Cry, "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar III.i.270
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
The Revelation of St. John the Divine, 6:17
If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind, would he not have done so by now?
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
One bright and sunny Tuesday morning in September, two woodland elves were giggling mischievously beneath the deck of Peter King’s cabin in the mountains of the West Virginia Panhandle. Their happy laughter echoed from tree to tree down the woody slope from the cabin almost as though the merriment was coming from within a secret chamber inside a hollow trunk.
Peter leaned over the railing and called down to them. “Come on, you two. I’m driving over to Pleasant Valley. Now’s the time if you want to ride along. We can stop at Hooterville Station.”
They tilted their heads and smiled mischievously up at him. Morning sun highlighted wisps of their sun-streaked hair. His daughter Laurel wore a perfectly shaped pageboy that framed her dimpled pink cheeks just so. Peter found the little half moons irresistible: two petite flaws in an otherwise unblemished gem. By contrast, Katie’s hair had never been cut. Even braided it reached the middle of her back.
Holding hands and singing a song in their own secret language, they scampered up to his car. Unlikely best friends from opposite sides of town.
Peter turned away from the railing and squatted beside Swanie. “I’m taking the girls with me over to the dumpster. I’ll pick up some things on the way back.”
Cross-legged on the deck with her guitar in her lap and her music spread before her, she paused in mid-chord in acknowledgement, then continued. Peter’s mind strayed back to those fleeting moments in her apartment earlier this morning. Might they be repeated somehow? He encircled her in his arms and cupped her beasts, pressing himself against her.
She shifted a shoulder to discourage him and continued playing. So much for that. Her meter had expired. She’d parked one passion and started another, the music that would fill her day.
He made his goodbyes, unacknowledged, gathered up the trash bags and stuffed them into the trunk of his TR.
As he was closing it, a flash of liver spots and white ticking shot around the side of the cabin. Panting, slobbering and not to be left behind, a slender German Short-Haired Pointer closed the distance in an instant and flung herself onto him, smearing dirt all over his jeans. Peter held her at bay with a hand gently on her neck. “Fetchin Gretchen,” he said to his exuberant dog. “I wondered where you were.”
Sensing she was about to be left behind, she ducked his hand and jumped on him again with two insistent paws, yipping with indignation. “You can’t go, baby. You remember what happened the last time I let you come along. You wouldn’t want that to happen again, would you?”
She was a temperamental hunting dog who had never been shot over and spent her cabin time running the property nose to ground. She had a rarefied concept of obedience. Basically, she did what she wanted. At Pleasant Valley she almost got herself shot by a trigger-happy security guard.
“We’ll be back soon,” he soothed. “Go up on the deck with Swanie while we’re gone.”
Peter got in and closed his door. Gretchen shot around to the other side and vaulted into the car on top of Laurel and Katie, smushed together in the passenger seat. From there she climbed onto the deck behind the two seats and gave Peter’s ear a few reassuring licks. Sure thing, boss.
Peter shrugged and started the car. The four drove up the shrouded entrance lane and out onto a sunny two lane blacktop that would take them over Sleepy Mountain to Pleasant Valley.
Several miles away on that same sunny mountain road, though driving in the opposite direction, Frannie King was musing about her day. She had just dropped off Laurel at the cabin with her father and was looking forward to a little mommy time. She had every reason to be as bright and cheerful as the brilliant morning.
The land was redolent with late summer warmth beneath a blue and cloudless sky. A light breeze stirred the foliage into an overture for a glorious day off, all untroubled and carefree. Until, that is, she spotted a ragged old mountain dog sitting in the middle of the road ahead.
It was rooted to the macadam calmly watching her approach giving no sign of moving. Quite the opposite. She slowed and offered a few quick beeps to prompt it aside. The plastic warning belonged better on her daughter’s new two-wheeler. The dog didn’t move. Who would for that piddling noise?
Teep, teep a few more times. The dog seemed to be playing chicken with her. To keep from hitting the scruffy thing, she swung through the turnout at the Johnsontown General Store, past the dog and eased back onto the road.
She checked the rearview mirror and watched it turn around and glare at her. Her attention shifted to the store. All the lights were off. It was as dark as a tomb. No one was moving in the usually busy place. Strangest of all, the front door was ajar, opened a wee bit almost like something was blocking it. The store on down the road, Earl’s Pizza and Pellets, Pies and Stoves, looked lifeless too, if such a thing was possible for a place that sold breakfast pizzas.
On the hill across the road, the Christ Tabernacle, World Church of God the Creator, Independent and Fundamental was doing a booming business. Cars filled its parking lot. The roadside message board read The Fire Next Time. Be not Deceived; God is not Mocked: For Whatever a Man Soweth, that Shall He also Reap – Galatians 6:7.
Maybe everyone is in church, Frannie thought, returning to her rearview mirror. On a Tuesday morning? Even in West-by-God-Virginia that’s a tad strange.
The road behind her was now empty. The dog had slipped away. This part of route 901 was never this way, not with all the cabin owners flooding the panhandle. She slowed to a crawl and turned in her seat to be sure. Bleak like the middle of the night. Up on the hill no people in sight despite the multitude of church cars.
A muddy yellowish form vaulted onto her hood.
Ruffled, of indefinable shape, it skittered, claws digging at the Sentra’s high polish before its momentum carried it across the slick surface and off. What in the world? No way she hit that dog. Spotting scratch marks on the paint, Frannie pulled over and slammed it into park. The car rocked to a stop.
Her heart sank. She got out to inspect the damage. Her new car. It was part of her settlement with her ex-husband and she fused over it like a second child. It was bad enough Laurel left her chewing gum stuck to the seat. But, this. Darn people anyway for not taking care of their pets.
Hopelessly running her fingers across the paint, she traced twin chalky marks. The parallel scimitars angled off the opposite side and offered no resistance to the touch. No gouge no ripple, they seemed little more than thin white smudges. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. She pushed at one. The line disappeared no problem. The damage was superficial. It wasn’t even damage, really. At home she could take a shamie to them and be done with it.
She gave the hood a final once over and sighed with relief. “You treat this car better than you ever treated me,” Peter, her ex, liked to chide her. Frannie sniffed at the thought. This was her first new car and she was determined to take care of it. The luxurious banana and leather scent was as strong as the day she drove it off the lot. Peter claimed the distinctive fragrance smelled like a young girl’s private parts, which, he liked to chide her, explained why guys had such a thing about cars.
Let him tease me all he wants. It’s about time I tell him what I think about this so-called relationship his private parts have gotten him into. This Swanie even goes out at night and leaves him home – his home with her daughter. Like he was a babysitter. He says he doesn’t mind, but I know better. He’s too nice to say anything. Yes, it’s true. He is nice. And he just wants to have a girlfriend, that’s true, too. Well, he isn’t the only one who’s lonely.
They had both been at loose ends since the divorce. Longing is the unfortunate by-product of a failed marriage. The added price you pay. Still, it had been for the best. She and Peter were continuously at angles and they couldn’t find a way to smooth them out. Against everyone’s advice they split up to protect Laurel from their bickering. Sometimes she wondered if they’d done the right thing after all.
Back in the car, she checked her mirrors. Maybe the poor dog was lying half dead in that ditch across the road. Craning her neck, she decided she really needed to make sure. That meant getting back out. God, anyone watching would think I’m crazy.
She released her seatbelt and put a tentative foot out to test the water. Not too hot, not too cold. Holding her breath, she eased herself from her seat and crossed the road to the culvert. Its depth surprised her. But other than a few spent cans and six-pack rings and some withered ditch lilies, it was empty. The dog must have jumped it and scampered away.
Shaking her head at the strangeness of it all, she turned back to her car.
The dog was directly behind her. She stopped cold. Her heart stalled. Her breath caught. The world zoomed in on her. The dog was a dirty mixture of shepherd, collie and who knows what else. And it was blocking her path
They stared at each other. It was on the small side and made no move towards her. Frannie averted her gaze and forced herself to take several deep breaths. Stay calm, don’t show fear, she told herself.
She lifted her head towards the car. The door was partially open. All she had to do was get past the dog, dash across and jump in. Sounded easy enough. Now, just do it.
Careful not to lock eyes with it, she took a slow step sideways. Growls came from deep in its throat, emitting a low but unmistakable threat.
She shuffled another step to the side. The rumbling gained volume, falling when she stopped. The dog moved only its head. It reminded her oddly of the old RCA dog focusing on the gramophone. Which gave her an idea.
“Stay,” she said in a commanding voice. She fought to suppress the quavering that wanted to claim her composure. “STAY.”
The growling stopped. The dog regarded its master’s voice curiously.
No use waiting to see if her order would stick. The open door was maybe twenty feet away. It would be like swimming for shallow water. Pull away!
Run! Frannie broke for her car.
Letting out a gasp that ended in a moan, she tore across the road expecting to feel hot teeth sink into her thigh or the weight of the beast landing on her back. Oh, God, please don’t let it bite me.
A few more steps.
She ripped the door wide to throw herself in.
Another dog was inside. It was a good bit larger and was curled up on the seat like it was napping.
Its ears went flat. It raised its head and bared its fangs.
Frannie pulled back just as the first dog caught up to her. The timing was entirely fortuitous. As she flinched aside from the second dog, the first missed her, hit the door and rammed it shut. For the briefest instant the two snarling dogs faced each other through the glass. It might have been funny — but not now, not under these circumstances.
Moving with spastic frenzy, she half-fell, half-ran around the front of the car, praying to high heaven the passenger door was unlocked. She grabbed the latch and flung open the door, shocking herself at what she next did.
“Get out of my car!” she screamed at the top of her voice.
The dog rose, crossed the seat, and eased out peaceably like an obedient pet. Frannie slipped in and slammed the door just as the pursuing dog ticked past her ankle. She slid across the seat behind the wheel, started the car and patched out of the gravelly shoulder.
Motion at her side. Another thump and dark fur at the window. Her hands flew off the wheel defensively. Her foot came off the gas. The dog glanced off, picked itself up and charged again.
Now a duller thud on the passenger side. Behind her the first dog rose off the road surface like a black shadow and vaulted onto the trunk, scrabbling up the rear window.
At least Laurel is safe and not seeing this. She’d start having nightmares all over again. The thought of her daughter gave her an added pang of fear. She was probably playing in the woods with Katie just now. Katie was her friend. She was a sweet little girl, neglected by her mom – her mom who just happened to be Peter’s girlfriend.
Another dog smacked up onto the hood. They were coming at her from all sides, attacking with mindless hostility.
Canine teeth infested with plaque and crud chewed at the glass trying to break through to get at her. One clear eye held her with such neural determination it might as well have been a shark attack.
She floored it and sent the dogs careering onto the macadam. She swung the car into an arc back the way she came, pushed it up to sixty-five and left the dogs behind. She hoped – despite it all – she hadn’t run over any of them. Not that she intended to slow down to see.
All she could think of was warning Peter about these dogs. Their daughter might be in danger. Mommy time could wait.
Sleepy Mountain’s thickly-wooded middle ridge separated Peter’s cabin from Pleasant Valley. The verdant slice of countryside looked from the air like a travel poster. The sheltered road over Sleepy Mountain wound away so sharply that every turn looked ready to dwindle into an animal trail. Every cut back promised an adventure. All part of the off-road allure for busy seedy folk.
From the ground, it depended upon what day it was. The word was out.
Pleasant didn’t describe the valley any more than sleepy described the mountain. Vacation Valley and Caffeine Mountain was more like it. With the Delaware and Maryland seashores over-priced and out of reach, beehive prosperity swarmed the part of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. Weekenders galore, hikers walking anywhere they pleased, bikers in their colorful columns and shrill whistles and golfers straggling in for early tee times, this was the only part of West Virginia in the black. The rest of the state hovered perpetually near economic despair.
Near to the Interstate 81 Coolfont and the Woods resorts offered cabins and vacation homes at a fifth of the cost of the coastal resorts. Pleasant Valley Retreat pushed past the third ridge well over an hour deeper into the interior and was accessible only by a bendy two-lane blacktop.
Gretchen’s paws hung over Peter’s shoulder from her perch on the deck behind his head. Her head was up sniffing. They had passed the remains of a small abandoned apple orchard, the squat fruit trees engulfed in new growth pines and spindly young hickory, when the girls cried out at a group of men huddled at the side of the road ahead.
“Look!” They pointed through the windshield at them.
They were knotted in front of the solitary Little Georgetown Presbyterian Church conversing in close quarters, possibly shielding something from view. Peter recognized the tall one. He was a security guard over at Pleasant Valley. As he quickly saw all of them were. The resort jeep was parked up beside the old church partially obscured by the trees. Around the old, dark brick place of worship stood a solemn tangled vestry of forest.
“Wonder what happened?” Peter said. “I don’t see an accident.”
He slowed and leaned his head out. “Excuse me. Has there been an accident? Is there anything we can do? Is anyone hurt?”
Dressed in khaki work clothes, the men were bunched together and didn’t notice him at first. He placed a gentle hand on his daughter’s knee.
“Can we help you?” he called one more time. He checked his cell phone in the unlikely case they didn’t have one. Searching for service. He turned it off. Useless. “I could make a call for you once we get over the mountain?”
This time they reacted to his voice. Their eyes were hot and wet, giving off the sort of glower Peter associated with drugs. They drew a collective bead on the car. One of the men started across the road. His dead demeanor indicated something was up.
He raised an arm and swept it across his chest, as though to sweep them from the road. “Move on, move along,” he commanded angrily. “Git on outta here.” With each step his face seemed to contort with increasingly officious hostility at their intrusion.
Peter was not the type to make trouble. He also wasn’t the type to take orders without rhyme or reason. Not on a public road so early in the morning. So, he stopped completely. The engine rumbled. He repeated his offer of help.
The security guard broke into a run and launched himself at them. His boot glanced off the door, leaving heel marks. “Hey!” Peter exclaimed in disbelief. “You just kicked my car? What’s wrong with you?”
Peter drove a 1976 TR7 with aluminum block V-8 and various other unnecessary accoutrements that he wasted his time and money on. Painted British racing green with a beige racing strip down the middle, it did not look shabby. No denying the folly of squandering cash on British Leland junk, but that didn’t give the guy the right to shine his shoes on it.
“Drive outta here,” the guard snarled. He kicked again without fully regaining his equilibrium. He lost his balance and went down hard on his can.
Gretchen started growling. She strained past Peter to get out. Peter grabbed her with both hands and shoved her back. This was the guard who had taken a shot at her.
Other guards fanned out around the car.
Peter made a show of putting his hand on the gearshift. Glanced at the girls wide-eyed beside him. “Frannie will kill me,” he muttered aloud.
The man picked himself up, walked up to the window and grabbed for Peter’s hair. His hands flew around his head like he was trying for a balloon floating just out of reach.
From behind the headrest Gretchen shot forward and sank her teeth into the security guard’s hand.
Peter gunned it, popped the clutch and powered away, tires squealing under the sudden torque. The guard wrenched his hand clear banging Peter’s head against the doorpost.
“Are you all right?” Peter said to Laurel. He leaned forward to get a fuller view of Katie. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Can we sit out the window?” A gapped-tooth grin spread across her face.
Rubbing his head, he strained around to check out the security men. They were in the middle of the road, jostling one another around the bitten guard like they were participating in some sort of new wave barn dance. Off to the side of the road lay a thoroughly trashed animal carcass.
“You can slow down now, daddy,” Laurel said to him, patting his mussed hair into place with her small hand. “We’re safe now.”
Laughing nervously Peter opened the TR’s cut out, double clutched and shot the turns like sixty. Very weird.
Partway up the mountain, he spotted a red flash of deer. He took it out of gear and drifted up beside a coal-eyed doe. Watching them with twitchy stillness, she moved aside to reveal her trusting fawn probing the underbrush for greens.
Katie, always rambunctious, climbed across Laurel onto Peter’s lap. “Careful, or you’ll frighten them away.”
Katie snuggled against him. She watched the deer and looked up at Peter with a big smile. She was far more insistent upon his affection than his own daughter. Peter attributed it to the absence of a father. Laurel was demure in her pageboy and quiet as a pixy. Peter attributed that to the absence of a father as well. He circled his arm and brought her closer.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked them after the deer moved away.
“Those men were mean.”
“No, I meant the deer.”
“The deer was cool,” Laurel said obediently.
“But those men were mean,” Katie added.
“I’m sorry you had to see it. Sometimes even grown-ups misbehave.”
“That’s okay, daddy,” Laurel said, “It’s not your fault.”
Just over the crest the road opened onto Pleasant Valley Retreat like a stagehand pulled back the last curtain of vegetation onto a massive amphitheater. Past the oxford brown, rustic wooden Welcome sign, new structures perfumed the air with cut pine. Raw earth of new ski trails stood out in relief against the green hills. Gray lift supports and their strand-like guy wires looked taught enough to make music. All the idyllic props were in place waiting for the play to commence. Only the actors were missing. Even for September the place looked empty.
He moved out of the cover and down into the valley. A plain gray car parked in front of the office was the only car in the normally busy parking lot. Peter drove on past to the dumpster behind the recreation center and got out to deposit the trash.
As he tossed the first bag over, an Indian red Mercedes came streaking out of a side road at such a high rate of speed it spun sideways on the peanut stone before hauling to a stop beside them. The driver rolled down the window. Peter peered in to see what was so pressing.
“Do you own a cabin here?” The man behind the wheel was Ray Grove, one of the developers. His face was shaded. The radio was on, something about an attack or a shooting somewhere. He was listening and seemed reluctant to turn away.
Another school shooting, Peter surmised, thankful the girls were off school for the day and had the cabin as an escape from the madness. Leaning closer he saw that Grove was agitated. “Ray, I’m Peter King. We bought the Mulherin cabin a few years ago. Remember? We just ran across some of your security guards on the other side of the mountain. They were acting pretty strange. One of them actually kicked my car.”
Ray Grove wasn’t interested in discussion or courtesy. He cut Peter off. “Do you own a cabin here?”
“No, but we’re resort members. As if you didn’t already know that.”
“You can’t use the dumpster.”
“Can’t use the dumpster? What do you mean? Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
Apparently not. Grove’s scowl grew more focused.
“One of your security guards put a boot against my car. Look there. You can see the marks.”
Ray Grove struck Peter as a good-natured schlep, an ex-cabbie who once had a good idea. He found a partner to help him develop a neglected apple orchard in deep West Virginia. They built the first cabins themselves until they could afford a contractor. Comfortably wealthy now he was content to amble around the place, T-shirt stretched over his stomach, generally making everyone feel at home. But, here he was seething.
“Get the hell out of here.”
Peter turned to check on his daughter. Both girls were perched at his window taking it all in. Gretchen beside them sniffing. Her ears flat against her head. He turned back to Ray Grove hoping to dampen this. “We own a cabin over the mountain. You and Bob sold it to us. We belong to the resort club as well. We use the rec center all the time. And the dumpster.”
Ray Grove turned off the car and got out, standing up under Peter’s nose. “That doesn’t matter. You can’t use the dumpster.” He was about fifty, half a foot shorter than Peter and in fairly good condition for a man with a pot gut. He ran the Boston Marathon every year and managed to finish without taking the bus. He had mentioned it to Peter with considerable pride on several occasions. Even though he didn’t seem to know who Peter was. “Do you want me to call security?” His voice curled into a snarl.
“That’s what I was about to tell you –”
Peter was interrupted by Gretchen growling behind him. He turned to see her making ready to jump out to protect her master. Or maybe she just didn’t like Grove. He reached back and smoothed her muzzle to calm her and pushed her back onto the deck. Peter told Laurel roll the window up part way.
“Where’d that dog come from?” Ray Grove surprised him with the question. “Looks like it’s been running through the woods.”
“She’s mine, Ray.”
Watching her warily, as though he expected Peter’s dog to crash through at him, Grove hesitated then blinked back his fear and re-focused on Peter. “It’s dirty and wild-looking.”
“Well, she’s runs the woods on our property. Like she has been for years. What’s with you anyway? You a member of PETA all of a sudden?”
“We don’t allow dogs running on resort property. Now if you don’t leave I’m calling security and have you escorted off.”
“The dog’s in the car. And I was trying to tell you had you bothered to listen that I just ran into your so-called security guards up on the mountain. Did you know they had strayed so far from the reservation?”
“That’s none of your business. They work for me, not you. Now take your garbage and go. And take your dog with you.”
Peter checked Laurel and Katie again. Their bright curiosity had faded. They looked at him apprehensively, twin kilroys, with Gretchen’s nose as the left hand, observing grown men dissing each other like adolescents.
“We’ve been using this dumpster ever since we bought our cabin. That’s more than five years ago. Ask your partner … You know what? I’ll ask your partner. I don’t know what’s gotten into your crawl. But I sire as the devil don’t have to listen to it.”
Grove moved around Peter to insert himself between Peter and the looming receptacle. “The dumpster’s not for you. You shouldn’t have been using it. It’s for resort residents only. Go back to your cabin and stay there.”
“Garbage,” Peter said. He picked up the plastic bag and started to toss it back into the car trunk. Thinking how ridiculous this whole thing was and how he had no compelling need to abide by Ray Grove’s arbitrary decrees, he pivoted and lofted the remaining bag dramatically over his head. Poised thus, hoping Ray might conclude he was about to have effluvia dumped on his bald head, Peter did a set shot and the bag skimmed the rusty rim into the giant container. “Maybe next time,” he said to the glowering Ray Grove.
“Go back to your cabin and stay there. And don’t come over here anymore.” Grove glared at Gretchen, spit a phrase or two at his own shoes, something close to “If there is a next time.” He got in and drove off.
Peter watched until the Mercedes was gone from sight. “Are you two okay?” The girls gazed back at him, showing neither fear nor comfort. They were still processing. First the security men. Now this funny little man.
This is exactly why Frannie doesn’t trust me with Laurel, Peter thought. Laurel will probably start having nightmares all over again.
“Can we see some more deers?’ Katie asked.
Peter got in. “Maybe we’ll see one on the way back.”
But they weren’t going back quite yet. Peter was not inclined to let this slide, especially after Grove’s capricious ban on the resort. After all, they paid their dues, and they weren’t cheap. He drove down to the resort office to speak to Bob Klein.
Ray Grove’s Mercedes was parked in front with driver’s door hanging open and the motor running. “You two stay in the car. This won’t take a minute. Katie, this means you, too. Stay in the car. I’m putting the windows up so Gretchen can’t get out. Leave them up.”
He slotted the windows, killed the ignition and pulled the keys. As he was getting out, Ray Grove emerged from the office, spotted him and stopped smack in the middle of the flagstone walk, his arms oafish at his sides. Peter proceeded up the walk and sidled past him, nodding as though nothing were amiss. He even managed a tight smile and pushed through the heavy oak door.
In the map room adjacent to the outer office, Bob Klein was standing with two other men dressed in nondescript business suits in front of a small TV haphazardly propped on a drafting table. Each man had a hand thrust to his chin in a collective brown study. Peter guessed they were consultants for expansion. Demand for vacation homes was growing so fast there was talk of widening the road, an action everyone knew would bring even more traffic.
Bob Klein recognized Peter immediately and avoided eye contact by removing his glasses to clean them. One of the men remarked cryptically, “It’s probably too late already.”
Klein lingered on the screen before drawing himself away. Of the two men who brought the outside world to the West Virginia boondocks, Bob Klein was the persuasive businessman who put together the deals and kept the place running smoothly. He was a big man, part-Jamaican, ex-military.
The front door kicked open and Grove stormed back inside. “I want you off the property,” he said, charging across the room at Peter. His index finger was poised in front of him like a penurious old scold. “Right now. Our people are here to enjoy themselves and I mean to make sure they do. I won’t have their pleasure ruined by some impudent interloper.”
Peter turned back to Klein, but Grove had finally succeeded in pissing him off. He was unable to ignore this little bounder. He wheeled on Grove. “I am not an interloper. We’re dues-paying members of the resort. And unless you plan on giving me a refund, we’ll come over here any time we please. You cussed at me — in front of my daughter!” His voice rising to a shout.
“I’ll talk to you anyway I want.”
“Like hell you will.”
Peter took a step towards Grove. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He just knew Grove had asked for it.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to decide. As he leaned in on the shorter man, he felt himself being yanked backwards. Bob Klein had him by the waist. One of the other men grabbed his arm. Together they hauled him away ... much to Peter’s immediate relief.
Grove lunged at him, his hands outstretched, fingers curling like a child making monster motions. Foam at the corners of his mouth flecked onto his chin. With Peter restrained and towering over him, he bared his teeth and unleashed a snarl that was guttural and loud and filled the paneled room with its startling peculiarity. “Uga-Bugga!”
Life on planet Earth froze. Uga-bugga?
Grove clamped his mouth shut. His teeth clacked helplessly. The others in the room blinked in embarrassed disbelief. Glumly realizing he had made a fool of himself, he shot a bewildered glance towards the men and said, “He had a dog with him,” and ran out the door.
For an instant Peter felt sorry for him. Then he pulled away from Klein and turned round to face his once again. “He said we couldn’t use the dumpster and then he went off on me. We’ve been using it for years. And he knows it. We are members, you know?”
“Looks like we just started enforcing the old policy.” Klein said, adding an apologetic spread of his hands. A bemused curl tickled the corners of his mouth.
“What old policy?”
“The one that says you can’t use the dumpster unless you live on site. Sorry about the problem. I guess you both over-reacted a little bit.”
“You mean your new old policy. Your partner is the one who over-reacted. I was just following our normal routine like we’ve been doing for years.”
“Well ...” Klein spread his hands again. There wasn’t much he could say without going against his partner. “Now, what about this dog?”
“It’s my pet, for Chrissakes. Did you know your security guards are up on the other side of the mountain? They were acting as strange as Ray. Is there something going on I should know about?”
The men in the map room reacted to this. Peter had their interest now. Before he’d merely had their attention. “Where was this?” Klein’s voice narrowed as though this were something he didn’t want to hear.
“Up by the old Presbyterian church on our way over here. I stopped because it looked like there had been an accident or something. When I asked if they needed any help, one of them came across the road and kicked my car.”
“Kicked your car?” Klein said wryly. “You mean with his foot?” It was pretty clear he thought Peter was still over-reacting.
One of the men caught Klein’s attention and nodded towards the window. Klein checked outside and signaled to Peter to see for himself. “Those the men you’re talking about?” Out in the parking lot packed in their jeep the resort guards were conversing with Ray Grove. Peter’s TR and the girls in it were too close for comfort. “Maybe you ought to go on back to your cabin for a while,” Klein added, “just to let things settle.”
Peter wanted to point out how agitated the men outside appeared to be. Something had clearly gotten to them. But their proximity to his daughter and Katie was more pressing. He dashed out the door as Grove’s Indian red Mercedes shot out of the parking lot with the jeep close behind.
“Did that man say anything to you?” Peter asked Laurel. “Or any of those other men?” When she didn’t answer, he cupped her chin and kissed her on the forehead. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? I don’t want anything more to happen to you. You’ve seen enough for one day.”
Laurel said nothing. She was not the most talkative child to begin with. Since he and Frannie had separated, she said even less. Katie, the motor mouth, crawled across her onto Peter again and boosted herself onto the doorsill. “Now can we sit with our heads out? I want to see more deers.”
Peter drew her inside back onto his lap. “Did those men say anything to you just now? While I was inside?” They offered no response, like it failed to register. Peter gave up. Try getting kids to respond when they don’t feel like it.
They left Pleasant Valley. The security men were long gone. Maybe at Grove’s house guarding his pet rat. At the top of the mountain, Peter took the one lane gravel patch back to Hooterville Station. A one storey cinderblock building, landscaped with a few junked cars and a whimsical name.
“We want to come in,” the girls said, jumping out before Peter could object. He wasn’t about to leave them in the car anyway in such a wildcat location.
The girl behind the counter smiled with recognition at Laurel and Katie when they burst in beneath the tinkling bell. She took pains with her hair and make-up, went maybe five four, early twenties and might well end up working here for that many years. The girls ran up to her. “Can we get something?”
“That’s up to your father.” She looked at Peter standing uneasily by the door.
“He’s her father,” Katie said, indicating Laurel. “My mommy says I can get whatever I want.”
Peter laughed, “If your mothers agreed to half the things you say they do, we’d be living at Chuck E. Cheese. One pack of gum between the two of you.”
“You only tell us no because you’re scared our mommies will get mad at you.”
Peter looked at the clerk and shrugged. No use denying the truth.
The girls headed for the candy. Peter grabbed some half and half and Lentil soup and paused to check out the wine. The store had recently replaced the bait and tackle display with a deli counter and a small wine rack, positioned beside the Sterno and work gloves, and mushroom caps and Dijon mustard.
By the time he got to the counter, the girls had arrayed Kit Kats, gum, Three Musketeers and primary-colored jawbreakers from the old timey candy jar by the register. “I see we haven’t learned to count yet, have we?”
“They’re in twos,” Laurel offered her father. “One for each of us like you said.
“They‘re sugarless,” Katie added.
“Sugarless jawbreakers? I doubt it.”
“Mommy said we could.”
“So did my mommy.”
Several shadows crossed behind the curtain drawn across the back room. Male voices rumbled, fell off, then rumbled again. This time with agitation. Two men, both used to having their way. Loud swearing erupted, followed by the clank of something hitting the floor.
Violent crashes. More foul language. Peter paid up and moved his charges towards the door, dropping an arm around Laurel, easing Katie along in front of him. The clerk left the register and hurried into the back. She stopped at the curtain and glanced back at them. Did she want him to stay in the store? Or was she making sure they were leaving? Impossible to read her expression. She looked apprehensive, annoyed and bored all at the same time. She drew aside the curtain and slipped behind it.
They left. The door swung shut behind them. The bell above tinkled goodbye. Peter packed Katie and Laurel into the bucket seat. Rounding the car, he glanced back at the store. The door shut a second time, a little too firmly, as if for insurance. Cupped hands ghosted the store window. The forearms were beefy and male. Pock marks scored the visible parts of the face. The reflection off the window occluded the rest. Something territorial in the attitude, impatient for the nosey weekenders to be on their way.
“Dad, come on.”
Something not right in there.
Katie added, “Mommy will get mad at you again.”
He broke off and slid behind the wheel. He thought about it for a moment, then started the car.
They drove down the mountain with Katie sitting on the passenger’s door with her arm stretched across to hold onto the sunroof. Laurel perched like a lapdog at Peter’s door. Holding Laurel, steadying Katie by her ankle, Peter crept carefully along the deep lane, driving with his knees, watching for deer and praying they didn’t encounter a careening SUV. The girls grabbed for low-hanging branches, their cries of delight pungent with grape-scented chewing gum. Sugarless, of course.
Three streams formed the angles of Peter’s kite-shaped mountain acreage. A rutted trail led down to his cabin from a cul-de-sac dozed out of the woods at the end of the builder’s road. It ended with a space in front of the cabin large enough for three cars to park and room to maneuver out again. Trees crowded the entrance, a few skinny oaks, crowded so closely they held each other back. The rest were hickories with their branches nattering in the breeze. Snowmelt had long ago washed away the gravel, leaving the portal overgrown and all but hidden from early spring through late fall.
The A-frame nestled in the lee of the closer of two hills on ten and a half dense acres. The cabin was total serendipity. Its original owner built it as refuge from drugs and trouble for his five teenage sons. With his youngest in college, he offered it to Peter and Frannie, furnished, and at half price. He also offered to serve as unpaid consultant to Peter’s business. “Sometimes, you just walk into things,” Peter remarked more than once. Peter and Frannie kept joint custody of Laurel and the cabin. Both were too precious to give up.
Mornings lying in the king-sized bed in the loft, they gazed out to the far hill and, if the breeze slacked, contemplated the gurgle of the nearest stream. It made as pleasing a way to wake up as you could hope for. At her first visit, Swanie kicked off her shoes and said, “This reminds me of Montana.” Her equivalent of a papal blessing. A sign on the wall by the door greeted guests with Welcome to our Cabin.
They came upon their neighbor standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac. He looked pale and on edge. His wife was backing the car out their own rutted trail and having a difficult time of it. Charlie was trying to direct her. His hand and leg sported bulky bandages. A ripped pant leg hung away at the calf like he’d been interrupted making cut-offs. Dried blood stained the tear.
“Gretchen, Gretchen, what have you done?” Peter murmured to his dog perched behind his head. “You haven’t gotten Charlie’s cats again, have you?”
Peter put his head out the window “Need any help?” Charlie shook his head. “Is everything okay?”
Charlie gave a smile. “I’m afraid she isn’t much of a driver.” Their lane had the width of two cars.
He called to her to step on the brakes before she sideswiped a tree. He shrugged away her incompetence. Charlie had proven himself a good neighbor. More than once he and his son came out in the freezing cold to help push cars out of the snow.
“What happened to you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh, I got dog bit. We’re going in to the doctors. They kinda itch.”
“When did it happen?”
“A little while ago. Right outside our front door.”
“Outside your front door? It wasn’t Gretchen was it? She’s wild, I know, but I’ve never known her to bite anyone. I could drive you in. I can’t understand what got into her.”
“No, no, it wasn’t yours. I’ve never seen this one before. It probably belongs to someone on back in the mountains. Maybe it got lost or ran away.”
This news relieved Peter enormously. Still … “A dog attacked you? Not your cats?”
“We were trying to chase it off before it got at the cats and it turned on me. It was nosing around the cabin getting into the trash and the like. Gave me quite a start. Maybe I gave it one and that’s what set him off. I guess in a way I asked for it.”
“I doubt if anyone asks for something like that.”
Charlie shrugged. “Maybe it’s a sign from the Lord. Seemed like it at the time.” He shrugged again. “Cassie doesn’t think it’s a sign of anything other than a mean dog.” Charlie walked over to the car and rested a forearm on the roof. Creasing his brow with his thumb, he added, “She’s the skeptic in the family. Sometimes I worry about her.”
“Swanie’s a nurse. She could re-wrap those bandages for you. We have all kinds of first aid equipment down at the cabin. She brings loads of it from the hospital.” Peter was so relieved he would have gladly paid the doctor bills.
Gretchen stuck her nose out to give Charlie a sniff. He stroked her chin absently. No hostility there, on either side. “No, thanks. The doc lives pretty close by. She needs practice driving anyhow.”
“What happened to the dog?”
“Noah hit it with a two-by-four and it took off running.” Charlie paused and gazed at the copse-like surroundings that encased the cul-de-sac and two entrance roads. “When we decided to live up here, we knew things like this might happen. The cussed thing was prowling around like it was waiting for us to come out. I’ll be all right as soon as I see the doc. He’ll probably give me a shot or something.”
“Listen, Charlie, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to make sure Gretchen doesn’t get loose and come over after your cats.”
“I don’t think your pup would ever go after any of us. Just our cats, and they keep going over to your place leaving their scent to egg him on.”
Charlie waited until his wife got the car past the tree before he eased himself into the back seat. “Funny thing was,” he said through the window, “that dog didn’t show the slightest interest in my cats. We should have left it alone. It probably would have run off of its own accord.” His shook his head. “Maybe that was the Lord’s message.”
They backed around spastically and drove off. Peter continued down to the cabin where Mila’s pickup was parked beneath the trees. The girls jumped out and ran back up the lane.
Mila himself appeared on the deck. His Ibanez was around his neck and he was playing like a strolling minstrel.
Peter parked and went up to greet him. “Found it, I see,” offering his hand.
At long last Mila had made it to the cabin. They had been talking about such a get-together for over a year.
Billy Joe Blivens, half-Filipino, had surrendered a large part of his twenties to a n ashram in California, where he spent eight years contemplating the probability of nirvana. Beneath his dark, curly hair and open face, he was all charm, sensitivity and talent. Billy Joe became Mila – one who leads – ex-monk, guitarist extraordinaire. Two CDs, a third on the way.
“Your directions were dead on. It is a dream, but it sure is back in the sticks.”
“Have you looked around? Did Swanie show you your bedroom at least?”
Mila shook his head. “We started playing right away. Our stuff’s still in the truck.” He gave Peter a look that said, You know how it goes with Swanie and music. Peter did. All too well.
Across the clearing beyond the cars just out from a shady patch, the girls emerged each under an arm of Mila’s girlfriend. Katie grasped her hand with something akin to adoration. “Pari, like in ‘sorry’,” she was telling them. Laurel watched Peter, mindful of his instructions about strangers.
Peter went down the steps to greet them. Gretchen had located the old racquetball. It now squeaked and slithered in her mouth. Her bobbed tail was straight up and was wagging most of her body. She crowded his heels crying in anticipation of the chase.
“So you’re the Peter that Mila keeps talking about?” Pari said as they approached. “Do you really own this wonderful place? This is paradise.”
Nodding Peter made a vague motion over his shoulder towards the drop off into the gulley at the bottom of the hill. “Ten acres worth of it anyway.”
“I was up on the road looking at the other cabins and trying to get my cell phone to work. You drove right past me. There were wildflowers everywhere. It was quite beautiful. I’d love to see more of it.”
“Let’s go for a walk? The girls chimed in.
“We want to show Pari my waterfall,” Laurel bubbled.
“We’re fairly bottled up. That’s why you couldn’t get your network. We have a landline inside if you need to make a call.”
Pari shook her head. Her hair was short and swept back from her face. She was on the slim side and carried the angular features of a jock. “It’s just work. A walk would be nice. Exploring would be better.”
He pegged Pari for a refugee from the backpack era. Red bandana, red shoelaces on her hiking boots, no make-up – duck down, freeze-dried, biodegradable all the way. The sort of person Peter assumed would have worked for the Silver Spring Co-op or Women’s Health Collective. Pari was a financial analyst in DC. They joined Mila and Swanie on the deck.
“We saw a deer, Mommy! With her fawn.”
“That’s great,” Swanie said without taking her eyes from her music. “You and Laurel go swing on the swing. Maybe Peter will push you.”
Pari said, “Couldn’t you two play later? I’d really like to go exploring. There’s plenty of time for music later this afternoon and tonight.”
“Come with us?” Katie pleaded, tentatively at first. “Please, Mommy. Please.”
As if to entice them all, Mila began playing a song the girls were sure to know. His style was so clean and pure it always reminded Peter of the Roger Williams piano solos his parents used to put on the stereo when he was a kid. This was a perfect example. It sounded simple as it built itself into complexity. It made you believe you could play it just as well, and without practice. Swanie moved so she could keep her eyes on his finger movement.
He began to sing. “If you go out in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. If you go out in the woods today, you better go in disguise.”
Laurel and Katie knew this one. “If you go out in the woods today…” Their voices rang out when it came around. “Because today’s the day the teddy bears have their PIC-NIC.”
“Play it again,” the girls shouted when Mila came to the end. “Play “’If You Go Out in the Woods’.”
Peter went inside to make a phone call.
It was well past time for him to check in with work. He co-owned a data retailing service in DC that furnished information tailored to the needs of their clients. The topics were continually shifting and varied from the exotic to the market-specific. Many small companies found paying for a one or two page daily linked file was thriftier than taking on a benefit-laden employee to do the same thing. Their company survived the dot.com bubble, if modestly, and was no longer in danger of becoming a 404 error.
The hours were longer, the responsibilities graver, but he wasn’t tied to someone else’s time clock. Her figured that’s what he and Mila had in common. It sure wasn’t music. Peter was tone deaf and thought the Eagles sang “The Boys are Back in Town,” his favorite song.
He got Ron on the first ring.
Peter listened, pressing the phone tighter to his ear as his partner launched into a wild and profane recapitulation of the morning’s outrage. Peter had been totally unaware. Signaling for Pari’s attention, he jumped across the room pulled the television cart away from the wall and flipped on the television to the one grainy, local station their arthritic antenna allowed them.
Unimaginable images assembled themselves through the white noise. The burning towers, the collapsed ruins. Terror in the streets. The dark hole in the side of the Pentagon – not all that far from his office. The charging jetliners with their protruding noses thrust forward like Gretchen stalking through the woods.
Peter lowered himself onto the sofa, the phone cradled at his ear. Ron’s hyper commentary sounded like Fox News being fair and balanced about Democrats. One clear thought forced itself through the running chaos. He could not understand how anyone could do this thing. Forget the brilliance of its execution. Forget the scope of destruction. The very contemplation of such an attack was a crime against everything civilized in this world or any world one might care to imagine.
The numbers of dead. The magnitude of the inhumanity. The physical destruction. The targets and the methods of attack made this far more immediate than any battlefield action even shown in real time. Everyday life had been turned against itself like cancer unleashed in the body of civilization. The mundane had become the enemy.
“They!” his business partner exclaimed. “The universal paranoid delusion turns out to be true after all. They exist and they came after us, the cocksuckers.”
“I’m on my way in.” Peter glanced at his watch. “I’ll be there in a few hours.”
“Sez you. Look, pal, you took time off because your bitch girlfriend has been on your case about spending more time with her and her rug rat. And now you’re going to tell her you have to go to work because of something you can’t do one goddamn thing about? I don’t think so. All you’ll do when you get in here is call her and stay on the phone apologizing.”
“Easy! Look who’s talking about easy,” Ron snorted. “You have VICTIM tattooed on your forehead. You can relax. Everything’s under control from my end. How about up there in tree city? Nothing crashed up there, did it? The terrorists didn’t target any half-baked songwriters, did they?”
Peter couldn’t help but smile to himself. “We’re safe here. That’s why we bought the cabin in the first place.”
“Dude, that other plane could just as easily have crashed in West Virginia as Pennsylvania. Consider yourself lucky. They could have zoned in on that voice of hers. It’s shrill enough to curl hair all the way over to mojo-stan or wherever it is these fuck-faces are supposed to be from. Christ, she’d probably throw in with them if they promised to make her their official songstress.”
“I seriously don’t know why I put up with your shit.” Peter wasn’t sure if he was more annoyed with Ron for what he said or himself for not disagreeing with it. Frannie never took to him. Swanie flat out hated him. Ron refused to let himself like her. They had spent part of one evening competing to see who could best dismiss the other. He outlasted her. She ended up going to bed early.
“You’re not needed here. We’re on this big time. Plus, our clients will be so preoccupied my guess is the work will actually fall off for a few days. Then go to war, Miss Agnes. This will be great for our little enterprise. All mankind will want profiles of the new situation. Everything will change, but not right away. Most fools won’t even notice. Ourselves excepted, of course. Right now I’m kludging together a little program to search some credit and car rental databases. Anybody dumb enough to fly a plane into a building on purpose is dumb enough to leave a trail.”
“All the same, I think I’d better come in. I’ll make amends here and then hit the road. Not that I blame you.”
“Who’s gonna watch her kid for her?”
“She’ll be all right. Laurel’s here. There are other people here.”
“All right, buddy, if you insist. But don’t put this off on me. You’re just looking for an excuse to split.
“In the meantime, I was wondering if you could do me a favor if you’re not overwhelmed?”
“You’re the one who’s overwhelmed, bro. We’re watching TV down here.”
“I just about got into a fight with one of the owners of Pleasant Valley Retreat over some Mickey Mouse matter. He was acting strange. Would you mind checking for information on this gentleman and his partner? I’m curious.” Peter gave him the names and suggested some sources – to which his partner took exception.
“Do it yourself, or weren’t you allowed to bring your laptop?”
“Didn’t bring it, huh? What a surprise.”
“I would have been on it all day.”
“Yeah, like she isn’t banging on that cheap guitar of hers all day. I can hear her shrieking in the background. How do you stand it? She must suck one mean cock.”
“Shut up. For your information, I left it at my place on purpose so I could spend more time with my daughter.”
“You are so pussywhipped … Alright, alright, I’ll google them, sure. But that’s about it. I’m buried in code right now. Shouldn’t even be swapping drivel with you.”
“How about searching the public records if that doesn’t show anything? You could also try Lexis on the off chance they might have been involved in any legal actions.”
“Sure thing, son, and you can pay the fees out of your own pocket.”
“Use my account at the University of Maryland to access Nexis/Lexis through the research portal. I’m pretty sure it’s still active.”
“In other words, don’t stop until I have something?”
Peter covered the mouthpiece with a hand and rapped on the window at Mila and Swanie. They were so intensely into their music they were practically bumping heads. “You guys better check out what’s on television. I’m serious,” he shouted at the glass when he didn’t get a response – other than Swanie’s lowered chin as if to ward him off. Peter rapped again sharply until they looked up. He pointed frantically at the television. “Hey, I’m not kidding. You want to see this, like right now. This is important.”
Mila stopped playing.
Swanie set her guitar aside. “This isn’t sports is it?”
“It’s horrible beyond words, but you need to watch this. We all do.”
“Very moving,” Ron said sarcastically and hung up.
They came inside in time to see a re-play of the second tower collapsing. Their semi-circle in front of the TV collapsed towards the screen out of sheer anxiety at the sight.
Katie and Laurel appeared behind Peter, peeking at the television. When Peter stepped in front of them to block the screen, Katie held out a slime-covered hand. Gretchen yipped at her side with the ball in her mouth, ready for more. Peter snatched the ball from her, ordered the dog outside, threw the ball as far away as he could and closed the door.
He led Katie by the wrist to the kitchen sink. Gretchen’s grungy slobber webbed her fingers like an alien growth. He stuffed the ball in the bottom of the trash basket. Her dainty digits had been transformed into a mucus-covered claw. Peter held her hand under the faucet to wash away the elastic goo. The filth clung like loose skin.
He felt like sticking his head under the faucet to cleanse himself of the slime that was suddenly encasing the world. The bright, the sunny, the boundless was suddenly covered in stifling, subterranean mucus. Here at his mountain refuge, their borders well protected by forest, nothing had changed for him or for the people he cared about. His life was optimal in his world, time off, good weather, good friends and good kids to make him laugh.
Ron was probably right about the positive effect on their data retrieval business. Yet as the scenes replayed in his mind, he felt profoundly sad. The instant analysis he could discern through the white noise was already saying everything had changed and nothing would ever again be the same – in just those words. How could they be so certain? Change might have more to do with the fringes of their lives than its center. It might not be perceptible. He was willing to bet that except for random mental shadows nothing much would change.
Standing in front of the TV, Mila began playing peaceful New Age music. Its gentle arpeggios utterly unhinged from its murderous context. They probably had entered a New Age all right, a new age dystopia as slimy as the muck distorting Katie’s fingers.
“Can we go for a walk now?” she asked. Normally, the television pulled their attention away from whatever else was going on. This time they showed no interest in it. The adults were transfixed. Maybe they were too happy to notice. Or the images didn’t register. Perhaps they were merely coping in a way kids knew best, disassociation.
Separating himself to return to DC wasn’t going to be easy. He wrestled with the notion of taking Ron’s offer to stay put. Otherwise, all he had to do was figure out how to break the news to Swanie.
“Don’t worry,” Pari said to him, reading his thoughts. “The world will survive your taking this walk with us. I’m curious to see Laurel’s Falls. I don’t get out of DC as much as I used to. Mila’s such a city boy.”
Leaves were just starting to fall and they made a crunchy mat over the damp ground. Where it poked through, the soil was rich and black and fetid. The underbrush was still thick.
Mila and Pari, with Katie and Laurel between them, all holding hands in a little daisy chain that made Peter wish for a camera, worked their way down from the cabin and up the facing slope. Swanie was silent at his side.
Not to be excluded, Gretchen insinuated herself among them, proffering another ball she’d unearthed to anyone who was game. Pari graciously moved aside to allow room with the girls. Peter pinched the ball from her jaws, wiped it off and tossed it away. Gretchen took off after it howling like a scalded dog.
“Fetchin Gretchen, the Slime Queen,” Peter said to her. “My wild animal.
“She certainly lives up to her name,” Pari said, as Peter de-slimed his hand ceremoniously on his jeans.
He led them to a clearing on top of the rise where a break in the canopy let in a picnic table’s worth of sunlight. From there they turned their gaze back towards the cabin thirty-five yards away.
“It’s isolated enough to sun bathe nude,” Pari remarked, mouthing the last word to keep it from little pitchers and their big ears.
Peter nodded at Swanie. “The deck seems to work just fine.” He had taken dozens of pictures of her in various states of undress on the deck, including jaybird naked in two feet of snow.
A terrific noise blasted at them from above. Its fierce rumbling blanketed them suddenly and without warning. The adults cocked their heads skyward. Laurel and Katie covered their ears and cowed against the adults. The ground shook. Eddies of sound buffeted them and just as quickly as it had arisen trailed away.
Peter swiveled to catch a glimpse. “Did anyone see it?”
“What is it?” Emotions rose with the noise.
The answer blasted overhead again, this time from behind them and no more than a couple hundred yards off the ground.
They all saw it this time.
“It’s a Warthog.” Peter shaded his eyes to parse the olive drab and black markings. In the distant sky, contrails, some faded, others strong and steady, re-traced the pattern of what could have passed for a long-ended dogfight, indicating air activity near and far.
The massive plane made a turn and came around yet again, more to the east now but at the same altitude perhaps a bit lower. Surrounded by adults and feeling protected, Katie and Laurel began screeching with excitement. They held onto each other in titillation at the dull-colored bird, screaming ever louder at the thunder from above.
