Chapter 1 – “Bad Stop”

September 27, 2008 - Comments Off on Chapter 1 – “Bad Stop”

The rain pounded the windshield so hard it felt like tiny fists trying to get in at him. It was like they were trying to get inside, to wash the blood off his hands and shirt, then beat him for what he’d done.

R. Lee Munson pulled off Route 9 into the tiny gravel lot of a roadside bar. Well, it looked like a bar. He squinted through the rainwash his wipers couldn’t quite keep at bay and strained to read the piercing red neon in the window. There was only one other vehicle on the lot, a pick-up truck. The other six or seven spots were empty. Across the street was a cornfield. Next to the bar was a junkyard. The spot was blissfully secluded.

The weather pattern shifted slightly and he could make out a glowing neon design above a single word. The design was an eye with a curling iris. The word: PSYCHIC.

“Great,” he spat. Then he laughed. “We’ll see about that.”

Turning, straining to reach the satchel in the back seat, R. Lee pried his hand under the shovel handle, nudged the rake, then found the case under a pile of loose wet garbage bags. He hoped they were just wet from the rain. It was going to be hard enough to clean the blood off himself. He hated the thought he’d have to detail his car.

Maybe the psychic has some cleaning solution? He chuckled. “I wonder if they know I’m here.”

* * *

Inside the shop, Ardelene was straightening her fake gypsy scarf and head wrap adorned with tiny fake crystals as she studied her reflection in the mirror. She had to make sure she looked authentic.

As soon as she saw the car pull into the space in front of the window, she jumped up from her chair and smacked the television’s power button. The Price is Right would have to wait.

She pulled on her slippers and bracelets, quickly pulled the scarf and head wrap from the table in the center of the room, gave the crystal ball a quick buff, and muttered her mantra with what she figured was a fairly good representation of an Eastern European accent, “Cross my palm with gold. Cross my palm with gold….”

She stood transfixed, staring at a glint of light on the fake jewel that dangled from her head wrap in the middle of her forehead. There was something in that tiny blue glow, like the point of a sniper’s laser scope that vanished when she turned ever so slightly.

Turning so the glint appeared once more, she allowed herself to forget about the source of the light and fell into it headlong.

* * *

Ardelene found herself in a forest. Her body felt different, stronger, strange. She wasn’t used to the shift in her center of gravity, wasn’t used to the collection of objects between her legs that moved naturally with her gait but were nonetheless unfamiliar to her. Her right arm felt strained, taxed, and her left hand awkwardly clutched two long-handled items. The eyes that were not her own, slightly glazed with poorer vision, glanced back at what was dragging at her right arm.

The body of a man in a shirt and tie was dragging along the ground behind her. The tie pulled like a red paisley noose, the loose end wrapped and clutched by her right hand. Her manly right hand was as strained and purple as the bald head of the man being dragged.

* * *

The jingle of the bell over the door snapped her out of the vision and Ardelene turned toward the sound.

Stepping in from the rain was a hulking shadow, silver drips rolling off the sleeves, fingertips, and the hard edges of a dark case in his right hand. He smiled and said, “Sorry to startle you. Pourin‘ cats n’ dogs out there.” His laugh was weak, fake. Like my costume, she thought.

Still trying to make sense of the fleeting vision, all Ardelene could do was let her mouth drop open.

“Can’t drive,” the man said, “The rain and all.” He remained standing in the doorway, his face and features mostly hidden in silhouette. His voice, his manner of speaking, was probing, testing. It was somehow familiar, like she’d heard it in her own head once before.

Trying her best to compose herself for the unexpected customer, Ardelene motioned for the table in the center of the room where the crystal ball waited. Her brow knitted under the glinting jewel on her forehead as she found herself unable to shake the feeling, the imagery, the realism of the vision. She never had a vision before. Her fortune-telling shop was like all the rest, a flim-fam, faux, a fake. She told people what they wanted to hear, used vagueness and pulled from her customer’s expressions. “Will my husband get the promotion he wants?” They were always easy questions, and always provided a fifty-fifty solution that didn’t matter in the present.

Ardelene slowly took her place at the table, easing into the chair, not sure if it was her own legs she was feeling, or the legs of the man she inhabited in the vision.

Flashes: The tie, the body, the tools, the woods, the dirt, the blood. She gasped and rubbed her eyes. Her mouth opened and spilled the words, “Ain’t nothin‘ under here. Nothin‘ grows under the forest, Clye.”

The man had approached the table but didn’t sit. Now he tensed. The arms at his side snapped ridged and his chin shot up. A small glint flashed in his eyes beneath the shadow of his brow. “What? …What did you say?”

Ardelene’s eyes were suddenly watery, a tear drew a black mascara track down her cheek. “I, I don’t–” Her eyes fell to his right hand which placed a small wet case on the table. In the orange glow from the crystal ball she could see a raw red burn across the back of his hand.

Like a burn caused by a silk tie pulled taught against his skin.

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Chapter 2 – “Introductions”

September 26, 2008 - Leave a Response

R. Lee stood transfixed, his eyes drilling white hot holes through the woman standing before him. Did I hear right? Did she just say what I thought she said? His gaze was a dare, locked on her timid face, as he opened the case and withdrew the pistol.

* * *

Ardelene began to shake uncontrollably. She couldn’t move or turn away. Somehow what she was seeing was a continuation of the vision that electrified her skin moments ago. Barely aware of the movements of the man’s scarred hand, she felt locked in place.

It wasn’t until her next blink that she noticed the pistol in his hand, rising from the case, pointing toward her heart. She whined, “No.”

The weapon discharge and the pain of the impact against her left breast made Ardelene jolt, but before the darkness took her she had a moment to marvel at two things: how quiet the gun was, and how sleepy she suddenly….

* * *

R. Lee returned the dart gun to the case, smiling briefly in awe of himself for having the forethought to re-load it after he used it to knock out the lawyer that morning. It was unfortunate that he didn’t have another tranquilizer to lock into the chamber now. You never knew who you might have to shoot next.

That thought jiggled in front of him like a carrot of paranoia so he drew the nine millimeter Glock from the small of his back. With the smoothness of a jungle cat, R. Lee moved silently to the door and switched off the neon red PSYCHIC sign, turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED, then locked the door. Then he searched the building.

The roadside psychic reader parlor was nothing more than a tiny ranch house on the brim of a cornfield. The main room was a illuminated by looping strands of white Christmas tree lights and the orange glow of a spherical lamp on the central table. Lame, R. Lee mused, that she uses a cheap kiddie night light as her crystal friggin‘ ball. A second-hand couch with a red tasseled cover sat to the side. A fan of magazines sat on a crooked coffee table in front of it. Newsweek, People, American Sportsman, Mystery Magazine. The room smelled faintly of must, incense, and cheap pine furniture cleaner. Below that, the aroma of stale cigarettes.

Through a beaded doorway was a kitchenette dominated by a card table with a small TV on it. An ash tray full of butts explained the stale air in the room as well as the burnt yellow finish of the formerly white walls. The refrigerator contained half a two liter of Pepsi, a bag from Arbys, a loaf of wheat bread, and a jar of peanut butter. Muttering to himself, “No refrigeration required,” R. Lee took out the peanut butter and placed it in an overhead cabinet devoid of anything except a Mickey Mouse mug.

In a short hall beyond the kitchen, R. Lee found a back door blocked by a desk, and two doors.

Behind the first door was a three quarter bathroom, behind the other a bedroom with an unmade bed. He spent no time searching the rooms. He could see from a glance they were both a mess. And empty. The psychic woman seemed to be the only resident. Good. This bad stop in the middle of nowhere should be fairly simple after all.

Except for one thing: the reason he had to take her down to begin with.

Returning to the main room, R. Lee squatted to examine the woman. She lay on her back where the tranquilizer dropped her. Her arms and legs were bent at opposite angles forming a human Swastika. She looked to be in her late thirties / early forties, but it was tough to tell because she was attractive despite the obvious smoking habit. Why would such a gorgeous creature make her insides so ugly? He mused. The woman wore what R. Lee figured to be a some kind of gypsy costume, a long skirt and richly-patterned blouse. A head wrap trimmed with tiny dangling crystals matched the dark green beaded shawl that hung loose around her shoulders.

He pressed the back of his hand against her long smooth throat and felt a pulse and a rhythmic rush that accompanied the rise and fall of her chest. Though she was breathing heavily, the woman’s pulse was slow and steady.

R. Lee grabbed her wrists and dragged her toward the couch. Nudging the coffee table aside with his boot, he hooked his hands under her armpits and hoisted her onto the couch in an angled sitting position. Then he went back to the case on the center table, removed a pair of handcuffs, and returned to the woman. He pulled her arms back and cuffed her hands behind her before leaning her back and gently resting her head on a beaded throw pillow on one end of the couch.

* * *

Ardelene’s dream was hot with rushes of ice water that shocked periodically through her veins. In the dream, she was in Palley’s Woods on the far side of town. She was breathless, running from a man chasing her. Though the man carried a shovel and rake clumsily in one hand and dragged a full-sized man by the necktie in the other, he was gaining on her. She could feel his hot breath as he came closer and closer, fury burning his dark eyes.

Waking with a gasp, Ardelene choked on her own saliva and tried to wipe her eyes and face but her hands were somehow trapped behind her.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” came a throaty voice. Recognizing it, she snapped to a full waking position and sat upright on the couch.

“W-Who–?” Ardelene sucked panicked air as she glanced wide-eyed around the room, searching for the voice. She focused on him and felt an instant combination of panic and relief that he was no longer holding the gun. But I’m tied up? What’s he going to–

To Ardelene’s surprise, the man smiled, pulled a chair over from the reading table, turned it so its back faced her, and straddled it. His smile was slippery but confident. His jaw was hard and angular. His blue eyes were piercing but angry in an otherwise handsome face. He said, “My name is R. Lee Munson. Never mind what the R stands fer. I never did care for it.”

His accent betrayed him as a local though she had never seen him before.

“What’s yer name, honey?” He asked. Then he produced a pack of Marlboro Lights from a pocket, a pink flamingo lighter from another, and proceeded to light up. Ardelene followed every movement of his hands, how they boldly produced her cigarettes and lighter. He was in charge. That’s what that was saying.

After a long drag, he blew smoke toward her. “I asked politely.”

Inhaling the second-hand cloud and longing for a drag of the real thing, Ardelene said, “My name’s Ardelene. Ardelene Jacobi, but my friends call me Ardy.”

He smiled wide behind the hand holding the cigarette. “Like Arty the Smarty? The cartoon fish?”

“A-r-d-y. Short for Ardelene.”

“Never heard o’ that name before.”

“Was my gram’s.”

“She long dead?”

Ardy nodded solemnly. “Long time,” she confessed.

Ardy.” He appeared to taste the name as he repeated it two more times in different tones. “I like it. It suits you, but not the gypsy you. Why do you put on all those phony airs? You ain’t no psychic.”

She shrugged, felt her chin quiver as new tears welled up. She could sense that he was trying to lead her away from the truth – that she had discovered something, that her one and only vision produced a clear window into the soul of the murderer across from her. Or maybe he was testing her, trying to draw her out.

“No, no, no,” R. Lee barked, standing and pushing the chair noisily aside. “You’re not gonna break down on me. Not when we’re off to such a super start.”

