . .”

Mona shifted on Matt’s lap as if the cab of the truck had suddenly become too cramped and she glanced at her husband with eyes that seemed to be clouded with nervousness. He glanced at the two men and then gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

“You fellas mind turning this crap off? Stuff like this tends to make my wife a little skittish.”

Earl glanced at the woman with the corners of his mouth turned up into something that was halfway between a smile and a sneer. His eyes sparkled in the light of the dashboard and his words seemed to spill out of his mouth in a mocking sing-song.

“Poor little girl scared of the big, bad wolf? That it, darlin’? Afraid it might hop outta these here trees and gobble you right up?”

“I… I’d just rather not hear about it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Be over before ya know it. I ain’t missin’ out on Waylon.”

The rest of the trip passed in relative silence with only the soft strains of country music to combat the rumbling of the engine. True to Daryl’s word, they turned off the main road onto what was nothing more than a winding, dirt path buried beneath mounds of snow. The truck rattled and bounced through ruts so frequently that it almost felt as if the road was nothing more than a series of ruts and ridges; pine trees gradually overtook all other species and, after what seemed to be an eternity of jostling, the headlights finally revealed an old farmhouse in a clearing. The walls were gray with paint peeling from the faded boards and smoke curled from a chimney that jutted up from a tin roof pile high with snow. Only a single window had light spilling from it and, off to the side of the house, Matt could just make out the silhouette of some sort of shed.

“You folks wait here.” Earl ordered as he eased his bulk out of the truck. “Mama loves company, but she hates surprises. Won’t be more than a minute or two, I reckon.”

Daryl slid across the seat and followed his brother’s lead, winking at the couple just before he slammed the door shut.

“Y’all sit tight now. Don’t you go nowhere.”

The pair stomped the snow from their boots, opened a screen door so rusty that the creak of the hinges could be heard even from within the truck, and then disappeared into the house. Mona looked Matt in the eye as he curled his hair around her index finger.

“You sure about this, baby? I mean, we really should get that car off the road as soon as possible.”

Closing his eyes, Matt leaned in toward his wife’s touch like a cat enjoying the soft stroke of a hand.

“I don’t see that we have much choice, honey. You heard what he said. Even if we could find someone this time of night to come get the car, I don’t think they’d be able to. Not if the road’s been closed.”

“Still, I don’t like it. We shouldn’t be around….”

“Look, we’ll make a couple minutes of small talk with the old lady, tell them how tired we are, and then go to sleep, okay? First thing in the morning, we’ll get the car and figure out what our next move is.”

Mona’s gaze dropped to the keys dangling from the ignition of the truck and she bit her bottom lip.

“Maybe… maybe we should just take this one. We’d probably be gone before they even know and….”

“Mona, these people have been nothing but nice to us! Are you really suggesting we just steal their truck? After all they’ve done?”

“I don’t like it, Mattie. That’s all. I want it to be just you and me again. Like it’s always been, you know?”

“And it will be, sweetie. Soon. It’ll be morning before you know it. Besides… they’re already coming back. See?”

Daryl beckoned from the porch with his hand like a policeman directing traffic and Matt brushed his lips against his wife’s soft cheek.

“Come on, babe. I mean, it’s not like they’re the ones who killed that woman in the dumpster, right?”

The inside of the house was like a museum to dust. It covered everything from the rickety coffee table to the picture frames on the wall with a dull film and Mona fought the tickle in her nose as she perched on the threadbare couch. Besides looking as if it had been years since a thorough cleaning had been done, the place smelled old as well: there was a musty odor that seemed to permeate everything and was only overpowered by the scent of pine as logs crackled and popped within the fireplace. Like most homes with elderly occupants, the air was so warm and dry it almost felt as though every droplet of humidity had disappeared through the cracks of the bowed, hardwood floor.

Matt sat beside her and shifted positions every few seconds in an attempt to find a way of sitting where the springs of the couch didn’t press into his butt and legs like some sort of medieval torture device. He glanced around the room , taking in everything from the deer head mounted on the wall to the yellowed curtains that hung like funeral shrouds over the windows. The panes were so old that the glass had a rippled texture when viewed in just the right light and a draft must have seeped around the edges, for the curtains rustled gently.

Earl and Daryl had excused themselves, saying that they wanted to change clothes and wash up, leaving the newlyweds alone with the old woman. She’d promptly disappeared into the kitchen and they could hear water boiling from the other room as a high pitched whistle gathered strength.

“I want to thank you again, Ms Gruber, for allowing my wife and I to stay the night. You don’t have to go to any trouble for us. We’ll be out of your hair before you know it.”

“No trouble at all, young man.” the woman called out amid the clinking of dishes. “I reckon the two of you woulda caught your death of cold on a night like this. Least we can do is take in a couple down on their luck.”

Feeling the need to add something to the conversation, Mona chimed in.

“You… you have a beautiful home, ‘mam.”

Shaking his head, Matt chuckled softly and squeezed his wife’s leg as he winked at her. Mona, in turn, punched him on the arm and then pushed him away as she arched her eyebrows. This only caused his grin to widen, but he immediately straightened as the old lady appeared in the doorway with a tray of teacups balanced in her hands.

“And please,” she insisted, “call me Mary.”

She shuffled across the room and placed the tray on the table in front of them. As she glanced at Mona, something flickered in her eyes. For a second, her face seemed to be nothing more than a paper-mache mask that hid something dark and twisted behind its pale wrinkles. Something that stared out through the eye holes with the cold, emotionless gaze of a primordial predator; but, as quickly as this image appeared, it faded with her smile.

Mona accepted the tea with a smile of her own and breathed in the tendrils of steam that curled from brown liquid. Raising the chipped rim to her lips, she sipped carefully. Almost immediately, a taste as bitter as a bad walnut flooded her mouth and she took another drink, hoping the heat that flowed into her throat would wash away the aftertaste. If anything, however, it only made it worse.

“Mmmm….” she lied, “it’s really good.”

“It’s a little old, I’m afraid. The boys like their coffee and it seems prideful to put out a full pot just for me.”

“It is just a little bitter.” Mona admitted.

“I reckon I might be able to scare up some sugar if’n you….”

“No, it’s fine.” Matt added. “You’ve went to another trouble on our account.”

Mary lowered herself into a chair that looked as if a cat had sharpened its claws on the armrest with rabid abandon. Tufts of stuffing blossomed from the jagged tears that hadn’t been repaired with patches of mismatched fabric and Mona could just make out the wooden supports, peeking through the batting and flaps of upholstery like an oaken skeleton.

“If you don’t mind my sayin,’ young lady, you’re the spittin’ image of Audrey Hepburn. Hair’s a little different, mind you, but if’n you don’t got her face then the Devil’s my daddy.”

“Why, Ms Gruber, you are far too kind with your compilments.”

Though Mona’s lips moved, it was not the soft lilt of her own voice that passed through them. . The tones were rich and the clear enunciation was colored by an accent that seemed refined and rebellious all at the same time: it was almost as if the spirit of the Hollywood legend had somehow possessed the young girl used her as a mouthpiece to communicate from beyond the grave.

“Well, I do declare…”

Mary’s jaw had dropped open and her eyes grew wide and round behind her spectacles. She glanced at Matt, as if expecting him to share the same expression of shock and amazement; however, he simply chuckled between gulps of tea.

“Mona can imitate just about any voice she hears.” He explained. “You should hear her do Sarah Palin… it’s uncanny.”

Mona blushed and dropped her eyes to the tea remaining in her cup. She seemed to almost pull back into herself, as if the praise were something that she felt the need to instinctively retreat from.

“It’s nothing, really. And I can’t do men’s voices at all….”

Stifling a yawn, Matt blinked several times and shook his head as if he could fling off the exhaustion that had suddenly made it feel as though his muscles were as weak and ineffectual as the tea bag string that dangled over the rim of his cup.

“Gotten you out… of trouble on… on more than one occasion….”

There seemed to be some sort of fog that made the corners of the room look as fuzzy and indistinct as an out of focus photograph. As he watched, the haze consumed more and more of the room and also seemed to seep into his mind; it was like his words and thoughts had become lost in the gloomy clouds. They bumped against one another and struggled to reach out to their fellow refugees before being pulled away by the roiling tendrils.

“I… feel… I don’t… think….”

Matt turned to look at Mona, who swayed back and forth with half-closed eyes. Though she sat so close to him that their hips touched, she somehow seemed to be receding into the distance. As if the fog were attempting to claim her just as it had his thoughts.

“M-Mona….”

He tried to reach for her, to grasp her hand and keep her from drifting into the void, but his arm hung limply by his side in direct defiance of his brain. At the same time, the cup of tea slipped from the fingers of his other hand and shattered against a floor that seemed to rush up to meet it. Reality wavered in and out of focus and Matt felt himself falling backward as the old woman’s face appeared like a thin-lipped specter in the fog.

“What… was… in… tea?”

As darkness rushed in around him, Matt could hear someone cackling as if from a great distance. It seemed to spiral through the veil that enshrouded him, rising and falling on the waves of fatigue that crashed against his consciousness. Tinged with madness and savage glee, it was the sound of a witch who rendered fat from babies in her bubbling cauldron; it was the merriment of a demon bubbling up through the anguish of the damned; it was the embodiment of every insidious creature that had ever sipped from the cup of despair with a thirst that could not be slaked.

“I’ll be pretty, so very, very pretty… so pretty….”

As Matt was sucked into the chasm that enveloped him, one final thought rose to the surface of his mind: Mona…

And then there was only darkness.

SCENE FIVE

For the first time in weeks, Darlene Honnicker felt hope unfurl within her soul. She’d heard the muffled voices from downstairs: the deep tones of a man and the softer, less distinct, cadence of a woman. The words were nothing more than a rhythmic lull that had been robbed of meaning by distance and wood; but they were the sounds of someone other than more familiar voices that made her cringe like a beaten puppy with each uttered syllable. Perhaps cops, she’d thought. Maybe her captors weren’t as clever as they thought. Maybe they’d left some sort of clue behind when they’d snatched her: a credit card that slipped unnoticed from a wallet, tire tracks that were so distinct only a handful of vehicles in the county would match them…. It happened on TV all the time. Just when things seemed at their bleakest, some handsome FBI agent would kick in the door and snatch a broken and crying woman from the clutches of death. She could almost picture them in their dark suits, hands resting lightly on the holstered pistols while their eyes picked up some small sign that the old woman and her sons weren’t alone in this house. They’d exchange a look with arched eyebrows, pull their weapons in one fluid motion, and then their voices would boom through the silence: Get down! Down! Put ’em where I can see ’em!

She tried to scream, to let them know that she was here, that she was alive; but the ball gag that stretched her mouth into a painful O seemed to cram the sounds back down her throat, making her wretch and cough on the despair that burned like acid against her already strained vocal chords. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and the salty solution stung the thin cuts on her cheeks and lips… but she couldn’t give up. Not with help so close. Not when all that separated her from the promise of freedom was one wooden door and a set of rickety stairs.

She knew what she had to do. But the mere thought of it made her feel as if a fiery ember simmered somewhere in the pit of her stomach. Bile rose in the back of her throat, its bitterness overpowering the flood of saliva that had absorbed the rubbery taste of the gag and she tried to breathe slowly through her nose. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she squeezed her eyes shut so tightly that the day old gash on her temple ripped open anew.

Do it, just do it, girl….

Her arms trembled and she bit down on the red ball as if she were some savage predator and it the throat of her prey.

You can do this, Darlene. You have to….

Downstairs, the voices continued their wordless singsong . So close that they were probably directly underneath her; but with the nails in her hands, they may have as well been on the moon.

On the count of three, okay?

Images of home flooded her mind: her grandmother’s quilt draped across the headboard, the overflowing garbage can in the kitchen, the telephone ringing as her sister called to gossip about what Louise Hambright had done after Sunday services. Children laughing and playing on the street outside.

One…

She wanted it back, all of it back. The boring daily routine, the dishes and vacuuming, the way Mr. Thompson next door would try to look down her blouse when he thought she wasn’t looking. At the time, it hadn’t seemed like much of an existence; but it was life… and it was hers, damn it.

Two…

Her muscles felt as if they were contracting in an attempt to flee as far from her hands as they could possibly get. Urged on by the warning hammered out by her heart, they tightened and pulled, stretched until they felt as if they were on the verge of snapping like old rubber bands. But there was no choice… it had to be done.

Three!

Darlene yanked her hands upward, ripping the scabs that had begun to heal around the rusted metal of the nails, and the torment slammed into her like a sucker punch of white hot nausea. Blood and cloudy, green pus squirted from the twin wounds as drops of sweat were forced through every pore on her body. She was freezing and feverish all at the same time, reality swimming in and out of focus while little flash bulbs of light burst in her field of vision. She wanted to double over, to throw up, to chew through her wrists just to end the agony of the nails rubbing against raw flesh and exposed nerve endings… but she had to keep trying.

The ball gag subdued the scream that seemed to rattle within her head and the heads of the nails pressed cruelly down upon her wounds. Her body shook as if fault lines were shifting somewhere within her and split-second blackouts pummeled her consciousness like jabs from an insane prize fighter. Her naked body glistened beneath a sheen of sweat as chill bumps crept over every inch of exposed flesh.

Oh Jesus, dear God, sweet Lord, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus….

She didn’t care if she had to tear holes the size of quarters in her hands, if the ripped tendons and shredded muscle meant that she would never again be able to flex her fingers: saviors were downstairs, people who could deliver her from this rustic pit of Hell. She ignored the squish of raw flesh against uncaring metal, fought through the cloud of acid that seemed to curl and roil about her, and willed the spike to shift.

Just wobble like a loose tooth in a baby’s mouth. Show some sign of giving, of weakening….

The nails, however, remained firmly embedded in the scarred wood. Bits of tissue hung from crags in the rust like fleshy prayer flags and the metal was slick with blood that oozed around the base like a liquid flower unfurling crimson petals.

Darlene slumped forward and her forehead hit the edge of the table with a sharp whack. She panted through her nose and swallowed the vomit that kept trying to shoot through her esophagus as her hands slid back to the tabletop. Tears rolled from her eyes and streamed down a face that was as pale and waxen as a corpse.

Everything from the follicles of her hair to her toenails shrieked with electric-like jolts of molten agony and the little vein bulging against her temple quivered with each irregular swish of blood. Her heart felt as if it were convulsing like an epileptic in the throes of a seizure and she just wanted to close her eyes, to let the darkness take her and morph the pain into a muted dreamlike sensation that drifted on the dark seas of unconsciousness.

Rest… rest and try again, for God’s sake, don’t give up girl…

Through the pounding of her own pulse and the Lamaze-like gusts of air that flared her nostrils, Darlene heard a deep laugh from somewhere behind her. It started as a chuckle, something that may have been nothing more than a pain induced hallucination; but within seconds, it had built into a rolling guffaw that seemed to radiate from every corner of the dusty room.

“Well, ain’t that sweet.” A voice quivered between snorts. “If I didn’t know better, I’d reckon she were tryin’ to get away, Daryl.”

She felt a finger against her back, tracing patterns in the sweat that trickled down the canal of her spine.

“Sure looks to be that way t’ me, Earl.”

Hands squeezed her shoulder so tightly that fingertips dug into her collarbone like drill bits. At the same time, something rustled against her damp hair and she felt warm air tickle her ear as a voice that smelled like bitter coffee and rotten meat whispered.

“Now why would you want to go and do that for, darlin’? Don’t you like our little time together?”

Daryl walked to the front of the table and grabbed a fistful of Darlene’s hair. He yanked her head up so that he was staring directly into her glassy, dilated eyes.

“What in tarnation were you doin’ all that foolishness for?”

His eyes flitted to his brother and something about his tone and stance was like a schoolboy trying to impress the teacher with a shiny, red apple.

“She’s all bloody and tore up now, Earl. Shit, look what the stupid bitch done did to her hands”

The flesh that puckered around the nail shafts looked like meat that had been chewed up between the cogs of some machine. Ragged strips flapped in the current of blood that poured from the wounds and the tissue beneath seemed gnarled and bulbous, as if it had been ground to a near pulp and then shoved back up through the holes.

Earl jerked the chair out from under Darlene and she started to fall backward as fresh screams tried to force the red ball out of her mouth with their force alone. The nails pulled at her mangled hands and her feet scrambled for purchase like a cartoon character trying to run in a puddle of oil. Somehow, she managed to regain her balance and she stood there, practically laying over the table while her knees shook and buckled.

“Cunt don’t need her hands for what I got in mind.”

From behind her, Darlene heard the sound of a zipper being undone as Daryl’s high pitched giggle echoed through her head.

“Once my brother there is done, then it’s gonna be my turn. Like that, don’t ya? Yeah, I know you do. You like ‘ole Daryl best, don’t ya, sweetheart?”

Darlene squeezed her eyes shut and her hands instinctively tried to form into fists; but this only sent fresh spasms of pain through her already sensitive nerves. It felt as if millions of fiery needles gouged and scraped somewhere inside her hands and the blood gushed from the holes more rapidly now as her heart rate ramped up to a breakneck speed. . She sank her teeth into the hard, rubber ball and tried to pretend that it was a throat: either one of these bastards, it didn’t matter which. She would rip away chunks of flesh like a rabid dog if given half a chance, would chew and tear until strands of the jugular were wedged between her incisors like little slivers of roast beef. Just let one of these low-life, redneck sons of bitches try to kiss her for a change… just let them fucking try….

“Earl! Daryl! You boys get your sorry asses down here this minute, hear?”

Even through the floorboards, the old woman’s voice was shrill and piercing. Earl slammed his fist into the wall as he cursed beneath his breath; Daryl, however, had frozen like a possum in headlights. The color seemed to drain from his face and his bottom lip quivered so slightly that it almost seemed as if it were the thin layer of drool, and not the chapped flesh, that was actually moving.

“Damn it, boys! Don’t you make me come up there…”

Earl’s voice bellowed, though the frustration that was reflected in his grimace was carefully camouflaged with what he hoped to be a tone of respect.

“We’re comin,’ Mama. Be right there!”

Yanking up his zipper, he dropped his voice to a low growl.

“This ain’t over, darlin’ You just stand there and think about all the things I’m gonna do to you when I get back. And, I swear to God, if you try any more of that foolishness, I’ll slice your fuckin’ tits off. You hear me, girl?”

Darlene nodded her head so rapidly that droplets of sweat flung from her soaked hair like a spray of mist.

“Alrighty, then. Guess we have what I’d call an understanding.”

“I’m a’gonna count to five and if’n I don’t hear you boys comin’ down those stairs, may the God Lord help your souls….”

“Come on, shit for brains. What the hell you gawkin’ at?”

Daryl trudged after his brother, pulling at the hairs of his mustache as he walked. The two walked through a short, dark hallway lined with doors and then descended a flight of stairs that wobbled and creaked beneath Earl’s bulk.

By the time Mary had counted to four, they two brothers stood in front of her; Earl stared at the young couple slouched over on the couch and the corners of his lips turned up into a smile. Something cold and hard glinted in his eyes and he ran the tip of his tongue along his top lip as he allowed his gaze to follow the contours of Mona’s body. Daryl, on the other hand, stood slightly behind his brother’s enormous frame and wrung his hands together as if he were holding an invisible cap. His head was slightly bowed and he only allowed himself quick peeks at the unconscious couple out of the corner of his eye.

“Now you boys listen here. I want you to take these two upstairs and tie ’em real good, you understand? I don’t want no repeat of that time last summer, you hear?”

Both brothers nodded their heads but remained silent.

“After that, the pair of ya go find that there car of theirs. Reckon they couln’t got too far before you boys found ’em. You take the chain and you.”

“Shit, Mama, it’s fuckin’ freezin’ out there.”

Mary stormed across the room with her first two fingers spread into a V. The wrinkles on her face pulled into a tight scowl and she clenched her teeth together as if she were attempting to shatter them.

“Earl Gruber, don’t you sass me, young man!”

Clutching Earl’s shirt with her free hand, she thrust up with the other. The extended fingers drove into Earl’s nostrils so deeply that his nose seemed to swell with the presence of the sudden invaders. The large man’s knees gave out for a fraction of a second as his eyes watered and blood trickled around the old woman’s fingers. But he didn’t try to pull away or defend himself; he simply stood there with his eyes clinched shut as his mother leaned in so closely that spittle peppered his face.

“I don’t care if Hell’s done froze over, you’re gonna do what I say, when I say to do it. You hear me, boy? You hear me?”

Earl nodded his head almost imperceptibly to keep his mother’s fingers from plunging even further into his sinuses than what they already were. But this seemed to satisfy the old woman, for she yanked them out and released the tide that had built up behind them. As her son pinched his nostrils and tilted his head back, she licked the blood from her fingernails so slowly that it almost seemed as if she were inspecting them for chips and cracks with the tip of her tongue.

“Good.” She finally said. “I’d expect that kind of thing from your no-good brother, but not from you, young man. You’ve always been such a good boy.”

The rage that had gripped her dissipated as quickly as it had descended. She stroked Earl’s hair gently now and he leaned into it like a cat which hoped a scratch behind the ears was soon to follow.

“Always such a loving son….”

Placing the palm of her hand against his cheek, Mary spoke softly and slowly as her fingertips smeared fresh blood across his upper lip.

“You make your Mama proud, you hear? You take that little whelp and you hide that car where ain’t nobody never gonna find it. . Then you high tail it back here.”

She turned her head and studied Matt and Mona for a moment, watching the steady rise and fall of their chests while their arms hung by their sides like strands of overcooked spaghetti.

“Then once the two of you are back all safe and sound, we’ll all show our new guests a little hospitality.”

Even Daryl couldn’t suppress the grin that the words coaxed from his pale face.

“If’n you do a good enough job, I might even let ya have a go at the woman before she’s all cut up and bleedin’ like a stuck pig. You’d like that, wouldn’t ya, boy? All fresh and new and tidy?”

Earl remained silent, but the gleam in his eyes was answer enough. Before the night was over, fresh blood would be spilled in a house that had come to crave it and screams for mercy would fall flat on a dark and uncaring forest. There would be pain and suffering and it would be sipped like water from a cup.

SCENE SIX

Mona drifted as if she were nothing more than a piece of wood in a sea of darkness. She floated on the black waters and bobbed on the crests of undulating waves while empty space yawned above her. There were no pinprick holes of light in the dome of the sky, no wisps of gray cloud, or even the hint of a rising moon brightening the distant horizon. Above, below, surrounding her on all sides: nothing but a darkness so complete that the heavens and sea were indistinguishable from one another. Up was down, left was right, and she spiraled in eddies that threatened to suck her into the undertow before spitting her back to the surface again.

The lightless ocean also made a sound that somehow reminded Mona of the flub and swish of an ultrasound. She could almost feel the cold jelly smeared onto her stomach, the slight pressure of the paddles as they slid across her skin. In the distance, something soft and warm began to flicker in the darkness; it pulsed in time with the rhythm of the noises around her, its aura growing stronger with each muffled sluice of unseen fluid. Something that looked like a blurry cashew began to form in the center of the light and as Mona watched she saw bluish veins spread like stain across a translucent onionskin. Two perfectly round and perfectly dark eyes formed on either side of what was now obviously a head as paddle like hands waved as slowly as seaweed on the ocean floor. The fetus seemed to absorb the light it had formed from so that the radiance came from somewhere within: the luminance acted almost like an x-ray, silhouetting the tiny heart and network of arteries against the honey-colored glow.

The fetus swiveled its head like an owl and, even from such a great distance, Mona could clearly see her own reflection in the black mirrors of its eyes. Her heartbeat and breathing seemed to synchronize with the pulse of the creature’s effulgence and she wanted to pull this delicate thing somewhere inside her, to keep it safe and warm and hidden far from those who’d do it harm. She’d be able to push away the anger that would gnaw at the back of her mind whenever she’d look at the familiar features that would form on its face; shame and guilt would be swallowed and left to simmer in the furthest recesses of her psyche: she could love this small life if she simply tried hard enough. She was sure of that.

Mona tried to stretch her arms so that they’d reach this ethereal baby… but something changed. The warm, golden glow diminished like an ember burning out and the creature’s skin morphed into something that was as brown and wrinkled as a dried leaf. Cracks spread across the dark eyes and seemed to pull their luster into the advancing fissures, leaving them as dull and lifeless as two dusty marbles. At the same time, Mona heard the whoosh and whine of air: it was a sound almost like a vacuum cleaner sucking liquid from the bottom of a pool, so loud that she could feel the pull of its force in her gut. In response, chunks of the fetus separated from the body, though they did not go without a fight: they struggled to maintain solidarity with the whole, hanging on with thin strands of tissue that stretched and ripped like rubber bands pulled their breaking point. In the end, however, the power exerted upon them was just too great; these jagged pieces of flesh were wrenched free and drifted into the darkness until there was nothing left but that hollow, empty void.

A voice slurred through the emptiness left behind, echoing like the words of a drunken god. Each syllable thudded in her chest and made her knees tremble at the judgment being passed.

“You little fucking whore….”

Tears stung Mona’s eyes as a cocktail of emotion was shaken within her: anger surged with the quickness of a knife, only to be washed away with a nauseous blend of fear and misplaced guilt. But then hatred flared like the tip of a match, igniting the entire concoction in a mushroom cloud of flame before sputtering out within the winds of panic.

“Lying, worthless tramp!”

Someone walked across the expanse of darkness toward Mona, their steps as light and calculated as a boy tiptoeing carefully across a bedroom floor. The moving shadow seemed to quiver with nervous excitement, glancing over its shoulder every few steps as if to ensure that some larger shadow wasn’t creeping up behind it.

A different voice in the darkness now. A voice that cracked and broke beneath the strain of raging hormones.

“Drink this… it’s good. Drink it all, okay?”

The shadow advanced in a series of abrupt jerks, almost as if it were passing through a strobe light as dark as the surroundings. One second it was ten feet away… the next, six. Then three. Two. One….