The plane came around another time on a trajectory further angled towards Pleasant Valley, still close enough to give the illusion they could have bounced Gretchen’s ball off its fuselage.
“It’s like they’re looking for something,” Pari said after the rolling thunder subsided.
“It’s moving way too fast to spot anything,” Peter replied with a shake of his head. The planes had never flown this low before.
The A-10 returned several more times before its path led away and out of earshot. The excitement of a buzzing aircraft of such enormous size had them all bubbling like school kids, Laurel and Katie especially. This was such fun.
Pari turned towards him, her mind working for an explanation. Being buzzed by such an ominous aircraft, bristling with what looked like armaments, re-emphasized the shock of the day. “It isn’t hunting season yet, is it?” she said, “so this wouldn’t be about poaching?”
“I’m sure the Fish and Game Commission doesn’t have the luxury of using Warthogs against poachers. They’re for close ground support for combat troops, not aerial surveillance.”
“There better hadn’t be any hunting around here, Peter,” Swanie said. “You know how I feel about guns.” Swanie’s father had managed to blow his own head off with a shotgun he kept in the bedroom closet for home defense. Swanie had been Katie’s age at the time and wanted to make sure her daughter had nothing to do with guns. It was about the only thing she and Frannie agreed upon.
“Couldn’t they be training?” Pari continued.
“I suppose they could be. The local Air National Guard flies transport planes, though. They could be training, I guess – or cowboying, more likely.”
“Do people grow marijuana around here?”
“Not that I know of. Probably some, but I doubt it’s much of a cash enterprise. If there’s any illegal drugs, it’s more likely some of these good old boys back in the hills would be running meth labs. You know, back where Grandpappy Amos used to have his still? When I get to work, I’ll check to see if there’s been any drug trafficking up here.” He slipped this in hoping to break the ice gently.
“You’re going to work?”
Peter dumped a half-nod into her cauldron.
“When were you planning to tell us?” She had seen the TV. This was expected. Still, a flicker of resentment creased her face. “For how long?”
“I’m thinking about going into work for a while. This could be important for our business.”
“And leave us up here?”
“Just for a little while. You saw what happened. This is a big deal. I’ll be back this evening. I have to take Laurel and Katie to school in the morning. Teachers’ meetings are only Monday and Tuesday.”
Pari intervened to change the subject before Peter could get in a response. “How far away is the NSA listening post? There is one near here, isn’t there?”
Most people were unaware of the huge listening array the National Security Agency maintained in the West Virginia panhandle. The place covered as much ground as a small city, populated not with homes, schools, parks, and the like, but bulbous antennae arrays poised to grab any signal shooting through the air, reel it in and store it for eventual de-coding. “Not that far. The over flights could be part of security precautions, now that you mention it. But if they’re looking for marijuana, or … terrorists,” he mumbled to keep the notion from the girls, “why not use helicopters?”
Laurel said, “Can we go to Laurel’s Falls now?” The plane was gone. Their impatience had returned.
“That’s where we’re heading,” Peter told her. Bending low to her, he asked, “We’re almost there. Do you promise to hold my hand and not cry if you fall down? When we all fall down?”
To Mila and Pari, he added, “The best way to get down the hill is on your backside.”
As he said this, he realized Gretchen was missing. Whenever he squatted down, for whatever reason, she would charge up and flick her nose under his hand for attention. She did this to everyone. On several occasions, she had actually flipped drinks out of unsuspecting hands. Come to think of it, she hadn’t been around since they’d been buzzed by the Warthog.
“She’s an expert at slinking away,” Peter said. He whistled for her. The piercing sound went nowhere. He whistled again, called her a few times. The dense woods swallowed his voice.
The others began calling. Peter cupped his hands and shouted in the direction of Charlie’s. If she got those cats again, there would be hell to pay, especially after what had already happened to Charlie.
“I’d better go look for her,” Peter said. “I’ll have to meet you there. Laurel’s Falls are right below us. You can’t miss them. Only they’re not really waterfalls. More like a cascade. If you head straight down the side of the hill and follow the stream, you won’t have any trouble. If Gretchen decides to show up, hold her. Meanwhile, I’d better I’d better find her before she gets into trouble.”
“Gets you into trouble, you mean,” Swanie added.
The others headed off. Peter struck out in the direction of the cabin, stomping urgently and hurriedly through the underbrush. He was worried. Swanie was right. He needed to act on it. His dog was as flighty and stubborn as any pedigree he had ever been around. Whatever possessed him to buy her in the first place? German Short Hairs are hunting dogs. He knew that when he went to the breeder. But her petite size and the demur way she sat away from her siblings, her imploring eyes cast up to him, made her too precious to resist. He’d been paying the price ever since.
He hadn’t gotten far before he heard the careless snapping of someone hurrying through the woods. He stopped and drew an apprehensive breath, surprised by his sudden caution.
On his own property? Ridiculous, especially once he sighted the source of the noise: Gretchen, as impetuous as ever, yanking Frannie through a tangle of sticker bushes like they were playing Ball Quest. He glimpsed her back first but he would have known her blonde hair and body shaped anywhere. She came through in reverse, preferring a torn hoodie to face lacerations. He stopped and waited. She forced her way free, turned around and handed him Gretchen’s leash. “Here. This is yours. Where’s Laurel?”
He took the leash and wrapped it around his hand. “I didn’t know who you were at first.” He sounded relieved even to himself. The disturbing sense of foreboding still clung to him. He glanced away for a second to clear his head. He flashed on the falling towers and panicked faces and decided he was simply on edge. He needed to extricate himself and go to work.
“Where’s our daughter?” As if to accuse Peter of some dastardly deed. Neglect being high on her list of his many parental shortcomings. In cruel irony, now that they were divorced she had far less supervisory power over his parenting, joint custody being what it was.
“Hiking with the others. Why? Where did you find her?” he asked, indicating Gretchen.
“Hiding under the bed. The door was open and she was in the loft making smells like she normally does. I heard you calling and decided to bring her to you. Some watchdog you’ve got. She’d probably run away if someone came after Laurel.”
Just because you never liked her, he thought, re-wrapping the leash around his hand. “I was worried she’d gone after Charlie’s cats again. Why are you here? You should be home by now.” Peter suspected she couldn’t stand being away from their daughter.
“Don’t worry, I won’t be here long. I just want to get … to check on Laurel. You don’t have to pretend you’re glad to see me.” Feeling herself wavering, Frannie looked away. She had intended to be clear and direct. Swoop in and take Laurel back with her. Now, she wasn’t so sure it was necessary or right. Laurel was not going to like it. She lowered her head into a sort of nod. Peter’s query brought it all flooding back. The snarling dogs, the suddenness of the attack. Her chin quivered. She thrust her hand to her face to compose herself. A tear leaked through her fingers.
Perplexed, Peter said, “I wasn’t pretending anything. I was just surprised to see you. I guess I was relieved it was you not some… trespasser. That’s all.”
Gretchen jerked at her leash. The hollow wooden echo of kid voices was filtering back to them and drew their attention. The kid sounds were irresistible to her. She barked after them, strained all the more.
Frannie was distracted and on edge. This wasn’t only about missing Laurel. She may have been high-strung but no more so than he was. Or Gretchen for that matter. They made quite a threesome, once upon a time. Conflicting anxieties was one of the many reasons they had never been able to relax around each other once Laurel came along. The slightest problem would set off an intemperate remark. She said critical. He replied paranoid. And they either stopped speaking or started shouting at each other like fishmongers. Figuring she had glimpsed the television they’d left on, he said grimly, “You saw it, huh?” The roaring implosions, the smoky aftermath of the leveled towers they kept showing over and over. “Unbelievable.”
“I’ve got to go into work later because of it. I guess it’s a good thing you came back.”
“Good thing? You’re going back to work because of the dogs?” There was genuine surprise in her voice. “You guess it’s a good thing?”
“Dogs of war, maybe – because of the attack.”
“Where’s my daughter?” Frannie snapped, her voice rising out of its funk.
Peter studied her. Was it possible she had decided she didn’t want Laurel around Swanie for an entire day and had come back for her? “With the others at Laurel’s Falls.” He tilted his head in that direction. “They’re fine.”
“I want her with me.” Frannie’s Stepford eyes were big, watery and focused on something far away.
“But the girls are happy and well protected. Three adults are with them. Maybe we should leave them alone.”
He stopped short. “What ‘s wrong with you?” He sounded more impatient than he meant to. The last thing he ever intended was to show his impatience.
She started to tell him but fell silent, feeling uncertain about his reaction. She watched Peter to gauge his contempt, then decided to go ahead with it. “I was driving down 901 when dogs jumped on my car.”
He grunted as if to say, So?
“They attacked my car.”
“You mean they chased your car?”
Thinking back over it, Frannie shook her head slowly at first. Then, as the images resolved, more forcefully. “No, they attacked my car. I didn’t imagine it. One was out in the middle of the road and when I slowed down for it, they jumped on the car. At least two jumped on my car. They just kept coming at me. One kept jumping up on the hood.”
Her explanation sounded shaky and unconvincing. She sounded wistful even to herself, as if she were describing a lurid dream. She tried again with a vivid account of the dog biting at the windshield and his infested mouth. Peter was more perplexed than convinced. He questioned the number of dogs. She had to admit she couldn’t be sure. “Two, I guess. Three.”
They didn’t chase her. They attacked her. Of that she was positive. She appealed to him. He knew her well enough to know she wasn’t making this up.
“Where’d this happen?”
“Johnstown, right at that general store.”
“You’re all right, aren’t you? I mean, you look okay. For the most part.”
“I guess so. What do you mean for the most part, Peter?”
“Did the car get scratched or the glass cracked or anything?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“How about other cars? Were they getting attacked?”
“There weren’t any other cars on the road. Except at that church up on the hill. But they were all parked. I turned around and came back here. It had the road blocked. I was alone.” This last sounded like an apology. “I speeded up and they stayed back. And there were three. I’m sure it was at least that many. Maybe two. They stayed there watching me. And I was worried about Laurel.”
Maybe there was no actual attack other than that one gnarly mountain dog?
“I told you to take the shortcut through Little Georgetown back to 81. It’s faster and you can avoid Johnsontown. I always take it.”
“I know perfectly well how to get home from the cabin without getting directions from you, Peter.”
For reasons neither wanted to explain, they started walking towards the cabin. Frannie needed to settle herself. Peter wanted to keep her from Swanie. Peter would look back on it later and reflect that both of them shared a need to spend a little time together, away from everyone else. But for different reasons.
Pausing once or twice as Frannie retold the odd events, they made their way into the dip and up the hill on which sat their cabin. Peter didn’t doubt that Frannie believed her fanciful claims. Neither did he doubt that something had happened. Proof of her sincerity rested at the bottom of the cabin steps.
Frannie had been in such a royal hurry to get back the cabin she had not bothered to park beside Mila’s truck or behind Peter’s TR. She shot on through the clearing, past the other cars on a beeline for the cabin. Her Sentra sat sideways flush against the steps tight enough she could make the first step without hitting the ground. She had hustled out of the car and bolted up the steps. The scene vibrated with fear.
“Jesus, Frannie, did you miss Laurel that much? I was taking good care of her. As I always do.”
“I didn’t miss her. Damnit, Peter.” The look she gave him was the closest she had ever come to saying fuck you. “Don’t worry, I’ll move it.” They squeezed past and mounted the steps.
“You want a drink? We’re out of gin, how about a glass of wine?”
“It’s not even lunchtime yet, Peter. I don’t need a sedative.”
“I’m not saying you do. And yes, it is lunchtime.”
“You probably haven’t fed them.”
Peter hesitated at the door, taking a cautious glance out at the woods around the cabin, all green and bright and fresh and offering nothing less than total succor, as they had since he first laid eyes on their own private Emerald City. That day had indeed been like entering Oz.
Frannie wasn’t interested in his answer. She was stating a fact. He always forgot to give them lunch. Reminding him to feed Laurel and Katie was about the only thing Swanie was good for. Not that she would consider making lunch for the girls herself.
Following her inside, he pointed to the sofa and poured her a glass of wine. He stood over her until she took a sip. Her hand shook. “It couldn’t have been that bad,” he said, his tone almost scolding. “I mean, they were just dogs for heaven’s sake. There’s been worse shit going on today.” He took the glass from her. Frannie let her arm flop to her thigh as the trauma of the attacks washed over her again.
He sat beside her. “I don’t think you should drive back to Billingsgate right away. Stay here for a little while. I have to go into work because of this business on TV, but everyone else will be here.” He knew he was asking for major trouble. Putting his former wife and his present girlfriend in a confined space was guaranteed to touch off multiple meltdowns.
“I want Laurel to go back with me.”
“I was going to feed them after we got back from the walk.”
As though hearing him for the first time, she looked at him and said, “What business on TV? What attacks were you talking about?”
He looked at her incredulously. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
“About the attacks. Not the dogs, the ones in New York. And in DC. I thought that’s why you were so upset. One of the reasons at least.”
Peter got up and turned on the television. Someone had remembered to turn it off before they left. Frannie started watching and said nothing.
“Did you talk to your father? Didn’t he say he might drive up? There’s no reason why you can’t stay here until he comes and then go back with him. If he doesn’t come you can drive home when I get back. Or first thing in the morning.”
Frannie ignored him and keep her focus on the grainy reports.
“I’ll bet this is the first time you ever wanted better reception up here, isn’t it?”
She ignored that, too.
Long minutes passed. Peter gave up trying to talk to her and sat on the edge of the coffee table and got drawn in all over again. The poor reception gave the images the quality of a Japanese horror movie, the sort he used to watch at 3am in college on the all night movie channel out of Philadelphia. He used to wonder what it would be like if Godzilla was real and on the rampage. He watched this rampage and decided his question had been answered. Horror may have the feel of reality, but it is also unrealistically optimistic. This was real life and nothing at all promising or optimistic was depicted here.
Presently, Frannie had seen enough. She lifted her gaze from the screen and said to him, “You can drive us back right now. I want her home with me and her grandfather. What if they’d gotten my daughter?”
The dogs, the stupid dogs. They were in her head now. What about the terrorists, he wanted to ask her? Look at the TV. “But the dog didn’t get her. It couldn’t have. Besides, you said the dog didn’t actually get into the car, even if it was trying. Which I’m not sure it was, based on your description.”
“It was so. I was there. I know. And there were more than one. One did get inside.”
“What did it do?”
“I yelled at it and it got out.”
“You yelled and it got out. Sounds pretty obedient to me. Look, let’s say you stalled out and were sitting there helplessly, it still couldn’t have gotten to you. The doors and windows were closed.”
“There were three.”
“Okay, three. Thirty couldn’t have gotten to you. Sooner or later someone would have come along and chased them away. Come on, Frannie-pants, you’re acting silly.”
“Silly to you maybe. Don’t call me that. We’re not married anymore.” She shot off the sofa and went to the phone and just about pulled it off the wall. Peter had made up her mind for her. She punched in the number, messed it up and tried again. She waited, listened, and got the answering machine.
She dropped the phone onto the chair, leaving her father’s tinny voice braying, “Have a good one,” and fled to the loft to pack Laurel’s overnight bag.
He retrieved the phone and tried to reach his office without success. The lines were tied up. Which emphasized why he definitely had to go in. Staying here would be like a golf holiday in Scotland while your business was going down the tubes. And, he had to admit, the prospect of diving into the midst of what was sure to be one dynamic data-maze was more enticing than even this mid-week retreat.
He replaced the receiver. Upstairs Frannie was rushing about gathering Laurel’s things. He went up and sat her on the bed. He had to admit if everything she said was true, he would have been freaking out right along with her.
Very tentatively he put his arm around her, hoping to offer comfort. The embrace was awkward. No surprise there. Physical contact fell out of fashion between them long before they agreed to separate.
How thin she’d become. The stress of raising her daughter alone had worn on her. She seemed frail, something Peter had not noticed before. He looked at her. Drawn face, the cords prominent on her neck.
“Okay, let’s go get her then. We’ll catch up and finish the grand circuit. Then head back. I’ll drive you two home and go on into work. I could maybe pick up Laurel tonight on my way back. If I come back.”
“I don’t want to take the grand circuit,” she snipped. “I want you to go get your daughter and bring her straight back here where she belongs.”
“Why are you acting like this?” Peter said, finally unable to hide his exasperation. “She belongs exactly where she is. With Katie and three grown-ups. She’s having fun and they are watching her.”
“I’m acting like this because I am worried about her! You’d care, too. You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened. I know what happened. They attacked the car. You can treat me like a wimp all you want, but I know what happened.”
Ok … ok, she felt vulnerable. Every parent felt vulnerable. Felt vulnerable because they are vulnerable. With reality television bleating crime and humiliation twenty-four seven, TV culture had become a regular litany of self-destruction. The world does conspire against parents, single parents more so, single women parents even more.
“What if they had gotten Laurel? Why are you pretending this was some game? And then a plane came over the road and made it even worse. I felt like I was being chased all the way back here. Or don’t you care about that either?”
“Of course I care. It flew over us, too. We could practically reach up and touch it. But …” Peter offered this out of concession and started down the steps.
“Nothing. I was just thinking that Katie will be disappointed. Half the reason we’re doing this is so she and Laurel can play together. I’ll tell everyone you’re staying here in case your father calls. We’ll only be gone fifteen minutes. No more than twenty, I promise.”
“Bring her back in fifteen minutes. You can do it in fifteen minutes. And this time take your dog with you.”
“Fifteen. Maybe sooner. Lock the door if you’re scared. Remember what Mr. Mulherin said to us when we went to settlement? ‘Be happy?’ It was good advice, especially ...” He indicated the TV.
“Did Laurel see any of that?”
He shook his head.
“Turn it off. I don’t want her seeing it yet. I want to talk to her about it when we’re alone. Can I trust you to keep her away from the television?”
Peter said nothing. Once she embarked on her TV-is-bad meme, there was nothing to be said. He looked at her balefully. Enough of this, went down and shut it off.
Frannie sprang up resolutely went after him. Hurrying down the steps catching him at the door, she broke into a taunting smile. “You brought me back here just so I’d leave and you wouldn’t have to deal with both me and your wonderful girlfriend.”
“You’re not going to start in about Swanie now, are you?”
“Why? You never get tired of listening to her complain about me.”
“I dealt with you two this morning when we got here to relieve you so you could have a day off. I’m just asking you to take it, is all. It’ll do you some good. Goodbye. We’ll be back soon.”
“Not so fast.”
He stopped in the doorway waiting for the other shoe to drop. “What?”
“I’m coming with you.”
Peter gave a quick laugh and shook his head. “On again, off again, Finnegan, as your father used to say to us.”
“You leave my father out of this. And, by the way, I am happy.”
“So am I,” Peter replied, indignant and weary at what she was implying, “So am I, Frannie.”
The water at Laurel’s Falls collided with a crate-sized boulder in mid-stream and divided into side chutes just wide enough to sit in and not be swept away. Behind the boulder the water backed up into a knee-deep pool where loose gravel and smooth stones made for perfect wading, if you could stand the mountain stream’s piercing cold.
They were arrayed along the bank, all feet bare and in the water. Frannie and Peter paused at the top of the hill gazing down on the peaceful scene. He dropped Gretchen’s leash. She bolted down the hill straight into the stream, merrily splashing everyone, and across onto the opposite bank up the hill into a scrim of pines.
Peter followed, grabbing a tree trunk, then a branch, letting his weight carry him forward to the next tree slanted at forty-five degrees from the hillside, and so on. He took the remaining ten feet on his butt. “Hey, Laurel, look who’s here” pointing to the top of the hill.
“Mommy! Daddy!” Laurel squealed, thrilled to see her parents together and smiling. She stood up with her arms out ready to receive her mom.
From the top of the hill, Frannie shouted, “Ready or not, here I come.” She let go. the steep incline carried her to the first tree. With her arms out in front of her, she hit it and held fast, her body resting snuggly against it. “Here we go.” She called down a second warning and stepped around the tree, aiming for a sapling a few feet below. The toe of her Nike snared on a root and pitched her headlong into a somersault. All the way down the hill. Eyes over ears. Feet in the hair. Hands over hips, smack into the water. No one could have choreographed it better.
Swanie watched her with barely concealed annoyance. “Oh, no,” she said as Frannie hit the water, turning her tone up at the end to make it passable as concern for her tumble. Peter knew it for what it was. Everyone else jumped up to extend a hand. Swanie, shrank back. Peter looked at her. He shrugged. This wasn’t my idea.
“Now that’s an entrance,” Pari said.
Frannie stood up sputtering with laughter. Laurel jumped to her rescue, “Mommy, Mommy,” splashing in after her. Gretchen joined them in the stream. “Ohhh, Gretchen’s all dirty.” Laurel waved her hand for all to see.
Frannie saw it, too. “It’s dog poop,” she said. “Peter …” She nodded ominously at the matted brown on Gretchen’s flanks. It was unmistakably dog shit.
“She’s the Slime Queen,” he said to Laurel, ignoring Frannie.
Peter slipped out of his shoes and rolled up his cuffs. The water was so cold it shot a brain freeze up his spine. Swanie and Mila held her by the collar, just in case, but Gretchen did not seem to mind the bath. Possibly it was the attention or the lack of soap. Whatever the reason, she held still while Peter sloughed away the mud-like excrement. “Animals,” he muttered.
“Lots of them,” Mila added. “By the looks of it … and the smell.”
“I think we should all go back right now,” Frannie said urgently.
“What’s with her,” Swanie said, all but jerking her thumb.
“Nothing’s with me,” Frannie said, defensively, refusing to look her way. “I think the girls have been on this walk long enough. It’s time to feed them lunch.”
“They just had breakfast a little while ago.” Swanie looked at Mila with a derisive laugh.
Mila moved over beside Pari. This wasn’t his war.
“Knowing Peter they probably just had cereal.”
Peter stood up out of the stream. That wasn’t fair, but he was more concerned that Swanie would take it as a cut and go off on Frannie. “Okay, okay. Let’s just follow the stream around and back like we’d planned. It’s not that much farther.”
The opposite bank led up to piney woods that extended past the edge of their property. A plush pine needle carpet took them through the trees to a glen where the slanting sun darted through the swaying branches and into their eyes.
The shack Charlie’s kids built was visible back. A rickety two-storey fort made from one packing crate piled on top of another and partially boarded over. Heaven for his kids, no doubt. Beyond that was the geodesic dome of Charlie’s cabin. A few miles in the other direction, the gray stream of blacktop followed its own path out of the mountains and eventually to the interstate.
Katie held her arms up to Peter. “I’m scared,” she said in a little girl voice.
“We’re all here with you, little one.” He hoisted her onto his back “How could you be scared in the bright sunlight? This would be the perfect spot to watch that plane fly over. We could practically jump up and catch a ride. Look how cozy it is up here surrounded by all these Christmas trees.
“Are we lost?” Her arms tightened around him.
“I’ve hiked this dozens of times. I know our land too well to get lost.”
“I’m glad you do,” Frannie said. “I still get lost back here and end up walking in circles.”
“All you have to do is follow the streams. They tell you the lay of the land. Civilization isn’t all that far away from here as the crow flies. If you’re quiet enough, you can hear the trucks out on the interstate.”
They descended from the pines, re-crossed the stream to more tenable land now well below Laurel’s Falls and followed it into a deep, wet defile, almost like a small hidden valley. The land rose at sharp angles on either side, covered by rain forest-thick vegetation.
A wispy animal trail traced along the water’s edge. Peter moved Katie up onto his shoulders and together they led the group along the tricky path. Pari, Mila and Swanie tunneling into an area not quite gloomy enough for a flashlight. Mila retrieved a stout fallen limb, stomped on it to remove the ragged part and used it to fend off the branches.
Frannie trailed at an extra pace or two with Laurel’s hand snuggly in hers. She stopped, canted her head aside listening. Her eyes shifting forward then nervously up the steep inclines. She checked behind them, the way they’d come. “Ow! Mommy, you’re squeezing too hard.” Laurel cocked her shoulder and wormed her hand away.
Frannie hurried forward past Swanie, purposely ignoring her. Mila and Pari stepped aside for her. She was practically sprinting by the time she reached Peter.
She grabbed his arm and forced him to stop. “I heard something. A dog baying.” She swung around to direct their hearing across the stream to the leafy ridge above them. “More than one. Maybe.”
“Dogs baying? You mean like wolves?”
“I don’t know. Just something. Enough pay attention to.”
Not as far as Swanie was concerned. She came up beside them. “Here’s Laurel. You left her standing back there.” All but smirking.
Indeed she had. In her haste she’d forgotten.
“Oh,” as much saddened as surprised. “Thanks. That’s not like me.”
Swanie had already presented her backside and returned to Mila and Pari, mumbled something to them.
Hearing nothing they continued. The meander escorted them through the density and around to a broader, clearer stretch where the stream met and where lightning had felled a tree into a plot of leafy ferns. The downed tree lay across the ferns like the leg of a sleeping giant, not yet gone to rot, a perfect place to rest and share the beer Mila produced from his pouch pocket.
They arrayed themselves along the trunk.
“Pretty rough back here,” Mila said leaning on his shepherd’s crook. He popped the beer and took a swig. Despite the lushness around them, the steep hills, the low limbs and tall undergrowth at either end turned this into wilderness. The path from which they had emerged might as well have led from a cave.
The beer went up and down the line until it was empty. That pretty much indicated it was time to head on back to the cabin. Frannie slid off and announced their departure by taking Laurel by the hand. Most of them were inclined to go along with it. Swanie wanted to get back to her music. Peter had other plans.
Pari jumped down, dusting her hands. “I want to follow the stream for a while. It’s okay if we wander off your property, isn’t it?”
Peter shrugged. “We just did a ways back. He couldn’t imagine why it would matter to anyone given the number of hikers who appeared at odd places at odd times, bright with clothes and entitlement.
Mila got only a few steps to join Pari before Swanie too agreed they should return to the cabin. Mila hesitated, torn between music and Pari.
“The girls can play here for awhile with Peter.” With a cutting glance at Frannie, Swanie cast a sharpened suggestion at Peter as though she was some sort of relationship Rubicon. “Mila and I can go on back.”
Seeing what was coming Pari said, “You folks decide what you want to do. I’m willing to wait for Peter to get back before we make dinner. Meanwhile, I’ll catch up with you at the cabin.” Freeing Mila to return with Swanie to their music, she set out along the main stream and was quickly enfolded by greenery.
Swanie turned impatiently to Peter. “I can’t believe you would leave us here. You knew Mila was coming and we would be playing most of the time.”
“I’ll take Katie with Laurel and me,” Frannie interjected. “Peter can pick her up tomorrow.”
“No one’s asking you to,” Swanie snapped, her irritation growing. “Peter’s backing out on his promise to watch Katie for me.”
“We want you to stay here, Mommy.” Laurel and Katie stood together surrounded by knee-high greenery watching the adults. Laurel said, “I want to stay here with Katie, not at my house. We go there all the time. It’s not fair.”
“Do you really have to go to work?” Frannie asked. “I thought you took some time off?”
Swanie laughed ironically. The cruelty of it caused them to look at her in surprise. “Do what you want to do. He always does anyway.” She gave Frannie a deadly I-know-what-he’s-like-too look.
Frannie turned away from it, thinking So, now you’re on my side?
Gretchen started yipping after Pari who had long since disappeared. She jumped onto Peter, placing her muddy paws on his thighs. Her tongue hung out and her toasty dog breath assaulted his face. She was shaking all the way down to the stub of her tail.
He led her to the stream so she would get a drink. Maybe that would placate her. She tiptoed daintily into the water and took several long mouths full. She snapped her head up and flat, pointing in Pari’s direction, and growled so furiously the water spilled from her mouth. “Look,” Katie said, “Gretchen’s got a sting bee in her mouth.” She was shaking her head as if she had indeed inconvenienced a yellow jacket. Lickety-split she was up on the bank opposite with her teeth bared at the near distance. Her body vibrating from her jowls to her tail. Whatever it was it had her good and spooked.
Peter strained an ear … was that a motor he heard? A rotary whirring sound that reminded him of the burr of a wood chipper. The noise subsided quickly. What was left of it faded into the susurrus of the wind in the trees above them and the water at their feet.
“It’s Pari!” Katie giggled with excitement.
Downstream Pari broke into view, bursting out of the brush pell mell straight into the water. At first it appeared she might be mocking Frannie’s flailing entrance at Laurel’s Falls. But her face told a different story. She looked over her shoulder at something behind her and rotated back in their direction. Her pallor shone with a slick translucence. Her mouth slewed open in fear as though she was trying desperately to inhale and exhale simultaneously. She fell flat into the water, got back up and kept coming, her arms pulling air against the drag of the water.
Three dogs shot from the underbrush and struck her and took her down before she could reach solid ground. One dog leapt at the middle of her back, butting her with the top of its skull. Her head whiplashed from the force. Her jaw snapped shut. Her teeth clacked painfully.
She came up pulling and twisting, lashing wildly to fend them off and regain her footing. The animals were rugged buff and black, inbred to the full mongrelhood. Mid-sized, unwashed, underfed, feral, and of the sort Peter’s late father would have called All-American Thoroughbred. West Virginia Thoroughbred was more like it.
Another caught her T-shirt and ripped a large swath from beneath her flannel shirt. The dog pulled back with its trophy, jerking at it until it disintegrated like tissue paper.
Pari got to one knee and threw a protective arm across her face. The dogs massed and came at her. Too many angles for her feeble swipes to do much good. When she realized she was trapped, her eyes went doll-like with fear. She managed to haul herself up onto the bank only to go face down in the dirt. The dogs tore at her like vultures at carrion.
For a seemingly endless moment Peter and the others stood by transfixed. Propped on his walking stick, Mila scarcely adjusted his slouch. Swanie made a move but did little more than scratch a foot forward and ease it back in place. On the log Frannie slumped forward dumbly with the girls on either side. Peter had the presence of mind to look back to check on his daughter and Katie.
Moving sluggishly like he’d just woken up, Mila lifted his staff and stabbed tentatively at the bony midsection of a particularly scraggy dog and tried to push it away from Pari. He grunted when the dog snapped onto the staff and tried to wrench it free. The exhalation sounded like he’d been punched in the gut.
Gretchen tore out from behind Peter, electric with agitation, and sprang at the nearest dog. Her target diverted from Pari, wheeled on Gretchen and caught her flank. Blood pinstriped her fur. Gretchen cried out, twisted free and fastened onto the side of her attacker’s head. Both dogs snarling madly. Maybe ten seconds had passed.
Swanie appeared as if from off camera and grappled with Mila’s canine to free up Pari.
“No, Mommy!” Katie cried. She sailed off the trunk to put herself between the dogs and her mother.
This snapped Peter out of his trance. He grabbed Katie by the arm and swept her back to Frannie. The compulsion to grab the girls and run pulled at him like a throbbing headache. If those beasts had turned on him right then, he might well have scooped them up and bolted and left Pari and the others to fend for themselves.
The dogs were not going to get the girls, no matter what.
“Take her, Frannie!” he yelled. Frannie jumped down pulled Katie back. She gathered in Laurel and turned her back to shield them from the attack.
Clinging to each other, they screamed and called out to Pari in their high girlish and terrified voices. Animal Planet was never this graphic.
Peter grabbed the remaining dog by its haunches and pulled it back from Pari. It swung around and sank its teeth into his hand.
The paint at the end of his arm felt like a hammer smash, not sharp but dull and deep. Not at all like tussling on the floor with Gretchen. Her growls were mischievous. Her mouth was soft. Her teeth never left more than slight indentations, no matter how rambunctious they got. Even with Laurel and Katie piling on. Moving this dog was like wrestling rebar. It was neutral, lithe and weirdly unaware.
Without really thinking about it, Peter made a fist and managed to pop the dog directly on its nose. His middle knuckle landed flush against the bulbous black skin, startling the dog. It slackened its grip enough for Peter to pull his hand free. It immediately curled with cramp-like pain.
The dog circled sharply like chasing its own tail and came at him again. He kicked its face. The dog an incisor on the webbing of his Adidas.
Peter shook himself free, picked up a rock and slammed it straight into its head. He crouched, snatched another from the shallows, this one jagged and mossy, and flung it at the dog. He picked up another. This one cracked off the dog’s spine and the dog backed away.
Mila thrust the end of his walking stick at his dog, and used his full body weight to push it from Pari and pin it while Swanie started jumping up and down on it. Its legs scrambling madly. With her elbows cocked like flightless wings, Swanie pounded relentlessly. She had a thrilled grin on her face. Her lips retracted to expose both rows of teeth.
She kept at it full force until she broke the dog’s neck. The snap was unmistakable through the thick cord of muscle.
Gretchen’s dog detached itself from her and jumped Peter and planted its teeth just above his elbow. Its jaws closed on the soft flesh without any emotion, just brute power as efficient and unforgiving as a machine. The quick vise of pain shot all the way up to his jaw.
Peter groped the silt for garden-sized stones, an arm crooked involuntarily in front of his face for protection. He lifted and heaved whatever his hands came upon without standing, his knees planted in the shallows, he dug at the rocks and threw them side arm, one after the other. So close to the dog every rock connected with some part of its head or flanks – except the ones that missed and hit Pari.
Pari picked herself up, clamped a hand over the blood dripping from her lacerated arm and fled higher on the bank to Frannie and the girls. She looked back at the others and the dogs. Her face empty and sere as thought something inside of her had broken. Gingerly lifting her palm from the wounded wrist, she glanced at it, looked briefly at Frannie and the girls and buried her hand in the remaining flap of t-shirt hanging away from her chest like a bib.
Swanie looked at Pari, looked at the dog at her own feet. Saw that it was dead and raised her arms above her head in triumph.
A single thrust from Mila into the remaining dog and it backed away from Peter. In that moment it and the other one turned away and together the two took off up the hill. They headed out like this had been a mere stop-over on a campaign of marauding through the countryside.
As if their flight keyed something in Gretchen, she took off after them. “Gretchen, no!” Peter shouted. “Stay!” When she disappeared for sight, he whistled a few times even though he knew it wouldn’t do any good. No amount of insistent commands and threats would slow her once her mind was set. She would return when she was good and ready, if she was able, he thought ruefully.
Swanie didn’t seem to notice. “And keep on running, you mangy motherfuckers!” She launched a full kick into the carcass of the dead dog. “See this?” Blood exploded out of its muzzle. “Come back here and we’ll kick the shit out of you all over again.” She kicked it again, then splashed down into the water, sending up cold spray over Peter and Mila like a kid celebrating in the spring rain. She laughed at them and pulled Mila’s walking stick out of the water where it had fallen and tossed it to him.
Convinced they had vanquished the deranged animals, Swanie turned towards Mila and raised a high five. Mila raised his hand reluctantly and met hers with a wet smack.
They looked at one another. All three panting. Swanie’s smile unfurled into gloating. “We kicked their fucking asses!” she exclaimed, heaving air.
“That we did.” Mila hiked his shoulders self-consciously.
“Fucking wild dogs,” Swanie said.
“I guess Frannie was right,” Peter added, although neither Swanie nor Mila knew what he meant. “Isn’t that right, Frannie?”
Frannie was shepherding Laurel and Katie away. “Where are you going?” Swanie called after her. “You’re safe now. We made sure of that.” She glanced at Peter as if to add, With no help from her.
“Frannie was right all along,” Peter said to her. “She warned me about this.”
He approached Pari. Her clothes were ripped up and she bore a generous spray of scraps and bruises. Miraculously, just one other bite was visible on the top of her opposite wrist just above her cuff, red parallel marks like a wrong-sided suicide attempt. Both she received fending off the attacks.
“You okay?” he asked her, placing a hand on her shoulder. She was deeply distracted. He motioned to her hand clasped forlornly on her wrist. “Me, too. Twice.” He raised his arm to show her. “Where did you come across the dogs? Were they just lying in wait for you? Or were they running and came upon you?”
Pari looked at him numbly, offered no reply.
“I have to walk Frannie and the girls back to the cabin. Do you want to come along? We need to treat your bites.” When he got no response, he said to Swanie and Mila. “If you’re staying here, I’ll be back.” He glanced at the dead dog, thought for a moment, then looked at Pari. “You should come with us.”
He ran to catch up with Frannie. She had the girls partway up the rise below the cabin. Frannie had an arm on each, half pace behind them looking over her shoulder protectively, bent into the slope. She glanced over at Peter and cut right through him as he approached. Pausing for a moment to cast a worried glance over her shoulder down into the woods towards the streams. It had been a mommy’s worst fears come true. Thank goodness her daughter was safe. And she’s going to stay that way. If Peter wanted to help, he could.
“Guess you were right after all.”
She let that comment die the death it deserved, pushing the girls forward as the hill steepened. She made no further effort to communicate with him
The strained silence continued all the way back into the cabin. Frannie put the girls on the sofa. “Stay here while I get your things together. Then I’m taking you home.”
“What about Katie?” Laurel asked her. “Can Katie come to?”
Frannie made sure the door was locked and started up the steps. Pausing, she looked at her daughter and said angrily, “Ask your father.” At the last she turned to face Peter with unmistakable anger.
She continued to the loft to finish packing her daughter’s overnight bag. Peter followed her upstairs like a scolded puppy.
She turned around sharply and said to him. “The least you could do is stay down there and watch that nothing happens to them. They shouldn’t be alone after what they just saw.”
Peter glanced over the railing at Laurel and Katie perched on the sofa looking up at him. Laurel had that same grim expression she always got whenever he and Frannie had one of their fights. It made Peter hurt inside to see it such a sweet little girl so full of dread and disappointment. That look had been one of the reasons he had consented to the divorce in the first place.
“They’re fine,” he said, checking again just to make sure. Both girls were watching the loft with innocent intensity. “Poor things,” Peter added absently. Poor all of us, he wanted to add. “What got into those dogs?”
“We’re leaving right away.” Frannie said, slamming Laurel’s belongings into the bag with uncharacteristic sloppiness. She zipped it shut, picked it up and brushed past him shoving the bag before her. “Katie can come if her mother thinks it’s wise.”
“No need for sarcasm, Frannie. Swanie and I both got bitten. Pari and Mila too. We’re all leaving. Maybe for the emergency room in Maidstone. My bites aren’t that bad,” he said, self-consciously rubbing his hand. “I don’t know for sure about the others, but we still have to get them looked at. We’ll probably come back then.”
“Don’t try to minimize what happened, Peter.”
“I’m not trying to minimize anything.”
“Do you want your daughter exposed to such danger?”
“Of course not. What kind of question is that? It’s over now, for heaven’s sake. I should have listened to you earlier. That was a mistake and I’m sorry. But this was a fluke whatever the hell it was. We’ll be careful the rest of the time we’re here. You know that.”
She stopped for a moment, pausing long enough to show she didn’t know any such thing, then continued down the steps. “I’m not waiting for them, Peter. Not now. Not ever,” allowing spite to creep into her voice.
Peter grabbed a shovel on his way out and hurried down to the streams. Swanie was standing by the dead dog with her hands on her hips, the big grin very much in place, recounting the action. Mila was squatted beside Pari trying to console her while Swanie told the tale over again. Pari was leaning against Mila staring into the hostile and alien green trying to parse an explanation from the voiceless forest. Peter got down to speak to her but she shook her head. She wanted time to gather her wits.
“Frannie’s leaving,” Peter said, standing up.
Swanie kept on with her recitation of the fight, laughing at herself and her initial panic. “Swanie,” Peter said. She might just as well have be vamping to the sound-track from Rocky and doing an end zone dance for all the attention she paid him. She looked at him broadly. Peter half-expected her to hock an oyster and hike her nuts. Her drew up in front of her. “Swanie! Frannie’s leaving and taking Laurel with her. She wants to know if she should take Katie.”
“I can’t believe they attacked us like that,” Swanie said to him. “We really showed ‘em.”
“I think they really showed us,” Mila replied.
“Swanie,” Peter said.
“Frannie’s leaving with Laurel. She’ll take Katie – unless you have some other idea.”
“What other idea?”
“I don’t know, plans, whatever’s on your mind. Do you want her to stay here with us? You do, don’t you? We have to go to the emergency room.”
“Plans? What, so you can be free of her and go to work with a clear conscience?”
“This isn’t about my conscience. Or about getting rid of anyone. I thought maybe you’d want to spend to time with her considering what just happened?”
“You can’t resist, can you?”
“Can’t resist what?”
“Starting an argument.”
“I wasn’t trying to start an argument. I was asking if it was okay if Katie went back to town with Laurel and Frannie. We’ve got other things to worry about just now. And I have to go tell her. I don’t need a raft of shit from you. Just an answer.”
“I’m not giving you a raft of shit.”
“Yeah, well, that’s your opinion.”
“You’re so full of shit.” She looked down to Mila for support. He was watching Pari who was focused elsewhere, now with slightly more purpose.
Peter thought, We need to get her away from this place and away from our bickering.
“You always think you know so much,” Swanie said. “Like you know what it’s like to be a single mother, to have to worry about your daughter because her father hasn’t been around one single day including the day she was born.”
“Swanie, I’m a single father, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“You can always hand off your prissy little daughter to her prissy little mother. I don’t have anybody.”
“You have your mother and stepfather, Swanie. And you’d better not ever call Laurel that again. Do you understand me?” Peter’s voice rose. He and Swanie had moved perceptibly closer and were glaring at each other. Swanie closed her hands in what appeared to be fists and cocked her arm like she was going to swing on him.
Peter almost wished she would.
Something clicked in his head. He directed his attention to Pari. She rose to her feet and moved from the bank and waded out into the stream again, like she was hexed. Oblivious to the water, to them, she was focused, if focus was possible given the vacant look in her eyes, on the hill above them.
Peter followed her gaze. He raised his eyes and ran them across the incline, maybe thirty yards up. The breeze was light. A patch of mountain laurel was vibrating artificially when it should have been swaying lyrically. Or not moving at all. He stepped forward to the water’s edge.
He drew in a breath. Felt it go sour. In front of him Pari moaned, “Oh, no.”
In one great motion, the ridge collapsed and swept down upon them in a blind avalanche of fur. Seven, eight, maybe a dozen or more, spread out like cavalry sweeping all hell down upon them.
Just before they reached him, he was able to raise the shovel like a truncheon and back up between Swanie and Mila as the four of them were engulfed by a guttural wind that rose around them as though it were coming from the very bowels of the earth.
Peter, Swanie, Mila put their backs to one another. The dogs struck in one massive wave.
From the corner of his eye, Peter spotted Gretchen some distance away standing stock still watching. Her side was open and bleeding. She didn’t seem to notice. Her head was erect, her nose forward with keen interest. As the dogs hit, she turned away and headed in the direction of the cabin.
A German shepherd took Pari down and tore into her shoulder. Its jerking and tugging flayed away more shirt and t-shirt and drew a swath of bright red blood.
Dropping his staff, Mila grabbed at the dog to pull it off. It coiled and clamped onto his forearm. Mila let out a fearful cry, as much surprise and pain, and pulled his arm away with the dog still attached, yanking one arm with the other to free it.
Peter brought the shovel down on the flat of its skull and knocked the animal off. He started to help Pari from the water, kneeling beside her, lifting her head onto his thigh. Her face marbled white. Only a small necklace of T-shirt remained, a few tattered triangles encircling her neck beneath the red bandanna now blooded black. The rest of the front, back and sides had been torn away. Her torso, her negligible breasts were awash in blood, which was flowing freely from a gash in her side.
Several dogs jumped him, forcing him to abandon her. As he did, one sank its teeth into his elbow and yanked him down.
From his knees he lanced the shovel blade into its muzzle until he could get to his feet. The contact he made drew blood. It had no effect. They drew down on their haunches partially submerged in water gathering strength to spring at him.
He grabbed one of the same rocks he’d used before and with both hands lofted it over his head and brought it down on the closest dog’s skull. Nothing. Its lips retracted, its tiny ears aggressive against its skull, grinning fearlessly. He picked it up and crashed it down again. The solid bone gave off a hollow tock. The dog backed off, facing him with dead-eyed hatred.
He stood up with an arm poised, waited until the last instant and threw the shovel like a javelin directly into its face. He drew back, pressing his now throbbing arm to his side, and turned to run only to slip on the muddy bank. Hot teeth went into his back. He spun and grabbed at what was maybe part collie attached to him. This animal was somebody’s pet. It let go, lunged for his leg, missed the meat and settled for his cuff instead. Peter reeled step, step, step trying to shake it loose, struggling backwards, went down on his butt.
Swanie was on her back fending off a pit bull. Small, tight, chisel-jawed, musculature like rolled steel. Rude rows of meaty gashes rose from her exposed skin. She raised an arm to block it away. It was stronger. It clamped on and wouldn’t let go.
Peter drove the shovel into its flanks, drew back and did it again. By then the swarm was at him again. He kicked, missed, got bitten for his effort, quick pain of torn flesh.
Separated from his walking stick, Mila had faced-off helplessly against another dog when for no apparent reason it lost interest. Just discontinued the attack and stood there like an obedient dog before its master, waiting for his command.
Another dog shot past, latched onto Pari’s breast and jerked her down onto all fours.
Casting about wildly for his staff, Mila found it and went to her aid. A few stout thrusts gave the dog second thoughts. It backed off scraping at the dirt, growling.
Mila shot a question from Peter to Swanie. Now what? How do we bring her back? Beneath a lava flow of blood, she was turning blue.
Peter caught Swanie’s eye. She confirmed what he feared: Pari could be dead in minutes. All of them could.
But there was something worse. Several canines sensed it first. They turned to face this new target. In that instant all eyes, human and canine, fixed in the same direction.
Not far away just on the gulley’s outer incline, posed like a tableau vivant, Frannie had returned and was watching in stupefied horror with a child under each arm clinging to her waist.
Peter ran up to Frannie and the girls. She had her hand over Laurel’s eye to protect her. He tried to speak evenly. All that came out was “… now!” He snatched up Katie and shoved Frannie in the direction of the cabin. Katie was chewing the inside of her cheek, her head darting around horrified at what her world had suddenly become. Peter put his hand at Frannie’s back and pushed her ahead. “Don’t follow the gulley, go directly up the hill. It’s faster,” Peter shouted in a voice dry with panic. “Get Katie and Laurel inside.”
They hadn’t gotten fifteen feet before the pack struck Pari and Mila again, all of them converging simultaneously, like they were trained for it. It was over in seconds and as one-sided as a fox hunt. Mila clung to Pari’s arms trying to drag her away. The dogs stayed on them, closing, laying off, then closing again. Mila lost his nerve. He dropped her, turned and ran. He couldn’t help himself.
He didn’t see her hand raised towards him in wan desperation. Peter did – and it was a sight he never wanted to see again, in this world or the next. The pack covered its victim.
“Keep running no matter what,” Peter shouted. He sounded to himself like he was mumbling. If it was possible to mumble a scream.
Swanie came up beside him and took Katie from him and put her down. “Run, Katie! Run to the cabin.”
He took Laurel from Frannie and threw her over his shoulder. Her luminous eyes shone on the tragedy down the hill. She bounced heavily on his shoulder. Taut as a wire, Frannie ran along side. Brittle underbrush pinched their legs.
They left the gulley and mounted the crest. The cabin was a solitary fortress fifty yards above them. Its high windows dark and empty and forbidding. The sun was behind them now, slipping under the treetops into his eyes when he dared shoot another glance over Laurel’s head, checking her, checking their pursuers.
Swanie’s stride was strong and masculine. Even with Katie beside her they shot ahead. Mila was several paces behind, his head bent with effort. Making for the steps.
Halfway up the last rise, almost there, almost to their impregnable fortress in the woods. Peter had confidence enough to put Laurel down. “Go on,” he said. He had his voice back, winded but his once again. “Stay with mommy. I’m right behind you.”
“Where are they?” Frannie asked him.
“Go,” Peter said to her. She didn’t need to be told twice. She and Laurel made safe haven, up the steps and disappeared in the cabin’s imposing darkness.
He wasn’t sure anything was still coming from that direction. He couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t feel them any longer.
He stopped and crept partway down into the gulley and allowed his gaze to settle onto the spot where Pari had gone down. She wasn’t there. No torn clothing, no ravaged body, no bloody mess, nothing but scrapped up dirt and brown water. And a churning mass of animals. Definitely no Pari. What happened to her? Had she been pushed back into the water? Torn apart? Dragged away? Hiding somehow?
Peter lingered to double check. Where the hell was she?
At first, a lone canine, an outlier, saw Peter standing alone. Their eyes meet and Peter felt as though some bit of intelligence passed between them. Some spark of a message that this dog wanted to communicate to its human adversary. A warning? A deadly promise? The signal took a moment to decipher. Then it came clearly. One at a time, in twos, then as a group, the pack shifted its attention to up the hill directly to him.
Peter retreated a step then bolted. “They’re coming!”
The earth rose behind him. A great sheet of terrain rising and converging. The two in front broke away and made for Peter. They covered the distance without effort and were going to reach and cover him as they did Pari.