She sniffed and glanced toward the tissue box on a narrow shelf in the corner.

R. Lee glanced where she looked, crossed over to the shelf, and plucked down the box. He returned to her and sat next to her on the couch. Pulling a couple of tissues, he gently dabbed her eyes before wiping away the smudges and lines of mascara.

“You shouldn’t wear make-up,” he said as he studied her skin beneath the coloring he removed. “You’ve got a warm face.”

Ardy sniffed. “Thank you,” she whispered weakly. Again, the chin quivered. She couldn’t help it.

“Stop it!” He bolted up from the couch and began pacing. “I hate that water works crap. Women should be stronger than that!”

Chin still quivering, but tears drying up, Ardy stammered, “W-Why are you doing this?”

R. Lee Munson paced two more circuits before stopping and turning toward her. He smiled. “I was just gonna stop in until the rain quit, but then I sees you n’–.”

Ardy blinked.

“How did you know about Clye?” He asked. “I thought this psychic junk was all fake.”

“So did I,” she said. Her voice was as cracked as her soul felt. “So did I.”

Chapter 3 – “The Fortress of the Mind”

September 25, 2008 - Leave a Response

“C’mon, think,” R. Lee prodded as he drew another cigarette from Ardy’s pack. “This is some spooky stuff you got goin’ on in that pretty little head of yours.”

He lit the smoke with her lighter and tossed the lighter on the table. It clinked against the crystal ball. For some reason, that made him laugh.

Ardy squirmed and scooted on the couch, trying to get herself to a comfortable upright position. No matter how she twisted, the handcuffs continually fought her. Wanting to ask her captor to remove, or at least loosen, her bonds, she instead blurted, “What’re you gonna do to — with — me?”

She cringed at the misspoken word. While it was obvious she didn’t need to give him any ideas, she also didn’t want to inadvertently dare him to rape or kill her.

He turned his head and squinted through the stream of blue smoke rising from the cigarette. He appeared to consider the option she desperately tried to push from her mind.

“You’re afraid I’m gonna rape you, ain’t it?” R. Lee muttered.

Ardy quickly shook her head. No. Then convulsed a shrug or two. She began to feal queasy. “P-Please don’t. Please don’t. Don’t. . . .”

“See.” His laugh was a harsh bark. “I’m a psychic too!”

“P-Please.”

“Don’t worry about it, Ardy dear. I ain’t no rapist. I’m a killer.” He took a long draw of the cigarette, let the smoke form whisps around his words as he said, “Hell, you saw that, didn’t you?”

She shook her head slowly, then with greater, yet false, conviction.

“You said Clye. That ain’t no name you hear every day.”

Ardy just stared at him. She couldn’t look away and she couldn’t pull out of the twin black holes that were his piercing dark eyes.

“Ain’t it interestin’ that I just happen to kill a man named Clye. Then here you go sayin’ his name not two minutes after I walk in here.”

She remembered the vision, the clarity within that tiny glint of light reflected from the jewel in her phony gypsy head wrap. Ardy had entered another world in that glint, as though she were pulled by some unseen energy force into a parallel universe. There she was a man. A killer. This man. But it wasn’t an alternate universe. It wasn’t even as phony as her getup. It was real. It was recent. It had happened and she had seen it. Lived it. Ardy tried to reason it out, but her present circumstance robbed her of the luxury of reason. She could only sit scrunched on the couch, her wrists throbbing with pain from the handcuffs, and answer to the whimsy of R. Lee Munson.

The killer stood and replaced the chair at the small round table, then he rounded the table to the throne-like chair she sat in when doing readings. He sat down and leaned forward, stairing into the orange light in the frosted glass ball.

“Know what I see?”

Ardy shook her head.

R. Lee Munson reached out slowly, dramatically, and caressed the sides of the crystal ball as he stared deeply into it. His eyes twitched and widened, darted from side to side as though he could actually see something.

“I see a woman in a corn field. She’s dressed like . . . Like a . . . ,” he glanced toward Ardy, “What do you call ’em? Like the old lady in that old werewolf movie?”

She swallowed, “A gypsy?”

His laugh was a mischievous chuckle, but it wasn’t infectious. “Yeah, that’s it. But she’s young, ya know.” He squinted into the light. “Yeah . . . . Young and beautiful. A real looker.”

R. Lee turned and faced Ardy directly. “And she’s being raped.”

Ardy gapsed and shuddered, a sudden chill rocked her bones and made bile rise in her throat. She tried to pull her knees up to her chest, to hide behind the quivering bones in her legs, but she was too unbalanced. All she could do is shake her head and sob.

“By worms,” he added after a pause long enough to enjoy her palpable fear.

Then he stood again, took a final draw of the cigarette, and stomped it out on the floor. Slowly moving toward her, R. Lee smiled a wide greasy grin. “You know why, Ardy dear? Why worms?”

Again, a shake of the head. Not committal. Not adamant. She kept telling herself, Tell him what he wants and give him what he expects. You might live —

“She’s dead, deary. She’s dead because she didn’t cooperate. She didn’t answer questions.”

Ardy swallowed again. This time the lump in her throat burned as it met the rising bile.

Munson moved closer, rolling his head and shoulders like a human snake. His tongue tasted the air as he licked his thin lips. “And you’re dead if you don’t tell me how you knew about Clye. I mean . . . . How many people in this town are named Clye?” He was close enough to bring the stale finished-cigarette smell to her nostrils.

And that’s when the next flash came to her.

Chapter 4 – “Down the Rabbit Hole”

September 24, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy turned, coiled away from Munson as he approached her, demanding again, “C’mon, now, sweety. Tell me how you knew about Clye.”

She glanced to the side, down, away, away from his eyes — those terrible black eyes. Then a tiny orange glow caught her attention. The cigarette he smashed out was not completely deprived of fuel. An ember, a faint red star, seemed to get brighter as her eyes locked on it.

Ardy felt herself catapult from the couch, the handcuffs melting away as she rocketed toward the orange glow that intensified and bloomed around her. She gasped and sighed as she felt herself sore and simultaneously shrink. The room became a vast dark cavern, the ember before her a forest fire.

* * *

She was looking out the window, through the neon glow of the PSYCHIC sign distorted by rivers of streaming rainwater, and scratching the stubble on her chin. Stubble? Wait. No. It’s happening again. I’m him. I —

Ardy — inside the man — looked over toward the couch and saw herself reclining there asleep. As she watched, she experienced R. Lee Munson’s thoughts. He wanted her. He did want her that way, but he didn’t want to rape her. He wanted her to give in to him, to actually desire him as a lover, consensually, as a wife. A wife!?

Aware of his thoughts, but also in control of her own mind, she could hardly believe the patterns that were shifting in his head. Maybe I’m imposing this myself, because I’m afraid he’ll attack me. No. No, it’s real. I know it’s real because–.

Because R. Lee Munson’s mind, like every other human brain, didn’t remain focussed on one thing for long. Other flights — memories, plans, ideas, dreams, distractions — raced through in silvery streaks of thought. Munson, as Ardy experienced it, imagined a small house in the country, coming home through a swinging white picket fence. A young red haired boy comes running, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy! What’d you bring me?” Munson’s lunch pail, Ardy can see as she looks down the suited sleeve to the hand in the mind flash, has his initials on it: RLM. “Hello, dear. How was your day?” And Ardy looks up into her own face through his eyes. There, Ardelene Jacobi, happy housewife complete with apron. Her name in the flash is Ardy Munson. That sounds better, he thinks, and she feels him think it.

But that happened in a fraction of an instant within a second. Other things that flash are memories from the last time he smoked a cigarette. Apparently, it had been several years. The pack Ardy had was giving him a pleasant buzz and the pull of the tobacco was calling him back.

He thought briefly of his own childhood, a scarred an horrible memory that Ardy couldn’t resolve with the roiling emotions of hatred, revenge and bloodlust that smeared them. There was also regret, loss, fear, and a deep down scream for redemption.

And he thought about Clye, the man in the suit. The lawyer. A flash: A nameplate on a door that reads, Clyde R. Morrow, Family Law. And another flash, an instant where the lawyer began unbuttoning his shirt and winking, and the lawyer’s ham sandwich breath close and repugnant on R. Lee Munson’s face as the man steps up to him and touches his —

But it’s not a real memory. Ardy feels it as. . . as a fantasy? She wonders if the combination happy household wife vision and the stripping man mean Munson’s homosexual? A subtle flash of internal nausea, a cold brace of anger and remorse, and she instantly knows the truth. R. Lee Munson is a man who lusts for nothing more than a normal, happy life.

And it’s something he realizes — he knows without a doubt — that he will never have.

A sound outside pulls the distracting thoughts of R. Lee Munson, and Ardy the observer, back to the window. A seething hatred of the attorney brews deep within Munson and he feels the urge to kill again. Outside, a semi tractor-trailer roars by.

Again, he turns his attention to Ardy on the couch. She’s propped up on an elbow now, awakened by the sound of the semi. Inside his head, Ardy hears herself say, “Don’t go out there. I’m serious! If you go out to move the truck, they’ll kill you.”

Munson snorts and flash-thinks about being gunned down by marshals, then quickly dismisses the thought while simultaneously realizing the gypsy’s right. He has to move the truck.

Seizing the keys he spotted earlier on a pegboard near the door, R. Lee Munson steps out into the rain. He steps up to Ardelene’s pick-up and climbs into the cab.

That’s the precise moment a beige Homer, Indiana squad car pulls up diagonally next to Munson’s car one space over. Suddenly panicked, he throws the truck into drive instead of reverse and it lurches forward, jumping the porch and smashing the glass panes and the neon PSYCHIC sign which jiggles and sways until the cord gives out.

“It’s him! It’s him!” shouts one of the deputies. They raise their service revolvers as Munson springs from the driver’s door.

Spinning, not sure where to run (and Ardy getting dizzy as she goes along for the ride in the killer’s head), he finally picks a direction — the cornfield across the road.

He knows he’ll never make it, but he has no other choice. Repeating, “Jesus, forgive me!” over and over in his head, he sprints across the road.

He feels the impact in his back before he hears the black police revolver explode. Immediately thinking his spine is shattered by the hollow-point lead, because his legs collapse under him, R. Lee Munson falls on his slackened face across the double yellow lines of the old rural road. Another shot stings the back of his skull and —
* * *

Ardy woke from the vision as a roaring semi truck rocketed past the main window. Propping herself up onto her elbow, she saw Munson stare at her. She knew exactly what was on his mind because she had just come from there. Wait a minute. Where was I? When?

“Don’t go out there!”

Munson glanced at her, appeared to consider something, then set his jaw with resolve.

“I’m serious! If you go out to move the truck, they’ll kill you!” The deja-vu was as strong as a recent memory.

Then he was gone.

Chapter 5 – “Making Matters Worse”

September 23, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy rolled from the couch forgetting she was handcuffed, and landed painfully on her knees. Using her shoulder against the couch, she leveraged up one leg and the other until she was standing, staring out the window. She remembered clearly the psychic vision of Munson attempting to move her truck to get a better view of the road, the arrival of the deputies, and the two gunshots that end his life, but she was powerless to stop him.

He’s already out there.

