The Hidden — Chapter 6: FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton – 2017

TH 6 v2

 

CHAPTER SIX:  FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT

Damn! Nasty creatures! They found it — found that filthy piece up in the tree. It wasn’t Dzhankah’s fault. It had gotten stuck up there and there was no way to reach it.

Stupid, stupid Meats! Why did he come here again, dragging her along with him?

 Dzhankah’s could’ve hurt him before and didn’t… could have ripped the man’s entrails right out of him.  Maybe he should have. Now they’d found it and he was unsure of just what to do. Should he kill them both? Should he kill the male and take the female for his pleasure?

Dzhankah had seen her in action earlier, humping away like crazy. She obviously liked it and, after a while, she would learn to like it with Dzhankah… others had before her. Should he let them go and take the chance that they wouldn’t bring others back to find him?

Damn, this is a hard one. Oh, how he hated these creatures, they always brought problems with them. All his life he had been so careful — only taking the ones he could be certain of, and always burying any evidence like that last one’s sack of rags. And he always, always, ALWAYS rubbed out his tracks so he couldn’t be followed. He had kept the secret so well for so long — and now this. He’d spent the better part of an afternoon trying to get the rest of that meat out of that tree, but, try as he might, he just couldn’t jump high enough to pull it loose.

The beast pawed the ground in frustration, pacing back and forth in the corn. Every now and then he would reach out and savage a stalk or two, slicing it to ribbons with his long, hooked claws.

 “They will be back,” he said to himself. “They will be back and bring others to hurt me.” He stood on his hind legs and ran a scaly paw across his stubbly scalp. Looking back toward the camp, he watched Nate and Zelda head back down the path.

“There they go! And when they come back…” A shiver coursed down his crooked spine.

“But, they belong and if I kill them, others will come looking. And then they will find that other Meat in the tree. Oh… shit!”

He dropped to all fours and raced silently, as was his custom, toward the path, keeping low so as not to rustle the leaves on the corn. He still didn’t know what he was going to do with these two but, until he decided, he was going to follow them and keep them in sight. This was too important. He couldn’t allow himself any more mistakes. For the first time in his life, Dzhankah felt foolish… and afraid.

 

***

Zelda’s hand felt like it would break from the pressure of Nate’s grip. He had slung the backpack over his shoulder and was dragging her along with one hand and waving the pistol with the other. Sweat stood out on his forehead and a wild, hunted look was on his face. Every ten or fifteen feet they traveled down the path, Nate would stop and listen, waiting to hear the sounds of pursuit. Both of them would stand frozen for a moment, and then he would look at her and nod before continuing on.

The early evening sun was casting slanting shadows across the path and she found herself praying that they would be out of the corn before night fell.

Zelda reached up and touched her cheek, surprised to find tears there. She hadn’t been aware of the fact that she was crying because part of her felt detached and everything was surreal. It was like seeing yourself on a television monitor — you knew it was your face you were seeing, but the picture made you feel disjointed. Watching the screen, your movements were strange and unnatural. If someone were to put a gun to the head of the person you saw on the monitor and pull the trigger, splashing their brains all over the screen, you still wouldn’t feel a thing. That’s the way she felt.

On a conscious level she knew this was really happening, but subconsciously, nothing in this scene could touch her. The danger she was in had no form, no real power to harm her. Perhaps she would feel different if she were out here alone. But in her heart, she could never imagine anything truly bad happening to her with Nate by her side.

The two of them had never before faced an emergency situation together and she was glad to see he was holding up quite well. He was nervous, of course. Who wouldn’t be after what they’d just seen? But, happily, he wasn’t falling apart. In fact, both of them were behaving more courageously than she would have expected. Strange how a situation like this could make her see just how strong they were as a couple, and how well-suited they were for each other.

“Nate,” she said softly, touching his arm. “Nate, slow down a second. Honey, you’re smashing my fingers.”

He halted in mid-stride. “Sorry.” He offered, and he let go her hand and took her in his arms. “You doing all right?”

Nate couldn’t get the image of that face out of his mind.  Was that the man whose footprints he’d seen yesterday? If so, who killed him? Or were the footprints those of the killer? If someone were to confront them right now, would he have the guts to shoot? Was he man enough to protect Zelda from a maniac? Why, o why, did he bring her out here in the first place?

 These and a thousand other questions plagued him as they proceeded cautiously down the path.  Every nerve end called for him to grab Zelda and, flat out, run down the path as fast as their legs could carry them.  Every instinct told him to get the hell out of there and to not look back.  But his intellect told him that a head-long dash to safety could carry them right into the arms of death.

This path, with its impenetrable curtain of corn lining each side, was the perfect place for an ambush. The killer could be lurking on either side, machete in hand… or maybe an ax… or a chainsaw, dripping blood! God! How did he get them into a mess like this?

No, his best bet was to move them along slowly and carefully. And if anybody so much as poked their head out of that corn, he would shoot first and take a survey later.

A crooked smile touched his lips as a crazy thought occurred to him, Boy! Talk about your fight-of-flight instinct!

  

***

  

Dzhankah sat waiting in the corn, just a couple rows over from the path. They had stopped again. At this rate, he would have plenty of time to decide what to do.  Every few feet they paused and looked around, hoping to get a glimpse of him, he supposed. They stood there trembling while the man waved his weapon around and acted brave.

Growing tired of this game, he had already decided to kill them.  It was now just a question of when and where.  Obviously, he couldn’t allow them to return all the way back down the path, and yet he didn’t think it would be a good idea to try to take both of them here… There would be all that blood and, during the struggle, lots of corn would be torn up. Normally, that wouldn’t worry him, but in this case, someone was sure to come looking and it was his job to make sure they found no evidence.

Probably the best thing to do would be to scare them back down the path to the clearing and dismember them there. That way their screams would be less likely to be heard and it would be easier to cover up the mess. Both of them were calming down somewhat. Dzhankah could smell less adrenalin.

The sneeze came quite unexpectedly. A tiny particle of pollen, probably from a corn tassel or maybe a polyp of ragweed lodged in Dzhankah’s nostril and before he knew it a quick, sharp “WHEESHH!!” came spraying out of his face. Large globules of mucous flecked the stalks before him and his eye fell for a moment on a basking mosquito which struggled to free itself from one. He shook his head violently from side to side and immediately returned his gaze to his quarry.

Damn! He screamed internally. That’s done it.

Both of them were lying on the ground now, the man with his arm looped about his mate protectively.

Well, he supposed this was as good a time as any. This wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had been in the past, but he may as well get it over with. Taking a deep breath, Dzhankah stepped out into the path ahead of Nate and Zelda.

***

Although the sneeze sounded more like a dog-sneezing than human, it totally and irrevocably erased all questions Nate had about them being alone out here. Someone or something had definitely sneezed.

Immediately, Nate grabbed Zelda and pushed her to the ground. Throwing himself on top of her, he held the pistol out in front of him in a policeman’s two-handed grip and waited.

For a long time, there was silence.  Doubt of his own hearing crept up and as he was about to help Zelda to her feet again, he heard a definite rustling sound in the corn.

The realization came to him that he felt relieved, somewhat.  At last, he could stop straining every nerve to see who was there.  Finally, he would be able to face the villain and could take real action against the danger.

But nothing in his existence had prepared him for the horror that stepped out into the path a few short yards before them.  It was as if someone had swung a shovel with both hands into his back, hitting him right between the shoulder blades. His mouth went totally dry and his face set in a rictus of terror, hard and locked as cement. The earth around him lurched and rolled beneath his feet and the entire unfathomable scene pitched at an angle. At the same time, his vision became crystal clear and sharp, as though his entire life up to this very moment had been out of focus and someone had just set it right.