A pockmarked face that looked like a masculine version of her own floated so close that Mona could feel the sharp gasps of air warm her cheek. Then sensations burst through like rapid fire gunshots in the night: the smell of sweat and garlic, hands fumbling and touching, pain exploding somewhere between her legs before the numbing cloud washed over her again, pulling her into a darkness much like the one she floated in now.

“He’s a fucking gridiron hero, for Christ’s sake! He could bang any cheerleader he wants? And you really expect me to believe that a dirty piece of trash like your….”

Mona felt as if she were collapsing into herself, as if all of her molecules were being compressed into a little ball of ice so dense that a black hole formed within her soul. She kept expecting the sting from the back of his hand and the black olive taste of blood trickling from her split and throbbing lip. Coat hangers straightened into slender rods, the studded belt wrapped snugly around a beefy fist, bottles of Mad Dog that shattered like a cheap tiara, leaving her wondering how much of the sticky liquid drenching her hair was blood and how much was wine: these were expected, these were the norm, and no one gave a damn about this quiet little girl who flinched at every loud noise or sudden movement.

Her father staggered in front of the creeping shadow like a washed up actor who’d somehow stumbled into the glare of a spotlight. His bloodshot eyes blazed over top a bulbous nose webbed with thin, blue veins and his jowls flapped like a rabid bulldog as the torrent of abuse flew like froth from his mouth.

“She’s just jealous, Dad. She’s makin’ shit up to try and get me in trouble. Why the hell would I drug my own dawn sister? Who does that?”

Mona wanted to scream at the top of her lungs: I never said I was drugged! How did you know I was drugged, Timmy? If you’re so fucking innocent, how the hell did you know I was drugged? But all that came from her throat was a whimper so soft that it may have come from a puppy wavering between life and death.

“None of the boys will touch her ‘cause she smells like pee. Fifteen years old and still wetting the bed like a little fucking baby. She wakes up early to do the laundry so you won’t know, Dad. I’ve seen her do it.”

A chorus of voices swirled in the darkness around her, each one jabbing with the cruelty only adolescence can foster.

“Outta my way, Urinal Cake!”

“Oh hell… here comes Pissin’ Mona….”

‘S’up, Outhouse?”

A school desk flashed into existence like a brief crack of lightning, leaving the image of a plastic bag of diapers perched atop her textbooks seared onto her retinas as dozens of voices thundered with laughter.

“You lying sack of shit… is that it? You trying to get your brother in trouble? Trying to make sure he doesn’t get that scholarship because you’re so damn retarded. Well, missy, maybe you need to be shown what it really feels like.”

A pressure had built up somewhere within Mona’s abdomen. It was almost as if her bladder were expanding like a balloon; she could feel it swelling with warm liquid, the walls stretching thin as it continued to grow. Only not quite. Something was different this time. Almost as if the scream that had been trapped inside her for so many years was submerged somewhere down there: it burned like an ingot, the fierce heat boiling the liquid and causing pressure to further billow into the nooks and crannies of her body. The pressure surged into her chest and lungs, made her throat feel as if layers of flesh had been burned away, and then spewed from a mouth that could no longer contain the force that had simply simmered for so long.

Instead of a scream, a stream of fire shot past her lips. It crackled and hissed through the air like a serpent of flame before coiling around her dad and brother. Red and orange tongues hungrily licked away flesh and muscle, rendered fat into bubbling puddles of steam, and eventually turned on themselves until nothing was left but skeletons and ash. The bones held together for a moment, frozen in their final poses; it was almost as if they hadn’t realized yet that even cartilage had been consumed in the blaze. But then they dissolved into a fine dust that scattered on the wind and silence returned to Mona’s dark void.

Only it wasn’t silent. Not really. There was a lull coming from somewhere, almost like a distant buzzing in her ears that grew louder the more she tried to identify its source. Close by, she spotted what appeared to be veils of gossamer fabric. Each fiber was illuminated from within; it was as if soft, pastel light had somehow been woven into the strands and they rippled and shifted like well-dressed spirits dancing in the breeze.

The buzzing merged into a hum and the colors formed patchwork blocks, the tint bleeding seamlessly as they formed a blurry mosaic. The sound filled her entire head now and Mona realized that words were interspersed within the rise and fall of the drone; as more and more words asserted themselves, texture and depth emerged as hue melted into detail.

“Wake up, girlie. Wake up, for Mary… wake up, now.”

Wrinkled fingers snapped in front of Mona’s face and the sound seemed to be the final peg needed to hold her hazy picture of reality together. Though her head felt like wet cement had been funneled in through her ears, she could hear Matt’s voice somewhere close by. It was nothing more than a moan… the same one, in fact, that she’d heard countless times following an all-night drinking binge. She looked toward the sound and the movement made her skull feel as if her brain had just slammed into her forehead. She could feel it thudding there, just behind the ridge of her brow, and the dull ache coaxed a queasy gurgle from her stomach.

Matt was sitting in what looked to be an old dining room chair. His ankles were bound to the wooden legs so tightly that it almost seemed as if the rope were burrowing into his jeans and his hands had been pulled behind the slatted back, presumably tied as well. His head hung forward so that his bangs were in his eyes and his chin practically rested on his chest, but she could see and hear him smacking his lips as if his mouth were filled with the same thick saliva that flooded hers.

“That’s a good girl. Wakey, wakey….”

Mona snapped her head back and glared at the old woman, despite the needles of pain that jabbed into her temples as she squinted her eyes. She opened her mouth, intent on spitting out a slew of curses, but the anger somehow got mired in the thick slush clogging her synapses, and all that came out was a dry croak.

Mary smiled and smoothed her yellow dress as her eyes scanned the smooth skin of Mona’s arms, lingering on them the way a construction worker might ogle the curves of her ass. Behind her round spectacles, something flared within her eyes and she ran the tip of her tongue across her lips.

“The boys have done gone for your car. But don’t fret over that. They’ll make sure ain’t nobody never gonna find it, girlie.”

Mona’s muscles tensed and she tried to lunge forward; but coarse ropes bit into the soft flesh of her wrists and the legs of the chair she was tied to didn’t so much as scrape against the floorboards. The sudden movement, however, caused bile to shoot up into the back of her throat as the world swam in and out of focus.

“Ain’t you just the cutest thing? They all fight, at first. Like a coupla cats in a sack. But after a spell, ‘ole Mary has a way of takin’ that fight plum out of ’em. You’ll see.”

She reached forward with an open hand and tried to push a lock of dark hair away from Mona’s face, but the younger woman snapped her teeth like a viscous dog on the end of a leash. Mary snatched her hand away and frowned as she shook her head.

“Well, I declare…. Just like a scared, little animal caught in the hunter’s big, bad trap. I reckon you’ll need housebreakin,’ Mary will hafta show you your place, girlie.”

“Old woman….”

Though it was as thick and mumbled as someone in the throes of sleep, the voice that had spoken was unmistakably Matt’s.

“… you let us go now and maybe we’ll forget any of this ever happened.”

Mary cackled and strolled over to where he was tied. She squatted down on the balls of her feet so she could look him directly in the eyes and pursed her lips for a moment.

“Boy,” she finally said, “I don’t reckon you rightly understand the situation.”

Her hand slipped into the pocket of her dress and reemerged with a silver handled knife. She turned it slowly, allowing the light to glint on the short blade.

“But you will… soon enough.”

The fog that clouded Mona’s vision seemed to be lifting somewhat and she could now make out details of the room they were in. Pushed against one wall was a simple sleigh bed whose sagging mattress was draped with a comforter decorated with pink roses. Various, mismatched pillows were propped at the head of the bed and a glass of water sat on a night stand off to the side. The walls were lined with faded photographs and, on the opposite side of the room, was a closed door. Beside the door was a scarred and beaten desk that had scrapbooking supplies piled onto its surface and she suspected at least one of their chairs had been taken from this work area. Across from the desk was a window covered with what looked like yellowed cheese-cloth; the fabric was so thin that Mona could see pine trees outside and a hint of sky that was just beginning to lighten with the coming of dawn. Which meant that they’d been knocked out for quite some time.

Swiveling her head in the other direction, Mona saw an open door leading into a dimly lit hallway. She could just make out the top of the stairs and a glass case that stood against the wall. Inside the case hung a compound bow wrapped in camouflage tape and the razor-like tips of arrows gleamed like the smiles of demons.

Mona’s heart forgot to beat for a moment as she stared into the hallway. If there were only some way to get those feathered rods of death in her tingling hands….

“Tell you what, sonny… you can watch as I take some of the fight outta your little hussy over there.”

Mary jabbed the knife in Mona’s direction, but her cold eyes never strayed from Matt’s face.

“Such pretty, delicate skin… she’ll open up just like a ripe slicin’ tomato, I bet. And she’ll bleed for ‘ole Mary. Oh yes, you can take that to the bank, boy. And after you’ve had your fill of her screamin’ and cryin’ and beggin’ for me to stop… after she looks like she’s done run plum through a barb wire fence… then you talk to me about lettin’ the two of ya go.”

“I swear to God, if you fuckin’ lay a finger on her….”

Mary laughed again, her voice drowning out the rest of Matt’s threat.

“I ain’t feared of you, boy. Only reason I haven’t done it already is I promised Earl Ray he could lay with this little whore before she’s been all cut up and bruised. He’s such a good boy. Unlike that half wit brother of his. But maybe Daryl will have a go at her, too. If’n he spends ten minutes in a dark closet first.”

Mary slapped her leg and chuckled as if some sort of joke had been made; but Matt’s face was as hard and immovable as if it had been cut from stone. He stared straight ahead silently while taking slow breaths through his nose. His jaw was clenched so tightly that Mona could almost hear his teeth grinding against one another and his pupils had shrank to mere pinpoints. In all respects, he looked like a totally different man now; gone was the young newlywed who was as quick with a smile as he was a joke. In his place, sat some hulking creature whose girth seemed to grow with each slow, measure breath.

Mary wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, but the grin that had been plastered across her face faded as she noticed this new countenance. Blinking several times, she chewed on the inside of her cheek as she stood back up.

“You ain’t right, boy. There’s somethin’ about you….”

Her voice was so low that it seemed as if she were talking more to herself than her prisoner.

“You got that same look in your eye ‘ole Smoky got that time he was bit by that rabid coon.”

Mary glanced at Mona and then back to Matt again. For the first time, she seemed uncertain of herself: her movements were less fluid now and the halting manner in which she approached Matt seemed to suggest indecision.

“You’re a dangerous one…. You’d really die for that little piece of tail, wouldn’t ya? Lotsa folks say they would… but when it comes right down to it, all they really care ‘bout is their own hide. But not you. You’d really do it, boy.”

The last sentence was not a question.

After a moment of silence, Mary nodded her head as if in agreement to some argument only she could hear.

“Don’t have no real use for you, anyhows. ‘Cept for just plain fun.”

She circled around the chair Matt was tied to like a predator closing in on prey that had been brought down, but not incapacitated. Standing directly behind him, she looked at her own reflection in the blade of the knife and nodded once again.

She bent her arm so that it was angled around Matt’s neck and pressed the blade of the paring knife against the bulging vein in his throat.

“I reckon I should put you down just like I did ‘ole Smokey.”

Mona tried to scream, but her voice got stuck in a hard little knot somewhere behind her vocal chords. It was as if she were still in the clutches of whatever drug Mary had used on them: paralyzed by the thought of losing the only person she had ever truly given a damn about, Mona could only sit and watch as her new husband’s blood trickled slowly from the wound.

SCENE SEVEN

By the time Earl and Daryl had finished tying the unconscious bodies to the chairs, the snow was falling so heavily that the windshield of the truck had already been buried beneath several inches of accumulation. It fell from the sky in wet clumps that seemed too large to be considered flakes and made the pine forest surrounding the old farm house look like a snow globe that had been vigorously shaken by God. Daryl had taken an old broom and whisked away enough slush that the wipers would be able to do their job; but even on the highest setting, Earl still had to lean forward and peer through the streaks of moisture on the windshield as the truck rumbled along the road. The headlights cut through the darkness and illuminated the white specks racing toward them, but only his familiarity with the snow-covered road kept the vehicle from easing off the buried asphalt and onto the graveled shoulder.

“You know what it puts me in mind of, Earl?” Daryl asked. “Star Wars. Right when the Millennium Falcon jumps into light speed. Don’t it you?”

“I’ll knock you into light speed if ya don’t stop flappin’ those gums.”

Daryl slumped in his seat and folded his arms across his chest like a reprimanded child. He watched the snow tunneling toward the truck from beneath a heavily furrowed brow and stole quick glances at his brother. Earl clutched the steering wheel like it was the grip on the Strength-O-Meter down at The Crow Bar; his knuckles were so white that it almost seemed as if the bone were attempting to burst through them and he ground his teeth together with each slight correction of the wheel.

“Don’t see why you got to be so mean.” Daryl finally mumbled. “Just tryin’ to pass the time and all.”

Earl took a breath through his nose and held it for a moment. He was too tired to argue with his brother: the exertion of the day had already made his eyes feel as if pieces of grit had been blown into them and his back throbbed from sitting in the truck for so long. All he wanted was to take care of the job at hand, go back home, and climb into his nice, warm bed. He sighed deeply and shook his head in an attempt to clear away some of the fatigue that clung like cobwebs in his mind.

“Just don’t let Mama hear you talkin’ stuff like that. You know she don’t like it. You’ll end up down in the cellar again, you mark my words.”

Daryl straightened with a smile, almost as if he’d just received some sort of praise. Rubbing his eyes with his fists, he decided not to press the matter any further.

“How you reckon we’ll be able to find that car? I ain’t seen it come down like this since the blizzard of ’91.”

“I got a pretty good idea ‘bout where it’s at. When you was talkin’ to those folks, it sounded like they wrecked right around the same place you and me saw that bear that time. Hard part’s gonna be figurin’ out what to do with the damn thing. I reckon Sunderson Pond is about froze over. We can try and sink it, but it might not even break the ice.”

Daryl pinched his bottom lip as he listened to the windshield wipers slap out their frantic rhythm.

“What about the old Crouse place?” he finally said.

“What about it?”

“Ain’t no one lived there goin’ on seven years now. Remember how they had all them old cars out in the barn? We could just tow it out there and set the dang place on fire. By the time anybody showed up, they’d think it was just another one of them old cars all burned up and shit.”

Earl arched his eyebrows and nodded at Daryl.

“Ya know, little brother, sometimes you ain’t half bad.”

Daryl’s jaw dropped and he struggled to find words; but they seemed to get lodged in the lump that bobbed in his throat. His eyes stung with tears and he quickly looked past his own reflection in the passenger window and watched the snow-covered world scroll by. After a moment, he simply decided to say nothing: Earl’s words were literally the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him… and he didn’t want to give his brother any reason to take the compliment back.

Forty minutes later, they finally spotted the wrecked car. They’d driven by this same spot nearly five times; but on this pass, the high beams had caught the tail lights of the Honda and made them glow like the eyes of a deer in a spotlight.

Earl steered the truck carefully over the embankment and made minute adjustments as the wheels slipped and slid in a mixture of snow and mud. Within minutes, he’d backed the truck so close to the car that the bumpers were nearly touching. Before Earl had even shifted into park, Daryl already had the flashlight in his hands. its beam glared off the windshield and he took a deep breath as he prepared to step into the darkness. As long as he had the Mag Lite, however, everything would be fine: though he’d never admit it to Earl (and certainly not to Mama) he liked to pretend that the beam was a lightsaber. With such a powerful weapon in his hands, darkness would be held at bay. True, he sometimes felt silly when these little fantasies took over his imagination… but, as he knew so well, there were far worse things than feeling like a grown man playing childish games.

“Let’s get ‘er done.” Earl grumbled.

He opened the door and frigid air gusted into the cab as if it had been pressed against the other side and awaiting an opportunity to pounce. The sudden drop in temperature tingled Daryl’s neck with a shiver as he clutched the flashlight to the point that his gloved knuckles throbbed; taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated on the cool air that ballooned his chest. He could do this: he had his Mag Lite, the truck’s headlights were still on, and his brother would be close by. All he had to do was step out of the truck.

“You comin’ or what?”

Earl’s voice was muffled by distance and snow. It sounded so soft that it was almost overpowered by the grating of the chain against the bed liner as the man pulled the frosted links of metal to him. There was a slight clinking, a sound like a moan as the wind passed through the trees that clustered around the road, the ticking of the engine as it cooled… there was nothing to be afraid of. Nothing out there was going to hurt him.

After all, he was the one with the power wasn’t he? He was the one who caused grown men to openly weep as their knees trembled and pleas for mercy gurgled from their mouths. He was the one who caused women to shiver as he approached and who sparked dilated eyes with glints of terror. He was the giver of life or death, whichever he saw fit… and there was nothing in the darkness that could possibly take that away.

Opening his eyes, Daryl slid out of the truck. The darkness seemed to close in around him like the coils of a constricting serpent, squeezing tighter and tighter with each step he took. He could feel a tremor in the pit of his stomach and his mouth was so dry that it felt as if he hadn’t had a drink of water for days; but still he forced himself to exhale slowly. His breath formed a plume of vapor that conjured images in his mind of a fierce and powerful fire-breathing dragon and he tried to cling to this picture like a drowning man grasping at a life preserver.

There was nothing to fear.

He was like a god, really.

His feet crunched through the snow and he could hear Earl cursing under his breath as his brother tried to loop the chain around the frame of the little car. Metal rasped against metal and there was a series of dull thuds.

He could do this.

“Foreign piece of shit. I swear t’ God, they deserve to die just for buying it.”

Daryl played the beam of the flashlight over the hatchback of the car, watching the way shadows seemed to flee across the accumulated snow from the sweeping shaft of light. Earl was lying on his back beneath the car and Daryl took care not to trip over the man’s beefy legs as he stepped forward. With a swipe of his arm, he cleared a swath of snow from the smooth glass and shone the light inside the darkened car. The beam splayed across suitcases and duffel bags that looked as though they’d been thrown up in the air and allowed to fall into patterns of disarray.

‘Fuckin’ cock-knockin’ son of a bitch….”

The vehicle rocked slightly and the suspension creaked as Earl struggled to secure the chain beneath. This slight movement almost made it seem as if the pools of darkness and shadow were leaping away from the light like cloaked vampires fleeing from the sun. Slipping one hand into his hip pocket, Daryl heard a slight jingle and remembered the keys they had taken from the unconscious man .

“Oughtta make your skinny ass get down here and do this shit.”

Fishing the keys from his pocket, Daryl allowed them to dangle in his hands for a moment, enjoying the way the beam of the flashlight gleamed on the shiny metal. But then his eyes returned to the car again, taking in the scattered pieces of luggage tucked safely away in the hatch.

He slid one of the keys into the keyhole and heard a soft click as he turned. The pneumatics sighed as the hatchback lifted ever so slightly and Daryl glanced over his shoulder as if half-expecting someone to be standing just behind him. But there was only the darkness waiting just beyond their little island of light, waiting for the moment that it could rush in and….

You just stop that right this minute you hear? Ain’t nothin’ gonna hurt ya out here. Nothin’ at all. Besides, look at the sky. It’s almost morning. Fifteen, twenty minutes more and the sun will be up.

He lifted the hatchback until it was fully open and leaned so far forward that it almost looked as if he were about to crawl into the back of the car.

“What in tarnation are you doin’ up there anyways?”

“Goin’ through their shit.” Daryl answered. “Might have somethin’ good. Be a shame to burn something that might be worth a lot.”

He flicked open the latches on the suitcase and, with his free hand, began pulling clothes from its confines like a magician with a never-ending scarf. Bras, panties, jeans, sweatshirts: all were strewn about the interior of the car in a blizzard of cloth. But, by the time the satin lined bottom of the case had been revealed, there was nothing to show for the flurry of activity other than a mess that looked like a wardrobe had thrown up. Undaunted, Daryl pulled a pink duffel bag to him and tried to get a grip on its zipper with fingers made bulky by his gloves.

“About fuckin’ time. I got the damn thing, little brother.”

He could hear Earl wiggling through the snow as the zipper finally came undone. At first, it seemed as if the bag simply contained more of the same. The top was stuffed with piles of underwear, some loose tampons that rattled in their plastic wrappers, a sheer nightie that smelled lightly of some exotic perfume….

But then Daryl saw it. It looked to be a photo album, or maybe one of those scrapbooks Mama was always putting together. The brown, leather cover was faded and scuffed along the edges as if it had been opened and thumbed through so many times that erosion had finally taken its toll. But what really caught Daryl’s attention was the note card set in the center of a brass frame attached to the cover of the album. In flowing, feminine script were the words Mona’s Secret Delights.

Thoughts of the darkness were pushed from Daryl’s mind as he imagined what lay hidden within those pages: there would be naughty pictures of the dark-haired woman with her boobs hanging out, snapshots of her legs spread wide, maybe even her soft lips wrapped around the base of…

His hands trembled as he flipped the cover open and, despite the stinging bite of the wind, his face somehow felt so warm that it almost made him lightheaded. A grin spread across his face at the thought of uncovering this most private and intimate collection and he felt just like he had that time he’d found those magazines tucked under Earl’s mattress when they were kids.

The grin, however, faded as quickly as snow on a warm windshield. At first, Daryl’s brow was knitted in confusion. He held the book at different angles as if a new perspective might help clarify exactly what he was seeing; but within seconds even this expression disappeared as the color drained from his face.

“What the fuck you lookin’ at, retard?”

Daryl stood as motionless as the dark trees surrounding them as snowflakes swirled in the beam of the flashlight.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

Daryl gulped hard as he spun around to face his brother.

“We gotta get home.” He blurted. “We gotta get home now.”

Daryl’s mouth hung open as he struggled to find more words, but somehow they just wouldn’t come. His stomach felt as something had just squeezed it in an icy grip and every breath seemed to take an act of will; but even then his mind still rebelled against what he was seeing. Surely it couldn’t be… no, it had to be something else… he had to be mistaken…

But part of him knew he wasn’t. And it was the same part that whispered in the depths of his mind that something was horribly, horribly wrong….

SCENE EIGHT

The rising sun cast a warm glow upon the room and glinted off the blade held at Matt’s throat. Mary had pressed it into the skin deeply enough the trickles of blood streamed down his neck and her eyes narrowed behind her spectacles. Her right arm tensed as she prepared to pull the knife across the flesh, severing tendons and arteries in its wake.

“Bleed for Mary, boy….”

At that moment, however, there was a sound from somewhere within the house that caused Mary to freeze. At first, Mona couldn’t quite place what it was: it sounded hollow and insistent, almost like a woodpecker tapping through the bark of a tree. But that was silly… there wouldn’t be a woodpecker in the house, would there? No, it had to be something else. And it was familiar, damn it… something that, if not for the haze of confusion still roiling through her brain from the drug the old woman had knocked them out with, would have been immediately recognizable.

Mary, on the other hand, apparently had no trouble identifying the staccato repetitions. Rather than slashing her knife across Matt’s throat, she pulled it away and slid it into the pocket of her dress so quickly that her hand was nothing more than a blur. There were a few seconds of silence as she shuffled across the room and then the noise repeated again. Opening the drawer on a desk piled with reams of multicolored card stock, glue, and what looked to be albums and photographs, Mary rummaged around until her hand came out holding two red balls. On either side of each ball was a black strap and she hurried back to the bound newlyweds, continually glancing over her shoulder as the sounds from downstairs grew louder. And Mona was sure it was downstairs, now. Things were slowly coming together, her rational mind reasserting dominance over the dazed puzzlement she’d been mired in.

The old woman tried to shove one of the red balls into Mona’s mouth but the younger woman thrashed her head to the side like a dog shaking an injured rabbit. Mona’s lips were closed so tightly that her mouth was nothing more than a thin, hard line.

“Get… the fuck… away… from her.”

In normal situations, Matt’s voice would have boomed out like God issuing proclamations from the Mount. However, his words were still thick and slurred. Rather than resounding through the small room with the force of a thunderclap, they were nearly lost beneath the continued noise from downstairs.

Undaunted by his order, Mary pinched Mona’s nostrils between her fingers and waited. Within the span of a minute, Mona’s mouth gasped open as she sucked in a lungful of air; and, at that moment, Mary plunged the ball into her mouth so forcefully that it almost seemed as if the old woman were trying to cram it down her throat. Her wrinkled fingers fed the straps through a series of buckles and she yanked hard as the taste of rubber flooded Mona’s mouth. Pleased with her handiwork, the old woman walked to Matt and repeated the same process with him.

“Mary!”

The voice was muffled and filled one of the silences between the series of rapping sounds.

“Mary Gruber!”

“Keep your britches on.” Mary yelled. “I’m a’comin.’”

With those words, the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Knocking. The sound had been someone pounding on the front door.

“Now, you two don’t go nowhere… I’ll be back quicker than a duck on a Junebug.”

Mary shut the door behind her as she left the room and the couple heard a soft rattle and click as if, perhaps, the old woman had taken the time to lock the door. Then her footsteps padded down the stairs, leaving the two newlyweds staring across the room at one another.

Though the gags kept the couple from speaking in anything other than garbled vowels, the expression in Matt’s eyes told Mona everything she needed to know: they were getting out of this. No matter what it took, they were not going to die in this dusty old house in the middle of nowhere.

As if in response to this unspoken conversation, Matt squirmed in his chair. He tried throwing his head and shoulders back in the hopes that me might be able to make the chair rock. If he could just make it topple backwards with enough force, perhaps the old wood would shatter when it hit the floor. He knew it was a long shot but, if he were completely honest with himself, it was probably the only chance they had. So he continued thrusting as much of his weight backward as he possibly could. If his ankles hadn’t been tied so tightly to the chair’s legs, it would have been a hell of a lot easier; in that situation, he probably would’ve been free almost before Mary had even finished locking the door. This, however, was not the case and Matt had to force these thoughts from his mind. Dwelling on what could have been, instead of focusing on the here and now, would only compound matters: he would grow frustrated and that frustration would further impede his ability to think clearly. So, no… he simply had to work with what he had at hand and do his best to ensure that he and his wife made it out of this room in one piece.

