Through the woods
Saturday, September 28th, 1985...
Walking home from town, drunk, late at night, was as common place for Mike VanSickle, as was hitch hiking into town to party with his friends in the first place. Usually he'd walk the distance along the main road and stick his thumb out to any car coming along. Unfortunately, at 3am. on a Saturday night, cars were few and far between. More often than not, he'd have to walk the seven miles on the dark unlit country road, until he reached foot sore and exhausted, at his parent's driveway. Tonight was different though, because the late summer humidity had condensed into a thick, impenetrable fog. Mike knew from experience that trying to thumb down a car in this kind of fog was practically impossible. The cars would blind him with their high beams and the drivers wouldn't even see him walking backwards along the shoulder with his thumb out until the last second. He'd almost been run down a few times and knew for a fact that he'd also scared the shit out of more than one late night driver, as he materialized out of the gloom, in their headlights at the foot of a hill. So tonight he'd decided to take the railroad tracks into town.
It was a bad idea. Mike had no way of knowing it was a bad idea, he probably wouldn't have listened anyway if someone had told him as much, because Mike didn't listen well to suggestions and more or less did things his own way. Especially since he spent a lot of time on his own and took risks other people wouldn't dare to take. Like hitch hiking home alone on a dark country road at three in the morning, or walking a dark set of railroad tracks by himself, through a foggy forest still miles from town.
As he walked the tracks, every now and then he'd kick up a stone and it would clang off one of the rails. Every time it happened he would swear softly. He felt safe enough walking down the middle of the tracks, knowing that even on the off chance that if a train were coming, he'd be able to hear it from miles off. Besides, the trains had almost stopped running this way entirely and were limited to a handful every day. in fact one of the three that passed through here, came late at night, around this time . Still, Mike had no fear of getting hit by a train. Mike was more afraid of ghosts. Yes that's right, ghosts. Although he'd never seen one, nor ever witnessed any evidence to the truth of paranormal, it was the one thing that honestly shook him to his core. Mike wasn't easily intimidated as a rule. He wasn't afraid of bullies at school. He'd always stood up for himself. He wasn't afraid of animals, even big ones like horses, or big dogs. He'd worked with both, living out here in the country. He knew that as a young man he was able to gain control over them, that he was their master. He was afraid of the unknown, ghosts. Therefore he concluded that if he ever ran into a wild creature on a night like this, it wouldn't be anything more menacing than a coyote or a wild dog. He felt confident enough to defend himself from an attack. It was common knowledge out here in the town of Glen George and surrounding areas, that there were roaming packs of wild dogs. For the most part, they were just timid collections of mutts that had been dumped in the country, by city folk who no longer wanted them. He'd seen some himself down by the local creek in the middle of the day. It was a small pack of three dogs. There was a Golden Lab, a German Shepherd and some kind of Collie cross. Very Disney-esque. They'd had their heads down while drinking from the creek and as soon as they spotted Mike Vansickle, they'd fled in fear. As far as he knew, nobody had ever been threatened by any of the wild dogs out here. Sure there was the odd case of rabies and once a rabid dog had walked down the middle of the road, frothing and growling, all the way into the village. Cars had to swerve around the thing to avoid it. So by the time it got to the crossroads most everyone had heard about it. Mike's next door neighbour had come out with a rifle and shot it dead, for animal control to pick up. For the most part though, the wild dogs had near mythical status they were so rarely seen. Mike was the only one in his group of friends to have seen more than one at once. He'd known they were wild by the way their fur looked, shaggy and matted in spots with clumps of burrs. They were fearful too and had probably spent their domestic life being mistreated by their owners, before getting dumped in the country. So carrying a deep mistrust for man. Many times late at night when he'd been walking home alone in the dark, he'd heard them barking and howling, far off in the woods somewhere. He'd also heard the odd pack of Coyotes too and they sounded much more different than wild dogs. They would pack together before going on a night time hunt, and he could hear their yips and high pitched howls rising to manic crescendos as they ran through the forest. Some nights it sounded as though they were coming his way, the yips and howls getting louder and closer. Soon they sounded close enough to make him feel nervous and quicken his pace towards home, before their lonely wails would fade into the distance again. Mike didn't relish the idea of being faced with a pack of hungry coyotes. They weren't as predictable as wild dogs. He always carried a sharp pocket knife with him wherever he went. Not a flimsy little penknife either, but a good sturdy locking blade that he'd sharpened himself. He didn't believe that a few coyotes would be able to kill him. He was sure they could mess him up pretty good, but ultimately he thought he'd be able to drive them off, if he could kill one or two in a fight. He could take a single coyote. Sure he could, no problem. He knew how to grab it by the lower jaw and force it into submission, before dispatching it with his knife. Mike was fearless, but he wasn't stupid. He knew a trick like that wouldn't work with a Timber wolf, or a bear for that matter. But they didn't live around here. The best that these foggy woods could throw at him would be a desperate coyote, or a starving wild dog. Unless there were ghosts.
Tonight though, on the unlit tracks and the thick dripping fog, as brave as he felt, he suddenly shrieked like a little girl and froze gasping for breath when he heard something snorting and stumbling blindly through the dead leaves in the ditch beside him. He swore softly to himself again, as a skunk materialized from the dark and rushed off through the brush towards the woods ahead. Jeezus! Just a skunk! His hands trembling a little, he pulled a damp pack of cigarettes from his jean jacket pocket and lit one up. He took a deep drag, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom again, after the flash from his lighter. As he exhaled the smoke into the clingy fog, he listened for the skunk, trying to gauge how far it was from him now. The last thing he needed was to get sprayed. Showing up at his parent's house reeking of weed, beer and skunk wouldn't go over well with his mother. She'd be sure to wake up upon his arrival, with that reek wafting through the house. He trained his ear towards the brush listening carefully for the skunk but he could no longer hear it. The smell of it still hung in the wet air.He smoked his cigarette for a bit, gathering courage before heading into the spookiest part of the walk. It was at least half a mile of railroad tracks through some old dense woods, before they opened up again with big empty fields on either side. Then it was just over a mile of that, before the small town of Glen George and the comfort of home. The beer and weed buzz from the old quarry party in town had just about worn off. That last little scare from the skunk in the ditch had sobered him up a bit. Now he was simply burned out and tired from walking, so he stood smoking and listened for a while to the fog and dew dripping in a steady rhythm.
Mike looked up in the sky, surprised to see the full moon. It was by no means clear, it looked like a blurry, flat white dinner plate. Cold, empty and pale as death. He watched as a cloud passed in front of it, darkening the sky once more.
He shuddered, chilled, starting to feel the gloom seeping into his bones. Starting to feel fear creeping up his spine. Warily he scanned the fog and peered down the tracks as far as he could see. Which wasn't far at all, roughly fifty feet ahead before the fog blotted everything out. He took one final deep drag of his cigarette and flicked the butt into the wet weeds.
"Well..." He said, "Here we go!" And he started off towards the dark tunnel of ancient overhanging trees. He knew that the trees here were as old as time. A hundred and fifty years ago men had carved a straight path through the forest to lay their tracks. The trees on either side had been left untouched as pioneer stands. As forests like to do, the two sides had grown since then and their canopies touched each other above, creating a dark tree lined tunnel that the tracks ran through. Mike could hear water dripping from the leaves and the muted clack of the smoth white stones of the rail bed under his feet. He tried to time his steps, so that he would step on a wooden cross tie instead of the stones, trying to be as silent as possible. Every now and then he'd kick up another rock that would go spinning down the tracks ringing off a rail.
"Fuck." He swore softly.
He found that if he stayed on the railway ties with each step, it was a much quicker pace. So he stretched each stride in order to land softly on wood. He had a ways to go through the woods and it was completely dark now. Not even the foggy silver moon could penetrate the giant old Maples whenever the sky cleared, that made it hard to see the ties with every step. Finally, he gave up trying to be silent and walked slower instead, trying not to kick any more stones.
Mike had been afraid of ghosts for as long as he could remember. His earliest memory of getting truly freaked out, was when he was about 6 or 7 years old. He'd awoken from a nightmare, not so scary that he needed to wake his parents, but bad enough that he couldn't go back to sleep right away. So little Mike crept quietly downstairs and turned on the T.V. He didn't know what movie was playing, but he didn't want to make any noise turning the channel knob either. Instead, he sat there watching some old black and white movie, with the volume turned way down. Whatever show was on, it was creepy in it's own right, some murder mystery, maybe Hitchcock or something. In the brief scene young Michael watched, a woman in a long coat and veiled hat, was accompanied by a tall dark man in a fedora and black trenchcoat. The two figures slowly walked around in a circle, examining what appeared to be a jumbled pile of wooden planks. Suddenly the woman reached in, tugging on a board and out flopped a deathly white hand. The pale dead arm led into the pile, where obviously the remains of someone had been concealed. That was enough for him, he jumped up and turned off the TV, then quietly hurried back upstairs and hid under his covers until the afterimage of that dead hand flopping out, finally dissolved into sleep. It nagged him for weeks afterward. Not that it was a particularily graphic, or even violent scene, but to him it was horrible. Just in the way the arm and hand had fallen out of the woodpile like that, it had been so final. So undeniably dead and horrific. The woman in the movie had screamed when that hand fell out, but with the volume down, her scream had been a whisper. In his head, Mike's scream had been full volume. Now as a young adult, almost eighteen at least, he was afraid of ghosts. Nothing would scare him more right now, than to see a wispy white specter materialize out of the fog and hurry his way, floating through the mist. Just the thought of it made him hasten his pace and in doing so he kicked another stone, hard this time. Not only did it rattle loudly off the rails, but he stubbed his toe as well.
"Son of a bitch! Prick Bastard! Dammit." He hissed, but stopped short of letting loose a torrent of curses. He'd heard something else this time. It came from the woods. A single, loud and clear. 'Crack!' ...Just the one and Mike figured he'd probably startled a deer, or even a raccoon in a tree somewhere. He peered ahead of him and then tried looking behind him down the tracks, to see how far he'd gotten since entering the tree lined canopy. It was impossible to tell. He listened intently for a few seconds and thought he heard rustling, but he also heard the drip, drip, dripping of the leaves. The more he tried to listen, the more he heard his own heart beat, then his own breathing. He shrugged the noise off, convinced it was some forest critter and started walking again. Maybe even that damn skunk. He picked up the pace again, shifting into power walking mode. It was deliberate, fast and almost a military, double time march. He didn't care about making noise at this point, screw that. He was getting wet and cold and very tired. He was also irritated now that he'd had to walk the entire seven miles from the outdoor teenage quarry party in town. If he'd taken the road instead, he might've gotten lucky and been picked up hitch hiking. Now though he was becoming more afraid than irritable. He had no idea why he was so frightened all of a sudden. Either way, one last push and in just over a mile he'd be in town and that much closer to his soft bed. He struck out now, not caring when stones rang off the rails. He had a pretty good idea he was almost out of the woods already.
But he wasn't. He was exactly halfway through the woods when he heard a new noise, one that froze his heart and forced him to walk even faster. It had been a snort from something big. Even through the thick stifling fog, he could tell from the angle of the snort that it did not come from ground level, it did not come from deep within the woods either, it was close and it was large. He prayed that it was a deer, maybe a large buck. It might've even been a cow, lost from it's herd. It was possible, many of the fields around the woods were cow pastures and a Holstein could have wandered off. When he heard the rustling and loud cracking of branches this time, he knew right away this was no cow, It moved too fast. Fight or flight welled up inside him and instinctively he chose flight. It didn't matter if it was a deer, or not. He had no way of knowing what this thing was and even as he pulled his knife, he also knew he was at a distinct disadvantage. It was pitch black and foggy, he was miles from any source of light or farmhouse and besides it was 3:30 in the morning. No one would be able to hear him if he yelled for help.
He brought the knife up in front of him and broke into a moderate run. He was lucky enough to be able to just barely see the the twin rails in front of him and stayed between them, lifting his feet so he wouldn't trip on a railway tie. As soon as he found his rhythm he poured it on and ran harder, with his heart thudding, his knife held tightly to his chest. Stones rang off the rails and he shrieked, before realizing that it had been he who'd kicked them, running wildly down the tracks. It was during this brief respite of relief that he heard a new sound... A deep wet growling, no more than ten feet off to his right. Whatever it was, it was running alongside him in the ditch and it had caught up. He stopped and spun to face it, holding the knife out making slashes in the air. Something hit him in the chest with incredible force, knocking the wind out of him. Mike stumbled backwards, his heels hit the rail behind him and he went down on is back with this thing on top of him. It stank and his first thought was that it was some kind of dog, but in the next second he realized it was nothing like a dog at all. It had a stubby snout, not a muzzle. Actually it was more of a face than a snout. It had long hair and incredible strength, big white eyes and when it sneered at him, he saw it almost had lips and big teeth, some of which were very sharp. But if this were an animal, then it's paws were more like hands with long fingers and sharp nails that pierced his skin as it gripped his shoulders, straddling him, pinning him. Fear gave way to anger and in a desperate act of self preservation, he plunged the knife into it's neck with all his might, noting how tough it's thick, bristly pelt was. The creature roared and Mike squirmed, squealing with fright and pushing with his feet trying to buck it off. It was too heavy to budge though, whatever this was, it was solid as fuck and really fucking heavy. it was also incredibly strong, as it forced him into the stones lining the railroad tracks. With his free hand he pushed against it's chest that roiled with steely muscle. It forced him down squeezing the air from his lungs and he heard his ribs starting to crack. He pulled his knife free and thrust it deep into it's neck again with no effect. This time the creature hissed, it's face inches from his own, it's breath putrid, hot and reeking of rot, of certain death. Drool dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision, blinding him, but Mike could've sworn it smiled. It smiled, or sneered, mocking his futile attempts at killing it, something no animal could possibly have the intelligence to do. What the hell was this thing? He thought, struggling to get free. Staring down at him, with it's big yellow eyes, it licked it's chops, spilling fresh drool into his eyes and up his nose. Mike choked, gagging against the stench, spitting the drool back at it. He took a deep breath, gathering all his strength hand gripping the haft of his knife twisted it deep in the monster's neck and screamed as loud as he could bucking desperately. Suddenly it leaned in and cut his scream short, biting a large portion of Mike's throat away. Stunned, he could do nothing, he felt his strength draining onto the stones, as he lay there quietly gurgling. The night grew darker around him, shortly becoming silent and black.
