I’ve smelled blood plenty times since that wet night in May when I was fourteen.
The first time I killed a whitetail buck on the edge of the swamp behind our property. When I slipped cutting kindling with my father’s hatchet, the blade burying itself into the soft flesh just above my knee. The afternoon my son was born, the hospital disinfectant mingling in an ugly way to create a new, briny odor.
But nothing before or since has smelled like the soaked floor of Ellis Wilmer’s barn as I sat staring at the thing lying in the center of the aisle.
My gorge had risen and fallen so many times I lost count, and I managed to get to the backless chair and sit before my legs gave out. I held the lantern close, its wick extended farther than it should have been, but I didn’t care. The shadows were alive around me, capering in a way that spoke of terrible things just out of sight. My hands shook so badly that the shade continued to chatter until I was able to set the lantern down beside me in the dirt, mindful not to get it too close to the kerosene still soaking in where Ellis had dropped the other light.
The barn was quiet, all of the animals mute in their stalls. I’d expected them to be kicking the holy hell out of the walls and doors in an effort to get free, what with all the racket and stench of blood. It’s what I wanted to do. If I could’ve run from the barn and into the rain, I would’ve in a heartbeat. I would’ve kept running down Ellis’s drive and out onto County 7 and I don’t think I would’ve ever stopped. Only one thing kept me from doing just that.
My father’s orders.
He was relying on me to take care of the carcass of the thing that came out of Josha. I was done calling it a kid or even an animal. It hadn’t been. It was…something else.
The image of it standing behind my father on its hind legs buffeted me again and I turned my head away, sickened by the smell of afterbirth and gore. No. I’d imagined it surely and truly. No way I could’ve seen what I’d seen. Trick of the light paired with the adrenaline and fear of being caught in the dark. That was all, plain and simple.
Rain hammered down, a million drumbeats.
Coffee and acid burned the back of my throat.
I was going to have to pick it up and bring it outside.
That’s what he’d told me to do and I wasn’t going to fail him. Not now, not when his hands were already full trying to save Josha.
I licked my lips, still unwilling to look at the thing lying in the circle of blood. Farther down the alley of stanchions a horse’s head appeared over the side of a stall. It was a rich brown that looked almost ebony in the low light. One eye was trained on me and it snuffed, shook its head, and drew back into the safety of its pen.
There was no more stalling. I had to move and get the corpse out of the barn and then go and help my father in case he needed anything.
Just do it, Lane. Get it over with.
I knew I couldn’t touch it with my bare hands so I glanced around, looking for a shovel or pitchfork.
Both heads of the goat were upright and staring at me.
I tipped off the chair, my foot barely missing the lantern on the floor. A scream bubbled up from inside me but wouldn’t come out, my throat narrowed to a pinpoint.
The goat’s sightless eyes followed me as I floundered backward on the ground. There were matching burnt holes in its skulls where my father’s bullets had done their work. Its lips peeled back from bloodied teeth and the right head’s tongue flashed pale, out and back, as if tasting the air.
“Ssssssssssoooooooooooooooooooonnn,” the heads hissed in unison. They grinned then, horrid glee pulling the corners of the twin mouths back farther than they should’ve been able.
I choked out a moan, tears of pure terror running from the corners of my eyes. A chuckle issued from the goat’s throats, there and gone before both necks went limp and the skulls fell back to their place on the ground with soft thumps.
I shook where I lay on my ass, arms propping me up enough to keep both eyes on the thing that had spoken. No way I could tear my gaze from it now. At any moment I was sure it would leap from the floor and skip toward me, teeth bared, ready to tear chunks from me as it had its own mother.
Something grazed the top of my head and I screamed.
I flung myself to the side and looked up into the face of the horse that had observed me before. It whinnied again, lower, and I could see how much of the whites were visible of its eyes. It was as scared as I was. Why the long face? The old joke flew through my mind and I nearly brayed insane laughter.