While Matt grunted into his gag, Mona tried a different tact. Closing her eyes, she took a breath through her nose, held it, and then clenched her hands into fists so tightly that her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands. Then she relaxed for a second, exhaled, and repeated the entire process. Breathe, hold, clench, release… breathe, hold, clench, release….

From downstairs, the two could hear the murmur of a conversation. There was definitely Mary’s voice but also another. Possibly male. Though the words were nothing more than a rhythmic drone, both Matt and Mona realized that the person speaking to the old woman wasn’t either one of her sons. For one, they wouldn’t have bothered with knocking; and the woman lacked the strength to have carried Matt and Mona upstairs by herself. Which meant that she’d had help. The boys were in on whatever was going down and they were obviously not around right now. Otherwise, one of them would have simply answered the door and left their mother to finish the job at hand. So, no: there was someone else at the door… an outsider who had no idea that two young lovers were tied up and awaiting death within the house.

Mona switched tactics again, this time twisting her wrists in opposite directions as she pulled at the same time. The ropes rubbed against her flesh like sandpaper and she bit into the rubber ball in her mouth as she squeezed her eyes shut. Her wrists felt as if the skin were being scraped away layer by layer and the coarse fibers of the rope were like tiny needles that jabbed into raw flesh. But still she continued to twist and pull, ignoring the pain that coaxed beads of sweat from her brow; she tried to focus, instead, on thoughts of Matt. She pictured the shallow wound on his neck, the trickle of blood from where the old bitch’s knife had nicked him….

How much longer would the unseen visitor be at the door? How much longer until Mary returned? Pain was not an option… if they were going to make it out of this nightmare, it had to be now. While their captor was still distracted.

Mona wrenched her wrists so violently that, from behind, they probably looked as if they were wrestling one another. More and more flesh was stripped away and the pain was now a stinging burn. It throbbed through her hands and arms as blood oozed from the self-inflicted wounds, the abrasions seeming to make her very bones scream in torment; but this agony, as intense as it was, would be nothing compared to what she would feel if her beloved Mattie were snuffed out right before her eyes. She would gladly endure the fires of Hell if it meant keeping her new husband safe and alive. And if that meant fighting through the pain of a rope burn, even one this severe, then so be it. She would do whatever she needed to.

Her wrists were raw and now entirely coated with blood. She could feel it ooze down her hands, as warm and sticky as the syrup Matt always poured on her pancakes, and she realized that she didn’t have to struggle quite as hard now. It was as if her hands were moving just a bit more freely. As if all that blood were like oil, lubricating the spaces where rope met meat.

From downstairs, the lull of the conversation continued. But it was obvious that Mary’s tone was becoming sharper, growing impatient with her visitor. It would only be a matter of time before she shooed them away and returned to the room with that viscous little knife of hers. And she would then kill Matt as easily as if it were something she did every day. Mona had no doubt about this… and she couldn’t let that happen.

Mona threw her left shoulder down while wrenching her right one upward so violently that the sound of her joints popping was like the snap of a dry twig. The rope shifted positions and peeled away a new layer of flesh. She screamed into her gag, though the sound was nothing more than a moan behind the red ball, and then repeated the action again, this time changing directions on each shoulder.

To Matt, it probably looked as if her entire body were wracked with spasms; but she continued jerking her shoulders again and again, stripping away layers of tissue with each savage thrust. Finally, she felt the coils of rope shift. Ever so slightly: almost as if they were drawing back in an attempt to figure out what this wild-eyed woman was up to… but that was all it took. Mona redoubled her efforts, grunting and groaning as her slender, blood-glazed hands slipped through the intertwined knots of her bindings; she twisted and yanked, pulled and slithered her way through the rope until, finally, her left hand plopped free. After that, it was only a matter of seconds before he right hand joined the first: drops of blood spattered against the floor as she worked at the knots securing her ankles to the chair’s legs and then she scampered across the room, not even pausing to remove the straps of her gag.

She crouched behind Matt’s chair and pulled at his ropes, freeing him much more quickly than she had herself. In less than a minute, they were both reaching behind their heads and undoing the buckles on the ball gags; when, at last, they were completely free of Mary’s little toys, Matt embraced his wife so tightly that it almost seemed as if her were attempting to somehow pull her into the safety of his own body.

Their lips parted and they kissed deeply, their tongues gliding over one another in passionate fury… but only for a moment. Then they pulled away from each other and glanced around the room like a pair of tigers who’d just realized the zoo keeper had left the door of the cage open.

“Oh shit, babe… your wrists.”

Matt practically ran to the desk and shuffled through the scrapbooking material that cluttered its top. At the same time, Mona stalked across the room and pulled back the curtains just enough so that she was able to peek out the window.

The morning sun had crested the horizon now and glistened on the snow as if the rolling dunes had been dusted with glitter. At the corner of the house, and almost entirely out of sight, she could just make out a car. It was a black and white sedan and a row of red and blue lights perched on its top. She turned her head toward Matt, who had found a scalpel-like Exacto knife and was busy cutting long strips of cloth from the hem of his shirt.

“Cops, Mattie… she’s talking to a cop.”

Matt, however, acted as if he hadn’t heard Mona’s report. He ripped free the last piece of cloth and hurried to Mona’s side, where he began wrapping them around her wrists so gently it almost seemed as if he were afraid the makeshift bandages would cause her arms to crumble.

“I’m pretty sure that cunt locked the door.” He said as he worked.

Mona nodded.

“Yeah, I heard it, too. Did you see the bow in the case in the hallway? What I wouldn’t do to get my hands on that.”

Matt tied the dressings carefully, trying to ensure that the pressure didn’t cause his wife any more pain that what she already had to be feeling.

“Think the cop is looking for us?”

Mona turned the question over in her mind for a moment before replying.

“Don’t see how… nobody knows we’re here. Has to be somethign else, I think.”

“Yeah. That’s about the way I have it figured, too. Here, you take this.”

Matt handed Mona the Exacto knife and she grinned despite the deep throbbing that ached in her bandaged wrists.

“Oh sweetie…” she said with a wink, “you shouldn’t have.”

“More practical than flowers and better than a card. Now… what do you say we get the hell out of here, princess?”

The couple crept across the room, their feet creaking so softly on the floorboards that it easily could have been mistaken for nothing more than the warmth of the rising sun expanding the old wood. Approaching the door on the opposite side of the room, Matt turned the knob so slowly that he almost seemed like a cat burglar trying to gain entrance. Pressing one hand against the door, he opened it carefully so that the creaking of hinges wouldn’t give them away.

The room on the other side was much darker and emptier than the one they’d been held captive in. Rather than smelling of lilacs and body powder, this one had an almost coppery, salty aroma in the air. Mixed with this was a stench that reminded Mona of the time their toilet had been clogged for nearly three days: something like shit and stale piss tainted the air and, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she noticed the sole piece of furniture in the room for the first time.

It was a large, butcher block table that looked as though its legs had been bolted to the floor by a series of metal fixtures. A naked woman leaned across the table with her hands stretched out in front of her and she seemed to be placing all of her body weight into her torso. Even so, her buckled knees trembled and Mona wondered for a moment why the woman simply didn’t sit down upon the floor. She looked pale and tired and the skin drooped from her frame as if she’d lost a lot of weight in a very short period of time. But there was something else… a series of dark lines marred her skin almost to the point that it looked as though her emaciated body had been used to draw clusters of tic-tac-toe boards onto her flesh.

“What the fuck is this?”

At the sound of Matt’s voice, the oily mass of tangles that was the woman’s hair turned slightly. She glanced over her shoulder and her eyes grew round as she saw the couple in the doorway. Tears streamed from the corner and she mumbled excitedly into the same sort of gag that Matt and Mona had come to know all too well.

Matt walked across the room as if the woman might leap toward him at any second. With steps as slow and deliberate as a big game hunter, he circled around the table while his eyes took in every detail.

“Oh shit, sweetie… her hands have been nailed to the table. She’s cut up bad, too.”

Mona stayed in the doorway and looked back into the room they’d came out, listening for the key to rattle in the door once again. The Exacto knife was leveled in front of her and, if her husband’s words had any impact on her at all, it was not betrayed by the hard expression that was chiseled onto her face.

“Looks like this bitch has been kept here a while.”

The woman probably thought she was thrashing about, but—in her weakened state—she looked more like a fish that had been thrown onto the bank for far too long and was in the final stages of its death throes. She continued babbling into the ball gag and her eyes almost seemed to plead with Matt, who squatted down next to her.

“Look, I’m going to take that gag out, okay? But you have to stay quiet. That old lady? She doesn’t know we’re free yet. And we want to keep it that way, okay? You understand?”

The woman nodded her head as tears glistened on her hollow cheeks.

“Okay… I’m taking the gag off, now.”

Standing, Matt slid the straps through the buckle on the back of the woman’s head and plopped the ball from her mouth. Almost immediately, loud sobs burst from her mouth like water from a crumbled damn. Matt slapped his hand over the woman’s lips so hard that her head snapped backward. Even then, her words kept bubbling up like the snot that was beginning to leak from her noise.

“Look,” he hissed, “I told you… stay quiet. I mean it, okay? I’m not fucking around here, you understand?”

The woman sniffled and nodded her head again as she tried to blink away her tears.

“You sure? Because I’m serious… you only get one more chance, honey.”

More nodding.

Matt eased his hand away from the woman’s mouth, ready to clamp it back down if he had to. But this time the lady with the nails in her hands stayed true to her word. Her voice was nothing more than a whimper that hitched and quivered with tears.

“Crazy, they’re all crazy, please get me out of here, please, please, please.”

“Shhhh… it’s okay… shhhh….”

From outside the house an engine rumbled, causing Mona to spin around as quickly as a ballerina. She now faced the locked door in the other room again as she held the Exacto knife in front of her like a swordsman preparing for battle.

“Cop’s leaving.” She whispered. “I figure that old hag will wait until he’s well out of sight before….”

“Cop? There’s a cop here? What’s wrong you with, you people? There’s a cop!”

Darlene’s eyes darted from Matt to Mona and then back to Matt again. Both of them stared at her silently, almost as if it had never crossed their minds that maybe, perhaps, they could simply yell for help. That all of this could be over, that they could go home, be free…

“Help m….”

The scream that had begun to erupt from Darlene’s mouth was cut short as Matt’s hand slapped over her lips again with a sharp crack. She tried to shake her head free, but he pressed his palm even more tightly against her face and braced his other hand against the back of her head.

“Now, I told you, damn it. One more chance. I told you, didn’t I?”

Darlene sank her teeth into Matt’s flesh and he winced but made no move to yank his hand away.

“Stupid fucking bitch.”

Without another word, he pushed the woman’s jaw in one direction and jerked her head in the other with a violent twist. There was a sharp snapping sound, almost like a wishbone being pulled apart at Thanksgiving, and then he allowed Darlene’s body to limply slump toward the ground. Only the nails in her hands kept her from collapsing like a discarded rag doll as her unblinking eyes stared into eternity.

For Darlene Honnicker, the agony of her torture had finally come to and end….

SCENE NINE

The added weight of the car being towed behind them made it seem as if the scenery were slowly scrolling by and the vehicles simply sitting still. This illusion was enhanced even more for Daryl, who sat in the driver’s seat of the wrecked Honda. Without the rumble of an engine, the interior of the car was eerily silent and he found himself wishing he were in the cab of the truck with his brother. Not to mention that it would be warmer up there. The motor of the car was completely shot, which meant the heater was out as well. Even with his layers of clothing, Daryl could still feel the cold upholstery of the seat seep into his back and ass and his teeth chattered between clouds of breath. Every few moments, he had to lean forward and wipe the frost from the inside of the windshield with his arm, but other than that his part in the operation was monotonous.

Basically, all he had to do was watch for the brake lights of the truck to wink at him and apply pressure to the pedal in the car as well. A few small adjustments were required with the wheel, but for the most part the chain that connected the two vehicles made this a simple task. Which was perfect, seeing as how Daryl had never actually learned to drive. However, this lack of participation also gave the mustachioed man ample time to think… and his mind turned, time and time again, to the book that sat on the passenger seat beside him.

He glanced at it for what must have been the hundredth time in the past five minutes. That worn leather cover, the elegant handwriting, and those three seemingly innocent words: Mona’s Secret Delights. A chill coursed along his spine that had nothing to do with the sub-zero temperatures within the car and his stomach felt as if it had turned into a writhing knot of worms. Earl had said he was just being a little baby, that the book was obviously some kind of joke; but, at the same time, Daryl’s older brother certainly hadn’t put up much of an argument against going straight home and disposing of the car later.

“Everything’s gonna be okay.” He said aloud. “It’s gonna be right as rain, you’ll see.”

The quiver in his voice, however, betrayed the fact the he was trying to talk himself into accepting what he secretly believed to be a lie.

Mona’s Secret Delights.

He looked at the book again and his thoughts immediately turned to Mama. Sometimes, he woke up in the middle of the night with the remnants of a dream still clinging to his consciousness like a tenacious rottweiler. He’d sit in the glow of his night light and listen to his own haggard breath as sweat dried cool on his drenched body.

The dream was always the same: it was Mama and Earl tied to the chairs in the upstairs room, only they were so much smaller than what they were in real life. In fact, Daryl seemed to tower over them as if he were a giant in the halls of his castle. When he walked, the floors rattled with each thudding step and showers of dust cascaded from the rafters overhead. His shadow fell over his mother and brother, engulfing them in a darkness so complete that Daryl could only see the frightened gleam in their eyes.

In this dream, his fingers were actually slender needles that clinked against one another and dripped sizzling beads of acid onto the floor. In each amber droplet, Daryl could clearly see his mother and brother reflected: their faces were gaunt and colorless, their mouths pulled back into screams that never seemed to come, and their eyes wide and glassy. Within those eyes, there was another reflection, this one of a small boy with a blood soaked tee shirt. The boy was being fed into the darkness of a closet whose doorway was lined with fang-like teeth; his feet scrambled over the floor and tears glistened on his cheeks, but still the hands urged him ever onward. For a second, the young boy locked gazes with the towering giant and his mouth formed two words: help me.

The dream always ended with Daryl’s needle-fingers thrusting through the air, their gleaming tips mere inches from Earl and Mama’s chests. A fraction of a second longer and they would both be impaled as the acid liquefied their organs and turned them into empty husks… but that moment of contact was always preempted with a jolt of consciousness and a choked sob. Sometimes, Daryl longed to see the dream through to completion, to see if his dream-self truly was capable of killing the only family he’d ever known. But then guilt would wash over him: he’d push the images to the back of his mind, would pull his own hair until the pain overpowered all thought and emotion, and rock back and forth while silently crying.

He didn’t really want to kill Mama. Sometimes, when he thought about the past for too long, images of the dream would bubble up from his subconscious like a dark and malevolent Leviathan rising from the depths… but, even then, part of him still knew that he’d brought it all upon himself. Mama simply wanted him to be a good boy, to grow up strong and brave, to be more like Earl and less like a sniveling child. Everything she’d ever done was due to love and he had no right to question the methods of her guidance. He just had to try harder, that was all.

Mona’s Secret Delights.

In this situation, maybe Daryl would be able to prove to her once and for all that he was a man worthy of his mother’s respect. Once Mama saw the book, once she knew how Daryl had pieced it all together and insisted that they rush back to her as soon as possible… once she had all this evidence in front of her, she’d have no choice but to heap praises upon her youngest son. He’d bask in her adoration and maybe even get one of the “secret gifts” that Earl was always being taken away for. He had no clue exactly what the gift was but understood that it was the highest form of approval Mama could give; and he wanted that more than anything else in the world.

A loud boom shuddered the car and jarred Daryl out of his thoughts as his body pitched forward. His head banged against the steering wheel and, for a moment, he simply sat there and blinked his eyes as he tried to understand what had happened.

He’d been so lost in thought that he’d forgotten to wipe the frost off the windshield for quite some time and every inch of glass was now covered with an icy film. The morning sun filtered through it, but everything beyond was nothing more than indistinct blobs of color. The car, however, was no longer moving forward…. Earl must have stopped for some reason and Daryl had been so engrossed in daydreaming that he’d never seen the flash of the taillights. Luckily, they hadn’t been going very fast; if they had, then the crash would have been a lot worse and there was a chance he could have damaged the old truck. If that had happened, Earl’s wrath would have been of biblical proportions; and, more importantly, they would never have been able to make it home in time.

“In time for what?” part of Daryl’s mind whispered. “What are you afraid of this time?”

His eyes drifted to the book again and he felt his breathe catch in his throat. Somehow it almost seemed as if, by opening its pages, he’d unleashed some dark and terrible demon upon the land. The chill bumps tingling the nape of his neck were the cold wind displaced by the flapping of leathery wings and the headache clustering behind his left eye was from talons sinking into the soft mass of his brain. He could feel the creature’s presence, pressing in on him from all sides as it repeatedly whispered three words like some archaic incantation: Mona’s Secret Delights… Mona’s Secret Delights….

A flash of color in the rearview mirror caught Daryl’s attention and he saw red and blue strobing through the ice-encrusted glass of the hatchback’s window. The frost diffused the lights into fuzzy halos that flickered and flashed in an almost random pattern. At the same time, Daryl became aware of a sound from outside the car. It was like a voice emerging from the crackle and pop of static, distant enough that the words were indistinguishable but close enough that he instantly recognized the source: a police radio. So that’s why Earl had stopped the truck… he’d been pulled over.

The demon’s hot breath tickled Daryl’s ears as it hissed dire warnings into the man’s thoughts: too late, you’ll be too late, you’ll never be a good boy now, you’ll always be a useless simpering crybaby, no use to anyone, you’ll be too late and it will all be your fault….

A shadow, vaguely man-shaped, passed the window and the tinny voice of the dispatcher sounded as if it were as close as the demon Daryl imagined to be latched onto his back. As the shadow receded, however, so did that sound of the radio, leaving Daryl with only the whispered litany of derision in his mind: dead, she’ll be dead because of you, all because of you, and you’ll never get to prove to her that you were anything other than what she always thought you were….

A voice that sounded as if it were speaking through layers of cotton broke through the contempt that plagued Daryl’s consciousness.

“License and registration, sir.”

Daryl’s heart felt as if it were fluttering so fast that every other beat was missed; his breath came in quick pants and he felt slightly dizzy, as if the interior of the car had lost its grip on reality. And he felt a tremor somewhere deep within him that almost made it seem as if every organ in his body quivered in unison.

His eyes darted to the book again.

Mona’s Secret Delights.

The demon sank its claws deeper into his eye, shredding nerve endings and snyapses with barbed tips that were nearly molten from a thousand years in the lake of fire.

“Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”

Earl’s voice, low and gravely. Daryl knew the tone all too well: anger tinted with frustration, the way even the most innocent words seemed to mock.

Mona’s Secret Delights.

“Step out of the vehicle now, sir!”

The demon crushed Daryl beneath its weight and caused the doors and ceiling to constrict in response to its incessant murmur: and she’ll hurt you, she’ll make you scream again, there in the dark with the rats and the mice and the scent of fresh blood all up and down your arms and chest, all because you weren’t good enough, weren’t strong enough, because you failed her when she needed you most and lacked the backbone to do what needed to be done….

Earl was shouting now, his voice booming so loudly that the thud of the truck door almost seemed as inconsequential as the chatter on the cop’s radio.

“Fuckin’ pig, I know my damn rights, I wasn’t doin’ nothin,’ you stupid piece of shit.”

“Put your hands on the hood of the car, sir…”

“What? You gonna shoot me, asshole? You gonna blow me away with your big, bad gun? Mother fucker, I ain’t scared of you and that tin fuckin’ badge…”

“Put your hands on the damn hood!”

Daryl panted so quickly that his breath seemed to warm the interior of the car to the point that sweat moistened his armpits and chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that he could force the talons out of his head with his tightly clenched eyes and grinding jaw.

But, even in the darkness, he could sense the book beside him.

Could picture that leather cover….

“Sir, I’m not fucking telling you again!”

The little note card inside the gilded frame…

“Or what? Or what, you son of a bitch? You gonna taser me, pig? You gonna zap my fuckin’ ass? That it, big man?”

The curves and loops of such innocent looking handwriting…

“Step back! Step the fuck back!”

Mona’s Secret Delights.

The shouting from outside of the car now sounded distant, as if it were nothing more than a television playing a little too loudly through the walls of a padded room.

“Come on! Come on, mother fucker! Pig! Let’s do this….”

The growl of Earl’s voice degraded into a garbled mash of sounds that, for some reason, made Daryl think of a man sitting in an electric chair. He could picture spittle spraying from his brother’s lips, drool sliding down his chin as layers of fat quivered and jerked, his eyes rolling back into his head as his body flopped in the snow like a headless snake.

The demon’s spiel had now reached a frenzy and it filled Daryl’s head with a cacophony of hissed whispers whose words bled into one another: now, prove yourself now, show your worth, be a man for God’s sake, grow a pair and make her proud, oh so proud, be a good boy, be the best damn boy she could ever ask for….

Daryl’s eyelids opened and the voice fell silent. Turning slightly in his seat, he looked into the back of the car. His eyes took in the mounds of clothes and baggage, the plastic bottles of brake fluid and motor oil, all the flotsam and jetsam that had come rushing forward when the vehicle had come to its abrupt stop.

And there, poking out from underneath a pink t-shirt, he saw the curved tip of a tire tool.

Reaching back, his fingers closed around the cold metal and he lifted it slowly. It was heavier than he thought it would be… thick and sturdy like they used to make them. Not one of those cheap aluminum rods with the swiveling lug head that came with newer model cars. This was solid, a single piece of forged steel.

Daryl lifted the lever on the door so gently that there was only the smallest of clicks as the latch freed itself. He pushed it open just enough to allow himself to slide through the gap.

Ten feet away, Earl laid on his stomach like some whale that had washed up on an arctic shore. Snow billowed around his body and the cop was behind him, one knee firmly planted in the small of his massive back. The cop had Earl’s arms pinned just below the shoulder blades and the morning sun glinted off the handcuffs as if they were made of silver flame.

Daryl placed one foot in front of the other as carefully as if the twinkling flakes of ice on the snow were actually broken glass. His stare was focused on the little knot at the base of the officer’s skull and every muscle in his body wanted to break into a run. He wanted to hoist the tire tool above his head like some primal hunter and rattle the stillness of the morning with a guttural battlecry.

But he forced himself to proceed calmly. As if he were stalking game in the woods.

And the closer he came, the heavier and more powerful the metal gripped in his hand felt.

One swift blow.

One dull thud coupled with the cracking of splintered bone.

A splash of blood, stark and red against a field of white.

And then he would be the man Mama had always wanted him to be.

He would be the hero.

The protector.

He would finally be a good boy….

SCENE TEN

Mary opened the front door of the house and the cold, outside air rushed in. It forced its way through the thin fabric of her dress and rustled her white hair as flakes of snow blew into the foyer like tiny animals fleeing the approach of a ravenous predator. The metal blade of the knife absorbed the chill almost instantaneously and felt like a slender icicle weighing down her pocket. Hugging herself, the old woman rubbed her arms briskly as she blinked in the sudden glare of the sun.

“Mornin,’ Chief Howarth. What’d them boys of mine do now?”

The man on the porch was dressed in a heavy, wool jacket and the blue material contrasted sharply with the white backdrop of winter. The silver buttons were polished almost as brightly as the star-shaped badge pinned just above the breast pocket and his angular face hid in the shadows of the wide brimmed hat that perched atop his close-cropped hair. He looked at her with eyes the color of mahogany and spoke through lips that were dry and cracked.

“Morning, Mary. Hope I didn’t wake you. I apologize for it being so early and all.”

Mary sniffed once as if she were testing the air and cocked her head to the side.

“Don’t sleep much when ya get t’ be my age. I reckon I’ll sleep enough when I’m dead.”

“How’s that knee been? Acting up with the cold and all?”

Chief Howarth glanced over the old woman’s shoulder and his eyebrows arched ever so slightly; the emphasis he’d placed on the word cold wasn’t lost on Mary… but she kept her body planted squarely in the doorway and simply hugged herself more tightly.

“I’ll live, I s’pose.”

They stood in silence for a moment as the chief shuffled forward a few steps while he licked his lips.

“Feels like you got the fireplace all nice and warm, at least.” He finally said. “Heater’s on the blink in the cruiser… cold as a witch’s tit out here, too.”

“More on the way… I reckon we might as well get used to it.”

The chief’s shoulders drooped and a cloud of vapor billowed from his mouth and nose as he sighed; somehow he seemed a little smaller now, almost as if the air he’d been holding within his lungs had been the only thing keeping him inflated. Mary stood as straight as a pine sapling in the doorway smiled. At the same time, she breathed in through her nose, inhaling the same air the chief of police had just expelled, and her chest seemed to swell. For a fraction of a second, she looked like a smug, old teacher who’d just bested a smart ass student… but the expression melted away and she was just a shivering pensioner again.

“Yeah,” the chief agreed, “I suppose I will.”

He glanced around, taking in the snow covered shrubs in the yard and the pines that towered on the edge of the property. Dawn had yet to force its way through the canopy of green needles overhead and darkness still held sway among the rows of trunks and undergrowth. The trees were so thick and dense, in fact, that it almost seemed as if the forest existed in some reality that had been freed from the bonds of time: in there, amid that brambles and fallen limbs, it was as black as the bottom of a deep water well. Almost as if the night had become lost in this labyrinth of wood and lacked even a trail of crumbs with which to find its way out again.

“Where are the boys, anyhow? Awful early to be out and about. Especially on a morning like this. Thought we were going to have to close the pass last night. Had the highway boys all ready to mobilize, but in the end….”