Without even knowing it, Nate had gotten to his feet, where he now stood, transfixed. His mind screamed the impossibility of what he was seeing — not in words, exactly, but in mental sound bites that repeated over and over NO! … NO! … NO!!!

 As the corn parted with a slight rustle, and with no fanfare or warning, an enormous… beast stepped out into the path. It was an animal of some kind, but unlike anything, Nate had ever seen or heard of. In fact, the idea of it being an animal was considered and rejected almost immediately by Nate’s mind. This was nothing natural.

It cannot… couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. His mind reeled at the sight before him.

There was no other word for the snarling, slobbering aberration which squatted there glaring at them with blood-red, black-rimmed eyes.

It was…. a MONSTER.

“There’s no such thing as monsters, Nate Boy.” His father’s voice bubbled up from somewhere in his past.  The words recited the lies.  “No such thing, ‘cept in your head. You’re getting too big for this nonsense now, go back to sleep.”

Oh, but there were too, he knew it. He knew it now as he had known it back then.

 And as soon as you walk out that door, Daddy… As soon as you turn out that light and close that door…

 And now, after all these years, here it was, come out of the inky shadows of his closet. Out of the gloom from under the bed, it came, scowling and staring and preparing to eat little Natey Boy allllll up!

 “Daddy!” he screamed in his head. “Daddy it’s here, come get me!” But Daddy had been lost to cancer a long time ago, Natey Boy.  Daddy wouldn’t be coming — it is only you and the Monster.

Nate stood blinking in disbelief, the .357 dangling limply at his side, as Dzhankah slowly gathered his haunches beneath himself and prepared to approach.

Zelda looked up from the ground as Nate stood above her. A shriek lodged in her throat and a tingling sensation started at the base of her spine and slithered its way up her back to dance like a hundred electric needles across her scalp.

Before them sat a creature like no other.  It was canine-like in some of its actions.  The way it loped over into the path and squatted with its tongue lolling and dripping down the front of its chin. Its mostly-hairless upper body was pink, wrinkled and covered with flaky-looking scales. Here and there were tufts of bristly hair and its sides, belly and lower extremities seemed to be covered with the matted strands.

Its black lips were snarled back in a menacing grimace, exposing uneven rows of jagged yellow teeth, accented by two-inch long canine fangs which extended down each side of its stubbly skull.  The face, nightmarishly human in some aspects, had the blackened nose and muzzle of a pug-nosed dog.  But there was nothing cute about this creature.

As the creature glowered at them, Zelda felt loathing and hatred for it in an equal amount to her fear. Instinctively, she didn’t like the way it was looking at her. The deadly intent it showed when it looked at Nate was one thing, but when it focused its eyes on her, she felt its disgusting lust and she would rather be dead.

Slowly, ominously, it rose on its hind legs. As it stood erect, its front legs hung down before it, exhibiting heavily muscled forearms which ended in huge, club-like “paws”.  Each toe tipped with a long, black claw that looked like a grappling hook. Its head was at a level even with the tops of the corn — at least seven feet, it towered above them.  Drool hung in long white streamers from its chin.  And, as it angled its head in her direction, its pointy little ears twitched forward and an evil grin tugged at the spittle-clogged corners of its mouth.

Like most predators, it watched them like a snake watches a bird, or a cat a canary. She couldn’t tell from her point of view, but if it had a tail she thought it must be twitching.

Suddenly, it growled loudly and took a step forward. The sound reminded her of heavy metal parts, thick with years of rust, grating against each other. It was a low, grumble that ended with a bubbly gurgling. She heard Nate trying to say something as he jerked her to her feet.

“Ruh—! Ruhn—! RUN! FOR GOD’S SAKE, ZELDA RUNNN!!!!!!”

It lurched forward in a roar of overwhelming rage. Zelda wasted no time taking Nate’s advice. She ran like she had never run before, arms pinwheeling, legs pumping, she bolted down the path blindly in the direction of the clearing; and she didn’t concern herself with style.

The corn on either side of her blurred and the weeds that threatened to ensnare her feet were barely noticed as her eyes locked on that magical empty space that indicated the end of the path and safety. When the shots rang out she flinched, but she never broke her stride. Zelda was beyond human considerations of wonder and worry. She was operating solely on instinct — the will to survive, and the desperate, all-consuming need to put as much distance as possible between herself and that nightmare in the corn.

Nate thrust hard on the middle of Zelda’s back to get her started running back up the path. Once he’d started moving again — once he’d unlocked his horror-stricken muscles — everything began to work smoothly.  Freed from staring helplessly at the hellish apparition, he could take action.

He wheeled back around. The creature had reduced the distance between them by half and was closing fast. Even though he had the gun in his right hand, it weighed a ton and he doubted he’d ever lift it in time to shoot anything. Now he understood why the policeman’s stance used two hands. When faced with defending your life, the specific gravity of steel obviously quadruples, and you need two hands to lift a puny revolver.

Thank God, I didn’t bring the shotgun!

The thought skimmed his consciousness as he swung the pistol up in an arc and pointed it at the center of the beast’s chest. The monster stood just a few feet before him and he stared into its insane face. Snarling and frothing, it raised its arms with its death-claws, above its head.

Nate stood like a medieval night warding off the dragon with a magic talisman stretched out before him in trembling hands. His hair hung down in his face and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, catching the light like jewels on a crown. His jaw was set and his shoulders were bunched up around his ears as he locked his elbows and squeezed the trigger. Suddenly the “talisman” reared to life and a large patch of blood splattered the creature’s chest and flew in a fine spray behind it.

The horrid thing dropped its arms and grabbed at its midsection.  It scrambled to a four-footed stance, that brought its face just inches from Nate’s. Its breath was hot and fetid and smelled like something you might scrape from the floor in a public restroom.  Its expression surpassed surprise. Nate swore that the beast looked completely flabbergasted as it brought its blood-soaked paws up before its eyes and then looked back at him. Suddenly it gave a harrowing howl of pain and melted back in the corn, leaving him standing alone in the path.

The gun dropped slowly to his side.  His legs which had been locked at the knees, melted like rubber and he collapsed, his butt coming down hard on the ground.  For a few seconds, a variety of emotions washed over him. Relief was followed by total disbelief in what he’d just seen and done. He was alive! He’d faced the worst nightmare of his life and somehow, he’d triumphed!

As what had happened sank into his consciousness, he began to draw strength back into himself and his breathing labored back to normal.

Suddenly elated, he exclaimed in a whoop and leaped to his feet. “YA-HOOOO!” he screamed. “YEAH!… KICKED YOUR ASS, DIDN’T I?!! YOU UGLY SUMBITCH!!”

He danced in a circle, waving the gun in triumph. “GO AHEAD, MUTHAFUCKAH, MAKE MY DAY!!!”

Nate gazed admiringly at the gun in his hand. “We got him, didn’t we,” he asked it. “JUST ME, MR. SMITH AND MR. WESSON!!”

From somewhere to his left, a chilling snarl erupted and his fear became icewater again in his veins. He cast an apprehensive glance in that direction and charged back up the path toward the clearing.

As he fled, in his mind, he imagined that thing coming out of the corn, holding its chest and glaring angrily at him. He could feel the monster giving chase, about to overtake him and his footsteps quickly turned to jogging. Jogging then became running, and running became an all-out dash for the safety of the clearing and the arms of the woman he loved. And all the way there, Nate swore the monster nipped at his speeding heels.