Scrambling to stay ahead, his hands out in front on wires, pulling him along, grabbing at roots, saplings, dead fall, anything within reach to help him get there first.
Peter leapt for the deck and pulled himself up far enough that one dog snagged his belt loop with his canine incisor and hung there scrambling in the air like meat too dumb to know it was dead, its nails scraping madly past Peter’s legs twisting for purchase. It slipped free and landed on its spine.
How Peter made that jump had more to do with adrenal necessity than strength of leg and almost nothing to do with athletic agility. He didn’t have any.
Another dog was on the deck waiting for him. He had no choice but to throw a leg over and shinny onto the deck while trying to shield himself – or let go and fall back into a mobile snake pit and take his chances. Swanie came out of the cabin and brought the blunt edge of the ax down on the dog. When it snapped around at her, totally surprised by the heavy blow, she smashed it again. Its hind quarters collapsed. Peter managed to pull himself up as she brought the ax down one last time.
“Behind you,” Peter shouted, wishing to God he hadn’t left the shovel lying at the streams.
A larger dog, this one looking more or less like a boxer — no, it was a boxer, a pedigree. He was sure of it — dodged the blade and clamped onto the handle. He snarled it away from her and trotted across the deck, shaking it in triumph. The beast had strong jaws. The damn thing was heavy. Peter and Swanie slipped inside, slid the glass door shut and locked it.
Seeing this, the dog lost interest in the ax and came around the corner and charged head first. It bounced off the heavy glass with a loud bong. Several smaller dogs were carrying what looked like a boot suspended by its laces between them. By then more scraggily monsters were storming up the cabin steps looking for new meat. They veered off around to the windows.
One went airborne, straightened itself jet-like and smashed through a lower pane. It came down on the sofa and bounced off into the middle of the living room floor. The animal was wedge-shaped, with a long rough coat and pointy ears and snarled madly at them. Peter grabbed a log from the fireside holder and beat it back. When it turned its head from the beating, he dropped the log and he and Swanie jumped up and down on it until its intestines squirted out its asshole.
Peter stepped back and gazed bitterly at the dead animal. They weren’t going to be safe inside the cabin. All the precautions he had taken to insulate himself from the unforeseen in life amounted to little more than self-deception. He stood still to catch his breath, his heart going ape-shit. So much for their oceanic privacy. What a shame, he thought grimly. If we aren’t safe here, we aren’t safe anywhere.
Dogs overwhelmed the smashed window. Several managed to slip part way in before Swanie and Mila grabbing bolsters from the sofa pushed hard enough to stop their progress.
“Get in the back room,” Swanie ordered Katie, with anger only fear could produce. Katie knew better than to argue and took off through the kitchen and ducked into the bedroom without looking back.
Swanie and Mila were forcing them back out one at time, switching to sofa cushions as counter-rams. Grunts issued from them like commentary, punctuated by gasps of pain.
One dog managed to slip through with shards of glass lodged in its flanks. It pulled the wooden roll-up blind off its mountings and brought it cascading down on top of Mila and Swanie snaring them like wild game snared in netting.
Peter was headed turned towards the front bedroom where he kept the chain saw. He stopped and ripped the blind from them and threw it aside. Then he went for the chain saw. It hadn’t been used in a month, was caked with oily wood pulp from cutting firewood and nearly out of gas. He never really took care of it. Tossed it heedlessly into an old cardboard box after each use. Never once did he think he would someday need it as a weapon. He grabbed it and rushed out, cranking it madly without even bothering to set the choke.
The oil and sawdust caked motor wouldn’t turn over. He set it on the floor, steadying it with his foot and gave it a smoother, more forceful tug.
Swanie and Mila tore the couch away so they could get closer to the breeched window. Most of the pack was churning across the deck, bobbing and weaving, swirling and snapping at one another for the chance to get through the jagged hole in the glass at the people inside.
Swanie saw Peter struggling with the dead machine. “Where’s your bat?” she shouted at him, spittle flying from her lips. The words distorted. “Get your bat.”
His old wooden softball bat, still neglected in the corner by the door. He grabbed it and pitched it to Mila who handed it to Swanie.
In one clean motion, she took it midway up the handle and brought it down on the head of a dog. Beside her Mila battled with the sofa cushion. He held his left hand high against his chest with his thumb wrapped in his fingers, drawn away from what his right hand was doing.
A dog streaked through and came at Peter. There was no more time to dicker with the chain saw.
Swinging from his waist, he used it as a bludgeon to fend off the dog. When it backed away, he pulled the cord again. No luck. The dog launched itself at Peter’s throat. He blocked it with the machine’s yellow body. The dog deflected lower and clamped its teeth into his hand. Then let go. Dull heavy pressure bloomed like fireworks into needle-sharp pain. He swore the thin bones in his hand were split apart like chicken bones. Dropping the chain saw, he kicked the dog to the door and, parting it just enough, shoved it out.
As he moved back to face more, Gretchen appeared as the door calmly waiting to be let in. Just as unbothered she might be returning from an early morning piss call. Peter flicked the door open and she slipped inside. Once in, her demeanor changed and she reverted to the possessive animal Peter well new. Her hackles rose like semaphores. Her jowls shook with territorial rage and she shot between Swanie and Mila and tore at the throat of the next dog trying to get through. Her guttural snarls completed the wild random din.
Animals boiled at the window, too frenzied – or too stupid – to smash through the one beside it along the bank of windows that made up the entire deck wall. Instead, they fought with one another to get through this one, contesting for primacy like crabs in a pot.
On this try the chain saw started.
A Doberman, shot through the window, straight back into the bathroom. Swanie chased it and pulled the door shut.
No time to check that one out. Two more got past Mila, sidestepped Peter and threw themselves at Swanie as she emerged from the kitchen. She scrambled onto the kitchen table – on her knees swinging the black bat side to side, then up and down, bashing the table, knocking chairs aside, cracking canine bone.
The chain saw sputtered blue smoke and raucous noise, announcing the cavalry in the form of a sixteen-inch bladed chain. Peter juiced it a few times to build torque. It ran rough and weak. Turning it on Swanie’s attackers, he sliced across the muzzle of one dog, gouged the throat of the other, wounding it enough to discourage further attack. Swanie jumped down and beat it to death.
He whirled around, charged the window and carved another’s hind leg down to the bone as it came through. It hopped around in a circle on three legs, slapping canine blood across the room, trying to launch itself. Peter wanted to laugh. He brought it down and finished off the dog, juicing it for all it was worth.
It sputtered. He revved it. The chain saw never got running smoothly enough to sustain action. He worked it too hard too quickly and stalled it out. The motor choked on its own torque and coughed to a stop. Its dying sounds revealed gunshots off in the distance. Baying followed by more gunshots, this time up on the road and much closer.
Shouts emanated from Charlie’s, followed by a woman’s scream. The dogs were at Charlie’s cabin. Some of them, anyway. Peter heard snarling. Then voices.
“No!” a woman cried out in anguish. Then shots.
The shooting stopped paused a few moments and resumed farther away. Whoever it was, they were firing as they moved. The remaining dogs bolted off the deck and down the hill snapping at one another, leaving the three humans standing by the shattered window blinking at their violated world.
Shivering screams came from the back bedroom. Swanie motioned that way with her head. The dogs must have found another way in.
Peter charged through the kitchen. “There’s a hammer in the drawer beside the sink,” he shouted over his shoulder to Mila.
He found the girls cowering in the corner and Frannie kneeling facing the window with a hair brush to ward off adversaries should they get into the room. Outside a dog was yo-yoing up to the pane trying to get in. The window was too high and the dog was too small to put so much as a smear of slobber against the glass. The spotted face and pink tongue strained upward, dropped away and resurfaced an instant later, boing, boing … clownish in any other context.
Mila appeared in the doorway wrapping a wet rag around his damaged hand. “Where the hell’s the hammer?” Peter barked. He was still juiced.
Mila fixed beyond the leaping dog on the cars and the woods beyond.
“The hammer,” Peter exclaimed, “Get the hammer.”
“Get it yourself,” Swanie cut at him from behind Mila. “And you need to calm down. You’re hyperventilating.”
That brought him up. He looked down at his wounds. He caught his reflection in the mirror and he did not like what he was seeing: shocked, filthy, disheveled, cut up, bitten, on the drop edge of hysteria. Hyperventilating, hell, he could handle that. He forced himself to take a deep breath. So much for a walk in the woods.
He slid by past Swanie and went into the kitchen. He found the hammer in the junk drawer, hefted it a few times and let it fall from his hand onto the table. He strained over the kitchen sink, pressed his nose against the window toward the stand of hemlocks and hybrid poplars he and father-in-law had planted their first spring at the cabin to block out the neighbors. The poplars had grown fast and full, as they were bred to do. No dogs haunted this side of the cabin. From this view the woods were as bright and quiet as ever and not the least bit threatening. All was normal.
He hoped to catch a glimmer of sunlight reflecting off a windshield or a bumper at his neighbors. But no one was over there. They were rarely there and never ventured outside when they were. Lucky them.
The heavy glass door slid open, rolling like weighty cargo on its ball bearings. He went to investigate. Swanie had parted the door and was leaning out. Detecting no movement, she slipped out and around to the ax.
Cursing to himself, Peter dropped low and crept out to bring her back inside.
“We need this,” Swanie huffed at him. “We needed it before.” She picked it up, thrust it at him and set about gathering up her scattered song sheets. She shoved aside the dog she had killed to retrieve the last few without seeming to be the slightest bit repulsed. If anything she was annoyed.
When she finished she pushed past Peter back inside.
He closed and locked the door. “Let’s not go outside anymore without everyone knowing it, okay? At least not until we’re sure it’s safe.”
“Don’t you ever tell me about my music. I’ll get it whenever I want.” Surprised by her own anger, she forced herself to slow down. “The dogs are gone, Peter. I made sure. We might need the ax in case they come back.”
She picked up the fallen blind and handed him one end. They lifted it onto its mountings above the window. Once they had it secure, he released the cord and the wooden lattices unraveled over the broken window.
Almost immediately, the blind poked in towards them. Tensing, Peter glanced around for the bat. The little dog from the back window slipped through, yipped once at them in triumph, and scampered into the back bedroom.
Grabbing the ax Peter chased after it.
The room erupted.
The petrified girls heaved onto the bed by Frannie for protection against the little spotted predator. The dog perched eagerly by the foot of the bed, clueless it was the cause of the explosions ripping from the girls.
“Kill it, Peter,” Katie cried. The words were unnatural on her lips. This was a girl with a belly laugh and affection for everyone. It was sad to see her mouth contort with such wrath.
“There’s no need, cherub. This dog isn’t going to hurt you. It’s just a foo-foo dog. “Just take it easy.” He knelt and ran the backs of his fingers across the dog’s back to reassure her. “Probably the only one of the bunch that’s friendly.” From its pointy nose to its nubbin of a tail, the dog might have passed for a Jack Russell terrier except for the long legs that doubled its height and made it look like it was walking on eggs. Cockeyed, Peter thought, just like everything else.
The dog leapt onto the bed and began sniffing at Katie and Laurel. They shrieked in terror, trying to pile behind Frannie for protection.
Peter grabbed the little thing and threw it off the bed. This dog wasn’t the same as the others. Somehow it must have gotten swept up by the mob, probably off someone’s front porch. “Jesus, quiet down,” he said to the girls. “You’re making more noise than the dogs did.”
“Don’t swear at your daughter. She doesn’t need to hear that kind of talk, especially from her father.”
Peter looked at Frannie, at the girls. Everyone was still very much on edge, himself included. “Okay, Frannie,” holding up a palm apologetically.
Mila came for the little dog and took it outside. “They’re all gone,” he said upon returning. “All the dogs.” He glanced back into the front room. “Except for our little friend. He’s coming back.”
The dog hopped through the window just barely pulling its body over the lower panel, tongue dangling, its mole of a tail throbbing, skipped through the kitchen into the bedroom and jumped back up onto the bed. This time it made for Katie, who, to everyone’s surprise, swept it into her arms.
“Maybe we should feed it,” Mila suggested, his voice fractured, the cords on his neck penciling. “Maybe we should take it to the vets for its shots. Maybe we should all go to the vets for our own shots.” He looked Peter up and down. “We could use it. We are the dog.” He trilled a laugh in a way that showed all his teeth, straight back to his silver molars, turned abruptly and left the room.
Peter was well aware of the ‘you are the dog’ meme about becoming the subject of drug-induced ridicule. This didn’t feel so much like the time for jokes. He went to the wall phone and dialed 911. The line was busy, big surprise. The rapid beeping indicated an overloaded trunk line. He tried the operator. Same thing. He couldn’t find his cell phone. He tried Frannie’s, no network. No surprise there either. Same for Swanie’s.
Mila was back at the windows, mumbling reproof to himself, running through a litany of what might have been, how it could have been different and what he might have done to make it so.
“I was thinking when she went off by herself that I should have gone with her. I let her go alone. I wanted to play music.” He trailed off. His simple, straightforward thoughts seemed to hang wretchedly over him. “Karma,” he said, as though talking about a living, breathing person.
Peter murmured sympathy and walked away. He changed his mind and went back to him, positioned himself so they were face-to-face and laid it out to him.
“We have to get to a doctor. Look at your arms. Mine too, my hand and my leg. They ache like hell. And it’s not just us. Swanie took a pretty good chewing. All over her arms and legs. Those dogs had to have rabies. I don’t have the slightest idea how long the incubation period is. And Gretchen’s in worse shape than we are. We can’t just wait around for the authorities. Those dogs might come back.”
They were probably miles away by now, but if they came back, could they fend them off again time? There were two kids to protect. Should they wait for the phones to work and call the police? Or wait until someone happened by? In the meantime, what about Pari? Should they look for her? Call out for her and risk summoning every mad dog in the panhandle?
First they attack you. They kill one of you. Then you try to understand them. What a lovely state of being to discover you have no control over your own life, that you don’t even understand your own life
They stood mutely staring at each other. Peter that he had managed to spook them both with his résumé of hopelessness.
“She wants to talk to you.” Startled, Peter wheeled around. Swanie came to him with Katie close by her side, her little white face full of trust. Peter and her mom would take care of everything, solve all the problems and make everything right. That was what big people did.
Swanie cocked her head. “What’s wrong with him?”
Mila’s palms were floating at his sides. His shoulders sagged towards his belly, rounded over legs flexed at the knees. His back was board straight. His way of coping no doubt.
“You better get it together,” she admonished lowly.
“What happened to Pari, Mommy? Where is she?” The little girl so wanted to show hope now that she believed her adults were in charge once again. Gazing into her open, accepting face slaked the hurricane in Peter’s mind long enough for him to gain some clarity.
He went to see what Frannie wanted. She was curled up against the headboard stroking Laurel. Laurel held the dog against her chest like a doll baby. The dog all but purred with contentment. “It’s all right for the time being,” he told her, eyeing Laurel, anticipating what she wanted to hear.
Frannie looked at him steadily for a moment and changed the subject, slightly. “That’s not what I wanted, watching him for his reaction. “You have to go back ...” Nodding in the direction of the woods, she stopped to avoid mentioning Pari by name “… and look.”
Something of a surprise coming from her. As soon as she said it, he knew she was right. There was no other way. He nodded automatically.
“You don’t have a choice. You have to. Take Swanie with you. Tell her I’ll watch Katie.”
“She should stay here in case there’s more trouble. I’ll see if I can get Mila to come.”
“I’ll keep the girls back here and we’ll be quiet. There won’t be any trouble if those animals don’t know we’re here.”
“They’ll hear us banging through the woods all over again.”
“Then be quiet … and just make sure she keeps her voice down. It carries. We’ll be fine. Just go and check and then come right back.”
Peter smiled ruefully at his ex-wife, patted Katie’s head. Venturing out again was reckless and stupid. But they couldn’t very well neglect Pari, not after they watched her mauled because of their own witless arrogance. It wasn’t a matter of cutting their losses. If she was to have any chance of making it, she needed their help right away. It didn’t matter that it was probably too late already. “This time it’s fifteen minutes for sure.” He paused in the doorway. “Were they the same dogs that chased your car?”
“Does it matter?”
“You said they jumped onto your car. You saw them up close.”
“I did, but I didn’t notice. They could have been some of the same ones. They looked the same. They seemed the same.”
“And they acted the same,” he added. “I, look, I just want you to know I’m sorry I didn’t completely believe you before. You were right to be alarmed and I should have taken you seriously. More seriously than I did.”
“Completely believe me? You didn’t believe me at all. No one believed me. Why should you be any different?”
“But you didn’t tell anybody else, did you?”
“Well, they wouldn’t have believed me if I had.” She looked up at him with a question. “Would they?”
They both knew the answer was no. Swanie especially would have found it grounds for ridicule. All that had changed now. “Maybe I was too distracted by the other stuff to take you seriously,” he said.
“What other … what are you talking about?”
“You know, the troubles on television, out in the world. You’re right, it really doesn’t matter anymore if they were the same dogs or not. We would have taken that walk anyway. I’m sorry I didn’t heed your warning. But, well, Frannie, it was pretty outlandish. You have to admit.”
“Plus, it was coming from me, your over-protective ex-wife.”
Picking up the phone, he detected the distant ticking and scratching of line noise, faint but not a dead heavy vacuum of silence that would have meant permanent disconnection. Encouraged, he hung on and several minutes later got a dial tone. Tried O, busy. Tried 911, jammed. The sheriff’s line was busy. At least they were working that much. Frannie’s cell was still searching. He thumbed it off to save the battery, for all the good it would do.
The cabin reeked of dog. The air felt close and soggy, anxiety in a contained space. Acrid oil from the chain saw spiked their noses like fruity incense. Incense called Fear.
They still had a dog in the bathroom to deal with. In order to do that, they had to relocate the girls. This wasn’t something they should see. More violence might do lethal damage to the thin fabric that kept them compliant and for the most part quiet.
He went into the back bedroom to get Laurel. His arm ached. He kept his hand on it to reduce the pain.
“Frannie, you have to move her. Katie’s already upstairs. We have something to take care of in the bathroom.”
Mila floated in and squatted beside Laurel. In a voice that bordered on the childish, he told her she needed to move to the loft. He addressed Frannie in the same way. Frannie picked up Laurel and left the room. But not before letting Peter know what she thought of Mila’s efforts at consoling them.
Peter pretended not to notice.
Swanie was at the kitchen sink rinsing her face. Turning her around, Peter tried to hug her, feeling the need for his own comforting. She drew back and walked away. He dropped his arms. He tried to tell her how much her strength meant to him. She didn’t want to hear it.
They assembled at the bathroom door. Swanie had the ax, Mila the bat. Peter had the chain saw but put it on the kitchen table when he realized it would make too much noise. They had become furtive without even realizing it, speaking in stagey whispers.
Peter cracked the door. No detectable motion. The bathroom was cold, black and smelly. He climbed onto the stove beside the door and snaked a hand around to the bathroom wall to the fire extinguisher. He ran his fingers along its contours until he located the mounting clasp. The extinguisher came off the wall into his hand with a clatter. Swanie pulled the door shut. Still no motion inside.
Swanie eased the door back open and hit the bathroom lights. A medium-sized black and rust Doberman purebred or thereabouts was cowering by the tub, blinking in the sudden brightness. When they stepped in, Swanie first, Peter leaning over her shoulder, it started panting, as though worn out, and gave no indication of attacking. If anything, it was confused.
Not that it mattered or that they had a choice. The dog had dried blood on its muzzle. Peter blasted it with the fire extinguisher. When it turned its head to avoid the powdery spray, Swanie brought the ax down on its skull and split it in two. The dog died without protest. Peter pulled it onto the throw rug and they ported it out and tossed it over the deck with the other carcasses.
“They can stay there and rot,” he said. “Where’s Gretchen?”
“She’s up here,” Frannie said from the loft. They looked up at Frannie standing at the railing looking down on them.
Swanie got the betadyne from the medicine cabinet, extracted the applicator and daubed at Peter’s bites, so many of them she gave up and dribbled it over the damaged areas. She wrapped gauze around the violet wounds – futilely as far as she was concerned.
While she tended to Mila and herself, he went up to the loft. Gretchen lay stretched out at the foot of the bed panting heavily. She was cut up and bloody. Her wound smelled like rancid meat and looked pretty much the same way. The gash on her side hung open, exposed, deep and raw. She averted her head.
“I was worried about you, girl,” Peter said, stroking the soft skin under her chin. Smoothing her liver-colored ears. “You were so brave to defend me from that big dog and fight with us downstairs. You rest here with the girls. I’ll be back shortly.”
He wished he could ask her where she had gone when she chased the dogs or why she’d stood by when the second pack struck. She’d probably saved her own life holding back and running away even though that wasn’t like her. She was obsessively jealous and protective.
“You and your dog,” Frannie commented. “Gretchen’s about the only successful relationship you’ve ever had, isn’t it? You should have raised dogs instead of a family.”
The little voice that usually prompted him to hit back giggled. Peter coughed out a laugh. He found her insipid little turkey humorous. And probably true. “We’re going to check now … outside. Will you be okay?”
“At least it shows your heart’s in the right place.”
“From time to time,” he replied. And headed for the steps.
“Just be careful, Peter. Don’t let anyone talk you into anything. You know how impressionable you are.”
He glanced back at her. Impressionable? Where did that come from? “Don’t worry, Frannie, from time to time even my head’s in the right place. Swanie is staying here, just in case. Are you sure you’ll be okay? You know...” He stopped himself. She and Swanie would stay far away from each other. “We’ll be back before you know we’re gone.” He winked at Laurel and Katie and continued down.
“She doesn’t have to. We’ll be fine.” It wasn’t much of a protest considering how adamant she had been before.
Mila cradled the ax in both hands like he was ready to whip a few licks on air guitar. Both of them had a kitchen knife jutting from their belt. Peter slapped the wooden bat like Officer Fishcakes walking his beat. “Let’s do this,” he said, trying to sound resolute while looking around with extra caution. “We’re safe, as long as we don’t stay out too long.”
“Or make too much noise.”
Their bravado lasted until their feet left the bottom step. They had no idea if they’d be safe under any circumstances. They rounded the cabin, ducked under the deck and started down the hill. Early fall leaves split apart like chicken bones beneath them no matter how lightly they trod. Above them, the trees moaned in response to the breaking bones and the air carried a chill.
From inside the cabin, a few pounded chords and Swanie dishing out St. James Infirmary Blues like thin gruel.
The farther away from a quick retreat to the cabin, the more they brandished their weapons, mostly at the noise they were making.
“Pari is dead.” Mila said. He cast his eyes cast downward at the ground immediately before him as they made their way down the hill into the brittle quiet of deadfall. “The dogs chewed her to bits.”
Once onto the sharper decline inside the ravine – it seemed even deeper now that the angled surrounding harbored such palpable threats – they covered fifty yards to the junction quickly. Peter kept careful watch ahead and behind, surveying the sides, afraid to take one foot for granted. Mila fixed on the ground just in front afraid to look up lest it somehow invite another attack – the coward leading the blind man.
The junction of the streams was as idyllic as they had first encountered it. They stopped at the bank, looking for signs of struggle. Nothing was amiss. The light rush of water married the opposing stream to form a broader flow trailing off into the woodsy lushness that had so tempted Pari. A few patches of raw earth marked spots where rocks had been torn up. The discarded shovel lay nearby. But no blood, no real damage. No other signs of violence. The attacks had happened and been resolved in such short order they left behind no physical evidence. They expected to encounter Pari’s savaged corpse, half in, half out of the water. She was nowhere to be seen and no aspect of her clothing revealed itself either. It was as though a clean-up crew had moved through.
He moved about kicking aside the blanket of broadleaf ferns by the fallen trunk. He was not sure what he expected to find. Indication they’d been there? His toe clinked against their empty beer can. He picked it up and presented it like proof. After making sure Mila saw it, he tossed it aside and they crossed the streams and cut up the hill, retracing the path the dogs had taken.
The hill rose as steeply as at Laurel’s Falls. Both of them were puffing by the time they reached the top. From there they gazed down at the junction onto the exposed and vulnerable scene of the attack. In a flash, such a sunny and pleasant garden spot had become the scene of violence and death.
Staring at it longingly, almost in disbelief, Peter said. “Let’s go back down and get this over with.”
Mila called him back. He was pointing at something through the woods.
Peter followed Mila’s extended arm to a cabin not far away, its mansard roof just discernable. Peter recognized it immediately as the cabin whose green outdoor light was visible from their deck in winter months through the army of bare skinny trees.
They headed towards it, carefully not to snap every random branch tangling their path. The chimney was vacant of smoke, no voices, no interior lights shone through the row of rectangular windows across the top of the back wall just under the eaves. The place looked like a shoebox with its lid ajar, though it was every bit the size of Peter’s A-frame.
The grassy backyard had been cleared and laid out to re-create suburbia right down to the concrete birdbath. Mila charged across it. “Anybody home?” he called.
The porch door was standing open. They stepped directly through onto the back porch, threaded thought the jumbled furniture and peered inside. The kitchen was in disarray. Possibly dogs had gotten in. Mila eased the door wide with the side of his hand and stepped inside. Cabinet doors hung open, drawers pulled halfway out. Cereal boxes lay on their sides with their contents scattered across the kitchen table like crumbs. A carton of milk sat on the floor. Mila picked it up and put it in the refrigerator.
Messy was more like it, and they found the cause of the mess sprawled on the living room floor. No dogs; kids. Three of them, two boys and a girl, lying around reading. Peter and Mila stood their weapons by the kitchen door and laid their knives on the counter before approaching the kids.
They stopped at the edge of the living room waiting for the kids to adjust to their presence.
The younger boy glanced up at them absently, unfazed by the strangers. He could have been watching cartoons. His angular blonde bangs hung over his eyebrows onto his eyes. “Hi,” he said, and returned to his book.
Beside him, his sister who looked about the same age lay on her stomach paging through a magazine. “They aren’t here,” she reported slowly. She didn’t seem to care whether they knew it or not.
“Who isn’t here?” Peter asked.
“Our mother and father” the little girl said.
“Where are they?”
“Is anyone else here with you? An adult we might talk to?” Mila asked.
She shook her head.
“Has anyone else been here? A woman maybe? She might have been bleeding?”
This brought another shake of the head. By the fireplace lay an older boy supine with an ankle propped across a knee reading a Secrets of Droon novel. He didn’t feel moved to acknowledge their presence.
“Do you mind if we look around?” Mila asked.
They said nothing perhaps intending their silence as approval. Mila went upstairs. Peter checked the bathroom. The cabin was in homey disarray, it looked to him, because the kids had been alone for the better part of the day. Their pajamas were scattered along the short hallway and every cabinet and drawer that could be left open was. The cold water tap in the bathroom drizzled and the toilet was dark and full of smeared toilet paper. Peter flushed it and returned to the living room. “Did you kids see any dogs around your place earlier today?”
They thought the question was funny. There were dogs all over the place. This was the country.
“Do you have a dog of your own?”
“He ran away,” the girl told him.
“What kind of dog was it?”
She didn’t answer him and he was unable to get anything more from blonde boy. The older boy still had not stirred except to turn the page of his book. “Are you three all right here alone? Do your parents always leave you alone like this?”
The girl looked at him curiously, flashing her big brown eyes at the silly grown-up with his impertinent questions. “They always do when they go shopping.” She wasn’t in the least concerned. The silly grownup stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips. The girl watched him for a moment then added primly, “We’re good.”
Peter couldn’t help but chuckle at her despite everything. “Ok, just be sure to lock the doors after me,” he said to them. They made no moves to comply.” I meant it now. Lock the back door after us.”
He left and joined Mila on the back porch. How could such eerie normality occupy the same space as extreme hell?
“Anything?” Peter asked.
Mila shook his head. He hadn’t really been looking anyway. He had been idling behind Peter wondering about his missing girlfriend.
An incomplete swing set sat on the gravel driveway. It looked as though assembly had been interrupted some weeks ago. Unattached parts lay scattered like the kids’ clothes. Otherwise, the raw yard, cleared by the bobcat that poked its nose from the storage shed, was clear and spacious. They followed the gravel driveway down to the road. Nothing. Deserted. Only the wind in the trees and the beat of stillness.
Peter stepped out into the middle of the blacktop and an aura of emptiness. From where they stood the woods and the road creeping through them, all of it, felt like part of a large crushing void. A far cry from the hustle of vans, SUVs and loaded station wagons that normally zoomed earnestly across Sleepy Mountain. He never felt so alone as he did in that spot at that moment.
Devoid of traffic and even the rattle and hum of the distant Interstate strangely gone, the road made the perfect path for a quiet stroll. The weather was temperate, the sky an untroubled blue. Nothing was amiss. The temptation to shuck it for a few minutes’ peace was strong. The old gray road stretched under a bower of trees swaying longingly towards one another from either side. More peacefulness he couldn’t have asked for. Just like the emptiness at the heart of a big city that leaves you surrounded by life but alone in the world.
He stopped, rubbed at his aching wounds, listening for an indication of human activity. Mila directed his attention further down the road. His mouth shaped the start of a word, but nothing came out. Instead, he swung around and headed in that direction as though in the grasp of siren sounds. Right down the middle of the road.
Peter detected nothing but more trees swaying, their dry leaves tapping SOS at one another. He followed anyhow.
Into the quiet of the shade. The road continued straight and level for a few dozen yards then sloped gently downward. It was so tranquil and calming, it was difficult to imagine any trouble past, present or future. Just a relaxing mid-day stroll – until Peter got a load of the stretched concern on Mila’s face. He had latched onto something and was letting himself be drawn towards it.
“Do you hear something?”
Mila shrugged. They continued until Mila pointed again, this time into middle distance. Voices were coming from somewhere. That much was clear, difficult as it was to discern distance or approximate how many there were.
And then came the smells: meaty, smoky and fresh; enticing as all get out. Reminded Peter of the honey aroma of smoked kebobs at Adams Morgan Day. They picked up their pace and came to an opening in the ditch lilies and scrub brush along the left side of the road. From there they could gaze down onto the cutback and the farm beyond it.
Three men were arrayed around an open cinder block barbecue pit. Something was turning on a mechanized spit. Two of the men held beers, the other hand tucked peaceably in the front pocket of their jeans. Flannel above that with cutoff sleeves and hunting cap variations. A cabin stood close by. Its color scheme of the small one floor house favored the Washington Redskins. The modest dwelling was painted maroon with a few long-faded gold pendants hanging along the feckless spouting.
The guy closest to the spit removed his cap, moped his brow with a forearm and let the cap fall back onto his head. He picked up the Maxwell House can at his feet, removed the paintbrush from it and began basting the meat.
The men moved slowly around the fire pit, their attention fixed on the fire more so than the food twisting in its heat. The chef produced a buck knife from a sheath on his belt and cut a chunk from the animal’s flank. He ripped a piece with his teeth, considered it, nodded and handed off the knife to his compatriots. The taste seemed pleasing to all three.
The air was redolent even if the collective attitude didn’t exactly inspire fellowship. Two women came from the cabin. One of them held a large butcher knife, or maybe it was a machete. The other woman bore maid-like a plate heaped with raw meat, which the cook took from her one piece at a time and positioned upon the blackened grate beneath the spit just so.
The woman with the knife bent down and picked up a carcass and cradled it across her arms.
Two things struck Peter simultaneously and with such force he fell back a step. He and Mila had been side by side just off the road gazing through the break down onto this clearing and its occupants.
He didn’t have enough time to speak before he was forced to react.
If Mila saw it ahead of him, he didn’t show it until Peter recoiled. The pattern-breaking act of lifting the carcass shifted the scene into distinctly different relief. The carcass, partially skinned and gutted, its body cavity neat, the guts in a heap nearby was that of a dog. The meat on the spit was dog. Two other dead dogs lay nearby waiting to be skinned.
That was enough to spark reaction, part horror, part relief that someone else had been attacked and reacted. For the brief time it took for that to register, Peter noticed that of the two women the one with the dog appeared to be naked save perhaps a thong. The woman with the plate was topless and in cut-offs.
A third woman emerged from the house buck naked, nothing on, not even flip flops. Newsworthy enough, and Peter did have time to note the extent of her bodily depilation, until something even more dramatic focused his attention. She had a rifle in her hands and she handed it to the cook who turned and looked directly up to the road where Peter and Mila stood and shouted, “Hey!”
All of them, the three women included, rotated like a supporting chorus. Mila raised his hand in greeting as the cook brought the rifle to his shoulder. Peter grabbed Mila’s arm and drew him back.
A high-powered round ripped the fleshy air just by them, pulling a startling amount of compression with it, and imbedded in the bank across the road with deep and pronounced penetration.
Whether from the concussion or the surprise, they went down hard. The impact on the road surface spiked up their spines like the hand of the devil. Panting before they had gained their feet, it felt like every molecule of oxygen had broken down and dispersed. They came up running and took off back the way they came. The attacking dogs had taught them a valuable lesson. No double-checking over the shoulder this time, just hell bent for breakfast. And they weren’t the ones eating.
They had considerable distance to cover on foot. After maybe two hundred yards or so, they paused to catch their breath. No one was behind them. No discernable automobile noise. “What sauce do you think they were using?” Mila asked.
Peter looked at him. He grunted out a half-laugh.
They didn’t pause again until they reached the cabin with the kids. They ducked around the corner and edged back to see if they had been followed. The breeze cooperated by settling long enough for them to detect any pursuit over the thrumming of their own pulses. No car engines, no boots on the ground, no shouting, no shooting. No patter of naked feet for that matter.
“You go on ahead. I have to get the kids. We can’t leave them behind. Go on, we’ll catch up. Get everybody ready. We’re getting the fuck out as soon as I get back.” Mila backpedaled a step then turned away without so much as a nod and disappeared into the bush and thrashed down the hill full speed.
Peter cornered his eyes towards the front again to confirm they weren’t being chased. He stayed by the side of the cabin until sound of his departure died away. Seeing no pursuer emerge from the road, he ducked onto the back porch.
The kitchen door was locked. A new box of cereal, Coca Puffs, sat on the table. Peter tapped gently on the pane, quietly as he could. Then with increasing force when no one came. Eventually, just short of pounding, he roused the older boy with the younger kids peeking from the living room. This older boy sported an extravagant mop of brown hair that flopped over one eye. He was probably ten or so. Now he looked frightened. He inspected Peter warily before struggling to twist the key. He allowed the door to come partway open then stopped it with his foot, a paltry precaution given his size.
“It’s not safe here,” he said to the boy. “I think you three should come with me to our cabin. My wife is there and two kids your age.”
The boy’s eyes widened. He looked ready to run.
Peter held up a hand to reassure the boy. “Okay, look, you don’t have to. I think you’ll be safer if you come with us. We’re just down there across the stream, at the top of the other hill. We can see your green light in the winter. You’ve probably heard us from time to time. We make a lot of noise.”
The boy wasn’t buying it. Peter realized that he had been frightened all along. His nonchalance had been a ruse.
“How about you give me a piece of paper and I’ll write a note for your mom and dad telling them where you are? As soon as they get back, they can call and I’ll bring you right back here. It’s safer with us than staying here all alone. There’s kids your age to play with.”
The boy fixed on the knife in Peter’s belt. “Go get a paper and pencil. I’ll wait out here,” seeking to reassure him. “It’s dangerous outside right now. That’s why I told you before to lock your doors. I want to make sure your parents know you’re safe.”
He stepped back elaborately to let him close the door. Definitely the boy’s lack of concern before had been a cover. “Go on. I’ll wait.”
The boy disappeared into the living room, making sure to move his siblings out of eyesight. He returned with a partial page torn from a coloring book and a crayon.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us? You really aren’t safe here.”
“They’re coming back, mister. Soon. I promise.”
Peter wrote note in burnt sienna and slipped it through the door, alerting his parents to the danger and asking them to call. He folded it over in hopes the boy wouldn’t read it. “Please don’t forget to tell them we were here. Keep your doors locked and stay away from the windows until they get back,” he said. “And make sure to give them this.”
The boy nodded, closed and locked the door. He disappeared inside. Peter tried to let his mind settle around the facts. The attack on his sister seemed very much part of this now. Pari’s apparent death. The dogs fighting one another then merging. The attack on the cabin. What had gotten into them and where had they come from? Pari, poor Pari … whatever had become of her?
Peter headed back. Soon darkness would fall and he didn’t want to be traipsing through the woods when it did.
He made it down the hill and across the stream when he encountered another man headed directly across his path. He was stooped low kicking through the underbrush to avoid low branches. His rifle prodded ahead of him. Nothing stealthy about this hunter. Peter remembered encountering a poacher once upon a time at a private hunting club out in Blair’s Valley. He was twelve at the time, too young to realize what he might have faced. The poacher looked him right in the face, blankly, and diverted his path. Later his father told him next time to turn and run. As opposed to getting shot was the unspoken explanation.
Despite that Peter froze. He’d been shot at once already. This guy didn’t look like one of the barbecuers, but he was taking no chances. Sinking slowly to his haunches, he tried to get into midget mode, as he called it as a kid, when he had last tried it. He squatted down and pulled his shirt over his knees.
This poacher also met his gaze without emotion. Peter felt like he was staring at a TV screen in which the lead actor was looking directly into the camera. He diverted his path directly towards Peter.
Peter started to raise his hand in a gesture of Surrender? Friendship? He wasn’t sure what. The poacher brandished what looked to be a twelve gauge. Brought it to his shoulder as though to clear a room and … shifted his away and moved on.
He had not seen Peter after all. He heard him but failed to spot him. Midget mode worked. Though he may have laid eyes on Peter, it hadn’t registered. He wondered if maybe this guy was from a different crew altogether. He dress was a shade or two brighter than the worn-in garb of the barbecuers. Highly likely he wasn’t local. Truth was he looked like a weekender.
He stayed down for until he was certain the man has passed by. The sun was low now and the reassuring heat on his neck and shoulders had begun to dissipate and left him feeling the chill. He swore he smelled cooking meat, but dismissed it as his memory playing tricks on an empty stomach. Sooner or later danger had to pass, didn’t it? And everything would be normal again.
On a whim Peter got to his feet and headed in the direction of the poachers. There was no reason why he shouldn’t try to see what was going on with this guy. If he was careful to stay quiet, maybe he could track him long enough to find out.
Once upon time his father taught him a little about woodland stealth. He learned to track squirrels, to anticipate their next move, to move when they moved, to listen when they stopped, to watch when they listened. Once you got the hang of it, you could get close enough to blow them out of a tree with a slingshot. Not that Peter favored that over his .410. You had to be quiet and aware of the ticks and tapings of your surroundings. With deer you sat still until they came by on their way to water. This man was so noisy as any squirrel. And as obtrusive as any deer he’d ever heard banging through the forest. He was also alarmed and careless enough to suggest he just might open up on anything that popped up in front of him.
And, he was unfamiliar with the lay of the land. He paused repeatedly to get his bearings, sighting off the same high tree each time. Tracking him might actually have been fun had he not been armed and Peter not sacred shitless.
After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, the man stopped suddenly and swung around in Peter’s direction. He brought the shotgun up again on an axis. Peter wondered if maybe he had some military or police training. He was a little older than a grunt, a little too shaggy for an officer. His hair fell onto his neck from beneath his black and gold Steelers cap. Maybe a reservist.
From his position low to the ground Peter tried to follow his line of sight. Not easy without moving your head. The guy was fixed on something just off to Peter’s left. The aural evidence of it made itself known. The guy had picked it up before Peter, even though Peter was closer by many yards. Another man appeared, also armed.
The poacher drew down on this new figure. Peter imagined him snicking off the safety and excitedly jerking the trigger just to see what happened.
No action here. The two men knew each other. They lowered their weapons and linked up.
What, like scouts?
Apparently so. The crack of the walkie-talkie was unmistakable. One man slipped a copper and black unit from his belt and responded. They listened to the garbled response, turned and headed off at an oblique angle to an encampment ten minutes away. This one had no barbecue pit or dead dogs slung about. He parked himself on the periphery just back of the tree line. No buildings at all. Just a wide mountain swale, a lot of armed men and a black and gold Pittsburgh Steelers flag hanging limply from a metal pole stuck in the ground and not exactly perpendicular to it. Pickups and SUVs, mostly clean, were backed into a rough semi-circle, facing outwards either for a quick getaway or maybe to present a more threatening face to interlopers. For all Peter knew, maybe to ward off Redskins fans. A couple of the pickups displayed similar accoutrements. A battered Cherokee was just pulling in from a trail at the far side of this mountain meadow.
Two men got out of the Cherokee. The one from the passenger’s side was the other’s prisoner. He shot a jerky glance at his surroundings. The driver took him by the arm and led him over to a group of people sitting in the ground in a tight circle like hostages. The man went willingly and didn’t seem to harbor even the slightest inclination to make a break for it. The entire arrangement was as cock-eyed as the fan flag.
They squatted low with their scrubbed faces tilted upward and blanched with fear, which only served to underscore their collective vulnerability. Peter knew he had to clear out of there in a hurry and be damned quiet about it. Or he risked being asked to join them. This new group might as well have flown in from L.L. Bean by way of a fan store, but it was clear they had an agenda.
He withdrew and chuffed back to the cabin. Dusk had worked its way out of the woodland cracks and crevices dusting his route with shadow. The going was slow, the footing tricky, but that was a good thing. Maybe the Steeler fans called in their border guards for just that reason.
He walked in as Frannie was leaving a message on her father’s answering machine, murmuring that she would call back later.
Peter grabbed the phone from her and shouted a message of distress into the mouthpiece so over-modulated it would be difficult to understand. “Get the cops here right away!” But the machine had already clicked off.
“The line’s finally clear and you call your father?”
“Stop yelling. Where have you been?”
“Trying to get back here. Lotta crazy shit going on out there.”
“You’re all right, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m here in one piece. We didn’t find Pari. Or any trace of her. There are some kids in the cabin with the green light. Told us their parents were shopping. Did you try 911 first?”
“Alone? Were they okay? Why were they there? Are they safe?”
“They’re inside for now. It’s not safe out there for anyone.” Peter recounted what he’d seen at the cabin, leaving out everything else he had encountered. “I don’t think they’ll go out. I’m pretty sure I convinced them they had to stay inside.”
She started to add something but he cut her off. “We need to pack up and get out of here. We can’t stand around waiting for the next shoe to drop. Why don’t you two get the girls’ things together?”
He tried 911. The lines were still overloaded. He tried friends, every number he could think of, he even tried the homeowners association.
Frannie hadn’t moved an inch. “You know, Peter, yelling isn’t going to make anyone pay any more attention to you.”
“And stop saying bad words,” the girls chimed in.
Peter glanced around the cabin. This was their safety zone? He looked at Swanie. She was ignoring Frannie. How long it might take the Steeler fans to find their way here? They couldn’t be more than five miles away by road.
Katie and Laurel were sitting on the hearth playing with the new dog. Spot, they were calling it. Dog of the Apocalypse, appealed to Peter. Already Katie was allotting Laurel time to play then taking it back so she could keep the dog to herself. Laurel was reduced to petting Spot’s rump and the baby finger of a tail, claiming that part as hers exclusively.
He got a phone number off Spot’s collar. When he dialed it, someone picked up right away. A hard voice said hello, followed by a crash and the line cut off.
He tried the number again. It rang and rang but no one picked up. “Sounds like we’re not the only ones in trouble.” He tried 911, gave up and replaced the receiver. “I wonder where they were.”
Mila rose from the chair he had been sitting in. He wandered to the door, opened it, walked outside and went down the steps. The light tapping of his shoes on the wooden steps reverberated through the quiet cabin.
After a moment Swanie picked up the ax he left on the floor and followed him, carefully sliding the glass door closed.
Dark came to surrounding woods. Nature ganging up on them, making it difficult to see without turning the lights on.
Peter joined Swanie. He pressed against her body feeling her tenseness. They strained their eyes through the advancing gloom.
“Mila,” she called after a moment.
“Mila? You okay?” he said, lowly.
The door opened and Frannie appeared at their side with the flashlight. Swanie reached for it. Frannie moved it away just out of her reach, toggled it on and directed its sharp beam towards the cars. The body language between the two women told a tale on both.
The crystalline clarity flickered yellow. The battery was running low. Frannie located Mila and played it around him until she hit on Charlie lurking undetected in the shadows nearby. He didn’t move until the light hit him. When it did, he rotated his head directly towards them. Only then did he step forward and approach Mila. Any talking that passed between them was muted and monosyllabic.
His vantage point had given him a clear view inside the cabin. He had been watching them. Frannie allowed the fading halogen to fall towards Mila’s feet, held it there for a long dreadful moment. Felling herself go weak at the knees, she handed the light to Peter and held her hand over his to guide it back onto what was surely a torso lying there. The middle part of someone that the dogs must have deposited.
“Pari,” he murmured and started down the steps just as the twin shapes converged and headed towards the cabin.
After a few steps Mila broke off, returned to the body and squatted beside it. In that moment the phone rang. Its bell pounded loudly against the wall. The harsh clanging sounded more like an alarm than a reprieve.
Frannie rushed inside and wrenched it off its hook so desperately she pulled the entire unit off the wall, leaving it dangling like an eye knocked from its socket. Right behind her Peter grabbed the base and stabilized it before it pulled the connection.
All that emotion and anxiety they had been carrying for the better part of the day surged all at once. At the sound of a voice, she burst into tears. “I’ve been calling and calling. Dogs attacked us. People got bitten. Someone has been killed. Laurel and I are okay and the rest of us are safe for now. We need the police … What? Oh.” Her voice dropped to the floor. She handed the receiver to Peter. “It’s Ron.”
He took it and waved at the girls to be quiet, cramming the phone against his head. He didn’t care who it was, he didn’t want to miss a single word.
“Hey, buddy, what’s going on up there? Who’s dead? Your limp dick?”
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Yes, I would. It’s been a royal bitch getting through to you. Your line’s been busy as hell. I’ve had my computer on automatic dial for almost an hour. It’s worse than trying to call Rush. Plus, the connection’s pretty rank. Can you hear me okay? I can barely hear you.”
“A little static but I can hear you fine.”
“Partying down, I see.”
“We’ve been going through hell up here.”
“Who was your cunt of a girlfriend screaming about getting offed? She was talking so fast I couldn’t make it out.”
“It was Frannie.”
“Frannie? Frannie, as in your ex-wife Frannie? You’re up there playing Croc-Hunter with your girlfriend and your ex-wife? Even he wasn’t that stupid.”
“Listen to me …”
“I know you’re the lonely type, but this is plain nuts.”
“Ron, shut up and listen. We were out in the woods and a pack of dogs attacked us from out of nowhere.”
“Sure, dude, and weasels ripped my flesh.”
“No, they swarmed down on us and chased us all the way back to the cabin and smashed through one of the deck windows to get at us. It was unreal.”
Peter tried to angle himself away from the others. Charlie and Mila had entered the cabin and standing by the door. Mila was working his lips like he was talking to himself. “This is no bullshit. We were taking a walk along the back of the property and a pack of stray, I don’t know …”
He signaled to Frannie to take the girls out of the room. They were paying too close attention not to get the gist of the horror show he wanted to describe. “They were wild dogs, I guess. They rode down Mila’s girlfriend and tore her apart. It was all we could do to get away from them and they chased us all the way back up here. It took forever to fight them off – inside the cabin. We went out to look for her and couldn’t find her. All of us except for the kids were bitten. And Frannie. My arms and legs ache from the all the bites I got.”
“Wild dogs, huh? Christ, as if there isn’t enough shit going down already. How many were there?”
“Maybe a dozen, I’d say. Maybe a couple less. Some of them had collars.”
“A lot more than that,” Swanie put in.
“So they weren’t wild?”
“Yes, they were – feral, at least temporarily. I don’t know.”
“Temporarily, huh? It’s a tad early in the day for you to be so shit-faced, my friend, even if you did take the day off.”
“This is no joke. I want you to call the police. Plus, people running around out there acting like they’ve lost all sense of restraint. We saw some men roasting dead dogs. The women with them were naked. I mean some wacked out shit. The lines are jammed up here.”
“One of the men took a shot at us.”
“You were shot at by naked women? Caught you peeping at them would be my guess. Are you sure those dogs weren’t just on the loose? Did you kill them?”
“We managed to get a few. But most of them just quit and ran away. Listen, man, this is serious.”
“This sounds just like a normal day in America to me. It is West Virginia, ain’t it? Compared to what I’m watching, it is normal. Dogs crashing through windows, planes flying into buildings. What’s the difference? Fucking Bush just came on. Talk about weird: He looks like he’s being held hostage someplace. I sure hope he calls his old man for some fatherly advice.”
“And we just found a body out near the cabin. Or, what looks like one.”
“Looks like a dead body? Are you sure? Maybe it’s a pile of leaves?” Ron was not the believing kind.
“It is a dead body. Of course, I’m sure. It’s just that it’s mangled worse than road kill. No arms or legs,” he lowered his voice. It felt somehow unseemly to utter it out loud.
“How close to the cabin? Maybe it’s been there for a while.”