The goat thing was still on its side when I glanced again, managing to pull myself to my feet before taking a few deep breaths. I’d wet my pants. I didn’t care. Right then I was examining my options.
Option A: I was crazier than a shithouse mouse, as my grandfather used to say.
Option B: It had really happened.
I prayed for Option A.
After waiting for nearly five minutes, I took a step forward. When nothing moved in the barn except for the animals that were alive, I approached the goat and stepped around it, hurrying to the object I’d spotted earlier leaning against the wall.
The pitchfork felt good in my hands, and I only hesitated a split second before jabbing it into the small, slender body.
It didn’t move or squirm on the end of the tines.
It was dead. It had been dead all along.
I was losing it.
I nodded. That was okay with me. Insanity at that point in time was just fine. I hoisted the carcass up and grabbed the lantern with my other hand, keeping my eyes fixed on the goat the whole time. There was no reason in taking chances.
Outside the rain fell. It hadn’t let up since we’d left our house and inch-deep puddles lay on the newly-greened grass of Ellis’s yard. I hurried around the side of the barn to where the longer grass began and the beginnings of forest ended. With a flick of my arm, careful not to accidentally whip the corpse in my own direction, I flung the slender body off the tines and into the darkness between the blades of grass.
Without waiting to see if it would come racing back out at me, I turned and fled, and I didn’t put the pitchfork down until I reached the house.
The rain stopped early the next morning.
I knew when it did because I was still lying awake in my bed, staring up at the white-washed ceiling of my bedroom. There was a rumble of thunder, the first I’d heard all night, then the patter tapered off like someone was shutting down a spigot, and it got quiet.
I preferred the sound of the rain.
Without it my mind had nothing else to focus on as the night wore through into a gray dawn that barely lit my windows. I saw the goat-thing tearing at Josha’s leg. Saw it standing on its own. Heard its hissing voice.
At one point I got up and went to the toilet, sure I was going to be sick, but nothing would come up. I knelt there, staring into my dark reflection in the bowl water, and waited for another hallucination to appear. I’d strengthened the theory of my insanity on the drive back from Ellis Wilmer’s farm.
I hadn’t spoken a word when I entered the porch where my father and Ellis were tending to Josha, and neither of them had looked up. Josha was calm under my father’s careful and steady hands, and soon the wound in her haunch was stitched tight with a disinfectant salve spread over the entire area. He’d packed his satchel, washed thoroughly in Ellis’s sink, and we’d left, but not before he’d poured Ellis a half glass of whiskey and murmured something to him while the other man sat catatonic at his kitchen table in his empty house.
The ride back had been silent save for the swish of the windshield wiper, my father stoic as a wooden Indian. I hadn’t trusted my voice to speak. What I’d seen ran on an endless loop in my mind and at no point did it falter or become hazy like a dream. I could find no flaw in it, no missing time for myself where I may’ve passed out or hit my head.
Without sleep, my imagination continued to churn up hideous and new images, like bloated bodies rising from the bottom of a disturbed riverbed. Around the time daylight cut the edge of the land, I fell into a fitful slumber and fought nightmares with perfect square teeth growing from blackened gums.
Our rooster, Doodle, woke me sometime later. It was near noon as far as I could tell, the old bird’s habit of crowing well past dawn a bane of my father’s existence. The sound brought no smile to my lips as it typically did on any other day.
When I rose, I found my school clothes had been washed and my mother had placed them on the chair beside my door. I dressed, both thankful and depressed that I’d been allowed to sleep in. Maybe the normalcy and boredom of school would’ve leveled out my troubled thoughts.
My father was at the table when I stepped into the kitchen, a newspaper open on one crossed leg. He was sipping coffee and slid a plate of eggs and bacon toward me without looking up as I sat down. The food looked as appetizing as roadkill, but I made a solid effort, downing almost all of it as to not bring attention to myself.
My father shifted on his chair and turned another page, shaking out the wrinkles. He was normally like this after a late call. He would rise nearly as early as usual, but the work he typically did around our small farm was pushed off until the afternoon so that he could recoup from the night before. Gathering my courage I wet my lips and glanced outside.