Hours later, the dawn broke and the sun rose, shining on the mess that used to be Michael Vansickle. Mourning doves gathered on the old telegraph wires above, while Bobolinks merrily flitted in and out of the long grass in the adjacent field. It wasn't long before the flies began to gather.
The town of Glen George is a small rural community that boasted two churches, Glen George United church and then in the other direction, down Meadow's road west, Lynnville Baptist church for the other folk. It had a small elementary school from kindergarten to a class of grade 3 and 4 combined . It also had a general store in the center of town at a three way stop, with one of everything. It'd been run by the same proprietor for the past seventy years, Singe Ludlow. Although Ludlow's carried many different items, such as rubber boots, rat traps, giant balls of twine, poison smoke gopher bombs and a large rotating bin filled with screws, shiny spiral nails and six inch spikes. The store was better known for it's stock of bread, milk, cigarettes, cold soda, Popsicle and candy for the village children, as well as the small Post office operating out of the far corner.
Glen George was a very old country town. Some grave stones in the cemetery dated all the way back to the 1780's. Long before the war of 1812 when the Americans were repelled at Stoney Creek. This meant that some of the families in the community were generations old. This also meant that some of them were dirt poor. They stood out like sore thumbs in the general community at school, mostly because they always appeared unwashed and their clothes were shabby hand me downs. A lot of them also smelled of the farms that their families operated. Pig farms, cattle farms or chicken farms.
Glen George also had a Motorcycle Sales and Service just outside of the village, by the railroad tracks. It had been run the past 20 years by Roger Flack, with a little help from his wife Jamie and to a very minimal extent their son Gord Flack. They had all kinds of new Yamaha and Honda Street bikes displayed in rows in the parking lot, as well as a large selection of dirt bikes for the kids. It was the countryside after all and some families had dirt tracks in the fields behind their houses, for their kids to boot around on Honda 50CCs and Yamaha YZ80s. Other people had larger properties where they might need a quad runner for repairing fences. Although Roger Flack ran a fairly popular business selling and repairing motorbikes and in the winter Skidoos, his son Gord was mostly less than useful and ended up getting in the way more than anything else. On most days, Roger would ask his son Gord to leave the shop and go find something else to do.
Gord didn't have many friends in Glen George but since it was a small town, the nature of children in small towns is to play with whoever might be available. Even if during the school week those friendly dynamics morphed into outright bullying in the schoolyard. Such was the case with Gord Flack, if there were nobody around to play with, one might reluctantly call on Gord to pass the time, if one could tolerate his immaturity and embarrassing quirks. Just until back to school on monday morning, where he'd once again become a popular target for bullying. It wasn't as if Gord was a typical stereotype that bullies might normally single out. He wasn't pimply faced, he wasn't morbidly obese, nor was he short, scrawny and freckled. He had a clear complexion and was as tall and wide as most other boys his age. In fact if anything he was a little bit stout and stronger than most. Girls didn't find him particularily good looking at all, he was a frumpy, husky, wide faced boy, with a painfully awkward personality. If anything, It was his personality that was his undoing. He was annoying and sorely lacked in social skills. He'd giggle too loudly at things that weren't funny. He'd embarrass you in front of girls to make himself look better, like fart and point the finger at you. In some circles this wouldn't be that big of a deal, especially if there was some comraderie already established, but Gord didn't know how to establish comraderie. If he ever managed to, it was always short lived, immediately sabotaged, with him loudly telling a stupid joke in bad taste.
Of course there were wealthy families too around about the village. Who's fathers worked a forty minute drive away in the big city of Hammerton, where there was industry, office buildings and banks. A lot of these families had lived in the big city at one point, eventually choosing to move to the country, in hopes of providing a better life for their children. One of those families was the Fergusons, a family with five kids. The children were, Danny Ferguson the oldest at 16, followed by Kevin 15, then the twins Bobby & James who were 14 years old and lastly their young sister Julie who was ten and considered their baby sister. Their parents, Arthur, or Art and Louise Ferguson had wanted to leave the city, as soon as their oldest Danny and Kevin had started getting bullied when they started at the East end middle school where a lot of bad kids went. Many of them were already smoking and into drugs. Since Danny and Kevin were good kids and hadn't made any friends there, they became easy targets and it quickly turned nasty. The city school more or less turned a blind eye to it, since this was the 70's and things were a lot different then. Then they had no such thing as zero tolerance for bullying and the schoolyard justice had it's own way of creating balance on the playground. That next summer Danny's father bought a big old red brick house, smack dab in the center of town, at the crossroads and just two houses from
Ludlow's General store and so the Ferguson family moved to Glen George. His father, Mr. Arthur Ferguson had a good paying job at a well known publishing company and could afford it. The kids didn't mind a bit, there was a lot to see and explore for a bunch of city kids. There were ponds and creeks for fishing. Lots of trees and forests for building forts and hiking in. There was an old set of railroad tracks that ran through town. It went all the way from Hammerton, the big city they'd just left and worked it's way through town, intersecting two main roads, before heading to the next big city fifteen miles due west of them. Glen George was essentially a one stop town, a three way stop with the general store at the intersection. The main road stretched between the two cities with a road jutting out perpendicular to the store, winding up a few miles to stop at the highway. The Ferguson's lived one house away from the store, in the center of town, further ensuring that everybody knew where their house was.
Danny had always been a bit of a loner, but also a prolific explorer and it didn't take him long to fall in love with the fields, forests and streams of Glen George. It also didn't take him long to find his first friend Gord Flack. Actually it was Gord Flack who seeked him out and his twin brothers Bobby and James. He'd heard there were new kids in town and wanted to be the first to win them over and show off a little. So he invited them to check out Glen George Cemetery. Not the most entertaining option in making new friends, but then neither Danny, Bobby or James had seen it yet. Kevin just wasn't interested and stayed home. So they set out to the grave yard and marveled at the age of some of the old tombstones. In one section of the cemetery there were old white marble stones whose names were barely legible but they dated back to 1785. Glen George had been settled by Dutch pioneer farmers and had been a prosperous boom town once. In those years, the town had boasted a full train station, a proper hotel, a general mercantile, 3 blacksmiths, a saw mill, a grist mill, a couple of churches and a small school house. Danny was absorbed with the 300 year old tombstones and so didn't see Gord climbing on one of the large family monuments. He only turned when he heard his younger brothers Bobby and Kevin complaining to Gord to get off of it. Bobby was disgusted at how disrespectful Gord was being. Danny and his brothers had been taught to respect other peoples graves and they were all surprised that Gord didn't give a damn and was now mocking the family name as he climbed all over the large granite gravestone. Bobby asked him again to get down. Kevin chimed in agreeing with his twin, "Yeah Gord. Don't do that get off!"
Bobby walked on over, frowning up at Gord. "Come on Gord get down! That's disrespectful, you shouldn't do that." "What does it matter? Their dead anyway. I don't think it's gonna bother them if their dead!" He laughed. " What would you do if I pissed on it?" Gord taunted, moving his chubby fingers towards his fly...A shit eating grin lit up his round face. "Well you better not try, cuz I won't let you!" Bobby said stepping towards Gord and reached for his arm to pull him off. Gord just laughed and climbed a little higher, standing on top of it, he reached again for his zipper, his beady eyes squinting. "Hey! That's enough." Danny yelled, "Get off of there!" "Go on and make me!" Gord taunted.
Bobby's arm shot out and grabbing Gord's pantleg gave him a strong yank spilling him off the stone and he landed hard on the grass, the air knocked out of him. His face turned red, intitially with embarrassment, but then quickly to anger. Although he may not of been liked well, it was still early days for Gord and he hadn't become the central target for bullying in the village yet. That came later, in some part spawned by what was about to happen next in the cemetery. "Hey fuck off Bobby!" Gord hissed, clearly winded. Getting up and brushing dirt from his pants, he lunged at Bobby and shoved him hard with both hands. "Fuck you! I can do what I want." Bobby fell on his butt and it was his turn to get angry. He quickly jumped to his feet "You can't piss on someone's tombstone. What if that was YOUR family?" He strode towards Gord. Gord smirked and said, "Yeah well it's not." And took a slow looping swing at Bobby. Bobby was surprised at this sudden change in Gord's behaviour, but he easily dodged the swing and grabbing around the waist with both arms, tackled Gord to the ground straddling on top of him in the graveyard grass. He nailed Gord with a solid shot to the side of his face and then Gord went apeshit. He reached up with both hands and grabbed Bobby's hair in two tight fistfuls and wrenched him off onto his side. Bobby started punching him in his stomach, but Gord was chubby and it didn't seem to have much effect. They wrestled on the ground, rolling around while Gord kept pulling Bobby's hair. Bobby punched him in the head again and grabbed his shirt collar. Then Gord did something that shocked all three of the Ferguson kids, he turned his head and he bit down hard on Bobby's forearm.
"Owww! Holy shit!" Bobby yelled. "He just bit me!" "No way!" Danny shouted, "He's a dirty fighter!" Danny was shocked at seeing his little brother locked in a fight with this strange kid. Biting and pulling hair was also commonly considered dirty fighting amongst the boys. So Danny stepped in and tried pulling Gord off his little brother, but Gord hung on to Bobby's hair with both hands. Bobby lashed out again with his right fist and punched Gord, one, two, three times in his right eye and finally Gord let go. Danny helped Bobby up from the ground while James made a move for Gord. "No, don't." Danny said and held James back with his hand gently on his chest. Leave the little sissy fighter alone, he might bite you. The three Ferguson boys walked quickly out of the cemetary towards home, leaving Gord Calling names after them as they walked away. That was the day they found out that little Gord Flack was more than a weirdo, he was a little unpredictable too, an outcast and not always pleasant to hang out with. There were other kids in town to make friends with. The Ferguson boys knew they'd been in the right, to pull Gord off the tombstone before he pissed on it. And when the story spread at Glen George elementary school, of how he pulled hair and bit when he fought. That sealed his fate and he made two instant enemies. The two biggest twin country boys in the school, Craig and Darryl. These two boys were some of the first kids in the village to greet Danny, Kevin, Bobby and James when they moved from the city. A slew of village kids stood gathered around the moving truck, to get an eyefull of the new family that day. The two biggest ones were Craig and Darryl. The same age as the Ferguson kids and also twins, they lived about a mile up the road. they instantly befriended Danny and Bobby, but when they heard how Gord flack had treated them at the cemetery, were furious. They didn't let Gord leave the schoolyard at the end of the first day back, without a short but brutal beating for his actions against the new kids in town and his disrespect to the tombstones. His black eyes and busted lip were testament to that and he had a hard time explaining it to his parents.
Time passed and the memory of the fight at the graveyard grew dim but was never forgotten. Eventually, Gord Flack began walking around like he owned the town again. No matter how great he thought he was though, all of Gord's bravado seemed to come from the fact that his father owned a motorcycle sales and service, one of the biggest businesses in this small town. It also insured that he was able to impress the few fair weather friends he had with promises of riding one of the dirt bikes around the shop's gravel parking lots from time to time. So with guarded judgement, Danny Ferguson became one of Gord's few fair weather friends in Glen George to kick around with on rainy days. By no means though was he the only friend they had in town. They had closer, nicer friends and one of them was Mike Vansickle. Both Danny and Gord knew who Mike was. All the kids in the village knew each other and the boys who were close friends, both in and out of school, usually hung out together after school and on weekends. Mike lived across the road and past the corner. He was a good guy and a solid friend with strict parents, but like all teenagers do at some point test the limits of their parents rules. That's what got him in trouble that night. So the next morning when he wasn't in his room getting ready to work with his father at their auto repair, Glen George Garage, up on the highway, his mother started making phone calls. Her first call was to the Ferguson's and Danny answered the phone on the second ring.
"Oh hi Mrs. Vansickle." He said. "No I haven't seen Mike at all. I don't know what he did last night. I know there was a party at the gravel pits in town, but I didn't go." She explained that Mike had left for town after dinner the night before and had been hitch hiking as usual.
"I've told him over and over, I don't want him doing that, but he doesn't listen."
She didn't like him hitch hiking, but without a car, or a ride from someone, it was the only way to get to town. So a few of the parents just put up with it, hoping that somebody from the area would recognize them and pick them up. Danny hitch hiked back and forth himself and never had any trouble. Rides were never a sure thing though and he'd made the seven mile walk home from a party more than once. It was quite a mission too, there were no street lights out there and you were at the mercy of the weather. A seven mile hike, even along a straight road, is not an undertaking for the timid. Danny knew for a fact that dumbass Gordie Flack had never done it in his life. It might do him some good though.
A few minutes after hanging up with Mike's mom, there was a knock on the door. It was the side door where the driveway was, so probably somebody that knew them. The Ferguson's front door led from Glen George road and was only used by the kids when they went for the school bus in the morning, or their father, when Mr. Ferguson sat on the front porch to smoke. Robbie called, "Door!" from the living room where he watched T.V. When Danny opened it he was surprised to see Mike's sister Carrie.
"Do you know where Mike is?" she asked. She was a year older than them and although Danny saw her plenty when he visited Mike, didn't really hang out with her, or her friends. They were a different crowd at school.
"Naw, Haven't seen him. I just talked to your mom on the phone."