“No, man, it’s by the cars. The strange thing is it just appeared all of a sudden. I guess while Mila and I were out searching for Pari. I guess we’ve found her now. We’re in it deep up here. My neighbor’s here now. One attacked him earlier.”
“Pari? Who’s Pari?”
“Mila’s girlfriend. She’s the one who was killed. I told you, we were hiking back by the streams when these dogs came running at us. We had to fight them—”
“What? Did your spaced-out friend find himself a girlfriend with as weird a name as his? I bet they’re a choice couple. Ommm.”
“Calm down, man, you’re running at the mouth. I know it’s bad, okay? I can hear it in your voice. I’m just tryin’ to get a slant on your situation. Excuse me for sharing, but if you ask me, you could be in for a whole lot worse unless you clear out of there. And pronto. Where’d you say you were when this happened?”
“Back at the far corner of our property, by the junction of the streams.”
Static cracked the line, swallowing Ron’s reply. When it cleared Ron was asking about something else. “I can’t hear you,” Peter shouted into the receiver, “Say it again!” His voice cracked.
“Chill out one. I ran those checks you asked me and I’d have to say from reading between the lines that those folks you wanted me to check out haven’t exactly been spending their spare time in a pie factory.”
Peter grunted with surprise, and a good bit of exasperation. Was this Ron’s way of dealing with the news of death, changing the subject to things that really didn’t matter anymore? Peter scarcely had time to register the change of subject before his partner had started running down his discovery. “From the looks of it, I’d say that men you asked me about, Ray Grove—I remember that asshole—and Robert B. Klein are being investigated for putting together some shady land deals up thata way, having to do with water rights and a bunch of other extraneous shit. That’s what it is, too, if you ask me. Ripping off the yokels. Not that they don’t deserve it, you understand.”
“Ron, this isn’t really the time right now. We have bigger problems.”
“I’m coming to that. There’s some stuff here about a couple of arrests. Something about a bunch of guys acting like they’re totally dusted. That’s dusted as in angel dust, PCP, phencyclidine, if you can imagine West Virginia rednecks running around dusted. I thought they were cooking meth these days. You do remember what PCP is, don’t you? We might have accidentally smoked it once or twice back in the day.”
Peter sighed audibly. When Ron got on a roll, there was no stopping him. He would run with it just for drill. “You guys really picked a doozie of a place to commune with nature.”
“I know how much you hate the woods. But I’m more concerned about the danger we’re in.”
Peter wondered if the barbecuers were on angel dust. He found the notion ridiculous and dismissed it. This wasn’t about illicit drugs. “And those dogs weren’t on drugs.”
“I don’t know from dogs. You better hat up, my friend. Or stay. Fuck if I care.” The tocking of his fingers playing the plastic keys. Each stroke sounding to Peter like the dog’s neck snapping under his foot. “They have a full quarantine in effect up your way. Or somewhere in West Virginia. What the flying’ fuck is a full quarantine? Typical cop bullroar. Or , are you guys up to your assholes in disease? Hell, it’s probably down state. It’s a big state with a shit load of wide-ass people living in double-wides. You’re in Berkeley County, right? If it is true and it is your neck of the woods, then I’d say you’re in Never Never Land. If I were you, I might dig a deep hole and jump into it.”
“Why’d you say that?”
“Because I don’t know if they’re letting anybody leave.”
“Look, I didn’t write this shit. Whoa! Dogs in packs … You weren’t lying. The place is quarantined. Yahoo’s got the same thing. And, it just popped up in my RSS reader in the Christian Science Monitor. Wow!”
Ron generally talked in a loud voice as a way of forestalling argument. He was shouting. A trace of panic had entered his voice. “Do you know what a new world order is?
“A new what?”
“New World Order. Here’s some shit about these survivalist types out in Idaho blocking off some territory and declaring their independence. Same thing in Montana.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Fuck if I know. Hey, take my advice for once. Don’t stop for drinks. Don’t roast any wieners. And don’t bother to clean the place like you always do. Get your fastidious ass out of there. Right. Fucking. Now. If you can.”
Peter was sold. “Call the State Police and tell them about us … Ron? Hello, Ron?” A crescendo of snap, crackle, pop. Peter banged the phone against the wall. He held it out, shook it and put it back to his ear. No use fighting it. Interference was there and Ron wasn’t.
“Okay, everybody, we’re leaving.”
“Why? What did he say?” Frannie asked.
“Do you seriously need an answer to that? We’re getting out of here right away. Don’t pack, we can come back for our things later.”
“The way looks clear,” Mila reported. He had been watching to make sure. “We can take my truck so we can stay together.”
People began moving about as in a half-familiar drill, picking up what was nearby that belonged to them, including the guitars, and moved to the door. There they stopped. Charlie was blocking the way and gave no hint of moving. “I hope you’re okay,” Peter said to him. “I heard some of those dogs over by your place. Good thing you had a gun to chase them away. Wish we’d had one. You don’t happen to have an extra one, do you? I’d return it tomorrow.”
“Peter,” Frannie said sternly. “You know the rule. No guns.”
Charlie took a step closer to Peter. He was calm, almost serene, and gave no indication of having heard Frannie. “I own no guns. Unlike you people, we have no need. We have other physical protection.”
“Is your family ok? I mean, somebody was shooting. We heard gunshots.”
“I was wondering, have you seen my cats?” They could have been conversing over a backyard fence.
As soon as he spoke he drew even closer. Peter backed up a step. “We don’t have time for that. You’d better go get your family and come with us. We’ll make a caravan. You should probably drive your car this time. We’re in danger here and we’re getting out.”
“Where’s your pup?” he asked mildly.
“Upstairs, where she’s been for the last several hours. She’s hurt. One of the dogs got her. I’m serious. We’re splitting.”
Peter attempted to brush past Charlie and his holy smile. Charlie refused to give ground. For an instant their bodies made contact.
“If you need a place for your family, you can stay at Swanie’s apartment in Billingsgate tonight. Right, Swanie?”
“There’s not enough room, Peter.”
Peter checked Frannie. She was behind Swanie with her arm around Laurel. “You can probably stay at Frannie’s father’s house tonight then. It’s in Billingsgate too. Frannie’s house. It’s okay, isn’t it, Frannie?”
She shrugged her consent. “Let’s just go.”
“Where are my cats? What have you done with them?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. I haven’t seen them. That isn’t my focus right now. It shouldn’t be yours, either. My partner was pretty clear that something’s going on up here and I don’t intend to stay to find out what exactly. Not when our kids are involved. I already know more than I need to know anyhow.”
Charlie was drilling into him, if such intensity were possible while maintaining a beatific smile that carried not a hint of irony or malice. “What if it was yours missing?”
“If it makes you feel any better, my dog has been seriously injured. She’s too torn up to go after your cats.”
“My cats may have inflicted that damage on her defending themselves against the demon.”
“What demon? Look, if anything happened to them, we’ll settle up later on. Okay? I take full responsibility. Now is the time to think about your family. Worry about saving yourselves first.”
“We don’t have to worry about saving ourselves. We’re already saved. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ protects us. This is about His lesser creatures, my cats.”
Oh, shit. Welcome to St. Elsewhere. Please deposit your rationality in the appropriate receptacle and proceed without rhyme or reason.
“They are His creatures, and He loves them all.”
“Okay, fine, we’re out of here. You can stay and look for your cats if you want.”
Charlie took another step forward. His narrow, blue-veined hands rose up around his own face as though to hold it steady. “What have you done with my cats? Where are they?”
“Come on, man, this is not time.” Peter drew away and wiped Charlie’s spittle from his face with the back of his hand. “What’s gotten into you? There are more serious matters here than your cats. Don’t you understand? People have died.”
Charlie’s his arms flailed above his head in a daft version of hootchie-coochie. The oscillated for a while and latched onto his shirt like a prosecutor making a case to the jury. The gestures were so bizarre that shying away from them Peter tripped and fell backwards and went down. Charlie followed, got his own feet tangled and came down on top of him, attached to him like Binky in love. His legs snapped about, knocking a chair aside. He was so frantic and so strong – endowed with the strength of his Lord no doubt – Peter couldn’t get him off, could scarcely protect himself. “Get him off,” Peter cried out.
Swanie appeared above them. She brought the ax up to her chest. She hesitated.
She tossed the ax away and slammed both fists down on Charlie’s shoulders. She drew back and hit him again. At first the combined blow had no effect. Then he let go and rolled away.
“The son of a bitch bit me,” Peter exclaimed with disbelief, jumping to his feet.
Slowly, with deliberation born of his self-righteousness, Charlie rose from the floor and started towards Swanie.
Mila slipped up beside her.
Crouched low, his back erect, head poised as though suspended from a plumb bob, arms up, right arm perpendicular to the floor, he drove Charlie back with a burst of energy. Charlie flipped away like a muscleless child. He recovered and came at Mila.
Mila swiveled as though he were on ball bearings. Deftly he redirected Charlie’s momentum, knocking him off balance. With his follow-through, he forced him out the door.
Charlie retreated across the deck, scurrying and frogging to and fro. His smile still in place. That was all it took for Peter. He picked up the ax and went after him, swinging it like a club. Before he could make contact, Mila ducked in front of him and dispatched Charlie over the railing with a quick, precise shoulder stroke.
Charlie hit the ground, jumped to his feet and darted away. The eight foot drop had done no damage. Or none that registered. Reaching a safe distance, he stopped, turned back towards Peter, Mila, Swanie and Frannie, and proclaimed for all to hear, “The Lord is my savior. With that he sank into the blanket of night.
“You should have let me poleax him,” Peter said.
“But we’d be the ones to suffer for it,” Mila replied.
“No, that fucking zombie would have. Where’d you learn to fight like that wild as Charlie was?”
“It was T’ai Chi. We used to practice it in the monastery. Goes along with meditation. We called it Strength through Softness. It’s mostly internal. I didn’t know for sure that it was a real martial art until just now. I guess it is.”
They trained the flash on the dark spires of forest shadow long after Charlie’s loping form had faded to black. Voices crept back to them from the distance and what sounded like a muffled cry. The voices were too indistinct to get a fix on their direction. They were everywhere and nowhere and they diminished quickly. “I can’t believe that son of a bitch actually bit me,” Peter said, as though to convince himself.
The telephone rang again. “That’s gotta be Ron,” Peter said, ducking inside with palpable relief. A strong sense of need made Swanie think it was her own mother. Frannie trailed partway hoping it was her father.
They rushed to answer. Katie picked up ahead of them. “Nothing,” she cooed into the mouthpiece.
Peter took the phone from her and pressed it to his ear, anticipating the shrill cackle of static. Instead, he heard Ed’s inebriated voice, loud as a foghorn. The line was clean, the tone perfect, if slurred. “Of all times,” he said. He covered the mouthpiece and leaned towards the doorway where Frannie was standing. “It’s your father. He’s drunk.”
Peter listened to him, incredulous, torn between fury and misery. He was just calling to say hello.
“He is not,” Frannie declared. He just couldn’t be. She came for the phone.
Peter turned away from her. He tried to interrupt Ed but the line went dead, the connection broken.
Peter replaced the receiver.
“I wanted to talk to him,” Frannie said, lifting the phone from its cradle. But, it was too late for that. Peter took it from her and returned it to the wall.
“What’d he say?” she cried. “Did he say anything about coming up for us? Why can’t we get through to anybody?”
Peter was tempted to make something up just to keep her quiet. “We have to get to a hospital.”
“Especially you, Peter,” Swanie said. “Human bites can be worse than an animal’s sometimes. The dog bites need to be treated. If he really bit you, that is.”
“He hadn’t been drinking,” Frannie said. “I’m sure of it. He must have been worried about us.” She shook her head. “I wish you wouldn’t always say that. Did he say anything?”
“Nothing relevant. Let’s go.”
“Wait.” Frannie considered something else entirely. No use debating her father’s possible drinking issues even though she was certain he didn’t have any. Her daughter’s total trust and love made her think of it. She looked at them.
“Charlie has a family, doesn’t he? Shouldn’t we find out how they are? Maybe they got attacked, too?”
“Charlie got attacked all right,” Swanie said dryly. With more than a hint of satisfaction at the beating she’d help administer.
“Maybe he’s too injured to protect them? Or too upset?”
“Upset! He waltzes over here like the Night of the Living Dead and goes off like that, and now we’re supposed to be his support group? You can go if you want. Upset? How about fucking nuts? And he isn’t the only one either. How does that sound to you?”
Oh boy. Peter intervened. “I don’t think that changes anything. What’s more important right now is our own family. We can’t just stand around here like a bunch of Camp Fire Girls waiting for a hayride. We don’t have time to check out his situation. We’ve got to think about getting the kids out of here. And get these bites treated before they get infected, if they aren’t already. We get in Mila’s truck and bolt. Period. If we get attacked again, I like our chances better out on the road than in here with this broken window and no place to hide.” Peter didn’t say that he feared other packs now – packs of the human variety. Despite Pari’s sad corpse, it was most likely the dogs were being digested in several hundred yards of human intestine by now.
Frannie was undeterred. “Peter, we have to find out. What if it was us? What if it was Laurel being left behind?”
“It already is us. She’s not and we’re getting out of here. Forget it, Frannie. We’re leaving and that’s that.”
“Next thing she’ll be obsessing about Charlie’s cats,” Swanie cut in. She was watching the outside. “I don’t see Charlie or anything else. Can we please leave?”
“There’s a little child involved. If it was only Charlie or his wife, I wouldn’t care so much. But we have to, especially after what he did to you. He might have hurt them already. I’m going over there if you won’t. You can wait here and watch Laurel.”
She found the large flashlight and headed for the door.
“You can’t use that,” Swanie said to her. “The battery’s almost dead.” She lunged at it and managed to grab hold. The two women drew face to face. Frannie grasped it with both hands, determined to stand her ground. She had had enough of Swanie and her self-centered pushiness.
In the near distance rifle shots and the hollowness of a small, airborne explosion dipped through the air. The noise was reminiscent of cherry bombs going off in a trash barrel, and strong enough to separate Swanie and Frannie. The cabin cut to darkness. The sense of haste lapsed for the moment as they waited passively for something else happened. Nothing came.
Peter reached over and tried the wall switch. Up and down, up and down, no results. He tried the outside spots. Sure enough, the power was out. Jumping from place to place around the cabin, they checked stove, the microwave, the refrigerator – no lights, no motor. “Dogs don’t cut power lines,” Peter declared for all to hear, in case anyone had any smarmy ideas about staying. “It’s twice as settled. We are out of here. Screw everyone else.”
He whistled for Gretchen and she limped slowly down the steps. She sported a bandage around her middle, a torn sheet wrapped around her torso. Spots of betadine leaked through the light green sheets into spots that were almost liver-colored. Catching Spot’s scent for the first time, she lowered into dark growling, her head went out flat as she pointed at the quarry. She charged at the little dog curled in Laurel’s arms.
Just as she was about to strike, she cried out and sank to the floor with her snout between her paws. She shook with fury at having her territory invaded; yet she was too battered to do anything about it. She simpered in pain.
Peter bent to her. “Thanks for fixing her up,” he said over his shoulder to Swanie. “She really needed it as torn up as she was.”
“It wasn’t me,” Swanie replied curtly. “ I was too busy protecting the cabin.
As Peter extended his hands under Gretchen to pick her up and carry her out to the truck, she turned her head and before he could react laid her teeth into his hand. She hurt and she wanted to be left alone.
He drew back, grasping the fresh bite. It was a nip that left deep pressure marks and did no damage. “It’s time to go.”
He took Gretchen by the collar to the porch. She cried, ears back, but came obediently.
They filed out and Peter pulled the door to and locked it. They hurried across to Mila’s pickup huddled protectively around the girls. Frannie steadied the light, its beam a shallow yellow that illuminated little more than their eyes could discern. Mila had the baseball bat. Swanie carried their guitars. The sudden chill in the air sucked the warmth from their worn-out bodies. Coldness latched onto Peter’s skin like a sudden frost. His bites throbbed dully. He remembered to retrieve the pencil light from beneath the seat of his TR. Its beam was hard and true.
He turned it on Pari’s remains. The sight was an unholy blow. The little of her that was left was purple and brown and waxen. He flicked the light off and headed for the truck. Mila took the light from him and turned it on again, casting the halogen mini-beam onto the heap of worked-over flesh. Inspecting it and musing, “I wonder who it is.”
Mila’s words sounded like they were left behind by the recently departed twilight. “What?” Peter started.
“I wonder who it is,” Mila repeated vacantly.
“You mean it’s not Pari?”
Mila shook his head ruefully. “No, it’s not Pari.” He shifted the beam towards the decline and the uncertain terrain below it. “She’s still out there. Somewhere out there.” He choked the words out. The thought of leaving her behind was painful.
The equation had changed yet again.
“I thought it was her,” Peter said softly. He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “That’s a good sign. We can still hope.”
They stood there for a moment taking no comfort in the spare hope of Pari’s survival. Who the hell was lying here? Peter’s mind went back to the three kids in the cabin on the hill. They were being abandoned as well. This could be one of their parents. Or, he shuddered to think, one of them. He dared not look. The certainty that they had to concentrate on themselves alone didn’t provide much reassurance.
Mila said, “I’m pretty sure I heard screaming over at Charlie after you went to answer the phone. I wasn’t sure so I didn’t mention it. But I did hear voices.”
Peter lowered his chin. “I don’t doubt it. We all heard the voices. Please don’t let on to Frannie. We just can’t take the time to find out. There’s no telling what she’d do.”
No telling what any of them might do. They’d dithered long enough.
They put Frannie and the children in back with Spot. Swanie up front, holding Gretchen. Mila to drive. He got in and started the engine. The pickup shuddered to life — one of those mid-80s Japanese fake trucks, made before they learned how to make real ones. The cap top was loose and warped and primered. Rust mottled the body. The pickup sounded as loud and dissonant as a tank and about as threatening as a microbus.
Peter stayed outside to direct Mila, using his penlight only when he had to. Now that they were taking wing, he was more fearful than ever, and it was making him cautious. He expected to be overwhelmed any second by mad beasts from beyond the rim of night. Every time he turned his head to check, his breath caught.
Mila backed around and headed for the cul-de-sac, creeping along until Peter was aboard. Peter jumped into the back and pulled the tailgate up and the captop down, sealing them inside. With a sigh of relief, he tapped the window to give Mila the go ahead. Time to fly.
“Peter,” Frannie said sternly from beside him. She directed the flashlight into his face. “I mean it.”
“No, Frannie. We’re leaving. All of us. Now.”
She slid to the end and pushed the captop panel up. She started to climb over the tailgate to get out. Peter reached out to restrain her. “Frannie, you can’t.” He pulled her back in. She didn’t come willingly. That momentary struggle was the closest they had ever come to physical conflict.
Mila hit the brakes and the pickup jerked to a halt. Figuring he heard Frannie struggling to get out and stopped to see what was up, Peter slid forward and rapped at the window to urge him on.
“It’s okay. Get going!” Mila put it in park and yanked the hand brake.
Swanie put her face into the small rear window and said to them, “Somebody’s coming.” She pointed at the trees and the car lights they reflected. They looked like they were lighting up of their own accord. Peter strained forward to see. Sure enough, someone was coming.
The access road was a straight mile of undulations. At regular intervals narrower roads, barely more than rutted trails, branched off to other cabins.
The lights reached the top of a rise. The twin beams dipped and disappeared. When the car mounted the next rise, the headlights, now stronger, pierced the sky’s dead skin and sank again from sight.
“Right on schedule,” Peter said grimly. He boosted himself out of the back and moved forward to see who it was. What were they going to do now?
Swanie got out and came up beside him. Gretchen limped along behind. Mila backed the pickup down towards the cabin out of the way before hurrying to join them.
“Listen,” Peter said, holding his breath. “Can you hear it? The whine? It’s gotta be a jeep. See the Cibie lights on top. Mounted on the roll bar?” The jeep mounted the next hill, only one hill away. “Men standing up in the back,” he almost shouted.
“With guns,” Mila cautioned.
Peter turned the penlight into a vigorous semaphore.
The jeep jerked to a halt. Its disk brakes squealed like a butchered animal. “It’s probably the security guards from Pleasant Valley.”
He raised his light above his head. He moved it up and down, then side to side. Finally, he whistled. The jeep started again towards them. As it dove into the final dip before cresting the hill on which they stood, Gretchen started growling, punctuating the low guttural threats with high painful whimpers. Peter placed a reassuring hand on her. “It’s okay, baby,” he soothed. “Everything’s fine now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
He lifted her muzzle and spoke directly into her eyes. She looked away. The smooth hair on her neck and back rose. Her body grew taut; her nose and head appeared to lengthen beneath her hackles. Her jowls vibrated.
The jeep made the crest and rolled to a stop ten feet in front of them – close enough to isolate them in the blinding glare of its high beams. Both sides of this no man’s land lapsed into cautious and watchful stillness. A moment passed as the dust settled around the jeep. With jerky, mechanical movement, the halogens on the roll bar were shifted into a vertex of light. Peter wanted to move aside to indicate they weren’t blocking the road and posed no threat. But it wasn’t clear such caution was necessary, yet.
He held a hand in front of his face to reduce the immobilizing light. The air was clear and thin, tight on the skin. He made a show of switching off his penlight.
The driver mumbled something and booted feet landed heavily on the ground, scuffling across the dirt and gravel as they fanned out behind the wall of light. In short order dusty movement was replaced by the unctuous metal efficiency of actions being slammed home. Faceless shapes moved to the knife edge of the light. A large form slouched in the shotgun seat.
Positive these were security guards, Peter searched for a way to show peaceable intent. When nothing came from anyone and nothing happened to make him think they were about to speak, he decided to break the ice as peaceably as possible. “Do you think you could help us?” he asked plaintively. “We’ve had some trouble. The electricity’s off and the phone’s tied up and we’re in need of medical attention.”
“My girlfriend’s missing. We need to get word to the law,” Mila offered in his gentle voice. Peter glanced sideways at him wondering what these men would make of his manner of speaking that in this circumstance sounded uncomfortably effeminate. Mila had settled into that elongated crouch again. Knees bent ever so slightly. Back straightening. His head suspended on a string.
Peter wanted to caution him that these were bona fide, all-American U.S. prime West Virginia rednecks they were dealing with, not a crazed Jesus Freak. Two more men jumped out to either side. That made two in the jeep, four outside.
“Hey, you guys,” Peter said, forcing a local accent onto his words – his version of their accent anyway – and overplaying it, “’At’s our cabin back ‘ere.” Lifting his thumb. “You the cops or with the sheriff maybe? I hope so, because we might could use some help.”
“Sheriff ain’t here no more,” came an oat-mealy voice from outside the jeep. The words were thick, as though forced through swollen pipes. “We are.”
So, just walk over to the jeep and talk to them, chicken shit.
Silence. A long minute of silence.
“Are you here to help us?” Swanie said. “Or are you going to stand there gawking?”
Peter nudged her to cool it.
The driver spoke. “Does that canine belong to you?” No whiny mountain accent here. Those syllables weren’t formed at the roof of a molar-less mouth but in the gutter of a resentful throat. And they sounded familiar.
“’At yer bitch?” This man, standing by the shotgun side, head cocked to one side, pushy now, itching for a fight. He shifted his rifle.
“Yes, she’s mine. And she’s hurt. Aren’t you, girl?” Gretchen had been commenting all along with various growls and whining. “We all are. Can’t you see that?”
The man at the jeep cut Peter off before he could explain. “We want her.”
“We have little kids with us.” Peter knew as he spoke there was no hope of stopping them from taking her if that was their intent. His mouth went dry and his voice caught. “What?”
“They want Gretchen,” Swanie said.
“No shit,” Peter whispered, already angry with himself for what he was about to do, namely, grovel before a man he wanted to kick in the face. He sank to one knee, placed an arm around his pet and moved her sideways to show her wounds. “Do you think you could give us some help? The phone lines are jammed. We couldn’t call for an ambulance. There’s a body down there. Do you know why the power went out? Do the authorities know about that pack of dogs on the loose? Do you know how long they’ve been running?”
One of the rough, standing men laughed harshly. “Power’s out cuz we knocked her out. Y’all’s got this valley lit up like a torch, attractin’ all kinds of trouble to yerselves.” Muttered epithets chastised him for opening his yap. Then, “We want the dog.”
Peter stood up. Fuck it. “Come on, Ray, how about we cut the shit? It is Ray Grove I’m talking to behind all those Christmas lights, isn’t it?”
Keeping his empty hands in plain sight but not, he hoped, in supplication, he made his way over to the jeep. As he moved closer he cocked his hands and added a bit of a John Wayne swivel to his walk, hoping it came off that way, and made sure the empty whites of his palms were clearly visible. He felt like a dottering little old lady. But then John Wayne would have looked that way too when he walked if he hadn’t been John Wayne.
It was Ray Grove, all right. Dressed in the khaki uniform of the Pleasant Valley Security Patrol. “What’s this, Ray, a Boy Scout Jamboree? Are you the Scout Master or the mascot?”
Grove’s Senior Patrol Leader, whose name patch said Floyd, spoke first. He was tall and skinny and had lanky Elvis sideburns. The sleeves of his coarse cotton work shirt were rolled down, the collar and cuffs buttoned up tight as a tick. The collar turned up at the ear lobes. His cloths were prison baggy on him – hip hop down in the boondocks. Extra lengths of his belt hung down several inches past the buckle. He wore a John Deer ball cap. Peter recognized him from earlier in the day. Day! It was more like a lifetime ago. “Give us yer dog,” he said. “We want it. We’re wastin’ ‘em all.” He was the man who kicked Peter’s car.
Ray Grove’s hands were locked on the steering wheel. He regarded Peter coldly.
“Hey, Ray, no hard feelings, okay? We’re really glad to see you.”
Ray Grove’s hard edge turned foggy. He struggled to place Peter. Being addressed by someone he didn’t recognize had thrown him off his game. For Grove, as for everyone else, this morning was another world, another era. Everything in their immediate world had changed and left them with the paralyzing notion that nothing would ever again be the same.
Peter waited for a response, wondering what in the hell he would do if he didn’t get one.
“The animal, give it to us,” Grove said finally and with far less certainty than his Senior Patrol Leader.
Another security man took a step into the corona of light. “Lemme jest shoot it.”
Swanie gathered Gretchen against her. “She’s our pet and she didn’t attack anyone. All we want is to get out of here. Once we’re gone, you won’t have to worry about this dog anymore.”
“Or us either,” Peter added.
Ray stood up in the jeep and brought up a heavy pistol with a long barrel, a .357 magnum from the looks of it, to carry out his own order. “You can’t do that.” Looking down on Peter. “You’re not going anywhere unless I say.” Amazing how a change in perspective altered the equation.
“Can’t do what?” Peter said to him. “We sure as hell can. She’s my dog and we’re taking her with us. She isn’t part of the dog pack. She’s no threat to you or anyone else.”
“You can’t leave,” Ray Grove repeated, clear but sullen.
“What do you mean we can’t leave?”
Grove sat down, buried his pistol between the seats. When he spoke again, he’d shifted to the somewhat calmer and more reasonable man he used to be. “If I let you go, the same thing will happen to you that’s happened to the others. It’s too dangerous. The road’s blocked anyhow. The area’s sealed off.” Why he softened all of a sudden wasn’t clear. But it gave them at long last the beginnings of an explanation.
“Sealed off? What do you mean sealed off?”
“’Em dogs,” Floyd said. He was standing so close Peter could feel him lusting for Gretchen like she was an object of perverse desire.
“You people will just have to stay here,” Ray Grove said, “for now.” The edge was gone. “When it’s safe, we’ll let you know.”
“But you don’t understand. Those wild dogs killed one of our party, maybe another person as well. His girlfriend and someone else. There’s a body’s lying near our cabin, what’s left of it. We can’t just let it lie there.”
“We’ll take care of that later. For now, you people get back inside and stay put until we come back.”
“How about you let us take our chances? We need medical treatment.”
“You think you’re the only people’s got troubles?”
“What about their bitch?” Floyd said, his eyes steady on Gretchen. Several of the men made a show of brandishing their rifles one more time.
Ray Grove hesitated, thinking it over. When he spoke again, Peter, much to his own annoyance, found himself receiving the news with gratitude even though it would mean he was capitulating to Grove. “They can keep it for the time being. As long as they keep it inside their cabin. If it gets out you can kill it.”
“If ah see her runnin’ ah mon shoot her,” Floyd said.
Grove leaned towards Peter ever so slightly and dropped his voice conspiratorially. “You’re lucky your dog’s still alive.” Did he nod his head towards his men? Peter wasn’t sure — because he wasn’t paying full attention. He wasn’t looking at Ray any longer. His attention was drawn to the man sitting next to Ray. In the dim penumbra it was hard enough to make out Grove. Until then Peter hadn’t paid the other bulky man more than passing notice.
Now the big man was squirming to speak, working his jaw like a mutant. It was Bob Klein. Peter should have been dealing with him, not his dickhead of a partner. Why had he been quiet all this time? What was he up to? Why wasn’t he talking now? He was looking straight at Peter, the top half of his face barely visible.
Peter moved forward half a step, squinted. He couldn’t help it. He gasped with shock.
A battered Bob Klein twisted his head towards Peter. His torso was wrapped in ropes Peter couldn’t see, or wire of some kind. Peter let his eyes fall from Bob Klein to Ray Grove. Grove looked back at him, waiting for his reaction. For the moment, the shoe shifted to the other foot. Grove squirmed with discomfort.
Chest heaving, his body wrenching at restraints Klein pulled at whatever held him in his seat. Duct tape, Peter saw. He was bound in duct tape. Layered so tightly it looked like gray work clothes. He wrenched himself around so Peter could see him straight on. His right eye was swollen shut, the skin around it bruised purple. His nose was broken and knocked askew.
Ray Grove came in low and emphatic. “Dogs got him.” Either he was saying, See, I told you so. Or, he was giving Peter a big fat warning. Peter didn’t know and wasn’t about to challenge him and his posse.
Bob Klein threw his head back to catch his breath. His one good eye came into focus. Here was a man whose big personality always overwhelmed those around him crushed into submission – by dogs? Not likely He was the general who commanded respect. Not his toad of a partner.
“Dogs did this?” Peter didn’t bother to mask his skepticism. This outrage put the lie to Grove’s attempt to come off as reasonable. “Where? Over at Pleasant Valley?” Which he seriously doubted. “He ought to be in the hospital. We should be there, too. We’ve all got multiple bites.” Peter held out his arms again as evidence. “This is even more reason why we should leave here. We’ll take him with us.”
Ray looked over at his partner. Seeing the man was trying to say something, he said, “We’re trying to clean up this mess. He got in the way.” He started the jeep and ground it into reverse. “You folks get back to your place now. And keep your dog inside if you want to keep it alive. There’s no telling what might happen with all these hot heads running around. It’s for your own good.”
Peter wasn’t buying any of it. He made sure Grove knew it. “Our own good would be for us to get these kids out of here and to get medical treatment for ourselves.” He leaned in and added emphatically, “And for you to see that we get there.”
Grove turned his cold eyes on him and said, “That’s not going to happen. Not now anyway.” He gunned it and started to back into a turn. “You people stay put until you hear from us.”
“When would that be?”
But it was too late. The men jumped in. Grove and his crew swung round and drove off.
They returned tails between their legs, guided by two beams of light. One strong if narrow, the other weak and wide. Once they were inside and he was sure the place hadn’t been violated in that short time, Peter unwrapped the cord from its hook and let the wooden curtain unroll over the doorway all the way down until it slapped the floor. Then did the same for the windows.
He put a match to one of the kerosene lamps and placed it in the middle of the coffee table. They assembled around the caustic yellow light close enough to one another to touch shoulders, with the girls sandwiched in between and the dogs at their feet. Faint lines mapped their apprehension. The closer they drew, the more visible the etching by their noses, across their foreheads and under their eyes. Shadow demons drawn in dirt and sweat.
Once upon a time, it might have been a bong and a black light and they might have been getting high. Or, more recently sharing a velvety pino noir. That was then.
“So now what?” Swanie spoke into the light, challenging it as if the low glow held an answer.
“So now nothing,” Peter replied. “Maybe Grove is right. Maybe Grove is not right. Maybe Grove is lying. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter for now. We have to protect the girls. And ourselves.”
“But we have to do something.” Urgency creeping into her voice.
Peter considered his scrofulous hands and arms beneath bandages, allowed himself to feel the extent of his pain. He had a cut on his chin and other scrapes and bruises. Mila’s neck bore parallel red scratches and Swanie’s ear was bloody, possibly from a bite. Their hands, arms and legs were swarming with teeth marks, a few of which seeped sepia-toned fluid. The pain of canine incisors tearing their flesh like it was paper, mercifully, had faded into occasional knife flashes over the dull aching that hung on like sore muscles. Grim as it was, they had been lucky. The dogs hadn’t ripped apart anyone’s face or taken off a nose. Or a finger for that matter. Had they gotten to the girls, that surely would have resulted. They were so much smaller and weaker. He shuddered at the mental image of Laurel’s mauled face. Or Katie missing an eye.
Maybe life would magically revert to status quo ante. Maybe they’d find out that this was all a vivid mass hallucination. Dogs had not been running loose like wilding teenagers. This wasn’t Central Park, they weren’t jogging. That incident turned out to be the product of urban paranoia. Maybe this was the product of rural paranoia? Or reality television, Survivor – West Virginia.
And then there was Pari.
“Come on then. We need to cover the broken window and maybe some of the others … just in case.”
“Just in case of what?” Swanie asked him.
“Because it makes sense. Protection until tomorrow. Maybe it’ll discourage any dogs that might be left. There’s plenty of scrap wood in the crawl space. So we might as well cover the other ones while we’re at it. Look, you were the one who said we have to do something instead of just sitting here. Covering the windows is a good idea. In case you haven’t noticed, the situation has changed. It’s a good idea to conceal ourselves from anyone else who might be traipsing around outside.”
She looked at him coldly. “I meant we should try to leave again.”
“Peter, we’re hungry.” Katie sounded as frail as the faint light. She needed nourishment. All of them needed to re-gather some strength.
“We can build a fire and cook something. We ought to eat the food before it goes bad anyway.” He glanced towards the kitchen in search of further suggestions.
“So now you expect me to make dinner?” Swanie said.
“Katie’s hungry.” As though he should have to say it. “I’m going to cover the broken window.”
“I’ll make the food,” Frannie said, and got up.
Swanie ignored her. “Don’t tell me how to take care of my daughter, Peter. You should talk about taking care of children. You treat them like you treat Gretchen and forget them half the time. They’re not dogs. They aren’t going to find their way home like she does. They’re not here for your convenience, you know.”
“I know that.” He sighed deeply. “I was just saying … Never mind.” It wasn’t worth the energy. He guessed he took some kind of weird satisfaction from Katie asking him rather than her mother. But there was no way he was going to raise that particular point.
“Never mind,” she muttered. “That’s easy for you to say. Just like you wanted to go back today and leave us here alone to be attacked by dogs. You’d go now if it you weren’t afraid of those men. The bottom line is me and Katie. Always.” Sometimes it seemed like Swanie argued just for the sake of it.
Frannie was already in the kitchen with the penlight rummaging through the cabinets. “There’s plenty here,” she reported. She directed the light at the canned food Peter had originally purchased for charity, never got around to delivering and wound up bringing to the cabin. Now they would be the recipients of the charity.
She found peanut butter in the back of the refrigerator. “The bread’s stale, but it isn’t moldy. If we build a fire we can toast it.” Her voice was strenuously neutral.
“He was supposed to get bread at the store,” Swanie said. “But he forgot that and milk and everything else except his precious half and half.”
“He bought us candy, Mommy,” Katie added, hoping to be of help. “And chewing gum. But it was sugarless.”
Peter jumped up and set about wadding tight cylinders of newspapers and placing them on the andirons. He added squaw wood from the box over the twisted lengths of paper. Holding the box of barnburners, he helped Laurel then Katie strike a match along its side and guided their hand to the newspaper.
The newspaper took a few minutes to ignite fully. When it did salutary fire blazed up. He added wood until it burned bright and steady. The others gathered behind him to share in it.
He retrieved the grill from the Weber in the front bedroom where they stored it. He positioned the rusty thing, with boogers of food spot-welded to it, over the fire and toasted two pieces of curled white bread. He placed a can of tomato soup and a pan of water for macaroni at the back more directly over the heat. When it was ready, the kids ate it gratefully.
Frannie heated lentil soup and portioned it out in mugs for the adults. They sat cross-legged before the fire and scarfed it down gratefully. The earthy aroma was irresistible. The smooth lentils slipped over the tongue and filled their stomachs.
Eventually Mila put down his mug and fetched his guitar. He began picking out La Vie en Rose. Slow and sentimental, releasing Edith Piaf’s stoic resignation through his fingertips. Taaa, taa-ta-ta. Da da da. Hold me close and hold me fast. The magic spell you cast. This is la vie en rose … Or something like that.
The restful music lifted their spirits. Swanie sat at his feet harmlessly strumming fifths in the background. Over the Rainbow, Wonderful World, Under the Boardwalk, songs he’d played that morning, back in the previous era, followed now by a melancholy slide version of Amazing Grace.
Unable to resist, Swanie began to sing. “Ahhhhhmaaaaa. Zeiiing Greeeaaceee. Hooowlll saweeeeet thuh soooound.” Her eyes slammed shut as if she were reading the lyrics off the back of her eyelids. Her mouth formed syllables not always associated with human speech.
In the kitchen Frannie dropped a pan and immediately called out, “Sorry.”
Not that Swanie acknowledged her. Or even heard her. When the tune trailed away into gentle optimism, she hit the first chord of Twist and Shout, opened her mouth and let fly. “Neeeeoooowwwwl shhaaa iiii ket up Baaaab-b-b-beeeee. Shaaaaakit Uuuuuppp b-bayaebie. Tweeeist an’ Shhhowwwiiit. Tweeeist ana Shhhowwwiiit. Cu-cu-cumon, baaaybiiiiee nahwow. Cumon,baaabie.”
Head banging like a teenager, her body arched in spastic ecstasy, her mouth contorted into an imitation of rheumy old bluesman, her voice roiled into a moan, supposedly plaintive, but closer to animal bleating than anyone had the heart to tell her. “Werkit ahnnnn oauuuuuit.”
And so on. Dramaturgy flaring through her nostrils. All of it in full voice.
Mila put down his guitar and sat by stoically.
Peter tiptoed around her and slipped outside.
Creeping down under the deck like playing hide and seek with Laurel, he removed the combination lock and rotated the wooden stays. The door creaked open onto a dank spray of remnants. The bottom-most wood was water-stained and moldy, but all of it was serviceable. He played the light over the random pile to get a mental image of where to grab the raw wood and switched it off.
With Swanie still belting it out, he set about angling the large plywood sheets through the four-foot opening, working as quietly as he could. As he was stacking them against a column to be carried up, a dark form appeared at the corner, looming slowly and silently, almost as though it was rising partially decayed from the duff to ward of the intruder.
Peter straightened and jumped back, banging his head on a deck joist. The form advanced purposefully and reached down for a two-by-four.
“Mila! You scared the shit out of me.”
Mila managed a wan smile. Tears glistened on his cheeks. He began pulling two-by-fours.
“I guess the music got to me.” That drew a grim chuckle from them both.
They worked from the inside to reduce the noise. With galvanized roofing nails held in his teeth and Mila holding the plywood in place, Peter pounded them in and nailed a crude lattice of two-by-fours over top to secure them.
The cabin shook. His staccato pounding echoed on and on into the hollow night. Despite working from the inside, they were raising a terrific racket. The high bank of windows that let brilliant sunshine in at dawn and gathered every last ray at dusk was fifteen feet across and two stories high. The broken one was really just part of the problem. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t try to hide there.
He kept glancing past the boards half-expecting something or someone to come hurtling out of the night, through the window and rip at his throat.
Swanie brought bed sheets from the back bedroom and began stuffing them into the gaps in the plywood.
“Hey, they’re our best sheets,” Frannie protested once she realized what was happening.
Swanie froze. She glared at Peter as though he were to blame. “Listen, bitch—”
“We still own this cabin jointly in case he hasn’t told you. And everything in it. That includes these sheets.”
Frannie grabbed for the sheets.
Swanie resisted and the two women began tussling. “Cut the shit!” Peter took hold of the middle section and found himself pulling against both of them. “If this wasn’t so serious, it would be funny.”
“Stay out of this, Peter,” Frannie said.
Both women seemed to be in agreement on this point. “Let me have them,” Frannie added. But it was directed at Peter not Swanie. “I don’t need any help from you. I can take care of myself. You two girls go on upstairs. Let the grownups finish their discussion.”
Peter threw up his hands. “Christ, what a sideshow.”
“Stop cursing in front of your daughter. I don’t care what she thinks, you watch your language when Laurel’s around.”
“I never should have brought Katie here in the first place,” Swanie mumbled. “I should have left her at mother’s. She likes it there. But, no, we always have to do what you want.”
“Suddenly, I’m the fucking problem here? Unbelievable!”
Swanie threw the sheet at Frannie. “Take it … since you’re so fucking worried about your precious fucking property.”
Frannie took the sheet and ripped it down the middle and handed the pieces to Peter to stuff between the boards. “Great way to raise your daughter.” She went for more.
“I don’t know how you ever put up with her,” Swanie said to Peter.
Peter looked at her, trying to hide his disbelief. “Katie likes it here too, you know,” he said finally. “She and Laurel both.”
Frannie returned with an armload of sheets and they stuffed them into the crevices until the panels were stabilized and dropped the curtains over the patch job. They tapped the kitchen, bathroom and back bedroom curtains closed and hung sheets over them as well.
Up in the loft the radio flared with whiny, truck stop music. All four adults ran up the steps.
Katie produced her CD player and held it out to them. It had a radio. “Look what I have.”
“Where was this?” Swanie exclaimed, seizing the little pink disk.
“In my stuff.”
“Honey, you should have told me you brought your CD player along.”
She thumbed the frequency wheel straight through to the end and back again. She knifed by a call-in show from a station in Winchester, Virginia, about forty miles away. She ticked back onto it and held the radio out for all to hear. A caller venting about the day’s travesties in DC and New York City. The listener became unhinged and the next caller came on. More calls along these lines. Reasoned calls, irrational calls, all anguished. All of them local. None of them, including the right wing shouter himself, mentioned West Virginia. He was too busy blaming the attacks on Bill Clinton. Until someone suggested the fallout shelters at Greenbrier Resort at White Sulfur Springs down state as the vice-president’s undisclosed location.
Swanie held it out impatiently, in protest. “They’re not saying anything.” The batteries began to fade.
“There’s no reason why they should mention us,” Mila said, “If there’s nothing to report.”
“Then what was Grove doing? He said he was protecting us. Him and his thugs.”
She handed the radio to Peter. “I remember when I bought her this,” he said. “She said it was her favorite Christmas present that year.”
He held it up and turned it at right angles to get a better signal. It drifted away altogether. The batteries were too low. Peter removed them and tried licking the connections. No dice. Not even a scratch of static.
“Maybe we’ll have better luck when the batteries come back a little. If they do.”
“What about one of the car radios?” Mila suggested. “We could take the one out of my truck and listen to it in here. It’s mounted under the dash. It’ll come right off. And we could leave it on in case something comes on.”
At this point even country music would be welcome. Peter longed for the comfort and security of his own bed, in his own apartment, sleeping peacefully to the sounds of gunfire, police sirens and helicopters beating against the night sky. Someone else’s trouble, in another section of town, all underscoring his own well being when things went wrong.
The battery straps were rust-welded to the posts of the old Sears Diehard. That part of the battery at least lived up to its name. They ended up using brute force. Mila climbed up onto the engine and beat on them with a hammer until they came loose.
He banged them off and eased the unit eased from the dash trailing a Medusa of red, green and black wiring. Peter slid in on the other slide to help hold the light while Mila sorted it out.
Mila stopped and looked up through the windshield out into the reeking black void.
“What’s wrong?” Peter said. His senses pricked up. He felt the rush of blood I his ears.
Mila intensified his stare. Fear etched around his widening eyes.
Peter heard it too. Noise to the front and just out of the sight. “Oh, shit.”
Peter eased inside and quietly pulled the door to. Mila reached for his. As he did two wraith-like shades slid from the bleak shadow. A scuffling in the gravel materialized the apparitions.
Charlie’s wife and son approached them slowly. Her fear and anguish were as visible as make-up. The woman was shell-shocked, and no wonder. Someone had given her and the boy a thorough thrashing. The desperate way she struggled to carry her boy against her chest mimicked Mila clutching his guitar. The child’s pallid skin made the strawberries on his face and neck stand out. He even had a few on his forearms. Good Lord, what did they do to you? Whatever it was it looked like it involved sandpaper.
He left Mila to deal with the cable salad and got out. Her face bore bruises of its own, and her cornflower print prairie dress, still buttoned primly at the throat, was torn almost wantonly across one breast and at both shoulders. Eyes wilder the closer he got, the white skin, caked saliva at the corners of the mouth. “Let’s get you inside,” he said. He tried to sound reassuring. He stole a look at the kid’s face and abandoned the effort. Hoisting the battery to his shoulder, he hurried the two waifs into the cabin. Swanie slid the door open as they mounted the steps.
Peter whispered to her. “We better keep a lookout. We may be in for it. Maybe you’d better go warn Mila to hurry up.”
“What, did she send you over to get them?”
Charlie’s bewildered wife offered nothing more than a whimper as he maneuvered her onto the sofa. Blood from a wound or injury of some sort matted her dress. Swanie tried to check the boy for fever. When she placed her hand at his forehead, he shrank from her and tried to voice a protest. His mother issued moans and muted whispers in response. “Beelie, Beelie,” it sounded like to Peter. It was so low and slurred he couldn’t be sure. Maybe she was praying. Swanie took his wrist to get a pulse. His head was lolling. More whispers and groans from the mother.
Mila sat down beside the woman and tried to comfort her. Frightened by his gentle voice, she rebuffed his efforts. Peter opened the door to the front bedroom, gesturing for her to bring her boy. “You’ll be safe in here,” he promised. “Maybe after a while you’ll feel like letting Swanie take a look at your injuries. She’s an RN. A nurse. She’s been caring for us.”
She looked at him but he wasn’t sure she understood. When she didn’t move, he eased her up from the sofa, making sure it was clear she could keep her child close. Her whispers rose to an indecipherable nattering that she kept up into the bedroom. Peter helped her lay the boy down and pulled out a blanket from beneath the bed and drew it over him. His face was waxen, his skin starting to shin. The bruises on his face and neck were swollen and infected. His mother bent over him and gave forth a string of glossolalia that ought to have cured him and every one within hearing distance.
Either she was speaking in tongues or she was totally fucking out of her mind. The answer, Peter guessed, was yes.
She folded the blanket back to his legs, changed her mind and pulled it up to his waist. Pete caught her looking at him in a way that suggested she was calming down and beginning to trust them, “Remember what I said,” he offered. He slipped out of the room. Behind the closed door, she began to cry.
Charlie stomped up the steps and pressed himself against the glass. He commenced banging on the door with his forehead, nose and lips flat white against it. “Have you seen my wife?” He jerked at the latch.
Peter parted the door to keep him from breaking the fragile lock and inserted his body to block his way.
Charlie’s clothes were hanging from him in shreds. Mud caked his chest and arms. Where it showed through, his sallow skin was lacerated red and brown. His personal space was sulphuric. A white ring encircled his mouth, giving him the face of the angriest clown in the world. “I want my wife and son,” he cried out.
“No!” came an emphatic reply from behind Peter. Frannie rushed down from the loft and shouted over Peter’s shoulder directly into his face. “No, we haven’t seen anyone. We’ve been inside waiting to leave. Maybe they’re at your cabin.”
“I just left there.”
“They’re not here.”
Charlie took a deep breath, looked skyward for a second, then asked politely, “May I please come inside?” In light of his previous visit, his earnestness bordered on the comical.
“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” Peter said, gesturing towards Gretchen, who had limped down with Frannie and was being held back from the doorway by Mila. “Look, Charlie, first you come over here accusing me of molesting your cats. Then you attack me like a mad man.” He pulled up his shirt to show the bite marks. “Now, you accuse us of harboring your wife and son. And you expect us to let you in? What is it with you?”
“I expect you to be a good Christian and show forgiveness. The Lord forgives me.”
“That’s his job, not mine. Not now, anyway.”
“I want them.”
“They’re not here.”
This time Peter was ready for him.
As Charlie lunged, Peter kicked him back, slid the door shut and tripped the lock. Charlie charged. Too late. His head ponged off the glass.
He backed up and rammed it with the same result. Pong!
“He’s going to break it,” Frannie cried.
“No, he’s not either.” Swanie came to the door brandishing the bat.
Charlie didn’t take notice. He pressed his face against the glass and shouted at them, waving his arms. “It has begun. God is giving us what we deserve. He is lifting the curtain on the end. This is the suburbs of Magog.”