“Why did I try to stop him?” She wondered aloud, and scrunched up her forehead as she searched for the logic and waited for the screech of tires and gunshots. He came in here, shackled me at gunpoint, threatened to kill me, and I know he is a murderous maniac. Why do I care if he gets gunned down on Route 9 in front of my shop? This is the middle of nowhere. It’s not like I get a lot of traffic.

Because he’s innocent.

Ardy watched as Munson moved to his own car instead of the truck, pulled open the door, and backed out after only an instant’s hesitation.

He’s not innocent, she told herself. He murdered that lawyer in cold blood.

But there was something else to it, a deeper murmur running through his thoughts as she occupied his brain. Ardy more than sensed something. She felt it. As sure as her psychic act was all a sham up until this day, she was sure the man outside was more confused and desperate, needful and hurting, than anything else.

“Now why would I say that?” Ardy muttered to no one under her own breath. Her logical, rational thought continually screamed warnings at her. It doesn’t matter what the visions showed you. The man is a killer. He’s holding you captive in your own home. He’s going to kill you too!

She watched as Munson pulled his car around her truck and ground it through the mud alongside her building. She could hear the engine taxing as the wheels struggled for traction. When the muffled revving stopped in back, she turned her attention toward the window.

And gasped as she saw a Homer police cruiser roll by. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, and no reason to stop, the deputies continued down the road toward town.

A moment later Munson came in the front door and slammed it shut behind him. Dripping from the rain, he blew water off his upper lip and said, “How’d you know?”

Ardy stood shivering, and wondered why exactly it was that she was relieved the cops were gone. She shrugged weakly.

Instead of the rage she thought would come, Munson cringed against a pain Ardy couldn’t identify and ignored her as he turned back toward the ornate chair in the middle of the room.

“Are you all right?” She asked.

He nodded and plopped down. He stretched and arched his back. “Bad back,” he said by way of an explanation. “It flared up when I hauled Clye into the wood and–” Suddenly catching himself, Munson’s eyes widened, “Hey! You git your butt back on that couch, or I swear I’ll kill you right now.”

If he was trying to sound cruel and serious, the tone was lost by the obvious pain.

“No you won’t, Mr. Munson.”

He stared, agape.

“Because you need me. You need me more than you’ve needed anyone in your life.”

Was that the hint of a tear in the corner of his eye, or just a droplet of rain?

Ardy continued, “I believe you came here after you murdered that man for a reason, and I believe I suddenly acquired a real ability to see psychically for a reason too.

“I think we need each other. I don’t know why, or how this’ll work, but I do know one thing.”

He waited a moment, still staring, before his gruff, angry exterior seemed to melt slightly in the chair. “What’s that?”

“You are going to take these handcuffs off me and let me make you a hot soup and sandwich.”

His laugh was that of a pretender. Suspicious.

“And I’ll get you some Ibuprofen for that back.”

R. Lee Munson, murderer, was suddenly disarmed. He looked around uncomfortably, suddenly on the defensive, but also defeated. He slumped further in the chair and started to cry like a weak frightened child. His sobs were so heavy and racked his body so hard that Ardy shrank back expecting a shrieking wail of anguish.

She took a step toward him, her head tilted compassionately.

Munson suddenly sat bolt-upright, reached back for his pistol, drew it, and pointed it at Ardy’s chest.

Ardy gasped and jumped as though frightened by a sudden crash of thunder.

Then he shot her.

Chapter 6 – “The Naked Lie”

September 22, 2008 - Leave a Response

The explosion of the gunshot in the open room was deafening. Ardy felt the impact of the bullet in her chest and whirled as though whacked with a baseball bat. Then everything went dark. And cold.

When she came to Ardy thought she was in the afterlife. At any moment an angel or demon was going to step out of the dim to escort her to her final rest, but the smell of cigarette smoke and roar of another semi speeding past outside tuned her back to the world of sweat and pain and nausea she was now cycling through.

She was on the couch, but this time propped up with pillows from the bed. Her legs were also elevated and she was covered with a quilt tucked in around her neck. Her right side was stiff and ached and, when she reached over with her left hand to touch the area where she was shot, she felt tight bandages stretching the skin of her side under her arm. She was also bandaged around her right forearm. The bullet must have passed by her right breast, creasing both her side and her arm as it punched through. It wouldn’t have been more than a scratch if her arm wasn’t held tightly to the side by –.

Handcuffs.

They’re gone! Ardy winced from the pain in her side as her right hand felt her left wrist. She could trace the creases of depressed skin where the cuffs had been pulled tight, probably while she was unconscious and being moved around like a rag doll by Munson.

Munson. Where? Ardy turned her head but couldn’t see the fortune telling table from this angle. A table with gauze, bandages, alcohol, rubber gloves, a syringe, and a small vial of a clear liquid drug obscured her view.

Ardy shifted and winced. She held her side as she attempted to sit up, but immediately felt dizzy and collapsed again. With her left arm across her midriff to her side she noticed something else. Her clothes had been changed. She was no longer wearing any of the gypsy gear she’d worn before. Though she kept her panties, everything else had been stripped away and replaced with a long gray nightshirt.

Tears welled in her eyes. Part of her was still riding the terror train, her heart trying to beat hard and fast against the mystery drug that kept it quiet. The other part of her wanted to relax. He hadn’t killed her, and if he had meant to, he would have walked up to her where she had feinted from the shock-blast and put a bullet through her forehead. No, Ardy thought. The shot was either a warning — or a mistake.

That couldn’t alter two very urgent new items. One, she was alone. Munson had gone and the top of her truck was no longer visible through the big picture window beyond the backwards PSYCHIC sign. And two, she was no longer cuffed.

Blinking her eyes as she looked around, Ardy’s vision locked on the vial of clear liquid. A tiny glint reflecting off the chrome lip of the drug pierced her vision like a lightning bolt and she found herself pulled into it. As the room elongated and Ardy’s body shrunk, she felt herself levitated off the couch, soaring for countless miles, toward the vial on the table right next to her, all pain and stiffness gone.

* * *

She was in him again, looking down at herself. But this wasn’t a vision of the future, or even a glimpse of where R. Lee Munson was now. This was moments after he’d shot her.

She followed his thoughts: Oh my God! No! I didn’t mean to! It just went–! I thought I’d flicked the safety! Ardelene! Then aloud, “Ardelene!”

He goes to her prone body, face down, and watches as a small amount of blood stains the hardwood floor. He rolls her onto her back and feels for a pulse in her neck. Thank God. Thank God. Just unconscious. She’ll be all right. Where’s my medical bag?

He’s a doctor! Ardy was treated to flashes of memory: internships at the University of Chicago Hospital, medical missionary work in New Guinea, crying buckets over the first patient he ever lost, leaving the medical field to become –.

Then the thought-chain broke and Ardy finds herself within him as he carefully lifts her and carries her to the bedroom. He gives her a shot of something pulled from the medical bag: a combination sedative and anti-biotic. There, he gently removes her vest and blouse, struggles with her bra (… Never done this before …), and noticing how tightly she pulls her belt, loosens it and — from the end of the bed — pulls off her shoes, socks, and slides down her pants.

Oh, God, Ardy thinks inside his head. This is it! But she can’t pull away from his eyes, the feel of his hands as his grip flexes.

But his thoughts are clinical. He takes only the briefest moment to admire her body, but doesn’t think of her as anything but a patient. Rolling her onto her side, he wrestles with the handcuffs before laying her flat again and elevating her right arm to check the damage underneath. The bullet passed through perfectly, searing the skin next to her right breast and tearing a trough out of the inside of her right arm. Scar won’t even show, he thinks.

As Munson works: giving Ardy a Tetanus booster, cleaning and stitching the wound (such detail to minimize the scar!), bandaging her carefully; she can feel and hear all of his thoughts. Again, he thinks of being with her (happily married — Never done that before, either. She’d be nice, but she’d never want to . . . .) and he fears what will happen when she wakes up. He knows she’ll accuse him of raping her, or at the very least attack him for shooting her. ( . . . Has every right. She didn’t know it was an accident . . . .)

But I need her, he thinks. She sees things. Knows things. She can help me get my life back. And another voice deep within his head, perhaps his conscience, But you killed a man, idiot. You cain’t turn away from that! You’re a murd’rer.

And then he cries. He cries again, like the child who was beaten and told not to cry when his father did those horrible horrible things to him. Clye’s better off dead so he can’t do that. Then nausea. Munson turns, vomits into a waste basket.

Ardy would like to stay, hear and feel more as she learns about the demons within the demon, but she is pulled back, out of his mind and heart, out of his hands and head, and painfully back into her own contorted weeping body.

She gasps loudly, sucking in air as though she’d been holding her breath the whole time she was in the vision. She closes her eyes and tries to relax, to absorb all the thoughts and miasma of feelings within the man that she experienced. He didn’t do anything but correct his mistake. He accidentally shot her, almost killed her, but felt deep remorse for doing so. Ardy couldn’t be sure, because it must be different for everyone, but she could almost believe R. Lee Munson, murderer and abused child-man, was truly repentant and considering turning himself in. She would help.

The door opened in time with a distant peel of thunder and her eyes snapped open. She gasped at his silhouette in the doorway.

He stood for a moment, still as a tree. She couldn’t make out his face or his expression, though the angle told her he was staring right at her.

“Had to move yer truck,” he said. His voice deep and menacing, but more wary, like a jungle cat approaching a zebra large enough to put up a good fight. “Want to make sure this joint looks as closed as it is.”

Ardy allowed herself to sink deep into the down pillows. She nodded slowly, pretending to be more scared than she actually was. Munson approached her, straddled the chair he had before, and rested his arms on the back. He wasn’t too close. Maybe he thought she’d spring up and attack him.

“Hurt?”

She blinked. Nodded again.

Munson looked away, thumbed his upper lip, looked back. “You was gettin’ too close. That,” he said, pointing at her side, “was a warning shot. You step outta line again and I swear I’ll put a slug through yer skull.”

Ardy was tempted to call him a liar, to stand up to him and tell him she knew the truth about what haunted him — at least part of it. But that might be dangerous. He wouldn’t — nobody would — want to know someone could get inside your deepest most intimate thoughts. Plus he had a gun.

So, instead, she said, “So . . . What happens now?”

He thought for a moment, his eyes tracing her body beneath the quilt, his brow knitting. Ardy guessed he was probably wondering why she didn’t point out the fact he had removed all her clothes. He’s probably thinking that any woman in her right mind would unleash fury at the violation.

She moved her arms beneath the quilt and widened her eyes, pretending like she just came to and was only now discovering the change. She gasped, “W-What did you do to me!?”

Munson scowled, stood and pulled the chair away. “I shot you –.”

“My clothes!”

He retrieved the gun from the fortune table and came back to her. He didn’t point the gun but swung it at his side to make sure she saw it.

“What did you do to me?” She whimpered. And, to her surprise, found real tears to accompany the act.

He chewed his tongue, then said, “I didn’t rape you, if that’s what you’re thinkin’. But you don’t have to believe me. None of the others did.”

Others? This new revelation jolted her. In his mind there was only Clye — the lawyer. “What do you mean, ‘o-others?'”

“The women I killed.”

She knew — felt — it was a lie. It was a lie that didn’t even taste right to him. She could tell by his crooked smirk. Still, she didn’t dare say a word.

“And you’ll be next if you don’t do exactly what I tell you.”

She swallowed hard. Allowed her eyes to grow wide again.