"She's freaking out." Carrie added.
"Is your Dad at the garage?" Danny asked.
"Yeah and he's pissed."
"I can imagine! Well it's totally not like Mike to come home. The only thing I can think of is that he got wasted and passed out somewhere. He might be trying to get home now..." Danny trailed off, thinking of the different possibilities. Not wanting to imagine his friend dead in the ditch somewhere along the road after getting hit by a car. The highschool they all attended had a bad reputation of student fatalities, from drinking and driving. Even a few deaths by 'misadventure' the cops said, from getting high or drunk at a party and meeting their end in stunts gone wrong. One of Danny's closest friends had died the year before, falling from an overpass somehow and landing on the highway below.
"Sure, of course." Danny replied, suddenly feeling bad for Carrie. He'd seen fear in her eyes, before she walked away. Danny wondered, hoping Mike was alright, as he watched her walk down the driveway and turn in the direction of Gord Flack's house.
He shut the door and walked to the livingroom where Robbie was watching an episode of 'Unsolved Mysteries'.
"Mike didn't come home last night." He said to his brother. "He's gonna be in big shit." then he walked all the way upstairs to the renovated attic, where he and Robbie and their older brother had their bedrooms. He grabbed his Walkman and checked the batteries, picking out a couple of choice tapes to listen to on his walk. He'd decided to go back the tracks this afternoon for something to do, maybe look for stuff in the woods. He'd found some neat old bottles and other stuff in the forests around Glen George during his wanderings around the village. In the old days, before municipal garbage collection, whatever couldn't be burned in a firepit was dumped out in the woods or at the edge of their property. Danny liked finding these remnants and also knowing that he was probably the only person aroud with such an impressive collection of old medicine bottles, assorted animal bones and other artifacts forgotten to the past. He had them proudly displayed on two long shelves up in his room. His other brothers weren't into the same things Danny was. They were more athletic, happier playing sports like football and soccer than hiking around, exploring and looking in the woods and abandoned farmhouses for things to add to his collection. One of the farmers he sometimes talked to, even had arrowheads he'd found while ploughing his field. He even showed them to Danny, who thought it was super cool to be able to find something like that.
He put the tapes into a battered grey 'World Famous' shoulder bag along with his walkman and an old jack knife he carried everywhere. The bag held a wild assortment of odds and ends designed for short term survival in the wild. There was a magnifying glass he'd used to start fires if his matches got wet, a few fish hooks carefully packaged, taped together in a folded piece of paper, about fifteen feet of fishing line wound around a stick. He had an old pill bottle with wooden safety matches that had been dipped in wax to keep them dry and working. There were spare batteries for his walkman, which in Danny's mind was a critical part of any hike. In fact there was a little bit of everything in the old canvas bag, that he could imagine he might need in the case of an emergency. When he'd been a cub scout in the city, he'd learned to 'be prepared'. Danny took that tenet seriously and did not like being caught out unprepared in any situation. Once he had everything needed, he grabbed his hat and went downstairs. Robbie was still watching T.V.
"Where you goin'?" He asked, as Danny passed through on his way to the side door.
"I'm going back the tracks," he replied, "wanna come?"
"How far are you going back?"
"Uh, back to that little pond where the old fort is." By 'old fort', Danny meant a small shed that had been built years before at the base of a massive old Maple tree. It looked like it had either been built very well by teens as a ground level tree fort, or by their parents as a way to keep the entertained near the pond. Danny and Robbie had found it one time while exploring and had tried swimming in the pond one summer. That had been an awful mistake since the pond was only a couple feet deep, with black mud, leeches and surrounded on shore with saw grass. The saw grass would slice up your shins and ankles, like so many paper cuts, on your way into the water and that's what attracted lots of thin, black and hungry leeches. They never swam there again.
"Naw, I'm gonna stay here for now it looks like it might rain." Bobby said, turning back to the T.V. Danny left and walked down Glen George road to Meadows road. He walked past his friend Cam's house on the way and then picked up the pace going past Gord Flack's house. He turned up Meadows road, past the small school on the right and to the tracks that intersected Meadows road. As he started walking back the tracks, he noticed that behind him, off to the west there was a bank of dark rain clouds working there way over. He cursed at the thought of getting soaked, but figured at the same time, he might be able to beat them to the tree fort by the pond. Inside the fort, there was a long bench on one wall and even a big hinged shutter that you could hook open with a chain and a hook or keep shut. Even with the shutter open, it was dry inside when it rained. Unless the wind was blowing the rain sideways, then you could just close it. So he walked quickly now, scanning the way ahead. A lot of the times you could see animals crossing the tracks like groundhogs, or a furtive fox. In fact, because the tracks ran straight for about a mile here you could see a long way. It was hard to tell with the heat shimmering off the old railroad ties, but it looked like there might be something on the tracks way up there. Impossible to say what i was, at this distance it just looked like a black lump between the rails. He squinted trying to determine if it was moving at all... It didn't look like it, but with the wavering air from the heat...The closer he got, the more he could see that whatever it was, it was big and there was more than one. But now he could also tell that it wasn't moving. It could be a deer or something that got hit by a train. That would be rather unlucky for the deer, Danny thought. Trains hardly ever used these tracks anymore. There might be one each afternoon and then another in the middle of the night. The railway actually ran not far behind their house and he would have frequent dreams about trains. It made the house rumble and it would blow it's horn on the way into town and then again, leaving the village as it crossed Glen George road by Flack's motorcycle shop. It never even occurred to him that Mike could have been struck by a train, since the odds of that were so low. Especially at night. Not just because it could be heard coming from miles off and with a headlight so bright it would turn the night into day as it barreled along. The ground shook and the rumble of the engine was plenty enough to alert you a train was coming.
He hurried closer and closer, racing the rain, curious and thunder rumbled across the fields in warning. Now he could make out colour to the items ahead, blue white and red. He felt his heart pounding and fear washed over him. It was no animal. Oh Christ. It was a human and it was cut in half! It must've been hit by a train... Danny was very panicky now. Was this Mike? Was this his friend, now dead after getting mowed down by a train? How? Could he have fallen asleep on the tracks walking home? He couldn't imagine Mike doing that when he was so close to home. Especially if he was supposed to wake up early and work with his dad at the garage. He came up on the body carefully and noticed debris everywhere and blood. The body was dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt that was soaked with blood. It had dirty blonde hair and Danny didn't have to see the face to identify it as being Mike...it was him alright. He crept closer, seeing now that the debris was shreds of fabric and parts of a thin tan jacket Mike always wore, when the late summer nights grew chilly. There was also chunks of flesh and clumps of bloody hair. He spotted a wallet on the ground laying open, but didn't touch it. Tip toeing around the bits, Danny stopped, standing between the rails he craned to look at the scene laying before him. It was terrible. He'd seen plenty of road kill while hitch hiking and the odd animal carcass on the tracks, so was able to examine the body without running away screaming. One of Mike's arms lay separated, it's elbow hooked casually over a rail, fingers touching the stones. He'd been cut in half, his guts exposed with his hips and legs at an angle to his torso. Carefully, Danny stepped back and giving Mike's body a wide berth, walked around to view it from the other side. Here he could see his face and the eyes were wide open, but dull with death. His throat had been torn open so deep, Danny thought he saw white vertebrae peeking through the gore and gristle. The other arm was still attached, but tucked under Mike's torso. So Danny was unable to see that all the fingers on Mike's left hand were gone. Finally the initial shock cleared and Danny started to react, panting and sobbing with horror and grief. He didn't feel the tears rolling down his cheeks, his heart thudding hard in his chest. He was having a hard time just catching his breath. Walking back around the scene, he broke into a run. He had to get home. To his parents. To a phone. He needed to see someone, anyone, just to tell them. This was too much to bear on his own. They'd have to call the police, he wouldn't be able to tell Carrie himself. Just the idea was too much right now. His mind raced as he ran. Those injuries! It didn't look like what would happen to you if you got hit by a train. Mike's body had been torn apart, into pieces like maybe he exploded on impact, but it looked more like he'd been torn apart by a wild animal. His throat...the shredded clothing, more though, it had been the look on Mike's face. His eyes had been wide open. His mouth had been wide open too, almost like he'd been screaming at the instant of his death. If you were hit by a train wouldn't you get thrown into the ditch on either side of the tracks? If you had body parts severed, wouldn't it be a clean cut, instead of ragged tendons stretched out to their limit like white cords and bundled muscle? And there wouldn't be chunks of you scattered about...would there? Too many thoughts, too much horror. He began screaming in short high pitched squeals as he ran, then shrieking the same thing over and over.
"Oh god no! God no! Oh no! God no! Oh god no! Nooo! God! Oh no!" He started stumbling and tripped on a railway tie and went sprawling on his hands and knees, cutting one palm badly and skinning both knees on the rocks.He knelt there panting as his tears dripped, beading on the creosote that wept from the tarry railway ties. He swallowed trying catch his breath and his throat felt raw. he wasn't far from the road now, so he picked himself up and instead of screaming, instead of letting his mind race out of control, Danny focused on one thing...getting home. He peeled his pants from his skinned knees and started running again. Thunder rumbled in the distance now. It hadn't rained after all, it had just gotten really, really dark.
When he got to the village he ran past Gord's house, who stood immobile like an idiot, watching him run past. His fat white face and liver lips slobbery as he yelled, "Hey! Danny!" Gord yelled. "Where ya goin'? Heyyy! Danny!" But Danny ignored him and cut across lawns in the direction of his driveway. He took the steps two at a time and burst through the door, bent over with his hands on his knees gasping for breath.
"Danny? Is that you?" He heard his mother say. From the corner of his eye he saw her walk into the dining room with a concerned look on her face. He looked up at her and then bursting into tears, his knees buckled and gave out. He sat down hard on the wooden floor with a thump and started sobbing.
After he was able to tell his mother what had happened. Louise Ferguson immediately went to the phone, first calling his father at work to come home, then calling the police. Once that was done, she came back into the dining room to check on Danny and patch up the palm of his hand that was now crusted over with dried blood. He'd cut it when he'd landed on a sharp stone and at the time he hadn't felt a thing. Now though it had become a dull throb and he hissed at the sting when she squeezed Bactine over it. Robbie sat in a chair beside him comforting his older brother. Robbie's twin, James and Kevin were both out. James had gone to the nearby bass pond to fish and Kevin was off somewhere on his bike. By the time the cops got there Danny was exhausted and sat numbly at the table, staring at a half eaten sandwich on a plate in front of him. He heard the two cops talking to his mother and the intermittent crackles and squawks from their radios. They were full of questions of course, Danny knew it was going to be his turn to respond to a bunch of questions that he had no answers to. He quietly ate the rest of his sandwich and downed the milk his mother had made him while he waited. Finally one of the cops, a tall thin guy with a tired looking face, pulled up a chair and sat down beside him, where Robbie had been sitting.
"Hi there Danny, I'm Sergeant Clifford Bell. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions about what you saw today?"
"Yeah, sure." Danny said, "I don't know what I can tell you though. It'd be easier for me to just take you there."
Sergeant Bell hesitated and looked Danny up and down, then went back to looking him straight in the eye, trying to get a read on him. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, "If you feel up to it, then yes I'll need you to take me there. But first I want to ask you just a few questions about your friendship with Mike and get a little background on him." Danny just shifted in his chair and nodded assent.
In fact the sergeant had more than a few questions and by the time he was done, Danny was getting antsy. It was a weird feeling. He was antsy to get this over with, so he could grieve by himself. He also wanted to put things together in his head, which was spinning with images of the horrific scene on the tracks and so many questions, he couldn't think straight. He knew that he needed to put it in the hands of professionals. There was nothing he could do for Mike on his own. The sooner he led the police to his body, the sooner they could inform his family and figure out what happened. He suspected they would rule it as a tragic accident. Mike had been drunk, he'd passed out on the tracks on the way home and had been hit by a train. somehow though, Danny didn't think that was right. He'd seen dead animals on the tracks before, that had been struck by a train. The remains were either cleanly severed, wrecked knotted balls of fur and bone, or simply flung into the ditch upon impact. He'd once come across a deer that had suffered a direct hit. He'd smelled it long before he found it rotting in the summer sun. It had been laying half in and half out of the ditch. Maggots rippled like a wave amongst it's fur, as clouds of flies spun into the air when he rushed past, gagging at the stench. Never though had he seen an animal so thoroughly destroyed like Mike's body had been. There'd never been chunks of flesh scattered about, or long ragged wounds. He broke from his ghastly reverie, realizing the cop was repeating his name over and over.
"Danny! Danny!" He was saying. Danny looked up and felt himself trembling. "Hey buddy, you alright? Are you able to lead us to your friend now?"
"Sure." Danny muttered and stood up shakily.
Sergeant Bell took him by the elbow and gently led him towards the door. He looked back at Mrs. Ferguson. "I'm sorry Ma'am, we need to know where this fellow is. We'll have Danny back, just as soon as possible."
"I understand." Danny's mother said, wringing her hands with worry.
Danny's little brother Bobby stood by her. His face pale and eyes rimmed with red. He'd been crying too.
The Sergeant opened the rear door for Danny, as his partner climbed in behind the wheel and began talking on the radio. Bell got into the front seat and turned to Danny, "Okay Danny just tell us where to go. We're probably going to have to walk part of the way right? So we'll park the car as much out of sight as we can. we don't want everyone in the village to know that you're helping us out here. Okay? I'm sure you've had enough questions for one day." He gave a sad smile and turned to face the front as his partner backed the car out of the Ferguson's driveway.
When they turned left up Meadows road, Danny spotted Mike's sister Carrie, walking back from her search for Mike, probably on her way home. when she saw the police car with the two cops in it she froze, staring, as it drove past towards the tracks. Danny slouched down, as low as he could, trying to make himself invisible. Bell's partner glanced up at him in the rearview. "Do you know that girl, Danny?" He asked. "Yeah..." Danny whispered. "That's Mike's older sister, Carrie. She's walking around, asking if anyone's seen him." He peeked out the back window in time to see her spin around and continue on her way, hurrying now.