A smile which but for his wild appearance would have been beautific, spread across his face. His voice gentled, growing soft and breathy. “I point the finger and say: You made this happen. For without are sorcerers and whoremongers, demons and murderers. Two millennia have passed. Armageddon has begun. The Tribulation is at hand. The chosen shall be swept up into God’s loving embrace. The evil shall be left behind to suffer His certain wrath.”
He dashed down the steps and scampered off in the direction of his cabin. “Woe, woe to the decadent who inhabit the Lord’s good Earth.” His voice echoed, as lo unto the wind, which was no doubt calling Mariah.
Peter and Swanie followed him out to make sure he hadn’t changed his mind and circled back. “Well, he’s gone over the edge. Frannie was right about his family being in danger. For sure, we’re going to have to keep him away from them.”
“Then why doesn’t Frannie go over and look in on him since she’s the one with all the compassion?”
Mila finished setting up the radio. He clicked it and swept the dial for news. They caught the last bit from one station. “… Officials are unsure, but indicated that no one is being allowed in or out.” The announcer’s voice trailed off into an uncertain shrug. “We’ll pass along more information as it comes in.”
“So that means we’re trapped here?” Swanie exclaimed.
“For the moment it appears we are,” Mila said.
“If he was even referring to our situation,” Peter said. “Shit on this whole mess.”
They weren’t exactly trapped and they weren’t naked in the woods “Our biggest concern now is Charlie. If you ask me, he’s the biggest threat to us now. No wonder his wife came over here. God knows what he was doing to them. When people start talking about the Rapture they lose all sense of responsibility.”
“Why would that be?” Mila asked, and Peter wasn’t so sure Mila wasn’t somehow offended. He looked perplexed. Was it possible he didn’t know what Rapture was?
“Because they’re saved and they don’t have to worry. It’s the same reason Evangelical Christians don’t care so much about the environment, or poverty or social problems. The End Times are upon us and they have nothing to worry about. They’re saved. God has excused them from all earthly responsibilities because he will soon be taking them up to Heaven and leaving all of us heathens behind. Very convenient, and extraordinarily self-centered.”
“No, I meant why does he say it’s the End Times? Because of the dogs? The attacks on television? Or what? I mean, it doesn’t sound like any Scripture I ever looked at.”
“Maybe it’s because unexplained events automatically take on religious overtones. Or maybe these people are desperate for any excuse to be put out of their misery. I don’t know, I don’t like challenging someone in their faith but this blind lust for the end of the world seems fiendish to me.”
Mila checked the radio again. They gathered around him as he played the old analogue dial back and forth, stopping for a moment on each station, cranking the volume and getting nothing but cracked and distant voices.
Frannie came downstairs from checking on the girls and called their attention to something more immediate. “What stinks?” she asked, wrinkling her nose and sniffing loudly.
“We do, Frannie,” Swanie said curtly. “We stink. Stop being so prissy and take a look at yourself.”
“No, something’s burning, for your information. Don’t you smell it? Or is your head someplace where it shouldn’t be?”
“She’s right,” Peter said, “I can smell it.” The air was sharp and piercing. Instinctively, they looked at the fireplace smoldering. Haplessly Peter glanced at Frannie and shook his head to dismiss the concern. But still that smell.
He checked through the boarded windows. The problem with keeping people from seeing in is that it makes seeing out equally as hard. Once they were able to locate a gap to peek through, it became all too clear what smelled.
The cabin was on fire.
He ripped away a piece of planking. The flames were tearing at the patch job and were shooting across the lower window casing, licking inside towards them. He swirled around and shot towards the bathroom and the fire extinguisher.
Frannie pulled the door open. Around the corner they ran smack into Charlie swinging a yellow plastic bucket, tossing K-1 as from a Baptismal font. More of the rude planking and the stuffing intended to dampen noise popped into flames. Now throwing additional kerosene, splashing himself, all in an exhibition of ecstasy worthy of any tent revival in the Burned-Over District. He looked at them. “His will be done!”
Frannie started slapping at the flames with her bare hands, joined in short order by Mila. He tore off his shirt and rat-tailed the burning planks.
Peter came last with the extinguisher. He threw it to Mila and pushed Charlie away from the bucket of kerosene. Charlie lurched back, casting his eyes upon the sinners before him. “It’s God’s will. No more, no less,” he told them with solemn finality. They stopped to make sure they were hearing him correctly.
“What, arson and murder are God’s will? Abusing your family is God’s will? Abusing yourself is God’s will?” Peter looked at his own hands. Put them to his nose. They were covered with shit. Charlie wasn’t spread with dirt and grime as a result of religious frenzy or of receiving God’s awesome grace. He was holy rolled in feces, layer upon layer of it, like a peanut butter sandwich. On his back slanting parallel lacerations told yet another tale on this Lamb of God. Self-flagellation, the test of all His martyrs. “Coprophilia is God’s will?” he said incredulously.
“I am washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”
“You’re washed in your own shit, you fucking lunatic. That’s about the only thing around here that’s God’s will.”
“The Lord’s love is whatever the Lord allows. Pagans all, you can never see this. You feminists and abortionists, you gays, lesbians and perverts, and the ACLU. You threw God out of the public square. You brought His wrath down on us all. It’s too late to repent. Earth must be purified. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.”
He folded his hands at his breast. Charlie’s work was complete. Any second now the Almighty should call him home from his prayer tower. Well, maybe Peter’s deck would do in a pinch as a launching pad. “This is what we’ve been praying for. With all of our being. I have been preparing for this day since I gave my life over to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ and was re-born in the Lord. I am joyful that the End Times have come. Hallelujah.”
“Charlie, you’ve been watching way too much television.”
Charlie lunged for the bucket and splashed kerosene over himself.
Flames curled around his feet like hissing serpents, slithering from that place unto the walls of the cabin. Charlie’s eyes glowed with fascination. He shouted out. “You are next.”
Mila smote him with a righteous blast from the fire extinguisher and muted the holy fire on his clothes. Then he returned the white spray to the cabin.
The flames were slow to penetrate the deck wood and were speedily doused. Not so their patch job. It was burning vigorously. Swanie worked the extinguisher back and forth across the wood and cloth until the flames gave way and subsided.
“If this is the Tribulation, why did you try to kill your own family?” Peter threw at him.
Re-folding his hands ever so gently, he settled upon them with startling intensity. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.”
“You consorted with us just yesterday.”
“That was before the End of Days commenced. The Lord has visited us and begun to assert his fiery wrath. First on the cities and the iniquitous there. Now, it is your turn.”
His eyes slowed from their swirling and settled on Katie and Laurel as they came out onto the deck, clinging to each other, too frightened to stay inside alone and terrified by what they encountered outside with the grown-ups. Their wide blues watched Charlie guilelessly.
“Get back inside,” Peter shouted at them.
“Katie,” Swanie said. “Go inside. Laurel, you too.” Each word louder and more insistent.
Laurel took a giant step backwards. Katie was so transfixed she stayed put. Standing momentarily alone, she stared up into Charlie’s ravaged face.
Rocking on his heels, Charlie declaimed, “The earth must be cleansed of degenerates and the unchurched, its perverts and liberals. The unclean must die. They shall suffer in numbers as grains of sand for their sins and die at the hands of the saved. I am chosen.” His face corkscrewed around the filthy hole that was his mouth. “You and your spawn are but a mote in the eye of Almighty God. You are denied God’s grace.”
He lunged for Katie. What he had in mind was impossible to tell. His grasping hands missed her. Whether it was Katie flinching or his own crazed unsteadiness.
He lurched to one side and almost toppled over. His arm sailed out for balance and he backhanded Katie across the head. She crashed against the corner of the cabin and fell, pinning her arm awkwardly beneath her. She looked up at Charlie and the others, dazed sand unable to cry.
Swanie grabbed the extinguisher and slung it at him. It bashed off his head and flew off the deck down into the brush. “You,” she hissed. “You and your talk about the destruction of the world. You’re no different from those dogs.”
She threw her body over her child to shield her from the Lord’s angel. Thwarted for an instant, Charlie faltered. He looked at Swanie, then at Katie. “Your daughter,” he said. He trailed off as the thought escaped him. Shifting to Laurel, now with Frannie sweeping her up and away from him, shielding her face, his eyes cleared and he recovered some presence of mind. “Praise our God, all ye his servants and ye that fear him, both small and great.” Looking at himself, at the blackened cabin side, at all of them. Throwing his head back, “Oh, Jesus, my sweet Lord, cleanse me. I am your instrument.”
He fell to his knees and stuck his head into the bucket of kerosene, ramming it in as though it was an act of penance. Pulling out and standing up, he burst into flames, whirling like a juggler’s torch, his outstretched arms spinning and grabbing at the air. His torched hair giving off acrid incense for his spiritual dance. He pin wheeled in a game of Suicide Twister, contorting his hips as layers of filth and skin peeled from his chest and back. Gobs of it curled on his torso.
He mounted the railing and, holding his flaming hands aloft, beseeched his savior one final time. “I’m ready, my Lord. Take me now.” He arched his head and said, “Thy will be done.” His incantations rose with the dark smoke and were spirited away.
Holding his arms in supplication, his body arced to dive upward. He rose to his tippy-toes and summoned his Lord, yet again.
The flames suddenly subsided and disappeared. Where he once was all ablaze, he now was bald and blotchy and not on fire. For most people that would have been miracle enough. But Charlie cared not for his corporal temple. The gray sky stayed mute.
He reached out to steady himself on the TV antenna. His sooty fingers looked like fingerless mittens. “Take me. I have carried out thy will, my God, I am yours. Lift me up.”
Needless to say, he remained as earthbound as a dead toad. His ethereal moment was pregnant with the lack of sensation. If the Lord had been present, He had already vacated the premises and left poor Charlie behind to stew in his own fervor.
Charlie looked at them disconsolately.
He cast about, then reaching some conclusion or other, leapt off the railing. He hit and rolled. Uncurling as he stood, raising his chin, he emitted a high, piercing animal howl of such intensity that it felt like the deck and cabin were quaking.
With the shake of a mucusie fist and a voice sluicing down an infernal drain, he rumbled, “Beee Dammnnned.”
The moment seemed to vibrate with meaning. The adults glanced fearfully at one another unable to conceal their apprehension. Then, fluidly, their attention shifted back to Charlie. Trailing black smoke, hectoring the entire corporal world, he flickered into the trees and disappeared one more time.
Peter went down and retrieved the fire extinguisher from the weeds and put out the puddle of kerosene.
“Try not to move,” Swanie said to her daughter. “I think your arm’s broken.” Frannie knelt beside her and together, she and Swanie lifted and carried her inside.
Charlie’s wife was cowering in the front bedroom with her son. Peter stuck his head in. She looked up when he opened the door. “It’s okay. He’s gone and I don’t think he’s coming back. So you’re safe. Can I get you anything?” Her fear dissolved into blank incomprehension. Peter closed the door softly.
Katie went feverish almost immediately. A broken bone for sure.
Swanie positioned the arm firmly against her side and bound Katie’s arm to her chest. Pulling her long hair back, she tied it into a loose ponytail to keep it out of the way. She fashioned a sling and draped her forearm in it. The break was simple and in her upper arm. If it had to be, this was the best place. Her pliable young bones would re-knit in short order as long as she kept her arm immobilized. Swanie gave her a section of a heavy-duty Tylenol and was able to get her to lie down in the back bedroom.
When she came back, the look she gave Peter was unmistakable. God himself would not be able to help Charlie if he was demented enough to show up here again. Swanie would not be in a forgiving mood.
Peter threw a couple buckets of water on the planking to make sure the smoldering wood was thoroughly doused. Luckily, the cabin had scarcely burned at all.
Charlie, yeah, sure Charlie. “He’s finished whether he comes back or not,” Peter announced, “And whether we do anything or not.”
“Even if Charlie’s right,” Frannie said, “about us being pagans and we’re facing eternal damnation and all, what does that make a man who would go after an innocent child?”
“Dead,” Swanie said, without any emphasis. Just a simple statement of fact.
“Death by Jesus,” Mila added.
Peter didn’t know which was worse, the reek of the cabin or the fetor of their own bodies. His pores were so clogged he was suffocating. He tore off the bandages. Three neat rows of scimitars in purple scabbards tattooed his left hand and forearm. He felt like he’d been scored with a dull razor. He went over to the sink and sponged himself off.
Foraging the medicine cabinet through the alcohol prep packets and betadine ointment, microfoam surgical tape, transpore and micropore tape, all partially used, he pulled out white packets of valium, darvosette and Tylenol. He tore opened a packet of each into the palm of his hand and knocked the pills back.
Closing the mirrored medicine cabinet door, he came face to face with a gnarled head that reflected poorly on Java Man.
“Thanks for fixing me up, Doc,” he called into the kitchen where Swanie was still patching Mila. He was sitting in a chair holding his arms out to her in supplication as though taking communion. “I always knew you’d come in handy some day.”
“Just bring some Tylenol for Mila,” Swanie replied. She said something acid to Mila that Peter didn’t catch. Mila chuckled.
Night came to thumb its nose at them. The cabin felt larger. Frannie and the girls were asleep in the back bedroom. Up in the loft Mila was supine on the bed; the pillows swept onto the floor, his Ibanez across his chest giving forth such mournful melodies the pain of loss seemed to take on a physical presence. His eyes were open, more or less fixed on the ceiling directly above him. Gretchen was on the floor beside the bed.
Peter settled in the silence by the fire. Sleepy Mountain had awakened and taken them hostage. Why? He hadn’t the first clue. You add up everything you know and keep adjusting the sum as you gather experience and wisdom and move ahead with increased clarity. But in the end you are still left to the mercy of random events. And that’s no mercy at all.
He dreaded reporting the body outside to a disbelieving cop and filling in the details about Pari, who was God knows where and in God knows what condition. Maybe she somehow escaped the attack and had made her way to the interstate and the authorities. He seriously doubted that.
But if she did, it would take her a while to get her story across. That would explain the tardiness of the cops in extracting them. There had been plenty of time now. It could be any minute now. Any second.
And those dogs? They couldn’t have all been rabid. Chances of multiple rabid dogs were slim. Feral, yes. But even that was unlikely. Something else accounted for this. There were too many unknowns. Plenty of cities report packs of dogs running the streets at night scavenging for food, once in a blue moon attacking some unlucky soul taking out his garbage. But nothing as volatile as this. Two packs joining forces to storm a cabin to get at the humans inside. That was calculation and cunning that only a paranoid would call normal.
Swanie stretched on the sofa with the light blanket over her. Despite the soothing music, she couldn’t get comfortable. She shrugged a few times and sat up.
“Did you take any valium?” Peter sat down beside her. “They seem to work. On me at least.”
“I’d be fine if I could just sleep for a little while.”
Peter stayed for close to an hour on the sofa, alternately kneading his bitten skin, stroking Swanie’s legs and listening to the gentle music cascading over them. Eventually, Mila succumbed to the numbing day, stopped playing and fell asleep.
Peter’s spotted his cell phone lying on the floor where it had been kicked aside in the confusion. Noticing it was on, he flipped it open―no signal, not even analogue roam. The battery was down to its next to last bar. He turned it off. Its musical farewell sounded loud and brassy in the stillness of the night.
Gretchen padded down the steps and put her head under his hand. She smelled like she’d run through a tannery. Her bandage was long gone and she had been worrying at her wounds, bald now, rimmed with pus, red from chewing.
Fetchin Gretchen. Peter used to think she was more trouble than she was worth. Poor dog was no pet. She was a hunting dog that had never been shot over and was wasting away most of the time in a small apartment. One time she got loose in the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge after Peter had sneaked her in. Trailing her leash, she streaked out onto a wide flat marsh and soon had herself surrounded by a flock of ill-tempered Canadian Geese that took turns pecking her backside as she lunged for the one taunting her. The geese chased her deep into the marsh and sent her racing back to him. He was able to hide her in the dunes just before a game warden showed up with a scoped rifle. It had been a close call. She was covered in slick marsh grass, dead weeds and goose shit, her ears bloodied by elephant grass but the Slime Queen came back to him alive – and draped with her new name.
Presently, Spot joined her. Their peace had been made and he couldn’t stand not knowing what his new friend was up to. He padded in from the back bedroom. He stopped, inspecting first Gretchen, then Peter. Deciding nothing was amiss, he came over and propped his chin on Peter’s other knee.
Eventually, reassured, he made his way upstairs. His pat, pat, patting on the steps became light thumping across the floor of the loft, a jump onto the bed, and all was peaceful.
A little later Gretchen walked over to the door and looked to Peter to let her out. He disengaged from Swanie carefully so he wouldn’t wake her, slid the door open and stepped out onto the deck with his dog. The air was clean. The breeze a gentle rustle in the trees accompany the other night noises Peter had grown so accustomed to and comforted by over the years. Altogether the peaceful night was extremely misleading. He reached down and stroked the baby fine hair on the top of Gretchen’s head.
She welcomed this for a while then started down the steps. She took her time the entire way. Once at the bottom she ambled partway out into the parking area, stopped and turned to look at him. There was just enough light or see the mournful look in her eyes. Her always intelligent aspect sharpened. She watched to see if he would follow and when it was clear Peter wasn’t moving from the deck, she turned away and wondered off in to the night.
Peter waited a good half hour for her to return, then gave up and when back inside.
With Swanie tossing fitfully, Peter took a couple pillows and his sleeping bag and flopped it on the floor in front of the fireplace.
He looked up at the patch job on the windows one last time and tossed a few pieces of split wood on the fire.
The relentlessness, the fear, the hope. One out-of-wack situation after another. Nothing making sense even when he stepped back and tried to re-assemble it. One event chosen at random was enough to provide a lifetime of nightmares. All this taken together was too much to stand up to. And something told him that wasn’t the half of it.
Strangely enough his deep fatigue comforted him. He was too worn to think or act anymore. It felt good to get his clothes off and wrap up in the sleeping bag. He lay back and rested his head on one of the floor cushions. They were operating at random anyway. Whoever they were.
Swanie eased off the couch and lay down beside him. “Don’t go back to sleep yet. I want to dress your wounds again. They’re leaking.”
“Don’t worry. I’m still too keyed up to sleep.”
“You were snoring. It woke me up.”
When she touched his wounds they tingled. He tried to relax as she set to work with unusual gentleness, using his father’s whiskey as disinfectant. He took a few snorts for medicinal purposes, as his father would put it, and made himself close his eyes while the bites on his hands and arms and torso were cleaned and re-wrapped.
“Peter,” Swanie lowered her voice to a gentle, firm murmur, “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you.” He started to speak. She moved her fingers over his lips. Let them rest there gently. They were as soft and tender as her voice. “It’s my fault, not yours. I’m the bitch. You’re trying hard to deal. I can see that. We all can see that. Even your … even Frannie. I’m just scared for Katie and me. We all are scared. I wasn’t ready to cope. You pulled yourself together before the rest of us did.”
He nodded his head. Watched her eyes. Their reality had become a compound fracture.
“You’re taking all the shit for this.”
He saw himself fighting blindly, running in terror, bleeding, hiding, cowering. He saw himself being killed. He saw a hand going around his throat, a knife suspended in air, then plunging down, down, down … He looked down at his dying body. Blood spreading like a gravy stain. His own blood and he couldn’t pull himself away from it.
He began counting off each time they had come close to death, fighting each fight over again, reconstructing every incident, just to hear what it sounded like to recite the incredible. This must be how you feel when you know you’re going to die. But then don’t.
She put her hand over his mouth to quiet him. They became perfectly still, the air, the cabin, the outside. “It’s such a shame.”
He was flat on his back looking up at the ceiling’s murky vertex trying to discern some shape, something whole and solid. The sleeping bag lay open into a perfect square beneath them. The glow of the fire reflected off Swanie’s rosy skin.
He flopped a hand out to her. She was naked. Her clothes were piled next to his.
Her skin was so soft. So soft. He circled his arm around her and pulled his body against hers. The softest skin ever. He ran his lips along her hip, down until the rim of her pubic hair tickled his lower lip. He caressed her with the backs of his fingers. She felt so good to him. His tongue dipped inside her. Holding her closer still until slowly her hips began moving.
Playing his tongue across her again and again, circling, sliding by, surrounding. She shifted and guided his fingers inside her, squeezing so that they were drawn deeper and held them there. He slithered them out and put his mouth fully onto her. She pushed him away and lowered her face to his. “I want to feel you inside me,” she murmured.
They kissed. Her arms slid around him and held on. They stayed that way for the longest time. Peter running his hands over her breasts. They felt perfect. Everything about her felt perfect.
Swanie let her hand caress its way down to him. She took her time. She felt his sides, his chest, his thighs, taking hold and sweetly guiding him on top of her and, curling her knees back towards her head, drawing open her entire being.
She wrapped her legs around his back, something she never did, and moved with him. When their lips met again it was like they never wanted to part.
No awkward shifting or interrupted tenderness. She got on top of him and held herself over him until she came, waiting for him to join her. When she opened her eyes and looked down at him, he pulled her down and kissed her again.
A long, lingering kiss. Except this time he detected something lurking there that he never felt before, a tension along her neck and jaw line, a hesitation as though she were watching him―another emotion he couldn’t quite identify. Something new this time, he decided, something different. Or maybe it had been there all along unnoticed. It came as a shock to him just then that he didn’t know if she kissed with her eyes open or closed.
There was absolutely nothing about making love with her he didn’t enjoy. They were as compatible as two people could be. Yet this was different. Worse, he couldn’t decide if his apprehension was real or completely imagined.
The air tasted like flat beer. The cabin was gamy. It bit at the nose like smelling salts. The patch job had reduced the airflow and with the electricity off, the overhead fan was useless for circulating what was left. Sleep, however, had refreshed him.
He felt for Swanie beside him. His hand played across the floor, feeling for her warmth, waiting for her to stir. The warmth was missing. Instead, he rubbed across slick clamminess. She had gotten up, leaving behind a cold wet spot.
Peter observed himself naked, uncovered and turned around. The sleeping bag was bunched at his feet. The top of his head now bumped against the raised hearth. The fire had subsided. Its dimming embers radiated enough to keep him comfortable. A little too comfortable.
Swanie was sitting in the chair across from the fire watching him. The light was too dim to read her expression. Or to tell for sure if she was still naked. He assumed she was, though he was unable to make out her features other than her wonderfully erect posture. She often complained how her mother had harped on the importance of good posture until she couldn’t go through a minute of the day without worrying about the way she was standing. Straight from shoulder to tail bone, Peter marveled with lazy satisfaction.
He felt her break into a smile. Afterglow, he rewarded himself. He closed his eyes, with his head resting in his palms, and spoke to her. Timbre soft and muddy.
“Remember what you said to me one time about cabin sex? Why don’t you come over to me? It won’t be light for a while … Remember how it started?”
Their first date he picked her up at midnight after her shift at the hospital. She walked in, kicked of her shoes and exclaimed, “This reminds me of Montana.” It was the seduction she needed. Moments later they were in each other’s arms in front of the fire.
How uninhibited the sex was in just about every location in and around the cabin and deck, including one big fat blow job right out in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Now all that seemed crude and sleazy.
“I guess I never really understood why you always talked about moving back to Montana. It never made sense to me before. Of how much better your life would be. How much happier you and Katie would be. I just thought that you were talking to hear yourself.
He raised his head and looked over at her to make sure she was listening. “I understand now what it means to you. The thought of not being safe here makes be realize how precious your strong sense of home is. A place to trust, to rely on. I don’t know whether you will ever go to Helena or not. But at last I understand the pull of that place in your mind. It doesn’t really matter, I guess, as long as you have the knowledge that it will always be there waiting for you.
“Hey, are you listening to me? Hey … Talk to me.”
If he was expecting some sort of acknowledgement, he was mistaken. Finally, he raised his head and peered over at her. Still sitting there not looking at him. Her attention fixed a few feet to his left as though she hoped his words would sail right out the door with the other hot air
Swanie may have her moods but this was a beaut. What had he done to piss her off this time? Fuck it, she’d probably be just as lost out in Big Sky Country as you are here.
He would get himself up and go out onto the deck where the air was fresher. Maybe she’d speak to him then. He wondered if maybe Frannie was listening and Swanie knew it. But since when did that matter to her? Besides he was barely speaking above a whisper.
His arms had gone to sleep under his head. He dragged them up and shook away the pins and needles. He spread his arms into a V, stretched until his fingers touched the flagstones. He came into contact with something. Something that moved.
He rolled his head back to look up at … Swanie … Still naked. Cowering against the flagstone, so freaked out she couldn’t speak.
If this was Swanie, then who was sitting in the chair? Who had he been blithering to all this time?
“Swanie?” Uncertainty warbling his voice. It sure as shit wasn’t one of the girls. A man’s form was positioned there like a mannequin. “What? Who is that? Mila?” Of course, Mila – unable to sleep.
Peter rose into the faint light of dawn. Perhaps it was adrenaline kicking in. “Man, that’s the second time you’ve given me a start.” His heart abuzz, he stood up and made one short step towards the person sitting in the chair. The thought swept his mind that it might not be Mila after all, that it might be that crazy son-of-bitch Charlie. He should hope it was Charlie.
It was Ray Grove’s man, Floyd. The awkward posture, the residue of a white trash sneer, scimitar lips, a warp of scraggy hair. His grin exposing mauled teeth. A reluctant leer, it’s true, but a leer all the same, directed towards Swanie.
Swiping his clothes off the floor, dancing into his jeans, picking up everything else he could find until he stopped himself. Forget the nerve of the bastard, how the flying fuck did this redneck molehill pus eater get in here in the first place?
He dumped her garments over Swanie to cover her. She searched through them for her T-shirt. She pulled it on inside-out and backwards.
Taking another step forward, wondering where the baseball bat had gotten to, he said. “When the hell did you get here?”
Floyd calmly produced his rifle from its perch against the chair, unnoticed until that moment by Peter. “Whar’s yer pup?
“Upstairs, probably sleeping like everybody else. So far.”
Floyd clicked the safety off and set his rifle across his lap.
He opened his mouth to speak. The words came out slowly in that grating ridge-runner accent. Like Peter should talk. When he moved to DC, people complained his Western Maryland accent was so thick they couldn’t understand him. Warshinin’, Balmer, Like giss, like gat, over ear, over air. All things considered, Floyd probably had less of an accent than Peter did, relatively speaking. “Mr. Grove toll me ta cum on down an talk to you folks about yer far.”
“Ray did, huh? In the middle of the night?”
Floyd put his hand to his whiskers. His most pensive gesture. His beard keened like a wire bristle. Just following the boss’s orders.
“Why are you out at this hour? And how did you get in?” In the damp light creeping into the cabin, Peter spotted the bat in the corner behind Floyd. He thought about charging for it.
“Door was open,” Floyd said. “You left it standing open. Peter guessed that he’d failed to latch the door when he let her out. Wherever she was he hoped she stayed there for a little while longer. “I tooted ma horn.”
Peter seriously doubted that. One of them would have heard him drive up. The horn would have jolted the entire cabin awake. And he hadn’t been outside. “You didn’t toot your horn. We’d have heard it. You’re here about the fire we had in the fireplace? It went out hours ago.”
When Peter didn’t add anything, Floyd said. “This yer place?”
“Do you think it belongs to someone else? Who might that be? Or did you just happen by in the middle of the night to wake me up to ask me some bullshit questions?”
Floyd made a dismissive gesture, looked uneasily around the cabin.
“Ain’t sech a good idea to be burnin’ a far, specially since yer cookin’ over it.”
“How’d you know we were cooking?”
“Smelt it. Dogs did, too. Most likely. Heard the noise from yer carpentry work too. Mightn’t be a good idea ta be out runnin’ aroun iss mornin’ neither.”
“There’s others out there with some ideas of their own. Steel ain’t safe. Dogs all but run some folks out up the holler a ways. Y’all better stay put til we kin git ‘em. ”
“I’m not sure there are any left. Is this about dogs or people?”
Floyd looked at him with amusement. “What makes you think ‘at?”
“We saw a bunch of dead ones further down 901. Some people had killed a stack of them. They were standing around barbecue pit cooking them.” Peter left out the part about their state of undress.
“Where was this at?”
“At a farm a couple miles from here, down by the cut back, if you know what I mean. The one that’s got Redskins colors on everything.”
“That one?” He seemed surprised. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Maybe you better go check them. Ask them if they’re the real owners. If you hurry up, you can break in on them while they’re still asleep. Careful though, they have guns.”
“What made them get like that?” Swanie asked. She was dressed, sitting on the hearth, still huddling to protect herself from the thought of this bird seeing her unclothed and sprawled out, bush up, post-coital. It wasn’t exactly like skinny dipping. There, you chose who saw you, how much, for how long and at what angle.
“Was fer yer own good. I came in here and you started talkin’.” Floyd had a one track mind which was still on the first track. “Think I liked it much?”
Peter wanted to tell him what he thought. That hell, yes, he liked it much, getting an eye full. All he managed was, “What about the other people you said were out there?”
Floyd got up slowly and headed for the door. “Some of ‘em were fightin’ dogs that a crazy fool let loose. They was the worst. Others,” he scratched himself for a moment, ended it with a shrug. “Cain’t figure, ‘cept they came from all aroun’. Seems like they got around the mean ones and turned mean themselves.” A stride later he was standing in the doorway, where he stopped, glanced back at them suddenly full of courtesy. “Mr. Grove said you folks should be sure an’ wait inside til we git ‘iss mess cleaned up.”
“That makes us captives here. Besides, I was asking about the people running round out there, not the dogs.”
“If ya don’t keep yer dog with you, how we gonna know you ain’t behind all this?”
“Behind all this what?” Morning air rushed through the parted door. It felt clean against the face. “What happened to the sheriff last night?” Peter asked, following him out. The jeep was parked at the mouth of the lane. “Have the authorities been notified about your activities?” Floyd either didn’t hear or he was ignoring the question. He crossed over to it, jumped in, swung around and was gone.
Frannie came from the back bedroom. “What was that about?” she said, groggy and bone-tired. “Is it safe now? Can we leave?”
“No, it’s not safe, damnit. Go back to bed. I’ll let you know when we’re leaving.”
“Peter …” she started, coming fully awake. Laurel appeared at her side. She mumbled something in disgust and led Laurel back to the bed.
Up above Mila appeared holding his guitar across his chest with both arms as though he’d just birthed it. Not an unfamiliar sentiment among guitarists. With his kind of talent you’d almost expect to see some sort of umbilical cord. But that wasn’t all. His face told another tale. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy and he was holding his lips in a way that indicated he had spent part of his time wrestling with her emotions. “What’s going on?” he asked Peter.
“One of the security guards got in here somehow and was sitting in the chair when we woke up.”
“How did he get in?” Mila came down and checked the lock on the door.
“I don’t know. I looked up and there he was. He’d been sitting there for a while.” Thinking about what he had been saying at the time, Peter felt even more foolish.
“He said you left the door open, Peter,” Swanie said.
“I don’t think I did.”
“How do you suppose he got in then? The lock seems to be working okay.” Mila leaned closer to the keyhole and worked the toggle with pinched fingers. “There are plenty of scratches around it.”
Peter went over and tried the latch.
“It was always loose, Peter,” Frannie said. “And your dog put those scratches there trying to get in herself.” Frannie said to put a firm end to it. “He got in because you left the door open.”
“Well, even if I did leave the door unlocked, he had no business coming inside like that.”
He headed for the shower. This pagan needed to cleanse himself. Swanie rose sluggishly and declared her intention to do likewise.
She walked out of her grungy jeans directly into the shower. Peter stripped down and got in with her. It felt wonderful even if Swanie wasn’t happy about being crowded in the slippery tub. “What are you doing?” she asked quietly, almost absently. He soaped her back, rubbing it vigorously with the wash rag while she held herself under the water. He ran his soapy hands over her shoulders and down onto her breasts.
The hot water was such a relief. He rotated Swanie towards him, got down on his knees and began kissing her body, drawing her close to him until his tongue found a home. He stroked himself, summoning an improbable erection. When he opened his eyes and looked up Swanie was gazing down on him like he was doing something new and shocking and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it and wished he’d either stop or hurry up and get it over with.
The water slowed suddenly to a dribble and stopped altogether.
She pushed him away. “Now what?” She twirled the knobs fully open. All she got were gurgles and spittle. “Peter?”
“Oh, no.” Peter stepped out and toweled himself off. “It’s my fault. I should have realized it. The fucking power’s out. No juice to the water pump.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We’re out of water.”
“Peter, I have soap in my hair!”
“It also means we have only one flush left in the toilet. Maybe two if we’re lucky.” He picked up the toilet seat: lemonade. He grunted at the small favor. It could have been chocolate milk.
Swanie stepped out of the shower, “Thanks a lot. You could have told me.”
“I didn’t think about it. It’s not like nothing else is going on, you know.”
“Asshole.” She stormed out of the bathroom heedless of her nakedness.
“Mommy, you’re undressed!” Katie exclaimed in a sleepy voice.
Swanie returned in an instant carrying a galloon jug of water that she dumped over her hair and body. “I think we should all get back into Mila’s truck and just go. I have to get Katie to the ER.”
He watched Swanie dry herself off, discovering to his surprise he was still hard. He found it much easier to focus on her body than her suggestion. She put the same dirty clothes back on and left the bathroom, on the way out glancing down at his hand on his erect penis, evincing indifference so total it bordered on contempt.
Peter stood in front of the mirror, watching himself. He stopped suddenly and stood there for a long, reflective minute. He shook his head at himself. Maybe he should have worried more about getting clean than getting off.
He took the shaving cream from the vanity below. From the medicine cabinet, one dull Bic disposable caked with whiskers and soap residue. This was no time to be picky. He was so scruffy he couldn’t wait another day. Pulling a dirty and dull razor through the heavy Barbasol, still lush after ten years, produced results. Like extracting blackheads with a pair of pliers, but far less painful than dog bites. At this point they were his threshold.
Swanie was waiting in the kitchen when he came out, daubing at the small shaving cuts along his chin and jaw with spit. “I think you should go talk to that woman,” she said to him. “I was just in there again.”
Swanie came closer and lowered her voice still further. “It’s the boy. He’s gotten bad. She wouldn’t let me get close to him. She just about lost it when I tried to put my hand on his forehead. Whatever Charlie did to them must have been traumatic. I’m just thankful he didn’t get at Katie anymore than he did.”
“After what he pulled on the deck, there’s no telling what he did to them, the crazy fucker.”
As if to punctuate his concern, gunfire erupted in the woods. A dog squealed in near-human agony and was silent, its life snuffed out. Peter went out onto the deck to better gauge its proximity. The rough tangle of mountain land distorted the distance to his urbanized ears. He was sure the locals could easily determine location and range. He couldn’t. He detected at least one shotgun, along with what sounded like one or two high caliber rifles. The shotgun’s concussion wasn’t as forceful or loud, but fuller. The reports sounded heavier and had greater punch.
He listened for dogs baying beneath the syncopated shooting and concluded that the skirmishing, if that is what this was, was up on Sleepy Mountain Road, not far from them.
“Fucking hell. This is all we need.”
“You’re right about that,” Mila said, as wistful as a valentine. Beside him now, with his hands on the railing of this ship of fools, as though sniffing the wind for land and the safety it would bring.
The shooting tapered away into scattered reports, distant then silent. The exaggerated stillness crowded around them with a concussion all its own. With gunfire in the near distance, Peter hoped they might be a hair closer to getting out. He found himself craning his neck to glimpse Ray Grove coming down their road.
“If we knew for sure what we were dealing with, it would be so much easier.” He spoke these words from the railing as though addressing an audience.
“Maybe we’re about to find out,” Mila said to him. “It’s the jeep. Hear it? I hear the jeep coming.” And with it another emergency.
The martial whine of a jeep transmission could not be mistaken, except maybe for a Morris Minor on steroids, forever over-revved in first gear.
“Look!” Swanie pointing from the doorway. “Someone’s running.”
They retreated inside. Peter drew the door closed and dropped the blind.
The bleating was still a distance away. Nevertheless, not someone but several people were fleeing the jeep. A man and a woman and two young kids. Peter recognized them immediately. They were the kids from the cabin up on the rise above the back stream. The cabin they had visited where life was still normal.
Peter recognized the father from the pool at Pleasant Valley. Remembered his handsome beard and longish hair and the way he used to wear a skimpy black Speedo and sit by the pool pretending he wasn’t eyeing the young girls.
Frannie and Peter used to joke about him despite his admirable physique. Or maybe because of it. Beside him was a heavy-bottomed woman with long blond hair, maybe even natural blond, glancing over her shoulder with uncomprehending terror.
Signaling for their attention, Peter parted the door to let them in.
Instead of breaking for the cabin, the man directed his family to Frannie’s car, the vehicle closest to the road, fastest to get away. He grabbed a rock and smashed the driver’s window. Reaching through he popped the door. With the rock he beat away the key housing until he could skin back the wiring and hot-wire the car. It started right away.
His family jumped in.
He backed around so furiously he smashed into Mila’s pickup. The radiator popped, the left front tire sagged. Raking the Sentra into a forward gear he tore away up the road.
The jeep screamed down from the cul-de-sac straight at them. Slid to a halt. Two men jumped out and branched off through the woods for Charlie’s cabin. Ray Grove released the clutch and kept on coming. Peter saw Floyd riding shotgun and didn’t see Bob Klein. He did see plenty of weapons erect as sentries bungeed to a rack behind the front seat.
Floyd was waving his arms at the Sentra and the people in it.
The bearded man swung Frannie’s Nissan box away into the brush, gunning the engine to keep the torque up so it wouldn’t stall in the rough ground. It was a brave and desperate move.
No way they were making it through the undergrowth. Frannie’s schoolteacher deluxe wasn’t built for off-roading. The woman and her two children sank low in back and disappeared. Not even a mop top poked up from the floorboards.
Ray Grove hit the brakes and slammed into reverse to cut off the car bouncing and tearing its way around him.
Its hood broke free and swung up blocking the windshield. Engine noise rose then fell again as the hood jerked back onto its latch and magically closed.
The bearded man hunched over the wheel maneuvering like a kid in a bumper car, side-to-side, scraped a tree, crashed over large rock, leaving the entire exhaust assembly all the way up to the headers sticking out of the ground like a fallen limb. Talk about throaty. What a wonder it wasn’t the drive shaft. Picking his path, blasting straight over obstacles when he had to, the man slammed through to the road. He was pulling off a miracle.
The jeep tore backwards to the top of the road and the cul-de-sac in pursuit of its silver quarry. Grove was having trouble keeping it straight in reverse. The jeep sprung off the road and smacked into a tree. A substantial one at that, snapping heads inside the cab. Floyd flew out and hit the ground. Grabbing the back of his neck in pain, Grove gunned it forward and swung around. Enough of the stunt driving. The jeep slowed. Floyd struggled to his feet and eased back in.
The Sentra heaved through the last of the brush and roared like a lion out onto the road and away with the angry trainers in the jeep right behind.
Frannie was at Peter’s side with her fingers crossed, sucking in a breath with each last chance maneuver. Who could blame her? That breadbox on wheels meant everything to her. Her independence, her new life with Laurel now being commandeered right before her eyes. “Why are they running from Grove?” Peter said aloud. “Why is he chasing them?”
“They have to make it,” Frannie replied. “They have to,” holding her crossed fingers out in front her.
She wasn’t freaking out about her car. She wasn’t even thinking about her car. She was pulling for the family and she gave a quiet cheer when they bounced out onto the road.
Once her car and the family in it were gone, she inside and tried the phone.
Peter stayed by the door and watched the road, wondering where they would make it to. And what they would find when they got there.
In answer to his question, Floyd appeared at the top of the road. He paused letting his gaze settle on the cabin and the environment around it. He checked his rifle and proceeded.
Peter walked out onto the deck and leaned on the railing. There eyes met and stayed that way. Floyd neared, looking none too pleased about being here again. Annoyed that Peter came out to greet him.
Intent on turning him around, Peter came down the steps. If they weren’t letting people leave their cabins at least they could leave people alone. Peter would play along and pretend they were obedient and cabin-bound. Which meant they were gone as soon as the sun went down.
Floyd got within twenty-five yards. “What’s the matter? They get away?” Peter started and head back in.
“That yer car they was in?”
“What’s in look like?”
“Hold up there, bunky. Mr. Grove wants ya.”
He shifted his rifle from cradle to ready. Peter stopped. The look he gave Floyd must have been betrayed his apprehension. Floyd’s attitude softened. He spoke with what approximated reassurance. “Won’t take long.”
“Is that why the rifle?” Peter gave him the finger and headed for the cabin.
Floyd ran the bolt action through its paces so Peter could hear it and give it a thought. He bent quickly to pick up the ejected round.
Peter nodded at the round in his hand. “He tell you to shoot me if I refused?”
Floyd clicked the safety. He slid the strap over his shoulder. “Jest come on. If you doan, he’ll come back down with more of us and git ya anyways.”
“Why isn’t he here to ask me? Or do you like sneaking up on us?”
“He’s chasin’ them people. He said to meet him back up on the road.”
People indicated he had to let the others know. Floyd shook head. “Won’t take long, I tolcha. Time we git up ‘ere, he’ll be waitin’ on us. He sent me. If it was up ta me ah’d never set foot on yer property agin.”
“The neighbor in that cabin over there set fire to our cabin last night.”
“You kin tell him that.”
“This guy’s completely lost his mind. He beat his wife and kid and tried to burn us out. If you want to help us, we can walk down there right now and make sure he doesn’t try to torch my place again. How about it?”
“He wants you ta come with me. If ya don’t, we’ll just have ta come back fer ya.”
Floyd started walking. “Come on, We’ll jest go meet ‘im.”
“I’m not walking anywhere unless I know my people are safe. Would you? He’s liable to do anything. He thinks he’s on a mission from God.”
“From God, huh?”
“That’s what he claims.”
“Did ya ever think maybe he is?”
Ray Grove was not waiting for them at top of the lane. The space was empty and silent. Floyd craned across the undulations for a sign of his boss. “Maybe yer neighbor is crazy. Some of the shit ah’ve seen, nuthin’ would surprise me. I’d have a weapon on me for one thing. He shows up agin, I’d kill him.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’ll be sure to keep it in mind.” Peter headed back to the cabin. He proceeded a few steps without objection from Floyd, stopped and turned back to say something to him. “I’ll tell you what, Floyd. You just might be right about that.”
Floyd nodded. Put a hand on his trusty piece.
“You have one I could borrow?”
In the distance the jeep whined into range, covering the gravely hills at speed. The driver’s urgency drew both of their attention.
“That would be him,” he said to Peter.
The jeep raced towards them at such high speed its undercarriage banged down on the heavy-duty shocks. Harsh metal on metal clamor diminished by the noisy transmission. With Grove behind the wheel, the jeep hit the last hill dropped into second gear and lugged forward, never quite coming to a stop. “Get in,” Grove said tensely. It was unclear to Peter if he was in a hurry or stressed out. Somewhere he’d picked up three of his men. They stood in back holding on for dear life.
Floyd moved around to the shotgun side and slid into the seat. He smiled at Peter as if to say, Okay, now you can deal with the boss, smart guy.
Peter looked at Grove.
Grove was expecting him to follow his man and get in. He slung his head across a shoulder indicating he should climb in back. Peter remained where he was, contemplating a return to the cabin. He thought vaguely about what might be going on inside. The girls playing quietly. Their mothers on opposite sides of the room. Mila somewhere in the middle, maybe playing softly. If it was a duet, he would have heard it by now. “What happened to those people you were chasing?”
Grove took it out of gear. “Maybe you could tell us.”
“How would that be? You were chasing them like they were criminals. Now you’re asking me. This is ridiculous.”
“They are criminals.”
“No, they aren’t. What did you want to ask me badly enough you sent Floyd down twice? Carrying a loaded weapon.”
“You didn’t expect it to be unloaded, did you?” Snickers from the others.
“It was fer the dogs,” Floyd threw in.
“What about that family?”
Grove shook his head. “You said you saw some people with dead dogs.”
Grove kept his eyes on the trees along the road while Peter described the Redskin House.
Once he finished, he said, “Now, you tell me: why were you chasing those people?”
“I’m not leaving here with my people unprotected.”
Grove drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, cleared his throat to say something. Whatever it was he had to think about it first. “I want you to show me this place. I’ll bring you back. They’ll be okay if they stay inside.”
“Like we been tellin’ ya all along,” Floyd added.
“I’m not leaving my place unprotected. I don’t especially care how short a time it’ll take.”
Grove shifted away from the surroundings and the danger they might harbor and looked at him. His attitude seemed to blur into uncertainty. Gone was the manic anger. In place of his officious bluster Peter detected concern and possibly shades of fear. “Look, just get in. We won’t keep you long. We need you to show us where this place is. Just to make sure. We’ll come right back. They’ll be okay until then.” Ray turned around to his men in back. “Would one of you boys mind sitting this one out? Just wait here until we’re back.” When they hesitated, he added. “You don’t have to go down there. Just stay up here. We need to make room for him anyway.”
One of the men jumped out and plopped down on a rock and made a show of placing his rifle across his knees.
“You’re all heart, Ray,” Peter said. He placed a hand on the tailgate and vaulted into the back. They drove off.
He took his place directly behind Grove along the roll bar, resting his hands on the saddle horn of a Cibie light. Once the jeep moved he held on and adjusted his balance. Neither of the other men acknowledged him crowding into the vacant spot. Neither did they begrudge him the space.
Cabins flashed by. They were empty, their driveways vacant, their lucky owners safe in their gated suburban communities located elsewhere. Had the troubles begun on a weekend rather than a Tuesday morning, their cars might have dotted the drives, their children might have raced along this very road while their parents tried to relax inside with their feet up and voices low and not too many cares for the time being.
The hills gave him butterflies. He couldn’t help feeling the same exhilarating sense of freedom escape Laurel and Katie must have felt sitting on the door grabbing at branches, reveling in the adventure. Out on the blacktop, the countryside was vibrant with life. The absence of human activity gave the landscape an added feel of tranquility as though everything had fallen into perfect sync.
They tore along making the long slow curve around and under the thick canopy of trees and down to the Redskin house.
They pulled up onto the grass by the barbecue pit and jumped down. Grove was wearing leather wrist wraps. The skin bulged fore and aft. His arms canted in front of him, as though they were about raise up in surprise. He stomped over to the pit.
Smoke trickled skyward. Close up you could hear the embers hissing in ash that smelled like steam. No dead dogs, fresh or roasted.
Peter headed for the side door of the house. Floyd came with him. The door opened onto the kitchen. Floyd went in first. “This place is empty. We checked it a-ready.” The fridge held a few beers, some mayonnaise and a pack of paintballs. A couple had popped and left gelatinous dayglo smears on the plastic. Freezer burned ice cream and a nearly empty bottle of Popov vodka above.
One of the propane burners was still on low. A large empty pot sat atop it, its handle not too hot to the touch. Which proved nothing, given the size of the pot and low level of heat. The contents of the pot had been dumped into the sink, judging from the redolence of spices, whiskey, honey and ketchup. Peter speculated it might have been the basting liquid.
What a shitty place. The only thing whoever lived here tended to were the Redskins posters and memorabilia. Bobble-heads, a team-signed helmet, pennants and posters, all of it straight, dusted, clean. John Riggins was the local hero. There was even a framed, autographed picture of him, suited and gray-haired giving commentary on a cable show. A poster of him in camo hung outside the bathroom, though a swag had penciled on a Hitler moustache and some Elvis sideburns.
Whoever was here left in a hurry.
Peter joined Grove outside. “You were here before. Why did you want me?”
Grove shook his head. “Floyd’s got a big mouth sometimes. These boys don’t always have their wits about them.” He seemed to realize the irony in his words, shot a glance at Peter to gage his reaction. Peter wanted to remind him of the amount of wits displayed over at the dumpster, but said nothing. This was not the time. He expected favors for his cooperation. “Just wanted to make sure we covered all our bases. So where do you think they got to?”
“Probably left the area would be my guess.”
“You say that just because they aren’t here.”
“They’re still around somewhere nearby, I’d say. What I would like to know is why they left in such a hurry.”
Peter moved over to the spot where the meat had been stacked. Toed the grass and dirt, revealing nothing. Then he remembered something and ran back inside. A nod from Grove and Floyd turned and followed. He stood in the doorway and kept a wary eye.
At least he didn’t have to worry about being surprised by live dogs. Peter scouted around, checking the tiny second floor bedrooms. The air was close. Their clothes were still here. More women’s than men’s, which made sense. When he came down Floyd had abandoned his watch and was standing back at the jeep with the other men. They were watching the tree line in the general direction of the cut back.
“What’s going on?” Peter came up beside them. They turned towards him, surprised by his presence. Peter repeated his question.
“Thought we heard some gun fire,” Grove said.
“But you’re not sure?”
Grove shrugged. His sloped shoulders and unfocused gaze reinforced the clear fact he wasn’t sure of anything.
“Was it or wasn’t it?
Grove didn’t say anything.
“Wuz gun far,” Floyd said. The others murmured agreement.