His smirk straightened into a grin. “Hungry?”

Chapter 7 – “A Dark Line Crossed”

September 21, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy sat at the fortune-telling table while Munson worked in the kitchen. She heard the clink of a knife in a jar, the refrigerator open and close, heard the fsst of the Pepsi being opened, and smelled faintly the aroma of peanut butter.

Munson kept coming back to the door, looking in on her to make sure she hadn’t moved. He’d left off the handcuffs, but denied her a change of clothes. So, Ardy sat in the long gray nightshirt and panties, awaiting her captor’s meal. Even if she could escape, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Something weird was happening to her. She was actually able to enter his mind from time to time: flashes of someone else’s past, glimpses of his memories, and absent times filled in. It was all very strange and, she thought, somehow connected to him. After all, she never had a vision until the second before he walked into her psychic parlor. Huh. Irony.

“You got milk?”

She looked up. He was standing in the doorway, his dark eyes wide and demanding. “Huh?”

“Milk. You got any?”

Ardy shook her head slowly. “Just the Pepsi.” She was a little ashamed to admit her habits for keeping a tidy refrigerator and a stocked cabinet were a little lax. Ardy wasn’t a gypsy, or a real fortune teller — well, at least until a couple hours ago. She didn’t have any family or friends. She lived alone in the back of this roadside psychic reader parlor.

It used to be a farmhouse, but the land was bought up by a farming conglomerate and the family that used to own it took the money and bugged out. They had planned on keeping the house separate from the farm, but soon found there was no reason to live glued to a rural route if you weren’t going to farm the land around it. So, the two acres surrounding the house and tractor barn were left out of the deal with the conglomerate and consequently went for cheap when the family left. Ardy continues to get buy-out requests from the company, but hasn’t been ready to give up her solitude yet.

Munson came out of the kitchen with a glass and a plastic Disney tumbler emblazoned with Mickey Mouse. He set the plastic cup in front of her and the glass at his place, then he returned to the kitchen and came back with a couple of peanut butter sandwiches on wheat bread. All she had.

“Sorry I didn’t have more,” she shrugged.

“You need t’just shut up.” Munson’s tone was suddenly agitated. His eyes were still wide, but this time they were fierce and tiny droplets of sweat ringed them and dotted his forehead. “You don’t speak ‘less I say you can.” His smirk was poisonous. “I got the gun!”

She didn’t need the proof. Her side still throbbed, but Munson pulled the Glock from where it was tucked in his pants and pointed it at her face. If it went off now, even by accident, she doubted there would be a psychic journey into his apologetic mind. Ardy winced and lowered her head. She held her hands up and leaned back in the chair. “No. Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” He came forward and smacked her hands down, pressed the hard square barrel of the Glock into the top of her head. “Don’t what?!”

Ardy started to cry again. How could she be so wrong? She had been inside his thoughts, his deepest thoughts when she was unconscious. He’s troubled, yes, but he’s not as bad as he’s acting. She wished she could fly into his mind now and see where he was going with this torture, why he was suddenly so violent.

DON’T WHAT?!” He roared again. The barrel pushed down hard enough to force Ardy’s chin down and her shoulders up.

“P-Please don’t k-kill me,” she whimpered. Then, the pain radiating from the weapon’s metal barrel became too much. “Oww… Please.”

“What!?” He breathed hard through his nose. The tension, the fury was rising in his vibrating muscles.

Pain pushing her, Ardy ducked her head and twisted away from the gun. “You’re hurting me.”

You don’t know what hurt is!

Ardy looked up at him, agape, and before she could stutter a response, the black blur of the Glock swung down at her temple. And everything went black and cold.

* * *
R. Lee Munson looked down at Ardelene Jacobi’s crumbled body. Her nightshirt had hitched up above her hip and he cocked his head, tracing the curve of her thigh with his eyes. Then he pinched his gaze shut and flicked the image from his mind.

Munson took a deep breath through his nose and tucked the Glock back in his pants. Then he turned away from the overturned chair and Ardy’s sprawled unconscious form, and sat in the fake throne to eat his peanut butter sandwich.

Maybe I should just kill her so I don’t have to debate this with myself.

Then how will she become your precious wife? How will you get your life back.

Shut up!

Oh, you’re going to start yelling at me now? You’re going to what, turn the gun on yourself and knock your own ass outta the chair?

A jolt of fury waved through Munson’s arm and he reached out with a swoop, flipping Ardy’s plate and cup of soda onto the floor. The Pepsi hissed like an angry snake as it spread across the hardwood.

Real smooth, dummy.

Shut up!

Maybe you should kill her? It’ll calm you down.

Maybe I should.

Maybe you should… what?

Kill her.

That’s when Munson rose from the throne.

That’s when a car pulled up outside.

Chapter 8 – “The Bird Tester”

September 20, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy was floating naked in a twisting, churning sea of stars. She knew she was dead because she was weightless and unashamed of her nakedness. Though she drifted through space, she was calm and warm, and awash in loving feelings.

Where is the light? She wondered. Isn’t there supposed to be a shaft of light?

Maybe not. Maybe I just float here for eternity, not knowing

“–To talk to her this time.”

What was that? Ardy strained. A disembodied voice, but not her mind’s voice, had spoken. She wasn’t sure, but it may have been a man, a gentle man’s voice. Not Munson’s. Not the psychotic killer with the family issues. I wonder–.

“Oh, Ardelene. How am I gonna say this?”

The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. And suddenly she didn’t feel like she had died anymore. She was alive, but deeply unconscious, and somehow in the mind of yet another person in their deepest thoughts.

As she floated, the stars around her condensed and coalesced into a streaming blurry vision. At first, the vortex of dark orange light appeared to rush toward her, around her. Then the image divided: orange and blue on top, dark gray below with green on either side, rushing toward her, spreading around her.

Her naked body drifted downward and tilted back slightly. She could feel clothes form on her, but not her nightshirt. Her legs were sliding into jeans and sneakers, her chest flattened to fit into a Polo shirt. She could feel the itch of the logo on her left breast and she could feel the weight of a heavy watch on her left wrist.

Douglas?

Her vision began to clear — well, as much as it could. The eyes she was seeing through were not that good, even with the thick glasses. What she could see through Douglas’s eyes was framed by the convex distortion of the lenses and the wide rectangle beyond. Ardy felt her right foot move to the left and press down on something. Her body shifted slightly with the deceleration.

A car.

Even as she realized she was inside the man’s mind, her vision cleared more and she saw that he was driving somewhere. The road stretched out before her and the waning sun burned the blue sky and began to turn it orange.

Douglas. From the store outside town. It was him all right. But why? How?

While it was true Ardy didn’t have many friends — actually, none really at all — she knew you couldn’t go through life without meeting a person here or there, or even dealing with people on a daily basis if you had to. Sometimes you interacted with the same person repeatedly, a veritable stranger converted into a friend or acquaintance over time, simply by applying a title: teacher, boss, partner, vendor, assistant, supervisor.

In this case, Douglas — she couldn’t recall his last name — was the owner of the Hammond General Store in Homer. Ardy did all her shopping there because it was close, had just what she needed, and there were never any crouds or lines. She even spent a lot of time making small talk with the bespectacled man. He was always friendly, though she often suspected Douglas was a little mentally challenged. No one could be that friendly, or that interested in popular TV shows. Douglas always struggled to chat with her about Lost or Heroes, Desperate Housewives, or 24. She had heard of them, but Ardy hadn’t seen TV since Cheers was on. He always squirmed when he talked, crinkled up his face to push up his heavy glasses, and made bizarre groaning sounds in his throat when he was disappointed. Douglas was always disappointed when Ardy confessed she didn’t know anything about Jack’s relationship with the president, or about the Tail People, or whether or not some housewife was interested in some gardener, and she really knew nothing about Hiro’s dad being the captain of something called Excelsior.

But now she knew it all.

All of what Douglas was was now apart of her. Much deeper than the swim through R. Lee Munson’s mind, Ardy had an instantaneous grasp of who Douglas was and what his loves and fears were. He considered himself a “Trekkie,” not a “Trekker,” whatever that was. He felt a deep connection, almost a kinship, with characters from TV shows. He wept when Keith was killed on One Tree Hill. He shouted in anger every time Cancerman bested Mulder and Scully. He laughed through tears when Ross finally confronted Rachel and told her he loved her, and he repeated the performance when Chandler proposed to Monica.

He was a lonely man, profoundly so. His only solace was in communing with the characters from the boob tube. Consequently, he developed a stutter and had difficulty dealing with people in any capacity beyond store clerk.

He was tops of all his subjects in school, Homer Junior High and East Maple 394 High School. But he never had time for pursuits beyond what labeled him a “geek” and a “nerd.” Always too skinny and gawky for sports, Douglas avoided the athletic crowd. He found one friend named Kenny who invited him into the Geek Realm of Star Trek, Speech and Debate, Chess Club, and computers. By the time he was 20 he had built his own computer and was well on his way to establishing his own local network — before anyone knew what a LAN was.

The pace at which Douglas’s mind uploaded into Ardy’s consciousness was dizzying, but it didn’t seem to be harmful. Facts and figures, both real and imaginary, swarmed into her head. Visions streamed by like the road beneath the car (an old yellow Datsun just like somebody named McCandles. The transmission catches sometimes, but only in extreme cold. If I could have any car I’d have a Corvette Stingray). Lines of dialogue from TV or movies traced lines from ear to ear like Morse code (Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father. He told me enough. He told me you killed him. No…. I am your father). And tiny factoids stuck to mental synapses like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth (I’m allergic to walnuts. I love dogs, but cats make me sneeze. I wonder if Ardelene likes dogs or cats. I miss my gram. I wish football wasn’t pre-empting my show tonight. I wonder if I should’ve washed the car before driving out here. I want to order that new video card, but the store needs an overhaul on the freezer unit in back. I could let the payment on the bait supplier go one more week. I need to pay the beer guy first).

The sound of her name in Douglas’s mind conjured pictures of her own smiling face: with her hair pulled back and her tan lines showing on her shoulders; with her hair pasted down by torrents of rain; trying desperately to carry too much without a cart; looking confused as Douglas tells her about an old Twilight Zone episode that wasn’t in the movie from the 80’s.

Oh, my God. He has a crush on me.

True enough, particularly by the thoughts racing through Douglas’s mind, but nothing like the bizarre David Lynchian visions of R. Lee Munson. Douglas had no delusions about marrying Ardy. In fact, he was on his way to see her at the Psychic Parlor to return the sunglasses she’d left on the counter last week. He had been wrestling with the notion for some time and finally got up the courage — and formulated the plan — to use the sunglasses as an excuse to visit, rouse conversation, and eventually ask her on a date. Nothing more. He just wanted a friend to talk to and she was the only one who ever gave him the time of day in the store.

Sweet. That was the word to describe it. Sweet. And, despite herself, Ardy couldn’t help but think that’s what any girl with a big heart would say, just before she let him down easy: “Oh, you’re sweet, but I can’t because… I’m a loser too but feel superior to you because I’m not a geek!” That had happened to him countless times in the past, and why he deeply feared not only that he would die a virgin, but that he would die alone. Alone with every episode of The X Files on DVD, and no one to watch it with. With Douglas’s every thought, every hope and dream, every recalled television moment in pixelated clarity, his only fear was… fear of rejection.