The two cops spoke softly to each other. Danny couldn't hear what they said. All he could hear was his heart thudding in his ears and the crunch of gravel under the car tires. When they came to the tracks, Bell turned to face Danny again. "Is this where we need to go? Which way, left or right?"
"Right." Danny said. "Back the tracks, towards those woods way over there. Mike's about halfway..." He trailed off. Fearful again, of seeing Mike spread out all over the ground and having to smell the blood and gore. He hadn't been dead for long, but Danny had been reminded of the smell at the local butcher shop, when he'd gone to get bacon and pork chops with his mom. The smell of raw meat and a slightly rancid undertone of death. He shuddered involuntarily. The police car bumped it's way over the tracks at the top of a small hill and it slowed near the bottom of the other side. They pulled over, parking as far onto the soft gravel shoulder as possible. Bell's partner got out and opened the door for Danny. He hesitated before getting out, suddenly wishing he could just go home. Up to his room where it was safe and quiet and he could sit and sort things out, without any questions, without any fear. What if the cops thought he'd killed Mike? He'd been the one to find his body after all. He dismissed the thought just as quickly as he thought it, getting out of the car. They'd parked so far over on the shoulder, Sergeant Bell had some trouble walking around the side of the car. He started to slide down the steep embankment and stopped himself by grabbing a handful of waist high weeds. His partner and Danny waited for him to come up onto the road. They walked up the little hill on the road to the tracks and turned onto them. They walked in unspoken silence for a while, with just the crickets to keep them company. Both cops had turned their radios down, but Danny could hear the occasional crackly call come through. Eventually, Danny could make out the dark shapes that made up the remains of Mike between the rails. He caught the cops glance at each other and Bell shaded his eyes with his hand. "What's that up there?" He asked.
"Yeah that's Mike." Danny said softly. His thoughts turned back to Mike's sister Carrie and how he'd seen her still walking around looking for Mike and talking to their friends. He wondered if she'd spoken to Gord Flack and if he'd mentioned seeing Danny earlier, running home like the devil was on his heels. Gord had a big mouth on him and surely he would have connected seeing Danny with Mike'sdisappearance. But Mike hadn't disappeared, at least not for long, since here he was, albeit in more than one piece, ravaged and on the ground. As they approached, Sergeant Bell's partner, whom he understood was called Sam, held up his hand and said, "Alright Danny, just wait here for a minute."
"I've already seen him." Danny protested, moving around officer Sam. Suddenly Sam's arm shot out grabbing Danny by the shirt, pulling him back. "Hey!" he said, "Just wait here a minute! Look kid, we don't even know what we have here yet ok? This is evidence and you've already been..." He was looking Danny straight in the eye suspiciously. Bell put his hand on Sam's shoulder, "It's okay Sam." He was looking at Danny too, who was pale, trembling and obviously frightened by the roughness which officer Sam had dealt him.
"I just wanted to show you something. I thought it was important." Danny stammered.
Bell took Danny's elbow carefully leading him forward, "What is it you wanted to show us Danny?"
"It's on the other side." Danny said pointing past the shreds of Mike's jacket, now stiff with blood and strewn around. His body lay facing away from them, the arm hooked over the rail, like an old friend. Bell and Danny walked around the scene, briefly stepping down into the ditch to avoid it. Danny noted how they'd given much more care to avoid coming in contact with any blood, than he had when he'd found it. Just now he recognized the pattern of the sole from his shoes, stamped in the tacky blood that was now drying on a railway tie. he knew he'd be a suspect. He found the body and that's just how cops think. He figured he'd be grilled at the station a lot more after this. As they reached the other side, Sam remained where he was, fiddling with a Polaroid camera. He started taking pictures. Now they stood where they could see Mike's face, his mouth wide open in a perpetual scream, eyes staring. His cheeks lightly spattered with blood.
"See there?" Danny pointed, "His throat. Look at that gash! I don't think that came from a train..." Suddenly He felt a wave of nausea that came from out of nowhere. He fought it, trying to stay strong, but wavered, stumbling backwards. His ears started ringing and the edges of his vision began greying out. He could see Bell's mouth moving, but couldn't hear him. all the strength drained from his legs and he could stand no more. He sat down hard on his butt and trying to break his fall with his hands. He knew Sergeant Bell was standing over him, but the ringing in his ears was still too loud. He gagged as saliva flooded his mouth, he felt like he might puke. Everything seemed muffled, as if with cotton. He leaned forward and brought his knees up, sweating now with his head between his legs, breathing hard. Gradually the ringing faded and his ears cleared. He could hear Sam asking, "What happened? Did he faint?" Bell responded, "Yeah, he's ok. It's the shock, it's a little bit much for him. He's just a kid." That last remark made Danny angry. He wasn't a kid! he was fucking seventeen for Christ sake. Hardly a kid. As he sat with his head between his knees, catching his breath and shaking his head from side to side. While he sat there recovering and silently cursing Bell for calling him a kid, he realized he'd been staring at a knife. An open jacknife, probably Mike's, was lying lengthwise alongside a railroad tie half covered in the stones.
As a matter of fact it WAS Mike's, he recognized the green and brown handle. and could see the scuff marks on the blade where Mike had carefully sharpened it. He could see dried blood on the blade and handle. Any second now, the cop standing over him would see it too, so he shifted his leg blocking it from view. For some reason he didn't want them to have it. He knew it was evidence and probably important too, but they didn't know Mike, not at all. Mike had been his friend, his brother's friend and friend's friend. He wanted something to remember Mike by. He knew Mike would want him to have the knife. If the knife was an important piece of evidence regarding Mike's death, then it was important to Danny as well. In as strong a voice as he could manage, he said, "I'm okay now, I just got dizzy for a second there." Bell reached out his hand to help Danny up, but he waved it away. "That's okay." he said, "I'm alright." Bell looked down at him frowning, "That's fine Danny, but I want you to rest a minute. Walk back through the ditch here and go sit down over there for a few minutes. We need to take some pictures and take a look at some things before we take you home." When he turned away to wave officer Sam over to their side for some Polaroids of Mike's wounds, Danny secretly took the knife and folded it closed with one hand. As he stood up he pretended to tuck his shirt into the back of his pants and slipped the knife in his back pocket instead. He walked back through the ditch and sat on the rails, far enough away that he couldn't smell the gore anymore. He hadn't noticed it too much when he first found Mike's body, but as the sun had warmed things up considerably, he could smell it strongly now. The butcher shop smell had been replaced with the steady stink of the first stages of decomposition. It was sickly sweet and turned his stomach. Now though he was far enough away that all he could smell was the tarry scent of creosote weeping from the old wooden ties, mixed with the spicy scent of herbs and wildflowers in the ditches that lined the tracks. He watched and waited as the two cops spoke softly between them, pointing at things and taking notes. Occasionally Sam would take a snapshot of the gruesome tableaux before them. Finally they were done and they all walked back to the police car together in silence. When they got in the car, Bell turned to face Danny in the backseat. "Okay Danny, we're gonna take you home now and drop you off. We have a lot of work to do, but I promise we'll figure out what happened to your friend there. In the meantime I want you to take it easy and get some rest. Stay clear of those tracks, as it's going to be pretty busy with people coming and going for the next couple days. I don't want to see you down there at all, just stay away alright? You promise?"
"I promise." Danny muttered. "I didn't hear you." Bell said. Sam looked at him hard in the rearview mirror... "I promise!" Dannny said louder this time. "Okay, good." Bell turned back, jotting something down on his pad. "Let's take Danny home" He said to his partner, "We're gonna have to get at least another car out here." As an afterthought, "And stop any trains from coming."
When they dropped him off at home, his dad had come home from work already, his car parked in the driveway. Art Ferguson approached his son, giving Danny a big hug. "I'm really sorry to hear about Mike. Why don't you go upstairs and get some rest until the police leave. Danny nodded silently and a few tears escaped as he broke off the hug with his dad. He lingered in the background just long enough to hear them tell his mother, "It looks like he's been struck by a train...horrible accident...going to tell his folks...please don't talk to anyone yet. Just keep Danny indoors for now please, until we have a chance to notify the next of kin."
"An accident?" Danny thought, fingering Mike's knife in his back pocket. No way. That was no accident. He wondered if the cops would eventually come to the same conclusion, or continue to float the 'accident' theory. After his mother gave them the phone number for Mike's house and their address, the two cops got in their car and drove off up the road, presumably to tell his parents the bad news. Danny had just about enough that he could take and trudged upstairs to his room, his other brothers and little sister were nowhere in sight. When he got to the renovated attic where the bedrooms were, he could hear Bobby in his room listening to music. Danny quietly closed the door and flopped on his bed.
The cops played it exactly as Danny had feared. Two days later, a story in the city's paper told of a tragic accident where a local teen had been hit by a train. The article said that alcohol and drugs were a factor in the accident and that Mike had probably fallen asleep on the railroad tracks coming home from a party. It also cautioned parents against allowing their children to 'play' on railroad tracks and that teens thinking of walking home from a party intoxicated, should stay the night instead, or arrange for a ride from a designated driver in advance. There had already been a lot of teen deaths from Danny and Mike's highschool that year. They were all apparently associated with kids leaving parties intoxicated and either driving drunk, or dying by misadventure on their way home. Danny always thought that was the stupidest description anyone could use while describing a mysterious death. Misadventure? What exactly did that mean? Nothing at all, Danny always thought. You couldn't get any vaguer than that. Misadventure, as if you went on a hike and walked right into a grizzly bear's open mouth. Misadventure, like a cartoon where short sighted Mr. Magoo walks off a cliff to his demise. He also wondered if any of these so called deaths from misadventure resembled Mike's at all. He assumed Mike had been killed by an aniifemal and that he'd used his knife trying to fight off whatever had been big enough to rip him apart. Danny wondered what kind of animal could have done that. In past years there had been the occasional tiger and even a lion that had escaped the African Lion Safari in a nearby county. Sure something like a tiger could have done that to Mike easily, even a wild animal like a cougar could do some serious damage. They were rare in these parts, but it wasn't impossible. Hell, even a big, wild boar could kill a grown man. They didn't have any bears around here so that was unlikely. Why hadn't the cops considered that? Before they'd gone that day, Seargent Bell had left his card, because Danny had seen it sitting on the table by the phone. He'd even considered calling it more than once, to confess about taking the knife, but was afraid of what kind of trouble that would bring. All sorts, Danny imagined. So there goes that idea...right out the window. Danny took out the knife that he'd kept in hidden in his pocket since picking it up from the tracks and opened it up. It still had blood on it, dried deep inside the grooves of the handle and inside the part where the blade closed into. He didn't think it was Mike's blood either, probably the animal's. He tested the blade with his thumb, it was sharp. He remembered the pride Mike had taken sharpening it and how he'd demonstrated that by slicing a sheet of paper with it. It was razor sharp. Danny considered the predicament he was in. He knew he'd fucked up by taking the knife. It was proof that Mike hadn't been hit by a train, but it was too late to 'fess up now. He could even be charged with withholding evidence, or obstructing justice, or something along those lines. He could go to jail for taking the knife. He wondered if it would matter to Mike and what he'd want. He'd want the truth to be found out, Danny figured. So how was he going to do that? He had a big bad secret and there was nobody he could tell. He'd kept Bell's promise and had stayed away from the tracks and where Mike had died, but he also had a shitload of questions he wanted to ask the cops. In the days that followed his discovery of Mike's body, he'd seen police cars parked at the little village school that was near the tracks. He'd even seen a big white and black van with 'FORENSICS' stenciled on the side and that was why he was so surprised that they ruled Mike's death an accident by misadventure. It made him frustrated and angry. It also made him feel extra guilty about taking the knife. Why couldn't they see the obvious animal wounds that he, a seventeen year old 'kid' could distinguish? They were supposed to be the professionals after all. It almost seemed that they'd been lazy and had taken the easy way out. A dead body on the tracks, all torn up like that? Hit by a train, nothing more, nothing less. Danny was going to have to prove them wrong, but how? He was going to have to go back to the scene and look for proof. Turning in the knife was out of the question, so he was going to have to give the cops something else.