“Now, Chief, I know you didn’t come all the way out here to pay me a social call.”

Mary’s tone was as sharp as a mother reprimanding a child; the chief sighed again and his head almost seemed to swivel beneath his hat as he shook it.

“No… no, I suppose I didn’t. .”

Chief Howarth slipped his hand inside his coat and when it emerged he had two photographs fanned between his fingers.

“You seen either of these two folks around lately, Mary?” he asked as he handed the snapshots to her.

The old woman glanced down at the pictures and gasped as she saw the faces staring back up at her. Her jaw hung open for a fraction of a second and she blinked rapidly as if perhaps she’d just awoken from a dream and was attempting to rid her mind of the lingering afterimages. The chief leaned in so close that Mary could smell the coffee on his breath and gripped her elbow gently.

“You have, haven’t you? You know these kids, don’t you?”

In the same amount of time that it had taken for Mary’s facade to slip, she repaired the damage that had been done. She glanced at the pictures again, shook her head with a wry smile, and handed them back to Chief Howarth.

“Thought that fella was my Cousin Fred. Spittin’ image of him, he is. From back in the day, I mean. Reckon Fred hasn’t been that handsome since… well, since never I s’pose.”

The old woman laughed and flashed another smile at the policeman; the excitement that had touched his features when she’d caught her breath faded and he simply looked cold, tired, and slightly bored again. Inside, however, Mary felt as if someone had just goosed her soul. It was as if the deepest layers of fat and tissue were undulating with some sort of inner chill and her throat was as dry as when she’d fall asleep in front of the fireplace.

“Took me back a bit, I tell ya. ‘Ole Fred always was a good for nothin.’ Always runnin’ afoul of the law and carryin’ on like you wouldn’t believe.”

She knew she had to guard her words as closely as if they were her grandmother’s antique silver. Howarth may have been overworked and underpaid, but the man was no fool… one slip and he’d seize upon it like a bobcat on a winter hare.

“You certain, Mary? Maybe, you didn’t look close enough or….”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my eyes, Chief. At least, nothin’ that these here glasses don’t fix. Aside from lookin’ like Fred, I ain’t never seen these two folks a day in my life. They missin’ or something?”

She tried to make the question sound as casual as if she were asking how the man’s children were. Nothing more than small talk to help pass the time.

“State troopers want to ask them some questions, that’s all. We heard they might be heading this way, so we’re checking with everyone. Just routine procedure, that’s all.”

Having lived on a farm for the majority of her life, Mary knew bullshit when she smelled it. There was something the Chief wasn’t telling her, something he was keeping as close as the pistol strapped to his hip.

“You see them around, you call me, you hear? Don’t try talking to them or anything. We don’t want to spook them by making them think they’re in trouble or anything. You just give me a call, okay?”

Were they dangerous? Is that why Howarth was trying to play it off as if this was nothing out of the ordinary while, at the same time, basically telling her not to be a hero?

“I reckon I can do that for ya, Chief. But we don’t get much in the way of company out here.”

“All the same, Mary, you keep your eyes open. And call me if you see anyone who even looks a little like these two, okay? The sooner we get this wrapped up, the better.”

The old woman gave a little salute and watched from the doorway as the policeman trudged back to his car. She saw him slide behind the wheel, take off his hat, and speak briefly into the car’s radio; but it wasn’t until blue clouds of exhaust belched from the tailpipe and the tires crunched through the snow that she stepped back into the house and closed the door.

Now that Howarth was gone, she allowed her face to pull itself into the long frown that had been so carefully masked. She thought of the photos the chief had shown her: the handsome young man with a boyish smile and dimpled cheek… the dark-haired girl with her serious eyes and small, thin lips. Glancing at the ceiling, she pictured the two of them, gagged and tied to their chairs, probably straining to listen for the sound of her feet on the stairs. Her mind flashed back to the cool certainty with which the man had threatened her. Even through a drugged haze, she’d detected something in his voice… something that told her not to fuck around with this one. She was right in wanting to kill him straight out; but, damn it, she was hoping to have a little fun with that woman of his. .

“Plans change.” She said aloud. “And I reckon if they’ve done somethin’ bad enough to have the cops come a’sniffin’ around, then those plans better be changin’ right quick.”

There was no question about it: both of them would have to die. She’d slit their throats and when they boy’s got home, they’d dispose of the bodies. After all, you don’t keep snakes in the hen house, as her mother used to say.

A shiver passed along her spine and she lowered her gaze so that she was looking into the living room. Through the wide doorway, she could just make out the fireplace: the logs that had popped and crackled for most of the night were now nothing more than a pile of smoldering embers. Even the pine-scented smell of smoke had begun to fade. Before long, the house would be so cold that the sweat on the insides of the windows would freeze into meandering streams of ice. The chill would further aggravate the rheumatism that sometimes made her knee feel like a pincushion full of needles and walking upstairs would be a miracle worthy of Jesus.

So it was settled then. She would kill the man and the woman, come back down to throw some fresh logs on the fire, and have a nice cup of tea while she waited for Earl and Daryl to drag their sorry asses home. They’d be rid of these two before it was even time for lunch.

Mary slipped the knife out of her pocket and gripped the frigid, metallic handle. Even if it was only for a short amount of time, the young couple upstairs would bleed for her… and she was ready for the warmth of their blood to chase away the chill of the morning.

The old woman’s body stiffened as she stared at the coils of rope on the floor. For a moment, her mind simply refused to believe the evidence in front of her: it had to be some sort of trick, some clever ploy to simply make her think they had somehow escaped. After all, she’d watched Earl tie the knots herself. If it had been Daryl, then that would be a different story… but Earl was a master with the rope and there was no way they could have just slipped out of the bonds as easily as if they were pajamas. No way.

From the corner of the her eye, Mary noticed that the door to the other room hung open and she could just make out Darlene Honnicker through the gloom. The woman looked almost as if she were suspended from the table: her legs were splayed out behind her and her arms were bent awkwardly over the edge of the table as if she were struggling to maintain a grip; with her head bowed before her limp body and her shoulders locked into place near her ears, it was all too easy to imagine that the table was an altar before which the mutilated blond were praying. But Mary had made enough corpses in her day to recognize a dead body when she saw it… and Darlene Honnicker would most certainly not be providing any more blood for the old woman.

“I know you’re in there. You both best be comin’ out and I just might let ya live.”

Her words were short and clipped and Mary tried to suppress the rage that imbued them with a slight tremolo. It was better to keep it all inside, like a bottle of cola that had been vigorously shaken. When the time was right, she’d let it all spew out, would let the pressure burst forth as the walls and floor were covered with thick, dark liquid; but for now, she’d save it all up and wait for just the right moment.

“You hear me? I don’t know why ya killed the girl… don’t rightly reckon I care neither. But you can both step out here right this minute and hang on to some of your pride. Or ya can wait ’til the boys get home and they drag ya out kickin’ and screamin.’ Your choice.”

Mary cocked her head as she listened for the shuffle of movement from the other room or hushed whispers as the couple planned their course of action. She strained to hear the softest of breaths or even the rustle of fabric. But there was only a silence so complete that she could almost believe that the only occupant of the room really was the carcass dangling from the table.

“Fine. Have it your way. I can wait out here ’til the cows come home. Or the boys. Whichever comes first.”

Still nothing. But she knew they had to be in there. She’d unlocked the door at the top of the stairs herself and she would have heard something if they’d somehow forced it open when she was talking with Howarth. And, while freeing themselves from the ropes was certainly a trick worthy of Houdini, she seriously doubted the couple had the ability to just walk through solid walls.

No, they were in there all right. They had to be.

Switching the knife from her left hand to her right, Mary pursed her lips and fought the urge to storm in after them. She wanted nothing more than to walk in with the blade swishing through the air before her, to cleave flesh from bone as they scurried away from her like cockroaches in the light. To make them pay for thinking they could actually escape. But the logical part of her mind knew that wouldn’t do. As long as she was in the bedroom with its brightly lit window and the only exit squarely behind her, she had the upperhand… and it was an advantage that she was not about to just foolishly give away.

So she decided to wait it out. Earl and Daryl should be home any time now. In fact, she’d expected them to be back before it had even begun getting light out. Where the hell were they, anyway?

Mary looked toward the window as if she could somehow will the sound of the truck engine to appear in the yard outside. And that was when she saw it.

The blade of the knife trembled in her hand and her shoulders hunched as she ground her teeth together. The anger that had made everything within her feel like a tightly wound spring began to slip and her eyes sparked as her sagging breasts rose and fell with each quick breath.

“Sons of bitches… no good, ass lickin’ sons of bitches….”

Her feet thudded against the floorboards as she stomped to the window and her left fist clenched as she fought the urge to shattered the rippled glass with a punch. Her entire body seemed to be drawn in now, as if she were compressing into a seething ball of sinew and veins. How much time had she pissed away talking to an empty room? Even now, they were probably laughing at her as they scuttled through the woods, calling her an old fool, a stupid hick who could be tricked so damn easily.

Every ounce of her concentration was focused on the edge of curtain that was trapped under the sill and the little flakes of paint that had fallen when they’d pried it open. She was only peripherally aware of the footsteps pressed into the snow that covered the roof outside… the same footsteps which led to the edge of the rusted gutter. At that moment, if she’d had it within her power, Mary would have set the curtains ablaze with nothing more than the heat and intensity of her gaze. She would have beamed all of her hatred and anger into a roaring column of fire that would have reduced the cheap fabric to nothing more than ash.

“Oh, I’m gonna find you, oh yes I will. I’ll find you and you’ll only wish ya hadn’t escaped. I’ll track ya down and….”

The house filled with music so suddenly that Mary jumped just as if someone had snuck up behind her and tickled her ear. . It was the familiar pop and crackle of the phonograph, the almost Spanish-sounding horns and acoustic strumming of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. But the last record she’d listened to had been Boxcar Willie. Which meant someone had to have changed albums. Someone had to have turned the record player on.

Someone was in the house.

And she had a pretty good idea who.

Mary giggled as she crept toward the door and her eyes twinkled as brightly as the knife she held before her. The damn whelps should have left when they had the chance. Now, they would pay dearly for making her play the fool. Oh yes… they’d pay with their lives.

She passed through the short stretch of hallway quickly but then slowed her pace as she descended the staircase. The steps creaked and groaned every time she’d place her foot upon one of them, but the blaring music would mask the sounds anywhere else in the house. But it was still best not to rush. Did they really think her feebleminded enough just to go rushing into an obvious trap? Did they really think she was that stupid?

So she continued down the steps as slowly as a sleepwalker, her eyes scanning the doorways for even the smallest hint of movement. This would be the best kill yet, the sweetest blood she’d ever spilled.

By the time she was halfway down the stairs, Ring of Fire had faded out only to be replaced by the plodding bass of Walk The Line. But still no signs of life in the house. No traces of her pray what-so-ever.

Her heart pattered within her chest and her breath was so shallow that it was practically non-existent.

“Mary Gruber….”

The whispered voice seemed as if it were right beside her and Mary spun quickly as she jabbed the knife into the darkness between the railings of the banister. The blade, however, passed harmlessly through the empty air from where the voice had originated.

She froze in place and watched for a shadow moving in the darkness. But there was nothing. Almost as if it had been the voice of a ghost calling her name.

From behind her, a child-like giggle bubbled through Cash’s ominous baritone and she pivoted sharply with the knife raised above her head, ready to strike. But again… nothing.

She took the stairs even more slowly than she had before, swiveling her head in all directions before committing herself to the next footfall. Though her heart was now thudding so heavily that she could feel it pounding against her chest and adrenaline made her feel as if she’d had one sip of whiskey too many, she reminded herself to stay calm. To stay focused and alert.

From the corner of her eye, she caught a dark blur as it streaked past the doorway to the back bedroom. By the time she snapped her head toward the movement, it was too late to tell if it had been the man or the woman. But it had definitely been one of them.

In the living room, the record had become stuck and a single line kept repeating over and over: because you’re mine, because you’re mine, because you’re mine….

Four steps from the bottom of the stairs, Mary paused. The knife now felt warm and slick and she switched hands again while she wiped her moist palm against her dress. Somehow, it felt as if her windpipe were growing smaller. Like there was some sort of valve attached to her throat that was slowly being turned, allowing less and less air to flow into her lungs.

And still, Cash continued to chant on.

Because you’re mine, because you’re mine….

The repetition rubbed her like sandpaper on a raw wound. She clenched her teeth and flinched every time the scratchy record looped back. Why the hell couldn’t it just finish the damn song?

Something soft and warm slide over her bare ankle and a sharp shriek burst from the old woman’s mouth as she hopped backward.

A hand.

It had definitely been a hand. The brush of fingertips against bare flesh, the slight tickle of unexpected contact.

But where had they gone? There was no movement from the other side of the stairs, no trace that anyone had ever been there at all

These people moved like phantoms, like evil spirits made of nightmare and fog, slipping in and out of reality as if it were no more solid than a memory.

Mary tried to listen for sounds but the recurring snippet of song drowned out everything . Other than the swish and thud of blood coursing through her temples. Other than her own, irregular breathing.

In a flurry of movement, she ran down the remaining stairs as quickly as she could and pressed her back flat against the wall. She held the knife in both hands now, as if it were a talisman that could protect her from dark and malevolent magic. Edging along the wall, she made her way toward the entrance to the living room. Bent nail heads snagged and ripped at her dress like the clawing fingers of demons… but it didn’t matter now.

Because you’re mine, because you’re mine, because you’re mine….

All that mattered was getting that damn record to stop playing. To regain her sense of hearing so she would have one more tool with which to defend herself. And there was no doubt in her mind now that was what she was doing.

The hair on the back of Mary’s neck bristled as she craned her neck around the doorway and peered into the living room. She’d expected a face to appear in front of her like an apparition… but the room appeared to be empty.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped around the corner and braced herself for the impact that was certain to follow.

But nothing happened.

She’d taken three steps into the room when she heard the whisper behind her again.

“Mary Gruber… :”

So close that she could feel the warmth of the breath on the back of her neck. Or was that just her imagination?

This time, however, she didn’t spin around. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. They were playing with her, toying with her head, and she’d be damned if she gave them the satisfaction of hearing her gasp again. She would spin around and no one would be there… so why even bother?

Instead, she padded quickly across the room until she stood in front of the sewing desk that the record player sat on. This close to the speakers, it sounded as if Cash had taken up residence in her head and she flung open the transparent lid that covered the spinning vinyl disk. With a quick swipe of her hand, the needle raked across the album and there was finally silence.

She closed her eyes for a fraction of second as she relished the blessed stillness of the house and immediately realized her mistake.

Her eyelids snapped open and she saw his reflection in the opened lid of the phonograph. A cruel sneer was spread across his face and, even though he appeared as transparent as a wraith, she could see a cold light glint in his eyes. His hands were formed into claws and he was reaching out for her, mere inches from the back of her neck but still so silent she never would have known he was there had she not caught his reflection.

Her wrinkled hands gripped the sides of the record player and she twirled around with enough force to send her glasses flying from her head. The speakers were pulled from the sewing desk and crashed to the ground as the chunk of metal and plastic smashed into the side of the man’s face.

Stumbling backward, he tripped over his own feet and the entire house rattled as he thudded to the floor. Mary sprang like a mountain lion, her knee burying into Matt’s groin as her full weight fell upon him. He tried to instinctively cup himself as his face twisted with pain and Mary’s voice shrieked so loudly that her words were almost indecipherable.

“Fuck with me, why dontcha? Fuck with me, boy? I’ll fuck with you, I’ll fuck with you good!”

She raised the knife above her head as if it were a trophy she’d just won and cackled as it began its deadly descent.

SCENE ELEVEN

As Daryl crept closer to the police officer, he felt the demon loosen its grip on his skull. The pain and pressure still bulged behind his eye, but now it was more of a dull ache than a series of excruciating jabs. With every breath of cold, crisp air, the pain faded even further and, at the same time, it almost seemed as if something were welling up within him. He felt as though his chest was as broad and firm as the trunk of a mighty oak and his arms were like thick branches capable of withstanding centuries of abuse from the elements. Even the scars, which he usually kept hidden beneath long sleeved shirts, felt as if they were shrinking away to the point that they were nothing more than scratches.

But it made sense, didn’t it? Mama had tried to teach him, ever since Daddy died, what it meant to be a man. A man had to be strong… the slash of a knife against bare flesh was nothing compared to what the world would do if it had half a chance. And a man had to be fearless. Only babies were afraid of the hidden things that might lurk in the darkness, of the unknown nightmares that slithered and crept in pools of shadow. But, most importantly, a man had to respect and care for his mother… even if what that mother demanded with the blood from his very veins.

As a child, he hadn’t understood. All he’d known was that the blade hurt, that his skin opened far too easily, and that the sight of his own blood leaking from his body made his head feel as if he’d spun around too quickly on the merry-go-round. He’d cried when Earl would hold him down and Mama leaned over him with what looked to be the biggest knife in the world. He’d squirmed and thrashed and begged to be let go: no Mama, please Mama, no, no, no….

But it never made any difference. For, he knew now, she’d been trying to teach him a lesson. The pain was simply a tool, a way to make sure that the wisdom she was trying to impart was seared into his young, impressionable mind. Without pain, someone had told him once, there can be no growth. And that was all Mama ever really wanted. For him to grow into a strong, fearless man. For him to dam the tears that had welled in his eyes and keep the snot from bubbling out his nose. To choke back the shrill screams that, as he’d been so often reminded, sounded like a little girl throwing a fit because her favorite dolly had been taken away.

Why had it been so hard for him to realize all of this? Why had he forced her to shove him into the closet and endured days in the darkness as he thought about his sins? He remembered huddling in the corner with the smell of piss and shit so thick in the confined space that he could taste it with every breath. Hearing the mice scuttling and scratching within the walls, feeling their rough, cold tails trail over his bare flesh as he shivered and tried to pull himself into as tiny of a ball as possible. Sometimes, when the blood was still fresh and they were exceptionally hungry, they’d nip at his open wounds and pull away jagged little pieces of flesh. They’d gnaw on his hair when he was curled on the floor asleep, would cover his body with tiny scratches as their feet scrambled over him.

And if it wasn’t the mice, then it was the roaches. Or the spiders. Or any of the thousand other creatures his mind imagined to be sharing a space that was as cramped and dark as a coffin stood on end. And all the while, Mama’s voice would whisper through the keyhole at random intervals.

“Worthless little piece of shit.”

“Sissy boy….”

“Can’t even bleed right.”

But all that now seemed like it’d happened to someone else. As if the real Daryl had been hidden away somewhere in the back of that frightened little boy’s mind, waiting for the day he could emerge and lay claim to the bruised and battered body. And all it would take was one swing of the tire iron for him to emerge victorious.

The cop had finally managed to slip the cuff around Earl’s other wrist and Daryl was close enough now to hear his labored breathing as the man gasped out lines he knew so well that he probably muttered them in his sleep.

“You have the right… to remain… silent.”

Daryl squeezed the cold metal in his hand and the solidity of the bar made him feel as strong and invincible as the giant in his dreams.

“Anything you say and… and will… be used against you in a court of law.”

His shadow fell over the officer’s back like a death shroud.

“You have the right to an attorney….”

So close that he could see the individual pores on the back of the man’s neck and catch the whiffs of cologne that wafted in the air. He saw the gold band encircling the man’s ring finger, the dark arches of dark crud trapped beneath his fingernails.

“If you cannot afford one…”

Daryl pulled the tire tool back like a tennis pro preparing to lob a ball over a net. As he did so, the arm of his shadow extended over the cop’s shoulder, silhouetting the raised weapon perfectly against the trampled blanket of white snow.

Moving so quickly that he was nothing more than a blur, the cop rolled to the left. At some point, his right hand dropped to his hip and he sprang into a crouch.

Face to face with the enemy, Daryl stood as if every muscle in his body had crystallized. He stared into two eyes that were like shattered chips of ice and, for some reason, noticed how flakes of snow clung to the stubble on the cop’s square chin.

“Drop it!”

Mostly, however, Daryl noticed the dark, wide bore of the pistol pointed directly at the center of his head.

“Drop it now!”

And there in the middle of a snow-covered road with pendulous clouds overhead, the Daryl who’d been struggling to emerge from the scarred trappings of his childhood died.

SCENE TWELVE

Matt’s hand shot up like a flesh-covered jack in the box. His fingers wrapped around Mary’s slender wrist and squeezed until he could feel the delicate bones grind against one another; but still the old woman refused to relinquish her grip on the knife. Instead, she threw herself forward, pressing the entire weight of her body upon the man’s arms. With teeth clamped in a jaw tightening display of determination, he pushed back in an attempt to keep the sharp point from plunging into his chest.

The old woman was stronger than she looked and the muscles in Matt’s arms quivered beneath the strain of her ferocity. He twisted and bucked, but she straddled him like a psychotic lover. Her groin ground against the sickening flares of pain radiating from his testicles and her tits swayed over him like two low-hanging condoms that had been partially filled with water. Not wasting their energy on words, the sounds of battle erupted in pig-like grunts, low growls that rolled from the back of the throat, and occasional snorts of expelled air.

With eyes locked upon one another, they vied for dominance. Each studied the other’s face for the smallest flicker of doubt or hesitation. For that was what it would truly take: a fraction of a second where one combatant lowered his or her guard; or a distraction that passed more quickly than the eye could blink. One slip up and it would all be over…. The only question remaining was which of the two would falter first.

Even though the logs in the fireplace had been reduced to nothing more than glowing cinders and ash, the pair had fallen so close to the stone hearth that radiant heat, combined with intensity of their grappling, coaxed sweat from their pores. The air surrounding them was thick with the sharp tang of body odor and Mary felt the handle of the knife become increasingly slick in her hand. If it had been wood, or even textured, it would have been an entirely different story. But she’d had this paring knife since she was a new bride and it had been constructed to stand the test of time. Forged from a single piece of steel, the handle warmed quickly even under the best of circumstances; but, in this current situation, it felt as hot as if it had been lying on the bed of coals at their side. The perspiration on her palms was like oil and it took almost all of her concentration to keep it from slipping from her moist fingers.

This apparent disadvantage, however, was offset by the fact that Mary’s wrists also glistened with a sheen of sweat; it, too, acted as a lubricant and keeping his grip on her was becoming as difficult as holding onto a freshly caught fish.

Something had to give… within minutes, the fate of the battle would be decided.

Mary was so focused on Matt’s grimace that it took a moment for her to realize that the blurry patch of white that had manifested in front of her face was actually the flesh of a slender arm. At the end of this out of focus appendage something glistened as it sped toward her face; at the same time, she felt hot breath tickle her ear as a voice whispered from behind.

“Mary Gruber….”

The narrow blade of the X-acto knife sliced into Mary’s eyeball as if it were nothing more than a peeled grape. The pulp was left with a jagged, paper-thin fissure as the tip cut through the wet orb with a squish. Simultaneously, Matt forced the old woman’s hand backward. At first it felt as though the radius and ulna were as rubbery as drumsticks that had been soaked in vinegar. But the hesitation was only brief; it was quickly followed by a dry snapping noise that was drown out by the screeches that erupted from the woman’s spindly throat.

The knife clattered from her hand as she wrenched out of Matt’s grasp. Pressing her palm against her severed retina, she doubled over as if she were about to throw up. Without hesitation, Mona slashed again. This time, the blade sliced through Mary’s eyelid and the old woman twisted like a cat that had just been plunged in boiling water. Her screams echoed through the house and her eyelid dangled against her cheek, swinging like a pendulum with each thrash of her body.

With a giggle, Mona flicked her wrist again and Mary now pressed both hands against her useless eyes as blood and viscous fluid oozed through her fingers. Through shrieks so shrill and loud that they seemed to rip at her vocal chords, Mary could barely hear Mona’s voice. It was a lilting sing-song that drifted in and out of the searing pain that burned in her eyes.

“I spy, with my little eye, something that is red….”

Mona laid the X-acto knife on the wooden mantle above the fireplace and paced around the old woman’s body. Mary had fallen entirely to the floor now with her knees pulled practically up to her chest. She rolled back and forth and smacked her head against the floor as if she could somehow beat the agony out of her own face. With every thud, droplets of blood flung from her gore covered hands and the old woman’s voice now sounded thin and raspy as she screamed, as if her voice were beginning to give out.

“You fucked with the wrong people this time, old woman. We were going to let you live. Because you helped us. Can you believe that? We were really going to let you live.”

Mona inspected the wrought iron tools that jutted out of a brass vase near the edge of the fireplace. Picking up what looked like a miniature hoe, she turned it over in her hands like an antique expert examining a rare piece.

“But now look at you. Oops…”

Mona turned her head and giggled again as she returned the fireplace tool to the fold.

“I forgot. You can’t look, can you? What’s the matter, Mary? Got something in your eyes?”

Selecting another tool from the cluster, Mona smiled. This one was long and slender with a spear-like tip. Just before the end, a nasty little hook curved away from the black metal and something about it reminded her of a hornet’s stinger. She lifted the tool up and down, as if testing its weight, and cleared the bangs from her eyes with a shake of the head.

“Bitch.”

Mary’s voice was nothing more than a hiss between clenched teeth and the tightening of muscles required for talking sent fresh spasms of pain tearing through her eyes. The word, however, caused the cold grin to fade from Mona’s mouth and her lips pursed as her pupils dialated.

“Now, that’s not very nice.”

She swung the fire poker like a golf pro and the metal whacked against Mary’s side with a thud. The old woman howled in pain and pulled herself into an even tighter ball as she struggled to make herself as small of a target as possible.

“Lots of people used to call me that.”

The poker whooshed through the air again and there was a sharp crack as ribs splintered at the point of impact.

“No one calls me that anymore.”