Wait a minute. On his way? Here?

Ardy felt herself swirl out of his head. She felt her own body coming back into form as the vision blackened and left her in cold darkness again. Then, the pain. Throbbing at first, then sharp, she felt the sting in her side and now the pulsing hell on the side of her head. Opening her eyes slowly, she pulled herself onto her side, resting on an elbow.

She was in her bedroom, lying on top of the covers, still wearing her nightshirt and panties. Listening intently, her ear cocked toward the doorway, she heard rustling but no conversation. No gunshots. No shink of a knife blade and crumple of a body Douglas’s size.

Then Ardy realized something that made her feel Douglas would be okay after all. In the vision, it was sunny and late in the afternoon. It was earlier than that now, and raining like cats and d–.

She looked toward the window, then the clock. Sunset was only an hour away, and the sky had cleared to a fading umber. “Oh, my God,” she whispered through a burning throat, and rolled out of bed as quietly as she could.

Stepping lightly into the doorway to the main chamber and Psychic Reader Parlor, Ardy braced herself on the door jamb. Through the window, orange sunlight glinted dully off the windshield of a yellow Datsun.

“Oh, Ardelene. Hi.”

Douglas, previously hidden behind the reading table, stood from his crouch. He was holding a sodden rag stained with cola. He motioned weakly toward the other door in the room, the one leading to the kitchen. “I was helping your brother, R. Lee, clean up the mess he made.”

Dazed. Stunned. She could only stare and look confused.

R. Lee Munson came to the kitchen doorway, a fresh towel in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Hiya, sis. Dougie here was just helpin’ me with my little mishap. Hope we didn’t wake ya. We was talkin’ for seems like hours before he offered to help.”

“Well, I-Ida jumped in right away, but I didn’t, d-didn’t know if you m-minded.”

Sweet. Was all she could think. Her mind was slow to draw the points together, and her head pounded too hard to define the scene before her.

After a moment of awkward silence, Douglas exchanged the wet rag for the towel R. Lee handed him. He said, “Oh. Sorry. It’s me, you know? Douglas Testerbird from the General Store.”

When she didn’t respond right off, Douglas turned red and dropped slowly to his hands and knees to finish mopping up. He made a soft groaning sound in his throat.

Ardy’s face slowly turned toward Munson’s. He was smiling broadly.

As she watched, he reached behind his back to pull something from the small of his back.

His dark eyes glinted. He mouthed the words, “Watch me kill him,” and produced the gun.

Chapter 9 – “Brainwashing”

September 19, 2008 - Leave a Response

No! Ardy wanted to scream. But in that brief millisecond, she actually thought her shout would do more harm than good. What if it was a bluff? What if R. Lee wasn’t going to shoot Douglas? What if her scream would be the blame and cause for the hardwood to be stained not only with Pepsi, but with the blood and gray matter from Douglas’ head.

So, instead, she mouthed the words, Please don’t. Don’t. I’ll do anything.

Munson’s smile faded slightly, then returned, like that of a mischievous child who was halted in an act of vandalism only to think of something better to do that was even more dastardly.

Douglas rose from the floor. “T-There. I think I have it all.”

Munson took the soiled towel from him and removed the cigarette to blow smoke toward Ardy. “Not a problem, Doug. I sure do ‘preciate yer help.”

As the killer returned the sopping rag and towel to the kitchen, Ardy took a quick step toward Douglas and whispered harshly, “What are you doing here? You should leave. Leave now!”

“W-Whuh?”

From the kitchen: “Hope ya don’t mind, sis. I asked Doug to stay with us tonight. Ain’t that right, Dougie?”

Leaning toward Ardy, but twitching his ear toward the kitchen, Douglas Testerbird seemed to be trying to listen to two conversations at once, perplexed at the possible meaning underlying one and the tone overshadowing the other.

Ardy stepped closer and said, “Don’t stay, Doug. Trust me. Just leave now. He’s crazy. He’s a –”

“Lunatic,” Munson finished from the kitchen doorway. He was holding the Glock in one hand and leveling down its sites to the suddenly shivering Douglas Testerbird. The cigarette, now an orange-tipped nub, danced between his lips.

Reflexedly, perhaps from one of those shows he watched all the time, Douglas raised his hands high over his head and slowly eased them down behind his skull, interlocking the fingers. “P-Please, Mr. Jacobi, don’t shoot.”

Click.
Click.
Click. Click.

Munson squeezed off four shots at Douglas, but the gun either misfired, jammed, or was out of bullets. Not knowing anything about guns, Ardy had no clue what the answer was. A resolution to the question, however, soon announced itself in Munson’s tale.

He said, “See. You can put yer arms down, Dougie. I can’t kill ya. Ardy took all my bullets.”

Douglas slowly lowered his arms, glanced between Ardy who was studying her brother and R. Lee Munson, whose gaze was like a hawk, piercing Douglas the frightened bunny. “I-I don’t understand.”

“She took ’em,” Munson repeated. He stepped into the room. “I haven’t seen my sister in years, ages. I was feelin’ pretty low on m’self, and was plannin’ to come back here to commit . . . To commit . . . .” Munson did an admirable job of conjuring up fake tears, albeit the soap opera variety.

“Suicide?” Ardy and Douglas asked together.

Munson sniffed. “I was gonna blow out m’ own brains, I was. Ardy stopped me.”

Douglas looked at her as if searching for more. Ardy let her gaze drop to the floor.

Munson stepped up to the two of them, raised the pistol, then spun it on his palm so he was handing it, grip first, to Doug. Lunging quickly, Ardy snatched it from his hand and stepped back before Douglas refused the offer.

Playing into the skit for now, Ardy cocked her head and said, “There, there. I told you to leave this alone. You took it outta the night stand, didn’t you?”

Munson smiled. He was obviously loving the fact that she was playing along, but — more frighteningly — he seemed nonplussed by losing the weapon. He lowered his head and acted, “Yer right, sis. I-I’m sorry.” Then to Douglas, “I didn’t mean to scare ya, Mr. Birdtester.”

“I-It’s Testerbird, and that’s okay, R. Lee. That’s okay. You can just call me Douglas.” Then to Ardy, his hands wringing, the new guest said, “Um, maybe I should g-go.”

“Don’t do that, T-bird,” Munson frowned. “Please.

“I put my sister through a whole helluva lot. She’s tarred. Stick around.”

Ardy frowned at Munson. She didn’t know where this was going, but bucks to bullets he was looking to take another hostage. She said, “That’s okay, R. Lee. I can take care of you. If Doug has to go–.” She took Doug by the elbow and began to lead him toward the door.

Douglas Testerbird, now seeing an opportunity in Ardelene’s brother’s invitation, a chance to stay and learn something about the life and family of the woman he brought an interest in, pulled back. “W-Well maybe for a b-bit. Maybe I can just stay a spell. . . ’til the rain lets up?”

Munson nodded. Fake glints of appreciation sparkled his eyes as he smiled to Ardy. “Let the man stay, sis.”

Ardy reluctantly released Doug’s arm and turned to face Munson. “Only for a spell then.”

“Maybe you should get dressed, Ardy? Now’s we got comp’ny,” R. Lee said, and spat the cigarette butt onto the floor before mashing it out with his boot.

The heavy gun in her hand, Ardy turned quickly and shut herself into the bedroom. She looked around quickly for a place to hide the weapon, but nothing sprang to mind. She moved from dresser to bed, under the bed, the closet, an old shoe box; then she moved to the attached bathroom.

Gently removing the heavy porcelain toilet tank cover, she set it aside and dropped the pistol into the chilly water, then she replaced the lid.

Returning to her room, she pulled a pair of jeans and a sleeveless blouse from the closet and began to dress herself. She wondered what the killer and the admirer were talking about.

Admirer? Yeah, she guessed that’s what he was. She had a secret admirer and, the greatest secret of all was that she never knew. She didn’t know Douglas Testerbird had a thing for her. She assumed there were other people in his life, or even in the store, he talked to more regulars than just her. Ardy was just a customer after all, and didn’t know or even care about his favorite TV shows.

But, back when she was in his mind, she detected something. He didn’t care that she seemed to feign interest at some subjects, listened to others, or honestly told him she didn’t know or care about what he wanted to discuss. He was moved by the simple fact that she looked him in the eye and listened to him. That’s all it took to snag his heart. The loneliness inside his mind — so innocent and filled with so much fiction — was palpable.

After she pulled on her sneakers and tied them tightly (in case she found herself running for her life), Ardy took a deep breath and froze. A thought chilled her.

Now what? R. Lee Munson was a homicidal killer with delusions of family he can never have. Why would he want to keep Douglas around? Why the story about being Ardy’s brother? What was he planning? While she was unconscious, Munson could have dealt with Douglas easily and hid his car around back with the other two. You can’t hang a man for the same crime twice, right? Why is he keeping him here?

When the truth came, Ardy gasped and her eyes widened. She looked up at the door, as if she could see through it to the room beyond where the two men stood. He’s going to use Douglas to get to me. He can’t wrap his head around this psychic business any more than I can, but he can’t leave me. I know too much. And . . . he’s attracted to me.

Ardy stood and went to the door. Great, she thought. All my life I could never get a man to look at me. Now I have two and they both give me the creeps. As she opened the door, she found herself feeling guilty about thinking of Douglas that way. He was the innocent. If she cut out everything she knew about his deepest thoughts and his desire to get to know her better, he would seem no more bizarre than the average geeky lonely man. Munson was the creepier of the two, but he had baggage only Ardy knew about as well. He had a deep pain, possibly from some older abuse. It was still a mystery why he came to the lawyer Clye, and why Clye tried to make a sexual advance on him.

Ardy hated mysteries. They were knots that could be left alone, but she could never leave a knot alone.

Maybe, she thought, there’s a reason for Douglas to be here now. Maybe it’s divine providence, or whatever, that brought him here at this particular moment. Maybe the unexpected general store owner, even a little too shy and geeky around the edges, maybe he could save her from Munson’s unhatched plan. Maybe he can help me save Munson from himself.

Maybe he will be her knight in shining armor.

I never had one of those, Ardy thought sheepishly.

As she stepped into the room, she saw R. Lee Munson lift the crystal ball and bring it down hard on the back of Douglas’s skull.

Chapter 10 – “Regaining Power”

September 18, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy watched as the general store owner’s head snapped back and his eyes rolled up. His body folded back and collapsed at Munson’s feet with a sickening ka-thump.

Oh, my God, No! Why? Why would you–?!” She screamed, partially in shock and partially in blind rage. While still blind, Ardy ran to Douglas’s side without thinking. She intended to kneel down beside him, cradle his head, and see if he was still breathing. Try to revive him. But Munson stepped between them, ducked, and came up at her like a broad defensive tackle, catching her around the waist and throwing her back.

“Easy! Easy,” Munson cautioned. He held her shoulder back with one hand and held up an admonishing finger with the other. “Don’t.”

“You killed him, you monster! You killed him!

Munson’s hand moved from her shoulder to Ardy’s throat. He squeezed just tight enough to cut off her air, to get her attention. Her flailing arms went to his wrist and tried fruitlessly to pull his claw grip away.

The killer took a deep breath. “Now you listen closely to me, Ardelene. ‘Cause I ain’t gonna say it twice.”