“Hanging laundry. Trying to beat the rain.”
“Think it’s going to again today.”
“Yep. Probably around four or so.”
I let a healthy gap form, then plunged forward. “Why was that kid like that last night?”
He took a last swig of coffee and set the cup down on the table before folding the paper neatly beside it. “It happens from time to time, Lane, you know that. Something goes wrong during gestation and the animal comes out malformed.”
“I know. But why did it bite Josha.”
“I don’t know. I would assume the same aberrations it underwent physically also affected its mind, made it violent. Its mother’s haunch was the first thing it saw and it simply attacked out of instinct.”
I saw the thing rising up on its hind legs behind him in the flare of the match and suppressed a shudder.
“Can animals ever make sounds that are like words?”
My father frowned. “Well, you know as well as I do they can. You’ve heard some coyote song that sounds like a man’s voice. And a cow bellowing in the distance can sometimes be confused for a shout. Why do you ask?”
I swallowed a lump of egg that wouldn’t seem to stay down. “No reason.”
“Look, I appreciate your help last night, you did well. I’ve seen strange things as a vet, and last night was up there on the list, but it’s nothing to concern yourself about. Mother nature is cruel. Every so often it eats her young.” I nodded, wishing he hadn’t said that. “Now, you go help your mother finish hanging the clothes, then you can walk into school.” He picked up a handwritten note as well as several dollars and passed it to me. “Give this to Mrs. Shawler and pick up a jug of milk, some cheese, and a pint of whiskey from Nimble’s on your way home.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, standing up. The gladness I felt at having a simple and easy errand to run must’ve shone through because my father smiled and handed me another quarter.
“And get yourself a Coke too.”
“Thanks!” I said, and couldn’t help but hug him. He seemed a little surprised since most of our affection was limited to a firm handshake or a pat on the shoulder now that I was becoming a young man, but he embraced me back nonetheless.
“Now get going,” he said, giving me a slap on my hip.
I found my mother standing out in the yard beneath the clotheslines studying a turkey buzzard that was perched in the top of a dead birch tree. When I stopped beside her she jumped and I realized she hadn’t heard me approach.
“Lord almighty! Lane David Murphy, you scared the bejesus out of me.”
“Sorry, momma. Didn’t mean to.”
“It’s all right. I guess I was lost in my own little world there. Turkey buzzard is acting awful strange. Caught my eye earlier and it hasn’t moved since.”
I looked up at the humped shape of the scavenger. Across the distance its featherless, red head was clear as day against the clouded sky. The bird’s skull looked skinned and bleeding, just like every other of its kind that I’d seen, but this one’s beaded eyes didn’t move from where we stood on the lawn.
“Shoo!” I yelled, whipping my arms over my head.
“Lane, you don’t need to scare it away.” She said the words halfheartedly and I knew she wanted it gone as much as I did. I bent over and retrieved a rock from the ground, wound up, and pitched it as hard as I could.
My aim was good back in those days since throwing rocks was a regular pastime, and the rock missed the buzzard by less than six inches. It didn’t move a muscle.
The urge to find another projectile was strong but my mother’s hand on my shoulder stopped me from moving. “Don’t, Lane. Leave it be.” She was staring at it again. “It’ll go away on its own.” She seemed to come back to herself and smiled, digging in the apron she wore. “Here. Your father gave you the grocery list I assume?”
“Good. Get me an extra pound of butter, and buy yourself and Jones a Coke,” she said, placing fifty cents in my hand. I could’ve told her my father had already given me enough for several bottles of pop, but I kept it to myself. I had a little stash of coins stowed away in a can under my bed. I was saving up for a rifle to hunt deer with that I’d seen in the Arbor hardware store on our last foray into the nearest “real” town. Mentally I calculated how much I could put away as I bade my mother goodbye and hurried down our drive to Secondary Road, the normality of the thoughts such a welcome distraction I actually whistled a tune as I jogged along, avoiding the puddles still dotting the lane.