 

The Hidden — Chapter 5: THE CLEARING — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton – 2017

TH CH 5

CHAPTER FIVE — THE CLEARING

The domed tent, bright blue and new, stood shining in the sun. Two fiberglass rods stretched the shiny fabric so tight it appeared ready to split, like a tick, swollen and gorged with blood. Nate had hurried into town before the stores closed last night and purchased it on his brand new gold card. This was its “maiden voyage”, so to speak. He had never set up a tent before but, after some initial struggle, he had managed quite nicely.

Nate had then gathered firewood and was building a small fire in the same spot the mysterious stranger had chosen, while Zelda stood gazing at the view.  She was dressed in a sweatshirt and cut-off denim shorts. Her legs were lean and bronzed. To Nate, she looked as though she belonged perfectly in this scene. She brought a sense of solidity and attainability to what would otherwise have been a setting so lovely as to seem surrealistic. It was as if a brilliant landscape artist, not quite satisfied with the picture, had decided to add a winsome, but haunting figure in the foreground to bring it to total perfection. At least, he decided, if he were painting it, that’s what he would do.

He had had a bit of trouble convincing her to come. When he told her of the clearing, with its spectacular scenery she hadn’t been particularly impressed. It seemed that vast open landscapes didn’t affect her the way they did city-bred Nate.

“How do you feel about camping there for the evening?  Just the two of us alone in the wilderness.”  He proposed.  

It must have appealed to her romantic side. Whatever the reason, he was glad she had agreed to come, because she had been just as taken with the clearing as he had that morning.  A gasp of stunned surprised escaped her and she had wandered over to the middle of it, dropping her backpack along the way. Shielding her eyes with one hand, she cocked the other on her shapely hip and turned slowly from side to side, taking in the entire view.

“This is incredible!” she said in an awestruck whisper. Beaming happily at him, she walked across and wrapped her arms around his neck. “We are going to have a marvelous time here. Honey, I’m so glad we came”.

Nate was thrilled to hear she liked it because he thought the trip through the cornfield hadn’t made nearly the impression on her. It hadn’t dawned on him, but coming, as she did, from a farming community, this was not the first time she had immersed herself in the corn. On the way over, she told Nate how, as children, she and her friends used to play hide-and-seek in the cornfields.

“It was a wonderful place for hiding,” she had recalled. “All you had to do was take a few steps over in the corn and it was like you became invisible.” To demonstrate, she had suddenly dissolved from view and left Nate helplessly calling her name. When she had failed to reappear, Nate began to grow nervous.

“Okay, honey, come on out now”. He had tried to keep his voice calm and measured. “I see what you mean, but we’ve got to get going if we’re going to set up camp.” He listened carefully, rotating in a slow circle to search through the cornstalks. The only sounds were the slight breeze stirring the corn and some crows sending their harsh, sharp cries from somewhere in the distance. Nate had looked up through the stalks at the slate blue sky and waited.

Suddenly, the thought had occurred to him that she may not be playing a game anymore. He had remembered those footprints from before, and his palms had begun to sweat. He’d swallowed hard and walked a little farther down the path.

“Zelda!” he called, struggling to remain calm. This had gone on entirely too long now. If she was in danger, he’d better be doing something pretty fast to help her. He had walked back to where she’d left the path. Still, there was no sign of her. His heart had begun to race, and he had pried two stalks apart, forcing his way into the corn.

“Damn it, Zelda this isn’t funny anymore!” he’d yelled tersely, and in a moment, she’d stepped out behind him. When she had tapped him on the shoulder he jumped and emitted a surprised little squeak.

She stood laughing as he gave her an angry look.

“Don’t do that.” He had said simply, and she knew he meant it.

“Darling, it’s just a game,” she had protested, “What’s wrong? Hey, this place really has you spooked, doesn’t it?”

He had snorted. “Me? You’re the one who wouldn’t come out here unless I brought this.” His hand had touched the handle of the chrome plated .357 Smith-and-Wesson, where it rested in a holster, strapped to his belt. “Besides, I’m just being cautious… that’s all.”

When they’d arrived at the clearing he showed her the hobo’s camp and it was obvious that the owner hadn’t returned. It was just as Nate had left it the day before, and the fire had long since grown cold. That had made Nate feel a little better. Apparently, his theory about the hobo had been correct. The man had spent an evening or two here and then moved on. Nate hadn’t had much experience with hoboes, but apparently, they shared a common trait with homeless people in the city: the only thing you could count on them for was to not be around long.

As the fire crackled into existence, Nate could hear Zelda moving around in the tent. When he stood up and turned around he saw she had laid out a picnic lunch and spread blankets over the cornstalk mattress the previous tenant had left. The basket of cold chicken and baked dinner rolls, with a cool bottle of wine, nestled on the brightly colored cloth, made for a picturesque scene. Nate smiled as he took it all in.

Just then, Zelda emerged from the tent… naked as the day she was born. Her long auburn hair flowed softly over her shoulders as she stood, shining white in the sun. She bore an air of confident womanhood and gazed shamelessly into his eyes.

“What the — what’re you doing?” Nate stammered. His voice sounded surprised, but far from disappointed.

She straightened her graceful back and stood with her hands on her hips, haughtily thrusting her bare breasts toward him. “Who’s going to see us?” she asked huskily. “Besides, it’s your land, your field… and I’m your woman.”

His breath quickened as he watched her walk lithely over to the blankets and stretch out, seductively, beneath the tree. The summer sun dappled her body with patches of shade as it shone down through the branches above her.

In a heartbeat, he shed his clothes and was beside her, enfolding her in his arms. Never in his life had he wanted her more. He found it remarkable that, after five years of marriage, she could still kindle this kind of passion within him.

When he entered her, it was slowly, each of them savoring the feeling of completeness, the joining of their bodies and spirits as one. She moaned softly and moved beneath him to match the rhythm of his body. The magic of this place, the total freedom of the surroundings, the warmth of the sun and the fragrance of the air — all combined to sweep them away in a torrent of ecstasy that precluded all outside influences of sight and sound. They were totally alone for the first time in their marriage, and each was determined to derive the utmost pleasure from the experience. There was a finality in their lovemaking, the sense of a circle closing, a coming home of sorts. They were closing one chapter and beginning another, exciting new one. Joining together beneath this tree, they were confirming, on a level not quite subconscious, that the troubles they’d had in the past were now over and forgotten. They accepted each other as they accepted their new life and the commitment they must each make to it.

When it was over, Nate lay beside her feeling the cool breezes wash over his skin and gently tickle the hair on his legs and buttocks. He stroked her forehead lovingly and gazed into her dark eyes.

“This is where we should’ve spent our honeymoon,” he murmured dreamily.

“Mm.” She lay on her back gazing up at the leaves. Taking a deep breath she said, “Don’t worry, Honey. We’re going to have plenty of time to travel. Our whole life is going to be one big honeymoon, from now on.”

“Hey,” he scolded. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”

She laughed and hugged him tightly.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in dreamy conversation and gentle, lingering acts of love. The couple was experiencing a closeness they had never shared before, and neither of them wanted to do anything to break the spell. As afternoon turned toward evening, however, the temperature began dropping and they felt the need to clothe themselves. September in Indiana consists mainly of warm, sunny days, followed by cool nights, heavy with dew.

“The fire’s going out,” Nate observed, tucking his shirt into his pants. Pulling his hiking boot on his right foot and hopping on his left, he picked up the two remaining logs and dropped them into the fire. In a short time, they would be blazing happily. He stood by the fire, gazing out across the fields. The beans had reached maturity and were patiently awaiting the harvest. In fact, as summer was winding down, everything was nearing its time. The corn stood ready for the picker and the trees were preparing to change into their colorful fall outfits. The insects buzzed loudly, singing quick, succinct songs that matched their short lives. He was filled with a contentment he had never known, and something else — a deep, satisfying optimism about the future.