She sputtered, gagged. Her eyes went wide as panic wrestled with the rational thought to stop struggling so he could ease his grip.

“I killed that homo attorney. I killed that woman in Sioux Falls. I killed Douglas Birdtester. And I’m gonna kill you . . . .” He let the last part sink in. Deep.

Ardy stopped struggling and he eased his grip. Tears welled in her eyes. She cried for the lawyer. She cried for Douglas. She even cried for the made-up woman in Sioux Falls. And she cried for herself, about to die for no reason, not having lived or found her purpose in life. All for nothing. Without helping where help was obviously need. She saw in their minds. She knew what they needed, just didn’t know how to deliver it.

“Unless,” Munson added finally, “You agree to go with me. Stay with me.”

The memory of that haunting vision flashed through Ardy’s mind: Munson coming home from a hard day’s work, the red-headed boy calling him “daddy” and running up to hug his leg, and Ardy coming to the door in a June Cleaver apron to wave and ask how his day went. Her tears became a whimper and a slow whine. Nothing would ever be the same again. She couldn’t fight this man, but she also couldn’t see going along with his twisted dream until she found an opportunity to break free. He would kill her long before then. He’d get bored and end it. Or whatever malady ate at his mind would eventually eat the bright spot, the spot she was wanting to reach.

Munson stepped away from her and turned to snag the chair Douglas’s arm was hooked on. Kicking the arm off the leg wrung, he turned the chair around and set it across the table and motioned for Ardy to sit. Then he circled the table and plopped himself in the throne, snatching up the cigarettes and lighter and drawing one out of the pack.

Ardy tried not to look at Douglas’s lifeless form next to her, but she couldn’t look away. The blood stained crystal ball had rolled against his side. A glint from a passing car’s headlights outside caught her eye. She tried to look away, to address Munson, but it was too late.

Before she blacked out, she heard him start, “We are going to talk about how I can use your psychic….”

* * *

She lifted into the air, shrank, twisted, and catapulted down to the crystal ball on the floor. She felt her hair whipping around her shoulders, her blouse flapping around her, as the smell of blood on the thick glass ball became stronger and stronger.

Then she was inside Munson’s head looking out at herself, blacked out, out cold, head lolling back as she entered the trance she’s in now.

I’m in the present, she thought to herself. I’m in him looking out at me.

“Now what,” Munson snuffed. Ardy noted to herself that this was how his voice sounded to him. And that he was struggling to keep it tough, keep it from cracking. It was deeper, more gravelly inside the skull. How distorted. She briefly wondered if all humans were under a delusion: The normal voice we hear is the voice we hear recorded. It’s the inner voice that’s wrong and sour.

As Ardy watched through Munson’s eyes, he lit the cigarette and stared. He watched her chest heave with each breath. He watched her eyes flicker under wrestless lids. What’s happening to me, she cried. Why doesn’t something happen? She began to feel uncomfortable, looking at herself with a killer’s eyes. He couldn’t help but focus on her rising breasts, the curve of her soft neck.

Do it.

No.

Look at her. Your future wife.

Shut up! Don’t do this to me.

You gonna cry? You gonna cry like that time you were the worm. The worm –.

SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

And though Ardy could experience each painful memory brought up by the argument between the two personalities, she could also feel rage and anger — and anguish — instead of sorrow, guilt, and fear.

The battle inside Munson’s conscience continued:

If you do it, you won’t be a virgin anymore — or a homo.

I’m not! I’m not! LEAVE ME ALONE!

I won’t leave you alone until you do to her what Clye did to you.

No! It’s wrong! I won’t!

But you’re a tough guy, remember. What did you call yourself?

Lemme alone!

A killer. You are a killer, killer. What was that Sioux Falls crap?


So rape her…. And kill her.

Maybe it was because R. Lee Munson really was a psychotic criminal. Maybe it was the “newness” of seeing someone else’s thoughts, but Ardy was having a difficult time sorting out what she was seeing and feeling inside Munson’s head. Images flashed by: A smiling woman (his mother?); a stern father; a car hitting his dog, the Golden’s head snapping violently away from the bumper as the carload of laughing teens accelerated away; his first kiss with a girl in pre-med; his first fight in third grade; the sting of his father’s belt; the gentleness of a stranger’s kiss; the smell of vomit; the smell of apple pie; mugged at gunpoint in Washington D.C.; swimming in a cool lake after a hard day’s work in the sun; crying over his mother’s corpse; laughing at a poker game . . . . The pace of the flashes, and their twisting and strange connections, whirled around Ardy as she struggled to make sense of them.

During all of this, Ardy was distracted by the visions. She didn’t notice that Munson had stood and had circled the table to stand next to her. His hand was outstretched, his thumb and forefinger holding her chin. He leaned down.

He’s going to kiss me! Oh, my God! I’m not unconscious! I’m here! I’m in HIM!

Ardy — inside Munson — felt her head lower to her own face, her/his lips part slightly as they were touched by her own breath —

Then pain. A shock of cold pain exploded through the left side of Munson’s head.

* * *

Ardy’s eyes snapped open. She was back — instantly — in her own body, staring up wide-eyed at Munson’s face, his mouth hanging slack over hers. Blood coming in a trickle down the side of his head.

Crack! It came quick, a silver blur, as Douglas staggered forward and swung the bloodied crystal ball again. Refusing to let go, the store owner swung like a pendulum out of control. He spiraled dizzily toward the front door and dropped the crystal ball which fell with a loud wooden crack when it hit the floor. He staggered and tried to right himself. Blood still stained the collar and shoulder of his shirt.

Munson tried to steady himself on Ardy’s chair, but couldn’t hold himself up. With a whimpering breath, he fell forward, collapsing painfully onto Ardy and driving the chair, with her in it, over backwards.

Ardy landed with a hard thump. The pain in her arm and side rang out as she tried to roll out from under Munson, but his unconscious body was too heavy. She let out a short yelp as the chair hit the floor, and Douglas moved in to push Munson aside and help her quickly to her feet.

“Oh, God, thank you, Douglas.”

Salwhite,” he slurred. Then he collapsed on the floor next to Munson.

They were both either dead or out cold.

Ardy had a lot of work to do before they regained consciousness.

She kicked the bloodied crystal ball aside and moved quickly to the kitchen for the supplies she’d need.

Chapter 11 – “A Death in the Kitchen”

September 17, 2008 - Leave a Response

R. Lee Munson came to in the throne and, for a moment, forgot everything that had happened. For the briefest instant, he thought he had just dozed off in the elaborate chair and allowed Ardelene and the Bird Tester to escape.

That notion was further confirmed by his inability to move. His head throbbed with a migraine-like intensity, his drool was bloody, and the side of his head itched where the blood had dried to his scalp, but he was aware enough to see the silver cocoon he was trapped in. He had been duct taped to the chair.

“Ardelene. Ard–.” It was the Bird Tester. He backed away from Munson as though the imobilized killer could spring out of the throne and attack. Apparently, Munson thought, the scrawny should-have-been-dead bastard was left to guard him while Ardy . . . .

She came out of the bedroom toweling something off. It was his Glock. She got it wet. How did she get it wet? What, did she hide it in the damn toilet!?

“Give me the bullets,” Ardy said to Douglas. He only hesitated an instant before handing over the two clips.

“I-I counted. It’s a Glock 19, compact nine millimeter. Each m-mag holds 15 rounds. There’s 15 in that one but only 13 in that one. H-He must’ve shot that guy twice.”

Ardy must’ve filled ‘im in, Munson thought. All the gory details. No biggie.

Ardy shrugged her good side. “Nope. Once. He saved the other one for me, didn’t ya, handsome?”

Both Munson and Douglas bristled at the word, each for different reasons.

“Hurry. He’s coming to.”

“It’s okay. He’s secure.” Ardy examined the pistol for a few moments before snapping the clip into place and charging a bullet into the chamber. She then gently lowered the hammer so she wouldn’t accidentally shoot. Ardy clicked on the safety. She was a pro — somehow — and Munson became amused by her prowess.

Noticing his attention and smile, Ardy smiled back. “Amazed, R. Lee?” I learned it from you.

The mention of his name and an indication of a tactical intimacy made him want to profess his love then and there. To the Bird Tester, he chided, “How did you know what ya knew?”

“X-Files.”

“Wha?”

“Shut-up!” Ardy’s mood changed, darkened. She pointed the Glock at Munson’s face and took a step forward.

Douglas winced and stepped back. Hand held up to block the gory view. He said, “Don’t shoot him in here, like that. That’s murder. He’s defenseless.”

“He’s a murderer,” Ardy said. “Ain’tcha?”

Munson studied the end of the barrel. It wasn’t shaking at all. What happened while he was out cold?

Douglas said, “You don’t need to d-d-drop to his level, Ardelene. P-P-P-Please . . . p-put the gun down.”

“You have no idea what goes through that mind of his.” Munson himself never thought of raping or harming Ardy in any way, shape or form, but something else inside him did. She didn’t know where it came from, but that somehow made Ardy feel even more uncomfortable around the murderer. Douglas took it the other way.

“I could imagine. H-He’s a creep to be sure. B-But, please, Ardelene. He’s tied up. He ain’t going anywhere. We should c-call the cops.”

Ardy paused, pushed her finger off the trigger, and lowered the gun before saying to Douglas, “I do know. I know exactly what was in his mind. It’s like there’s two of them or something.”

“Schizo,” Douglas guessed, as he studied Munson like a lab experiment.

Munson didn’t know how she did it. He didn’t know how she knew about Clye, how she knew something would go down if he didn’t move both his car and her truck, or how she knew how to handle a pistol. There were no such things as psychics. He was sure of that. Whatever Ardelene Jacobi was doing was some kind of parlor trick.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should kill her. __ Of course you should, dummy. But now you’re ‘all tied up.’ __ I’ll get out soon enough. __ Sure you will. __ I just gotta turn on the charms, get her to loosen this crap. __ And what about the Bird Tester? — Kill him too.

Ardy then told the scrawny Douglas to sit on the couch while she explained everything. She covered every detail from the time Munson walked in the door, including what she sees and how she feels when she’s in a trance. And how glints of light seem to set it off. That filled in the gaps regarding the murder they knew about. Douglas nodded and scratched his chin.

“You never told me any of that. ‘N I asked kindly,” Munson called over.

Douglas glanced up. Ardy ignored him. She finished, “And I can prove it.”

“Prove it?” Douglas said. “How can you prove it? You want me to think of a number?”

Ardy glanced around the room as if looking for something. Not finding a glinting light source, she said, “Nah. No, don’t. Just think about what you want to do. Is there a plan you made with your life that you don’t want your mom and dad to find out? Is there something you’ve been harboring? A secret. Something only you would know?”

Douglas shuffled uncomfortably. “I-I’m not sure. I-I don’t think — Um, Ardelene, you don’t have to –”

But she was already off. Spotting the stained crystal ball on the floor, she went over to it, picked it up, and marched off to the kitchen with it, leaving Douglas alone with the killer.

Douglas’ and Munson’s eyes met. The sound of water running hissed in from the kitchen.

Munson lowered his head and stared out from under his eyebrows, arching them into the best sinister glare he could command. “I’m gonna kill you, cowboy. I am.”

Douglas gasped and winced. His eyes darted to the duct tape binds. He wringed his hands and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Y-You aren’t gonna kill nobody, m-mister.”