It was a little over three miles from our drive to County 7, but I didn’t have to go quite that far to reach the schoolhouse. The white, two-story building sat a quarter mile back from the main road on the top of a small rise between Alfred Hagen’s little feed store and Missy Arnold’s trinket and clothing shop, the latter of the two being nothing more than an ancient woman’s shed filled with musty clothing and rusted baubles from before the turn of the century. Missy herself sat in her customary chair before the entrance to her “shop,” the wrinkles on her worn face beneath the red bandanna she wore over her hair clear even from the street I walked on.
“Come on in, Lane Murphy, buy somethin’ fer yer pretty mum,” Missy said as I passed by. One of her eyes followed me while the other stared sightlessly at the ground near her feet. The old woman had always given me a slight case of the creeps. My best friend, Jones Dunley, and I had joked when we were younger that she had practiced witchcraft in England before being driven out of the country to America along with her husband, who now lay in the cemetery across the road from the post office. We’d laughed at the thought of Missy stirring a bubbling cauldron in the dead of night, chanting incantations to the moon, but neither one of us wanted to admit how well the scene actually fit her.
“Sorry, not today, Mrs. Arnold.”
“Maybe a pretty for yer other pretty.”
Her words stuttered my steps and I nearly fell. “Uh…no thank you.”
“Sara May, sweet as hay, young Laney wants to play.” The old woman cackled and rolled her bad eye.
My legs worked on their own and I raced up the stoop and four steps to the school’s door, looking back once my hand was on the iron handle.
Missy was gone, her chair empty outside the doors that were slowly swinging shut on her shop. No one knew how I felt about Sara May. Not even Jones. In fact, he was the last person I wanted knowing. A chill rippled through me as Missy locked her doors loudly and I ducked inside the school.
Our schoolhouse was one room with an entry and coatroom separated by a heavy oak door. The second floor was Mrs. Shawler’s residence, the aging schoolteacher and her husband had both been born in Rath shortly after its township had been granted by the state and had never left, to anyone else’s knowledge.
I slipped in through the door and into our classroom, Mrs. Shawler’s voice ringing out as soon as I was inside.
“Lane Murphy. And what is the meaning of this interruption? I thought you either sick or dead since you missed the English test this morning. Since you apparently aren’t dead you’d better be on its doorstep or I may have a hand in putting you there.”
I couldn’t suppress a smile. Mrs. Shawler’s threats were typically colorful, always inventive, and never truly serious. For every empty admonishment she gave there were two kind words to follow. She sat at the head of the class, perched in her usual place on top of the barstool she preferred to the chair behind her elephantine desk in the corner of the room. Her hawk-like face was narrowed but I saw a gleam in one of her sharp, blue eyes.
“Sorry, ma’am. Here you go,” I said, hurrying to give her the note. When she began to read it, I scanned my classmates.
There were only two other boys besides me in town. One of course was Jones, who sat with his too-big feet stuck out from beneath his desk, one dark eyebrow hooked up in the way only he could do that said, aren’t you a sorry sight? The other was Mills Sigler, a bookish and waifishly thin boy two years my senior. If you didn’t have text written across you, Mills didn’t have time for you.
The rest of the class consisted of girls. Darlene Jacope sat at the rear of the class, the next oldest below Mills. She always had a bored look on her wide features as if she’d figured out the world already and found it wanting. Next were the Yelston twins, Alice and Avie. They were three years younger than me and always dressed identically so that you could only tell them apart by the colored ribbons their mother tied in their hair: Alice was white ribbon, Avie was yellow.
And in the front row sat Sara May in all her quiet glory.
She wore a faded brown dress that was frayed at the collar and cuffs. Her feet were tucked beneath her chair and her hands were folded over one another on her desk. And her eyes, her beautiful hazel eyes, were trained directly on me.
I felt myself wither.
I have to admit, all of the trepidation, horror, and fatigue I’d felt since the night before evaporated like a light dew beneath the sun while I looked back at her.