“Where do you think it was coming from?”
“Over ‘em hills.”
“You mean near my place?”
“Might could be.”
Peter looked at Grove. “Was this trip necessary?”
Grove didn’t respond. He started the jeep and they headed off in pursuit of phantom gunfire.
Peter took the shotgun seat from Floyd, who didn’t put up a fuss when Peter slid in ahead of him. He liked the thrills of standing in back. Although the other men now chose to sit or squat. All were paying more attention to their surroundings.
Peter leaned over to Ray Grove to make himself heard. “Have you actually seen any dogs running around lately?”
The man shook his head. His mouth was slack like he was trying to scoop air to cool his innards. His glasses had slipped down his nose.
“Have you tried to use your cell phone lately?”
Again, the shake of the head.
“Do you have one?”
“Not with me. Service is so bad around here I don’t make it a habit of carrying one around.”
Peter glanced back at his men. “How about them?” When Grove didn’t answer, he asked them. One man held up a dirty Nokia with the faceplate missing and duct tape holding it together. The man moved it closer for Peter to see: Searching for service. “If you have it on, you must get service part of the time?”
The man nodded.
“How about you let me know when we get in range?”
He smiled agreeably and returned the cell to the clip on his belt, right beside his ammo pouch.
Peter righted himself in his seat. No one was out. If people were present they stayed hidden inside the few houses they passed. Or, they had fled with or without permission. They approached the turnoff to Peter’s cabin. “How about you let me get my people and you take us back as far as that house we just checked and we’ll walk out to the interstate from there?”
“They’re safer where they are.”
“Safer from what? I told you my buddy and I saw a lot of dead dogs back there. Maybe those people picked up and left. They probably drove on out. Or at least walked out.”
“That’s a long walk for people like you to be making,” Grove said wryly. From the back the men shared a laugh at that.
“It can be done, Ray.”
Grove didn’t bother to respond. He drove past the turnoff to Peter’s cabin and headed in the direction of Sleepy Mountain.
“Do you know you just passed my road?”
Grove indicated he did.
“Then how about turning around and dropping me off? I did what you asked. I showed you the Redskin house. My family’s going to worry something happened to me.”
Grove gave no reaction. “You say you’re trying to protect us. Do you want more people out running through the woods? Because that’s just what’s going to happen if I don’t get back there. It probably has already. They’re probably out looking for me. What if something happens to them? Do you want that on your conscience? There are little kids involved. If you’re goal is to keep order here, how are you going to feel when your negligence causes people to suffer even more? The kids need medical attention anyway.”
Floyd tapped him on the shoulder to shut him up. Gun shots. The jeep slowed suddenly and lurched under the brakes. Peter stood slowly to ascertain the direction. Two more rounds punched at the air, closer than those they heard at the Redskin house. Possibly the same caliber, though Peter really didn’t know. And most likely coming from the same place as before.
“Take me back now. Now!” He started to get out. Fuck these assholes.
He felt Floyd’s hand on his shoulder again. He shrugged it off. Floyd leaned to his ear. “They ain’t comin’ from anywhars near yer place.”
By then they were moving again. Grove said to him, “When we find them, just let us know if it’s the same people. Then I will.”
“Ray, I have a crazy fucking neighbor that already tried to burn our cabin down. I need to be there now.”
Grove raised his hands from the steering wheel. “Just do this. We’ll help you with your neighbor if need be. You have people there. Looks like that blonde could handle just about any nut running around.” Ray cracked a smile. “I hear she’s got what it takes.”
“Fuck you, Ray. This isn’t over between you and me. I don’t give a goddamn how many dogs there are.”
Grove looked at him coldly. “Or how many dangerous individuals.”
Peter’s wasn’t having of his threats. “Where’s Bob Klein? Was he one of your dangerous individuals? What did you do with him? Tie him to a tree? And what about that family? Don’t tell me you were trying to protect them.”
The road configuration meant that to get to the source of the gunfire they had to loop several miles back near the cabins to a tertiary road running along the base of the mountain. The path amounted to a giant oxbow that would put them back within two miles of their starting point.
They beat time getting there. The men in back clutched at the seat backs and roll bar staring at their surroundings jetting by at impersonal speed. There was a grim set to them laced with an element of dread that gave Peter the feeling they would rather be back at work and bored. The outlaw thrill was gone, if it had been there in the first place.
Through the notch in the trees along the base of Sleepy Mountain, past red brick ranch homesteads decorated with rusty pick-ups and just-used lawn tractors, they bounced off the winding, gravel-strewn two-lane up a rising rutted dirt trail over a grassy knoll and burst onto an open field occupied by a laager of SUVs. At the far end, the Steeler flag gained the sky at an angle. This was the place where Peter had tracked the outliers from his property. They had entered it from the other side.
The people, men and women and a few kids, scattered like a soccer Saturday, wheeled en mass, startled. Grove threw his hands up, equally startled. The brakes squealed in surprise. His men leaned for their rifles.
Hard glances shot across the neutral space. Neither side had anticipated this encounter.
“Did you know about this?” Peter said to Grove.
Ray Grove looked at him noncommittally. He wasn’t sure Peter needed to know what this group represented just yet.
The dress was sporty in colorful nylons and upscale cottons. Absent from this crowd were the hunting orange and the earth-tone camo. This was the Eddie Bauer set that owned most of the vacation property. The automobiles, mostly SUVs and vans were new, clean and wore all the latest colors: metallic optimism. The sky had gone bright, sunny, cold and blue which lending the array the feel of an early spring auto rally.
The automobiles were gathered in a circle, almost as though in anticipation of trouble. Back to the left, which would, he surmised, be north and the general direction of his cabin, about nine o’clock from where they entered, individuals were huddled in a tight little knot.
A black 2006 Tundra 4x4 picked its way from the inner area towards them. People stood aside for it. As it progressed more and more hands were being thrust into pockets, an involuntary response among men to demonstrate a lack of aggression.
Ray Grove drove towards the Tundra. “Watch these fellas, boss,” one of the men said. “They might could have their own ideas about some things.”
Peter checked over his shoulder. Sure enough they’d all three brought their rifles up. No weapons were evident from the Steeler fans.
Seeing this the driver in the pickup hit the gas and moved up sideways against the Jeeps’ path, like a warship crossing the T. Windows came down and gunmetal slatted the sun like deadly venetian blinds. Grove stopped and got out, signaling Floyd to come with him and moved swiftly towards the driver’s side. He wanted to get there before the driver could get out.
“Halt and do not proceed.” The laminated voice came from a bullhorn positioned well back in the laager. Not from the Tundra, which remained stationary. No one inside made any move to dismount. Grey barrels paralleled the ground. In the Jeep Peter attempted to swallow away the nonexistent lump of phlegm in his throat.
Grove turned around suddenly and walked back to the Jeep.
His hands dangled at an outward angle. After a frozen moment spent surveying this wagon train, he got back in and drove around towards the source of the command. If the men in the Tundra had a problem with it, they would have to give chase.
The land was deceptively uneven. Rocks lurked beneath the meshed field grass. You could easily go up to you shin in a hole if you weren’t careful where you put your feet. The jeep bounced artfully over them. Peter held fast to the top of the window. Grove drove with his mind if not his eye in the rear view mirror.
They passed a narrow opening where he could logically have turned. Peter taped him in the arm and pointed. He glanced over his shoulder. The Tundra loomed at their bumper.
Peter was about to tell him to slot the next opening, no use allowing themselves to be run down like the wild dogs they were supposed to be looking for, when he spotted something up ahead.
At the back, opposite from where they arrived, the circle fanned out into two walls almost like pillars along a portico. At the top a knot of people gathered at a conical frame of metal poles shaped like what might be a tipi if it held covering.
Suspended from the top by the ankles was a dead woman, naked except for her face covered by some sort of small cape, just full enough to hide her features. Her breasts jiggled at her chin. Her snatch was shaved and Peter concluded they had found one of the people they’d been looking for.
They got out and approached. The Pleasant Valley security guards were tight behind Peter and Grove. None made an effort to relax their weaponry.
With his hands on his hips, he circled the suspended corpse. The arms fell vertically to the ground and paralleled the sides of the head. With her hair hanging, the woman gave the appearance of inverted surprise.
Peter got down on his hands and knees to get a better view of her face. There was no shock or surprise, just waxen skin and jellied, transfixed eyes locked into a nothing stare.
It might just as well have been a pig’s head on a spike because he sure as hell was staring into the mouth of savagery. This monument to depravity erected in self-defense and justified by necessity.
Peter knew then how close to the edge they were, all of them, himself included. He knew also that he should have been appalled. He wasn’t. Not at all. He was angry. He stood up feeling the fear draining from him. He wasn’t a preadolescent boy. He was an adult with adult sensibilities living in what was supposed to be the United States of America. There was nothing thrilling about this dangling gargoyle. And he was not about to let himself drift along with these events, allowing his conscience to be subverted and his decisions directed by lunatics masquerading as patriots.
He looked back at the Tundra, dark and solid and looming, and at Grove’s men and said, “I hope those safeties are off.” They made a show of proving it.
To this point no one had made an effort to confront them. The attitude went more towards curiosity at how these strangers would react to the corpse. And not a whit of shame about that either. Grove and his men were so transfixed by it all, they were turning themselves into a sideshow to this main event. They were much closer to the Steelers flag now. Peter was able to figure where he’d been before and where to run if it came to that.
“Who’s in charge here?” Swallowing his words, Grove sounded mortified. What should have been a command inflamed by outrage came out as an apology: Sorry to bother you, but …
No offer of a reply. Hands of the lesser slipped into vest pockets or fingers wedged into the front jeans pockets. Others let their arms dangle in the simian fashion of Ray Grove.
“Who wants to know?” Where ever the voice was coming from it wasn’t showing itself. Peter knew it would be a mistake to start casting about accusatorily. They looked like lost children, wide-eyed and fearful. He kept his eyes instead on the nondescript bunch twenty feet across the grass from him.
A woman there wouldn’t’ look him in the eye. Navy blue Gap sweatshirt in big white letters, white Reeboks and pre-washed jeans. Her little white ankle socks were so white they might have been fresh out of the pack. The man beside her was probably her husband, though he didn’t seem especially protective of her. Same garb, male style with a Tommy’s hoodie over a grey t-shirt that was definitely not fresh out of the pack.
The next guy was fingering a cell phone that was obviously useless. A quick scan revealed most people clinging to their cells in hopes they might pick up a signal. There was a certain comfort in always being able to open the little jewel, have it light up in your hand with a guarantee of companionship. Somebody’s gonna call, I can tell. Besides, my cell phone is too cool to set aside.
A teenager stood nearby with something on his mind and wanting to give voice to it. He glanced cautiously from adult to adult, reluctant to be the one to speak out in the rough semi-circle of careful people. He watched Peter, Grove and the men apprehensively and chose silence.
Peter took a step towards him. He was tall, blond-haired and not at all self-conscious about his zit-washed complexion. He’d probably looked at the red marks in the mirror so often he was sure everyone was past noticing. That would have been saying something.
“Any idea who’s hanging here?” Peter asked him. “And why?”
He looked back at Peter in surprise. Gone were all intentions to say what he’d wanted. Peter felt Grove move uncomfortably. Peter was more interested in where exactly Floyd and his men were positioned than Grove’s fretting.
“Did you find her like this?”
“Who’s in charge here?” Grove stepped forward beside Peter and asked him. He leaned from the waist as though to duck a punch. “Anybody we can talk to?”
The boy glanced uncertainly at the people nearest him and quickly withdrew behind the closest solid object. In this case, a four-by pickup truck. He wanted no parts of any further communication. Peter walked over to look more closely at the corpse. No one moved to stop him. They shied away like scolded dogs. Maybe Grove would quit blustering long enough to notice. Peter signaled Floyd and the others to come closer.
They followed in close order and crowded around the naked dead body. “You might want to keep an eye out,” Peter advised. But they were transfixed. Sooner or later the man with the bullhorn would show himself. Then it would come down to who was looking at whom and in what way. Peter knew this, wasn’t happy about it, but was equally certain Ray Grove left unattended would fuck things up worse than they already were.
He raised the hood concealing the dead woman’s face. Blueish skin around the waxy nose, doll eyes and not much else to report. Other than he was certain she was from the Redskin house.
Motion behind him. The bullhorn rang on. A metallic and compressed voice sounded a warning. “Step back from the object. Now!” Peter turned. The man was ten feet away. So close Peter could practically touch the bullhorn growing from the lower portion of his face. “Lower your weapons and step back.”
“Now, wait one goddamn minute.” Grove getting puffed up again.
“Keep them up,” Peter said lowly to the security guards. “Don’t point them … yet.”
“Doan worry. They ain’t takin’ our guns,” one of them replied. Louder, defiantly, as much to make a point to Peter. The others mumbled agreement and took strength from it. They widened their stances, raised their chins.
Peter wondered if they actually wanted it to come to that. These people were undoubtedly cabin owners and, unlike those gathered at the Redskin house, didn’t seem inclined to violence.
Grove got in the bullhorn guy’s face, much as he had challenged Peter at the dumpster. “Is this you property?”
The question took the man by surprise. He thought before he answered. He thumbed the bullhorn off and lowered it. “It’s not yours, Ray. And that’s what’s most important.” He shifted towards Peter and the men and used the bullhorn again. “Back off. There’s nothing you can do here.”
Grove had to figure out how this guy knew his name. Peter saw the same confounded look earlier when Grove found him hard to place.
“This acreage belongs to us,” the bullhorn man added before Grove could sort it out. “That’s all you need to know.”
Peter turned back to the security guards, dropped his voice. “Does one of you have a knife on you I could use?”
Hesitation passed from one man to another. Peter motioned towards the dangling woman. “Just for a minute.”
A knife slid from a back pocket sheath and was handed across several chests before it reached his hand. The shaped handle of the five-inch Buck knife was slick with grease; its blade thin and mean from repeated grinding and sharp enough to do serious damage by accident. Peter took it and was about to put it use when an ecstatic voice arced over the encampment like fireworks.
“I’ve got service!” The ebullient announcement echoed over the encampment. Elation spread with it. Cell phones came up everywhere. Heads ducked to them, brightening with hope. Then yanked away so the display could be checked. Back to the ear, heads now raised skyward to gather more vertical bars. One or two tried texting. The entire field swept into a tribal dance to hand-held electronica, pacing, circling, dialing, listening, looking up, looking down, double checking, listening again anyway, re-dialing, and in one case pitching the useless unit into the short grass. Peter might have gone for his own had he not left it behind.
At first most everyone clung to his or her cells with smiling optimism. The more they paced straining for the dial tone or, if they got that, for the connection, or, if they got that, for the voice at the other. Most got Searching for Service or Network Unavailable. And the dance slowed perceptively within moments as frustration then disappointment, until finally chagrin set in. They were just as anxious to leave as he was.
Peter watched this modern dance apparently its finale before he returned to the dead women and cut the thick nylon rope from which she was suspended. The body plopped like excrement onto the ground, rolled over itself into a dead meat pretzel.
Near to this a few individuals raised their eyes from their phones to watch. The tailgate of a Range Rover was open revealing the corner of a quilt that was kind enough to droop into the view. The child who had been lying on it hopped out and wandered off.
Peter retrieved the quilt, which turned out to be a sleeping bag, and maneuvered the body into it. He pushed over the poles and kicked apart the metal cone they formed.
Peter returned the knife. Through the web of cars and people, he spotted Frannie’s car. Behind him Ray Grove was shouting again. Making demands, or trying to. Ahead a few people were still pushing at their phones and took no notice of his path through them as he headed for the car. Those who did, made no issue of it.
The hood was missing. The tires were flat. The engine looked in tact but the keys were gone and the glove box was empty. All its contents had been liberated, right down to the owners manual. Nothing beneath the seats. The interior was a free of the extraneous as always. The only difference was the vacated feel of a car and its contents vandalized.
by the time he slid behind the wheel several people had gathered around him. Hands in pockets, staring dumbly at the car like neighborhood men watching a car being worked on. He wasn’t going to be driving this anywhere.
The people around the car avoided eye contact. They looked uncomfortable and uncertain. Join the club, he thought. He pulled himself from the car. He crouched by the right front wheel and felt along the underside of the wheel well for the magnetic key box. A safety precaution he insisted that Frannie take. It was gone. This car had been thoroughly searched.
He stood up and cut through them towards the tree line, maybe twenty yards away.
He felt them turn zombie-like and follow him with their eyes. He swung around at them. Heads dropped as though they’d just received a call. No one moved to challenge him. These poor people were frightened. They had gathered here for protection and were most likely just as uncertain of their own status. Not quite captive. Not quite free.
Peter understood one thing about them, though. People capable of neutrality about a corpse and careful enough to search a newly arriving vehicle were capable of other things as well. Maybe not as individuals. But most definitely as a mob. A group that was not quite a mob but could become one with the slightest trigger.
He kept walking straight for the woods and came upon the family that had taken Frannie’s car. They were huddled not too far away, sitting on the ground, clinging to one another in a way that might otherwise have been touching. The beaded man had his arm around his wife. She leaned against him as she comforted two kids. All of them looked bewildered. The man looked up at Peter and showed helpless recognition in his blanched face. His entire being cried out, Don’t hit me. Please. A far cry from his strutting vanity at poolside in Pleasant Valley crowded weekend afternoon. Peter wasn’t going to hit anybody.
“Where they’d get you?” he said to this man. He was moving towards them and was reluctant to slow down.
When he got no answer, he pulled up and squatted in front of them. “Here’s our chance to get back to our cabins. I’m leaving. You people should come with me.” Peter nodded towards the redoubt of woods closest to them.
The man hesitated. He watched Peter carefully, weighing the action Peter was proposing. His wife stood up first slightly apart from her husband as though to draw him to his feet. Peter got up and crossed into the scrim of trees. The husband rose reluctantly. He summoned his family and as one they closed in behind Peter.
The trees grew denser as the ground slopped off. It felt like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool. They followed the lay of the land for several minutes until gunfire brought them to a halt.
They pulled up to await the consequences. None followed. “They killed that woman, you know.”
Peter looked at the man waiting for him to elaborate. They looked back at him blankly. “Did you see it? What was she doing?”
The wife thought it over and said. “They brought us there and several were trussing her up. That’s what they called it, trussing her up.”
“The men that go around in those big cars. They act friendly to us, but they said we shouldn’t leave.”
“Shouldn’t or couldn’t leave?”
She shrugged. “Shouldn’t, I guess.”
“Was she by herself? Undressed that way?”
“They already had her there.”
“Then you don’t know if these people killed her?”
“They just drove up and hung her up like that?”
“Did you see any dogs?”
They returned a blank look. What dogs?
“Out there. Out here, on the loose. They attacked us over by our cabin. At the streams below yours.”
“There were some, I guess,” the man said, evincing no clear idea what Peter was talking about. “Do you own a cabin up here?”
Peter spoke sternly. “That was our car you took. The gray Nissan, the one you stole when Grove was chasing you.” When Peter looked to him for an explanation, he started glancing around, turning in a near one-eighty and back the other way.
“Who brought you there? How did they get you?”
His wife answered. Standing so close to her, Peter realized how short she was, how thin at the waist and heavy from there on down. Her hair was laced with twigs and small dead leaves. “Those men blocked the road. We couldn’t get by.” She looked to her husband in confused despair. “And they came and got us out. They yelled at us. What could we do? They had guns.”
Hearing no sounds of pursuit, Peter started moving. Signaled them to follow. The man hung back. Peter took the woman by the arm to lead them on. She motioned to her two kids and came willingly.
Her husband hung back. “No, we shouldn’t to be doing this.”
“There’s no choice,” Peter said to him.
“Yes, there is. No one was hurting us back there. We were safer there than here.”
“Why were you running from Ray Grove and his men? They’re the security guards from Pleasant Valley, in case you didn’t know.”
“We know. They told us who they were. We were being foolish, I guess. They came to our cabin and wanted us to stay there. They said they’d come back for us when we could leave. We packed up and started to leave anyway, but they were out on the road and tried to stop us. I panicked, I guess. I wrecked our car trying to get away from them and got yours, I guess. I’m sorry for what happened to it.”
The man cast about uneasily. In the sharp light his beard looked dyed, his hair had more than a touch of gray that might not normally reveal itself. Something about that conveyed to Peter how vulnerable the family was. Gone was his strutting poolside confidence. “We should have stayed put. At least then we wouldn’t have gotten separated from our other boy.”
“I was at your cabin. I saw him there and these two. They told me you had gone shopping.”
That seemed to confirm something for the man. “I think I’m going to take them back. We appreciate your efforts on our behalf. But my kids will be safe there and maybe they’ll help us locate our son.”
“Safer from what? I think the dogs have been taken care of.”
Again the startled incomprehension. “What dogs? I don’t know what you mean.”
“There was a pack of feral dogs. They attacked us.” Peter held out his bandaged forearms as proof. “If it wasn’t dogs, what in the world did Grove say he was protecting you from?”
“He said something about hotheads running around. Or something like that. He wasn’t too clear about it. That’s why we decided to try to run. Look, mister, if we stay here, they will take us back to our cabin to look for our son.”
Mister? This poor man was scared out of his wits. He stood in front of Peter tense and alert and flinching at whatever his senses might pick up. “Is that where you think he is?” Peter asked him.
The man nodded carefully.
“We own the cabin down the hill from you. Across the streams. We see your green light on all the time in winter.”
“They’re the noisy ones,” the woman said wearily to her husband. The partying at Peter’s cabin had obviously been as issue with them. Peter had no idea they generated that much commotion or that it carried that far.
“It was back by the streams below you where the dogs hit. I went with a friend to your cabin to warn you. The dogs came from that direction. I think most of them are dead now. I hope they are.”
“Then we should tell them. Maybe we can all go home now.” His voice fell to a whisper. Even so it broke slightly. The man gathered his wife and kids and started back. He stopped and hunched his shoulders against any objection Peter might have. Then continued.
“Suit yourself,” Peter said. “I wouldn’t trust those people if I were you.”
Voices ranged into the near distance, as though the volume had just been turned up on their conversation. They quieted for a moment. Several men were coming through the woods shouting back and forth to one another to keep within earshot.
Peter started walking. He didn’t even bother trying to convince the man of his foolishness. Instead the man said to him. “They might believe your story.”
“It’s not worth the chance. At best the people who presume to watch out for our welfare are erratic. At worst they’re irrational.”
The man cupped his hands to his mouth. “We’re down here. We’re coming back.”
“Tell them not to shoot us, honey.”
“We’re unarmed. We mean no harm.”
She glanced back dubiously at Peter. She had no choice but to follow her husband. “Tell them about the children,’ she said to him.
“We have our children with us. We’re peaceable.”
The men stopped communicating among themselves. There was no response except the static crackle of a walkie-talkie and urgent forward thrashing headed unmistakably in their direction.
“Come with me, please,” Peter implored. “You can’t trust them. Think what they did to that woman.”
But the bearded man thought otherwise. His family would be safer going back. “Here we are,” he shouted. “We’re coming to you. There are five of us.” His voice cracked. “Please don’t shoot.” He herded his family in front of him and urged them forward. Unable to continue his own flight, Peter stood still and watched until their thin and flaring human forms merged with a million little clicks and tapings and were gone.
Peter crouched and waited. He buried his knees in the moist loam to steady himself and cocked an ear. No footfalls either coming or going. No echoing voices. Neither pleas nor commands. The absence of human sound was striking, as though the earth had opened up and swallowed both pursued and pursuers in one big gulp.
The road was depopulated and quiet, just as it had been on the way over. Peter followed it at a fair remove until the forest began to thin and the natural slope of the land took him to it. He descended and stepped out onto the hard top. He cocked an ear thinking maybe he detected faint movements, too prominent to be natural. He thought about the bearded man and his family. The frightened man had made an unwise decision. Peter allowed it and stood by as they returned to an uncertain welcome when it would have been an easy matter persuading him otherwise.
Unable to justify letting those people go it alone without offering some sort of explanation for them, he decided to head back to the Steelers encampment. He knew he was compounding one dumb move with another, but those people were helpless. Somebody needed to put in a word for them. Grove was still there perhaps. He could talk him into offering to take the family with him.
Twenty yards down the road bodies rushed at him from a hedgerow and took him down. Dark shapes knocked him onto his back, then flipped him onto his stomach. Then back again. They couldn’t seem to make up their minds which way to orient him. One guy might have had his hat on backward. They were heavy-set, carried weapons, and seemed angry. That was about all he could reconstruct. And he wouldn’t have bet on any of it.
Some sort of bag was rammed over his head. Fat fingers fumbled to get purchase on the zipper. The inside reeked of B.O. and mildew and it cut out the majority of light despite the zipper. “Damn thing’s stuck.”
“Then hold it on.”
“He won’t hold still.” Welcome to amateur hour at the counter-insurgency hoedown.
Peter stopped struggling. “How about now?”
A car approached and slowed and Peter was invited into the backseat head first. His hosts crowded in around him. All he heard was a rueful, “She was right.” His head rested on the lap of one of his hosts. Another sat on his bent legs. The ride didn’t last long and wasn’t bumpy until the last when they mounted the hill onto the field. The windows were down and he heard voices that seemed to reflect on the car’s arrival while parting the way.
The brakes squealed, doors opened, the tempo of discussion rose. Peter exited feet first. Helping hands put him right and led him up a set of wobbly aluminum steps into the back of a delivery van where he was put into a chair.
“So, you’re the guy who took down our display?”
Peter held his peace. He wasn’t about to say squat until they took the bag off his head. Whoever owned the voice and it belonged to a woman, he wasn’t inclined to respond to it encapsulated in this reeking thing.
He felt someone get up and walk past him down the steps and he was alone. He ripped it off. It was a battered gym bag that appeared to have had it contents dumped so it could be used to hide his head.
He wasn’t alone. Another man sat opposite, looking at him curiously.
“This yours?” Peter asked him. He brushed his hand across a logo for Pleasant Valley Home Owners Association.
The man looked at it and nodded.
Peter threw it at him and stood to leave. His guard jumped to his feet to restrain him. Peter decided it was going to take more than this one poor soul to keep him stationary. He needn’t have bothered. He was going nowhere.
Several people came up the steps. The immediate outside of the van was covered with a picnic awning, like a royal antechamber. The entourage entered.
The woman in came first. Slowly, watching him with more than a degree of weariness. Her dark hair thrown back and held loosely in place with red bandana knotted at the base of her skull.
She sat heavily on a lounge chair and lay back. She had on gold lamé flip flops and her toes nails were painted a haughty purple. “What is it that you want anyway?” she said to Peter with an air of humored curiosity. As soon as she spoke she brightened and her demeanor improved.
“Maybe I should be asking you what you want. It looks more like you people want something from me.”
She looked at him and said nothing. Then glanced at her men.
“That family you picked up in the woods an hour or so ago. I’d like to see them.”
“What do you want with them?” She seemed genuinely puzzled.
“I would like to take them back to their cabin. Or at least see that they get there.”
She waved her hand in dismissal. “Is that why you came here? To rescue them from the big, bad Home Owners Association?”
“Ray Grove brought me here against my will. I would like to get back to my place.”
“But you were on your way here when we picked you up?” She tilted her head over her shoulder to indicate the curtain suspended from a green clothes line behind her portioning off the rear of the van. “Ray Grove and his party are as useless as ducks in thunder.”
“He’s keeping people from leaving the area, or from moving around at all. He wouldn’t let us leave and did the same to another family.” Peter looked at this woman and raised his voice. “That family is now being held by your people.”
“No one’s being held by anyone.”
“Except me, by you.”
She made a dismissive gesture. It seemed to be her favorite response. “So you’re not with Grove?”
“No. I’m not.”
“He didn’t send you back?”
“No, I was coming back because I was worried about that family you’re holding captive. The one that had the silver Nissan.”
“You left with them, didn’t you?”
“They changed their mind. Where are they now? I’d like to see how they’re doing.” Peter stood to leave.
“Not so fast.” She signaled one of her men.
“What do you mean not so fast? There are an awful lot of people giving an awful lot of orders in this valley all of a sudden. What is this ensemble anyhow? I would like to get out of here with my family and go home. My real home.” But he sat down anyway.
She blew off his challenge by making ironic fun of it. “Wouldn’t we all? Home and family are what we’re all about. But the truth is nobody’s leaving this valley. And if I have anything to say about it, They’re not getting in either.”
“They? Who are they?”
“They are not us.”
“Look, lady, the dogs are dead and gone. That woman you had hanging back there was cooking them. Probably eating them, too.”
“She was dead when we found her. Naked and dead and alone.”
“So you guys retrieved her and decided to make a totem out of her body? How civilized of you. Did you know her? No. I followed my nose and came upon them. Naked and alive. She was with other people. What happened to them? And to answer your next question, I cut her down because none of your people would.”
“Why bother? It was a good warning.”
“At the back the field! Get serious. That was obscene and you should have known better. It’s probably criminal as well.”
“We hadn’t gotten around to moving her yet, out to the front. That’s where she is now, by the way.”
“Can I leave now?”
“Where are you going?”
“Out of fucking here. Is this really the Home Owners Association? I thought it was a Steelers’ tailgate.”
One of her men spoke for the first time to supply Peter with information. “Don’t get smart. This is the future Queen of Berkeley.”
Peter guffawed despite his growing anger. “The Future Queen of Berkeley? What are you talking about?”
“That’s her name.”
“The Future Queen of Berkeley? Yeah, and I’m King Arthur’s paraclete. Sweet Jesus, have you people lost your minds? And I thought Ray Grove was a head case.”
“It’s just a name. You needn’t concern yourself overly.” The Future Queen gave her queenly gesture again.
“And that’s the sign post up ahead. You’re entering the Twilight Zone. You needn’t concern yourself overly.”
“Someone has got to bring order to this chaos. I’m the elected head of the Pleasant Valley Home Owners Association.”
“Excuse me but what chaos would that be?”
The Future Queen of Berkeley changed the subject. “If Ray Grove keeps it up, things will get worse than they already are.”
“You’ll get no argument from me on that one. Do I address you as your majesty, bow and wait to be spoken to?”
The Future Queen of Berkeley directed attention behind her again. “See for yourself what he does to people who disagree with him.”
Peter rose and did precisely that. He stepped past the queen, taking care to maintain maximum respectful distance between her presence and his and ducked his head inside the curtain. There on a cot lay Bob Klein. Unconscious or more likely asleep and covered with bruises.
Peter returned to his seat. “I saw him last night. Grove had him gagged and duck taped to his seat. I wasn’t sure it was the dogs or humans who did that to him.”
“There are some bite marks. Some. But we’re not completely certain.”
“Grove has been all intent upon keeping us in our cabin for our own good. We’d already fought off the dogs twice. We didn’t need his help. We still need to get to the hospital. Look at my arms, I got bitten. So did the people I’m with.”
“You can’t get to the hospital.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Things are in a state here … and out there. Grove’s gotten in the way with his ideas of control. We’ve organized to protect ourselves. We know best how to run our own lives. And to deal with those who try to stand in our way. We’re peaceable here and would like to stay that way. I take it you’re not proposing to stand in our way?”
Finally the Future Queen of Berkeley had gotten to the point.
“No,” Peter replied promptly and with irritation. “I’m not proposing to stand in anyone’s way. I think it’s more like you standing in my way, in our way. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what you do. I would just like to get back to my wife and kid, and friends. And as far away from you lunatics as possible.”
The Future Queen chuckled. Her eyes filled with tears of mirth. Enjoying this go-round with a commoner, no doubt. She sent a meaningful glance at the men off to one side, telling them to take no action against him. “What were you doing yesterday?”
“I told you, I was trying to stay alive. Why do you ask?”
“No, before that. Before it all came down.”
Peter looked at her with annoyed silence.
“Because it really doesn’t matter what you were doing yesterday. Yesterday was before. Today is after. This is the new reality. Granted it’s a work in progress. We’re creating a new reality here. But it will be the one you will be living with from now on. Fear and disorder have offered us a real opportunity to organize our lives in Pleasant Valley along better lines. For the time being we are taking whatever steps necessary to secure ourselves against the present. And the future as well.”
“By the future I take it you mean the present? The old present reasserting itself.”
“I mean the world as we don’t want it. There are things we can do about it, you know.”
“Aren’t you in the wrong valley for that?”
“We’ve established this spot as a provisional headquarters and refuge for our people. We’ll be moving back once we get things sorted out with Pleasant Valley management.”
“All of the homeowners?” Peter surmised her total number of people couldn’t have amounted to more than a fourth of all the resort members. Surely not a third. These were the people lucky enough to be here when the first shoe dropped. Or, unlucky, as far as he was concerned.
The Queen shrugged. “Enough of them to make an orderly transition. And that signpost you mentioned also says that we get to make the rules.”
Peter stood up, bowed and started to make his exit.
“After everything settles down, we won’t need to be so insistent.”
“Where’s Ray now? Last I saw him he was walking around here with his men acting like he was your current king.”
“We sent him back over the mountain for the time being.”
“That was generous of you considering what you think of him.”
“We wanted to give him time to think things over.”
“You let him go voluntarily? Not exactly, I take it.”
“And he took that family with him, I believe.”
“So that’s why they’re doing fine? What a relief.”
The Queen said nothing for a moment. Then said, “We’ve been more than generous.”
Peter left without further acknowledging the Future Queen.
Her men escorted him to the road and watched him go on his way. Their weapons were out now. Armed men were very much in evidence and wary enough to show they anticipating trouble.
Peter had the feeling that they would have been far more forthcoming had he hung around for a moment or two.
He hadn’t gone fifty feet into the growing darkness before car doors slammed and a car emerged from the field accelerated towards him. He stopped and turned slowly to greet them. He had no idea what they wanted this time. All he wanted to do was get back to the cabin. He missed his daughter more than he could ever remember. And that included the first night of the separation.
They rolled up beside him and the driver lowered his window. Peter spread his hands as if to say What did I do?
The driver glanced at him, looked away through the windshield and said slowly, “Look, it’s dark. It’s not safe. Why didn’t you let us give you a lift?”
“With or without the gym bag?”
Someone in back guffawed. Someone else muttered, “She isn’t going to like this.”
Peter was tempted to ask if they were worried about a lawsuit, given the penchant home owners associations have for suing its members over the slightest matter. Instead, he got in and they drove him all the way back.
You just don’t go away for the weekend expecting to be bitten by ravenous animals or attacked by wild yuppies. You might watch Mr. and Mrs. Deer eating fresh greens with their darling son Bambi. You might marvel at the exuberance of those dedicated to fresh air exercise. But you don’t expect to confront an armada of mad weekenders. Or chased by them or our forest friends.
At the top of his lane, he got out and thanked the queen’s men for their courtesy. The driver even offered his hand. “You could throw in with us, you know? You and your family. We’ll get you some medical attention. There’s a nurse with us.”
“Thanks, but we need a doctor. We need to leave the area.”
The driver shook her head, “Be careful. We’ve sent men all through these woods, on the road, too.” He watched Peter for a reaction. “They’re armed. Looking for stragglers. Some people we’ve come across are in pretty bad shape.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Peter shook his hand and headed down to the darkened cabin the guard left by Grove was nowhere to be seen.
Someone had sliced a trash bag open into a flat rectangle and weighted each corner down with rocks over the mound. A crude cover, but it would keep the piteous carcass undisturbed until they were able to do something about it. Fat-bodied blow flies snapped above the cover, the heavy flies circling overhead like vultures swooping down to the plastic for another look-see.
Peter was half-tempted to rip the plastic back and let them have at it. Maybe they could hatch a few hundred maggots to consume the remains so he wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.
He stood silently over it, no more distinct than a load of topsoil or a pile of garbage tossed haphazardly aside and then covered over with second thoughts.
He checked on the condition of the cars. Their fleet was down by one. The pickup had a damaged radiator and a flat tire. It may have looked totaled, but he was certain it could be made to run, if they wanted to take the time to fix it. As much as he once lived and breathed for his precious TR, he wished the bearded man had taken it instead. He looked it over. No reason why it shouldn’t start, though it was an iron-clad cinch they all couldn’t fit into it.
Their L. L. Bean canvas wood carrier was lying by the door, or, as though they had been interrupted bringing wood in.
He was exhausted and needed to sleep. He needed to clear his head and let the strange new dusty world settle. From the deck he glanced back at the cars and the remains. The dark woods swallowed them hungrily, as though claiming its trophies. One thing was clear. He was not about to join up with the Future Queen of Berkeley and her men.
The cabin door was closed but unlocked. A mattress was leaning against the doorway with one of the easy chairs dragged over from the fireplace holding it upright. Peter pushed the mattress back enough to slide through and get the door closed. The lock was loose and the latch refused to grab. That explained the mattress, a paltry attempt to guard the entrance.
The cabin was stone quiet and chilly. The fire had gone out and the ashes smelled. Nothing stirred. Not even Gretchen or Spot. What the hell had happened here?
He checked the front bedroom, gingerly easing the door open. Charlie’s wife was kneeling at her boy’s bedside with her head on the pillow beside her son’s. Both were asleep.
Enough ambient light remained in the back bedroom to show Mila and Swanie huddled face to face on the box springs, their guitars on either side of them, like walls against the outside world. A blanket covered their feet. They were fully dressed and to someone who wasn’t of the suspicious frame of mind it looked innocent enough. He wasn’t suspicious. Neither was he jealous. Nor did he particularly care.
Two gallon jugs of water were open on the kitchen table. Another full one still sat by the refrigerator. Left over from the days Frannie refused to let Laurel drink the well water. They would have to ration those. No power, no pump, no water. He tried the faucet just on the off chance water was still in the pipes. Not a drop.
He drank a glass of water and checked the bathroom. The toilet was full and fetid. He dumped some anti-freeze topping on the concoction and tried the loft.
Frannie was sitting up in bed with the two girls curled on either side under several blankets and Spot on her lap. She was so relieved to see him she almost started crying. Peter bent to his daughter and kissed her forehead.
“We thought something had happened to you,” Frannie said. “Katie’s in bad shape. Her fever’s down. But I’m thinking she’s got an infection. Where were you? We were so worried. How are your bites?”
Peter glanced down at them. “Strangely enough they don’t bother me so much. Is everything okay here? What’s with the mattress? The dogs didn’t come back did they?”
She shook her head. “No, they didn’t. The lock broke. I guess I did it trying to make sure the door wouldn’t open for Charlie if he came back. What happened to you?”
“Grove made me ride with him and his boys. We ended up at an encampment over by the base of Sleepy Mountain. A bunch of the Home Owners Association people are situated over in a field there sort of staying together for mutual protection. They seem to think we’re all stuck here. But I’m not sure what that means exactly.”
“Protection against what?”
“Grove, maybe? Dogs? I’m not sure. They were just standing around like they were waiting for something. A couple cars had armed men who were keeping lookout. And one gruesome little extra – really gruesome.” Peter gave her a couched description. “That’s what made it so odd.”
“So, we still can’t leave?”
“Not if they have anything to do with it. These people are talking about things outside of the mountains being in an uproar. I’m not sure what they mean. They gave no indication of finding it at all remarkable. It’s like to warring camps. Grove and his boys are running around trying to impose order. Or at least Grove’s version of it. The Home Owners Association is trying to impose its own version, it looks like.”
“What are they doing?”
“I’m not exactly sure. I’m not sure they know what they’re trying to do either. Probably they’re trying to organize themselves to stay in one piece. The president is some batty woman who’s calling herself the Future Queen of Berkeley. I know it sounds crazy. But they’re armed and determined to run things differently. Or so they say. You know how the Home Owners Association is under normal circumstances.”
“It’s a wonder they never found some reason to sue us. They sued everybody else up and down our lane and they don’t even have jurisdiction over here. They want to run things differently from what?”
“Than the way they were run before, I guess. I couldn’t tell whether they were reacting to the dogs or those planes hitting in New York and DC. Did Ron call?’
“Nobody called. The phones are off. We kept inside and tried not to make any noise and worried what about happened to you. Except for Mila and … Swanie playing their music. I don’t think she really cared that much. Maybe that’s not fair. I shouldn’t have said that. They were trying to cope as much as I was.”
“I hope they stayed inside with the playing.”
“That didn’t make it any better,” Frannie said. Peter laughed out loud.
“Grove left a man up here to keep an eye on things. I take it he didn’t bother to let you know where I was?”
Frannie shook head.
“He was gone when I got back. Grove must have picked him up. I got back as soon as I could. Those people with the Queen had the idea I was working with Grove. I guess that’s how it must have looked to them. That’s where the family that took your car ended up, by the way. They were trying to get back to their cabin to get their son. We actually started to walk back, but the man got scared and chickened out.” Peter described the gym bag on his head, the rough treatment and his conversation with the Queen. “After putting me through all that, they ended up giving me a ride back here. They were decent about it once they saw I wasn’t with Grove. Even asked us to join them. It’s like the cold war between Grove and those people. I think he went back to the Pleasant Valley rather than put up with their shit. The Future Queen of Berkeley is a real piece of work and she definitely has her own ideas about things. ”
“Did you tell her about what happened to us?”
“Grove and her both. Neither really wanted to believe me. Or didn’t care if they did believe. I couldn’t tell. They kept talking about running things their way, like this was some kind of chance for them to set things right.”
“I guess you didn’t happen to find my car, did you?”
“Oh, I found it all right, over at the Queen’s camp. I wouldn’t hold out much hope for getting it running again and back on the road. I’m sorry.”
“That bad, huh?”
Peter nodded. “It’s pretty well trashed.”
“It doesn’t matter. That’s the least of my worries. I can always drive Dad’s car if I have to. Once we’re safe.”
“They were such normal people. All of them had cabins up here as far as I could tell, just following along like frightened sheep. And then Ray Grove blustering around their camp. I cannot believe what an asshole he is.”
“Well, you’re here and safe. That’s the main thing, From now on we have to keep ourselves together.”
“You’re telling me. Despite what they were saying about things on the outside, I don’t think we should stay here. Every time we try to leave we get stopped. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. What happened to your eye?”
Peter leaned closer to Frannie, surprised he hadn’t noticed it before. Raised contours and the darkish discoloration. No question about it. She had a deep bruise under her right eye.
She moved her head to hide it. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Looks like a black eye to me. And it wasn’t there earlier today. What happened?”
“Where the hell have you been?” Swanie was standing at the top of the steps and made no attempt to lower her voice.
“Glad to see you too,” Peter responded.
“We thought you’d left us behind. Maybe gone to work or something.”
“You thought that,” Frannie said, lowly. “None of the rest of us did. Not even Katie.”
“Look, bitch, you leave Katie out of this.”
“Did you hit her?” Peter said forcefully.
Swanie glared at him. “Where were you?”
“Did you?” He wasn’t about to let her bluster her way out of answering.
More gunfire and wood-hollow voices commenting on it changed the subject. It brought home the continuing urgency of their situation.
Peter got off the bed and headed towards the steps. “Stay here.”
“Please don’t go out,” Frannie said, fearfully. “We need you here.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not about to. I thought I left those people behind. They know we’re not part of their schemes. I’m not about to get mixed up with them now. Any of them.”
He went downstairs and parked himself by the door to watch outside. The last thing they needed now was more visits from Grove or the Queen’s men.
“What schemes?” Swanie asked him. Downstairs with him now, her anger had diminished and she was relieved to see him. She moved closer to him.
Peter turned to face her directly. “Did you hit Frannie?”
Even in the darkness he saw shame briefly pull on her face. She looked away unable to hold his gaze. That was a first. She thought a second. Realizing she’d supplied the answer and there was no use avoiding the truth, she said, “What if I did? She was in the way.” She reacquired his gaze and this time held it.
“I’ll just bet.”
“You don’t what it’s been like for me having Frannie around here all day while you were off somewhere. Bad enough having to listen to her problems when I drop Katie off.”
“You drop off Katie to spare yourself the trouble of watching her. And I doubt you ever stop talking about yourself long enough to allow Frannie to wedge in word one. I’m seriously sick and tired of listening to your mouth. Have you ever listened to yourself?” He thought about mentioning her music, but left that beast alone. He wasn’t out to score points.
“But she kept getting in the way with all her worrying and stupid ideas.” Thus far she’d managed to contain herself. Now she looked ready to explode into a full-throated tirade.
Thrusting a finger to his own lips, he cautioned her, “Keep your voice down. There is nothing that Frannie could ever do to approach your bullshit. I’ve been through too much, seen too much and listened to too much self-delusion to listen to it anymore. It wouldn’t hurt if you kept your mouth shut altogether.”
Swanie looked up at him. Not an ounce of fear in her face. Just waiting for the inevitable, almost as though she was expecting him to hit her. It dawned on Peter that it wouldn’t be the first time she’d been hit. He flashed on her ex-husband, the smack addict she left behind in Montana, and thought, What am I ever doing with you? How did I ever let this happen? And thinking it, he began to feel something akin to embarrassment for Frannie.
He felt himself grow calm with certainty. Something settled over him, the conviction of a decision so obvious he should have made it many months ago. He stepped closer until their noses were practically touching. “Look,” he whispered, “don’t ever touch her again. Do you hear me? Stay away from her and we’ll be fine. Do it as a favor to me. And once this is all over, once we’re out of this nightmare that will be that. Kaput. Finito. The end. Got it?”
The slightest shaking of the cabin. A trembling that but for Charlie’s surprise fire dance he might not have picked up on. Years of ignoring the tics and grimaces of the wooden A-frame would have allowed it to pass unnoticed. This time Peter’s senses snapped so tightly, he would have heard mice in the silverware drawer.
This was the sort of slight crepuscular movement that could only mean more trouble. His pulse went pneumatic, he eased away from Swanie and turned back to the door. He intended to go out and confront whoever was sneaking around. The movement was so slow and stealthy, it felt like a saboteur. He already knew this wasn’t Charlie. He’d had enough of this shit too.
Lowering, pressing his belly and temple against the floor, he eased the corner of the blind away and put an eye against the glass.
At first nothing but night time, a little darker and a lot quieter. Little else to be observed. He drew in a breath and waited. The subtle vibration resumed. No question someone or maybe something was on the deck. Waving at Swanie to stay put in case she had other ideas, he slid on his belly the opposite corner of the window.
Pressing like a desperate voyeur straining through a peephole in the girls’ locker room wall, he held motionless until suddenly right in front of him just inches away a dark form crossed. Through the glass an eye, unblinking and unflinching and looking straight at him. Peter almost screamed.
Moments earlier he had been outside without fear of intruders of any kind. One of the benefits of the clash between Grove and the Queen had been increased security. Suddenly, it appeared they were anything but secure.
Because of some trick of night that rendered the thick glass one way, the eye held steady for moment before sliding on by as though Peter wasn’t there. The single white eyeball devoid of facial context. Suppressing a cry and the flight that would accompany it, he forced himself to keep in from sudden movement while assiduously shrinking back to safety. After everything he’d seen and heard said today, this frightened him most.
He hitched himself up a bit and watched the shape outside sneak past. Whoever it was had a rifle slung across his back.
Peter drew back from the window and crept to the broken window, as he imagined their latest intruder creeping along not more than ten feet from him in the opposite direction.
He moved the blind back and tested a loose hanging piece of charred plywood see how pliable it might be. Satisfied he could navigate through it quietly if he was patient, he raised a leg and snaked out an inch at a time, moving then listening, moving then listening, hair’s breadth by hair’s breadth. He reached back inside and brought the hammer along with him.
Once out he sank to the deck and started crawling, relying on his senses being finer than his adversary’s. As far as noise, well, he could be just as quiet. Besides, the green noise of the nighttime woods was nattering away like a Saturday evening Canasta party after a second round of Old Fashions.
Peter peered around the edge of the cabin at the figure gathered into a crouch by the door latch. He felt Peter’s presence. Slowly, the rifle came away from the body and up to the shoulder. Like a shadowy Tai Chi master, he turned towards Peter. Made no bones about flicking off the safety and sighted him down.
Peter rose and threw the hammer as hard as he could. It buried itself in the intruder’s eye. The man collapsed to his knees, falling backwards dropping the rifle, which went off and sent a slug singing into his neck. The echo scolded the trees overhead. A lazy hand went up to the wound.
Peter rushed forward and snatched up the rifle. It was an old Remington bolt action .22. He popped the bolt back, drove home another round and leveled it off at the guy’s chest.
It didn’t matter much. He didn’t have to get any closer to see that he wasn’t a guy at all, but a woman. The woman was Pari.
On her back moving her lips. One eye gone. Blood all over the place. Clots of it. Sheets of it, slick and sweet.
He knelt over her. She didn’t appear to recognize him or much of anything. Blood pumped from her neck. In feverish disbelief, he grabbed her and shook her bony shoulders. Her head bounced off the wooded decking, a dull, toneless thudding, one, two, three, like you might drum your fingers. He hadn’t realized how slight she was, like Frannie. What if had been Frannie?
“Come on, rally,” he pleaded, “Pari, as in sorry.” Blood spurted from a loose garden hose all over his hands as she traded color with Peter. Her red for his white. “Please don’t die. Please live.” It was too late for words. The damage was permanent.