Mona swung again and the little hook at the end of the poker snagged Mary’s dress. It ripped through the fabric as easily as the Exacto had her eye, leaving a long ribbon that fluttered like a banner from the end of the tool.

“No one!”

With the next swing, the hook tore through exposed skin, leaving a short gash that quickly welled with blood. Mary was howling now and she tried to inch away from the younger woman like a worm, but Mona followed quickly, swinging the poker again and again. The flat smacking noise of iron on flesh was as steady as the beat of a bass drum and the old woman’s skin had begun to swell with green and purple bruises.

“No… please… stop….”

Clenching a handful of gray hair, Mona snatched the old woman back so viscously that clumps of scalp were still attached to the wisps of hair in her fist when she finally let go. The old woman fell backward and thudded against the floor and Mona pounced upon her before she had a chance to roll over again. With her knees pinning Mary’s shoulder blades, Mona looked at the blood and pus-like fluid that streaked her wrinkled face.

“Why Grandma,” she gasped, “what big eyes you have….”

The younger woman formed a circle with her index finger and thumb as if she were signaling that everything was going to be okay. Leaning forward, however, she flicked her fingernail against the pulpy hemorrhage that bulged from Mary’s tortured eye socket. Fresh screams undulated as the old woman thrashed her head as if vigorously saying no and Mona winced with each ear-piercing screech

“And what a big fucking mouth you have, too.”

Snatching something that looked like a small shovel from the vase of tools, Mona plunged its flat head into the cinders. When she drew it out again, a mound of flickering coals was piled onto the little shovel and she watched for a second as the yellow and red glow pulsed like slow motion strobe lights.

“Maybe this will shut you up.”

Mona tilted the shovel and the embers fell like a shower of sparks into Mary’s open mouth. They hissed like snakes as spit instantly evaporated and curls of smoke carried the stench of burnt flesh from the old woman’s mouth. Her lips were blistered and swollen and she half-spar, half-coughed the nuggets of fire onto the living room floor.

Standing, Mona walked to the sofa and plopped down. She watched as the old lady pulled herself blindly across the room and occasionally laughed when Mary’s arms gave out and caused her to collapse to the floor. She whimpered as she crawled and Mona imagined the singed lining of her throat slowly closing up as the damaged flesh swelled. How long would it take before the airway was completely closed? Five minutes? Ten?

The old woman had drug her sorry carcass almost entirely out of the living room by the time Mona grew bored and began thumbing threw the pages of a catalog. While the younger woman looked at pictures of gardening tools and seeds, Mary continued to pull herself along. Her voice was nothing more than a wheeze now and a series of bloody hand prints marked her trail. Reaching out into the darkness that had become her world, her shaking hands felt fabric. She gripped it tightly and began to pull herself up, thinking that if she could just manage to walk maybe she could make it to the kitchen. Maybe she could somehow figure out how to dial 911. Though she wouldn’t be able to talk, they would trace the call and….

A pair of strong hands cupped her armpits and lifted her to her feet. She felt like crying as her unseen Samaritan assisted her but the throbbing masses that were her eyes didn’t seem capable of producing tears anymore. Instead, she laid her cheek against the broad, solid chest and allowed her weight to fall forward, trusting this man to continue giving support.

“Shhhhh….”

The voice in her ear was soft and soothing and she felt hands stroke her hair.

“Shhhh. Everything’s going to be fine. It won’t hurt forever. I promise.”

Matt was framed against an open door that led down into the cellar and he looked over the old woman’s trembling head at his wife. Glancing up from the catalog, Mona smiled and winked at him as she jiggled her breasts like a go-go dancer. Shaking his head slowly, Matt suppressed a laugh before turning his attentions back to the injured woman in his arms. He felt, rather than heard, the wet gurgle that bubbled in her throat and her hands gripped his shirt as if it were the only thing anchoring her to life.

“It won’t hurt forever….”

Mary gasped as her own paring knife sliced into her gut. The pain traveled quickly in an arch, almost as if a smile were being carved into her gut. She pulled away from the man and wrapped her arms around her belly as if she could keep the wet, slippery organs from spilling through the gash. There was another flash of pain as Matt rammed the knife into her upper abdomen. Buried entirely up to the hilt, the knife stuck out of her body like some bizarre handle and scraped at the edges of bone that it was wedged between. Staggering backwards, she felt the hands again. On her shoulders this time. They yanked her around so roughly that her teeth snapped against one another and then she was pushed backward again.

The old woman toppled over the stairs with her arms pinwheeling in the air and Matt felt the house shake as her body bounced and rolled down each step. After a few seconds of this, there was a final thump as her body struck the concrete floor of the cellar. The door above then creaked shut, leaving Mary Gruber to die alone and in the dark.

SCENE THIRTEEN

The pages of the scrapbook appeared in Daryl’s mind like rapid-fire recollections of a nightmare. He saw Mona with her dark hair and cherubic face, looking absolutely gorgeous in a tight, black tee shirt that clung to the curves of her breasts as if the fabric itself wanted nothing more than to fondle them; wearing red lipstick, she smiled for the camera as she held the head of a bearded man as if it were a trophy. His eyes were wide and round, his mouth opened in a silent scream, and the cut along his severed neck as clean as if it had been taken off with a single blow. In the same cursive script that had spelled out Mona’s Secret Delights were the words Frankfurt, Kentucky. Another page, this one labeled Rock Hill, SC: the living room of what appeared to be a middle class suburban home, a woman tied and gagged, kneeling in front of a wall splattered with blood as Mona held a pistol to the side of her head. Locks of blood-matted hair taped to pages, newspaper articles detailing brutal slayings, and pieces of road map with bright blue Xs that marked the towns where each snapshot had been taken. Entire families lined side by side, men and women who were either dead or about to die, drivers licenses, Matt in the woods and holding a rifle with his foot propped on some fat guy as if he were a big game hunter who’d just taken down the trophy of a lifetime. One page even containing a blood splattered letter, this one written in a shaky scrawl:

I am about to die and this is a testament of my sins. I slept with my wife’s sister and stold money from work. I once paid a hooker fifty dollars for a blow job, beat her up afterwards, and took my money back. I am not worthy of life….

Page after page of violence, bloodshed and death. Picture after picture of Mona and Matt looking smug, happy, even one with the bare-chested woman glaring seductively at the camera as she straddled a business man whose tie had been cinched so tightly around his neck that the flesh overlapped the black silk.

And these monsters were with Mama. Alone in the house.

Daryl knew they were tied up, that there was a good chance they were even still knocked out. But that didn’t stop the fear from gripping his stomach as securely as that dead man’s necktie. What if they somehow got loose? What if Mama found herself face to face with these butchers? What then?

True, they weren’t exactly angels themselves. But somehow, for reasons Daryl couldn’t quite put into words, what they did was different. And by the time Mama had her chance to play with the things they brought home, Earl and Daryl had always made sure there was no chance that she could possibly be in harm’s way. There were the ropes, the nails, the handcuffs, and leather straps. But those had always been normal people. They were shop clerks, drifters, and housewives… not psychotic thugs who, judging from the pictures in the scrapbook, didn’t have an ounce of compassion in their cold, dark hearts.

All of this went through his mind in the time it took for the cop to bark and order and pull back the hammer of the gun pointing at him.

“I said drop the weapon, mother fucker!”

Daryl’s knees felt as if they were seconds from buckling out from under him and nausea rumbled through his intestines. Somehow, he felt as if he were growing smaller. As it was if the barrel of the cop’s gun emitted some sort of magic ray that burned away everything inside him. The longer it was pointed at him, the more he deflated and the more he became like that small child who had shivered in the darkness of the closet.

He looked at the tire iron in his hand and almost seemed surprised to see it there. How could he have actually thought he had what it took to be the hero? Who the hell was he kidding anyway? He was nothing more than a stupid crybaby who pissed himself in the dark. Just like Earl always said. Like Mama always said.

He would never be a good boy.

Would never get his chance to shine

The metal rod fell from his hand and disappeared into the snow with a thump. Taking this as his cue, the cop raised slowly from his crouch. The man braced the wrist holding the gun with his other hand and his aim remained steady and true as he stood to his full height.

“On your knees! Hands behind your head!”

Daryl lowered himself to the ground and kneeled in the snow. With fingers clasped at the hem of his ski cap, his shoulders slumped and the features of his face seemed to grow longer, almost as if they were made of putty that was being pulled tightly. His eyes never left the gun trained upon him; but as the cop sidestepped his way closer, everything began to waver as warm tears slid down Daryl’s face and soaked into his mustache.

He’d killed Mama. He was sure of this. When he and Earl didn’t come home, she’d get worried. And that would cause her to be distracted. He was certain that’s all it would take. The young couple would somehow manage to get free and they would kill her as viscously as they had all those people in the photos. And it was all his fault.

The cop had closed nearly half the distance between them now and he no longer gripped his wrist with his free hand. It had slid to the waist of his belt and fumbling with the radio that was clipped there.

“Calling for backup.” Daryl thought.

From behind the cop, Earl staggered to his feet like some prehistoric beast pulling itself from a tar pit. For a moment he seemed to simply loom there with his hands cuffed behind his back. But then he charged with a guttural roar that would have made an African lion stop in its tracks.

The cop’s face drained of color and he spun around just as Earl’s bulk smashed into him with such force that the man’s feet were lifted off the ground. The cop fell backward as both his weapon and the radio flew from his hands. He landed on his back in the snow and was trying to scramble to his feet when the Earl fell upon him like a man doing a bellyflop at a pool.

The air whooshed out of the officer’s lungs and Earl drove his forehead into the bridge of the man’s nose. His head smacked down again and again, piston-like in its assault, but rather than fighting back, the cop seemed to be trying to squeeze his arms beneath the layers of Earl’s fat. Finally, he yanked his arm free and there was a small, black cylinder in his hand.

The cop yelled as he depressed a button and a stream of liquid sprayed from the top of the cylinder. Almost immediately, Earl’s roar turned into a scream and water gushed from eyes that looked as if they were swelling shut. Rolling off the cop, Earl plunged his face into the snow as if some sort of relief might be found in the cold, white drifts.

The cop now had his baton in hand and he practically ran toward the screaming giant with it raised above his head like a club.

Just as he was about to strike, a gunshot echoed through the hills and valleys like a sudden clap of thunder. A flock of birds perched in a nearby tree took to the sky amid the fluttering of wings as a flap of scalp knocked the officer’s hat from his head. His body pitched forward and he fell, face first, into snow that was speckled with his own red blood.

Blood continued to bubble and ooze from the missing top of his head, but somehow he managed to roll over onto his back where it seeped into the snow and formed a crimson halo around him. Staring up into the sun, he saw a man step over his prone body. Saw his own service revolver coated with snow pointed directly at the center of his face.

Daryl said nothing. He simply pulled the trigger and listened to the complete silence that follows a gunshot in the wilderness as the cop’s face disappeared in a mist of blood and bone. He stood over the corpse for a moment, staring at the remains of the cop with a slack-jawed expression of detachment. Then he dropped to his knees and began searching for the key that would free his brother from the handcuffs.

The cruiser handled the icy road better than the truck, but Earl still had to focus his full attention on driving; every so often the rear of the Impala slid to the left while the front insisted on going the opposite direction. Easing up off the gas, Earl made slight corrections to the steering wheel that pressed against his gut and the car moved through the snow like a sidewinder through sand.

As the sound of his brother’s heavy breathing filled the car, Daryl slumped in the passenger’s seat with his ski cap laying across his lap. Alternately looking at the pistol that lay on the seat and the length of chain at his feet, he brushed the side of his cheek as if he were stroking a kitten. Though his expression looked tired and bored, his mind actually replayed the events of the morning as if it were footage of the game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

He hadn’t expected the cop’s face to just disappear like that: the way his nose and mouth erupted like a volcano of gore; flesh, blood, shards of teeth and bone spewing into the air and splattering against his pants. Not that he’d never killed before. Plenty of throats had been slit with the blade of his hunting knife and he’d stared into countless eyes, watching for the moment that light of life finally flickered out, as his hands squeezed their necks. But he’d never truly obliterated someone before; and, for a reason he couldn’t understand, that simple act had made him harder than any of the naked women who’d been tied up in their house.

Daryl’s stomach churned with nervous excitement and his breath felt as if it kept getting stuck halfway down his throat. At the same time, however, he fidgeted in the seat as if his entire body was as numb and tingly as his hands and feet. Fighting the urge to reposition the cap, he stole quick glances at his brother from the corner of his eye.

Earl leaned forward so that his jowls were almost directly over the steering wheel and he seemed to look nowhere other than the road ahead. But what would happen if he noticed the lump that Daryl tried to hide beneath the hat? Would he be able to sense what was going through his brother’s mind? Would he instinctively know that the smaller man was thinking about the cop and not that cute little brunette waiting at home? The officer, after all, was a man. Did this mean that Daryl was somehow gay? He’d been as curious about homosexuality as he was putting his hand into a whirling blender… it was just something he knew he’d never do. So why was it then that he was sitting there, thinking about the cop, while his crotch felt like it was seconds away from exploding?

A dull ache spread through the base of Daryl’s skull and he closed his eyes as he leaned back. What if he really was a queer? He knew exactly what Mama and Earl thought of that type; the things they’d done to those two guys with the matching sweaters left no doubt about that. If either one even suspected that he could pop a boner by thinking about shooting that cop’s face off….

“Damn it, fucktard, pull your head outta your ass and answer me.”

Daryl’s eyes snapped open at the gruff command and he tried to fold his hands on his lap as casually as he could. But, even so, he felt as if his motives were as obvious as the irritation in Earl’s voice. Oh shit… what if his brother thought he were touching himself? He jerked his hands away as if his penis were a snake and rubbed his arms briskly.

“Uh… think maybe I was noddin’ off there for a second, Earl. Say again?”

Earl’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and his shoulders seemed to hunch as he growled in irritation.

“I said, did you leave the fuckin’ book where it could be seen or not?”

“Oh, that. Yeah. Yeah, I did. Right out on the seat, pages wide open. Just like we talked about.”

“You sure?”

“Course I’m sure. Why wouldn’t I be? I should know what I did or didn’t do, shouldn’t I?”

“You seem awful squirrely over there. Like somethin’s done gone and got you all worked up.”

Daryl tried to swallow but his mouth was as suddenly dry as if he’d been eating crackers the entire trip. He shifted in his seat again and looked out the window as he mumbled.

“Just tired, that’s all. Been one long-ass night.”

Earl shot a quick stare at his brother that felt as if it lasted an eternity.

“That better be all there is to it. You fuck this up and I’ll put my foot so far up your ass you’ll see it every time you go brushin’ your teeth.”

Daryl wanted to snap back at his brother, to tell him he realized how important this was, but was afraid his voice might crack due to the tightness in his throat. Besides, sometimes it was better to just not say anything at all. Especially when the conversation involved one of Earl’s plans.

Daryl didn’t always agree with the ideas his brother came up with, but he had to give him credit… this one was a pretty damn good one. After they’d managed to get the cuff off Earl’s wrists, the pair had removed the chain that tethered the truck to the wrecked car. Earl had then pulled the truck forward twenty yards or so and, as Daryl looked on from a safe distance, threw it into reverse. It had slammed into the wrecked Honda was a thud so loud that Daryl could feel it in his chest; flakes of rust had rained down from the bottom of the truck and the car, even though parked, had been jolted back a foot or so.

When he climbed out of the truck, Earl had made sure to leave the engine running and the door flung wide open. Then the pair hopped into the police car, fiddled with the radio until they figured out how to turn down all that crackling chatter, and sped away. By the time anyone came upon the scene, it would look like the little Honda had plowed into the rear end of the truck. What could have happened next was entirely up to the imagination, but it ended with the drivers of the car killing the cop and taking the two brothers hostage. They would lay low for about a week or so, come up with a story about how they escaped, maybe cut each other a few times to make it even more believable… but it shouldn’t take much. Once the authorities found Mona’s Secret Delights, there would be no doubt in their minds as to who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an officer of the law.

By the time Earl turned off the main road and their house peeked through the pines like a crouching animal, the tension in the cruiser had faded. While Earl busied himself with driving, Daryl mentally went through the multiplication tables as high as he could go. By the time he finished ten times ten and started over again, his erection had shriveled away.

As the car pulled up to the front of the house, Daryl felt as if all of the cold from outside had seeped into his bones. Though the heater still blasted warm air from the dashboard, chills covered his body and his left eye twitched as he literally felt his sphincter pucker. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper and the words sounded dry and raspy.

“That ain’t right, Earl…. That ain’t right at all.”

The front door of the house hung wide open and, even from the car, they could see a dusting of snow that crossed the threshold like a thin, white welcome mat. Though it was impossible to get more than just a glimpse into the foyer, somehow the old house felt abandoned and empty, as if it had been sitting there for years without ever knowing the warmth of a living soul.

Earl breathed heavily through his nose but was uncharacteristically quiet as his eyes scanned the windows, watching for one of them to peel back so that a hidden face could peek through the small gap. But there wasn’t so much as a rustle.

“Ain’t no smoke somin’ outta the chimney, Earl. Mama gets cold so easy. Not like her to just let the fire go out. Something’s happened… somethin’ bad.”

Earl snatched the cop’s pistol from the seat and his large hands almost made it seem like a child’s toy. Clicking the safety off, he glanced at his brother with eyes that betrayed the nauseous turmoil within his gut.

“We go in slow. Don’t know what’s waitin’ in there for us, so we’re gonna be careful, you hear?”

Daryl nodded his head, but his foot was thudding against the floorboard so quickly that his entire leg bounced. He moved in quick jerks, his head snapping around as he surveyed the yard while his fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly.

“Damn it, Daryl, I mean it… you gotta calm your ass down. Far as we know, Mama just dozed off on the couch. Wouldn’t be the first time. But just in case… we take it nice and easy, right?”

Daryl nodded again, more vigorously this time, while he simultaneously threw open the door of the cruiser. He rushed around the car like a frightened deer but by the time he’d reached the other side, his older brother had already scooted out as well. He snatched Daryl’s collar, causing the smaller man’s feet to slip and scramble in the snow as he was brought to a halt.

“Daryl, I ain’t fuckin’ around. We go in together and we go in slow. You just follow behind me and make sure nobody sneaks up and….”

“Why do I gotta follow you?” Daryl hissed.

Earl rolled his eyes and pulled Daryl’s face so close to his own that the tips of their noses brushed against one another lightly.

“Because I got the gun, asshole… that’s why.”

Pushing his brother out of the way, Earl trudged up the front steps. He tried to walk as softly across the porch as he could, but the sheer weight of his body pressing down upon the old boards made them creak and pop with every step. By the time the two of them crossed through the entrance, he felt he couldn’t have been more obvious than if he’d rode into the house on the back of a steer.

Inside, all was quiet. Normally, there would have been the crackling of logs within the fireplace. Water coming to a boil in the kitchen, the scuffling of feet overhead. Perhaps even Mama whistling that little tune she liked so well. Instead, there was now only the sound of the brothers’ breathing as they crept through the hallway. Almost as if all the sounds of their home had fled through the open door, preferring the freezing temperatures and arctic desolation of the woods to whatever awaited within those walls.

As the two passed the closed, cellar door their pace slowed. Daryl seemed to press more closely to his brother and he chewed on his bottom lip so hard that blood had begun to well up on his bottom lip.

They were nearing the living room now. And something about that made both of them feel as if they were on the verge of passing through the gates of Hell.

The hairs on their arms bristled and every muscle in their bodies was as tense as if it’d been coated in quick drying cement. But, as they rounded the corner, Earl let out a sigh that seemed to expel all the energy pent up in his arms and back with its gusto.

“See? What’d I tell ya? Sleepin.’”

Though the body was hidden by the back of the couch, the pair of bare feet propped on the arm were more than visible. Small and pale, they almost seemed dwarfed by the living room and Earl shook his head as he chuckled at himself for getting all worked up over nothing. He’d let that dumb ass brother of his spook him, that was all. Next time something like this happened, he would….

Daryl’s hand tugged on Earl’s shirt as if he were trying to pull it off. Though the younger man didn’t say a word, his arm appeared over Daryl’s shoulder as he pointed to something in the room beyond with a trembling finger.

Following the trajectory of his brother’s arm, Earl’s eyes took in the far wall and he felt as if the weight of his stomach had just plummeted to the floor. For scrawled across the cheap paneling in what looked like red finger paint were two words.

Welcome Home.

Only it wasn’t paint. Paint wouldn’t have those little clots stuck into the letters or that particular, metallic odor they had come to know so well.

“Mama!”

Earl ran to the couch with his brother fast behind him. But when they looked down upon the body sprawled across the cheap fabric, the world seemed to spin like a weathervane in a windstorm as Earl gasped for breath. He staggered backward until he was pressed against the wall and tried to blink through the vertigo that crashed over him. At the same time, Daryl sank to his knees and was shaking his head silently, as if he could somehow make the entire scene disappear if only he disagreed with it strongly enough.

The body on the couch was entirely naked and its chest cavity had been slit open from the base of the throat to halfway down the stomach. The folds of flesh were peeled back like a frog on a dissection tray, revealing the pink and red organs within. They could see the wrinkled intestines peeking up from the bottom of the gash like a kid on Christmas morning. The stomach, which somehow looked shriveled and much smaller than a stomach actually should. The ivory rib cage that protected the lungs and heart, strands of muscle and gristle, blood that had congealed to the point that it almost looked like jelly. Laid out for all to see as hands with two nail holes in the very center of the palms held back these grisly curtains of flesh, probably glued into place judging from the shiny coating around the fingers.

But it wasn’t the sight of their former captive splayed open that had made the boys feel as if their blood had turned to ice water. No… it was the pair of spectacles that lay on its solar plexus. The crimson smear across the cracked lenses.

Earl bellowed so loudly that Daryl nearly jumped to his feet. Twirling around, he drove his beefy fist into the wall and splinters of particle board flew from the jagged hole that had suddenly appeared around his wrist.

“Mona!”

Even the walls couldn’t muffle the panic in the voice that drifted in from outside.

“Get out of the house, baby! They’re home! Get out of the house!”

Jerking his hand out of the wall, Earl’s eye caught movement through the thin curtains and he yanked them back just in time to see Matt disappear into the woods that bordered the house.

“Son of a bitch! I’ll fuckin’ kill your ass and have it for dinner!”

He shot a cold stare at Daryl who, at some point, had stood.

“It was him. Which means that bitch of his is still around somewheres. You find her, Daryl. You find her and you make her pay, hear? “

Earl hoisted the gun so that it was nearly pressed against his cheek and the look in his eyes almost made it seem as if he were about the give the weapon a passionate kiss.

“You find her and you make her curse God for the day she was born… and I’ll take care of that sorry-ass pretty boy.”

Daryl and Earl grinned at each other but the light of happiness never touched their eyes. For these were grins of savage glee….

SCENE FOURTEEN

Following Matt into the woods was as easier than tracking a wounded buck. His footprints were pressed down into the snow like molds; and, in places where the drifts were deeper, long gouges cut through the white powder. The man may have as well been leaving signposts every step of the way that had little arrows pointing in the right direction. As long as the trail was there, Earl would lumber after it with his heart pounding out the rhythm to a war dance.

“You can’t hide, boy!”

His voice echoed through the tightly packed trees as if it were scouring the landscape for its prey.

“May as well just give up now and save us both a ton of trouble. Might be five minutes. Might be half an hour. But I’m a’gonna kill ya. Mark my words.”

Only the soft rustling of the boughs overhead answered Earl’s calls. They swished against one another in a wind that almost seemed afraid to drift down to ground level where the red-faced man huffed through the snow. The pine needles were covered with snow and the gentle movement made flakes drift down from the canopy overhead as if flurries were starting up again.

“You hear me? Come out now and I’ll make sure my brother doesn’t make that whore of yours suffer to much. Daryl likes those dark haired ladies. He could have himself a real good time with the likes of her. Unless, that is, I stop him.”

Earl knew he would never catch up with the man if Matt kept running. The act of walking and yelling at the same time was already making him winded and, after all the activity of the previous night, his muscles were as sore as if he’d been cutting grass for three days straight. In the same light, however, his quarry couldn’t keep up forever either. Sooner or later, a stitch would develop in the man’s side. His lungs would feel like they were on fire with every breath, just as Earl’s did now, and he’d be forced to slow his pace. The secret was to keep after him just quickly enough that once Matt’s initial burst of adrenaline started to fade Earl would begin closing the gap. Besides that, the heavyset man knew this forest. He’d spent countless hours scampering through them as a child, had poached game in them ever since he was big enough not to be knocked on his ass by the kick of a rifle; they were just as much his home as the old farmhouse with its peeling paint and rusty gutters.

So he’d save his breath and stop hurling threats to the uncaring pines. He’d follow the footprints in the snow with strides so long that he probably looked like a Sasquatch from a distance. And, when he finally closed in on the tired and hopelessly lost outsider… well, then the fun would really begin.

“This is for you, Mama.” He whispered. “This is for you.”

Matt skipped through the forest as if he were playing a game instead of being stalked by a cold-blooded killer. Every so often, he’d leap into the air and twirl around, kicking little puffs of snow out from under his heels. Even the cold didn’t bother him that much. His jacket kept the worst of it at bay; and any chill that managed to make it through the quilted lining was quickly defeated by the excitement that warmed his veins.

It was much quieter now that Earl had stopped trying to sound like a bad ass from some cheesy action film. Every so often, he’d hear some unseen animal crash through the underbrush and, once or twice, he’d even though he’d heard the distant chuffing of a deer.

The trees overhead were clustered so thickly together that the woods were almost in a perpetual state of twilight. He could see well enough for fifty yards ahead or so, but after that it grew progressively darker. However, that darkness seemed to be perpetually just out of reach… as if it were matching his pace and racing away from him as quickly as he could approach it. Which was fine by him. Chasing the darkness was something of a hobby… and one which he’d been doing his entire life.