Love. That’s what it was. And I’ll swear it until my dying day.
I broke the eye contact that was like a solid thing, noting with elation that Sara had quirked one corner of her mouth in a smile right before I did, and glanced at Mrs. Shawler, no doubt wearing the face of a fool.
“I said you’re excused. Unless you’d like to take my place on the stool and tell the rest of the class all you know about the Magna Carta, which I’m sure would take upwards of all of five seconds.”
“Yes you’d like to tell us? Or yes you’re excused?”
“I know you’re excused you dolt. Now get from my sight before I have Mr. Shawler get the switch for me,” she said not unkindly.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, hurrying away. I mouthed, Nimble’s, at Jones quickly, not sure if he’d caught it, and threw one last look at Sara May.
She was still smiling at me.
The happiness followed me out the school doors and nearly a hundred yards before the wind came up and cut its way through the trees surrounding Hagen’s feed store. The sound of the breeze became the two-headed goat’s voice and the bright feeling of having Sara smile at me drained away.
I ducked my head low into my coat, the wind cold for May, and walked as fast as I could out to 7 and then to the low shape of Nimble’s. Several chickens pecked at the ground before the general store and they barely moved aside as I strode through their number.
The covered porch was empty, a few rocking chairs swaying slightly with the wind. The sight disturbed me and I pushed through the door quickly, leaving the gray skies outside.
Nimble’s was roughly twice the size of our house, the floor plan open save for a slight alcove in its south end that held the woodstove and sitting area that now housed three old-timers, crouched forward, heads nearly together in discussion. The air smelled of chocolate, grain, and drying wood that lay in two large stacks near the rear of the store. Behind the long desk that served as a counter sat the store’s proprietor, Arthur Nimble.
He was a tall man, almost as tall as my father but thicker through the chest and arms. He wore a silver, handlebar mustache and had a ruddy complexion of a man who worked outside or partook in regular drink. Rumor had it that when prohibition had been enacted, Arthur and two of his brothers had run a still somewhere east of Rath and that Nimble’s had been the only place within a hundred miles where you could get a drink. Of course rumor also said that Arthur’s youngest brother had gotten killed in a shootout with the deputy sheriff from Arbor, which I was almost sure was untrue.
“Lane Murphy. How you be this shitty afternoon?” Arthur said, swiping a wet cloth across his already spotless desk.
“Fine, sir. How are you?”
“Stronger every day, my boy. What can I get you?”
“I’ll need milk, butter, whiskey, and cheese.”
“Aren’t you a little young for the firewater?” It was an old joke that Nimble never got tired of.
“I’ll leave some for my dad.”
“You’d be wanting a Coke, I’d wager.”
Nimble’s mustache rose in a wave and he pulled a frosted bottle of Coke from the cooler behind the desk. I pushed across the dime my mother had given me. “Keep it all. Jones’ll be in in a little while. I’ll pay for his.”
“As you wish, Master Lane,” Nimble said.
I took my Coke down through the store, stopping short of where the old men sat talking. Chinks in the woodstove glowed with a low fire, and their arthritic hands were held out toward its warmth. Two of them were the Hudson brothers, Ernie and Daryl. The other was Vincent King, the brothers’ senior by more than ten years. King stooped the lowest and held his hands the closest to the hot steel. They hadn’t noticed me yet and I stood there, holding my pop, listening.
“No sense. Never heard of it before,” King was saying. “Newborn like that takin’ a chunk out of its own mother? Never.”
“Member that batch of garter snakes we found in the spring of aught five? That mother was eaten her young plain as day,” Ernie said, cocking his head.
“Ain’t the same and you know it,” King said. “Young get eaten. They don’t do the eaten. Ain’t natural.”
“Whatcha looking at, boy?”