He wanted to say something to her before she took off for the light, but what in the name of sanity would he say, the pulpy hammer in his slack hand? Gee, I’m sorry I killed you. It was self-defense. You were going to shoot me. Or, no, you shot and killed yourself. All I did was blind you in one eye.
She stopped breathing and went still.
He stared at the body trying to figure out how the hell this could be Pari. After all hadn’t they watched her get chewed to bits? Hadn’t those ravenous dogs minced her to clutter? Made scraps of her body, then a few of them dragged it off somewhere?
If not, then what had they watched? They had seen her go down. Okay, maybe the dogs didn’t chew her to bits. They took her down started mauling her. Then she disappeared. That much happened. The scars on their legs and arms, hands and feet, the destruction they were living with, the dull pain of multiple bites reassured him that the dog attack was not an illusion. They chewed somebody to bits. The partial torso testified to that, didn’t it? He ripped open her jacket to check her torso: Bitten raw, infected, unhealed. See, she had been attacked. Wherever she ran to, she changed clothes. Probably she broke into some other cabin. She must have picked up the rifle there, too. Why did she take so long to come back? Or, had it been the Queen? Did she take her in, clothe her, arm her and send her out to secure the territory?
He got close to her face. It was streaked with dried tears or dried sweat. Her mouth smelled of fear and hunger. Worse than bile, it was death breath and he never wanted to inhale it again.
He sat back and started rocking on his haunches. Nothing would ever again be the same. The mantra on everyone’s lips was firmly in his head. In killing Pari, even by accident, he’d crossed a line to the dark existence of unknowable consequences. He realized kneeling over her corpse that he would forever be waiting to answer for this deed. Whether before a court of law or the court of his own conscience, or the same kind of reckless violence.
Swanie appeared beside him. “It’s all over now, isn’t it?”
He tilted back and looked up at her, feeling helpless and hopeless. “I didn’t know it was her.”
“I know that, Peter. I’m not as hateful as you think. But this still isn’t going to be easy to deal with.” She looked up as the door slid open and Mila stepped out.
“It’s Pari,” Peter and Swanie said to him simultaneously.
“Peter hit her with the hammer and the gun went off and she shot herself.”
“I didn’t know it was her,” he said to Mila, pleading for understand.
“What did we see?” was all Mila could muster. He stood at the top of her head spreading his hands in supplication, looking down on his dead girlfriend, working his lips like sixty.
“We didn’t see,” Peter said. “We only thought we saw.”
“Sure,” Mila croaked, “we only thought we saw. Could someone please explain what happened at the streams?” He threw his head back and cried out, “Could someone please explain all of this to me?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to run away and leave her.” Swanie was hushed, watching Mila and warily offering this as strange solace. “Maybe Peter should have stayed with us instead of taking her back to the cabin.” Swanie all but jerked a thumb in Peter’s direction.
“And not save Katie and Laurel? Get serious. I wasn’t quick to run. None of us was. We waited too damn long as it was. Besides, the truth is we probably couldn’t have helped her anyway. I didn’t know who it was. I didn’t know it was her. How could I have known? I was thinking it was one of Grove’s men come back. Or men from the Queen of Berkeley. Like advance scouts or something. But …” He fell silent for a moment, then added. “I’m sorry, Mila.”
That was all it took to bring tears from Mila, along with whimpers of stifled grief. “This was not part of her Karma.”
“Who are the Queen’s men?” Swanie asked. She looked at him like he was babbling. “What is he talking about, the Queen’s men … Peter?”
“Let Peter alone.” Frannie slipped through the door appeared almost floating in the tricky light.
“He just killed Pari, for your information.”
Frannie reached for the bloody hammer and slipped it gently from Peter’s hand. She set it off to the side. Then, she picked up the rifle and leaned it against the cabin wall. Glaring at Frannie, fed up and making no attempt to suppress it, she added, “This wasn’t his fault and you know it.”
Swanie said nothing and the issue appeared to drift away. “We have to do something for Pari,” Frannie said. She ducked inside and returned with a blanket. She spread it beside Pari and as gently as they could moved her nearer to the cabin wall and covered her with the blanket tucked tightly and neatly around her slight body.
They lowered their heads and stood over her until the sun broke the horizon and glared at them from its catbird’s seat low in the sky.
No sooner had they gotten inside than they heard noise behind them and turned around to encounter a dog following them through the doorway. Its jowls slathered white, its yellow fangs matching its yellow eyes.
Intruder and prey stared at one another. The dog lengthened its head until its back was straight as a lance. Its fur was matted with blood and dirt and a gash along its rump was holding its left forepaw off the floor. Blood dripped from it onto the carpet, one thick teardrop at a time.
Peter grabbed the bat and threw the axe to Swanie. They forced the dog back onto the deck. More dogs were gathered outside at the bottom of the steps.
How many there had been before? A dozen, fifteen? Twenty? This time they weren’t so numerous. The attack was somehow different. Less frenzied, inhibited, almost as though this time they were thinking about their actions. The dogs came up at them like they were trying to get past and into the cabin.
Mindful of how much damage even this small a number could do, they met the dogs on the steps, striking down at them from above. They knew exactly what had to be done. No more pausing after each blow to gauge the reaction. No more hope for rationality to reassert itself. No more “if only” pondering.
This time they would be the ones inflicting the shock and awe. Peter killed the dog with one blow, mashing part of its skull. He kicked the spazing body over the side. Swanie brought the ax down on the spine of another and that dog collapsed and curled up. They killed the first two so effectively that despite superior numbers the rest began backing away.
As they pursued Mila stayed behind. He knelt down beside Pari, tore the blanket away and started going through her pockets, pulling them out in the process, patting the folds of her shirt, even checking the cuffs of her pants as though she was nothing more than a grab bag of potential treats. He found what he was looking for and stuffed some small objects into his shirt pocket, grabbed the rifle and ran to catch up.
Swanie and Peter had progressed partway down the hill. Mila came up beside them and pointed the rifle at a dog and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He yanked the trigger again, this time with both hands. Nothing.
Peter reached over and slammed the bolt home. Mila sandwiched the butt in his armpit and with both hands still at the trigger guard and yanked the trigger once again. He missed wildly. But the sound was enough to spook the dogs into further retreat.
Peter reached for the rifle. “Let me use it.” He pushed the bat at Mila.
Mila pulled away. “No, it’s mine now.”
He pointed the rifle again and pulled the trigger. Nothing.
“You have to release the bolt and eject the round.” Peter pulled the bolt back and the small brass shell casing flipped out into the air and dropped at their feet.
When they hill leveled off into the defile, they continued to the streams without the slightest pause to cut these animals any slack. This was something in their botched world they could do something about and they would pursue it until every last one of these fucking animals was destroyed. The animals were oddly reluctant to cut and run. They weren’t fighting but they didn’t scatter either.
Peter wielded the bat like a battle truncheon. He had become so attuned to the impact he could tell by the fullness of the thud and quickness of the snap if his stroke had penetrated deeply enough to finish the beast off. Brain matter, bits of fur and lots of blood splashed over their hands and arms.
At the stream, they reduced the numbers of adversaries to three. One for each of them. The dogs broke and ran. Mila, Swanie and Peter kicked on through right behind them.
Mila scrabbled into his shirt pocket for another round. Loaded and fired and missed. The dogs retreated into the dim dawn at the top of the hill. Mila loaded and fired again. They followed, shouting encouragement to one another, running to close on them.
At the top they came upon the cabin where the kids had been waiting for their parents. The same kids who’d fled from Grove in Frannie’s car. A lone candle waved in the kitchen window. A warning beacon or a signal for help?
“Hold up a second,” Peter said. They stopped in the trees at the edge of the grassy back yard. He put his hand to his knees, bent over from the exertion. Mila squatted to gather his wind. “Look, you can’t hit anything with that. Please let me use it.”
“Pari should have known better than to sneak up on us like that.” He was panting and he paused to gather more air.
“Mila, have you ever fired a rifle before?”
“I wish I could make myself understand why she did that.”
Swanie was well conditioned from running and was focused on her quarry. Her breathing was as even as a marathoner’s. The hill had been nothing for her. “Where did they go?” she asked.
“Inside,” Mila said.
That was enough information for her. She crossed the yard, kicked the back door the rest of the way open and charged after them.
Mila removed another bullet from his pocket and re-loaded.
With heavy curtains pulled across the windows and no electricity, the cabin was dark and quiet. They moved directly to the front room. The dogs were waiting, more than three. Peter and Mila caught up just as they emerged from all points of the house. They’d walked into a real roach nest.
Peter put the bat squarely across the snout of the closest dog, another half-breed Shepherd. Mila managed to wound one in the rear leg. That bought them enough space to maneuver back to the kitchen door. There were too many and they were fighting on their own ground. There was nothing to do but flee.
They did so and slammed the door shut.
“What are we going to do when they come out after us?” Mila asked. “Run all over again? It’s like they lured us up here so they could get at us.”
Peter doubted it. “They aren’t smart enough to pull something like that.”
“Just keep them inside,” Swanie barked. She backed away and disappeared.
Peter and Mila upended a heavy picnic table across the kitchen door and headed around to front the check that door. No activity out front.
“It’s their ground. We’re the intruders. How smart do they have to be?”
Peter shot him a glance. “What are you talking about, their ground? We bought this land and built on it. It’s not theirs anymore than it’s Mother Nature’s. We sure as shit have the right to defend ourselves and our kids. How can you even know it’s their land? What a load of horseshit.”
“I know, I know,” Mila responded wearily, “But if you stop and think about it, you do get the sense of nature coming back to reclaim what was originally her own. Or at least not ours. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a shame it came to this.” A quick patting of his pockets confirmed his suspicions. He was out of ammo.
“Nature in the form of wild dogs? Or, do you think they represent some pristine call of the wild? We have dead people because of these noble beasts. Plus, there’s a bunch of men with guns operating out there without any restraint or regard for the law because of their calling. The shame is it doesn’t mean a goddamn if it’s for our own good. It’s still anarchy.”
Peter and turned to leave. He’d had enough. He would catch up to Swanie and they would walk back by themselves. If Mila wanted to stick around to mourn the honored dead, let him.
Movement up by the chimney coming towards them along the crest of the roof. An ax dangled from the right hand, balanced by an elevated left arm, personal features occluded and indistinct. Peter was sure it was Charlie. If Pari could survive the dog pack, Charlie could survive his own auto-da-fe. What was he up to?
Except it wasn’t Charlie. Not even close. The answer came quickly. Kneeling, angled away enough to reveal her lithe body, Swanie offered a simple explanation. “No more. They can’t fuck us around like this and expect to get away with it forever.”
Grasping the ax in both hands, she chopped away the shingles. She peeled a few back and hacked a hole through plywood.
She stopped and peered through the hole. Satisfied she looked down at them and said, “Throw the gun up to me.”
“You don’t know how to fire it either,” Peter protested.
“Peter―just give me the fucking gun.”
“I don’t have any more bullets for it anyway,” Mila told her. He handed the rifle to Peter, who took it and threw it down in disgust.
“Way to go.” More of the contempt Swanie specialized in.
Mila drew in a breath sounding very much like he was steeling himself to go off the high dive and made his way over to the storage shed at the side of the house. The ladder was leaning against the angled roof.
He disappeared into the shed, quickly emerged with a red and yellow gas can and joined Swanie on the roof. He said something to her and she moved further along and started chopping another hole.
Mila produced a rag and soaked it in gas. The fumes made it all the way down to Peter. He stuffed the rag into the hole. Lit it with a charcoal lighter. The rag burst into flames Smoke followed him across the roof and he moved towards Swanie, coiling after him like mist.
After repeating the task, they sidled to the edge of the roof and jumped down. Swanie tossed the hatchet ahead of her blade first into the soft ground at Peter’s feet.
Flames sprung up through the holes, appearing last closest to them. Somewhere inside glass cracked and shattered.
No one spoke. The three of them lined up to spectate. Peter leaned forward past Mila to look at Swanie, his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. How odd that sounded. He wasn’t surprised at the thought. Wondered only what she might pull next. She was exuberant and remorseless.
Swanie pulled the ax from the earth. Defiant, she switched it to her right hand and raised the blunt edge against her bicep. “They asked for it and now they’re going to get it.”
“Uh-oh,” Mila uttered a low sound, starting just above a whisper that trailed away as he wheeled around to make sure he was right.
He pulled away and backed up a giant step canting his head.
Despite the sizable expanse of yard so assiduously hacked and seeded and trimmed out of the woodland, the fire had jumped the littoral into the nearest trees and with the crackling of sheet metal was handing itself off like a relay team down the hill.
“Good work. This’ll show them for sure,” Peter said.
With the fire now spreading behind them, they bolted through the trees, down the hill to the streams.
Peter pulled up halfway across. He started to tell the others to go on without him. But they were already well away from him. He watched them disappear up the ravine and then turned and re-ascended the hill.
The cabin’s roof looked ready to cave in at the far end. Smoke billowed from porous places at the eves and windows.
The back door was still closed. He pushed aside the picnic table and pulled it open. The handle was warm to the touch. He threw an arm across his face and leaned inside. The flames had not yet reached the small screened-in porch, so he entered and kicked the kitchen door open.
They were waiting. No sooner did the door fly back against its hinges that several howling canines bolted past him. They tore across the grassy yard and into the woods. Fine with Peter. He wasn’t interested in killing any more dogs.
He made his way through the kitchen and down the hall towards the bedrooms. Heat radiated from the walls and sooty blackness was already leeching though the ceiling that would soon pop into yellow flame and reach down indifferently for his hair and scalp. He crouched lower.
A gnawing sense about the boy drove him to the back rooms of the cabin. Enough time to make a quick check and get out. The room where they’d forced the dogs – and from which they’d scratched at the latch until it had opened – was empty, as he expected. Leaving it with a cursory glance, he backed up a few steps and entered the side bedroom that preceded it. The pink girl’s room appeared. The closet door was closed. Smoke peeked through its slats.
Peter kicked the door back. It rattled against its mounts and fell towards him.
He danced aside to avoid it. The closet had been ransacked, almost like someone had clawed at the clothes. He pulled a swivel chair from the computer table and mounted it. Steadying himself on the bar against the seat’s free rotation, he forced the ceiling panel up and into the crawl space. Smoke jabbed his face. Holding his breath he hoisted himself up just in time to see peeking up from the extreme opposite and through the swirling smoky heat the tousled head of a young boy, the oldest of the three kids. He caught a flash of gamine-eyed fear just before the boy popped back down through a similar opening in the ceiling in another room and flicked away.
Holding himself by the edges of the frame, he kicked the chair aside and dropped back to the floor. From a window, he saw the boy jump out a window and dash away.
Peter yelled after him to hold up. The boy disappeared from sight.
Crashing of glass warned of the fire’s deadly progress. Whatever the foolishness of returning to the cabin for a final search, it would be suicidal to go back down the hall to continue. He rolled through the window, re-crossed the yard and headed into the burning woods bent combat soldier-low.
The hills were alive with the sound of mucus. The trees popped as the fire sucked the last morsels of meat from juicy ribs.
Catching the boy was easy. Peter knew the woods as well as he did. When the dirty-yellow T-shirt crossed from the right fifty feet in front. Peter veered down the hill, away from the boy, hit the trembling water and ran upstream along the bank.
The boy practically burst around the hill straight into his arms. Those almond eyes looked up at him a big and scared-angry. The boy was too frightened to cry out and too depleted to struggle. “We have to get you out of here,” Peter said to him. “It’s okay. We’ll find your parents and you’re going to be fine.”
That was all it took. He won the boy’s trust. The fire was tearing at their nostrils now and continued constructing its rippling canopy overhead.
They crossed the stream and hurried up the hill towards Peter’s cabin. No longer reticent, the boy welcomed Peter’s protective arm across his shoulders. Peter kept it there until the stress of the uphill flight forced him to pull it away.
The cabin ranged into view.
A ball of fire whizzed past Peter’s ear, tickling the air with a hot whisper and fell five feet away. Instinctively, he swirled about towards the missile’s origin. Another landed in front of them. Peter ducked to the ground, pulling the boy with him.
Two more hit close by. He looped an arm over his head and raised himself enough to inspect the surrounding area, fully expecting to get pelted from above by these ripping snowballs. They hit and rolled away in truculent yellow fists unfolding at the end into black ash.
One of the little puddles of ash emitted a squeal. A charred and hairless squirrel struggled like a turtle to right itself. How in the world had one squirrel, let alone its friends and family managed to get set on fire?
The blaze was traveling faster through the crowns of the treetops than the underbrush. The lower terrain while smoky as a night fog remained largely untouched. The squirrels had gotten caught or trapped perhaps by the speeding train. As they combusted they became projectiles and came down like heavy rain.
Peter and the boy continued until they were close enough to hear voices from the cabin. Pained voices, angry voices, terrified voices. All belonging to Swanie. Peter was sure of it. She was calling out for her daughter.
“Katie! Katie, where are you?” Swanie shot onto the deck pleading for her daughter at the top of her big voice with the fire reflected in her face. “Katie, where are you?” She moved to each corner, stretched from the railing and repeated her plea over the clamor. Mila appeared at her side. He saw Peter and motioned for him to hurry.
Pushing then dragging the boy, Peter closed the last forty yards, mounted the hill and dashed up the steps. He started to ask what was going on. Before he could get it out, Swanie, unwilling to waste time on explanations, dashed past Peter and the boy.
“We can’t find Katie. Your sister and her daughter are gone, too,” Mila said to him.
“No note or message? Gretchen, too?”
Mila shook his head. “We got back and they were gone. All of them. All their belongings are here. Look around. Nothing’s messed up at all. It’s like they just ran out the door. Those other two are still in the bedroom.”
“Katie!” Swanie came around the far side of the cabin. Her anguished cries rising still as she headed down the gulley to the streams towards the flames into the most dangerous path of the approaching fire. Peter had just covered this ground moments ago and hadn’t seen anyone. He hadn’t been looking but surely he would have spotted them. Or they him.
“Stay here, “Peter told the boy. “Stay with Mila.”
He hurried after Swanie, shouting, “I just came up from there. They’re not down there. I would have seen them. No one is. It’s on fire.” Catching up to her, he placed a hand on her shoulder to get her to stop. “Listen to me, they can’t be down that way. I just came that way. Maybe she’s up on the road?”
Swanie shrugged away from him.
Peter tried to grab her.
“Keep away from me you selfish prick.” She threw him off again and took a few steps away to call for her daughter in as full a voice as she could muster. With each unanswered call Swanie dove ever more madly into her search.
Peter pushed himself in front of her. “The fire will reach us soon. If you go any farther, you’ll be trapped. You have to think about that.”
“What, and abandon my daughter?”
“Let’s go back and check the cabin.”
Swanie shouted and shouted, barely pausing to listen for a reply.
“I just looked. So did Mila.”
Peter ran back into the cabin anyway. Where was Frannie? What had happened to her and Laurel? And Gretchen?
He went from room to room with the boy trailing him unwilling to let him out of his sight,. Coming down the steps, he opened the door to the front bedroom where Charlie’s wife and son were still hiding. The room still reeked. The woman was huddled in the corner of the bed with her back to the wall and her son’s head in her lap.
Taking a breath to calm himself, he approached the bed. “The woods are burning. There’s a great blaze all around and it’s headed this way. You have to leave here before you get trapped.” With the door open, the roar was plainly audible. Its heat was beginning to register. “We have to go. You need to leave with us. Get ready. I’ll be right back.”
But how could he abandon Frannie and Laurel? They might be hiding somewhere injured. When he came out of the room, he was surprised to see Mila, the boy and Swanie just outside the door gaping at the advancing blaze. Peter placed the boy between himself and Swanie and stood silently for a moment, chest still heaving.
Swanie looked at the boy as if seeing him for the first time, then at Peter with a question. “Where did you get him?”
“That’s why I went back. I had a feeling he was still there.”
“Why did you have to bring him with you? Katie’s gone and you try to make up for it by showing up here with another kid to take care of?” The approaching fire danced in her eyes like snakes inside her head.
“We have to hope we’ll run into them on the way. They’re probably safer than we are right now. Even if we get no farther than the road, we’ll still be safer from the fire than we are here.”
“Not without Katie!” She ripped away the blanket to expose Pari’s remains. They had gotten hard in some places and gone squishy on others. The vile odor cloyed like Play Dough for ghouls.
“She’s not here,” Peter said, hoping somehow to assuage her desperation.” None of them are. We can’t just sit here and wait for them. It’s probably a good thing they’re not here.”
She shoved past Peter and the boy up to the loft. Sounds of sheets and blankets being ripped from the bed. The twin chest of drawers yanked, contents evicted into the musty air along with one startled mouse.
Down again past the three of them, screaming for her daughter until it began to affect her voice. “Katie! Kay – Dee. Kay – Dee.”
Peter caught up to her and having no other choice, grabbed her again and thrust his face into hers. Her neck muscles strained against his embrace, cords erect. “Listen to me, we have to go. It’ll do Katie no good if you stay here and get caught in the fire.”
She twisted free and swinging wildly made contact with the side of his head with the underside of her fist. She squared herself, lowered her chin murderously and swung again. This one lacked for nothing. It connected. Peter rocked back, shaken.
Recovering his balance, he tried to pin her arms. Failing that he backed off only to have her charge at him. He fell to one side and came up with a hand full of t-shirt with Swanie still attached and flailing like Charlie on fire. Her knuckles landed flush on the tip of his nose. Cartilage gave. Wet blood zipped out and sheeted into his mouth. She’d broken his nose. Pain set upon Peter. Dull at first followed by nasty spikes in his eyes that radiated into his eardrums.
She beat on him with both fists. She screamed at him to let her go. Followed it with an absurd plea. “Help me, Mila.”
Mila pleading softly: “Please. Let’s look for them systematically before the fire gets us.”
“Fuck you,” Swanie broke away from Peter and back-handed Mila across his face. Mila looked at Peter cockeyed. Half his teeth were showing. The other side of his mouth was turned down. Someday we’ll laugh about his expression. The thought shot through Peter’s head.
She left them and began racing around the cabin spinning the furniture away from its moorings.
Mila drew himself close to Peter. “I’m going out to look outside. I suggest we leave one way or another.”
“With or without Swanie.” Peter completed the thought for him. His heart sank. He knew exactly where Mila intended to look. “Or Frannie and Laurel.”
Mila nodded firmly and motioned at Swanie rampaging behind him, dealing with her would be futile. Then he was gone. Peter wanted to follow him in case he found them right away and needed help bringing them back, or ran into trouble. But the broken nose was affecting his breathing. He went to the freezer and scooped some slushy ice from the ice tray and held it against his nose hoping the cold water would stanch the blood.
Hand to nose he hurried outside. All he could anticipate was a pile of bodies beneath the pitiless shiny black plastic. He jumped the bottom three steps across the open space to Mila already on his haunches by the bodies. Sliding onto his knees, and dug through the putrid entrails. “Anything?” Mila asked sounding very far away.
Peter didn’t even want to begin to think about the dark matter he was rifling.
“No,” he said simply. Thank God.
Where they were or why would have to wait.
“If we hurry we can fix the flat in your truck and drive out … take our chances. We can get pretty far before the engine overheats and blows.”
“We can’t. There’s no spare.”
“What do you mean there’s no spare? Not even a doughnut?’
Mila shook his head. “I never bothered to replace it. It’s an old truck.” The crippled vehicle listed nearby, no longer worth considering.
Peter had to choke back his exasperation. “Ok, no use worrying about what we can’t control. We’ll take the TR. You drive. Charlie’s wife and kid shotgun. The boy and I can ride on the trunk or run if it comes to that. Swanie, too, if she comes. We run into the Home Owners Association. Grove and his boys or more dogs, we’ll cope. It would probably take too long to change the flat anyhow.”
“Katie, it’s Mommy. Please don’t hide from me.” Panic had serrated her voice. The firm and maternal gave way to gravelly and spent. Fear of losing a child is the unspoken connection among parents. The nightmare no one dares mention for fear of bringing it on here and now.
“They’re not going to turn up,” Peter announced into the gloomy cabin.
The chair nearest the door lay on its side, its cushions a few feet away. The chaos of spilt furniture, the fire throbbing like a bass drum. Pom, pom, pom, Peter recalled from a story he used to read to Laurel. The A-frame was creaking like old bones. Never had it felt like this, even when it had gone unoccupied for several weeks during the heaviest of winters. It was unfamiliar to him. He wanted to believe he’d mistakenly wandered into the wrong place.
Another chair lay overturned by the kitchen table. He picked it up and righted it. Its feet jaked the linoleum, loud as a claxon.
Swanie was up in the loft again, “Please be here. Please. Be here.” Her pleading echoed even under the low confines of the loft’s slanting roof. He joined here there in hopes of convincing her to leave. She would not admit defeat. Deflated maybe, but she was not going to give up unless someone made her. Or Katie magically reappeared.
She raised her head directly into his. “If we’d left like I wanted to instead of fooling around like you always do we never would have run into those men out there in the first place.”
She brushed past him back down to re-check every possible spot. First into the back bedroom. It was like bouncing ruble. “We’ve checked there. All three of us checked there.” Peter cut himself off. There was no use. And in truth only through her hysteria was he able to contain his own.
Katie wasn’t in the bedroom. Maybe she was cowering in the bathtub behind the moldy shower curtain. Swanie hurried from there into the front bedroom. She ordered Charlie’s wife and son out. The boy was too limp to move. His mother looked at Swanie helplessly as Swanie shouted at her to get out.
“If anything happened to Katie, I’ll …”
“We have to leave now.”
“That’s easy for you to say. She’s not your daughter.”
“No, but Laurel is. Remember her?”
One last dog carcass still remained curled in the corner by the door. He slid it out toed it off the edge of the deck, a heavy six feet down to the sharply slopped ground. Peter waited for the thud and walked back in, wondering what in the name of hell he was doing. Cleaning up for next time?
No, it was his overpowering reluctance to abandon this special place.
He went into the front bedroom, swept the lank boy into his arms and motioned his startled mother to come along. She came willingly, hugging her almost dead son as Peter carried him. He lay across his arms like a wet towel.
Stopping at the door, he barked at Swanie, “Take a look outside. It’s almost on us.”
In the low roar and flickering light of the fire, she was gathering up Katie’s things from random spots and stuffing them pell mell into her little pink backpack. Spittle escaped from her mouth and cascaded onto her neck.
Huddled together with ferocious uncertainty, Mila and the boy, Peter with Charlie’s wife and son struck out low across the peanut stone that was already picking up the fire’s heat. Swanie hastened up behind them carrying Katie’s backpack, her eyes pierced with anguish.
They slipped past the ripped black plastic and the reeking mound of long pig. No one spoke, determined this time to stay the course come what may. They loaded themselves into the TR.
What may came quickly. It descended upon them from the trees above. A cackling so loud that it obscured the crown fire’s heavy metal thunder. A wet hooting that mocked their pitiful attempt to escape.
The mephitic scratch, when it came, sounded like an out of date voice synthesizer. “You may seek the door opened in Heaven. But you will never find it.”
That stopped them. In the tree directly in front of them a man, or a form of a man, perched on a lower branch. He reached for something attached to a length of rope at his naked waist, detached it and held it aloft until it burst in to flames.
He hurled it down onto them. It glanced off Peter’s shoulder and flicked away. Charlie’s wife screamed and tried to run, babbling again, “Beelie, Beelie.” Swanie pushed her into the car.
Peter recognized the curled flame as a dead squirrel. Another followed and landed at their feet.
Charlie jumped down in front of them. His nostrils were reduced to dark dirty holes. Both ears were gone. The whites of his eyes were Vulcan red, tinged at the edges with candle flame yellow, his pupils dark as olive pits. They didn’t appear to be functioning despite his ability to track and to move about with satyr-like delicacy. Raw, red burns marred what skin remained. Patches of it had been seared to bone in several places on his chest. The fingers of one hand were burned into pincers.
He tilted his head back as though to trumpet. “Fire upon the earth. Burning mountains. Nonbelievers who mock Almighty God are a locust plague on the land.”
As though that had been mere invocation, he leaned towards Peter lifted a paw with divine imprimatur, and spoke with rumbling finality. “Give me my family.”
Exploding into a cry of despair, the woman drew back, spinning Peter around as she tried to tear her son from his arms. Peter tightened the boy's thin frame against his chest. The others closed around to shield the kid. Meanwhile the fire had caught up to them and leapt ahead. The treetop blaze was now a backdrop for Charlie’s luridly gnarled body. “Death will flee from me.” The words fled from his mouth in a wet mucky spray, all but submerged beneath the roar of the fire. “The Lord has saved the believers. They have gone to Him. I am here to bring death to the demonic. For I am the last avatar of the Lord.”
With menacing red wildfire dancing in the upper most reaches as if Heaven had reached down in celebration or Hell had risen up in anger the avatar took a step forward on what looked to Peter like cloven hooves. Fixing them where they stood with a toothlessly wicked grin, he reached out with both arms to receive his wife and child. “You shall not pass until all these things are fulfilled, lest the abomination of desolation be thrust upon you. There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down. Or, wooden monuments to decadence.” He meant the cabin.
From behind them, Swanie charged. “Where is she, motherfucker?” Both her hands went for his throat. They missed his pustule of a head by fractions. He barely moved to avoid a fist’s trajectory. Charlie rutted out laughter.
“For too long you have worshipped at the altar of your own ego. You perverted the Lord’s music. He has sent me to force you to your knees before him. This land must be purged in blood and fire. It’s for your own good.”
Charlie’s wife let loose a wail of animal anguish.
Wildfire jumped the clearing, spotted from tree to tree until it had them surrounded. In the moment or two since Charlie appeared, it not only caught up to them but also cut off their escape and sealed them into a room of flaming mirrors.
The air swelled. Each of them, adult and child, began to suffer the leavening pain of their chests expanding in search of oxygen. Their mouths dropped open liked truncheons clawing the earth for air desperate to draw the vaguest molecular morsel. Hands flew to faces.
Too short of breath to speak, Swanie fought through the enervated air currents to have at Charlie again. But the surrounding space went funny.
Before them, like a vision from the Other Place, the avatar of the Lord began vibrating. His savaged limbs, his spindly goat legs, his masticated arms shook themselves into a blur. His head shook itself into an indistinct blur. His wife was the first to react. Her own lungs scorching hot, she cried out in spite of everything, “Charlie!” before lapsing into what had become her familiar chant, “Beelie, Beelie.”
Some bit of husband―wife communication passed between them, some reconnection to a sliver of affection. Charlie’s arms rose towards her. He seemed about to plead with her. And for a moment they were of the same mind again. But his arms continued aloft, drawn involuntarily upwards into the scorching vacuum. He had no real control over them. His entire body was being extended as though caught on an invisible medieval rack.
His body rose several inches off the ground and held steady―levitating. There was no other word for it. “It’s the Tribulation,” he cried out with great joy. “The great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? I stand with Christ. You must choose Him or die.” He rose skyward and slipped into the flames. And was gone.
The others knelt to the ground, not in supplication but in desperation to acquire the last puff of oxygen as the voracious crown fire sucked up the air around them. The vacuum threatened to suck them up along with him. Their best hope was to put something between themselves and the fire.
Staying low to the ground near what residual air remained, Peter led the retreat to the cabin and still oxygenated air.
Charlie’s boy hung in Peter’s arms, almost totally dead weight.
They scrambled after Peter like ants escaping a picnic, crawled, fell or dragged themselves to the darkened area beneath the deck and the ceiling of atmosphere hanging there with its promise of respite. The air here was lighter and looser. And definitely breathable. Weak and asthmatic they drank it in. There is nothing so terrifying as the claustrophobia of suffocation. Their collective color lost its ghost-blue shading.
The group collected itself, all of them whooping with from asphyxiation, looking skyward through the slatted boards like they were searching for tangible signs of breathable air. The fire held off for the moment, preparing for its final assault.
Peter motioned at the door to the crawlspace. “In here.”
The lock was hanging open on its hasp. Good thing because he had long ago forgotten the combination. He removed it and swiveled the lower wooden stay. Swanie turned the top one.
The plywood door swung open. They ducked back to allow it past them. Something leapt onto Swanie. She swirled swatting for it with her free hand to shake it off. Its claw caught on her t-shirt. Peter grabbed it and tore it free and threw it as far as he could. One of Charlie’s cats. It hissed and moaned and bolted down the hill and skirted the rim of the fire and ran away.
“Everybody okay?” Peter asked. Exhausted nods pressing behind him.
“Let’s hope we’ll be safe in here,” Mila said.
“At this point there’s no choice.”
Peter went in first. Inside it was pitch black. The earth beneath the cabin reeked with rot gone well beyond the sweet dampness of desiccated soil. Dusty in patches, wet and sloppy in others, it was buggy and unwelcoming, except for the breathable if not exactly fresh and invigorating air.
Peter lifted the boy through and placed his head on his mother’s lap when she followed. The others came wary of the darkness in front of them and fearful of the burning behind. They assembled themselves in a row and lay together silent and watchful, listening to the cannon shots of their impending demise. As they settled in to wait for the inevitable. A rustling could be heard at the rear of the crawlspace. At first they mistook the noise for the hunger of the fire come to claim them. It skittered like an animal realizing it was trapped. Then the sound grew heavier with purposeful movement towards them. Lacking a light, Peter struck a match and held it out.
The small light filled the close space with illumination. From the tightest space, where the distance between the dirt and the floorboards was no more than a foot and a half, a man was kneeing his way at them. He had sandwiched himself in there and now he was headed straight at them. He raised an arm as if to bring his fist down on Peter. As he did he teetered and collapsed onto one side. His head lolled and all but bounced in the gray soil.
Peter scrambled into a seated position and kicked him away.
The man wrenched himself up and lurched forward. He lost his balance again and fell forward onto his face, making no effort to catch himself or block the fall. He hit nose first and lay still.
Peter jumped out of the way so hastily he bit his tongue. For the second time, the metallic taste of his own blood flashed through his mouth. His nose started bleeding again. He spit blood directly onto the man’s head. The man didn’t move. Swanie prodded him. Something settled out of him. Gone. Like the wind that had taken Charlie.
They rolled him over.
Peter recognized him immediately. “It’s the man Grove left here when I went with him.” Face inert and blanched and departed. “The son of a bitch is dead.”
“How’d he get in here?” Swanie said.
“Somebody put him here and turned the stays to keep him in. It probably explains the voices I thought I heard. Charlie must have come here while we were away.” Peter looked sorrowfully at the brutalized and desperately hopeful crew that lay around him.
Swanie crawled over the body and looked deeper into the far reaches of the crawlspace. “Is anyone else back in here?” she growled into the must. Dropping to a whisper. “Katie?”
Peter held a few matches out against the subterranean dinge. No one else was in there alive or dead. No more humans. No dogs. He tossed the matches to her so she could check and brushed the dirt from his hands.
Swanie didn’t have to be told that would explain her missing daughter. Or Frannie and Laurel. She opened the door and gazed out at the red menace that had consigned her daughter to the fates. After they pushed the body out, she threw the wooden door shut. It clapped against the thin jamb like a rifle shot. She buried her face in her hands and started sobbing.
Peter crawled over and tried to comfort her.
Over the time all of them succumbed to exhausted sleep, one by one, not knowing if they would ever awake again. Peter’s last thought was that they were lying down to die.
A hand found its way onto Peter’s shoulder and shook him awake. His first thought: Am I still alive? His head pounded out the answer in the affirmative. But with qualifications. He felt like he was waking up from one of their notorious cabin parties. Ball bearings were rolling in his head. Muscles located in places he didn’t know he had muscles throbbed from oxygen starvation. His mouth was parched and tasted of ashes. Every joint in his body felt twenty years older.
He’d had worse hangovers. Maybe.
He sat up, sloughing Mila’s hand from his shoulder. Insulation hung loosely between the dirty floor joists just as before. Cobwebs, watermarks, abandoned wasps’ nests and caked grunge. Nothing had changed. The cabin had not been taken by the wildfire, nor them along with it.
The others were troubled in their sleep, but quiet. The boy’s breathing was even and rhythmic, a good sign. Swanie was half awake. She looked blankly at Peter when he leaned over her but her facial expression remained impassive. She might not have registered his presence.
Mila leaned closer to regain Peter’s attention. “I want to show you something,” he mouthed and pointed outside.
Expecting to be blasted by strong sunlight, Peter was already squinting before Mila pushed open the door. To his surprise he met the grayness of dusk and the cloying, sweat-sock stench of smoke and hot ashes. They’d been out most of the day.
“This is a miracle,” Mila said.
The fire had burned itself out, or at least moved on. Its damage had not been complete. It had played ducks and drakes skimming the treetops, leaving verdant islands in the white desolation of the horse latitudes.
The deck above them was gone. Pari’s body, its cover burned away, had fallen down with them and lay a few feet away wrapped with the security guard in a deathly version of the missionary position. Stepping out from the crawlspace onto the charred ground and whirling eddies of heat from the ashes, he looked up at the bad news. The top two thirds of the cabin were gone. The fire had taken the roof and loft and most of the first floor. Remains of a headboard and bureau lay in the middle of the living room floor, now open to the sky.
Their beautiful gift, their own fortress of solitude, cherished for so many years and agreed to hand off to their kids, reduced to useless rubbish. How much smaller and insubstantial it looked.
Wading through ankle-deep ash and debris, Peter made his way through the newly barren area around their cabin. He approached a spot where the fire had burned down closer to ground level. He tore away a piece of weatherboard. It was soft and rotten and riddled with channels and canals. A section of steps lay nearby. He propped it against the wall beneath the door. Steadying it he was able to climb up and drag himself onto what was left of the cabin. The door was still shut so he stepped over the two feet that was left of the wall beside it. The fire had indiscriminately trashed the living room.
“It really is a miracle,” Mila said to him.
Peter pointed to the neighboring cabin some seventy yards away, visible now that the intervening forest growth had been removed. It had been devoured to its bones. Peter recalled the enormous effort his neighbors put into digging out their crawlspace and putting in a cinderblock basement with a poured concrete floor.
From where they stood, it looked like even that had been taken away.
“No, it’s rotten wood. It was the termites that saved us.” He showed Mila the piece of soft wood he held in his hand. He pinched off a small chunk, frayed it between his thumb and forefinger and ruefully offered it as evidence. “The cabin was rotten from the top down. We were lucky enough to have been infested by termites. The wood was too rotten to burn. The fire tore through here so fast the bulk of it must have jumped the cabin. We were lucky this was a crown fire and fast-moving. Had it been a surface fire, it would have gotten us despite the rotten wood.”
Mila took it and rubbed it into powder and let it drift away. Both men glanced around, nervously assaying the extent of the ruin. Peter went hollow inside. Their cabin reduced to standing ruins. It was almost like a huge, semi-permanent tent with a wooden floor like you might find at a summer camp.
Fire or no fire, the cabin was a loss waiting to happen. Miracle or not the termites saved their lives. He prayed Frannie and Laurel were somewhere safe.
He picked up a piece of rosewood fret board from Swanie’s guitar. Metal strings twisted around it. A last little fuck you from fate that had already left her devastated. He threw the guitar piece and all the strings he could find out into the ash, hoping they’d disappear among the cinders.
Gentle wind smoothed his face. If you focused on the clear twilight immediately above and blocked out everything else, you might conclude it was going to be the perfect sort of evening for relaxing on the deck with a book and a glass of wine, layering clothes as the sun receded behind Sleepy Mountain. So much for the perfect cabin evening.
Gray light shivered through a gust of chilly wind. Wisping smoke made them light-headed.
Mila was squatting outside the crawlspace. He nodded inside to direct Peter’s attention inward. Peter saw immediately what he meant. Swanie was stirring and beginning to sit up. Peter crawled in beside her, straining to see into the far corners into places he once thought were too low and bug-infested. A torn open half full bag of lime sat up in the corner directly beneath the bathroom like the body of a discarded scarecrow. Put there no doubt by the previous owner to help kill the odor.
He ducked back outside. “Where are they?”
“I was hoping you might know,” Mila whispered. “They’re not upstairs. We’d have seen them.”
“They must have crawled out of here while we were zonked out. I didn’t hear a thing.”
Peter moved further inside and glanced around again. Swanie was awake now. Her body stiffened as she took in her surroundings and her condition. Her eyes fell on the sleeping boy Peter had rescued. The boy reaffirmed to stark truth that her daughter was still missing.
“Are you okay?” he mouthed to her.
Raking her hair back with grubby fingers and stubbing sleep from her eyes, she looked at him, back at the boy and gave a half-hearted shrug. Peter looked again into the corners hoping to see the woman and her son huddled there. He wanted to tell Swanie that at least they were still alive. The irony of that would weigh too heavily on her. The bottom line was, as she always said without a double take, Me and Katie. She crawled out, took in her surroundings and without comment took up her search all over again.
Mila waited until Swanie was kicking through the embers on the opposite side of the cabin to summon him. Once Peter reached him, they ripped away the sooty plastic to reveal two more corpses. Heaped over the unknown body were Charlie’s wife and son, both dead.
The boy had lost all color. His skin had the waxy quality of fake fruit.
The mother was a different story. She appeared to be recently dead. Her face carried the sadness and ruin of the last hours of her life.
Her eyes and mouth were closed. Her face was composed and gentle. Standing at a distance you would have thought she was sleeping. A cut ran cleanly across the soft flesh at the base of her throat. Deep and purposeful. Whoever had done this meant it to be. Killed while searching for traditional values, probably at the hands of their earthly representative. He remembered Charlie had referred to her as Cassie, and he wondered if she knew this was coming.
Had she been asleep? Was she too weak to struggle? What if she’d been fully awake? What if she hadn’t resisted at all but had actually invited death? With her son gone, giving in because she had nothing left to live for? Still, Peter couldn’t imagine anyone allowing death to happen under any circumstances.
The collective stench rose like ground spikes that smelled of shit and bile. Their bodies had already begun to purge themselves of fluids. Deep penetrating rot was all that remained of Charlie’s wife and son.
He looked away from them to the smoldering terrain and shook his head despondently. Mila gave voice to his thoughts for him. “They wouldn’t have had a prayer. Katie had a broken arm. We’ll find more of this,” he added, quietly warning of what they would inevitably discover. “I wish I had more ammo for that gun.”
Peter didn’t bother reminding him of his own ignorance about firearms. Instead, he fixed on the woods in the direction of Laurel’s falls. After a fifty-yard patch of destruction, dry late summer green predominated as though nothing at all had taken place. To his amazement, the fire had left it intact. More evidence that it had skipped along the treetops. Across the wooded expanse immediately behind the cabin and down the hill to the stream they’d crossed to climb to the top of the hill where the airplane had flown closest to them the same wild West Virginia mountain land intact.
And he thought they were lucky. The wind had blown hard enough to shift the fire away from us towards Sleepy Valley. Either that or Charlie had the connections to the Almighty he claimed.
He turned to check behind him. Up on the cul-de-sac, total desolation. The safe zone channeled between the scorched earth straight towards Charlie’s cabin and then opened up on the terrain like a funnel working in reverse.
The sun was setting and the night became a moonscape burping fairy clouds of smoke and ash.
Nervous rods of light passed near to them. They shifted their attention from the corpses to Swanie with the penlight coming up beside them. “It was lying back there,” she said of the light. She took one look at the bodies and moved on.
“Swanie,” Peter implored. Granted she had legitimate concerns of her own, but she might show a little concern.
Swanie slowed enough to read his thoughts. “Yeah, I saw them leaving.”
“You saw them leaving! When?”
“I don’t know. You two were asleep. Don’t blame me for this. It was your bright idea to put us down in that rat hole. You were supposed to be the guard.”
“You could have woken me up.”
“I fell back asleep. You should have gotten me up once the fire went out anyway, so we could look for Katie.”
“And Laurel and Frannie.”
Swanie’s thoughts on this were clear. Two less people to worry about. She shot past them into the untouched vegetation.
“Watch the boy for me,” Peter said to Mila, and took off after her. The faint flicker of her light passed through a section of unscathed trees indicated she was on her way to Charlie’s.
Peter followed the moving beam.
Swanie pushed herself ahead until she emerged into the open space in front of Charlie’s cabin. The gibboused structure seemed more menacing with each step she took. Was it possible Charlie was hiding in there ready to pounce?
A small shape lay in her way, a little quivering mound in the middle of the footpath giving off no motion or sound.
Fighting off the need to wait out here for Peter, who was hurrying to catch up, she took a deep breath and flipped the light at it. Stole up to Spot clinging to life. Its innocent eyes glazed, chest furrowing. The little dog lay in the dirt aware of the human presence, patiently awaiting the outcome.
Spot was mostly attached to Katie. She had to be inside that hump of a cabin.
Several cords of wood, stacked neat and high, lined both sides of the door like a rustic entrance hall. Was anyone in there? Only one way to find out.
Swanie pushed the door open and they stood silently in the doorway for several long minutes. No one was there. Yet, they could feel a presence quite unlike the cold vacancy of their own cabin when they arrived for a weekend. The place felt lived-in. Year-round occupancy made a noticeable difference.
They inched inside and Peter carefully closed the door behind them.
He placed a hand on her shoulder and held a silent finger to his lips. They needed to move carefully. She twisted away from him and started playing the light around randomly, up at the dome directly above them, down along the sides and into the off spaces and the cluttered interior. So this was Charlie’s? Peter always envisioned a sparse and tidy monk’s cell. Instead, the cabin was random verging on sloppy. It presented images of a close and loving if disorganized family. Not at all the acetic Christian family he expected.
Swanie had similar thoughts. This was how she would have lived her own life had Katie’s father not gotten hooked on drugs and wandered into a world where Swanie refused to take their daughter. “Damn him,” she said aloud.
Prominent on a shelf in an alcove was a bright blue Sears and Roebuck family portrait. On the floor beneath, soiled boys gym socks, discarded and scattered like toys. On top of the television a wicker basket of crewel work. On the table that provided the locus of family activities, a jigsaw puzzle, its pieces scattered like the dirty socks. At its edge an open box of Triscuits, reinforcements when the puzzle became too elusive.
This was not the picture of a normal everyday family, not a family touched by madness.
In one of the corners a set of raw wooden stairs led up to a loft. The untreated steps were blackened with use, still new enough to exude a lingering scent of pine. She directed the light and followed it up. The woodsy redolence was augmented by new construction in the loft. Charlie was dividing it into two separate rooms, one with a door. He had completed framing. The other, the one he shared with his wife, he had reduced to make room for a girl’s room. A tiny single bed with flowered pink sheets kicked off onto the floor occupied the corner by the window.
They didn’t know he had a daughter.
“Nothing under the beds,” he said. “Look at this. The window’s been removed.”
The screen had been pulled out; scuff marks notched the inside of the frame. The pane was resting against the wall. No splintered wood, but it looked like it had been forced out and carefully portioned beside the bed so it wouldn’t slide down and break. Then someone had jumped.
Rustling below, coming closer. She leaned out and played the light along the ground, walking the beam into the woods. A child’s light treading. “Katie?” she called. Maybe it was Charlie sneaking up on them? More than one person? Could it be those people Peter was talking about? Or the security guards? She leaned out further and directed the light towards the noise.
Two green eyes stopped and fixed on her. Disappointed, and at the same time relieved it wasn’t Charlie or someone else. “It’s your dog,” she said.
“It’s about time.” With a surge of relief that at least Gretchen had turned up, Peter dashed down to bring her in skipping steps as he went. He yanked the door open.
Gretchen was waiting, her tail flat against her rump, her ears back. She stood erect and straight and growling. The low rumble rose to an angry snarl as Peter stepped into the doorway. She lowered into a crouch. She was going to lung at him.
Startled, Peter backed up a step. “It’s me,” he said. “Gretchen, it’s me!”
She stopped. Her anger dimmed and she looked at him with softening eyes. She whimpered an apology and slunk to the floor. Peter knelt and cupped her muzzle in her hand. “I wondered what happened to you, girl.”
She averted her head. He stroked behind her ears. Her intelligent face rose tentatively to inspect his hand. Then she pulled away. The gashes on her side were crusty with infection. She growled when his fingers probed them. Gently he soothed her neck to reassure her and scooped her up and placed her in a chair. She allowed it, just.
He stood back and resumed investigating Charlie’s jumbled interior. Gretchen watched him and began growling again. So scarcely audible Peter didn’t hear it. She jumped down as soon as his back was turned, followed him at a wary distance.
In a different frame of mind, Peter began to see things differently. Charlie’s place was not at all what he first thought. The socks were scattered because they’d been ejected indiscriminately from the chest below the shelf. The family picture had been slashed. Scissors from the sewing basket lay open on the floor below it. Blood unmistakably stained one of its blades. The jigsaw puzzle had been up-dumped. Most of the pieces were face down on the table. The refrigerator had been rifled and dripped liquid, its door still parted. It drifted open to the touch. Bits of broken glass from the shattered bulb lay on the floor.