***

“You know something, Zelda?” he said suddenly; and again she noticed that childlike excitement in his voice. “I’ve been thinking. We’ve got plenty of dough, right?”

“Uh-huh.” She replied cautiously.

“So we don’t really need to rent out these fields to old Sam Burchill, do we? I was thinking that maybe next year we could do away with all this corn and let the land go back to pasture.”

“Why?”

“Well, then we could get some horses and start, like, a riding stable. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Horses!” she laughed. “You don’t know anything about horses, Nate Malone. I think all of this money is making you a dangerous man.”

“Well, maybe I haven’t thought it through, but it’s something to think about, isn’t it?”

She gave no answer but sat shaking her head in wonder.

“That’s the last of the wood.” He glanced around the clearing.

After a couple minutes of searching, Nate walked to the tree under which Zelda, now sat fully dressed.

“I can’t find any more on the ground,” he told her. “Maybe there are some dead branches I can break off of these trees.”

“Just don’t mess with this one,” Zelda warned him. She pointed to a branch about twelve feet above her head.

“Why’s that?”

“There’s a hornets’ nest in it… there, see it?”

“No,” he said, squinting up into the tree.

“There, in the crotch of this branch. I’ve been watching the hornets buzz around it all afternoon. It’s a big one, isn’t it?”

Nate moved to the other side of the tree where he could look without staring directly into the sun. Standing on tiptoe and leaning against the trunk of the tree, he strained to focus his eyes on the mass that hung in the shadows above them.

Suddenly he gave a strangled cry of alarm and staggered back from the tree. Zelda looked up into his ashen face, and worry drove deep wrinkles into her forehead.

“What’s wrong? Nate, what is it?”

Rushing around to her side of the tree, he seized her by the wrist and yanked her to her feet. “We’ve got to get out of here!” he said. His voice sounded strangely tight and his eyes were wild. “NOW!” he barked at her.

Then, just as suddenly, he dropped her arm and took a few steps toward the bean field.  He doubled over and vomited violently as he dropped to his hands and knees.

Now Zelda was frightened. She ran to his side and wrapped her arms around his waist, waiting for the wracking spasms to pass.

“Nate, are you alright?” She kept her voice low and even. It was the voice all women used on instinct when they were struggling with calamity. Restrained and desperately rational, it strived to shout down the inner voice of panic and compel by force of will, everything to be right with the world. It was the voice nurses used when a patient is suffering terminal pain — pain that neither they nor the medicines can do anything about. And it was the voice all mothers, even young ones, summoned up when their children have injured themselves and came running to present their bloody wounds, like trophies, to be healed. The voice said, “I know disaster stalks my world, but I will deal with it now, and the time for grief will come later.”

Slowly, Nate sat up and wiped the back of his hand across his lips. His eyes were red and watering and he stared sightless, straight ahead. He was visibly making an effort to pull himself together. With a shudder, he turned his anguished face to her.

“God, Zelda, that’s no hornets’ nest…” His throat worked convulsively as he swallowed several times rapidly. His adam’s apple bobbed like a cork on a fishing line.

Nate made a feeble effort to stop her, but she pulled away from him and ran to the tree. She leaned against the rough bark with her hands and craned her neck to see.

Wedged in the convergence of tree and branch, flies buzzing thickly about it, was the head and one shoulder of a man. The skin on his face was lividly white and the stubble sprayed across his jowls stood out deeply black by contrast. His eye sockets were dark with the squirming bodies of flies and his tongue protruded from purplish, swollen lips. The hair was spiked and stiff with dried blood.  His arm, which nestled tightly against his cheek, stuck straight up into the air where the hand hung limply at the wrist. Beneath the branch, dark, sticky blood covered the bark in a large patch — ghastly moss on the south side of the tree. But worst of all, and the thing that finally brought the screams to Zelda’s throat was the slender strand of the spinal cord which hung down, swaying in the breeze, while a column of ants marched up and down its length like the stem of some grisly flower.

Her screams stopped only when Nate buried her face in the crook of his neck and held her tight against him. She clung to him feebly and sobs wracked her as she felt blackness closing in on her. She was going to faint and she knew it. A strange, detached voice from somewhere in the back of her mind told her to put her head between her knees…

That’s what they always did, didn’t they? When you’re going to faint, you put your head between your knees…

MY head? she wanted to know. Mine or the one up there? If you put THAT bloody thing between my legs, I WILL faint!

Dimly, she heard Nate’s voice, soothingly repeating, “It’s all right. It’s all right. Shhh-h-h… It’s all right now.”

Zelda’s screams had returned Nate to himself, and he rushed to take her in his arms and comfort her. Gradually she came around and he took her face in his hands and asked, “You okay?”

She nodded, but her eyes were drawn back again to the horror in the tree. “No!” Nate stopped her, pulling her back from it. “You don’t need to see it again.” He gently guided her back toward the tent as she pulled herself together.

Nate began gathering some things together and throwing them in the backpack. He talked feverishly as he worked.

“Obviously something terrible’s gone on here. Now what we’ve got to do is keep our wits about us and get back to report it to the authorities.” His voice sounded dry and colorless, like the narrator of some type of training film. “We’ll leave the tent and the sleeping bags for later. Are you ready?”

When he faced her, she noticed the pistol in his hand. It served to illustrate the point that the world had suddenly turned upon them. Their idyllic afternoon in the country sun had switched to a situation fraught with danger.

How quickly things could change! The rapidity of it made her head spin as she strove to cope with this abrupt shift in gears. She tried, bravely, to shake off the terror that threatened to force everything out of her mind. Suddenly, the only thing she wanted in this whole world was to be back down that path and home, safely, in her own kitchen. She wanted to tell this to Nate, but she was afraid to open her mouth, fearing she would erupt in another screaming fit. Apparently, though, he could sense what she was thinking and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She leaned into him, drawing on his strength. After a time, he gently eased away and looked directly into her eyes.

“Zelda, I need you to be strong. Can you do that? We’ve got to get back down that path, and it may be dangerous. But like it or not, it’s our only way back. Are you with me? I need to hear it, babe.”

Nodding, she stammered out a shaky “Y-yes.”

“Good girl.” He stooped and picked up his pack.

“Let’s go,” Nate said, and he led the way back into the corn.

The Hidden — Chapter 4: ZELDA — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton – 2017

TH 4

CHAPTER FOUR – ZELDA:

Zelda awoke with a terrible headache.  This “fresh country air” had done nothing for her allergies.  Nate was crazy about the idea of living out here in the sticks, though and he was so cute about it that she just had to go along.  He had insisted they leave the city and build an entirely new life.  

“It’ll be a fresh new start,” he’d told her.  “The money is one thing, but we need more than money – we need each other.”  Nate had been nearly fanatical about the idea.  Frankly, it didn’t make that much difference to her where they lived, as long as they had a chance for happiness.  But she had to admit things were much better between them since they’d left the city.  Here their life seemed simpler, less complicated.  Nate laughed more and Zelda found herself taking time to look about and appreciate her life.  She had actually planted a flower garden!

In the city, they had dreamed of a time when they could lay back and spend time together doing the things they’d always wanted.  Now, suddenly that time had come and best of all they were still young enough to enjoy it.

Throwing on a light robe, she shuffled to the kitchen to put the coffee on.  Country living was nothing new to Zelda since she had grown up on a small farm in southern Illinois.  But her ambition to be on the stage had made her quit those rural climes and move to Chicago, where she met, fell in love with and married Nate.

Back home her friends had teased her about becoming a famous movie star, but that had not been her true dream.  Ever since her first appearance in her ninth-grade production of “Oklahoma!” she’d been fascinated with the idea of being in live productions.  Acting out the lives and loves of fictitious characters who were nothing like her gave her a marvelous feeling which she was unable to achieve in real life.  