It had been Daryl Hudson that spoke, noticing me lingering near the wall of the alcove. His fleshy, hooded eyes, bloodshot and rimmed yellow, stared with a bit of anger. I had never seen the man smile. He had always been grouchy and irritable, which only increased tenfold when his son-in-law, who had been a banker in New York City, took a twelve-story high dive into the street on black Tuesday. Rumor held sway that Hudson’s daughter and grandchild had disappeared with a Spanish handyman shortly thereafter. I always thought this was insult added to injury since Daryl was biggest bigot I knew.
“Nothing,” I managed, trying a timid smile.
“Move along then if nothin’s what you’re lookin’ at.”
I skirted the alcove and found another small grouping of chairs at the far end of the store near the southernmost window. The old men watched my progress until they were sure I couldn’t hear them anymore before they resumed their conversation.
They knew about the abomination. Word had traveled fast. Fast even for Rath. Ellis must have been in this morning and told someone. Maybe Nimble who passed the information on. Information was almost as good as currency in those dark days. Stories and gossip were sometimes the only thing that kept people from taking the route Daryl Hudson’s son-in-law had opted for.
I sipped my pop. It was cold and so sweet it made my tongue tingle. The beverage helped settle my stomach some and I looked out the window. The clouds had darkened more since I’d left home and a slight wind tipped the tops of the budding trees. It looked like my father would be right about the coming rain. A man riding a wagon pulled by a horse rolled by on 7.
I tried unsuccessfully to keep my mind on the here and now. The taste of the Coke. The smell of wood smoke and vanilla. But the low murmur of the old men kept knocking aside more pleasant thoughts.
Something was happening. And whether it was happening solely in my head or in reality was unclear. I could feel it pressing down like a giant palm from above, inevitably coming lower with a crushing weight of doom.
When a hand touched my shoulder, I jumped, slopping a little of my Coke onto my pants.
“Calm down, jackrabbit,” Jones said, dropping into a seat beside me. He had a pop in his hand and he tipped it at me before taking a drink. “Cheers, and thanks for buyin’.”
“What’s on your mind, truant? You look like complete hell.”
“You’re pale. But I guess that’s to be expected from a dirty mick such as yourself.”
I smiled. Jones. Always able to bring up my mood no matter what. I slugged him in the thigh and he grinned. “Just tired.” I lied.
“Up late with your pa again?”
“Wish my pa kept me out all night so I didn’t have to go to school.”
“No you don’t.”
“Sure do. Know what I have to look forward to when I get home?” I did but I shook my head. “Shit,” Jones said, taking another long drink of pop. “Shoveling shit, hauling shit, spreading shit. You could almost say I’m a connoisseur of shit. I can tell you, blindfolded, how fresh a cow pie is just by smelling it and what cow it came from.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Maybe there’s a career there for you in the future.”
“Shit smeller? Yeah, it’s called farming.”
Jones joked when something bothered him. It was his way. His parents weren’t well-off even by Rath’s standards. His father raised beef cattle as well as turnips. Jones had stated before he didn’t know what he hated more, the smell of cow shit as he shoveled out the barn or how his house smelled when his mother boiled turnips, which she did several nights a week for dinner.
We fell into a comfortable silence and gazed out the window. My spirits had raised a little bit just by Jones being nearby. I considered telling him about the goat-thing and quickly dismissed the idea. Not because Jones wouldn’t believe me, I thought he would, it was the thought that speaking what I’d seen out loud would make it more real. And right then I wanted it to be a hallucination more than anything in the world. I was about to ask Jones if he wanted to come by for supper that evening to get him out of eating mashed turnips again when I spotted movement over his shoulder at the front of the store.
Sara May Tandy had just walked in and was looking directly at me.
My heart stuttered.
I’d only run into her in Nimble’s a handful of times over the years. Nearly always they were awkward encounters with both of our parents in close proximity, our eyes brushing then darting away, maybe a quick ‘hello’ said that was barely audible.
Now as she walked toward us, brown dress swirling at her ankles, her steps seeming to make her glide, a new terror overcame me. Jones saw my reaction and threw a glance over his shoulder.
“Watch out, Lane, she’s gunnin’ for you.”