The smell pine scent, the evergreens with their tall, straight trunks, and the crunch and swish of his feet passing through snow: it all made him feel as if he were nearly a decade younger. It was like he were that pimply faced fourteen year old boy again being taken to his father’s cabin for his first hunting trip.

He’d prepared for that expedition all summer long, shooting the thirty-ought-six so often that his right shoulder was perpetually bruised from the recoil and gunpowder clung to his hair and clothes like cologne. Their backyard had sparkled with shattered beer bottles and tin cans with star-shaped holes blasted into their sides. And he’d become quite the marksman. At first it had only been because he liked the way his father would rustle his hair and beam down at him every time his bullet found its mark. He’d liked the praise heaped upon him from this normally cold and distant man, had sought it as eagerly as a puppy will seek a scratch on the belly. But, over time, he’d come to take a certain pride in his skill that had nothing to do with his old man.

The secret was in pretending that the bottles were the heads of all the kids who’d ever pushed him in the playground. The bullies who’d flicked his ass with wet towels in the locker room. That garlic-smelling, fat ass bastard, Mr. French, who’d kept him after class in second grade to play the petting game. All the cute girls who’d laughed at him and made him feel like he was no better than the gum they chewed up and spit into the dirt. Even his own father for that one time Matt had came home early until to find the old man thrusting into some woman half his age who was bound and gagged just like in the magazines he’d found stashed under his old man’s bed. Matt had been beaten so badly that he could barely move for a week after and, even then, he could still hear his father’s seething voice whispering in the darkness of memory: you tell anyone about this and I swear to God no one will ever find your body. I’ll tell them you ran away, that you’d been threatening to for weeks. Not that anyone would miss you anyway….

Matt’s father had been almost like a cruel god. On one level, he hated the old man so badly that it sometimes felt as if his guts had twisted themselves into knots. He fantasized about beating the man down with his Louisville slugger, of seeing him cry and beg for mercy. But, on the other hand, he yearned for those rare moments when he’d see pride glimmer in his dad’s eyes or when his large hand would clap Matt on the back as if to say “that’s my boy.” They were fleeting, but there were a handful of times when Matt had honestly felt like he had a real father.

And that initial hunting trip had been one of them. He could still remember watching the redhead zig-zag through the snow through the scope on his rifle. The dimpled skin on her bare chest, the way she’d stumble and fall, and how her bush would be clumped with tiny snowballs when she’d scramble back to her feet. His father’s voice whispering in his ear….

“It’s time to become a man now, Matt.”

With his dad, it had always been redheads and, though it could have just been a trick of memory, it seemed to Matt now as if they had all bore a striking resemblance to the pretty young woman smiling from the pictures on the mantle. The mother he’d never known. But none of them had been quite as exhilarating as the first.

He remembered standing over her and watching as steam curled from the crimson stained snow. How motionless and perfect she was in death…. Her blue eyes had stared up at a sky that matched their color exactly, unblinking and free from all the worries and pain and heartaches that accompanied breathing. Almost as if she were watching her soul float into the sky like a balloon that had slipped from her grasp.

His father had whooped and cackled, had scooped the frail boy into his arms, and kissed him on the forehead so wetly that it later formed a thin layer of ice. But, at that precise moment, Matt knew what it meant to bask in the approval he had so desperately chased after all his life. With his father’s arm draped over his shoulder and a dead woman at his feet, it almost seemed as if the kidnapped hooker’s soul had been consumed by his own as thoroughly as scavengers would later devour the carcass. He felt stronger and more in control than he ever had. No more was he a confused and frightened child bobbing on the waves of doubt and uncertainty; no longer would he look at other people and struggle to figure out what made them so much better than him, what magic piece they possessed in jigsaw puzzle of existence that he lacked. For he then knew the truth: all of those people with their upturned noses and downcast eyes… they were nothing more than cattle awaiting slaughter. Nothing more than sustenance for a predator that loomed over them from the next link in the foodchain. And each and every one of them was his for the taking.

With his mind firmly back in the present, Matt glanced over his shoulder to see is he could spot the plodding Neanderthal through the thick cover of trees. His gaze was met with nothing more than a pair of birds hopping from branch to branch and his own footsteps trailing back into the depths of the forest. Frowning, he scratched his chin for a moment as he thought.

Maybe this oaf was smarter than Matt had given him credit for. As he’d thought about his father, he’d purposefully slowed his pace to the point that ice could have almost melted more quickly. Driven on by anger and adrenaline, the overweight beast should have at least been close enough by now to be glimpsed as a silhouette moving through the bushes and trunks . But there was nothing.

Had his pursuer changed tactics then? Perhaps instead of blindly following wherever the tracks led him, he was circling around and planning to cut Matt off at some point further into the woods. He hadn’t seemed too much brighter than the skinny one, but there was the chance that he was operating off pure instinct now and allowing his actions to be controlled by a much more primal portion of the brain.

It would be better to be safe than sorry, as Mona always said; he’d adapt his own tactics, as well. Change his initial plan into something that would work no matter what situation presented itself. On the off chance that fat behemoth was more cagey than at first he’d seemed, Matt would have to improvise, adapt, and overcome….

That thought brought a smile to his face as he removed the object that was slung over his shoulder and scouted his surroundings with eyes that noted every detail with microscopic clarity. He could feel the excitement tingle his arms and legs, could smell every scent on the crisp air as clearly as if he’d been born a wolf, and hear the slightest rustle in the snow. He was the primary predator in these woods and everything else simply existed to serve his needs.

From somewhere close by, an unseen deer crashed through the undergrowth as if it had suddenly sensed danger on this otherwise peaceful, winter morning. As if it somehow knew that blood would soon darken the forest floor and evil would roll across the landscape like a roiling fog.

“Let’s do this, Fat Man…. It’s time to play.”

Earl couldn’t help it. He’d had to stop and catch his breath for a moment, to give his lungs time to gulp down the cold air and refuel his body. If he hadn’t have been up all damn night running errands for Mama, then it may have been different; but, as it was, his back pressed against the rough bark of a tree while he leaned forward. With his hands resting on slightly bent knees, he tried to listen past the sound of his own gasps for the tell-tale sounds that would gave away his prey’s location. But with his throat rattling with every gulp of air and his heart beating so hard that it almost sounded like the thumping of a low-flying helicopter, he was lucky that he could even hear his own thoughts.

“Son of a bitch… shit….”

The frigid bite of the air had spread into the metal of the gun and it now felt as if he carried a block of ice solidly in his hand. From his back pocket, the fingers from a pair of green work gloves waved at his ass and he was tempted to slip them on, even if it were only for a little bit. The numbing cold made his knuckles and joints feel as stiff and unresponsive as an engine that had been running without oil. Even just five minutes would be enough to chase away the needles of pain that nicked his exposed flesh.

“Gotta be ready.” He reminded himself. “Gotta be prepared.”

It was, after all, hard enough for him to force his rounded index finger through the trigger guard as it was. He had just enough room to feel the frosty curve of metal against the crook of that finger. Just enough space that he would be able to squeeze off a shot at a moment’s notice. With the thick, cotton gloves on, he’d be lucky to get even his fingernail into position: it would be like trying to shove a pig into a bucket.

Besides, what was a little discomfort compared to what those bastards must have put Mama through? If he couldn’t even put up with some discomfort in order to have his revenge, then he was never really deserving of her love to begin with and no better than that good for nothing brother of his.

“Don’t know for certain that she’s dead.” Part of his mind insisted. “What did ya really see? Nothin’ more than a pair of glasses and a bit of blood. Blood coulda been from that blond bitch. And the glasses coulda broke when they fell off.”

Earl would have liked to believe this quiet voice in the back of his mind. He would have loved to think that Mama was back at the house, hiding somewhere while she listened for the familiar sound of her sons’ footsteps. Perhaps under the sink like a frightened little mouse. Or wedged into the closet-sized space behind the false paneling where they stashed the jewelry, clothing, and other personal effects of those who were unfortunate enough to be brought into their home. There were a thousand places in the farmhouse that a nimble old woman could lay low.

But, deep down inside, Earl knew this wasn’t the case. It was a certainty that felt like a hollow pit somewhere between his gut and chest and he wondered, for a moment, if this was how a mother felt after carrying a child in her womb for the better part of a year. To have this life suddenly gone after being accustomed to its weight for so long. This pit that was now as empty as a shallow grave waiting to be filled.

Earl’s eye stung and he tried to tell himself that it was only because they were dry and tired. Real men didn’t cry. Real men pushed it all back inside and fed off its bitter aftertaste like a baby bird being force fed worms and insects. It made them stronger, made them able to get up and do what needed to be done. Crying was for sissy boys like Daryl; tears were why that little pansy was cut up and whimpering in the dark while Earl was rewarded with Mama’s special treats. As long as he remained a man, Earl was able to enjoy the pleasures that accompanied it: the soft squish of a boob squeezed in his hand; the musty scent of a woman’s most secret place… and Mama’s voice, whispering in his ear that it was okay, that this was what men did to women, that it was natural that it felt good.

Earl’s head snapped up as if it were spring-loaded. In the distance, he could just make out something slipping through the maze of trees. Partially obscured by darkness, it was nothing more than a moving shadow. But it was large. And there was only one thing it could be.

“Gotcha now, motherfucker.”

He raised the pistol at arm’s length, squeezed one eye shut, and sighted down the barrel. With a fluid grace that seemed out of place, he tracked the bastard’s movements slowly, always making sure that the little nub of metal on the end of the gun was slightly in front of his target.

And then, as he exhaled, his finger flexed. The pistol kicked in his hand as strongly as if something had slammed against the underside of his wrist. Fire licked from the muzzle and a puff of almost sulfuric smelling smoke billowed into the air as the roar of the gun boomed through the clearing.

The moving shadow toppled like it had tripped over some hidden obstacle and stumbled to the ground. For a second, Earl kept the weapon trained on the little mound of darkness that was just visible between the stand of trees; but it didn’t try to get back up. It didn’t kick or thrash or bellow in pain.

“Damn, Dead Eye,” he mumbled into his frost-coated beard, “one shot.”

Still, he had to be sure that son of a bitch wasn’t playing possum. He had to make certain the murdering asshole was really down for good.

He pulled the trigger two more times in rapid succession and watched as the body jolted with each impact. Nodding his head with satisfaction, Earl stomped through the snow while the high pitched ringing leftover from the gunfire filled his head like an announcement from the Emergency Broadcast System.

There was no way someone could just lay there and take two slugs like that. No one that was still alive.

“And that, retard,” he said to his absent brother, “is what it takes to be a man.”

SCENE FIFTEEN

Searching the bottom floor of the house had proven pointless. Daryl had opened every closet, looked behind any piece of furniture that was caddy-corner with the walls, and had even went as far as checking the cupboards in the kitchen. Cobwebs clung to his mustache and the knees of his pants were dusty from where he’d crouched on the floor and peered underneath Mama’s bed. He’d noticed the record player and speakers laying on the floor, surrounded by drops of dried blood as if they had jumped to their death; and there were also cinders and ash scattered… almost as if something had disturbed the remains of the fire. So he’d stooped as low as he could and peered up into the darkness of the chimney as the lingering warmth from the hearth radiated over a face now smeared with soot.

It had been like staring into mouth of a nightmare: so pitch black that he could almost imagine hundreds of red, glowing eyes peering down at him. His stomach had gurgled as his hands began to shake and it almost looked like the shadows were creeping toward him, devouring more and more of the creosote coated bricks as they reached toward him with tentacles of darkness. He’d fallen backward and scooted across the floor like a dog with ass worms in reverse, his eyes never straying far from the open hearth while his pulse and breath quickened.

“Nothin’ up there.” He breathlessly muttered. “Nothin’ up there at all. Not her, not nothin’ else either.”

Picking himself up, he’d backed away as if he’d half expected a flock of bats to surge out from the chimney and cover him with their leathery wings and razor-like teeth. The cleaver he’d snatched from a kitchen drawer caught a stray shaft of sun and threw reflections of light that jerked and darted across the walls.

“Grow up. Ain’t no reason to be shakin’ like a palsy victim. You got the cleaver, right? And she ain’t nothin’ but one woman. You hack her ass a few times and it’ll take the fight plum out of her.”

The tremor in his voice, however, contradicted the bravado of his running monologue. Snapshots from Mona’s Secret Delights still burst through his mind like a slide presentation from a vacation in Hell. Maybe it was because, outwardly, she looked so sweet and innocent. Even a little shy, perhaps. She was the type of girl he would have imagined writing love poems; maybe dabbing her eyes with tissue as she silently moved her lips to a chick flick that had been watched so often that even the DVD player knew how everything would turn out. The type who should have been fair game.

And yet here he was, stalking through his own house like a sneak thief. Mama was dead, but it was this dark-haired bitch who haunted him.

He saw her with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth; one hand proudly displaying a thumbs up, the other pointing at the mound of bodies piled by her side in a grisly imitation of Lindy England and the infamous Abu Ghraib photo.

Daryl shook his head as if he could fling the image from his mind and looked up the stairs. She had to be up there somewhere. Crouching in silence.

Was she hiding?

Or waiting?

“Bitch killed Mama… you gonna let her get away with that shit?”

The voice he heard in his head was Earl’s and it was so clear and distinct that Daryl could almost believe that his brother were actually standing just behind him.

“You gonna let that little whore sit up there and laugh at you? Because you ain’t got the balls to go up there and show her who’s boss?”

His fingers tightened around the wooden handle of the cleaver and he flexed his arm as if testing its heft. He tried to imagine the rectangular piece of metal cracking into her skull and splitting that rounded forehead like it was a Christmas roast. But all that came to mind was a picture of her in faded, tight fitting jeans: she was turned slightly to the side and her pretty little mouth formed an oval and her eyes looked wide and surprised; her bare chest was pale white and contrasted starkly against the cocoa-colored flesh of the severed arms she held in either hand. With their palms covering her nipples, she looked like a modest psychopath caught in the act of undressing.

“There were two of ’em.” Earl’s voice said. “She had help. This time it’s just you and her. You tellin’ me that you’re afraid this piece of pussy is gonna kick your ass? That what you tellin’ me?”

Daryl took a deep breath and started up the stairs. He walked as softly as possible, ensuring that each footfall resulted in nothing more than a slight tap. He listened to the silence that seemed to enshroud the house and his flesh crawled at the tiniest of noises.

That faint creak… was it the sound of her sneaking through the hallway?

Or just old wood expanding with the heat of dawn?

Was that her shallow breathing? Or nothing more than the sound of his own respiration bouncing back at him from the walls?

By the time he reached the top of the stairs, Daryl gripped the cleaver so tightly that the rivets attaching the handle to the tong had pushed dimples into the pads of his hand. . He felt sweat trickle down the back of his neck and his stomach was gurgling so loudly now that cramps pulled at the muscles in his abdomen.

Yet he somehow forced himself to go on. To take another step.

He passed the braided rug where Earl had beaten that Chinese guy to death with a pipe wrench. Then the bullet hole in the wall that Mama had always called “your Daddy’s last home improvement project.” When he slinked past the cabinet outside of Mama’s bedroom, he almost shattered the glass of the empty display case when his own reflection made his heart feel as if it had attempted to burst right through his chest. But even then, he forced himself to keep going. For he could feel Mama and Earl’s eyes upon him, judging every move and decision as if they were dark gods who held his fate in their hands.

The door to the bed room was partially open and he pushed it as forcefully as he’d always dreamed of shoving his brother. It banged against the wall so hard that it bounced back at him as if seeking retaliation for the assault. But its brief stand was put down easily with the touch of a hand and Daryl strode into the room, certain now that no one had been hiding behind it.

The chairs and rope lay on the floor and there were more traces of blood, but nothing else seemed to be disturbed here. Mama’s scrapbooking desk looked as if she might scuttle into the room at any moment with a fresh crop of old photos to cut and paste onto the thick pieces of colored paper. Daylight streamed through the window and everything seemed to glow in a color that reminded Daryl of fresh, golden honey.

Across the way, the door to the adjoining room was open at a forty-five degree angle. He could vaguely see half of the table that so many people had been nailed to but little else. With no windows of its own and the door only halfway open, the room was as gloomy as the interior of a crypt. Mama had taken out the light bulb years ago, preferring their victims to only have light when she deemed it so. If he were to go in there and that door somehow managed to swing closed….

“Nuh-uh.” Daryl said aloud. “No way, no how. I ain’t goin’ in there. Not without light.”

“Don’t be a pussy.” His inner Earl snapped. “Get your ass in there and find that bitch.”

“Fuck that! You know I don’t like the dark, Earl. You know it. No way I’m gettin’ trapped in there without no light and no way out and God knows what all else.”

Daryl’s voiced had risen in pitch so sharply that it bordered on hysteria. Even the thought of being trapped in that lightless room was made his eyes shimmy behind a veil of tears and he paced about the room with short quick steps.

“I know Mama is dead and all but I ain’t fuckin’ goin’ in there, you here me? What if she comes runnin’ out from the hall and locks me in? What if it’s dark and I can’t get out and there ain’t nobody here to help me? What then? What the fuck then?”

Daryl stopped as if he’d come to some sort of invisible barrier as his voice trailed off. He laughed at himself with a nervous little chuckle and shook his head.

“Flashlight.” He said. “I’ll go get the flashlight. Then it won’t make a lick of difference if that bitch tries to lock me in the dark.”

He bounded out of the room like a rabbit and Mona watched through the crack in the door as she lowered the rusty machete that had been raised above her head. The corners of her lips were arched in a crooked smile that, in any other situation, would have been misconstrued as flirtatious.

So, the little prick was afraid of the dark was he? That was definitely something she could have a little fun with. And, as she recalled the black painted windows she’d noticed when she found the machete, she realized that she even knew the perfect place to play this particular game.

With the stealth of a cat, she slipped out of the two rooms and into the hallway, already giddy with what she had planned.

When Daryl saw the police cruiser parked outside, he slapped his forehead so hard that a red hand print was left in its wake. With everything that had happened, he’d completely forgot that they’d ditched the truck alongside the road. And, since the sun had already risen by that time, the MagLite had been safely tucked away inside the glovebox.

Still, a cop had to have a flashlight, right? He imagined they had to go into abandoned buildings all the time to chase out kids and squatters. And that time last summer when Earl had his license taken away for DUI, the cop had shone a light into their faces that was so bright any coon hunter would’ve been proud. So it stood to reason that there had to be a flashlight somewhere in the car.

After nearly five minutes of searching, however, Daryl was still empty handed. His mind flashed back to the officer sprawled in the middle of the road, but this time it wasn’t the pulp his face had become that came to mind. This time, he envisioned that shiny, black belt that encircled the cop’s waist. It was almost like a super hero’s utility belt with its pouches and holster. Pepper spray, handcuffs, the little cradle for the handheld radio… and also a slender, black flashlight attached by some sort of hook or clamp. To be honest, he’d been so busy looking for the handcuff keys that he couldn’t remember which. All he knew for certain was that there had been a flashlight. And that it was still attached to that now frozen corpse.

“Son of a bitch!”

Daryl wanted to hit something, to drive his fist through a piece of wood just like Earl had done when they discovered Mama’s spectacles laying inside the corpse of their former victim. Instead, he stamped his foot into the snow and slammed the car door shut with as much force as he could muster. From somewhere back in the woods, a gunshot rang out and he stared at the edge of the forest for a moment while the meaning of this dawned upon him. The initial shot was followed by two more, one right after the other, and he knew he had to get moving.

Earl was a damn good hunter and the chances that he’d missed his mark were about the same as finding an honest politician. Which meant that the man was now dead and Earl would soon be coming back to the house. If he found Daryl simply standing in the yard because he was too afraid to check the darkened room for the woman… well, that was something he really didn’t want to think about.

Inspired by the threat of his brother’s wrath, Daryl’s mind seized upon an alternative almost immediate. The kitchen. Mama had boxes of candles tucked away in the junk drawer for times when the power went out in the middle of a storm. Even if he somehow still managed to get locked in the dark room, Earl would be back long before the candle ever burnt out. He’d be pissed, no doubt, that his little brother had been so easily trapped… but it still wouldn’t be as bad as if he came home to find him doing absolutely nothing.

Daryl bolted up the front steps and careened around the corner of the hallway. He’d just passed the open cellar door when he skidded to a stop and cocked his head.

He’d thought he heard something. Very low and very soft, but he was sure it hadn’t been his imagination.

“Daryl….”

There it was again. A voice, barely audible. It sounded old and tired and wavered as weakly as if the last vestiges of strength were being used to find the words.

“M… Mama?”

Hope stirred within Daryl’s chest and he remained perfectly still, straining to hear a reply.

“Daryl… help me….”

Yes! That was definitely Mama’s voice. Even though it sounded as if she were in pain and fading fast, he would have recognized it anywhere.

“Daryl….”

The cellar. Mama’s voice was coming from the cellar. And he saw it all as perfectly as if he’d been there: there’d been a struggle at which point the record player had been knocked over and, as they scuffled, they’d kicked ash out from the fireplace and onto the floor. Mama had fought them back, probably trying to drive them out of the house, but when they go to the cellar door something had happened. She’d tripped. Or perhaps been pushed. Either way, she ended up toppling down the stairs. She was down there right now. Probably with a broken hip or leg or arm. Or worse. She could have bashed her head open, could be bleeding to death even as he stood there putting it all together.

“Daryl, please… help.”

Normally, he didn’t like going downstairs and hadn’t set foot down there for nearly two years. But this time, he had no hesitation. He darted through the cellar door so quickly that he almost tripped around the piece of twine that Earl had apparently tied to the doorknob for some reason. His hand grabbed onto the rickety banister and he regained his balance before taking the rest of the steps two at a time.

The cellar floor was made of concrete and it was so cold that he could immediately see his breath in the harsh light of a bare 100 watt bulb. However, that same light also revealed what he took to be proof to his suspicions. For at the very bottom of the staircase was an oblong smear of blood, as if something large had lain there for quite some time.

She must have drug herself away, perhaps to somewhere safer. Or maybe there was a phone down here. Maybe she’d been trying to claw her way to it so she could call for help.

“Daryl….”

Her voice was louder now, but only because he was closer to the source. It still sounded raspy and pained, as if each breath might be her last.

“I’m here, Mama! I’m comin’ for ya.”

The cellar was cluttered with bloated cardboard boxes that smelled of mildew, appliances that Earl had hauled down over the years, and a lifetime’s worth of castoffs. His Daddy’s old tools, dress forms that almost looked like dismembered torsos floating atop a sea of junk. So much stuff that it’d take forever for him to find her on his own.

“Keep talkin,’ Mama. Guide me in. I’m comin’”

“Daryl, hurry… it hurts so bad.”

The old woman sounded as if she were nearly in tears and her son tore through the collected debris in a frenzy. Old newspapers fluttered in the air while boxes of books toppled their contents onto trunks that grated across the hard, bumpy floor.

“It hurts….”

“Hang on, Mama!”

He rounded what almost appeared to be a miniature Stonehenge of bookshelves and end tables and saw her feet poking out from behind an old chest freezer. Scrambling through the junk, he cried out in relief: “I see you! I see you, Mama! Hold on, I’m almost there!”

As he came to the freezer he fell to his knees, so intent on helping his wounded mother that the jolt of pain may have as well been half a world away. He grabbed her shoulder as tears trickled from his eyes.

“Mama, I….”

But something was wrong. Her skin was as cold as the floor he knelt on. She shouldn’t be that cold, should she? Even with blood loss, she….

His confusion was cut short as her head lolled to the side. Where her eyes should have been were what looked like two squished slugs and the tip of her tongue poked out from between lips as dark and blistered as a singed hot dog. The he noticed, for the first time, that her dress was ripped and tattered. The yellow fabric was covered with inkblot-like stains and the waxen flesh below was marred with ragged gashes. One of the pockets she’d sewn almost seemed to be peeling away and he saw something that looked like a thin wedge of metal lodged into her belly like the head of a large staple. However, the piece that still stuck from the skin looked jagged, as if it had actually been the part of something large and had broken off.

Another scene replaced the one he’d imagined earlier. In this retake, Mama still toppled down the stairs, but only after she’d been brutalized by that bitch and bastard. Maybe she was already dead when they tossed her down like a bag of garbage. Or perhaps that first tumble snapped her neck. But at some point, as she rolled down into the darkness, the handle had snapped off… it all made sense.

Daryl then noticed the semi-circular gash in her lower abdomen and the something glistening and pink that seemed to be trying to force its way through the cut. Lots of blood there. So much that it was impossible to tell that the dress had ever been yellow to begin within. And that was probably what killed her.

He shook his head vigorously as the weight of these thoughts finally sank in. When he’d first started noticing these things, his body had turned numb and that anesthetic-like feeling had quickly spread to his mind. He was actually able to think more clearly than he normally could… but, at the same time, he felt detached from the process. Almost as if it were a movie he were listening to as he faded off to sleep.

But now that feeling was beginning to fade.

Mama couldn’t be dead. She just couldn’t. If she were dead, then how did she call to him for help? How did she let him know that her body was even down here to begin with?

As Daryl struggled with these questions, Mona yanked on a piece of cord from her hiding place. The cord rounded one of the stair banisters and snaked up to the top of the steps. But when she pulled, the thin rope was drawn taut and the door it was tied to slammed shut.

Daryl sprang to his feet at the same moment Mona threw the switch on the breaker box and plunged the cellar into a darkness so complete that it seemed as if they’d been set adrift in space. She removed the welding goggles that had already adjusted her vision to the gloom and tried not to giggle as Daryl’s screams pierced the darkness. The acrid stench of urine flooded the air as he tripped and fell in the clutter and she suspected that by the time she was through playing, that shit would also add its pungency to this mess in the terrified man’s pants.

This was going to be even more fun than she’d hoped for….