The next day Danny awoke early. He'd been at the playground at the school by the tracks the evening before. there hadn't been any police activity and as far as he could tell they'd wrapped up their investigation and had stopped coming all the way out Glen George to watch over the scene. The last car had left late that afternoon in fact. One lone cop had sat there by himself for a good twenty minutes, after the others had left...One local news van, and one other squad car. Danny had watched him slowly smoke a cigarette, then toss the butt on the road and pull out, tires spitting gravel into the cattle corn. He didn't think they'd be back. So, early that morning, he'd been up and out, while his mom had still been having her tea. He'd gone to the cemetery up Meadows road, had a quick smoke and dropped down the back hill to the creek. From there he'd followed the creek back up to the tracks, where it went under, through a rectangular concrete tunnel. From there he had climbed the steep grade through sumac, up to the tracks and by the top, standing midway between the village and the woods, you were already well past halfway back to the scene. By the time he reached where blood still stained the ground, there was absolutely nothing left to see. The cops and forensic crew had picked the area clean, there were no ancient candy wrappers, aging cigarette butts, or errant scraps from Mike's clothing. Zilch... He wasn't sure what he hoped he'd find. Obviously not the knife. That particular item still sat snugly in the back pocket of Danny's jean shorts. Most likely it was the most important piece of evidence that proved Mike hadn't been hit by a train. The one thing that he'd used to defend himself, that still had the dried blood of his killer on it and Danny had stolen it. He knew he had the exact spot, the blood was still there. No way to wash it all away without water and it still hadn't rained yet. Danny squatted to get a closer look at the stained rocks. There was hair pasted to a few of them. It wasn't really hair though. It wasn't Mike's hair, he was blonde, this was dark brown, almost animal hair. It wasn't qiuite fur either, it was much too coarse. He picked up a twig and poked at it a bit. Yeah it was short and stiff, almost like horse hair. He felt as if he was being watched and scrambled to his feet looking around. Nothing... he looked back the tracks and up the tracks towards the village. Nobody in sight. He saw some cows milling around in a field further down towards the woods, but nothing else moved. It was usually quiet like this out here. Between his brothers and their friends, they were the only ones to come back this way. He wiped his hands on his jeans and pulled out his cigarettes, lighting one with a paper match. He took a couple drags and shrugged. If he was going to play detective, he figured he'd walk back a little bit further, maybe to the woods, see if he could find anything else. He got to the edge of the small forest, where the air changed and became cooler and considered cutting across a field to a small pond he and Kevin had discovered a couple summers ago, but stuck to the tracks instead. He wanted to follow the same route Mike had taken the night he was killed. So if that meant walking at least to where they crossed the old highway, then that's what he'd do. Not much sense in going past that point, Mike had been attacked this side of old highway 52. Any clues would be in this area, around the woods. He walked through the tunnel of trees and came out the other side, the sun shining strongly now, directly overhead. Lunchtime. He stopped and looked around, so far there'd been nothing to see, but when he looked down, he saw a fresh cigarette butt. it looked like a Player's light cigarette and he knew it was Mike's. Mike was the only one in their group that even smoked that brand, with it's white filter and distinct blue and gold bands. A chill ran through him as he realized his dead friend had been here just days earlier, standing, or walking, in this exact spot just before being ripped apart. He bent down and picked it up, rolling it thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger.
Mike. What the hell happened to you?
He looked about and saw a ramshackle looking, single story house, a few hundred yards away. It was surrounded by waist high weeds and had a swayback roof with curling tiles. At first Danny guessed it was abandoned, but then he saw an old man standing on what passed for a porch, staring at him. Danny raised his hand in a wave and the old man just turned and went inside. Huh... Well he figured if he was going to play detective, he was gonna ask the old man a few questions. What the fuck. He didn't care what the old coot thought, he was usually beyond caring what other people thought of him, so he'd bounce a couple questions off the old guy, what harm could that do anyway? A grassy lane, what looked to be a tractor path, ran from the railway up beside the old house joining it's gravel driveway. Danny walked deliberately up the lane with weeds swishing against his knees. He kept his eyes peeled for the old guy, but didn't see him anywhere and the windows of the house were covered in tattered plastic, so they were no help either. He stepped up onto the sloping porch and could immediately smell a foul odour emanating from within the gloom of the old place. Old boxes and newspapers were stacked up high just inside the doorway . Danny leaned forward, peering through an old rusty screen and went to rap on the frame of the screen door, when he heard a raspy voice directly behind him.
"What do you want?" the old man demanded and Danny jumped out of his skin. He spun around quickly, surprised to see the man standing just a few feet away. He hadn't heard him come through the grass and he hadn't heard any other doors to the house opening or closing. Didn't this old guy just walk inside? Danny thought. Swallowing hard, Danny said, as strongly as he could manage, "Hi there. Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions...if you don't mind."
"About what now?" The old man replied.
Danny had been taking him in as they faced each other and he was alarmed by what he saw.
The old man stood stooped over, like how a hunchback would stand and he may not have been as old as Danny had first thought. In fact it was hard to tell. The guy could've been as old as seventy, but at the same time he could have passed for being forty something too. He had a filthy ball cap jammed on his head, pulled way down low so the brim covered his eyes. Dark eyes, menacing eyes that glittered when he moved. He looked like he was bone thin, by the baggy, dirty clothes he wore, but he carried himself with some kind of coiled strength. Like an old fashioned spring, that with one wrong move could explode, knocking your block off. Even though Danny stood taller on the porch and should be looking down at him, the guy seemed to grow, filling his vision, like some optical illusion or something. He felt entranced and he had to tear his eyes away from that glittering stare. Danny stammered, trying to find words.
"About my friend that died the other night." He couldn't tell if he had yelled the words, or whispered them, or if he'd even said anything at all. He found he was locked in the stare again and physically turned his head away, breaking the spell, or whatever it was... his mouth had gone dry and swallowed, trying to find some spit.
The old man grinned at him. What the fuck? What's so funny about that?
But now it was a grimace and the old man wrung his hands, his long fingers twisting into each other. "Well that's just awful about your friend." He said with a snarl. "Tell me more. What exactly happened to him?" I didn't say it was a him, or her...
Danny realized now that the stink wasn't coming from inside the house, but the old man himself, or maybe it was both. Danny finally found himself and stepped off the porch, out of the gloom and into the sunlight, feeling stronger now. "He died on the railroad tracks about a mile from here." He said pointing towards the village. "He was attacked by something. A creature." He added, avoiding the old man's eyes.
"Hmmm..." the old man said and pivoted towards Danny, floating like. "You sure he wasn't mowed down by a train?"
"I'm sure." Danny said, "He had his throat torn out."
"Wild dogs'll do that to you." The old man grinned, or grimaced again. "We got em around here ya know? I hear em howling sometimes." Fingers twisting, nails black with filth, or age...
"Yeah I know." Danny said, "I've seen them myself." and he thought of the poor unwanted mutts brought from the city and dropped off in the country by their heartless owners. "This was something else..."
"The Lion Safari." The old man said. It was a statement, as if he'd read Danny's thoughts and this time he was smiling.
"I was just wondering if you'd heard anything last Friday night, maybe 2 or 3 in the morning?"
The old man chuckled and Danny had a vision...bloody chunks of bone in a blender, at least that's what it sounded like. Horrible. Thick and clotted. oh my god...
"I would have been fast asleep by then." The old man muttered. "I get to drinking..." and he trailed off. Then with alarming speed he was at Danny's side clutching his bicep, hurting him. "Now if that's all you've got, I have work to do." He released his grip before Danny could even protest and hustled into his house, slamming the old wooden door from within.
Danny looked around at the waist high grass and the old house, folding in on itself with time and neglect. Work?!
Time passed and a couple of weeks went by relatively uneventfully. Mike's funeral had been a depressing occasion. His mother and sister crying in the front pews of the church. Some people, relatives he guessed, had gone up and laid flowers on Mike's coffin, closed casket obviously. Danny felt compelled to do something, he wasn't sure what. So he went to the front and stood at Mike's casket, he reached out and touched the cold polished wood. It was the best he could do as a send off. He didn't plan on watching them bury him at the cemetery. He'd be visiting there on his own plenty enough, he figured. He turned and looked at Mike's sister Carrie, who'd been crying the entire time and she glared at him with red rimmed eyes. Danny thought, What? What the hell did I do? I just found him for Christ sake!That's bad enough... But he didn't say a word. He just cast his eyes downward and without waiting for his brothers, left the church. He went outside and lit a cigarette. Some of the parents that stood off in the parking lot gave him disapproving looks for smoking and he figured he'd hear about it from his mom, or maybe his dad, he was still only 17 after all, but fuck 'em. What did he care? Jesus. These people! He thought and kicked at a stone. Suddenly the door opened and Kevin came out, followed by Bobby and James.
"That sucked!" Bobby and James said in unison and plopped on a bench. Kevin was quiet. Aloof, or hurting.
"Well what did you expect? It's a fucking funeral!" Danny said. More disapproval from the parking lot.
"Don't swear." Kevin mumbled, eyeing the parents warily. "We're at church."
"Right. Like God gives a shit? Look what he let happen to Mike!" Maybe a little too loudly, because at this, one of the parents shook their head and started walking over. Before Danny had a chance to hear what they'd say, he stepped on his cigarette butt and stalked off towards home.
Somewhere in the depths of the old house came a crash. The old man stumbled into his stinking kitchen, the dregs from a whiskey bottle sloshed in his hand.
"Ha ha!" he cackled throwing open his fridge, "Here we gooo...! Here we go again." He sang .
He stared coldly at the contents of the refrigerator. Nothing much was in there. An empty bottle of ketchup, an old open can of beer, some jars of something, he didn't care what and a human leg, a child's leg. The thigh muscle had been gnawed to the bone. The calf untouched, was shriveled and dark. It was old. He closed the door and it clapped shut. He spun around, taking a swig of whiskey and spun again, more whiskey. He careened towards the screen door and pushing through it, drained the last of the whiskey bottle. It fell from his gnarled hand into the weeds and he groaned, looking up at the night sky. In a final fit of laughter, he collapsed on the sloping porch, twitching. The full moon, unfeeling, looked down from above.
In a faded memory...
... and from far away he heard a voice calling his name.
Jean... Getting closer, but still very far away. Jean where are you? Come back. You have to kill the beast.
Inside him an old machine kicked into life, gears turning, engine revving. Bones cracking, tendons stretching, muscles popping into place, skin morphing...his blood thickened, turning black, like one of those canals in old Paris, hiding the bodies of the dead, slow and dark and stinking, ancient and long forgotten. The machine revved faster now. Jean's groans climbing into wails of agony, screaming in pain and now howling with fear. The fear had never left him. NEVER!
He stood in the forest clearing, Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel and the boy, Francois Valet. By a beautiful river in the Cevennes mountains, facing the beast. It paced restlessly before them. It was furious, having been pierced by two of Jean's arrows. They stuck out at angles from it's back. Any other creature, Stag, or even a large brown bear would have been felled by these wounds. Jean's bow was powerful and his arrows were tipped with iron, sharpened by the blacksmith into razors, yet the beast was only angered. There had been no blood trail to follow. The boy, Francois trembled visibly and the lance in his hands quivered. "Spread out." The Captain said to him. He feared for the boy's safety, Christ, he feared for his own. He had been teaching the boy how to hunt, but he should have never agreed to bring the lad. Even though the boy protested loudly and insisted that he avenge his sister Marie, he should not have brought him out here. Yet nothing could be done now, so here they were. He and Francois separated in the sunny clearing, creating a gap between them, in case the beast chose to flee. Slowly, Captain Jean drew his bow tight, his muscles straining and loosed an arrow at the creature's snarling face. With incredible speed, it dodged it, he'd missed. He drew his sword instead. The boy took this as a sign to attack and lunged with his lance. "NO!" Jean yelled, but the boy's aim was true and the tip of the lance disappeared into the beast's left eye. It howled with anger and grasped the haft with both claws, the boy hanging on for dear life to the other end. It pulled the point from it's eye and before anything could be done it swung the lance. The boy bounced off a tree and fell to the forest floor. The beast rushed in and fell on the boy. Bright red blood sprayed high into the air and as Jean closed the gap swinging his sword, wishing to save Francois. The beast darted swiftly, disappearing suddenly from view. His sword cleaved the air instead and he stood defeated, looking down at the headless boy. Blood still pumped from the ragged mess of his neck, his young heart refusing to die. Jean stared in wonder. How? What is this mad creature?What kind of demon is this? How can it be killed? Then he heard it's grunt, behind him... The King's Captain, Jean Baptiste Duhamel swung his sword as he'd been taught. Both hands on it's hilt, combining speed and force in his pivot from waist and foot. Sword held waist high in a killing stroke meant to disembowel, meant to cut his opponent in two, meant to finish the fight once and for all...and of course, he thought grimly. It's much faster than I. And he was right.While his sword swept through air and only air, the creature drew it's claw across his stomach. Slicing easily through his thick leather waistcoat and his cotton garment and his belly fat and it's muscle and as Jean sank to his knees holding his intestines in place with cupped hands, a ten man portion of the King's guard charged into the clearing in full battle armour. The beast disappeared quickly into the vast woods of the foothills in the Cevennes...no one gave chase. Jean survived, but he'd failed. He'd failed his King, he'd failed Francois, worst yet he'd failed himself and the impoverished town of Gevaudan and it's many victims. He exiled himself. Eventually leaving France and taking a ship overseas to America, huddled miserably, seasick and puking in perpetual storm, with a score of poor Dutch immigrants...
His mother's voice called to him. Jean! Come home! You must kill the beast!
But don't you see mother? I AM the beast now, I've become the beast.
The moon grinned down like a fucking lunatic now.
So he had. So he had.
Julie Gifford pulled into her driveway after her Thursday night shift at Robin's Donuts. She was tired and hungry and just wanted to veg on the couch and watch a movie. the garage door was closed so she parked her little Toyota Tercel at the top of the driveway. Her folks were out of town for a whole week and she had the house to herself. Good deal too, because she had a thing of Jiffy Pop, a big bottle of Pepsi and she was going to watch The Blue Lagoon by herself. Noone to interrupt or ask annoying questions, like her mom was in the habit of doing for almost every movie they watched together. She grabbed her purse off the passenger seat and climbed out of the car. The full moon was bright and that was good too, since the house was dark and there were no streetlights out here in the country. Not that she was afraid of the dark or anything, but just being out here by herself she'd gotten a little bit spooked being in the big house alone. Her nearest neighbours were about a half mile down the road and they were old and went to bed around nine o clock every night. Not much help if there was a midnight prowler or something like that. At least her dad understood how she felt, when he and her mom went out of town, so he'd bought her a dog. Not a big dog, like he'd wanted to get. He had wanted to get a German Shepherd to keep her safe, but she'd fallen in love with a miniature Collie she'd seen in a calendar.They ended up getting her a miniature Collie she called 'Baby'. He'd rolled his eyes when she picked the puppy out of a litter that had been advertised by a breeder in the classifieds. An hour and a half away too, but that's what she wanted and what she wanted, she pretty much got. Except for her car that is. Her parents had promised her a car for her sixteenth birthday, so she asked for a Fiero. A red one. And her father had laughed, he'd laughed! Her mother had asked, "What's a Fiero?"