“Shut up.” And that was all I had time to say because then she was there beside us.
“Hi, Lane. Hi, Jones.”
“Hi,” I said too loudly.
“Afternoon, Miss Tandy,” Jones said, tipping an invisible cap.
She smiled. “You weren’t in school today,” Sara said to me.
“No, I…ah, was helping my dad late.”
She nodded. “I assumed.”
“You know what assuming does,” Jones said, eyes alight. I scowled and shook my head.
“It makes an ass out of you,” Sara said, shocking us both. Jones looked stunned for a second then crowed laughter and I joined in. Sara tipped her head prettily and I’d never been more in love with her than at that moment.
“Quick one she is,” Jones said.
“What can we do for you?” I asked, immediately regretting it. What can we do for you? Are we private dicks and she’s a helpless client come to ask for our services? Damnit.
“Well, my father asked me to talk to the both of you. He’s expanding our barley field this summer and he’s already cleared about three acres himself. He’d like to hire you to come pick rocks and pull stumps if it suits you.”
An invitation to Sara May’s house? Working within sight of her home with the chance of her bringing us a cold pitcher of water in the field?
“Yes,” I said so quickly Jones’s head snapped around and it was his turn to scowl at me. “I’d be happy to.” She smiled.
“I’ll have to check with my pa,” Jones said, still giving me a scathing look. “It’s our busy time too, cleanin’ out the barns and outbuildings from winter.”
“I understand. He said he’d pay fifty cents to each of you for every afternoon you worked.”
Jones spit a little soda out. He coughed. “Fifty cents? I’m in.”
“Me too,” I said, slapping my forehead mentally at having agreed for a second time.
“Great,” she said, shifting her shoulders back and forth. “Can I tell him you’ll come tomorrow if it’s not raining?”
“Absolutely,” I said. We traded smiles again and she licked her lips before motioning toward the door.
“Well, I’ll get going now. See you in the morning.”
“See you then,” I said. She did a little wave and spun away, her dark hair lifting from the back of her neck. There was something there on her fair skin, something dark and blotchy, but I couldn’t make it out before her hair shifted again. Then she was walking away, calm and serene as a summer day.
When she had left the store and I was still staring after her, Jones spoke. “You’re a fuckin’ moron, you know that?”
“Was it that bad?”
“No, considering that’s the most I think I’ve ever seen the two of you talk.”
“No. You sounded like a shithead.”
“I mean that in the best possible way.”
“You like her, don’t you?”
“What? Well…she’s nice and all, I just…”
“Can it. Anyways, fifty cents an afternoon! Pa won’t even bat an eye at letting me work for Tandy.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty generous.” We both knew the Tandy’s were one of the better off families in the area. Sara May’s father owned the second most acreage in the county and had had a bumper crop the year before. I wasn’t surprised he was clearing more land.
A low rumbling of thunder rolled across the sky and I saw the old-timers glance out the window just as Jones and I did. The clouds were darker, lower.
“I better get going,” I said, finishing my Coke and standing.
“Me too,” Jones said. “Shit waits for no man. Wait, maybe it does.”
We walked to the front of the store and I paid for the groceries Nimble had gathered while we’d drank our pop. We bade the storeowner goodbye and stepped outside.
The air had become heavier without warming. It was like walking through a clammy soup, the air dancing with the possibility of lightning. The puddles on Secondary reflected the dark sky and I found myself dreading the point where Jones would turn left onto his own drive and leave me to walk the two miles home alone. When his driveway appeared, he slapped me on the shoulder and started to jog away.
“Thanks for the Coke. And don’t worry, Sara only thinks you’re half a horse’s ass,” he called over his shoulder.
“Yeah, and you’re the other half!” He made an obscene gesture with his hand and then he was gone around the slight turn in the drive and I was alone.