Gretchen’s focus sharpened. She picked her head up and turned her attention to the cabin door. She yipped a warning. A stumbling foot scrapped against the door. A fist smacked against an exterior panel. Then something hard like a log or a rifle butt. A gruff voice spat out, “There’s some inside.” It sounded suspiciously like Ray Grove.
No using sticking around to make sure. He grabbed for Gretchen to take her with him. She flashed her teeth at him, growled lowly and alien to anything he’d ever heard from her. Peter pulled back and dashed up the steps.
The door banged open. Angry demands filled the cabin, ordering those inside to show themselves or else.
Gretchen jumped off the chair and rushed the men crowding in the doorway. She closed distance between them so rapidly and the men were so bunched they couldn’t level their weapons at her. She latched onto a leg, jerked it hard and shot right on through and away.
The men turned to follow, unstrung themselves and opened up. Their rapid wild shots indicated Gretchen was already gone. They obviously didn’t care about using up their ammunition.
Peter started to follow but thought better and retreated up the steps faster than he had come down. Swanie was already halfway out the window. Peter lowered Swanie by her arms the rest of the way out until she was dangling from the window. “Bend your knees. Fall down and roll as you land.”
“I know what to do, Peter.”
He let go. She hit the ground and fell backwards onto her butt.
Peter glanced at the steps. Someone was standing at the bottom looking up. Peter swept himself out the window. Peter hit and rolled onto something. He grabbed the penlight from Swanie.
He couldn’t help thinking back to the sounds of the electric saw they’d heard during the summer as Charlie cut wood for the winter. He heated his cabin with a wood stove. Its white smoke was always visible above the trees, continuing even, on occasion, into early summer.
This was not white smoke snaking skyward. It was earth-bound and stationary, pale, dirty, larva-like. An arm severed at the shoulder. Ripped away in fury and discarded like the short end of a wishbone. Its sinews spilled onto the ground like wires and cables made of flesh and tendon and skeletal muscle.
The arm crooked, the palm down, fingers resting peacefully as though the rest of the body was asleep snuggled beneath a soft earth blanket. A few feet away lay a young girl about Laurel’s age partially buried and the top half covered by a piece of material that looked the a curtain, one that probably once covering the window above them.
Her face was white, her eyes gently closed, face empty. The child was dead. Around her neck was a small pendant bearing her name in fluorescent colors, “Billie.” She had been dragged or thrown out here, buried, covered and left for the maggots.
“Billie,” they said as her mother’s bleated words became clear. She was wailing for her dead daughter. Dead, they were certain, at the hands of her own father.
Swanie lowered the curtain and vomited. She had seen the hard truth. Gretchen approached them, her nose low to the scent. As she drew closer, she bared her teeth and growled. Swanie swung at her and hit her across the nose. She backed up a step and bared her teeth.
Swanie turned away from her and scooped up the arm. She wrapped the arm in the curtain and placed it gently across the dead girl’s torso.
Swanie screamed out in aguish, “Katie!”
Noise from the window. Peter grabbed the light and put it on Floyd, looking down at them. His eyes were gleaming with lunacy, as blank and pitiless as the moon. His mouth was pear-shaped, rigid. He produced his rifle and brought it to his shoulder. He fired. The round ripped through the air and tore a massive divot just in front of Gretchen. She took off. A second round followed her. Its ricochet moaned off a rock.
“Katie!” Swanie yelled again, unconcerned about the threat from the window.
Somewhere off in the night another shot rang out. It struck the shake about ten feet above Floyd’s head. He cried out in surprise and let off a wild shot.
Peter grabbed Swanie and fled, low to the ground, half-dragging her with him. It was only when they almost crossed in front of him did Peter see one of the Queen’s men taking a bead on Floyd’s ghostly form still perched in the window like a bird on a wire.
The man was sprawled awkwardly trying to steady his rifle. It was plain he had no experience shooting from the prone position. His rifle roared and splintered the wood beside Floyd’s head. Floyd winced aside long enough to cock his rifle and swing back to return fire. This time he kept partially concealed.
The Queen’s man fired, rolled, cocked while he rolled, righted himself and returned fire, missing wildly.
They blazed away like Saturday morning cartoons. Their shots peppered the night and never came close to their targets. Peter wondered if it was intentional. Boys with guns mimicking what they’d seen in the movies. Peter saw now that Floyd wasn’t crazed so much as scared shitless, having seen the elephant, as real soldiers once upon a time might have put it.
He and Swanie headed down the hill, thrashing through the underbrush clicking the flash on and hastily off again to make enough sense of the lay of the land to know where to go. The shoot and pray between Floyd and the Queen’s man trailed off into merciful silence.
They hit bottom and started up the second hill until they were above the falls, a safe distance from the dueling banjos. “We’d be better off standing quiet and listening for movement.” A hundred yards away lay a ghostly nightscape of embers and ash.
She bolted down into the water. Peter followed.
Standing knee-deep trying to parse to emptiness, the water knifing through his sopping shoes, he was all but overcome by desolation. He ached from his feet all the way to the back of his brain. This was all so wrong. He sucked in a breath.
“Ssssh … listen.”
Somewhere in front of them music rose from the night. Below them, not too far away. They headed down to the music. Katie’s CD/radio player lay in the weeds by the opposite bank. They slipped off the bank into the cold mountain water and crossed to it. Blue and black, scratched, caked with dirt, but with the headphones attached through which dutifully chirped chipmunk music.
The tune played out and shut off.
Peter opened it with the disc still spinning. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find. I guess the batteries weren’t dead after all.” He flipped handed it to Swanie. She grasped it like it was the most precious thing in the world. She examined it hoping for some clue.
“She passed this way. Recently, too. Otherwise, the batteries would have run down again.” He hoped he was right.
She shouted out for her daughter.
“We’re gonna tip off our location. Or get jumped by dogs again.”
“I don’t care – Katie!”
They couldn’t see dick even with the penlight. Tracking the stream was the only way to maintain a sense of direction. “Katie,” Swanie called. “We found your CD player.”
A second later, ahead, feet hit in the water. And it didn’t carry the symmetry of an animal. A pause then purposeful movement right toward them.
Peter grabbed Swanie. “It’s not Katie. It couldn’t possibly be.”
“Katie!” she shouted. Then … her sadness palpable, she tried for Mila as though on the witness stand sobbing out a confession to a crime. “Mila, is that you?”
“He’s coming right down the middle of the fucking stream, Swanie.” Peter’s voice got away from him spiking off into the night. They might as well be sending up signal flares.
They crawled out into the bank. The splashing paused. When it resumed, the pitch changed. “Listen. Sounds like he’s going the other way. Let’s stay put for a moment, let him put as much space between us and him as we can.”
“No,” Swanie was insistent. She shoved forward as though to propel her voice. “We have to find my daughter. How do you know it’s a man anyway? Katie! Mila!”
The kick-splashing stopped.
All the shouting, the crackling and breaking of branches, the scraping, the unstealthy movement brought hell down on them. Why their stalker failed to abide by their pleas, Peter couldn’t say. A shot spit at the air directly over their heads.
A second shot flipped a slice of mud into the air three feet away. “Goddamnit, believe me now? Quit firing! We’re unarmed. We’re searching for family members!”
A third shot stung a boulder by Peter’s feet and sang off. A high-powered rifle, fired more or less in the direction of the noise they were generating.
“Thanks, you trigger-happy asshole!” Swanie shouted defiantly.
Peter manhandled Swanie through a patch of dense bracken. “Just be grateful your big mouth didn’t get us shot.”
“What if he shot Katie?”
“Did you hear anyone else in the water? It’s probably one guy looking for dogs or something, I don’t know. We could have been killed.”
“So could Katie.”
“We’re going back to the cabin where we’ll be safe. Maybe Katie’s there wondering where we are. In the meantime, keep your mouth shut. I’m just as worried about her as you are. There’s also Frannie and Laurel, you know? They’re in just as much danger. We just have to hope and pray Frannie has taken them to safety.”
Peter felt the resistance go out of her body. Finally, he had gotten through to her. They synced up again and moved out. They progressed forward, keeping their ears cocked for any brusque noise that might indicate trouble. One step, one step, treading one rock at a time, they negotiated to the opposite side of the rear stream. If they stayed on this course, they would end up back where all this mess started, back where the ground leveled out. From there they could go back to the cabin. Or what was left of it. Peter wondered if the dogs were waiting ahead in ambush.
Midway upstream the trail ran out and the banks rose on either side. They proceeded a few yards until they found a log across the stream to the cabin-side.
They climbed onto the log and straddled it on across. Beneath them the light susurrus of the busy midnight stream. Peter ran his hand over the log soaking up the dry warmth beneath its knobbiness. Anxiety hung in the air like smoke.
They crossed over and eased down onto the bank.
“Peter.” Swanie put her face next to his. She put her hands over Peter’s. For what felt like the last time they came together in a sort of union of understanding. Something fatalistic about its sudden occurrence out here and at this precarious moment. “We have to get back.”
Now you realize this? All he said was, “I know.”
He also knew that wherever Frannie and Laurel and Katie were, they were sure to be scared out of their minds.
Chances are they’re safe. Chances are I’m kidding myself.
Peter strained to detect a whisper of motion, a grunt of attitude, until the rush of blood in his ears became so loud he couldn’t distinguish it from the wind. A few yards away the trees were skeletal and the undergrowth eaten up by a white virus. This was where the fire jumped the streams and spread across their land and beyond. Despite the darkness, the ghost meridian between white and green was readily discernible.
They slogged up through the bush, noisy and difficult but it was the quickest path back to the cabin. Up and over, down and up again, and home. The trick was to be quiet and move with a modest amount of stealth.
Peter turned her by her shoulders a quarter turn to the left. She looked back at him and said, “Which way is the cabin?” He nodded to the left. She let go of Peter’s hand and blundered ahead into sticker bushes. Ping! Scratch.
As though in response, swishing sounds of someone wading through water rose below them. Swanie swirled around in surprise. “He’s still following us.” She turned back and bore ahead into the stickers. This time with Peter close behind.
They tore at him, fraying the bandages from his hands and arms, snatching at his shirt and torso when he raised his arms above the branches.
When the splashing stopped, Peter pulled Swanie close and whispered directly into her ear, “If we can make it to the top of the hill, we probably could wait him out. Chances are he doesn’t know where we’re going. We have to stay on this side. If we go into the burned area we’re easy targets.”
The stalker was still in the stream. Peter slid around Swanie and pushed his body through the remaining stickers, drawing Swanie after him. The route ahead became easier, if slightly steeper. They lowered to a crouch and crept up to the top of the hill. Pausing, listening for movement, inching forward: When the tracker stopped, they slowed.
They kept at it. Peter cocked his head one way. Swanie the other, momentarily re-syncing and making pretty good progress.
Off to the left a branch slapped back. A rustling slip of sound, then quiet. Swanie pointed in its direction. Her white hand like a signal flare.
Below them two steps in the water. Then quiet.
Beside them branches snapped close by. Then quiet.
Beside them denuded hickory branches clacked together, knocking a warning into the still air. Click-tap, tap-tap click. Heavy boots ten feet away moving straight for them. Click-tap, tap-tap click.
“There’s two of them. They’re herding us like cattle,” Swanie said.
He pushed Swanie’s head low. “Keep still.” He mouthed this into her ear. “It’s probably Floyd and the guy from the Queen. They aren’t after us. We just have to stay out of their way.”
The loose humus smelled fresh and yet hinted at compost. He shifted his weight, rising slowly to reconnoiter and came up in front of a pair of knees. He went rigid, tilted his head back to look up at the man was standing not three feet away. Half squatting, he held his position until his legs burned, hoping that somehow it might keep the hammer from dropping. His muscles screamed for relief.
The knees pivoted and moved away like a gust of autumnal wind. Peter lowered himself. The burning eased. No longer stealthy, one stalker worked steadily away. They waited until his noise diminished before they dared take a chance. The other one? … Fuck him if he can’t take a joke. Just go and let God sort it out.
They started again. Each time a foot came down, the earth crackled. At that precise moment the only thing that mattered to them, to either of them, was how quiet they could be. He could think only of returning to the cabin, as though that destroyed place would bring an end to this madness.
His caution was too much for Swanie. She made up her mind, blew past him, flicked on the light and took off.
“Swanie,” he hissed. Too late. She broke out of the green onto the moonscape.
Peter started after her. As he crossed to the white, he stepped against something. He toed it and it gave a little. He went to his haunches felt around into the surviving brush. This close to the burn line, the foliage was scarred and crackly. He parted some brush away and scooped up a small limp form. He bent close and pressed his lips against her smudged forehead. The skin was cool but not
Her pulse was thready, her breathing quick and shallow. Her face was bruised and scraped. Blood caked her nostrils Her eyes lids were waxen and her face was smooth like sleep. Katie crumpled but clinging to life, her arm still in the make-shift sling.
When he drew hair from her mouth, her eyes fluttered open and she smiled wanly. “Hi, Peter,” she said. Her voice was thick almost as though she had been asleep.
“We were so worried about you. Your mom’s right here.”
“That’s okay. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“We’re going to take you home now. You’ll be fine.
Her eyes closed for a moment, then parted again. She gazed up at him. “Will you be my dad?”
Frannie focused on moving forward. The woods surrounding them with danger – people whispering, animals moving about, all making threatening noises. Or, the woods were empty of animals and human life and her senses were distorted by the pepper stench left by the fire.
A misstep might bring the attention she was desperate to avoid. She kept Laurel tightly against her. She knew she could keep going. Every fear she once had in her life paled now to the harm that had befallen Katie and might yet befall Laurel. Something she was determined to prevent.
She shuddered at the mental image.
Peter was gone. Mila and Swanie, too, chasing after those damned dogs. Charlie appeared at the cabin door. He had been watching them and seized the moment.
“God doesn’t give second chances to people like you,” Charlie had said as he came in. Katie was closest to the door, holding her CD player in both hands. Plus, with her bright waist-length hair, she made the more striking appearance of the two girls. In her childish innocence, she turned towards him and it was done.
His scrofulous fingers pinched around her thin arm. The child looked up at the monstrous head for an explanation. She looked to Frannie for help. Nothing was coming from anyone. Where was her mommy? She began to cry.
“She’s an innocent little girl.” Frannie protested.
“She isn’t saved. She has never even been baptized in Christ.”
“How could you say such a thing? You don’t even know her?”
“She isn’t one of the chosen. The Good Book says few will be saved. And millions and millions will die. Her best hope is with me. Now that Satan has taken my flesh, my Lord has provided.” He looked down upon Katie. “The good Lord always provides.”
“God would never do such a thing.”
“That is not for you to question.” He made a gesture of resignation. “Or for me.” It wasn’t his problem or concern, good evangelical that he was. God would sort it out.
“I am the angel of His wrath. I am doing his will. God said it. I believe His word. And that’s all a righteous man needs. Anything more is pride.” He stopped and thought about what he said. Then he added, to let her know she need not worry, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.”
In that instant Frannie made her decision. Her instincts demanded action. She knew what she had to do. And she had to do it right away.
She picked up her daughter and ran straight at Charlie. He pulled back defensively. Katie with him, as she knew he might do. In doing so he allowed Frannie space to get by. Holding her daughter, she bolted past Charlie — and Katie — and jumped down off the deck. At the last she reached out for Katie and grabbed her arm and pulled mightily. But Charlie held her fast. Frannie let go and, all but throwing Laurel over ahead of her, leapt over the railing after her.
When she hit her ankle gave. Heavy spikes drove up her leg. She sprang up, ignoring it, scooped Laurel to her feet and fled.
Turn back, Frannie. Turn back for Katie. But it was too late. She had made the dreadful decision. She couldn’t save her.
She looked back. Charlie was not pursuing them. He stood on the deck holding Katie and laughing scornfully at her. His laughter sounded like the chittering of birds. Ahead – what was that sound? A roaring and a menacing crackle. She turned away from Katie’s devastated and yet still trusting face.
What was that noise?
The answer came swiftly. Fire! Not only did she hear it, she could smell it. And after a moment of fretful scanning, she could see it. That was all the convincing she needed.
She put Laurel down and began a long disoriented dogleg away from the forest fire, shepherding her daughter into the confusing press of the forest.
The air tightened around them like gags. Smoke burned their throats. If only she had a flashlight. Without it she was reduced to swatting at the cobwebby darkness. At her side Laurel, bewildered by the adults performed the same desperate hand dance.
Despite the pain leadening her shoes and hammered spikes into her calves, she managed to make good time to the hill over-looking Laurel’s Falls, where she had taken her grand tumble. Her qualms about the hike had been justified all along. She’d known something terrible was going to happen. It was already happening everywhere, to everyone.
Frannie stopped, squatted down and hugged her daughter, listening for alien sounds. Laurel’s skin soft against her cheek reminded her of those quiet nights reading her a bedtime story until she fell asleep. She saw now how secure and grounded those nights and days had been even without Peter. It would have been even better with him, though. How foolish we were. Frannie’s nose grew prickly. Her chin began to quiver. She fought it.
She had to sound strong. She had to be strong. “We’re going down the hill on our hinnie-beanies. You come right after me and hold onto my blouse.”
“Will the slamdogs be down there?”
“No, there’s no more of them. The slamdogs are dead. Your daddy is making sure.” Frannie said a silent prayer that she was right.
“Will he be waiting for us?”
“Yes, baby. As soon as the sun comes up we’ll all be together again.” We just have to get through the night.
She arranged Laurel behind her and they started down the hill toboggan-style. Any other time it would have been a blast. Sliding on their bottoms and not worrying about getting dirty. Katie should be here for this. At the bottom of the steep hill, the bank gave way and put Frannie in the drink again. She spilled sideways and banged head against a rock and rolled into the water. Cold shocked her body. She found herself sitting in six inches of water.
She jumped up, rubbing her temple, and climbed out, fighting mightily not to cry. It hurt and she felt herself starting to panic. She didn’t want to let on to Laurel. She hefted her up onto firmer ground. She didn’t want her falling in. “Are you okay?” she whispered to her.
The child nodded obediently. “You’re all wet, Mommy.”
“I’ll dry out soon enough. Are you ready to go?” Laurel nodded again.
She eased along the bank, determined to move swiftly and quietly, struggling mightily to keep from losing it. She felt a moan rising in her chest and fought it back down for now.
Up to the pine grove and its quiet brown carpet, squatting for a breather and to figure out what to do next. They couldn’t keep moving through the woods blindly. She wished to heaven she’d paid attention on their hikes. She’d always followed Peter’s lead. Now, she barely knew one stream from another. The amorphous shapes confused her. She spotted the shack Charlie’s kids had built.
It was ramshackle, laughably so, but she needed a place to hide where they might have some reasonable safety from Charlie or the dogs, and who knows what else. If the fire drew near, they could flee. Right now it seemed to be going the other way, if such a thing was possible.
When they were little she and her brother were forever building forts. With blankets and pillows under the dinning room table or with wood and cardboard boxes in the backyard. They called them forts and felt safe inside them. Thirty years later she would do it again, an adult without youthful illusions. Only the hope that a kid’s fort might be just that – and pray that Charlie wouldn’t come for them.
“Yes, cherub,” Peter said softly. “I’ll be your dad.”
“For real?” She tried to smile.
“For real. You just stay awake. Keep your eyes open, baby.”
“It’s Katie,” Peter called to Swanie. “I found her.” Loosing all caution, he shouted it out – a grand proclamation, as though the little girl, once found would provide their ultimate protection. “I found her. She’s alive.”
“Where are Laurel and Frannie?” he asked Katie.
“Charlie took me, Peter. He’s mean.” Peter had already spotted the cuts and bruises around the bicep like a harsh barbed wire tattoo. He cupped his hand around them. Charlie. Always Charlie.
“Where’s Charlie now?”
“Men took him. I ran away.”
Swanie pulled up and ran back, crying with joy and relief the entire way. Seeing what he held in his arms, she lifted Katie from him. Laying her in a tiny patch of green, she knelt beside her and kissed her lightly across the forehead. Her tears glistened on Katie’s drawn cheeks.
The more Swanie smoothed back her tangled hair, wiped away the ash and dirt the more battered her tender skin appeared. Purple marks blossomed like they’d been applied with disappearing ink.
“Mommy,” she cooed, “Peter said he would be my dad.”
A small form appeared near to them, low to the ground. Peter recognized Gretchen, covered in ash, growling as she advanced. Straight from nose to tail, crouched and suspicious. Peter blinked in surprise. She crept forward without any outward signs of recognition. “Gretchen,” Peter whispered. She showed no reaction other that to sharpen her focus on them. It couldn’t be his own dog was going to attack him. Not here, not after everything they’d been through. Not like this.
Out of the moonscape not fifteen feet away, from behind a burned out tree, Floyd rose up and drew a bead on them.
Seeing him Swanie stood to face him, holding Katie in her arms. “Please, help us,” she pleaded. “Please save my daughter.” Maybe, just maybe there was still hope. She took a step towards him, directly into his line of fire.
At such close range, the roar was crushing. The result was crushing. The jacketed round narrowly missed Katie, passed through Swanie, exploding her heart, pinged a rib exiting her back. It tore through Gretchen’s belly and buried itself into the turgid earth.
Swanie emitted a prolapsing grunt as life was flushed from her. Her mouth dropped open in shock about to give a scream that never came. Gretchen was so weak the bullet lancing her stomach was to brutal overkill. The flared metal ripped straight through. Her body shuddered and collapsed.
Peter made straight for the startled Floyd. He hit him with such force he fell backwards with Peter on top. His hands closed on his neck. Wailing, Peter squeezed with all his might.
Movement from behind. Peter was just able to turn his head before the second stalker, another Pleasant Valley Security guard, who had tracked Gretchen straight to Peter and Swanie, clouted him with the butt of his rifle.
Peter fell off to the sounds of gunfire around them. Booted feet. He went out cold.
As she lay there holding Laurel, whispering reassurances to her, listening for any commotion that might signal Charlie’s pursuit or other people around, her mind never moved far from Katie. The last she’d seen of her, Charlie was pulling her towards the steps leading her off to who-knows-where to do Gods-knows-what. She’d looked back over her shoulder at them as they had gone off the deck. The lost, helpless look on Katie’s face said to Frannie, Don’t worry I’ll be okay. Although she knew such thoughts hadn’t been Katie’s mind, her maturity of resignation, her acceptance of Charlie’s power over her would be Frannie’s burden for the rest of her life.
She managed to save Laurel and herself at an enormous cost. She also knew Swanie would never forgive her. It didn’t matter what she thought of Swanie. Or Swanie of her. What mattered that she had failed to protect Katie against Charlie. She accepted that she would suffer whatever blame her actions carried. She did what she had to do.
Frannie didn’t know how long they’d hidden themselves in the fort. She was able to calm Laurel and keep herself contained enough to stay safely tucked away until noises of other people faded away and stayed away. That was what counted. It felt safer now to go back to the cabin or try to make their way out even though clouds covered the moon and it was too dark to navigate safely. Frannie reasoned that if they moved with caution, this would be an advantage.
With night firm around them for protection, they crawled out. Frannie picked Laurel up and headed back to the cabin. No telling what she would find. The fire had burned in the opposite direction, maybe because of the wind, which seemed to her always to blow up the hill somehow.
Her sense of direction was strong enough that if she kept Charlie’s cabin to her right, as she judged it to be, and their cabin to her left, she should come out somewhere in the middle. From there she could find the cul-de-sac and the cabin itself. She imagined she detected a lighter swath of open space through the trees that she guessed might mark the fire’s path.
She put maybe fifty yards between themselves and the fort, re-shuffled Laurel higher onto her shoulder and headed down into the ravine below the cabin.
She came down on a brittle branch and snapped it cleanly. She had heard deer charging through the woods before. They broke branches, trampled underbrush, and snorted like they had steam brakes. Many times the noise brought her out of a deep sleep. But never did a separated branch sound so loud and ominous as this single thin twig. She withdrew her foot and tried again. She came down on another one. Deadfall lay like booby traps and set off cracking alerts to anyone or anything nearby. She pressed forward.
Another branch snapped. This one she didn’t break.
More noise, more movement and a dark and towering figure emerged. She recoiled. A forearm swung out almost defensively her grazing the top of her head. She let out a shriek like a static discharge, ripping through the air.
The figure grunted as if stunned. “Oh!” He took a step back away from their immediate foreground.
Frannie wasn’t taking any chances. She turned and started running. He didn’t seem to be Charlie. But whoever it was had attacked her and that was enough warning for her.
He recovered and shouted out something like, “Hey!” Or maybe he was calling to someone else? Could have been. He didn’t sound like Charlie either. Maybe she should stop and see? Take a chance. “Over here!” the man shouted.
That was it. He was calling to someone else. They were giving chase.
More shouting. “You oughtn’t be headin’ in that direction. It’s dangerous. We ain’t cleared it yet. There’s people there that might not like it. Might be a dog or two left. Ma’am?”
Frannie was so hell bent on protecting Laurel – the images of Katie up in lights before her – she didn’t even try to listen.
She retraced the route, trying to stay close to the one she had just taken. Tiny, angry thorns ripped through her blouse and pricked her at the backs of her hands and forearms like it was the flesh of an overripe fruit. Never mind that now. “Duck your head,” she panted to Laurel.
“It hurts, Mommy.”
As they approached the stream for a second time, Frannie thought she detected a figure moving along it.
Setting Laurel down, she squatted down beside Laurel and whispered to her. “We have to be very, very quiet.”
For the first and only time in her life she wished she had a gun. Not that she knew how to use one. But, hey, all you do is point the thing and pull the trigger, right?
“Ok, Mommy,” Laurel said sweetly, just as loud and clear as you please.
Not too far away a gun went off.
Frannie yanked Laurel up and slipped down off the bank into the stream. To her left twin humps of the blocking boulders, the knee-deep bathtub trough in the middle. Muddy embankments several stories high on either side. Laurel’s Falls. Thank God, she knew where she was. She jumped out of the noisy water up the opposite bank and straight up into the pine grove.
This time she cut on through it in hopes that wherever she was headed it was away from the cabin and away from trouble.
Beyond the streams, the back of their property fanned out onto clear ground. Here the footing was better. She put her daughter down and, taking her hand, said, “Don’t let go. We have to walk as fast as we can. Can you do that for me?”
Cocking her free arm an unseen branch or sapling, she moved ahead.
The land was flat and clear, and enough of the moon shone through that she could proceed with relative certainty. On they walked. Minutes passed safely. Then half an hour later the ground under foot became noticeably firmer. At first she didn’t pay much attention to it. She took several steps before it came to her. They were on a paved road. She couldn’t tell if it was Route 901 and she was unsure of its direction. The overhang along it was so dense it was difficult to discern it other than by feeling it through the soles of their shoes.
They set out straight down the middle of the road. The hard surface exacerbated the damage to her over-torqued ankle and it began to throb. She stopped after a few steps and bent to unlace her boot. Her bones were thrumming from her ankle through her shin to her knee. Her lower leg was swelling up. She pulled her sock up and re-laced the boot as tightly as she could, got up, took Laurel’s hand and started walking again. No pain, no gain.
Sooner, or later a car had to come by.
Peter came to face down. Ashes caked his mouth and his head throbbed where he’d been hit. He mentally inspected his body, concentrating on each part as his mind moved from his head and neck on down to see if he was still in tact. Pretty much. The penlight lay nearby. He reached for it and flicked it on.
The first thing he saw was Gretchen. The slug had taken off the back of her skull. Her brain was pulpy red and slapped across her neck like an elaborate pendant. It was a terrible way for her life to end. His Slime Queen was a great dog. Way too spirited for a pet, she deserved to be hunted, to be kept in the country. He could have done better for her, but it was over now and that was ok, sad but okay. “I’ll come back for you girl. I promise.”
Peter picked himself up and stepped around Swanie. Katie lay cradled in her arms. Katie, little Katie, what a rocky shame. He knelt and kissed her forehead. Smooth now, semi-conscious, relieved of any sign of distress.
The sweet kid wanted so desperately for Swanie to love her the way other mothers love their daughters. To have a normal family. He was a long time admitting what Frannie had concluded upon first meeting her. Even Frannie’s father had observed the tragedy so common among broken families. Swanie had loved Katie. That much was true. But, despite her bottom line, Katie was a neglected child. Shunted off to one relative or another and anyone else who would take her for a little while so that Swanie could attend a concert by some singer/songwriter she just had to see. Or, so she could practice her damn guitar and bleat out more lyrics.
The sadness he felt over her death was for Katie’s loss. He picked her up and headed back to the cabin. His soul clenched like a fist around his heart.
Frannie saw a brilliant white light hovering at road level, not quite touching the surface, shining with such intensity its corona was blue. Was it moving? She couldn’t tell. Its radiance was strong, and she found solace in that. Angels? She didn’t know. Frannie ran Laurel over to the side of the road where the grass was high enough to mask her if she scrunched down. “Stay here,” she said. “Help is on the way. I’m sure of it.” She headed towards the light, waving her arms over her head. She had to make sure she was seen.
She progressed just a few yards before the light began to yaw, pitching itself from side to side as though it were a searchlight. It was moving. A few seconds more passed before she could hear the high tight engine noise and knew immediately it was a car screaming towards her at break-neck speed.
She called to her daughter one more time to stay put until she knew it was safe.
The vehicle bore down on her. She thrust her arms aloft hoping the palms of her hands would somehow help reflect the light.
Slowing only enough to hold the road, the manic auto careened around her and shot on by.
“No,” Frannie shouted. “Please stop. Won’t you please stop?”
She recognized the jeep. Part in anger, mostly out of desperation, she started after it.
The brake lights spotted and the jeep laid a long patch of rubber and rocked to a stop. The reverse lights blinked and the jeep and started backing up. The engine whined high. Crying now, tears streaming, Frannie ran towards it, biting her lip against the pain in her ankle. Her arm muscles were burning with fatigue. Her shoulders were melting from the stress. Adrenalin could overcome only so much. A few minutes more and the rough going would have yanked Laurel from her arms.
Ray Grove pulled on the hand brake and got out, alone. Frannie fell against him and poured out her story, pointing back up the road to her daughter, waiting timidly just off the side of the road for her mom to come back for her.
Grove listened to her, leaned into the night to see Laurel alone and full of trust and patience. “All right,” he said sourly. “I guess we don’t have a choice. Get in.”
He directed Fannie to the passenger’s seat and eased his girth behind the wheel.
Instead of getting in, she started for Laurel on foot. She didn’t want the noisy jeep scaring her. “Just a minute,” she said. “My daughter’s down there. I’ll get her.” She ran towards the place where Laurel was standing.
Grove started to call her back but was distracted by something on the road ahead. A large back SUV rolled from a bower of trees, drifted several feet forward and came to a stop in front of Grove’s jeep, partially blocking his original direction.
Frannie reached Laurel when she heard the first shots. Expecting the worst she threw herself over her daughter and pressed down hard on the ground. More shots, but they seemed to be directed away from her. Rapid shots, like kids with firecrackers, and loud, agitated voices barking commands. Or maybe insults, Frannie thought. Then Ray Grove’s angry growl. One loud crushing gun blast that made Frannie jump.
Silence fell. Frannie moved off Laurel and lay still, waiting for more trouble. She wasn’t sure what had just taken place. But she feared the worst. No more shots, no voices. Maybe some boots scrapped the macadam. She wasn’t sure. When nothing more transpired, she took a chance and crawled out of the grass. The instant she did headlights came up and fell directly onto her.
Harsh high wattage light fell around her with such overwhelming intensity she felt welded in place. She couldn’t move and wasn’t sure she even tried. She didn’t even try to shield her eyes from the light. The engine roared and the lights jerked with movement.
She backed up and lowered to the ground, extending a hand behind her to feel for Laurel. The brakes squealed again. An engine started and revved in urgent spurts. The driver sounded impatient. Frannie was sure that meant he didn’t want her to get away. She knew she should try. But fear and mental exhaustion held her back. The car was moving, its bulky tires snapped away stray bits of gravel as it negotiated around the jeep and came towards them.
Slowly with sad deliberation, she gathered Laurel, stood up and stepped onto the roadway to face these people.
The car was a copper-colored Nissan Murano, perhaps, and the driver was indeed in a hurry. He approached and pulled on past them without taking notice. Frannie and Laurel stood by looking for all the world like they’d been abandoned. Back up the road, the jeep remained sloughed sideways in the road, paused in mid-maneuver. Its lights were off, motor silent, no activity around it. She knew immediately what she had to do.
“Come on, little one, just this last little bit.” She took her daughter’s hand and started towards the jeep. Laurel went without a word. She was far too exhausted to protest and she was past trying to understand what was going on in the adult world.
Ray Grove was slumped over in the driver’s seat with his head out a few feet off the ground, suspended by his seat belt. He was covered dark medicine-smelling mape that Frannie knew was blood. He was dead.
Gingerly, she leaned across him and released the belt. He fell out of the jeep onto the road surface. She placed Laurel in the seat beside and pulled the seatbelt across her and clicked it in place.
She returned to the driver’s side, stepping gingerly over Grove’s body and trying not to think about it too much. As she turned to clip her own seat belt, she noticed someone lying on the floor behind the seats with a coarse burlap packing blanket pulled up over his torso. Their eyes met. Then disengaged. Frannie couldn’t help herself. She wanted to gag. She turned away to suppress her reflex.
Charlie returned her gaze briefly and rolled his head away. Staring into nowhere. His rock of ages had crumbled.
Frannie righted herself. She glanced at Laurel. Her daughter was watching her mom and did not see the chthonic form in back.
Suppressing another shudder, she switched the ignition key on to start the engine. The car bucked. Standard transmission. She had never driven clutch in her life. Had always hated the thought of it. All that extra motion was so unnecessary.
The ignition was on. She turned the key and pressed in the clutch. It stopped the car from bucking. But when the engine came to life and she let it out, the jeep jumped forward and stalled.
Please, not this. She put her head on the steering wheel. Took a few deep breaths. She tried to envision the way this was supposed to work. She tried to form an image of Peter driving his sports car. All she got was his hand going forward and left leg coming up.
She put the clutch in and pushed the gearshift forward and felt the transmission slip into gear. She turned the engine over and let out the clutch. The jeep hardly moved.
She tried again. It lugged a stopped.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Nothing, sweetheart. Mommy’s just not good at these kinds of cars.”
She leaned forward to try it again. As she turned the key her seat belt went tight across her chest and she was pulled back in the seat. A hand gripped her shoulder. Sulfurous breath reached her nostrils. Tar-like fumes dug at the back of her throat. Her head swirled. Any other time the stench might have been enough to overpower her. Not today.
She pushed forward against the pressure. The hand dug into her should. She sensed Charlie’s head rising toward hers. Felt him leaning forward. Her hand fell almost involuntarily from the key to the floor shift and slipped from that.
She couldn’t say exactly how it happened. She looked over at Laurel tiny and almost desiccated by events. A feeling of profound sadness came over her. She settled into calmness. She failed her daughter and had no one to blame but herself for that failure.
When she lost her grip on the shift knob and her arm went down, her hand hit something metal on the floor beside her. A monkey wrench and a right big one at that. The kind Peter used when he crawled under the car to change the oil. She grabbed its slick handle and without planning or warning smashed it back directly into Charlie’s face. The sound of contact was wet and pulpy. Charlie let out a croak of surprise and fell back from her.
She released her belt and turned in her seat far enough to raise it up and smash it down on his head. Plus one more time across the jaw for good measure. She didn’t knock him out, but the blows removed the threat.
Dawn was approaching.
Peter moved slowly and quietly onto the open space that once had been their living room. Floyd had Mila backed against the refrigerator. His rifle was trained on him closely enough to collect Mila’s sweat. The boy was off to one side frozen in fear. Peter laid Katie gently on the floor where she was shaded from the sun. Straightening he approached Floyd from behind.
Partially hidden beneath a chair lay his black softball bat. The artifact from his former life waited to be picked up like a weapon from a video game. He wondered if there were any health points shimmering nearby.
He grabbed the bat and swung the bat from directly behind Floyd at the rifle. It was a .270 bolt action Mossberg with a synthetic block stock. Probably purchased at the Wal-Mart down in Maidstone. Cheap and lighter caliber than Peter figured. But with plenty of punch to take down deer. More than enough to waste human beings. He connected right at the action.
The rifle went off and sent a round off into the assassinated countryside. As it did it fell from Floyd’s hands.
Seeing who it was, Floyd said to him, “I thought he was a looter.”
Peter sensed Floyd’s fear, saw it now in the worried set of his jaw, averted to one side, and knew what he had to do.
Peter picked up the rifle and put the butt across Floyd’s head, knocking his John Deer cap off and partially sliced an ear.
The security guard fell back and bent double, grabbing the ear.
“You killed her mother! And my dog, too,” Peter screamed. He tossed the rifle aside in disgust and followed him across the floor shouting at him. “And you almost killed her.”
“I was aiming at the guys following you. He was from those other people.”
“Then where is he?”
“He musta took off.” Floyd swallowed hard.
“Innocent people got killed because of you.” To Mila he said lowly. It was almost a growl. “He shot them. He shot Gretchen and Swanie. He and another security guard.”
“It was just men and I didn’t do it on purpose. Maybe he’s out there trying to round up the last of you people. We’re trying to protect you.”
“Was that why you were chasing that boy’s family? You came right through here. They took my wife’s car to get away from you. Did you think you were rabbit hunting?”
“You have to ask Ray about that. He’s the one telling us who to go after. But we was trying to protect you from those crazy people.”
“Ray Grove’s dead.” It was Frannie from below them. Standing with her arm around Laurel looking up at them in the ruins of the cabin, taking in the mess and trying not to let it affect her.
“Dead?” Peter asked. He and Floyd turned to look at her.
“We came in his jeep. It’s up there.” She pointed over her shoulder.
“Dead?” Peter asked again.
“Some men killed him. I guess it was those other people you were telling us about.”
Frannie came up the ladder and seeing Katie sidestepped the bleeding Floyd and went to her. She knelt beside her and put a hand to her forehead. Laurel came behind her and ran to Peter.
He picked Laurel up and held her against him, inhaling deeply of her little girl innocence.
“Daddy, Mommy and I rode in the jeep. Mommy drove it even though she didn’t know how.”
“Where it is?” Peter looked down into the coated gravel for the jeep. The vertigo he felt was like gazing down from relic high dive contemplating a plunge into a depthless white pond.
“It’s up on the road. It stopped and I was tired of coaxing it along.”
“Did you shift gears?”
“I just left it in the one it was in and worked the clutch.”
“Where were you coming from?”
“Over on the road out of here. The one you take to get to 81.”
“Dead how?” Floyd asked. He was unsteady to his feet, stunned by the news. His bloody ear looked like shredded wheat.
“Some other men. I’m not sure. It was still dark and we were a distance away and they drove away afterwards. When we got there we found … we found him there.”
Working his mouth nervously, Floyd slid past Peter. He made it to the edge and threw up over the side. It was loud and he moaned as the bilious contents of his stomach shot from his mouth. A partial bridge came with it. He spit the leftovers from his mouth. Hawked deeply and spit again. Having cleared his throat, he looked round at Peter, then Frannie, Mila and the children and let himself down from the cabin. Hurrying forward on unsteady legs, and hyed it out of there without coming fully erect
“Don’t even think about taking the jeep. We’re using it,” Peter called after him.
“He can’t,” Frannie said. “I have the keys.” She held them out to Peter.
They let him go.
“Was Ray Grove alone?”
“He had Charlie in the back.”
“He’s still alive. He’s out there in the back of the jeep. He was just a minute ago. Covered up in a blanket.”
“I had to hit him with one of those wrenches. I think I might have hurt him.”
Peter put Laurel down beside her mother. He hugged her as she held Katie. “I’m so glad you’re okay. I was so worried about you two.”
“I was worried, too. We were running through the woods and I didn’t know where we were headed.”
“Nobody has had a clue they were headed, “Peter said. He hugged her and Laurel one more time and headed for the jeep. He found it halfway down the road, its engine still ticking.
Sure enough there was Charlie, wrapped up and feeble, but aware. He looked up at Peter burned and sucking air, red and raw with pain, without apparent digits at the end of this arms or probably feet at the end of the legs.
Peter felt no anger. Neither did he feel pity. That would never happen. What he felt was revulsion.
He got it and drove down to the cabin.
Somewhere in the scarred sacks that were his lungs Charlie managed to force enough air to move his vocal chords into a cancerous rumble. Still facing away, wretched with defeat, ashamed of his own weakness, he spoke to Peter. “The Lord may forgive you. I cannot …”
The sun was up fully now. It was morning and they were leaving. The debates had ended, or been ended for them. There was nothing left anymore to decide. At a painful cost, they had survived the worst of it. They had made it this far.
The three remaining adults gathered the three kids and got into the jeep. Frannie sat up front with Katie in her arms. Laurel climbed in directly behind her seat and put a hand onto her mother’s shoulder. Mila and the boy sat on the gunwale opposite. Charlie lay mute in his shroud at their feet.
They pulled away without a second thought or a look back over their shoulder. Peter and Frannie both concluding that for better or worse they were done with this place.
Up the lane to the cul-de-sac. And there she was, the Future Queen of Berkeley herself, waiting for them. The automatic side door of a dark blue van rolled open to reveal her presence. She was positioned in a captain’s chair centered directly behind the two front seats. She nodded when they appeared. When the jeep came to a stop and Peter cut the motor, she rose from her seat and stepped out of the van.
She put her hands on her hips and thrust a leg forward. A warm smile presented itself as cogent as morning sunshine.
A day or two ago, she was a mirthful lady in jeans ten years out of date. She laughed easily with Peter and enjoyed hearing what he had to say. Here she was, same jeans, same watermelon-hued hoodie, same white Reeboks.
The good humor was still there, but it was now bemused tolerance. Her power cemented, she stepped forward into the clear morning light to their acknowledgement and respect. She held her hand up flat and angled like the pope might greet those assembled below in St. Peter’s Square. And summoned them to dismount and come forward. Her sign that they were accepted and that no harm would be visited upon them.
Everyone who was able to got out and assembled by the jeep, watching her in silence. Waiting for the Queen to speak first. She closed to a few feet between them.
“I knew we’d get you sooner or later. Well, you’re all welcome. Just follow my men they’ll be along in a second. You’re safe now. We will not let anything happen to you.”
Twin GMC Yukons rose up the hill to escort them.
The Queen put a hand on his arm, light but firm touch. Her palm was dry, her skin felt smooth to him even through his ravaged bandages. “We have doctors who will tend to your wounds and comfort the little girls.”
Peter nodded his thanks. Beside him, Frannie murmured hers.
“Just remember own guiding purpose,” the queen added. “It’s how we live as much as why we live. Enjoy!”
“Enjoy?” Peter repeated in disbelief.
The Queen nodded. “Take care now.” She showed them her smile once again, amused by his astonishment. She nodded again and wrapped her knuckles on the top of fender of the jeep.
Ahead the Yukons turned around. An arm shot out and signaled Peter to follow. They got back in and drove carefully around the van to follow it. The small caravan moved slowly, deliberately down the mile long gravel road. Peter couldn’t see through the smoked windows, but he assumed they were watching him as carefully as he was watching them. “We’ll have to send someone back for Swanie,” he said to Frannie, whispering Swanie’s name.
“And the others,” Frannie added.
“Let them watch us. I’m getting us out of here the fastest way I know.”
Frannie looked back at the Laurel. She’d moved beside Mila and the boy.
She put a hand on Peter’s arm and let it rest there briefly. She watched him for the moment before turning her attention back to Laurel, brave little Laurel.
At the end of the entrance road, they turned right onto the brief stretch of blacktop before 901. At 901 the lead Yukon headed left towards Sleepy Mountain. “Looks like they’re taking us back to their camp,” Peter commented dryly. That meant left again at the base of the foot of the mountain. To the right meant escape to the Interstate and freedom.
The Yukon immediately in front of him made the left and slowed to wait for them. Pete swung right. Tires squealing, transmission whining, he floored it and shot away in the opposite direction.
He looked over at Frannie. Her eyes were fixed ahead. Maybe she suspected he would try something. He wasn’t sure. He nodded. “Go ahead.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. Then shrank into chagrin.
About twenty-five yards ahead of them another dark SUV was sloughed across the road. An Expedition, even bigger and more resolute. Perhaps assigned this task for that reason. Even in a jeep, no passage was possible along either side, precisely why it was sitting in that spot, anticipating them all along. The windows were rolled up. That made negotiation impossible. Peter couldn’t feature walking up to the driver’s window and asking for a parlay.
Sighing deeply he slowed to a stop. Eased it into reverse and swung back the other direction.
The Yukons were waiting, their motors purring with the languid rhythm of great black cats.
When the jeep appeared they resumed their slow train to the Steelers camp, this time with Peter in the middle of the three car caravan.
Everyone was quiet in the jeep. Exhausted, in pain, or simply unwilling to compete with the wind and the noisy engine. Peter’s gambit had failed and that was it.
When they drew within a car length, the Yukons surged and the caravan resumed its journey. Every time Peter slowed, the car behind moved up on his rear, encouraging him forward.
At the base of Sleepy Mountain a road branched off to the left into a section of foothills and overgrown fields and the Steelers’ camp. Ultimately it snaked around Sleepy Mountain and wound its way out of the valley. That had Peter thinking about another run for it, jetting on by once the lead escorts turned onto the field. The trees maintained their canopy, thinning here and there along the way, which might allow him to make a dash for it cross-country. He figured the jeep could out maneuver the lumbering SUV any day.
Except his escorts didn’t take the road. They stayed on 901 and started up the mountain. They weren’t going to the encampment. The Queen had other things in mind for them. She had directed her men to take them to Pleasant Valley.
He glanced over at Frannie with a shrug. She hugged Katie. Peter checked the rear view mirror. The Expedition came up behind as though to give him a shove.
As they reached the top, two men and a girl were standing at the junction with the road to the Hooterville Center waiting for them. One was the man who had given him a lift back to the cabin. Between them was the young Hooterville clerk. When she spotted Peter, she broke into a smile and waved eagerly. The two men who appeared to be escorting her nodded. The Expedition slowed by them and all three got in. The man Peter recognized gave him the thumbs up before him climbed aboard.
As they did Peter caught a glimpse of a body lying just behind them in a shallow scoop off of earth off the shoulder. A double take revealed not one but two bodies, side by side their work boots pointing skyward, the rest of their bodies covered by black plastic.
Peter slowed to look again and the Expedition hurried menacingly up from behind almost touching the bumper, partially blocking his view and giving the clear indication they were not to linger. Peter complied but not before turning further in his seat to check the expression on the driver’s face. The driver pointed with his chin and raised his hand off the wheel to scat them forward.
Frannie’s expression hadn’t changed. She was watching the Yukon directly in front of them with more than a hint of apprehension, as though it might disgorge some sort of punishment for their attempted escape, and hadn’t seen the dead men lying by the road.
So much the better, Peter thought. They had all seen enough. It was time to face the future come what may. And that required a certain amount of silent obedience.
The caravan continued along the crest of Sleepy Mountain for a hundred yards until the road began lowering into the valley. Past a stand of hickories hovering protectively overhead, the mountain opened onto a broad panorama of Pleasant Valley.
At the spot where the descent began, Yukons pulled up on either side, left and right making opposing sides of a funnel that left enough space for the jeep to pass on through, with the third SUV directly behind.
Peter pulled to a stop at the mouth of the funnel. Men emerged from both Yukons. Their faces gleamed with enthusiasm. All were armed but that seemed not to affect their peaceable attitudes. Peter killed the motor and got out. Frannie did likewise after positioning Katie gently into the seat. She lifted Laurel down from the back. Mila and the boy jumped out.
The four men approached them. They extended their arms as a host or a real estate agent might and directed their collected attention towards the valley below.
Mila was already staring in disbelief. Peter and Frannie joined him. The view was really quite spectacular.
Pleasant Valley Retreat was open for business. The stage that had been so carefully set when Peter and the girls came over to dump their garbage just days previously was now populated. All the players seemed to be playing. Foursomes celebrated on the tennis courts. Several couples waited their turn. Joggers dotted the narrow paths. The pool brimmed with gleeful kids. Others sat on lawn chairs laughing in the shade or strolled the green grass. On a patio near the pool, a man was grilling hotdogs and hamburgers. The sweet languid redolence beckoned them.
Among them and along the occasional periphery were men in yellow and black Steelers jerseys keeping watch on things. They were armed, unobtrusive and there to make sure everyone was having a good time.
One of the men addressed Peter and the others. “We very much would like you to join us. You’ll find everything you need. Including medical care,” he added with a concerned glance at their bandaged hands and arms. “And if you don’t find it right away, all you have to do is ask one of our comfort agents.”
“You mean the armed men?” Peter pointed here and there at them.
“They’re here for your own good. As are we all.”
Peter nodded silently and looking at Frannie with a shrug, directed everyone back into the jeep. Mila, Laurel and the boy stood up in back. At their feet Charlie was trembling from his traumas.
Peter started the jeep. As they headed down into Pleasant Valley, he turned to his people, and said, “Ready or not, here we come.”
***end of story***