“You wanna be first? Or do ya wanna watch while I gut yer girlfriend from ‘er throat on down? Bet I c’n split her in two.”

Douglas stood bolt upright and called toward the kitchen, “Ardelene? You okay?”

The water stopped running. Then came a crash and a thud, not much different from a bowling ball dropping on a flimsy metal table full of silverware. The sound of a body falling followed immediately after.

Munson craned his neck toward the adjoining room. He called, “Ardy! Ardy girl!”

Douglas called out too, “Ardelene,” and ran toward the kitchen, making sure to cut a wide path around the throne where Munson was held.

At the kitchen doorway, he said, “Oh, my God.”

“What is it?” Munson tried rocking the heavy chair, scooting it so he could get a better view. The heavy furniture wouldn’t budge. “What is it, idiot!? She okay?”

“N-No,” Douglas muttered. “She ain’t.” His voice was distant. The saddest thing Munson had ever heard. And he’d heard a lot of sadness in his life.

Munson grunted and strained at his bonds. Sure something horrible had happened to the woman of his life-changing designs, that could’ve been prevented if not for this dummy storeclerk, he was desperate to escape and run to her. “Get me outta this! I’m a doctor, you idiot!”

Douglas stepped into the kitchen and knelt by Ardelene Jacobi’s side. He leaned over her to see if he could see how far the steak knife was embedded into her chest. The handle wasn’t moving because she had stopped breathing. Douglas inched back to avoid the slowly spreading pool of blood edging toward him.

Tears welled in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. Douglas Testerbird wept for the loss he had never known, and would never have the chance to know. He placed one hand on her shoulder and one on her stomach. Neither moved or reacted to his touch. He couldn’t reason how it happened. No one else was here. Either Ardelene stabbed herself, or she dropped the ball on that platter of silverware and that flicked the knife–.

In the other room, R. Lee Munson’s shouts became a chaotic din over Douglas’ screaming sobs.

And Ardy watched it all unfold below her.

Chapter 12 – “Over the Brink”

September 16, 2008 - Leave a Response

After Ardy washed off the crystal ball, she buffed it with a kitchen towel until it glinted like real German crystal. She was vaguely aware of Munson’s threats in the other room and hoped the killer wouldn’t intimidate Douglas while he was taped to the big chair.

Still, she hurried, wanting to get back to the store owner to give her demonstration. She had to find something new in his mind. She couldn’t very well tell him she knew he was coming here with the intention of playing the part of “gentleman caller.” That would be instantly embarrassing and could lead to anything from a fearful outburst of some kind to Douglas just bolting for the door and away to who-knows-where. Besides, it would give Munson ammunition. She had to find something harmless. Something inside his mind, perhaps a memory from childhood that —

A glint bounced off the crystal ball, a yellow flash reflected from the small light above the range, and stabbed her in the eyes. Ardy felt herself real back, twirling and shrinking as she floated and sank out of her tumbling body. Not having anything to support it, Ardy watched as her unconscious form tilted back before falling forward, crystal ball still held out before it, as it thumped into the counter and partially-open silverware drawer and platter sticking out. The weight of her body caught the drawer and snapped it out of its tracks as the crystal ball rolled out of her body’s hands and cracked on the floor.

Ardy wanted to close her mind’s eye to the fall. She wouldn’t feel the pain her body felt, but she would feel the aftermath when she re-entered it. Mentally wincing, she followed her body as it tumbled over the wrecked drawer and fall in slow motion toward the tumble of broken plywood, plastic trays, and silver forks, knives, and spoons.

Ooh, I hope I don’t

The sensation was immediate and alarming. A cold spike of energy shot through her corporeal self and suddenly everything seemed even clearer and brighter than it was before. Her “psychic imagery” as she thought to call it was now as intense as a 360-degree high definition Dolby surround sound extravaganza. The blaring IMAX-like images were bright and colors exploded that she had never noticed before. Every intense detail of the tile floor, her body’s clothes, the tiny crack in the outlet where the toaster was plugged, every scratch and knick in the silverware, and every one of the thousand or so infinitesimal impurities in the molded glass sphere of her crystal ball.

Then her body rolled onto its side and she saw it. The handle of the steak knife jutting from her chest. “Oh, no! NO!

Ardy tried to will herself back into her form, straining to get back into her body, reach up and pull the knife out with her last ounce of strength . . . . but she could do nothing but watch.

Watch… as Douglas Testerbird knelt beside her and began to weep.

“No, no! God, no. I can’t be dead! I can’t!”

And then it happened.

The room suddenly became crowded with other bodiless spirits like her own. Blue glowing images at first, they coalesced and became solid forms. Men, women, children. She recognized none of them, but they were all familiar somehow. They were all kind, welcoming, and reaching out to her with gentle, sorrowful faces. She could see that they were reading her pain and empathized with her shock. They called her by name, “Ardy,” “Ardelene,” “Miss Jacobi,” “Daughter,” “Sister.”

She wanted to go with them, be comforted by them.

A kind male spirit approached her, his outstretched arms hidden in the sleeves of a long robe. When he reached out, Ardy saw pools of blood in his palms from the wounds leaking just above his wrists. He said, “Come, Ardelene.”

I can’t believe this. Ardy was a regular church-goer, though she was shunned by her own congregation. When they heard about her line of work, they called her such silly things as “false prophet,” “Purveyor of lies,” “harlot,” and “heathen.”

She felt bad about the perceptions, but could not help who and what she was. In fact, her role as “Psychic Advisor” — while indeed fake — was to provide comfort and guidance to people who needed it. Most of the time she guided people to the very church where she was ostracized and relegated to sit shyly in the back corner pew, to come in late and leave early. She used a mainstream hocus-pocus parody to turn people to God. Not all of them went, but the feeling was rewarding nonetheless. Besides, Ardelene Jacobi had no other skills. She couldn’t even bag groceries in the Hammond General Store.

While Ardy wasn’t exactly prepared to leave this earth, the warmth and love she was feeling from the crowd, and the man leading them in particular, was too much to resist. All her cares and earthly worries were leaving her, dropping and shedding away from her. Everything from the murderer in her living room to the tiniest blemish on her physical form, every care and worry, every thought, was melting away rapidly and being replaced by the most intense heartfelt and unconditional love she had ever imagined.

And then it all stopped.

* * *

While her cross-over to death was heralded by a cold snap, her cross back into life was a hot, painful rip.

Ardy’s chest heaved ceilingward and she gargled a bloody gasp as the knife ejected itself from her bosom. Her body was suddenly heavy, gawky, filled with tiny aches and pains and pressures she hadn’t felt on the other side.

And the only thing she could hear from her incredibly deaf ears, was a warm voice saying, “There is much yet for you to do. It cannot be your time, Ardelene. You must save him. You must prepare him for Michael.”

Another bloody gasp and rasping coughs jarred her whole body. Her limbs felt cold and clammy, her blinking eyes burned because they had frozen open in death and were dry, and she felt an uncomfortable dampness in her jeans as her body had released its hold on her at the moment of death.

* * *

She sat up and tore at her shirt to see the wound left by the knife. There was none.

But the blade, held in Douglas’ shaking fist, was as bloody as a prop in a horror film.

Douglas feinted, dropping the knife harmlessly and collapsing backwards off his knees.

R. Lee Munson called from the other room, “What the hell is goin’ on in there!?

Ardy cleared her throat and stood on shaky legs. “Hell has nothin’ to do with it, R. Lee. Nothin’ at all.”

Or, she wondered, was hell yet to come?

Chapter 13 – “Ardy’s Mission”

September 15, 2008 - Leave a Response

“This is ffffff–”

“This is just . . . .”

“Aaaaaaaaaarrrrgh!”

Munson rocked back and forth in his throne of captivity, thrashing his head from side to side and straining to see the kitchen doorway. He had moved the heavy chair enough that he could make out Douglas’ legs on the floor and a dark puddle that looked like . . . blood?

Ardy had calmly walked out of the kitchen and into her bedroom. A door closed gently. And a shower started. Now she was in there taking a shower and singing. Singing!

“Bird Tester! Hey, you read me in there? The hell’s goin’ on? You dead?”

More thrashing. More straining at the duct tape that held him in place. Munson could feel the heavy bonds start to peel, but only slightly at his right wrist. He would still never get out in time. Had she killed him? Did Ardy kill the Bird Tester and now she was takin’ a shower to get the blood off ‘er? The idea was crazy, completely out of place, but no more out of place than running into a real life psychic. But why would she do such a thing.

For the first time today R. Lee Munson felt a tiny glimmer of fear.

The sound of a groan tapped Munson on the shoulder and he held his breath. “That you?”

Mmmmm. Augh.

“Stutterin’ Bird man?”

Douglas Testerbird staggered in from the kitchen, the bloody knife in his fist. He rubbed at his temples and groaned like a man suffering from an infernal migraine. He righted himself as best he could and stepped in front of Munson who was staring wide-eyed at the blood smeared steak knife blade.

“Whatcha gonna do with that, buddy?”

“I ain’t your b-buddy, buddy,” Douglas slurred and placed a hand on Munson’s shoulder and touched the tip of the blade to his chest just over his heart. “I wanna show you somethin’.”

“Whatcha gonna show me, tough guy?” Even bound. Even a little frightened of the last few minutes’ turn of events, Munson held his ground.

Both men turned and saw Ardy standing in the doorway. She had changed into an oversized t-shirt with a sailboat on it and a pair of baggy shorts. “Put the knife down, Douglas. We need to talk.”

Douglas swallowed hard and tossed the knife aside, then he staggered back and collapsed on the couch.

Munson glanced between the two. “What the unholy hell is goin’ on? You two are spookin’ the crap outta me.”

Ardy stood staring past Munson to Douglas, studying him. It was like she was waiting for him to suddenly spring to life and yell “Surprise!” Or maybe she was more leery about him going for the knife? If Munson could scratch his head, he would.

“Please, Ardy.”

“Ssh!”

Ardy walked past the bound killer and sat next to Douglas on the couch. He appeared to be unconscious, or at least drained to his core. “Are you all right, Douglas?”

His eyes fluttered open and the store owner muttered, “Weak. Weak. T-Tired.”

Ardy stood and eased him down. She lifted his legs to stretch him out on the couch and fluffed the pillow behind his head. Then she looked over at Munson.

The killer watched as she rose, walked slowly toward the table, pulled a cigarette from the nearly-empty pack, and stepped up to him. Leaning close, almost face to face, she reached her hand into his front jean pocket and squirmed out the lighter.

“Hey,” Munson protested. Then he leaned into her and said, “Now if you want to get personal, I’d be happy to oblige.”

Ardy lit the cigarette, dropped the lighter on the table, and took a long dark drag. After blowing out the smoke, she leaned in to Munson once more and held the glowing red tip of the cigarette close to his cheek. Munson leaned away, but she was sure to keep it close enough to feel the heat.

“Now you listen to me, R. Lee Munson, because we have a lot to discuss.”

“What?” He tried to hold the tough guy image, but it was hard when he was taped to a chair leaning away from a branding iron. “What could we possibly have to diss-cuss? You got me. You n’ the bird man. Why don’t you just call the damn sheriff?”