SCENE SIXTEEN

Earl looked down at the dead body before him. No final snorts of air flared the nostrils, nor did the chest rise and fall even marginally. The dark eyes already had a glassy look to them, as if they’d been secretly replaced with marbles at the moment of death, and the pool of blood surrounding the body looked as if it had caused the snow to sink down ever so slightly. Almost as if its heat had melted through the top layer as the thick, red liquid spread out from the trio of bullet wounds that punctured its tawny fur.

The bellow that erupted from Earl’s throat escaped with such ferocity that has jowls shook as he threw back his head. Raising his fists to the sky, he punched at the air as if he could somehow sock whatever God was responsible for this squarely in the jaw. The tendons in his neck bulged and his eyes were clenched shut so tightly that the tears of frustration squeezed from them ran the risk of freezing his lashes together.

“A fuckin’ deer? Are you kidding me? A mother fuckin’ deer?”

On the short walk to the body, Earl had already figured everything out. He’d drag that dickhead out of the wood by the feet; Hell, would fireman carry the corpse if he had to. Once he’d made it back to the house, if Daryl hadn’t already killed her as well, he would have propped the dead body up on the living room chair and made it watch as he and Daryl took turns with that little cunt. And she would have been forced to look at it the entire time. He would have superglued her eyelids open if he’d had to. And then, the last thing she would see as the life drained out of her ravaged body would have been her sorry excuse for a man. The pathetic loser who couldn’t even manage to keep her safe.

And he’d been pretty certain that was the way it would have turned out. Daryl wasn’t capable of finding a Christian in church, much less one woman in a two story house. Earl wouldn’t have been surprised if his little brother were sitting in the police car with the doors locked and awaiting his return. It sounded like something that turd would do.

But now there was a chance that this beautiful plan had been flushed down the crapper. That piece of shit was still out here somewhere, still hiding and running through the woods. And, even though it was highly unlikely, there was the possibility that Daryl might actually find the woman. And an even slimmer chance that he wouldn’t get his ass kicked by her. And if Earl ended up hauling nearly two hundreds pounds of dead weight all the way back to the house for nothing, then someone was going to pay.

“I’ll find you yet, cock knocker. Mark my words.”

Stepping over the deer, Earl took up the trail again. Luckily, it wasn’t still coming down like it had earlier in the morning. If that type of accumulation had still been falling from the sky, then the footprints would have been all but covered now; there were hundreds of square acres of wilderness out here… miles and miles of nothing but trees, rocks, and hills. Unless you knew the landmarks, you could freeze to death before ever finding your way to a road or another house and, after that, it could be years before some hunter stumbled across your scattered bones. If you were ever found at all.

And that was a real possibility as well: that Earl might be denied the satisfaction of revenge. If Matt found a cave to hole up in or if he just continued trucking on without ever losing steam, then sooner or later hypothermia would set in. Shivering in the freezing temperatures would turn to fatigue as the body tried everything within its power to protect itself. And all it would take would be for that pretty boy to think he’d lay down for just a minute or two, just a little cat nap to recharge his batteries. He’d close his eyes and slip into a darkness from which he’d never awaken.

So, no… he had to find this son of a bitch and had to find him soon. After whatever he’d done to Mama, the bastard deserved far, far worse than dying in his sleep. He needed to scream. To beg. To know what it meant to be hunted and look into the eyes of his killer with the knowledge that he was about to die.

“What the fuck?”

Earl stepped out of the trees and into a clearing where the thick, gray clouds overhead could clearly be seen. They amassed in the sky like a gathering army, closing in ranks for one final assault against the world below. However, it wasn’t what was over his head that caused him to gape as his brow knitted in confusion. It was what was in the snow.

Up until this point, Matt’s tracks had been pretty straight forward. They had been meandering impressions that, without fail, cut a path that lead deeper and deeper into the woods. Occasionally, they would weave in and out through the trees or cut a wide swath around a boulder or deadfall. But they were nothing like what Earl saw before him now.

The clearing looked as if a hundred people who all wore the same shoe size had trampled through the drifts. Like the spokes of a wheel, the tracks radiated out in all directions from a central point that had been reduced to nothing more than a mire of muddy snow. Each spoke doubled back on itself, sometimes so often that it was impossible to tell which footprints were leading into the forest and which were returning to the clearing.

Because of this, Earl had no idea which direction his prey had actually went. It could have been any one of two dozen possibilities and he stood, scratching his beard, as his eyes looked across the clearing.

“You slippery son if a bitch….”

Earl walked forward as carefully as if he were stepping onto a frozen lake. He had it in his mind that he would put himself in Matt’s shoes but felt the need to be cautious. His plan was simple really: he’d walk to the middle of the clearing, just as Matt had done, and then study the different sets of tracks that branched off from there. Though they looked like a confusing mess at first glance, there had to be one particular direction that had more footprints leading out than coming back in. And once Earl was able to identify that set then he would be back on the trail again.

Out in the open, the temperature seemed to drop nearly ten degrees. Without the cover of trees to cut the wind, a steady breeze gusted against him and rustled the tufts of dead scrub grass that poked through the snow like skeletons clawing their way out of the grave. The tip of his nose was now so cold that it almost felt like it were on fire and a membrane seemed to form somewhere just inside his nostrils. He could feel this film flex and relax with each breath and he cursed himself for not having the forethought to grab a ski mask before taking off after the man.

By the time he reached the center of the clearing, snow had begun falling again and the tingling pain had spread to Earl’s cheeks and ears and the hairs of his beard felt like brittle needles poking into his neck and chin . The discomfort made him grumble to himself as thoughts of coffee and crackling fire plagued his mind; making Matt suffer didn’t seem as important as it had earlier. Now, he simply wanted to kill the bastard, get his ass home, and thaw out beneath a pile of blankets. And to do that, he had to solve the riddle of the footprints surrounding him.

Earl spun around slowly, taking in each track with a critical eye. He wasn’t exactly thinking about them, but rather trusting his mind to seize upon something that was just a little out of place. Something that would separate one particular trail from the others.

Halfway through his second revolution, he heard something. Almost like a snake’s hiss. Only this sound seemed to be coming through the air.

Before his mind had a chance to decode what this could mean, pain flared in his chest so intensely that everything went black for a moment. He staggered backward as his hands groped for the source of the agony and felt the warm stickiness of his own blood gushing from his body.

Matt watched the fat man stumble around like a dazed idiot. Obviously, the stupid fuck hadn’t realized what had happened yet. Otherwise, he would have been running for cover; instead he simply stayed in the clearing, blinking at his own bloody hands as if trying to figure out exactly what they were. Still, it would only be a matter of time before rationality broke through the wall of shock. And then he would run. Which meant Matt had to act fast.

He drew back the t-shaped piece of plastic that was squeezed within his fist. At first, it felt like it would take all of his strength to pull the cord it was attached to into position; but then the pulleys shifted and all of the tension seemed to evaporate. He held it for a moment, lining up his shot, and then released.

There was a soft ting as the cord snapped back, immediately followed by the whizz of the arrow cutting through the air. Instead of waiting for the projectile to plunge into Earl’s blubber, however, Matt was already pulling another from the quiver on his back and fitting the notch onto the string of the compound bow he’d taken from the house.

He released the barrage of arrows like a machine and their razor-like tips flew with precision. Again and again, they found their mark as fresh spurts of blood squished from Earl’s body. Within seconds, the man looked like an oversized voodoo doll stuck with feathered needles. His entire chest was red and glistening now and his face had turned pale and sallow. Sinking to his knees, he tried to raise the pistol, but Matt’s next shot pierced Earl’s forearm and the gun tumbled into the air as the fat man snatched his hand away.

The bolt had passed through the arm and Matt was reminded of Steve Martin and the headband that made it look as if he’d taken an arrow through the skull. However, in Earl’s case, the business end of the shaft had strands of sinew and tiny chunks of flesh still embedded on the barbed arrowhead.

“I’m a wild and crazy guy.” Matt mumbled to himself as he lined up his last arrow with a smile.

He was being more careful with this one, for Earl had started to sway back and forth as mists of blood flew from his gasping mouth. Somehow, he looked smaller now: as if all of that bulk had been nothing more than hemoglobin and he was shriveling down to a normal size now that it was all spewing from his body. On top of this, the snow had really started coming down again. It was almost as if the clearing were actually the diorama in a snow globe that had been vigorously shaken by god and it made it difficult to track the man’s subtle movements.

After several seconds, Matt finally released his shot. The arrow sped through the air and rammed into the center of Earl’s chest. Almost immediately, the man fell face forward into the snow, forcing the tip of the gore streaked arrow through his back as his weight fell upon the shaft.

He lay motionless while a dusting of snow built up on his back. . Not trying to raise his head with the last of his strength. Not so much as even a finger or leg twitching as a crimson shadow blossomed beneath his body. If it kept coming down like this, within half an hour he would be nothing more than a mound of snow that was simply larger than the drifts surrounding it.

Tossing the bow onto the ground, Matt raised his middle finger at this fallen giant, kissed the tip of it, and then snapped his wrist with a flourish. He felt like he always did following a kill: breathless, flushed with a mixture of excitement and release, slightly tense and tranquil all at the same time. It was like he was a virgin who’d just gotten his first piece of ass. Only he got to experience the giddy thrill time and time again.

That feeling, however, quickly hardened when he heard a thin and distant scream warble through the stillness of the morning. He stood as still as an ice sculpture as he closed his eyes and listened. Even from this far away, he could tell it was a scream of agony and intense pain A scream of mortal danger. A woman’s scream. Mona’s scream….

SCENE SEVENTEEN

Daryl felt the warmth spread across his crotch like the blossoming of a liquid flower. It trickled down his thighs as its sharp vapors rose like heat to sting his nostrils. He was only vaguely aware of the cleaver clattering to the floor as his hands stretched into the darkness as if they could somehow push it back.

His screams came in short, shrill bursts that wavered with the trembling that seized his entire body and he staggered forward, hoping to find his way to the stairs. The darkness, however, had other plans: it wrapped around his feet like an over-friendly cat, made him stumble and fall, tried to force its way down his throat where it could choke the air from his lungs; every breath was a battle to be won, every beat of his heart felt as if might be that muscle’s last spasm. A tightness clinched his chest, but his legs felt as if they were as wobbly and unsteady as a newborn calf. In the time it took to blink an eye, he’d been plunged into the gaping maw of his worst fear and he was all too keenly aware of the gnashing teeth housed within this great, black beast.

The concrete floor banged against Daryl’s knees as he toppled forward, scraping away both fabric and skin as his jaw cracked into something hard and metallic. His mouth flooded with a taste that was as if he’d stuck his tongue to the posts of a battery and his back hitched as sobs tried to force their way through the screeches that raked his vocal chords.

On the floor, with the darkness squeezing in from all sides, he was an eight year old boy again. It was as if the scars that crisscrossed his arms and back had all ripped open with the disappearance of light. Rather than seeping blood, however, these wounds oozed the invisible muck of child-like fear. It coated his body with a cold slime that made the maturity of years wither into a man-sized husk; this atrophied shell pulled tightly around the youth within, reminding him of all the times cling wrap had been wrapped around his mouth while streams of water poured down. He was choking, drowning, gasping for air as his fingers clawed through dark waves for even the smallest hint of stability.

And they were out there. He could feel their eyes, like pinpricks in his soul, burning into the back of his neck and piercing his mind with their primal hunger. Spinning on his knees like a dervish, his watery eyes searched the darkness for their red glow. But they were always just out of sight, always somewhere behind him, above him, closing in, and moving so fast that they would tear the flesh from his bones before he even felt the twitch of wiry whiskers against his chin.

“Good boy… I will… I’ll be good, Mama, please, please, please, I swear….”

His voice was raw and raspy from the initial burst of screaming and cut in and out through the sobs that bubbled snot from his nose. At the same time, there was also a careening tone to the words, as if he might be set free if only he could plead his case long enough.

“Please, Mama… please….”

He’d wrapped his arms around himself and curled into a small ball in a nest of crushed carboard boxes and trash bags stuffed with old clothes. His head was tucked so low that his chin rested on the tops of his knees and he rocked quickly from side to side as tears and urine pooled below him.

“Mama….”

Mama was his only hope, the only thing that could drive away the darkness and turn back the creatures that slithered and scuttled toward the scent of his blood. Mama could hold him in her arms and wipe the glistening tears from his cheeks as she explained how he would never have to be in the dark again. How he would always be safe and protected and strong. If only, he would listen to her. If only he would be a good boy.

His voice tapered off into a low moan and his teeth clattered between hiccups, sniffles, and weeping so soft that it almost seemed as if the air were leaking out of him. He pinched his own arms, gasped for breath, and tried to silence the pounding in his head long enough to hear that scuffling sound.

It was somewhere in the darkness. Like the scrape of feet dragging slowly across the floor. Circling him, but never actually moving in for the kill.

“Daryl….”

Mama’s voice whispered so sharply that his name could have been nothing more than a quick gasp of air.

“Daryl, you’ve been a bad boy.”

The sting of the reprimanding tone made his stomach feel as though he’d just swallowed battery acid. It rose through his trachea and flooded his mouth with acrid bile as he clenched his eyes closed.

“A very bad boy.”

“I’m sorry, Mama… I’ll be good, I swear I will….”

“You let them do this to me. You let them kill me.”

The voice drew out the word kill as if it were a long sigh. And all the while it moved through the darkness, floating through the void like a disembodied spirit.

“NO! No, no, no, no. I wanted to stop it. I wanted to save you. Ask Earl, he’ll tell you, I wanted to come home and make sure….”

“You let them kill me you bad, bad boy.”

Daryl banged his head against the floor as if the dull thuds could drive Mama’s ghost from his mind. But with each new burst of pain, he saw those empty eyes… staring at him through the darkness. Judging. Accusing.

“It hurt soooo bad, Daryl. All I wanted was for them to stop. For the pain to go away. For someone to help.”

His hands were pressed tightly to the sides of his head now and he felt a pressure growing inside him. Almost as if he were swelling up like a leech. Only this pressure was cold and seemed to shred his thoughts into disjointed fragments. Past and present overlapped, memories and reality fought for dominance, and his brain felt as if it were being pulled in a thousand directions all at the same time.

But still Mama’s voice kept circling in the dark. Taunting. Jabbing with its words. Feeding the confusion and fear and pain and loathing that roiled within Daryl’s mind.

“I reckon you know what happens to bad boys, Daryl. I reckon you know all too well.”

His tears now bordered on laughter and he ripped clumps of hair from his scalp to keep his hands from scratching open his own throat. Every muscle in his body was pulled taut and the shivering that had overtook him now seemed as if it had sank into his very core.

“It’s not my fault, Mama….”

“All your fault, you naughty boy. You should’ve protected me.”

“It’s not my fault.”

This time the statement was louder and sounded more like a statement than a question. As if the pressure and trembling within were forcing the words out like bursts of escaping gas.

“You let them torture me. You allowed me to die.”

Daryl felt as if a fissure cracked through his skull and everything that had been building up gushed out into the open. The force made him spring to his feet and his voice bellowed through the darkened basement as spittle flew from the snarl that distorted his face.

“No! I was a little boy, you fuckin’ bitch! A little fuckin’ boy that you were s’posed to love and cherish and protect! I was your son but it was never fuckin’ good enough, was it? Never good enough for anything!”

Mama’s voice laughed and Daryl’s hand shot into the darkness, scrambling over the mounds of junk until it felt cold metal beneath its fingers. He snatched the object with a rattling clink that caused the image of a pipe wrench to flare in his mind.

“You were s’posed to love me, you miserable fucking cunt!”

Daryl launched the wrench toward Mama’s laughter with the flick of the wrist. It tumbled through the air and then there was a sharp crack followed by the shattering of glass. The windowpane tinkled to the ground and sunlight streamed into the basement as if it had been pressed against the blackened glass and waiting to save him all along.

Dust motes churned in the wide shafts that fell across the boxes and junk, but the light also revealed something else: Mona.

She was so close that Daryl could see his own reflection in her dark eyes. He could see the contortions of rage on his face, the way the veins in temples throbbed and pulsed, and how his mustache almost looked as bristly as the scruff of a riled curr.

She, however, looked as calm as if she’d walked into a tea party. She smiled graciously and toyed with the hem of her shirt as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

The two simply stood there for a moment as if time had come to a grinding halt. But then she parted her lips and an old, leathery voice croaked out from a head two-thirds its age.

“Looks like the naughty boy finally grew a pair.”

With a roar, Daryl launched himself at the dark-haired woman, his hands forming into claws before him as his focus narrowed upon her slender throat. Mona’s hand balled into a fist and she jabbed quickly, rolling her shoulder forward as her knuckles connected with Daryl’s nose with a wet smack. Blood stained the pores of her fist as it gushed from Daryl’s nostrils, but it wasn’t enough to stop the force of his attack.

His body slammed into hers and the two toppled backward. She seemed to fall almost in slow motion and, if it hadn’t been for the old woman’s corpse, her head would have bounced off the edge of the old freezer.

Daryl scrambled over Mona as his hands snatched an ice pick that had rolled across the floor almost as if it had wanted him to find it. She thrashed and kicked, but he was beyond pain now, beyond feeling the tread of her boots as they planted rows of red ridges on the side of his face.

Instead, he clung to her pants with one hand as if he were trying to claw his way along her body. With the other, he slammed the pick into the meat of her thigh, burying the slim shaft of metal into her flesh almost entirely up to the red handle.

When he jerked it out, blood spurted through the perfectly circular hole in her jeans like the waters of a fountain. The sight of the crimson arc made his breath catch in his throat and his pulse quicken and he stabbed again as she twisted in pain.

Now, it was her turn to scream. Her turn to feel the agony and fear.

He stabbed again and again, bringing down the ice pick and creating constellations of wounds within a crimson nebula that crept up her leg.

Stabbing at the hip now: his elbow jarred as if he’d knocked his funny bone when the pick slammed into her pelvis. She was screaming so loudly that it seemed to fill his head with its rattling timbre and her hands punched and scratched and pulled uselessly at his hair.

Daryl was focused and hard and wanted nothing more than to sink the ice pick into the soft mounds of flesh on her chest. To drive it into her wicked heart like the needle on Mama’s sewing machine and shove his tongue down her throat as the last breath of life wheezed from her butchered body. He would inhale her soul and take her like she had never been taken before.

For he was in full control now. He was no longer a bad boy. He was a man. And it was time for this bitch to die.

SCENE EIGHTEEN

The snow fell so heavily that the world almost looked as though it had been overtaken by static. The trees were nothing more than indistinct, dark blurs behind an ever-shifting veil of white and visibility was so getting so bad that a cliff could have loomed just ahead and Matt never would have known until he was practically upon it. To make matters worse, the wind whipped through the pines like an escaped beast. Its prolonged howl devoured the sound of Mona screaming in the distance and it shoved at the man who, stooped before its might, tried to push his way forward. His feet felt as if they’d been encased in fifty pound blocks of ice and his face was as dry and chafed as a worn-out saddle despite that fur-lined hood that encircled it.

He knew he had to keep going, that this battle against nature was one he couldn’t afford to lose; somewhere on the other side of the forest, his new wife screamed as if her flesh were being rendered from bone. Even if he couldn’t hear it over the fury of the wind, he knew it was there. And it haunted him with every step, every panicked twinge of his heart….

“I’m coming, baby, hang on, I’m coming.”

The elements, however, had other plans. When the snow had first begun falling again, his tracks were as distinct as the green boughs overhead. As the blizzard gathered its muster, the prints filled in so rapidly that it almost seemed like the packed snow within them were being forced up and Matt tumbled through the drifts as he tried to run. Now, they were nothing more than vague indentations that barely resembled the shape of a human foot. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the wind drove stinging flakes of snow into his eyes, forcing him to bow his head and concentrate only upon the tracks just in front of him. If he didn’t make it out of this forest soon, he could be left wandering aimlessly for hours. If not days. By the time he found his way back to the farmhouse, it could very well be too late.

Matt tried to push the thought out of his mind, but this proved as difficult as walking against the wind. Again and again, an image of Mona formed in his mind. Never of what was actually happening to her. That was simply too much to even begin to imagine. But he did see her eyes, wide and glazed with pain, as that precious mouth of hers yawned in a scream loud enough to shatter windows. She was pale, bloody, and….

No. Anything was better than thinking about that. He tried counting his steps, whispering her name through blue tinged lips, and even singing. Sleepwalking by The Ravonettes. He and Mona had always considered it to be their song and she would squeeze his hand affectionately every time it got to the part about something evil in the heart.

But the lyrics offered no comfort this time. In fact, it almost felt more like a dirge. Like a final goodbye to the only thing this maggot infested carcass of a world had produced that was every really worth a damn.

“Hang in there, sweetie.”

Raising his head, Matt hoped to see the farmhouse like a mirage in the distance. But the storm was so fierce that it was if he’d walked into a swirling wall of white. Even the trees five feet away were hidden in the maelstrom now and the trail he followed had disappeared as thoroughly as if it never existed.

“Mona!”

Though Matt shouted so loudly that his voice choked on her name, his desperate tone sounded flat and muffled, even to his own ears.

“I shouldn’t have left her alone. What the fuck was I thinking?”

It’d seemed like a simple enough plan at first: him leading one of the brothers into the forest while Mona finished off the other one. But he’d forgotten how quickly squalls could form in these parts. Sometimes, the change was so abrupt that it was like someone had thrown a switch on the control panels of reality. He and his father had once spent an afternoon of extracurricular activities with one of their living toys only to find, mere hours later, that snow had fallen so quickly that the cabin door wouldn’t so much as budge.

He could still remember the girl, curled up on blood spattered sheets, naked and trembling, as she pleaded between sobs for them to just let her go. To let her live. When they had done nothing more than ignore her, her pleas turned into a single repeated word: why?

She’d reminded Matt at the time of a wounded pixie: short hair, pointy ears, smears of blood on her back that very well could have come from having the wings plucked out of her spine. But now, in his memory, the face began to morph. The cheekbones seemed to raise as the face became less angular and the ears rounded as her hair lengthened like time-lapse footage. The thin lips become fuller, the eyes a little less round, and the skin tone lightened subtly. No longer was she the hitchhiker with disproportionately long legs and willowy arms. Now it was Mona that he saw, cowering against the log walls as his father approached with Bowie knife in hand. But her eyes looked past his old man, past the flannel shirt and gleaming blade; she stared directly into Matt’s soul as she parted her lips and formed that single question: why?

“No!”

Matt pounded on the side of his head as if his palm could somehow dislodge this faulty memory from his imagination. But the image clung tenaciously to tangled synapses, growing more and more vivid with every step he took. Now he could see the puffiness beneath the left eye that, if she’d been allowed to live, eventually would have turned to swelling. The chip in the front incisor from where she’d bit the iron railings of the bed to keep from screaming. The glossiness of fear in eyes that seemed to both beg and condemn in a single glance.

“She’s okay.” He tried to tell himself. “She’s tough. Whatever’s going on, she’ll get out of it. She always gets out of it. She has to.”

What the hell had happened anyway? When Matt saw that it was the larger of the two men who’d ran into the woods after him, he’d expected it to all be over quickly. The little one would be no match for his Mona. He had the timid mannerisms of fodder, of someone who’d stumbled into an abattoir and only became a butcher because the others who worked there assumed he was one of their own. He’d fooled them into thinking he was worthy of a the white apron and cleaver when, in fact, he was actually destined for the hook.

But Mona’s screams… the pain that trembled her voice even from such a great distance: what the fuck had went wrong?

Even though the question plagued his mind, Matt instinctively knew the answer. In a lot of ways, Mona was like a cat. The thrill of the hunt wasn’t enough for her. She needed to draw the game out, to psychologically bat her prey back and forth before plunging her teeth into its jugular. She needed to play. Only this time, she’d apparently taken it too far… and was now paying the price.

Lifting his head, Matt fully expected to see nothing more than the same vortex of snow that had swirled around him for the last ten minutes. But there, in the distance, he could just make it out: a large, dark blob that was shaped vaguely like a house. Like a phantom in the storm, it faded in and out of existence. One moment he could see it so clearly that he could almost make out the shape of the chimney on the slanted roof; the next, there was nothing but flakes of snow whirling on eddies of wind.

But those brief glimpses were enough. Matt felt warmth flood through his chest as his pulse quickened. He bounded through the snow like a lumbering bear, adjusting his trajectory every time the farmhouse manifested through the blizzard so that he was heading straight for it. Leafless brambles snagged his clothes as if they were the fingers of the forest trying to pull him back into its depths and hidden rocks sent him flailing into deep drifts; snow had become packed into his boots so tightly that it felt as if his ankles had been wrapped in cold packs and the tears in his eyes seemed to be on the verge of freezing his lashes together: but none of that mattered. He was close now, so very close that the house’s periods of invisibility were becoming less and less frequent. As if it were pulling itself into existence from the tightly clustered flakes of now.

He couldn’t hear Mona screaming anymore. But maybe he was still too far away. Maybe the wind was still masking her cries with its incessant wail… maybe she was still alive.

“She could’ve killed him.” He tried to tell himself as he scrambled closer to the house in the distance. “She could be sitting on the couch right now, looking at that catalog, and waiting for me to come back.”

Of course, there also could have been another reason that she wasn’t yelling anymore. But that was an alternative that Matt refused to entertain. His wife was alive and he’d be with her shortly: that was the only possible outcome he could accept.

For a while, it seemed as if the farmhouse always stayed the same distance away. As if it were running away from him as quickly as he stumbled toward it, mocking him with a distance he could never hope to close.

“I’m coming, baby. I’m coming….”

But then details began to present themselves. The corrugated, tin roof. The brick chimney wrapped in chicken wire, weathered clapboard walls, and windows that looked slightly askew. And then, just like that, the trees that surrounded him were gone.

Matt stepped out of the woods and, without the protective barrier of the pines to buffer it, the wind slammed into him so hard that he staggered backwards. As he struggled to retain his balance, his eyes peered through the snow, searching for even the smallest sign of the woman he loved. And that was when he noticed the car.