"Something we cannot afford." was his reply. "Don't worry honey." He'd told her when she'd pouted. "You'll be happy. You'll see..." And she was. On her birthday when she'd gotten home from school, there was a nice white Toyota Tercel waiting for her in the driveway with a big blue bow on the roof. She'd been happy, but it still wasn't a Fiero and it wasn't red either. As she walked up the curving flagstone path to the front door, she fumbled in her purse for the keys. "Dammit." She said aloud. There was so much crap in there. She held it out in front of her in the light of the moon trying to see through the kleenex and gum and...and then she heard a rustle from the direction of the hedge. Startled, but not alarmed, she forgot about the keys and clapped her hands instead, thinking it to be a skunk, or a raccoon digging around in the hedges at the edge of their yard. "Shoo! Shoo! She clapped her hands again, "Go away! I am NOT in the mood!" The rustling stopped and it was silent. It was too late in the year for crickets and there was no wind to sigh through the big blue spruce in the center of their yard either. All she could hear was her own breathing and the clickety clackity click, of Baby's nails on the front window. The miniature Collie desperately pawed the glass, tail wagging, so happy to see Julie home again. "Hi Baby!" She called to the dog, waggling her fingers at it. "Mommy's home!" She strolled up to the door rooting through her purse. She heard the hedge rustling again, but she ignored it this time. Stupid skunk. She thought, but the stink that suddenly assailed her nostrils was like no skunk she'd ever smelt. "Oh my god!" She gagged and covered her nose with the crook of her arm, digging frantically for the house key. Why hadn't she put it on the keychain with her car keys? She wondered. "Dammit!" She said aloud again. "What a stink! What the hell is that? "She turned around just as a shadow blocked the moonlight and she stared. She wasn't sure what she was looking at, but it was big. It was big, hairy and very scary looking, it towered over her five foot five frame, but she didn't feel scared. In fact she felt a thrill, as it trapped her gaze. It's eyes glittered, mesmerizing. Whatever it was, it didn't stink anymore either. It actually smelled kind of good, she thought. Musty and smoky, almost like a leather jacket seasoned by a campfire. Was she smiling? She wondered. Was this a dream? What's wrong with me? What is this thing? Oh my god it's teeth are so sharp! Shit. If that thing bit me? And she giggled. The beast grew in her vision, looming closer. She felt a warm rush down her legs, as she wet herself, still smiling, then in a flash of fury and hate, the thing tore her head off and gobbled hungrily at the blood pulsing from her neck. The last thing she saw from her head's vantage point on the lawn, was Baby barking silently behind the glass in the front window of her locked, dark and empty house. Barking, barking, barking...Hi Baby...she wondered if she was waggling her fingers...and blackness.
Five hours later, Sergeant Clifford Bell turned his police cruiser into the parking space outside his townhouse. He lived alone. He had no pets. He was exhausted. It had not been a typical night. He and his partner Sam had gone out to six different calls, two domestic disputes, a break and entry, a bar fight and a noise complaint from a teenage party that they'd given a warning to, but then had to return to, driving almost half an hour, all the way back to a sprawling property where the kids had built a makeshift stage out of barn board, hired three different bands paid in beer, with enough amplifiers and speakers and professional looking gear, that it could have passed for a proper rock festival, that is if they all hadn't been under the age of nineteen. The problem was, it had taken him and Sam close to an hour the first time, trying to figure out where the booming music was coming from. The noise from their amplifiers bouncing all over the countryside, they'd ended up driving the cruiser to the wrong side of the highway off into the boonies and had to double back trying to find the place. At one point they'd pulled the cruiser over and gotten out, Bell standing with his hands on his hips, turning his head this way and that. "Can you figure out where it's coming from Sam?" Sam cocked his head listening, "That way!" He'd pointed. "No, uh uh, it's coming from over there I think." Pointing in the opposite direction now. Finally pulling into a long driveway packed with jeeps, pickup trucks and muscle cars, they'd threaded there way through kids drunk and stoned out of their gourds to find the homeowner, or homeowner's kid to deliver the bad news that their party was over. A half hour after they'd left, another call came in that the kids had started up again, so all the way back out there they had to drive, this time they'd dished out a bunch of tickets and the kids got the message. Party's over. They didn't bother with DUI's, this was a time when everybody drove if they were drunk enough. Then they'd driven back to the police station, where he'd finished a mountain of paperwork, while Sam flirted with the girl on dispatch. He had her laughing quite a bit tonight. Good for you Sam. He stretched and sighed when he'd finished more than half the paperwork. Some of it closing out the file of the one who'd been killed by a train. The tox screen had come back with the kid being loaded on booze and high on weed, enough booze to make anyone wanna pass out on the railway tracks. He'd finished up the paperwork, put some files on the chief's desk and left the station. Even Sam had finished before him, but that was no surprise. Now the sun was coming up for Christ sake. Bell was tired and just wanted to kick off his shoes, down a couple beers with a hungryman dinner and crash on the couch to breakfast television. He'd just popped his first beer and sat down with his hungryman on a tv tray when the phone rang. "Ahhh shit!" he said, but pretended he wasn't there and let the answering machine get it. He heard his chief's voice, "Hi Cliff. It's me. Paul. Listen, pick up. I know you're there. You left the station an hour ago and it only takes you fifteen minutes to get home. Pick up please, this is important. If you're in the can I'll wait..." Bell leaned over the arm of the couch, snagging the receiver, dropped it, swore, then reeled it in by the cord. "Yap." He said, "I'm here."
"We've got a bad one. I need you on it. I've already just pulled Sam back in.'
"Oh I'm sure he's happy about that." Bell remarked. "What about Chris and Lucy? It's their shift, or Kyle? Anyone of them." He said hopefully.
"Are you serious?" The chief asked. "Chris couldn't find his ass if his head was up it and Lucy, well...not on this one. It's bad. Kyle's got his hands full on another call. I'd rather have you and Sam on this. It's bad." he repeated.
Bell sighed. "Alright." ...It's bad... "I'm there." and hung up.
He managed to inhale most of the TV dinner in four huge bites and washed it down with half the can of beer. For the chief to call him back in, saying 'It's bad', it must be bad he figured. He'd even said it twice. What could be so bad? His mind started running away as he pulled on his shoes. Homicide by shotgun? Suicide by shotgun? What's worse than that he wondered. He'd seen some bad accidents, like the kid. That had been bad, but the chief always classified accidents as 'messy', things that were labeled 'bad' were things that people deliberately did to each other, or themselves. Guess he'd find out when he got there. Neither he, nor the chief were in the habit of discussing important police business over the phone. It was just something they didn't do, it was a small police station, with lots of people hanging about. People picking up forms, dropping things off, delivery drivers, other cops, and the odd newspaper reporter. Even one sided telephone conversations can give away a lot of details to anyone listening. Depending on the nature of what was at hand, it was best to talk about it in person. Other ears. such as those at dispatch, didn't need to hear about it. It was just one way to avoid gossip and rumours.
It was morning rush hour, so he planned to take some back roads into the station. It worked out well too. when he turned onto a long stretch of unpaved road called Concession 2, he flipped on the lights and gunned the cruiser's powerful engine, making it in 12 minutes flat. He strolled into the station nodding at Carol who worked dispatch during the day.
""Can't get enough of us, eh Cliff?" She said with a grin.
"Tell me about it." He said grimly. She raised her eyebrows at him as he walked past the dispatch center towards the chief's office. She went back to speaking into her headseat. She was talking to somebody about coroner's photos and a decapitation and Bell knew it was going to be a full day with no sleep. He hadn't pulled a double shift in years so he filled a styrofoam cup of coffee before going in. He could see the back of Sam's head through the office window and the chief pacing back and forth behind his desk, talking animatedly with his hands. Sergeant Clifford Bell took a deep breath, a sip of hot coffee and went in to face the music.
As it turned out, a middle aged woman delivering mail on a rural route had found the body of a young lady lying on the lawn of one of the houses on her route. She'd pulled up to their mailbox to stuff some flyers in and seen what she thought was an unconscious person lying on the ground needing help. She'd jumped out of her car and run across the lawn to render aid and had almost tripped over the dead girl's head that was in the grass about ten feet away from the body. The ants had found it first though and were busy crawling on the open eyes and in and out of the mouth. The poor mail person was now in the hospital being treated for shock. Sam had gotten her phone number and they were going to be paying her a visit later, when they released her from the hospital, to collect a statement. Bell hoped she was coherent enough to give a statement and that the doctors hadn't drugged her up on Valium too much. Right now that was the least of his worries and they turned into the driveway of the victim's house deep in the country, parking behind the coroner's van. Yellow tape marked off the property. A small gaggle of onlookers lined the road, trying to get a glimpse of whatever was behind the white sheets, that the forensic tech had prudently hung up blocking the body from view. Yep, it was bad. Bell thought, as he approached the sheets. He could see splashes of blood on the bay window and front door...decapitations are all bad. He observed that the area in which the victim lived, wasn't far from where the kid had been struck by a train. As he looked past the backyard and across the fields, he figured they were probably no more than three miles as the crow flies, from where the railroad tracks cut a swath through farm fields and streams reaching from one major city to another. In the years before the invention of the automobile, that line would have been busy with freight steaming back and forth. One city's wares and commerce being exchanged for another's different shipment of materials. Steel, lumber, bricks, produce and even livestock would have been the primary exchange. Nowadays, commerce was transported by truck and the number of deisel freight trains had dwindled to two, or three a day. How is it a young man, old enough to know better, could be unlucky enough to get himself killed by a train, that you could probably hear coming from five miles off? He stood looking in the direction of Glen George, musing, until Sam gave him a nudge with his elbow.
"Hey. What's up? I got my camera loaded. Not that I wanna be taking shots of whatever this mess is, but I'm not going up there by myself. Let's go Cliff." He offered his elbow like a date to the prom.
Bell rubbed his hand over his face and shook his head. "I'm just tired. Thinking about that kid getting nailed by a train." He waved his hand in that general direction.
"Unreal huh? How do you get yourself killed by a train? You're gonna hear that thing coming from a couple miles off." Sam said as if reading his thoughts. "Welp...let's get this over with..." And started up the path. Bell followed, surveying the scene around him. Splats of blood ran down the glass of the picture window and dotted the bricks. He did his best to tiptoe around the blood that coloured the paving stones. When they stood behind the sheets, he was looking down at the girl. Her head still lay in grass, a little bit away. The coroner stood in a brown Terry cloth jogging suit and sneakers, his hands jammed in the pockets of his kangaroo jacket.
"Looking sharp." Bell quipped.
"I try to be professional." The coroner said."The decedent's name is one Julie Gifford. The neighbours say she was a senior at the local highschool. She lived here with her parents and worked part time nights at the Robins Donuts in town. I haven't touched a damn thing, apart from taking her core temperature." He said pointing at the body with his chin. "Of course I took a bunch of pictures, up close and personal like." A Nikon camera hung around his neck on a strap and he started rewinding one of five rolls of film he'd taken. "You got a real mess here guys." He said. "I've never seen anything like this. Her head was NOT severed. At least not with a blade. It appears to have been pulled off of her body somehow. You see she's also missing her left arm. Taken at the shoulder. It wasn't removed with a blade either. Just popped off at the shoulder joint and we haven't been able to find it yet. I don't see anything here that could be attributed to those wounds. The tendons are clearly pulled out of her neck and snapped at the same time. You'd have to be fiercely strong to pull someone's head off and I don't see it even being possible for a human to do that. Otherwise, I'm not going to find anything out until I get her back to the lab. One more thing that I noticed, was a surprisingly small amount of blood for a decap'. There should be a bucketful here. Right here, where her body lies and there's what looks to be a couple pints worth. I'm thinking it's still in her maybe, but that would mean she was already dead when her head came off. But like I said I won't know anything until later. I'll have another look for her arm, but so far there's no sign of it, unless it was carried away by an animal. Animals would have left tracks in the blood though and I don't see anything like that either."
Sam was busy taking his own photos and Bell was quickly scribbling notes down on a small flip pad. It was getting late in the morning and the sun shone clear in a bright blue sky. Flies had begun making an appearance, settling on the body and head, as the air grew warm.
"There seems to be no stab wounds and from here no bullet wounds either. Her clothes are clean and it looks like she was just getting home from work when... This happened." He pointed at her with his chin again. "Well I'm going for a smoke, until you guys are finished here. I'm supposed to be jogging right now and not smoking. If I come home reeking of smoke, my wife's gonna kill me. Christ, with scenes like this, is it any wonder I smoke at all?" The coroner walked towards his van shaking his head.
Sam took a few more pictures and Bell wrote a few more observations. When they were done, Sam asked "Any idears as to what the fuck happened here Cliff?"
Bell pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and index finger, squinting at the Sun. Tired.
"Not a clue Sammy boy. Nope, but I don't like it...Any of it."
Officer Sam, didn't bother asking his partner what he meant, by "...Any of it."
"Welp, let's go talk to the mail lady. Maybe she saw something we don't see here, right now." And they cleared out of there with a dismissive wave from the coroner, who was lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt of the first. It looked like his technician was pulling his own pack out of his breast pocket and walking over to join him by their van. A thermos full of coffee rested on the roof, the horrific scene obviously disturbing them both.
Danny sat at the dining room table eating cereal and reading the comics from the newswpaper. The paper itself didn't hold much interest for him,but as was his ritual, he scanned the comic strips just to see if any of them were in fact funny. They usually weren't. He drank the remainder of milk from the bowl and went about pushing the sections of newspaper back together, that's when something caught his eye. In the 'Local' section was a headline that read "Gruesome murder at country home". He read the article, which was brief, suggesting the reporter didn't have much information to work with.