In the theater, she could live an exciting life with virtually no risk.  It wasn’t Zelda Miller out there on stage, it was a charmer in a play.  If the audience booed, it was the character they disapproved of and not her.  But she need not worry about the audience disapproving because Zelda was a natural.  She was almost always chosen for the lead role in whatever production she tried out for.  Acting came easily to her as natural as breathing or walking down the street.  

Zelda sometimes thought it was easy for her to assume the role of someone else because she had no personality of her own.  She’d never told anyone this of course — not even her parents who were so proud of her.  In fact, everyone was proud of her when she put on a good performance in the various school plays and civic productions.  They would applaud thunderously while she took her bows, and she was the center of attention for days afterward whenever she came to town for shopping with her mother.

She received lots of attention from her peers.  The girls all wanted to be her friend and the boys paid extra close attention while she spoke.  

The adults of the town were quick to voice their approval as well.  The men would exclaim, “You sure were good the other night!”  And the women would hug her and congratulate her mother saying, “You must be so-o-o proud of little Zelda! Why I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on the silver screen someday.  Maybe put this little town on the map, eh?  She certainly has the looks… and the talent!”

Of course, her mother was proud of her Zelda and she encouraged her to do all she could to get into Northwestern University.  She helped her fill out the applications and she made sure Zelda spent lots of time with the Northwestern representative during “College Night” at school.  She bragged to all her friends and relatives about Zelda’s acting prowess and her prospects for a glamorous career – the kind Zelda’s mother never had.

But looking back, Zelda wished everyone could have been proud of her and given her such attention just for being Zelda – plain old Zelda Miller from southern Illinois.  What was so wrong with that?  Did she have to become somebody famous to get their attention?  

Maybe the reason she’d moved to Chicago and pursued a career in acting was not that she wanted it so much but because it was expected of her.  She couldn’t let her parents down or disappoint her teachers.  Hell, the whole damned town depended on “Little Zelda” to become the next Marilyn Monroe and give them all something to be proud of.  Well, it wasn’t fair to put that kind of pressure on a person – to make her responsible for the justification of their own existence.  

Small wonder that when the time came to prove herself in the big city, Zelda’s accomplishments fell somewhat shy of everyone’s expectations.  It was one thing to be a celebrity in a small town production, but it was something else entirely to be just one of many faces in an acting class — all talented, all sharing the same ambitions and aspirations, all competing for the lead roles.  

It was worse yet to be number thirty-seven in a cattle call with the lights glaring in your eyes and three people sitting way back in a darkened theatre passing judgment on every move you made, every note you sang.

Miss… Miller?  Is that a natural tremolo in your voice or are you simply scared to death?

Perhaps that was why when she’d met Nate, working in a local supermarket it had been so easy for her to fall in love with him and his dreams of the future.  Marrying Nate was a way of saving face, both within herself and with the folks back home.  After all, no one could blame her for abandoning her career to marry the man she loved.  

In fact, it was kind of romantic and rather noble.  She was like the heroine in the romance novels her mother was so fond of.  Poor Zelda Miller had so much potential and could have been a star, but she gave up all that glamour and fame to be Mrs. Nathaniel Malone… almost poetic really.  Too bad it was a lie.  The truth was, she’d lost faith in her dreams and herself.  Marrying Nate was the smartest thing she could have done.  

There was no use pretending she was going to make a big splash on the stage either here in Chicago or anywhere else.  The one thing her mother and all that attention back home had not prepared her for was competition – stiff competition with hundreds of other would-be Marilyns who were quite willing to do literally anything to get what they wanted.  Zelda was just not that aggressive or driven.  It was easier to change her goals than to see them through to fruition.

And she’d been happy actually.  She really did love Nate.  He was kind, gentle and so intense in his quest for a better life for each of them.  Until recently, his dreams had been enough to sustain them both.  He was full of energy and eagerness, and he had vision.   The kind of vision that you could hitch onto and let yourself be gladly pulled along.  Nate promised her the kind of life any girl would hope for:  a home and family and the kind of security that sounded so attractive to a young girl who had been thrust out into the vast, hard world alone.  

Zelda had been feeling overwhelmed and out of her element.  What Nate had offered her sounded so warm, safe and comfortable when compared to the cold cruel arena of the performing arts.  She rationalized that, even if she were to become a big star someday, everyone knows that its lonely at the top.  And loneliness was something she was too familiar with and could most definitely do without.  

So She had married Nate, and shared his vision… for a while.

One day however she had glimpsed sadness in his dreamy blue eyes.  Nate, just like her, was starting to lose faith in himself.  His confidence was slowly running down.  He was like a radio-controlled toy with a failing battery; sometimes the current would flow and he would charge ahead as though nothing was wrong while other times he would wake in the morning with no juice at all.  He was pressing all the right buttons, but nothing was happening.  The signal was dead.  That was before the lottery came along and changed their lives entirely.

After dressing, Zelda prepared a simple breakfast of poached eggs and toast.  They may be living like country folks, but she wasn’t about to start cooking like some country farm-frau, serving stacks of pancakes and such.  She called Nate in from the yard.  

Shutting the lawnmower off, he tramped through the front door looking so damn pleased with himself she had to smile.  Nate looked healthier these days and more handsome than she could ever remember.  He was spending a lot more time in the sun and it had streaked his light brown hair with flashes of golden blonde.  It fell stubbornly across his forehead, despite his constant attempts to swipe it back out of his eyes.  This habit, combined with the freckles splattered about this lightly tanned cheeks gave him a boyish charm which she found quite appealing.

“That’s it?” he asked seating himself.  “How’s a hard-working, grown man supposed to survive on a breakfast like this?”  His words were harsh, but she knew he was teasing.  Both of them had been working on trimming back their diet – low fat-this and diet-that.

“You are not a hard-working man anymore, Mister Malone,”  She ran her hand lovingly across the back of his neck as she joined him at the table.  “You’re a man of leisure… with LOTS OF MONEY!  And that’s why I love you so much.”

He took her hand and kissed it, his mouth full of breakfast.  “Well, who cares why just as long as you stay!  What’ve you got planned for today, Hon?  Just what does the wife of an independently wealthy land baron do in her spare time?”

Zelda smiled and then looked at him seriously.  “She goes shopping of course!  What good is all that money if you can’t spend it like it was going out of style?”

His laugh made her feel warm inside and she leaned across the table and kissed him.

“Good, good!  Go on into town and buy yourself something extravagant.  I’m sure you’ll look radiant in it.  Just don’t run off to Paris without me,” he warned her.

“Actually I had in mind something like groceries. We’re low on a few things.  But I might take some time to poke around some shops while I’m in town.”

“Okay, sweetie.  I’ll be working in the yard all day anyway.  So, have a good time. But first, I’ve something to show you in the bedroom…”  His leer made her feel even warmer inside.  

The town of Snyder reminded her very much of her own small hometown in Illinois, only it was not quite the mirror image of what she remembered. The bank was on the south side of the street instead of the north.  However, it was still directly across from the post office.  And the curve in Main Street was on the wrong end of town. But there was the Amoco station, right where it should be on the corner.  The Lutheran church, the one she and Nate kept saying they were going to check out one of these days was on the east side, by the highway.

Looming large over everything, its rusty tin siding providing an ominous backdrop for the rest of the buildings was the ancient feed mill. As Zelda drove past, she considered it. Surely, it must have been one of the first buildings erected in Snyder. Its pointed roof stretched high into the air, providing home and aerial playground to hundreds of swooping, careening pigeons. Driving beneath them with the sunroof down, Zelda prayed silently that none of them held a grudge against transplanted city types, moving into their little town.