Even though it was practically buried in accumulation, the outline was distinctive. It was a cop car.

“Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

In a way, Matt would have almost preferred Mona to be dead than arrested. The knowledge that she was still out there somewhere, separated from him by bars and razor-wire coiled walls, would have been too much. To know that he could feel the warm touch of her hand, feel her lips brush his own: it would be like torture. At least in death he would be able to join her. At least there would be a chance they could be together again.

As he shambled closer to the parked cruiser, he realized that tracks led away from the passenger-side door. They couldn’t have been very old or else they would have already filled in like his own had. And the tracks seemed to be making a beeline directly into the forest. They disappeared into the woods almost at a forty-five degree angle from where he’d emerged. If the snow hadn’t been falling so heavily, there was a good chance that the cop would have even been close enough to see him out there in the pines.

Still… there was something about the tracks which bothered Matt. Something that didn’t quite seem right. His eyes followed the trail again and again, trying to discern exactly what was wrong with them as he hobbled closer to the car.

Now he could see that some of the snow had fallen off the roof of the cruiser when the door had been opened. It lay on the ground in a small mound with tracks cutting a solid trench through its center. But even something about that felt wrong.

He glanced into the forest again and tried to imagine the cop bolting from the car and running across the lawn. His feet would have kicked out clouds of snow in front of him as he ran and….

The snow. It should have been piled up in the opposite direction. The little dunes scattered by running legs would have been heading toward the forest if the cop had truly ran there. But they weren’t. Instead, they seemed to be leading to the car. And, now that he was closer, Matt could also see that the snow was discolored with dark splotches. As if something had dripped down and splattered against the drifts.

Blood.

At the same time this thought crossed his mind, the door of the cruiser swung open. He hadn’t been able to see the behemoth of a man through the frost-covered windows, but Earl Gruber lurched out of the car almost as if he’d been thrown off balance. His clothes were crusted with icy blood and the arrow shafts still jutted from his body; only the feathered tips were missing. He must have snapped them off to keep them from getting caught in the undergrowth as he took a more direct route back to the house. And then, realizing that Matt would return there, waited in the car as his blood slowly clotted and froze.

The large man’s face was so pale that his skin almost blended with the falling snow and he staggered forward as if nothing more than sheer willpower was keeping him alive. Bobbing and weaving, his feet crossed in front of one another and, for all intents and purposes, it looked as if he were about to fall flat on his face at any given moment.

Instead, the bearded man lifted his arm as slowly as someone who’d been hypnotized into believing it was weightless. His lips moved as he said something, but his voice was too weak to compete with the wind’s hollow moan.

But words weren’t necessary. The unsteady muzzle of the pistol pointed directly at Matt spoke volumes.

SCENE NINETEEN

Every time the ice pick plunged into Mona’s flesh, the slobbering beast scrambling on top of her groaned as if in the throes of a miniature orgasm; her screams seemed to fan the fires of excitement in his eyes and his hand trembled visibly. This caused the tip of the pick to wiggle inside each new wound and the pain flared along her body as if trying to escape the point of impact. It shot through her leg and raced up her side, causing her to intuitively want to pull her body into a fetal position. But he’d clawed his way on top of her to the point that his knees pressed into the wounds on her hips now; no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn’t even roll on to her side, much less curl into a tight ball.

Panting almost as heavily as her attacker, but for entirely different reasons, Mona fought to keep the waves of darkness that threatened to overtake her at bay. It would’ve been so easy just to let them wash over her, to allow the searing agony to melt into the void of unconsciousness. Free from the pain of Daryl’s furious assault, she would bleed out eventually and slip into the cold embrace of death, leaving him to do whatever he pleased with her lifeless body. But that was precisely what gave her the strength to resist the undertow’s seductive pull.

All of her life, men had simply taken what they’d wanted from her. First Uncle Louis with his promise of kittens in his basement. Then Mr. Chambers, asking her to stay after class so he could give her individualized attention. Her brother. After her father had joined in, that bastard didn’t even bother to drug her anymore. And she’d simply swallowed it all. She’d let the shame and guilt and anger fester into a burning ember in the pit of her stomach. She’d choked back the protests and sobs, had eventually learned to just lay there and accept whatever disgusting thing they wanted to do to her. On some level, they’d managed to somehow convince her that she really was asking for it. That it was her fault and they were just giving her what she actually wanted. That she would never amount to anything more than a slutty whore….

Until Matt had come into her life. . He’d shown her the beauty that was in her soul. It was like a radiant jewel so deeply hidden within her that their thrusting dicks could never hope to shatter it. They could leave her bruised and aching and make it hurt to walk for days afterward… but they would never own her. They’d never control her. And, once Matt had taught her what it meant to take the power back, they would also never violate her again.

And she’d be damned if she was simply going to lay there and let this degenerate, redneck animal do whatever the fuck he wanted. It didn’t matter if it was a prick or a pick… nothing entered her body without her permission.

The little weasel had stopped stabbing and had her shirt clenched in both hands now. He yanked it so hard that her torso rose slightly off the ground and Mona could tell by his expression of stupid bewilderment that he’d simply expected it to rip right off her chest. He pulled again, but still the fabric held and he clenched his teeth as frustration flared in his eyes.

“Stupid fuckin’ whore!”

He spat the words from his mouth as he glared at her breasts, totally oblivious to Mona’s balled fist until it smacked into the center of his throat. Something between a cough and a gag erupted out of him and Daryl’s hands flew up as if to protect his neck from another assault. Mona, however, had anticipated this reaction and, as she struggled to sit from the waist up, drove the heel of her palm into Daryl’s solar plexus.

She’d hoped the blow would send him reeling away from her, but instead his body fell forward. His weight crashed into her and the little progress she’d made at sitting up was instantly neutralized. She fell back against the old woman’s corpse again and her right hand reached out in attempt to break her fall. Instead of hitting the floor, however, it sank into something cold and squishy, something that felt like she’d just plunged her hand into a vat of chilled jelly.

Before it even had a chance to register in her brain that her hand had fallen into the old hag’s sliced abdomen, though, her left hand formed into claws and raked at Daryl’s watering eyes. The pain broke through the temporary paralysis that had overtaken him and he yowled as he tried to roll to the side.

Not getting away that easy, you piece of shit!

With her hips free, Mona managed to coil her legs around Daryl’s waist. She crossed her ankles and squeezed as he squirmed like a worm on the end of a hook

“How do you like that, mother fucker? What, you don’t want my legs wrapped around you anymore? You don’t want any of this?”

She ground her crotch forcefully against him as she yelled, causing him to whimper. At the same time, he seemed to remember the ice pick in his hand and he thrust it downward in an attempt to break free of her grasp. However, blood streamed from the deep furrows that Mona’s nails had carved into his face and the salty liquid trickled into his eyes. Momentarily blinded, the pick missed its mark and pinged against the concrete floor so hard that the shock waves traveled up Daryl’s arm. His hand reflexively opened and his only weapon rolled across the uneven floor as Mona squeezed her legs more tightly.

At the same time, she pulled her hand out of the old woman’s body. However, something sharp sliced through her palm before she’d even managed to free it. She’d spent so many hours cutting her arms with razor blades as a teen that Mona instantly recognized the stinging sensation for what it was: a sharpened blade.

Part of her mind couldn’t help but wonder what the hell a blade was doing inside the old bitch’s body; but this was the same part that always watched passively while the more primal portions maintained full control. Those parts of her consciousness didn’t question the improbability of the situation at all. They simply saw an opportunity presenting itself and made her grasp at the blade again.

Mona yanked at the broken knife, hoping that it would pull free of the dead flesh and provide her with a weapon. However, the cold metal was so slick with blood and gore that her hand simply slipped over it again, opening a new wound in the process.

Daryl doubled his efforts and thrashed about on the floor as he tried to pull Mona’s ankles apart from each other. Though unable to free himself entirely, he’d twisted around so that his back was now facing her and, in the hopes that he might connect with her face, threw his head backward again and again.

The wounds in Mona’s thighs and hips protested with searing waves of pain but she squeezed even more tightly and ground her teeth against one another to keep from screaming. She knew she had to do something soon: she couldn’t simply keep the man in a leg lock indefinitely. Sooner or later, pain and exertion would get the best of her and the bastard would manage to pry his way free. The blade of the knife, however, was stubborn. Time and time again, it stayed lodged within Mary’s carcass as it slashed fresh incisions into Mona’s palm.

The most recent injury had cut so deeply that her hand had balled into a fist afterward and, when it did, it had closed around something that felt almost like a coil of wrinkled, fleshy rope. Slippery, cold, and spongy to the touch, Mona’s mind instantly seized on what it was.

Still clutching the organ, Mona yanked hard. There was a moment of resistance but then, with a sound that was partly a squish and partly a slither, her hand pulled free from the old woman’s body. At the same moment, Daryl had thrown his head backward again and Mona took the opportunity to rise up just enough so that she could throw a loop of the intestine over his head. Then she pulled back with every ounce of energy she could muster.

Daryl fell on top of her and she tugged on the guts as tightly as if they were the reins of a horse she were trying to control. Passing one hand over the other, she curled the intestine around his neck again, forming a garrote of sorts.

His fingers clawed at the entrails like a man frantically trying to loosen a tie that had become so tight that it was cutting off his air. Mona, however, pulled on them so forecfully that her arms shook with exertion and his grasping fingers couldn’t even wedge themselves between his throat and his mother’s viscera.

Daryl’s heels kicked at the concrete floor and his neck truly was red now: the flesh looked as if it were swelling up around the length of intestine and his carotid artery bulged as his heart tried to force blood through the restricted passage. His face, however, was now nearly as pale as the corpse whose bowels he was being strangled with and his eyes looked as if they were about to pop from him head. Though Mona couldn’t see them, his lips flapped wordlessly: not so much as even the softest wheeze passed through them as his thrashing grew progressively weaker. Within minutes, his arms flopped to the floor and his entire body was limp and still.

Mona, however, had learned her lesson about taking chances. Despite the cramps which wracked her arms and the throbbing pain in her legs, she didn’t ease her grip on either his torso or the old woman’s intestines. She mentally counted to one hundred three times before allowing her body to relax.

She pushed Daryl’s body off her own as easily as if it were nothing more than a bag of laundry and he stared at the ceiling with unblinking eyes while Mona wriggled out from underneath him. She sat on the floor for a moment, catching her breath and wincing as her fingers probed the wounds on her leg.

For some reason, Daryl had focused entirely on the right side of her body; so, as Mona attempted to stand, she placed all of her weight on her left leg. The basement seemed to swim around her and she reached for the freezer in an attempt to steady herself. After taking several deep breaths, her eyes swept the room and finally alighted on a pair of rusted crutches that peeked out from a mound of moisture-bloated boxes. She hopped over to it slowly, afraid that if the dizziness returned she would fall and be forced to crawl.

The short trip, however, proved easier than she thought it would be. She pulled one of the crutches free and wedged it beneath her arm. The top was made of some sort of foam that had become hard and brittle with age and it almost felt like an oblong rock pressed into her armpit; but at least she was able to walk with minimal pain again.

Going up the rickety stairs would be tricky, she knew, but she hobbled to them, intent on getting the hell out of the basement and perhaps finding some bandages. Pausing at the bottom, she took one last look over her shoulder.

Daryl’s body was sprawled across the floor with Mary’s guts connecting the two like some bizarre umbilical cord. When his body went limp, his arm had had fallen in such a way that his left hand lay gently atop his dead mother’s fingertips.

“How fucking sweet…”

Mona spat on the floor and looked up at the stairs, mentally working out the best way to traverse them with her crutch. She was cold, bloody, and her body felt as if she’s just ran a marathon… but, at the same time, there was still that overwhelming rush that always accompanied a kill. It was more than just the adrenaline and endorphins pumping through her body.

It was power.

It was control.

It was everything that made life worth living….

SCENE TWENTY

Matt watched the gun bob and weave in front of him and wondered if Earl would actually be able to hit him. The large man looked as if it were taking every ounce of his willpower just to remain on his feet: his knees were buckled slightly and, even through the snow, Matt could see that there was a glassy haze to his eyes. There couldn’t be much life left in him: with the freezing temperatures, the arrow wounds scattered across his torso, and accompanying loss of blood, it could only be a matter of time before Earl collapsed. It seemed as if he barely had the strength to even hold the gun, much less pull the trigger.

Still… he’d somehow managed to dig the weapon out of the snow, haul his sorry ass through the woods, and make his way back here. Which meant that he had the heart of a survivor. A lesser man simply would have laid out there in the wilderness, closed his eyes, and allowed death to claim him. But this brute… he was something else.

In a way, Matt almost respected the man. He saw in him a lot of the same qualities that he’d recognized in Mona. You could teach a person to be a marksman; they could also learn how to stalk prey and not strike until just the right moment. If exposed to enough violence and bloodshed, the same person could even be trained not to so much as even blink as they watched the life drain out of another human’s body. But the innate hunger to persevere, to push your mind and body well beyond its limits for the achievement of a singular goal: that was something you had to be born with.

It was also what made Earl as dangerous as a hand grenade that may, or may not, have had its pin removed. Fate often had a way of watching over those with the drive for dominance. Maybe it was evolutionary or perhaps the person’s personality was simply so strong that events unfolded according to its influence. Whatever the reason, Matt had seen a time and time again. A bitch in the woods who took three shots to the head before she finally stopped stabbing Matt’s father with a broken limb. The husband in Roanoke who’d had a pistol fall right into his lap when the night stand toppled over onto his dying wife.

And these rare moments were what made it all worth it: everything else was nothing more than a passing amusement, the souls of the dead like tokens spent in the arcade of life. But times like this one, when Matt felt as if he were facing down a true contender, those were the instants when he truly felt most alive. Here in the snow, surrounded by the desolate wilderness and dilapidated farmhouse, he and Earl were like gladiators facing off in an empty coliseum. Only one would taste the blood of his enemy. Only one would emerge victorious.

“Let’s do this thing.”

With a battle cry that burst from his mouth in plumes of breath, Matt charged at his worthy opponent. He weaved through the snow, darting back and forth erratically as Earl tried to follow him with the muzzle of the gun. Closing the distance rapidly, he was ready to rip out the bearded man’s tongue out with his bare fingers if he had to. And that was when Earl squeezed the trigger.

Rather than a roar that boomed out like thunder in a snowstorm, however, there was only a soft click. Earl’s finger pulled the trigger again and again, but each time the result was the same. With a laugh, Matt stopped; still ten feet away from the other man, he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he were seeing.

“What’s the matter, big guy? Out of ammo there?”

For a moment, Matt’s eyes flittered over Earl’s shoulder and his smile broadened until it looked as if he were shooting a dental commercial in the midst of a blizzard. When he next spoke, his voice was much louder as he squatted down and picked up a handful of snow.

“Killing your mother… that was something else. A real hoot, as you’d say. You should have heard her. The screams, the crying… the way she clung to me like a frightened kid just before I tossed her ass down those stairs.”

By this time Matt had stood again and he drew back his arm like a baseball player winding up for a pitch. Hurling the snowball at Earl, he continued talking, his voice loud and rapid.

“You should’ve stayed down out there in the forest.”

Earl tried to dodge the projectile but it splatted against his face squarely and exploded in a shower of snow.

“You should have just laid out there and let the storm bury you and then things might not have turned out this way. If nothing else, you could’ve hid out there in the woods. Let us think you were dead and then come crawling back home once we were on our merry way. But, no. You had to think you were Mr, Tough Guy, didn’t you? You had to have your revenge. How’s that working out for ya, sport?”

Earl staggered forward as if barely clinging to consciousness. He’d turned the useless gun over in his hand so that he now held it by the barrel and brandished it like a club. Matt, however, seemed nonplused by the man’s stop and go aggression. He continued scooping handfuls of snow from the ground, rolling them into loose balls, and lobbing them at his attacker. And the entire time his monologue continued in its rapid fire delivery.

“Your little plaything’s dead. Your mother’s dead. Your brother’s dead. And soon, you’ll be dead, too. See, me and Mona we’ve been at this a long, long time. That I-77 killer they’ve been prattling on and on about on the radio? Yeah, that’s us. You won’t be the first family we’ve killed, not by a long shot. But I can say this: you were certainly the most interesting.”

A snowball thudded against Earl’s chest as Matt hopped from foot to foot.

“You know what your downfall was, Goliath? Your anger. I had to teach my wife how to channel hers, just like my Daddy taught me. But you? You let it blind you. You let it lead you into my little trap out there in the woods. It’s the reason you’ve got more arrows in you than a flowchart. And it’s also the reason why you’ve been listening to me prattle on and on without every realizing that this was about to happen.”

Earl never heard the whoosh of the crutch as it cut through the air. Just as he’d never heard Mona making her way through the snow as Matt’s taunts covered the sound of her progress. One moment, he was simply trying to focus on the snowball tossing asshole in front of him; and the next, pain shot through the back of his skull as a flash of brilliant light exploded in his field of vision.

He fell to his knees and wobbled there as his hands touched the back of his head and came away bloody. Before he’d even had a chance to comprehend what this might mean, however, Mona swung the crutch again. This time, it thudded against his temple and, as the world went dark, Earl Gruber fell face first into the snow.

At first, he was only aware of muffled voices that sounded as if they were originating from somewhere in the back of his head. No real words. Just a lull that rose and fell in volume. Bit by bit, the sounds began to string themselves into words; with comprehension there also came a pounding pain in the back of his head that was ten times worse than any hangover he’d ever suffered through.

“… sit him up.”

“Damn it, Mona, I’m doing my best. He’s a big fucking guy.”

His body was being jostled. He could feel his rolls of fat jiggling as he was shifted and positioned and, somehow, he knew that was no longer outside. It smelled like home here. Slightly musty, a trace of Mama’s powder lingering in the air…

His eyelids fluttered open, but there were only blobs of color where detail should be.

Was he sitting up? It felt like he was sitting up….

“Shit, sweetie, he’s coming to. Be a dear and whack him again, okay?”

His head jerked to the side as something hard and unforgiving slammed into his cheek. Darkness overtook him again and when reality next reasserted itself, it did so with pain unlike any he’d ever known.

It’d taken a lot of work, but Matt and Mona had managed to drag Earl’s unconscious body into the house. By the time they’d made it through the front door, they’d both collapsed in the foyer and lay there, panting in each other’s arms and grinning like a young couple who’d just lost their virginity. Earl had moaned once or twice, but every time the large man had seemed to be coming around, Mona would swing her crutch with a well placed shot to the temple.

Dragging his fat ass up the stairs had probably been the hardest part. It’d taken close to an hour, with frequent breaks so that Matt could pant for air while he stretched his aching back. By the time they’d made it to the little hallway at the top, Mona had knocked Earl into oblivion so many times that the crutch was bent and the side of his face was nothing more than a swollen bruise.

Now the large man was propped in a chair with his arms stretched out before him. His head lay on a tabletop and the couple stood on either side of him, smiling at one another.

“You ready to do it?” Matt asked playfully.

Mona nodded her head so quickly that she looked like one of the bobble-heads people put on the dashboards of their car.

“Yeah,” she said, “I wanna see what it’s like. See what the big deal was.”

“Okay then, sweetie. One the count of three. One….”

“I love you, Mattie.”

“I love you, too baby.”

“You said two.”

Mona’s eyes sparkled and she winked at Matt, who smiled back.

“Did not. I said too, not two.”

“Same difference.”

“Two….”

“Now you’re just repeating yourself.”

“Three!”

The couple simultaneously swung the hammers that Mona had found in the shed behind the house after they’d killed Mary. The metal hit the heads of the spikes that their other hands held in position, but the metallic ting was overpowered by the bloodcurdling scream that blasted from Earl’s wide mouth. His eyelids flew open as the sharp tips of the nails rammed through his hands but by then Matt and Mona had already swung again. The nails thudded further into the same tabletop that they’d found Darlene Honnicker impaled to and Earl tried to yank his hands away from the torture that burned within them. But it was too late: he was securely staked to the butchers block table and the action did nothing more than send bolts of agony racing along his arms.

“So,” Matt asked as he stepped back to admire their handiwork, “what do you think?”

“I don’t know…. I mean, it goes with the room and all. But it’s just not my style, you know? I’m just not into the whole shabby-chic thing.”

Matt shrugged and picked up the red can that sat by his feet.

“Yeah, I can see what you mean. It seems… I don’t know, kind of like American Gothic meets The Scream. Interesting conversation piece, for certain. But, in the end, it’s just not us.”

As he spoke, Matt walked around the room, liberally splashing gasoline on the floor and table. He walked out of the room backwards, leaving a wet trail to mark his passing and continued through the bedroom and into the hall. When the can was nearly empty, he screwed off the little spout, returned to the windowless room, and doused the rest over Earl’s flailing body. The fumes were sharp and pungent and wavered in the air like heat in the desert. Almost immediately, he and Mona began coughing as their eyes watered with tears.

“Come on, Mattie… let’s blow this joint.”

Mona slipped her arm around Matt’s shoulder and allowed him to pick her up as if she were a bride being carried across the threshold. Kissing him gently on the cheek, she glanced down at her bandaged leg and smiled.

“If I’d known I would get this type of treatment, I would’ve got myself stabbed in the leg a long time ago.”

Matt carried her down the stairs, opened the front door, and set her gently onto the porch. Turning back toward the house, he removed a disposable lighter from the pocket of his parka while his wife handed him the container they’d prepared earlier. It was an old Coca Cola bottle from a time when they’d still been made from glass, and the couple had carefully siphoned the amber liquid from the gas can into it. Then it’d been stuffed with strips of rags and left to wait on the porch for them like a faithful puppy.

Flicking the wheel of the lighter, Matt held the yellow flame to the gas-soaked rags which immediately caught ablaze. As clouds of black smoke billowed from the improvised wick, he leaned back inside the front door and stared intently at the top of the stairs. Then, with an expression of grim determination he lobbed the molotov into the house.

It arced upward and smashed into the upstairs wall. Almost immediately there was a loud whoosh and a fireball shot down the staircase like breath from a dragon. A blast of heat washed over them, but by then Mona was already leaning against Matt.

“Mind if you use me as a crutch?” he asked. “My arms are pretty damn tired.”

“What? Are you saying I’m fat? Is that what you’re saying? That I have a fat ass?”

Her tone was light and cheerful as she leaned against her husband and draped one arm over his shoulder. Curling his arm around her waist, Matt helped Mona limp across the porch and down the front steps.

“You got to understand, I hauled that giant bastard all the way…”

“Oh, so now it’s a giant bastard, is it? I may have put on a little weight, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call it giant.”

“You dork.”

“I’m your dork.”

She pecked him on the cheek again and by the time they’d made it to the police cruiser, the air was thick was the scent of burning wood. They could hear the fire roar behind them as it hungrily devoured the old wood amid sharp pops and crackles.

“We’ll need to ditch this thing first chance.” Mona commented. “I’d say the cop who owned it is probably dead.”

From behind them came a shattering of glass that was accompanied by a yell that sounded like a tortured soul roasting in the flames of Hell. The couple spun around just in time to see a shower of window shards cascading to the ground. But, in the center of them was a huge fireball that hit the earth with a dull thud. The fireball rolled into the snow and Matt raised his eyebrows.

“I’ve heard of stop, drop, and roll before… but that drop was a bit extreme.”

Earl’s body hissed as the snow extinguished the flames and revealed the charred and twisted form that had hidden beneath them. Smoke curled from skin that looked like a burnt hot dog and pieces of broken shin bone jutted through the leg. But this hairless, burn covered thing still tried to claw its way forward. The nails that were still embedded into its hands plunged into the ground like a mountain climber’s pick and, inch by inch, it drug its smoldering hulk toward the young couple.

Matt let out a low whistle as he turned to look at his wife.

“I’ll be damned… he would’ve had to have pulled those nails right out of the table. sucker just won’t stay down.”

The couple watched for a moment as Earl crept across the snow like a crispy inchworm. His lips looked as if the fatty tissue had started to bubble and boil away and they could see patches on his body where it looked almost as if the clothes and flesh had melted into one another.

Removing her arm from Matt’s shoulder, Mona hopped through the drifts of snow until she was standing just out of the thing’s reach. This close, the stench of singed hair and charred flesh was so strong that a gag got stuck in the back of her throat.

Earl opened his mouth and gurgled something that could have been words had his tongue not looked so swollen that it almost filled his entire mouth. The tip of it was missing and Mona assumed he’d inadvertently bitten it off when his body hit the ground. This, however, didn’t keep him from trying to form words that, judging from the tone of the wet rasps, would have been none too kind.

Stepping around him, she rolled her eyes and squatted over his back like a sumo wrestler preparing for battle. When she spoke, there was no anger in her voice, only exasperation.

”Just shut the fuck up and die already….”

Her hand seized Earl’s wrist and the flesh seemed to shift and slough beneath her grip. This didn’t deter her, though, from lifting his arm from the ground and driving the nail that pierced his palm directly into his throat. An arc of crimson sprayed from the wound and pattered against the snow, reminding her briefly of the cattle she’d seen on T.V. who had their necks pierced by tribal spears.

“Hey baby… I don’t know how to tell you this. But I think I killed him.”

The fire had spread through the entire upper floors of the house and plumes of black smoke billowed into the morning air. Through the raging wall of fire, the supports and framework stood out like a skeleton of cinders and the couple could hear entire sections crumbling through the rush of the flames.

“Come on, babe… won’t be long until someone sees the smoke and phones it in. And I’d prefer to be somewhere else when that happens.”

She glanced up at Matt as a wry smile crossed her face.

“You sure know how to show a girl a good time. Hell of a honeymoon, Mattie.”

Matt smiled back at his wife while Earl’s blood slowed to nothing more than a trickle.

“You think this was something? Just wait until you see what I’ve got planned for our anniversary.”