"Julie Gifford, a senior student at Henry Paton highschool was killed just feet from the safety of her home..." He knew who Julie Gifford was. She used to take the school bus with the rest of them, until she'd gotten a car for her birthday. He'd never been friends with Julie, she was part of the 'popular' crowd, a tight knit group of preps and jocks. She was pretty, an only child and her parents were wealthy. Danny, his brothers and their friends didn't mix with that crowd much. The story went on to say that Julie had been killed just outside her house, presumably just getting home from her job at the donut shop. Her purse and car keys had been found on the ground beside her, she hadn't made it to the door. The cops didn't have any suspects, but were following every lead available to them. The paper didn't mention anything about sexual assault. Danny thought that was odd, usually psycho killers raped their victims too. Why exactly was she killed then? What was the point? The article didn't say if the house had been burglarized either, but then again the story didn't have much detail to it whatsoever. Almost as if the police were trying to keep it quiet. It gave her address as being 1101 Powerline road. Danny knew the area since his school bus took that route on the way to Henry Paton High. Ironically, that part of Powerline road was completely unlit. In fact there were no streetlights for any of the roads out there, except maybe the odd one at a major intersection. Her attacker could have lain in wait without her seeing them until the last second, unless it was a prowler that had been surprised by her coming home. Why wouldn't they just run away into the dark of the night, why stick around and kill someone? Danny read the story through twice more, then shook his head and folded the paper closed. It didn't make any sense, two deaths in just over a month. That was rare for these parts, unless they were traffic fatalities. This was big news and since both victims were from the same highschool, this was going to be all anyone talked about for weeks. He went into the livingroom to tell his twin 14 year old brothers, Bobby and James, Kevin was in his room. He brought the paper that had a picture of Julie Gifford's house above the story. They knew who she was but, didn't care much. They were watching Unsolved Mysteries...
Danny sat in his room on the end of his bed. He was bored and distracted. Almost a week had passed since Julie Gifford's murder. The cops had no clues and the story had quickly dropped out of sight in the newspaper. The kids at school had pretty much stopped talking about Julie, but Danny was still thinking about his friend Mike. He opened and closed Mike's kinfe in his hand, over and over again. Absentmindedly he scratched at the blood that still remained around the handle of the knife with his thumbnail. In some parts it was thick and black like tar and when he raised it to his nostrils had a foul smell to it. It smelled like some of the roadkill he'd seen drying in the sun, during summer when he was hitchhiking into town. It never occured to him to try and wash it off. He thought of Mike again, only he and Mike ever hitchhiked into town. In fact it was Danny who'd told Mike how easy it was to stick out your thumb and catch a ride with a neighbour heading into town for groceries, or a farmer heading to the bank to conduct some business. Danny himself had never had any problems catching a lift and when Mike had asked him about the risks, Danny had replied with a laugh, "What risks? Nobody's gonna try and pull anything funny. In a small town like this? And if a stranger tries something, you just grab the steering wheel and put the car in the ditch. Either that, or jump out if you're going slow enough. Me? I'd grab the wheel...that'd give them something to think about and something to try and explain to the cops if they show up." Mike had smiled and said "Ahhh..." nodding sagely, as if Danny had just imparted some sort of all-knowing wisdom of the world. Suddenly Danny felt like crying, but he didn't. He didn't think Mike would want him to. Naw, they way he figured it, is Mike would want Danny to find out the truth. There was no train. Danny didn't know for sure, but he didn't think getting run over by a train would be that messy. Sure you're gonna get messed up bad, maybe cut in two, or splattered like a bug on a windshield, but not all torn up like that. He closed the knife one final time with a snap and went downstairs and pulled on his shoes. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but his first thoughts went to that creepy old man. I don't know what, how, or why, Danny thought, but that bastard had something to do with Mike's death. Could he picture the old coot attacking someone? Sure, easy. Could he picture the old guy biting someone? Yeah, why not? And could he see that old man tearing someone limb from limb? He sure seemed strong enough, if he went entirely apeshit? Maybe...but WHY? That was the big question. Why would some lonely, ugly old man attack and kill an innocent teenager like Mike Vansickle. Unless Mike wasn't innocent. Maybe as he was walking down the tracks and was passing by the old man's house, they saw each other. Maybe Mike said something to him. If Mike was drunk and brave enough, he could'a said something to him, or maybe Mike saw the house and went to investigate and pissed the old man off. Or maybe, just maybe, Mike saw the house and chucked a few rocks at it for sport, thinking it was deserted. That would bring the old guy out for sure and in the middle of the night, he'd be pissed off. Usually out here though, farmers and folk kept shotguns. Danny had heard rumours from the old days about people getting run off with rock salt getting blasted at them. If you got hit in the ass with rock salt, that'd teach you a lesson you wouldn't soon forget. You'd have to be totally psycho to go and tear some kid to shreds for putting a rock through your window, no matter what time of day it was! Danny thought as he walked, not really minding where he was going. He found himself opening and closing Mike's knife in his pocket with one hand. He took it out and looked at it and while it was open he pressed the pad of his thumb against the tip of it. Ouch! It certainly was sharp enough and it drew blood. Mike had loved this knife and he'd been so proud of how sharp he'd gotten it. When he'd first got it from the store, you could perfect for barely open an envelope with it. He found a flat rock, just right for the job and probably spent hours scraping it back and forth, getting it sharper and sharper. Finally it was so sharp, you could slash at the tall weeds with it and it would cut the tops off no problem. Now Danny had sliced his thumb with it. Mike would have laughed at him. "Way to go dummy!" he would have said. "I told you to be careful. It's sharp as hell." Danny stared at his bleeding thumb while he pictured the exchange, then sucked at his wound thoughtfully. "We're like blood brothers now Mike." He said aloud to no one in particular. It was a truer statement than he could possibly know. When he glanced around he realized he was on the tracks. Not quite at the spot where he'd found Mike's body, but far enough back, so that it was pointless to turn around now. Shit, he didn't know where he was going anyway. So he kept on walking and when he got to 'the spot', he didn't stop, just chugged right on past. Nothing to see there anyhow, all traces of anything had either been collected by the forensics crew or washed away by weather. He started to develop a plan in his mind, half assed at best, but better than sitting on his hands. He wondered what would happen if he tried to make friendly with Mr. Ugly and Old. Guess he'd find out soon enough. If the guy was a killer and he decided to kill Danny for no reason, other than being a meddlesome kid, then have at it buddy. Do your worst, cuz I've got something for you too. And he fingered the knife in his pocket again. At least he'd know for sure what happened to Mike. And if he lived to tell about it, then he was gonna bring those cops back and stroll right up to his door. Good day Mr.Ugly and Old sir. We'd like you to come down to the station with us... or something like that...he hoped.
Instead of walking on the tracks through the tunnel of trees, the same way he'd gone the other time, he decided to cut across the meadow and past the cow pond on his left. It brought him suddenly to the edge of the forest at the eastern end of the long narrow pond. The ground here was marshy and clogged with rotting branches. A large tree had been uprooted during a windstorm, the soft soil giving little purchase and it's roots formed a small cave. Danny pushed past pricklers and raspberry bushes, seeking higher ground. Finally, he broke out of the brush and started to follow what looked like a small animal trail. It led upward and away from the pond, onto drier ground where the trees were bigger and there was plenty of space between them for walking. He stopped a minute to catch his breath after struggling through the thickets and looked about for a good way to continue. He knew the area well and was in no way worried about getting lost. He'd always had a keen sense of direction anyway. He never understood how people in books and movies got themselves lost in the woods. Sure, maybe in uncharted wilderness that went on and on unchanging for hundreds of miles, but around here there were plenty of landmarks one could use to mark your location. For instance, he had a rough idea of direction just from where the sun hung in the sky and if you compound that with other local landmarks, he wasn't worried. The hydro tower standing like some alien sentinel in the pasture he'd just crossed, told him he was going in the direction of Powerline road. He knew that if he followed a roughly straight path through the woods, he'd come out the other side opening up in a small field behind Ugly and Old's house. That was the plan at least. He'd hang out at the edge of the tree line and spy on the house for a bit. It was still pretty early in the day, so he had plenty of time to do a bit of a stakeout. He walked, casually now, throught the forest, enjoying his hike. The air was fresh and clear, sunlight filtering down through leaves, dappled the firm ground. The high canopy of the trees ensured there was little undergrowth and made the going that much easier. Suddenly at the top of a gentle rise, the trees stopped and a tiny clearing appeared. Almost a perfect circle was made by the border of tree trunks. Overhanging branches still kept most of the sun out and the ground before him was clear. A thin bed of dead leaves lay on the forest floor with a few ferns poking up here and there. And bones. He could see that now. Lots of bones, bleached white with age, were scattered around. Big bones and little bones and as he leaned forward at the waist, he could even see now, tiny bones. His eyes strayed back to the big bones, trying to judge if any of them looked familiar to him. With a growing sense of relief as he looked from ribs to leg bones and finally a skull, they all looked like animal bones. Probably deer. He crept forward cautiously, watching his step. There was enough room between the bones, that he could tip toe between them in a winding path. Stopping in the middle he looked around, slowly turning in a circle. Looking for a pattern of some kind, or were they just scattered randomly? It looked totally random. He picked out three skulls, two small and one large. A mother and her babies? It was quite possible that a mother deer had died during childbirth. Growing up in the country teaches you early that nature can be cruel. Out here there are no second chances. You make it or you don't. At least second chances are few and very far between... So it occured to him that this must have been the case and he felt a sudden pang of sadness for the deer. As he stood over the bones, feeling bad for the deer, other sensations began crawling up his spine. Loneliness, vulnerability and a painful naked feeling, fear and wait, what's this, anger? Anger at the cruelty of nature for dealing a death blow to a beautiful creature of the forest, this creature just trying to do her job by populating it with more baby deer. Wow. Danny was surprised at himself, he wasn't normally affected this deeply, but then again he didn't really feel like himself either right now for some reason. He felt exposed and yes, those other feelings clung to him too, almost like a bad smell can. Exposed and naked. Ashamed and vulnerable. Why shame now? He wondered... Suddenly not so careful, or reverent, he started stumbling backwards, through the bones. Over the bones and on the bones. Ribs staved up through the dirt creaking, cracking under his feet, he pinwheeled his arms and fell backwards on the edge of the clearing. Sitting down hard amongst the leaves, the heels of his hands biting into the ground. Gasping and confused he looked about himself wildly, sensing danger. But there was none. He sensed danger all the same and looked for it, between the leaves and shadows. He looked along the edge of tree trunks, but could see nothing. Why then did he feel afraid? He felt as if he was being watched, even though he seemed to be all by himself. He listened closely and observed with an uneasy feeling that it was dead quiet. No birds, no crickets, nothing. What do they say in movies? It's almost too quiet? Yeah, well that's what Danny was feeling right then...too damn quiet. That's when he knew that he was no longer alone... He knew at that moment, with every fiber of his being, someone was watching him. He knew it was a person too. With absolute certainty, no matter how well they were able to conceal themselves, it was a person watching Danny. Very carefully, very closely. In fact he felt as if his thoughts were being probed and he started feeling the way he felt when he'd been in the presence of Ugly and Old. Was he out here right now? Somewhere in the shadows? Watching Danny, slowly closing in on him? He felt his skin starting to crawl, all hot and itchy like a bad rash. Like rapidly spreading poison ivy. He actually had to look at his hands to check that he hadn't sat down on an anthill and they weren't racing up his forearms. It felt that tangible and real. All he saw were goosebumps and traces of soil. Then just as quickly as it had started, it began to recede and the feeling of being watched slowly left him, until he just felt stupid for sitting there in the leaves. He slowly and quietly got to his feet, listening for footsteps in the forest, but heard nothing. then just as gradually, life also began to return to the woods where it belonged. He heard a lone cricket, tentatively chirp, once, then twice and then it was joined by another. As if I signal had been sent out that the coast was clear, more joined in unison and sparrows started chirping, suspiciously at first then louder and bolder, as nature resumed it's normal activity. Whatever had brought those pangs of fear to every living thing within range, had passed. Danny brushed the dirt from his jeans and that's when he saw the boar carcass. It lay at the edge of the clearing, concealed in part by a fallen branch. It was covered by leaves and had been there a long, long time. The skeletal remains were still covered by it's brown, bristly hide and after he moved the branch, it was easier to see what it had once been. It was huge too. Danny had seen pigs before, big pigs and this was bigger than the biggest one he'd seen at any fall fair. This was a wild boar, not your common run of the mill farmer's sow, this thing had long tusks that stuck out dangerously from it's enormous skull. He'd never seen a wild boar before and as far as he knew they didn't even exist around here. Where the hell had this thing come from? He kicked leaves away from it's mummified body, uncovering a black cloven hoof and shuddered. Something didn't add up here and things seemed a little less natural than they first had. He shrugged and poked the cloven hoof with the tip of his sneaker. The moment of panic he'd just experienced hadn't faded entirely and he felt the need to press on. Get away from these bones and this clearing. It had a bad air to it in general.