I hurried on, walking as fast as I could without jostling the contents of the paper bag. More thunder rumbled, the sound like a rockslide falling through the clouds. The occasional drop of rain fell onto my shoulder and head, its cold touch making me move faster. The milk sloshed in the bag and clanked against the whiskey bottle. There was something driving me to get home faster besides the threat of getting soaked. It felt like the night before Danny passed away—an impending threat unspoken but heard nonetheless.
Another half mile and I’d be on my own driveway.
I concentrated on my steps, counting them without meaning to as I slipped around the puddles that were beginning to dance with raindrops.
Our mailbox appeared ahead and relief bloomed within me. Another few minutes and I’d be within sight of the house. Maybe I could help my mother take down the laundry if she hadn’t done so already. And if the turkey buzzard was still there, I’d ask my father if I could take a poke at it with his rifle.
Something splashed behind me.
It sounded like a footstep coming down in the center of a puddle and I spun, nearly losing my balance.
The road was empty, its straight stretch unmarred by any shapes of animals or people. The lonely fields to either side were calm beneath the tentative rain.
I waited a beat before turning back toward our drive, not running yet but no longer walking either.
Another splash. Louder this time.
I turned, caught movement out of the corner of my eye forty yards away. When I looked there was nothing there. My bowels were a painful constriction as I blinked against the rain that was falling steadier now.
Something was stalking me. Something I couldn’t see or that was too fast to catch sight of. The image of the two-headed goat emerged in my mind, its horrible shape zipping onto and off the road on its cloven hind legs.
I sidled down the road, keeping my gaze back the way I’d come. My foot dropped into a puddle, soaking my shoe through to the skin.
A hundred yards to the mailbox.
A dozen paces behind me something dark crawled from a big puddle in the center of the road.
I froze, the grocery bag soaked and soggy in my arms, contents jangling as I shook. The thing was without true shape or definition. It was both there and not there, flickering like a shadow in a lightning storm. One second I thought I could make out long, slender arms tipped with too many fingers, the next it was gone. Then a narrow head with two blank spaces that stared like eyes. A leg, bending, the form insubstantial then boldly there, rising to stand on feet that reminded me of a frog’s.
The thing stuttered in and out of reality, smoke from a campfire drifting toward me, the shine of teeth as it suddenly smiled.
My legs wobbled but pumped like adrenaline pistons, thrusting me forward. Our mailbox, cold tin with our name on the side flashing by. Feet churning up wet dirt as I took the corner without pausing.
Puddles splashed behind me.
My heart smashed itself against the inside of my chest and my mind tried to reckon what was happening, but there was no explanation. It was simply time to run, run away from the shadow-thing that had crawled out of a puddle on Secondary Road and was chasing me, its webbed feet flopping wetly on the ground not far behind.
I sped up as something grazed my back. A cry flew from my chest, high-pitched, a sound I would’ve been ashamed of making any other time.
“Getcha. Getchagetchagetcha,” a slithering voice said right behind me.
My bowels nearly released then. It was talking to me, taunting me. Another touch on my shoulder, soft and strong all at once.
I screamed again. This time for my father as lightning arced in a forked line toward our house that I couldn’t quite see yet.
My lungs burned and the falling rain tried to choke me.
Something slapped my foot and I stumbled, regaining my balance but dropping the grocery bag.
It was trying to trip me. Knock me down so it could land on me and bite me. Bite me with its shining teeth.
I screamed again, louder this time. A strangled cry came from right behind me, mocking me.
“Eatcha up. Eatchaupeatchaup,” the voice chanted.
My house came into sight around the last bend, the short distance across our yard never seeming so long. But in the next instant I saw the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes upon.
My father was standing on our porch, his double barrel twelve gauge tight against his shoulder.
I knew what to do even before he yelled.
I flung myself to the side and down, diving like a swimmer into a deep pool.
Both shotgun barrels boomed at once and the hot passage of lead swarmed the air above my back.
My momentum tossed me over onto my side. Immediately I scrambled backward, knowing the shadow-thing would be there, all shining teeth and despair.
The yard was empty.
Rain fell on the gravel, dropped through the budding trees.
And the storm continued its roiling overhead.