Zelda decided at that moment, she didn’t like the mill. If there was one thing she could change about Snyder, it would be the presence of this hulking giant with the dark windows, looking upon the world with vacant eye sockets, staring gloomily from an enormous rusty skull.

Still, it was somewhat similar to the one in her hometown, right down to the huge, antiquated “Supersweet Seeds” sign clinging tenaciously to the side. She supposed these archaic, malevolent-looking monstrosities were a necessary evil that all small midwestern towns must endure, but it brought back memories that were not all good ones.

There were times in her past that she would rather not remember. When she left for the big city, she thought she was leaving behind all those bad times — the bad things her subconscious strived so hard to blot out. But occasionally and with increasing frequency, she found those memories coming back now that she had returned to small-town life.

One thing that was different was the new shopping center on the west edge of town where Zelda parked in front of the grocery store. She’d already browsed through the antique shops downtown and the ladies apparel shop here in the center. Now it was time to get down to business with some groceries.

As she walked up and down the aisles, examining the labels and comparing package sizes, she thought about her life with Nate. She marveled at how different things were going to be now that they had money. They would be able to travel — she’d always wanted to see Europe! Or maybe they’d spend time on cruises. But, best of all, they would have time for each other and, maybe now, they could think of having children and building a family. This was something they had been putting off until they were financially secure.

Well, you don’t get much more secure than seven million dollars, thank God, thought Zelda, whose biological clock had been ticking for some time now. Her life with Nate was becoming idyllic, but she needed to be a mother to make it complete. No matter how rosy their financial future, it was the one thing their money couldn’t buy. It was the one thing she needed above all else.

These thoughts were running through her mind as she approached the checkout-counter with her cart full of groceries. While standing in line, she spotted a poster, obviously home-made, asking the whereabouts of this child:

Susie Dawn Chamness

Age 11

Last Seen: Aug 3, 1993

Below the picture was printed instructions on who to contact with any information and a reward was offered. The picture was black-and-white, but the spirit of the little girl shone from it all the same. Her face was beaming with eagerness, and her long golden curls fairly glowed. But something deep within her pale eyes showed a hidden sadness, perhaps a longing, as though she had knowledge beyond her years — knowledge of something she would rather forget.

As Zelda stood looking at the angelic face of this child she tried to put herself in the place of her poor mother. How tragic it would be to give life to a beautiful child like this only to have her snatched away when you’d learned to love her with all your heart, as surely her mother must. This sort of thing was all too common in the city, but here in this rural community, it seemed out of place.  Zelda wondered…What could have happened to her way out here?

The Hidden — Chapter 3: PASSING THROUGH — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton – 2017

TH CH 3

 

CHAPTER THREE — PASSING THROUGH:

Shortcut, my ass! Thought Roger Spearman as he disengaged his cruise control and lugged the big Lincoln down a side road off state road thirty-eight.  The car had electrically operated seats with lumbar support and air-ride suspension.  She also ran like a raped ape out on the open highway, but his swollen bladder felt every bump and jostle of this badly neglected strip of asphalt.

Gawd!  I am really out in the boonies this time. 

His back seat was littered with shiny cans.  They were the spent casings of a twelve pack of silver bullets which is how Roger always referred to his drink of choice – never as Coor’s light.  He’d drunk it in bars from Richmond to Portland, in dives too numerous to mention.  From sleazy southern tonks to the glass and chrome décor of the some of the finest northern hotel lounges, his routine was nearly always the same.  He would park his large and somewhat doughy butt on a bar stool and demand a “cold silver bullet”.  When the bartender had filled his request, Roger would smile and salute, drain off a huge, adam’s-apple bobbing gulp and quip, “Ahhhh!  That one had my name on it!”  Sometimes this line would elicit a chuckle but it was usually of the polite variety.

Now at this moment, though, the beer sloshed in Roger’s stomach, and his over-worked bladder cried out for release.  He could swear it was splashing at the back of his throat.  As his headlights dimly illuminated the dark road before him, he did something he hadn’t done since he was a small child.  He reached down and pinched off his penis, hoping to staunch the flow of hot liquid that threatened to burst forth.

This would be his third stop since leaving Indy where he bought the beer.  There had been one stop at an ancient Union 76 station in Martinsville and another at the Starvin’ Marvin’ in Bloomington.  At forty-six, his kidneys weren’t what they used to be.

He would have been a lot better off to stay with the interstate, but no!  He had to go and listen to McNally.  Chester McNally had worked this area before and claimed that the best route between Chi-town and Louisville was to run 65 to Indy and then skirt the city on the 465 bypass.  Halfway around, you jump off on 37 and take it south to Paoli, a wide spot in the road, where you would then pick up 190 for a straight shot over to Louisville.

“Nothin’ but Podunk towns from Bloomington on down,”  McNally’d assured him. “No speed traps or state cops either.  And hell!  The local mounties don’t know a radar gun from a squirrel rifle.  It’ll cut forty minutes outta your trip.”

Well, father south it might be all right, but so far there had been too many stop lights and small towns to suit Roger.  Once he got this big boat rolling down the road, he liked to keep it that way – cruise control on a steady seventy-five and the air and the tunes at full blast.  So after threading his way through Bobby Knight’s hometown, he started looking for a way to cut back over to 65 and get the show on the road.  Once back on the interstate he might just have to push that cruise control on up around eighty or eighty-five to make up for some lost time.  His radar detector, Cobra lay coiled on the dash, its red eye blinking steadily.

At Bedford, the dual-lane ended and so did Roger’s patience.  He pulled over and whipped out his Rand-McNally (certainly no relation to Chester!) and found a squiggly gray line which was designated state road 38 and seemed to wind its way in the general vicinity he wished to pursue.  The sound of tires spinning on gravel joined with the hissing crack of his last bullet as he opened it and headed out to cut his losses.

But 38 never made it to the interstate, it petered out with a detour somewhere south of a town called Snyder.  For the last hour, he’d been wandering the back roads, turning first one way and then another trying to find his way back to the highway.  Every time he thought he was heading in the right direction, he wound up back in Snyder and his frustration was reaching a seething peak.

Ordinarily, he would have asked directions in town but it was late and they’d rolled the streets up here a long time ago.

The road he was on now though seemed to show some promise.  He was almost positive it was running in the right direction and there were few of those sudden right-angle turns that were common to the smaller, less-traveled routes.  As he cruised slowly along beneath a bright, full moon, he searched for an area away from any houses where he might stop to relieve himself.

He was a salesman and as such he was not a bashful man in most things, but his bathroom habits were something else entirely. He suffered from what is sometimes called “shy kidneys”, and it was difficult for him to relax in a public restroom.  Many times he stood awkwardly waiting with sweat blistering his brow, while the man at the next urinal finished his business and went to wash his hands. Usually, he would be so locked up by this time that he would have to wait for the sound of the door slamming shut as the man left before his straining muscles would ease their iron grip on his bladder.  It was a source of great shame for him and he’d never discussed it with anybody.  Now he looked for an isolated area, knowing full well that, if he suspected for an instant he might be surprised, he would be unable to perform the function.

Luckily, he was having no great difficulty finding a secluded spot, there were few houses in the vicinity.  He passed a darkened farmhouse and his headlights swept the mailbox.  The name Burchill stood out in large reflective letters on its side, but Roger didn’t bother to read them, his mind occupied by more pressing matters.  He grunted as the car bounced through a series of potholes beyond the house and ground to a halt.  He shut off the engine and swiped a beefy hand across his face.  It came away wet.

“Jesus!” He groaned aloud.  “My back teeth are floating!”  His hand slipped once on the door handle and then he jerked it open.  As he heaved his bulk up and out of the car, an empty can rolled out of the back and went clanking underneath the car.  He paid no attention.  Roger Spearman was many things, but an environmentalist was not one of them.