By the time he was nearing the edge of the woods and the tree line stopped and meadow began, the sun had started to sag a little past high noon. That still left him with plenty of time though for some surveillance and decision making, as to how to approach the house. he crouched down low and crept up circling around the last few trees and into the tall grass at the edge of the woods. He could see the shitbox little house from here. A dilapidated yellow with black shingled roof. There was no sign of life right now. He squatted, waiting for his heart to stop pounding in his ears. He was nervous because he felt like he was doing something wrong. Sneaking around someone's property and spying on what might be an innocent little old man. Though Danny wasn't totally sure just how innocent this guy was. He might want people to think he was old and harmless. He might want people to think he was a lonely, little old man, out here in the country all by himself, just trying to get by. But something about the way he'd looked at Danny, they way he'd grabbed his arm and made it hurt, made Danny suspect...what? Suspect he'd torn Mike up, into PIECES further down the tracks in the middle of night? Gone toe to toe with a younger, stronger and ultimately healthier man and gotten away without so much as a scratch? A strong, young guy with a knife? Danny tried to picture it in his head. He had arm wrestled Mike before and knew that from working every weekend as a mechanic at his dad's car garage, Mike was actually really strong. He'd beaten Danny soundly three times in a row, until his arm had ached from the exertion. Then one by one he'd arm wrestled first Kevin, then James and Bobby each. Winning with little to no effort every time. He wasn't a moose by any means, but he'd stood the same height as Danny, almost six foot and had that sinewy strength with iron forearms. Surely a little old man would be no match for Mike. So what was he doing here? Just checking things out. That's right. There's something wrong with Ugly and Old and he was just here to gather a little more information if he could. His knees and ankles started to ache from squatting and watching, so he sat back on his butt and crossed his legs. Perfect. Now he was nice and comfortable and he could just see over the tops of the weeds and keep an eye on the house. As time passed, Danny took in the property. The house sat on the top of a gentle grassy rise leading from what should be Powerline road. The yard was unmowed and filled with weeds except for a bald patch around the porch. What he guessed was supposed to be a backyard was nothing more than a pile of garbage bags, old lumber, a dead washing machine and assorted broken furniture. Twinkling shards of broken glass littered the whole area, like the remains of highway wreckage. A constellation of destruction and despair. A well worn path led from the long gravel driveway and a beat up Datsun that was practically invisible. The little hatchback was a matte grey that looked like it had been hand painted with a brush. The door and front right quarter panel was dented and it had no hubcaps to speak of. It's antennae was bent and Danny had no doubt that it's interior would smell faintly of what the gloomy house had on the day he'd visited. Mildew, trash and rot. He assumed Ugly and Old lived alone. Not being able to imagine anyone else putting up with that smell.
While he sat there with his ass starting to go numb, Danny considered lighting up a cigarette, but thought against it for fear of giving himself away with clouds of smoke. He wondered if he had the guts to face the old man with some kind of phony story about needing a glass of water, or maybe needing to use the phone instead.Suss him out a bit. As he was working up the courage to just get up and go knock on the door. Ugly and Old appeared on the porch, letting the screen door snap shut behing him. Danny's heart started to knock against his ribs as the old man slowly and deliberately turned on his heel until he was directly facing Danny's hiding spot in the shade of the woods and tall grass. He stared across the tops of the weeds at Danny, standing motionless on his sloping porch. Danny ducked down staring back. There was no way he'd been seen. Impossible. Danny had been careful to wear clothing that blended in with the natural environment. With his brown ball cap, green T-shirt and khaki shorts Danny should look like any other shadow out here in the field. But the guy kept staring and staring. Danny's heart plodded along bluntly in his chest, making it feel hollowed out and filling with dread. He stared back. The old guy stared too and what's this now? Was he smiling at Danny? Danny resisted the urge to rub his eyes and blinked instead, squinting. Hard to tell, but it sure looked like he was smiling. Yes. He was sure of it now, smiling wider and wider, filling it's face as Danny watched. It's mouth grew with each second, until it was from ear to ear. An inhuman grin, filled with sharp teeth and centered around a gaping, infinite, deadly maw. Impossible. Danny thought. It's my imagination. Impossible. He can't even see me! Impossible. That's not real. And as Danny watched, blood rushing in his ears, Ugly and Old, smiling fiercely, slowly but surely raised his bony hand in a friendly wave. "If you get tired of sitting out there in the grass", it seemed to say, "come on in for something to drink, or maybe a bite to eat." Then it lowered it's hand and turned just as slowly, like a doll on a spindle, disappearing into the shitty little house. The screen door slammed shut, like a clap of thunder this time. Danny remained frozen, unsure of what he'd just witnessed and gasping for breath. He struggled to get air, but his throat felt like it was closing and he couldn't fill his lungs quickly enough anyway. The way his heart was racing, surely he needed more oxygen than he was getting. He panted, gulping at the air, swallowing. Bright lights started to flash in front of his eyes, dancing like fireflies. He pawed at his chest trying to suck air into his lungs, mouth clogged with cotton. He fell forward on his face and passed out.
When he woke up, the sun was about an hour lower in the sky. In the first few seconds he couldn't figure out where he was, then gradually he remembered. Everything. Suddenly panicky, he looked towards the house, but there was no one about. Just as quickly, he felt a sense of relief and sighed. Danny gazed around feeling oddly refreshed and energized. The crickets were chirping all around full tilt. The meadow positively buzzed with hundreds of them. As he watched, a fat honeybee landed on a flower in front of him and lazily gathered pollen, then lifted off again, heavy with yellow grains. Danny could see it dropping off it's hairy legs, as it hummed away to another flower. He felt warmed by the sun and his hands tingled. He could breathe easily now, in fact his chest felt full of well being and happiness. He glanced up at the house confidently now and full of wonder. That guy could have easily come and captured me while I was unconscious, but he didn't. I wonder why. Danny thought. Somewhere inside of himself he felt this new surge of confidence growing. Not 'wishy washy', not 'just maybe', but 'for sure' and 'totally'. He felt he could take on the world and win. He felt like he had a secret he couldn't tell, but he didn't know what it was. There was something in his core, he didn't know if it was new, or if it had been there all along and he just hadn't recognized it yet. But it felt good and he felt strong. He felt better than he had since Mike died, since before Mike died even. Danny hadn't felt this good before, this strong in his entire life. Whatever it was, wherever it was coming from, Danny wasn't going to question it and there was no way he could fight it. 'It' was that strong, whatever 'It' was. And while he smiled to himself, thinking about his new bright and powerful feeling...Yes that's what it was! A bright power...while he was digging this new feeling, he heard a car approaching on the driveway. He heard it clearly too. Over top of all the crickets even, like he had his ear next to the tires as it bumped up the gravel driveway. Danny swiftly ducked lower watching. In disbelief, a police cruiser slowly jostled over some potholes and cruised up the slope to the house. He dispensed with the notion that Ugly and Old had called the cops on him, because somehow he knew he hadn't. No Danny was safe for now. The cop was here to ask questions. It came to Danny in a concise and certain stream of knowledge. The cop was here to ask questions about Julie Gifford's death. Why? Because there was something seriously wrong about the crime scene. Danny didn't know what that 'wrong' was, but it was 'something' that's for sure and Ugly and Old lived so close to the Gifford's house. The cop wanted to 'squeeze' him for some info. From his hiding place, Danny watched with glee as not just one, but two cops got out of the big shiny cruiser and he had to clap his hand to his mouth so he wouldn't laugh out loud. It was Seargent Cliff Bell and officer Sam! Oh this was so much better than Danny having to knock on the door himself, pretending to be lost and thirsty. So much better cuz they were cops, who were used to spotting liars and they had guns. Danny wondered with joy if Ugly and Old would try something funny, causing the cops to have to shoot him in the leg or something. He watched with bated breath as Sam hung back, hand resting casually on the butt of his gun, while Bell mounted the crooked porch and rapped on the warped frame of the screen door. From where he hid, he could clearly hear Sam ask, "He home? His car's here... Nice wheels buddy." And chuckled softly. Bell looked around, craning his neck to look beside the house, then knocked again. This time Danny heard a muffled thud from inside the house and Bell took one step back from the door, his hand on the butt of his gun now. Danny saw the screen door quiver and open a crack.
"Hello. Yes, can I help you?" he heard the old guy speaking in a wizened voice, with just the hint of an accent. Danny could tell he was putting on a show for the cops. He didn't sound anything like that talking to Danny.
"Afternoon." Bell started, "We're with the police department and we're out talking to a few of the people in the area today. We'd like to ask you a couple questions if you have a minute?"
"Oh dear, what's this about?" Feeble and weak. Danny could see the screen door quivering. What a faker! He thought.
"There was a murder the other day, a couple miles down the road and we want to know if you heard anything, or saw anything that might help us in our investigation." Bell produced a note pad and stood poised with a pen.
"I'll do my best, I don't know if I'll be any use..." That accent again and Danny decided that it sounded French just from what he'd seen on TV.
"First of all, could I have your full name please?" Sergeant Bell asked.
This time, the old guy opened the screen door fully and hobbled out to stand on the porch. Bell made room for him and stepped backwards off the porch and onto the bare patch of grass. The smell visibly forcing him away from the door.
"Yes. My name is Jean Duhamel." And he glanced over his shoulder at Danny. Really quickly, like a bird, but it was clearly towards Danny.
"How do you spell that? With an 'S'? 'Shawn'? or...?" Bell asked.
"With a 'J', Jean Duhamel. Jean." he repeated.
"Oh, with a J. Jean, but not pronounced Gene, like blue jeans..." And Bell started writing.
As Jean Duhamel spelled his last name for them, Danny could see officer Sam looking about, then he strolled to the right side of the house, glancing around in the grass. Kicking at something. This seemed to make Jean nervous. He kept looking over at Sam, getting all shifty.
Bell looked up at him and asked, "Has anyone been by here lately? Have you seen any strangers or unfamiliar vehicles?"
"No, not at all. I haven't seen anybody here in months. Not since my grandchildren visited at Christmas." he lied.
Sam kept poking about. He walked behind the house and stood shocked, shaking his head at the junkpile. Danny heard him chuckle again and Sam walked around front again. Standing with his head cocked to the side, cop-like, watching the exchange.
"How about kids?" Bell asked. "You seen any kids around here? On your property, or walking down the railroad tracks?"
This seemed to catch Jean off guard a little and he stammered.
"No...noooo...why? What night did this girl die?" he curled his arm around the porch post, leaning into it.
Bell paused, then made a show of flipping back a few pages in his notepad. "Uhhh... Looks like late Thursday night, early Friday morning..."
"Like I said officer, I haven't seen anyone here since my grandchildren at Christmas."
Sam shifted his weight uneasily and Jean glanced over at him again. Danny perceived a change in the atmosphere and even though the sun was shining, it seemed to grow darker. The crickets had stopped chirping and every word seemed to hang in the air now. Like bitter fruit.
"Since Christmas?" Bell asked. "Wow. It must get lonely up here by yourself." He looked hard at the old guy on his porch, as if he was changing his mind about something.
"Oh I'm okay. I do just fine here." Jean said. I do just fine..." This time it was his turn to chuckle. Danny had that picture in his mind's eye again of bloody bone, clotting in a blender and he shuddered. Bell took an involuntary step back from the porch and flipped his pad shut, clicking his pen repeatedly. 'click. click. click. click.' Danny could hear it clearly. Bell stood straight gazing at Jean Duhamel, thinking and nobody moved. Danny held his breath. 'click. click. click. click.' Ticking off the seconds. Danny counted, 'click. click.' Ten.
"Alrighty then." Bell said and swung towards his cruiser. Sticking the pen in his jacket pocket, he opened the door and nodded at Sam. Sam jumped into action and whipped out a card and strode up to the porch handing it to Jean. Ugly and Old shrank away briefly, then slowly reached out for the business card. Sam pulled it back though. "If you think of anything. Anything at all. I'd like for you to call us. Alright?" And he waited for Jean to reply.
"Yes. Yes of course!" Jean said hurriedly and reached for the card again. This time Sam went to hand him the card, but let it fall just before Jean's fingertips touched it. It seemed a deliberate act to Danny and it worked like a charm, because before the card had a chance to flutter to the floor of the porch, Jean snapped it out of mid air as quick as a wink. Danny thought he heard Sam gasp, then recover. "Thank you sir. Call us if you think of anything at all." Danny watched as Sam walked backward to the cruiser and opened the door without taking his eyes off Ugly and Old. The whole time his hand on the butt of his gun. Sam may seem easy going, Danny thought to himself, but he is one hundred percent cop. And he smiled at the thought. Sam looked at the junk pile and shaking his head again with a chuckle, he got in and pulled the door shut. Bell fired up the cruiser and gunned the engine, then shifting into reverse swung the big car around. Revving, he popped the clutch in first gear and the tires spun, digging into the loose gravel, flinging stones into the air. Danny watched Jean Duhamel cringe as a few pinged off the side of the house. Then slowly he let go of the porch post and standing taller, raised his hand in a wave to the police car, as it sped down his driveway in a cloud of dust. The old man stood stock still for a few seconds before turning to face the field where he hid. Jean Duhamel scanned the field, using his hand to shade his eyes. Danny felt that skin crawling sensation, just briefly, as Jean's gaze passed over him. Apparently he couldn't see him anymore. The old guy turned around and looked in the direction of the railroad tracks, then came down off the porch and made a slow circuit going around his house. Looking here and there, past the junkpile and the far side, then around the front again. He scanned the fields and looked down the driveway, then seemingly satisfied nobody was around, back up on the porch again. Then Ugly and Old ducked inside the house, only to reappear seconds later with an object in his hand. Whatever it was, it was brown with a bit of white and red stripes. Jean swung it in a wide underhand arc and flung it into the field far to the left of where Danny was hiding. He heard it swish through the weeds and hit the ground with a soft thud. It was an amazing throw for a little old man. The object travelled a couple hundred feet at least. Ugly and Old opened the screen door, went into his house and then closed the inner door to his sanctum. Danny heard the deadbolt snap shut. Whatever it was, the old man Jean seemed to have something to hide. He'd accomplished more than just removing something from his house, that he didn't want the cops to find though. He'd just aroused Danny's suspicion to a maddening level. Danny was desperate to find out what that object was, but he wasn't sure he wanted to find out at the risk of losing his life. He thought maybe he should come back when it was dark. Maybe that would be safer. In the dark...
About the Creator
Jim E. Beer
I was raised outside of Ancaster, Ont. I write about what I know and what I've survived. I hope you enjoy what you read. Leave a comment and feel free to tip. There is an option to do so at the end of each story if you feel so inclined. Jim
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