The warning buzzer screamed at him to remove his keys from the ignition and he slammed the door silencing it.  Immediately the interior lights blinked out, leaving him alone in the deep dark on a country road in the middle of nowhere.

“Hold on baby, hold on!”  He mumbled through clenched teeth as he swayed drunkenly around to the back of the car.  He staggered comically, one hand still clutching fiercely at his crotch while the other fumbled with his zipper.  He leaned up against the rear bumper, hissed in a sharp breath as he released his death grip and fumbled his penis out into the night air.

The twelve silver bullets did their job and he didn’t have long to wait.  He sighed with relief as the thick stream arched through the moonlight and splattered in the gravel at the side of the road.  Roger stepped back, spreading his legs a bit to avoid being splashed and chuckled to himself.

“That must be why they call it pee gravel!”  He wisecracked.  “Here all these years I’ve been spelling it wrong.”

As the pressure eased and his leg muscles relaxed, he began looking about.  It had been a scorcher of a day, but now the night air was cool and sweet.  A gentle breeze wafted through his sweat-dampened hair and fluttered the cheap tie that hung loosely over his round belly.

Behind him across the rod lay a cornfield and before him stretched a well-worn pasture that ran on back to the edge of the yard at the farmer’s house.  A full moon drifted through the sea of clouds above and brightly illuminated the evening sky.  As Roger squinted and peered out into the pasture he saw what at first appeared to be huge rocks scattered here and there.  Upon closer examination, they appeared to be cattle, sprawled sleepily in the moonlight.   He resisted the childish urge to “moo” at them, but the thought made him smile.

He stood there, head tilted back, shoulders bunched, swaying slightly neath the stars until a noise from the darkness brought him out of his reverie. The stream of urine was cut off sharp, like someone kinking a garden hose.  He jerked his head around and scanned the road both ways.  Nothing but darkness lay either way and he began to think about just how alone and isolated he was out here.

It was well past midnight, and not a soul was stirring for miles.  There appeared to be no other houses on this god-forsaken strip of back road and no one on earth knew of his whereabouts.  He was lost and drunk in unfamiliar surroundings – a bad combination.   If anything were to happen to him way out here, no one would ever know.  Slowly like the dark stain growing in the road beneath his feet, fear began crowding into his brain.  He cast an apprehensive glance behind him into the dense growth of corn and then turned to look at the cows again.  Was it his imagination or had they moved?  They seemed to be lying loser now than they were before.  Now he found himself wanting to look in every direction at once.

Maybe he was just being foolish but all of a sudden this idea didn’t seem to be such a good one.  He could swear someone was watching him.  He could feel their evil little eyes upon him as sure as he could feel the night air, cold and clammy on the back of his neck.

Something definitely moved there in the corn!

There was a sly, subtle rustling sound and then… thump.   A heavy footfall.

Roger stared into the corn, his breath caught high up in his chest here his heart hammered mercilessly.  In desperation, he burned his gaze into the impenetrable curtain of stalks until his eyes nearly bulged from their sockets.

Nothing.

But there was something.  He knew it.  He was as certain of it as he was of his own name.

“Stop it, Roger. Cut it out!  There’s nothing out there, you’re just getting yourself spooked, that’s all.”  His mind raced into denial.  He was standing beside the road, penis in one hand and his head craning around to gape stupidly at the corn.

Slowly he let out a shaky breath and tried to finish his business. But, in an instant, he could see it was no use.  His nerves had him as locked up as if he’d been standing in front of a crystal urinal in the middle of Carnegie Hall with a thousand women watching his every move.  He stuffed himself back in his pants and decided to finish this somewhere else – preferably in a nice, brightly lit men’s room.  He would find his way back to the highway and head for the nearest truck stop or late-night restaurant.

Roger’s hand had just reached the door handle when the rasping chorus of insect noises abruptly halted.  Total silence rushed in to take its place and every hair on his body leaped stiffly to attention.  He halted in his tracks and waited, jangling nerves stretched and thrumming in his ears.

His horror-stricken mind screamed as his ears picked up the unmistakable sound of claws scratching the surface of the road behind him.  It was like dog’s nails on the sidewalk, only slower.  With agonizing stealth, they slid along the gravelly asphalt and clicked loudly.  He was dimly reminded of the click of baseball cleats on a lock-room floor.

Something big was behind him in the pitch black.  He could hear it breathing — slow and heavy, a trace of a gurgle at the base of it.  Deliberately, he forced himself to twist and look, his taught neck muscles reacting sluggishly to the command.  His head wheeled like a heavy turret atop rusted bearings.  He could almost hear the squeal of corroded metal as he forced his fat jowls to swing around to face the nightmare at his back.

As recognition flashed across his pallid features, a scream boiled up like steam and slammed its way out of his throat.  His bladder let go completely this time.  There were no issues with nerves to lock it up!  He turned back and scrambled madly for the door.  He could feel the beast charging forward as he yanked the car door open and dashed to throw himself behind the wheel.  Instinctively knew he wasn’t going to make it.

For the first time that night, Roger was right.

An enormous weight struck him from behind and propelled him forward, striking into the edge of the door.  The sharp corner of the window frame was driven hard into his chest and his breastbone split wide allowing his frantically pumping heart to be impaled.

The interior light glared like a beacon in the night, illuminating the blood which gushed from Roger’s chest and spewed in two strong streams from his nostrils onto the white upholstery of the car and running down the side window and door.  He flailed his arms and legs frantically for a brief moment, like an overgrown beetle, pierced upon a stick.  Then he slumped forward and expelled a huge, steamy breath – his last.  By the time the creature sank its teeth into the side of his neck, Roger Spearman was already dead and gone.  His eyes rolled heavenward and his body limp as a ragdoll.

As the creature drug his fresh meal back into the corn, no one was around to hear the sounds of the feast.  Even the cows scattered about like statues in the pasture slept blithely unaware of the carnage.

As the night wore on, the door ajar buzzer in the Lincoln droned on and on.  The battery was strong, six hundred and fifty cold-cranking amps of direct current power, so the interior light continued to glow bright and clear all night long.  The light attracted several moths and a bevy of June bugs swirled about and occasionally cracked their hard backs against it.  The crickets resumed their night chorus carrying them out in long ratcheting sighs which ebbed and swelled on past sun up.  And the moon contuned to sail high above, amidst iceberg clouds, watching over the darkened field as it had for eons.  The cool and aloof, silent observer to the long summer night.

Gradually the clouds drifted away and the sky lightened.  Off in the pasture, some of the cattle were beginning to regain their feet.  Roosters began crowing in the barnyard and a small pride of farm cats prowled along beside Sam Burchill as he walked out across the road and down to the abandoned car.  He gave only a moment’s notice to the dried blood that caked along the door and puddled in the driver’s seat.  His face remained an impassive mask as he climbed in and turned the key.  The big motor roared to life an purred nicely as he pulled it around to the back of his barn.

Sam left the car idling as he climbed out and slid the big red door back on its track.  Inside was a wide, open room with a few farm implements parked back in the shadows.  A flock of pidgeons flapped frantically about in the rafters overhead.  They stirred up dust which speckled the few shafts of light that lanced through the gloom.  The barn smelled of old wood and dry rot – warm smells that had percolated in the summer heat.

He pulled the car inside and killed the engine.  Hay fell softly down from the loft, sifting through the cracks in the ancient loft floor, as he pulled a musty old tarp over the car.  One red taillight peeked out from beneath the cover, reflecting the morning sun shining in from the east.

Sam didn’t seem to notice and didn’t even give a backward glance when he left the barn.  Darkness enveloped the Lincoln again as he pulled the door closed and trudged slowly up to the house amidst the swarming cats.  There was blood on the side door.  A splash from the garden hose would wash it out of existence.  Wash away the last small traces of Roger Spearman.

But first, this was a working farm and there were chores to be done.

The Hidden — Chapter 2: THE PATH — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton – 2017

TH CH 2

 

CHAPTER TWO – THE PATH:

Our lives are finite, limited things, but the path that appeared in front of Nate continued on forever. He stood in fascination, gazing down its curved length. The path wandered to the left and then swept back to the right again until out of sight.

No one would be able to see him there in the corn. His brow furrowed and he scratched his head in wonder. That had been part of the appeal of this hike in the first place. No one could see him or could have known he was there. Never in his life had he been granted a luxury to be nowhere, unseen and unnoticed. Isolated from the billions of men and women who swarm over the surface of this planet.

He had always been a child of the city — the great metropolis, Chicago. Born from urbanite parents who were themselves the offspring of immigrants from one of the great cities of Europe. There were no farmers in his family tree. No country gentlemen cast their genes into the pool of his ancestors. His recent acquisition of this sprawling farm in the rolling heartland had left him overwhelmed and out of his element.

Even before the first installment of the lottery winnings arrived, he knew that the first thing he intended buying was land. Somewhere deep down inside himself, his very being longed for stability and security of land ownership.

This had nothing to do with real estate values, tax deferments or any such financial considerations. This was about being in touch with something solid – something that had permanence and could bring meaning to his existence.

City life had bestowed a blithe obduracy upon everyone he knew including himself. It was to the point that all aspects of living held a vague blandness. There were no colors left in his world, only a miasma of smoky shades of dull brown and gray. His life had become a living embodiment of olive drab. Nothing shocked him anymore or touched off the spark of life necessary to maintain human existence.

From the time Nate quit college halfway through his sophomore year and took a job in a grocery store, his life seemed to stall. At age thirty-two, everything was planned out for him with no surprises.

First, he had started out stocking shelves.  He gradually ascended up the chain of command and earned a promotion to Night Crew Supervisor. Recently, he was promoted to the post of Head of the Produce Department. But still, he was trapped in a meaningless job and a do-nothing lifestyle.

As a result, his marriage suffered teetered on the brink of self-destruction. Night after night, he dragged home to find his wife, Zelda, waiting for him. They would alternately argue about trivial things or cling in desperation to each other. They did not understand what had become of the closeness they once had shared.

At first, she had believed in him.

“Someday,” he would promise, gazing into her quiet brown eyes. “I’m going to turn it all around — to make it happen for us, somehow. You just hang in there with me ‘til then, honey. I’m going to be something… something big…”

Zelda’s gaze would soften and her eyes would become dewy as a glimmer of trust would appear. She would smile as if to say, it doesn’t matter, my dear if you do these things or not because I love you. I may not always have confidence in the things you say, but I will always love you.

At least, that was how it had been early on.  As time went on and after so many speeches or promises, the degeneration of their relationship continued, he had been noticing it took longer for that glimmer to appear in her eyes. The look of trust had devolved into something more akin to patient commiseration or even reproach, depending on her mood.

God! How he hated THAT LOOK!

Some nights, in his dreams he would turn to Zelda for something and she would fix him with THAT LOOK.  He’d wake up in a cold sweat and he’d turn to her.  Invariably, she would be lying with her back to him, snoring lightly. Her dark hair a nest on the pillow beside him. He would wrap his arms around her and pull her close.  Ignoring her soft moans of protest as she continued to sleep, he’d bury his face in her back and pray that things would be normal once again. That he would wake in the morning to a world of bright colors.  Would somehow find a way to put his life back on track before he lost the love of this beautiful woman.

He felt deep down inside that he’d already lost her respect. The idea of waking in the morning and seeing pity in those eyes was a concept he didn’t even want to consider. Not if he were going to get any sleep at all. So he would close his eyes and pray.

Eventually, his prayers would bleed over into dreams. THAT LOOK stalked him relentlessly until the morning alarm would rescue him. Bleary-eyed, exhausted and defeated, he would trudge off into his gray world once again.

Something crackled in the corn a few feet to his left, breaking his train of thought. He whipped around to look – nothing was there. Suddenly, he was struck by the knowledge that no one knew he was out there in the cornfield, all alone.  An unsettling sense of dread crept over him.

He glanced around, feeling as though someone or something was watching him. His gramma used to say someone was “walking on her grave.” It was certainly as silent as the grave out there.  It was mid-September and summer had settled in for the duration. The days were sluggish, over-confident and unmindful of the fact that autumn lay just around the corner and would soon move in to send it packing like some fat old uncle who had overstayed his welcome.

The sun beat down out of a china-blue sky, baking the ground and making the light-brown leaves of the corn curl at the tips.  What breeze there was could not penetrate the rows of corn, but skimmed overhead brushing the tassels. The leaves whispered a soft, scraping sound as they whisked together.  In his disquieted state, the whispering mocked him in small voices — exchanging sinister plans below his range of hearing.

He stopped and peered into the corn, holding his breath and straining his ears to pick out the slightest sound. But all he could hear was his hammering heart and the plants rustling.

Shaking it off, he forced a laugh. He spoke aloud to ease his nerves. “You’ve just got a case of the willies.  Truth is, it is safer out here than walking down any street in Chicago!”

Chicago! Not only were they safer from crime here, but safe from the malaise that had swept into their lives, smothering the fires of their existence.

Here, we get the chance to start all over! Nate thought to himself. The lottery winnings had been a windfall, not only financially but spiritually. At last, they would have the wherewithal to achieve their dreams. It was like being set free from a terrible prison. Confinement of a heart without dreams was more oppressive than the vaulted walls of any concrete and steel institution.

But now we’ve bought our own land of dreams.

Here was a brilliant world of colors. In the early morning dew, sparkling yellow, violet, pink, lavender and white flowers were sprinkled about the entire countryside by a bright-eyed Mother Nature. Deep greens, dappled with sunlight in the late afternoon spread like plush tapestry across their front lawn. Bright, blue skies turned azure in the evenings. And finally, as the sun slipped past the horizon, it drew curtains of golden reds and oranges along behind it.

So abundant were the colors and the air so clear in this rural utopia, it sometimes hurt his eyes. But no matter. When the brightness did overwhelm him, he would close his eyes, lean back and drink in the freshness of the air. This acted like a magical balm upon his spirit.

This setting was going to do more for their morale and their marriage than anything else his seven-odd million dollars would buy.

It was when he bought this place that he really hit his jackpot.

***

 

Dzhankah didn’t know this one — this Meat was new, but Dzhankah would follow. Follow and observe…Stalking was his specialty.

His nostrils burned with the scent of him. It was heavenly sweet and tantalizing.  The fat, succulent flesh basted with a fine coating of sweat. And underlying it all was the enticing, heady aroma of adrenaline which coaxed and urged him to throw caution to the wind. Pounce, rend and tear the tasty morsels from the bone.

Afterward, oh what a joy to lie amidst the corn rows licking the sticky, cloying blood from his face and claws. Gnawing contently on a bone, pushing it far into his mouth so that his strong molars could crack and splinter it. The pulpy red marrow exposed, ripe for sucking…

But no! Not yet. His instincts checked his actions.

Survival was patience and caution; not by being impulsive. The time to determine opportunity had not yet come. There would be a time for feasting of that he was quite sure.

Drool escaped his lips, strands dripped slowly from the tips of his protruding canines and ran down along his chin to the edge of a leaf where it stretched into a sparkling string.

He leaned forward, straining with the effort to control his hunting lust…