Ardy stood up straight, turned the cigarette around and offered the smoke to Munson. He apprehensively parted his lips and accepted the smoke, drew, blew out the puff. “Well?”

Ardy dropped the butt and stomped it out with her bare foot. She didn’t even wince at the stinging burn. “We have to discuss how I’m gonna save you.”

“Save me?” Munson snorted. “That’s easy. Get me outta this damn chair for starters.”

She shook her head. “No. There you will stay until I figure out what it is I’m supposed to do.”

Munson’s demeanor changed. He stared into her eyes and seemed to catch something that wasn’t there before and, for the second time since he met Ardelene Jacobi, he looked afraid.

Ardy continued, “Before I came back from the dead, I was given a message. Save him.”

The killer glanced over at Douglas. He was out cold. He turned back to Ardy. “Back from the dead?”

“I have to save you, R. Lee.” Ardy smiled and swelled her chest with a deep breath. With her hands on her hips she looked like she was sizing up a dirty job that had to be done and she just wasn’t quite ready to do it. “I’ve been charged with saving your soul and I intend to do it.”

Munson glanced back and forth between the crazy psychic woman and the unconscious homo store clerk. “What the–?” He coughed and tried to shift uncomfortably in his chair. He could only wobble his head. “What kinda game are you two playin’ at?”

“No game,” Ardy said. She moved behind him where he couldn’t see her but soon reappeared with the other chair. She set it down and sat before him. “I was dead, in there. In the kitchen. I was on the other side, R. Lee. I was given a commandment.”

“You’re effin’ crazed.”

Ardy slowly shook her head. “I don’t expect you to understand, but you have to believe me.”

“How do you expect me to believe–”

“What’s the name of our little boy again?”

Munson’s lower lip wobbled but no sound came out.

“You and I. We got us a little red-headed boy, calls you daddy and runs up to give you a big hug when you come home from work. I meet you at the doorstep in my June Cleaver apron and a big smile….”

His eyes widened.

“How many bells does that ring?”

“How did you–?”

“And I suggest we start by you telling that other voice in your head to stop talking. Afterall . . . .” Ardy stood and moved to the darkened window. She closed the blinds. “You’re not going to kill me. Are you, R. Lee?”

Munson lowed his head. He was shaking. His head vibrated like an old man’s, uncontrollable, weak. He hated that in older people and he hated that he was showing the same weakness now. But he wanted to cry. Wanted to scream. Wished he had never come here.

“While you’re wishing,” Ardy smiled from the dim end of the room, “Why don’t you just wish you never lied to me about those other murders? And why don’t you wish you never killed Clye.”

Munson swallowed hard and tried to think scary, mean thoughts. He tried to scare the psychic woman out of his mind. He glared at her and envisioned –.

“Cutting my throat?”

He gasped. Choked back air. Suddenly he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t need the crystal ball no more, R. Lee. I can see it all.”

“I can’t stand it,” he sputtered in a near whimper.

“What? What can’t you stand?” Ardy’s voice was monotone. She stayed back in the dim so he couldn’t see her eyes.

“This. THIS!”

“You want to go home?”

“Yes.”

“You have no home.”

“No.”

“You see? I can say out loud anything you think. Maybe it would help if you heard your own thoughts. Maybe that would help you repent, R. Lee?”

He shook his bowed head. “Is that what I gotta do? Repent? I don’t even know what that means.”

“Who is Michael?”

“I don’t know no Michael.”

“They seem to think you do?”

“They?”

“The dead. The angels. God.”

“I told ya I don’t know i’m.”

Maybe that answer satisfied her. Maybe the creepy woman saw he spoke the truth. Whatever the case, she stopped asking.

She tilted her head. “I can see your thoughts as clear as reading a book, R. Lee.”

“No. Don’t.”

Ardy stepped forward and began reciting what she saw in his mind: “Please don’t. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know what’s in my mind. Shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t mean to kill him, but he hurt me. He hurt me bad. He put his –”

Munson’s scream vibrated the walls.

On the couch, Douglas continued to pretend he was sleeping.

Chapter 14 – “Healing Hands”

September 14, 2008 - Leave a Response

Douglas Testerbird sat quietly, regaining his strength slowly as he listened to Ardelene’s continued mental attack on Munson.

He kept his eyes closed and tried not to flinch at some of the dark depraved things she was reciting to the captive killer. Munson said nothing. He shook and whimpered. He screamed and cried. He shook his head violently sending tears and sweat spraying from his face.

When he could stand it no more, and it looked like Ardelene wasn’t going to stop any time soon, he simply said, “That’s enough.”

Ardy stopped, stumbled back almost weak from the attack and pressed her palms to her temples. Turning to Douglas she said, “Douglas? You’re okay?”

“Look at him,” the store owner said standing. “Seriously. D-D-Don’t you think you’ve beat him enough?”

Pressing a finger to the bridge of her nose and wincing at the sudden migraine, she said, “Not nearly. You should see –.”

“No t-thanks.” Douglas held up a hand. “I’ve heard enough, thank you. I don’t need to see it too.” He pushed his glasses up and scrunched up his face to hold them there a second.

“I wish I could block it from my thoughts, but I can’t.”

Now it was Ardelene’s turn to break down. Maybe it was the strain of what she saw in Munson’s mind. Maybe it was the pressure of being in anyone‘s mind. Maybe it was the stress of rising from the dead. . . . Whatever it was, it had taken its toll. Ardelene staggered past Douglas and plopped down on the couch. Her chest and shoulders heaved as she was racked with sobs. She wailed.

“I’ll get you s-some water,” Douglas mumbled, and stalked off to the kitchen.

Munson sat limp where he was duct taped to the false throne. His sweaty head hung low, his body kept up only by the will of the tape. He appeared unconscious, like a captured Mob rat beaten to near death with a lead pipe. But the only blood was what had dried on his head from the earlier attack. His breathing was shallow and spotted with stutters of whimpering.

In the kitchen, Douglas caught sight of himself reflected in the clutter of silverware on the floor. Ardelene’s blood had congealed into a deep reddish black slick, smeared in places with her hand and body prints as well as his. Douglas swallowed hard and breathed through his mouth to avoid smelling the harsh iron scent of the dying puddle. He stepped to the sink and filled a glass with water.

He was in a daze, almost sure this whole thing was some kind of nightmare or trance. Maybe he wasn’t even here? Maybe his car slid off the wet road and he died before getting here. Maybe this was some kind of strange and bizarre purgatory. Ardelene Jacobi was a real psychic. She rose from the dead before his eyes. A cruel and sadistic killer was strapped to a chair in the other room, reduced to the facade of a blubbering child. None of this was real. It couldn’t be.

He blinked. The cold water was overrunning the glass and pouring over his hand which was now shaking. He took a drink before shutting off the flow and returning to the main room.

Douglas gave Munson a wide berth as he stepped up to Ardelene on the couch. He held out the water. She took the glass and sipped. Her hands were shaking too.

Sitting beside her, Douglas volunteered, “I wasn’t expecting this when I c-came out here.”

Ardelene finished the water and set the glass on the floor near the end of the couch. She sat up, leaned into Douglas’ shoulder and laughed through a sniffle. “You’re tellin’ me, Douglas.”

“Doug,” he offered.

“Doug. And, please, call me Ardy.” She waved a weak shaking hand toward Munson. “If he can be familair, why not you?”

Not sure exactly how to read that, Doug simply asked, “How are you feeling? You look a bit p-p-pale.”

“Good.” Another short laugh. “I’d hate to feel this crappy and keep it all to myself.”

“Care to talk about it?”

Ardy closed her eyes and crinkled up her face. She rested her head on his shoulder. “No.”

A silence passed between them.

Ardy spoke finally, “He ain’t going anywhere.” She sighed. “Let’s just talk like it never happened.”

Doug cleared his throat. “How d’you mean?”

“Well,” she said suddenly brightening a bit, “You were on your way over here to see me, right? To do what? Have your fortune told?”

Doug smiled but didn’t laugh. “K-K-Kinda, b-but n-not really.”

“Don’t be nervous, Doug.”

“I-I-I — I-I’m s-s-sorry. I st-st-s-su-stutter when I-I’m n-n-ne-nervous.”

“You wanted to ask me out, didn’t you?”

Doug blushed visibly and leaned away. Her shoulder against his was suddenly hot and uncomfortable. Her thigh was hot against his pant leg. “N-No. Um, I don’t –.”

“It’s okay.” Ardy patted his knee but moved a few inches down the couch to give him some space. “You know I saw into your mind — but I need you to know it was by accident. I didn’t mean to.”

Doug couldn’t meet her eyes. He looked down at the bruised and cracked knuckles of his right hand. That must’ve happened in a scuffle with the killer, or when he feinted. The knuckle on his middle finger had bled and dribbled toward the fingernail. He absently scratched at the sore.

“Doug…. Look at me.”

He couldn’t. It was too difficult. All through high school he was teased for his speech impediment. They never offered him a pass at anything, let alone the time of day. But Ardy placed a gentle finger under his chin and raised his head toward her. “They were only thoughts.”

“B-B-But–”

“And they were appreciated.” She smiled.

Doug took a deep shuddering breath. He nodded as if to say, “I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

Ardy said, “You’ll be okay. We’ll be okay….”

He smiled, “It’ll be okay.”

It wasn’t quite like one of those Hollywood moments where the couple in a dire situation suddenly realizes their feelings for one another, leans in, and kisses passionately. On the contrary, Ardy patted his knee and said, “We have to think about what we’re going to do — with him.” She nodded toward Munson who was now wide awake and staring at them.

“Ain’t that a pertty pictie,” the killer sneered. “You… whore.”

Ardy rose and went to the table where the duct tape sat. She began pulling new lengths with a long, sharp Sheeeeeek’t. She applied new layers to Munson’s bonds. He didn’t struggle.

Doug took a deep breath and wondered about what she had said. What are they going to do? It’s far more complicated now than simply calling the police. He turned back to examining his hand.

And saw that his skin was smooth, scrape free, and clean.

Chapter 15 – “Messenger of the King”

September 13, 2008 - Leave a Response

Munson’s stomach grumbled audibly. “I’m hungry,” he muttered. The killer’s head hung low, his face was lined and pale and sweat dotted his forehead. He appeared — from what Ardy could see anyway — to be a beaten man. Weak. Resigned.

She wasn’t going to risk it.

Doug walked up to her and looked down at Munson. “W-What do you want?”

Ardy glanced at him, a crinkle in her brow saying, “Are you serious?”

But Douglas continued with unbridled sarcasm, “Here. I got a c-couple bucks. Ardelene, why don’t you untie our friend here so he can m-make a run out to McDonald’s for us?”

Munson tried to raise his head to meet Doug’s gaze, but all he could do was stare at the buttons on his shirt.

“C’mon,” Ardy nudged Doug. “Help me in the kitchen. He’s not going anywhere and we need to talk in private.” Then she knelt before Munson, put her hands on his knees.

Doug put a hand on her shoulder to urge her to not be so close, but she ignored the gentle reminder. To Munson, she said, “Look. I know you’re not thinking about leaving. You’re scared. In fact, you’re scared that you’re not going to make it through the night.” She glanced at Douglas and shivered visibly. “You might be right, R. Lee. Wish I could say that I really did see the future, but all I can do is ride your thoughts.” She stood and looked to Douglas, then back down, “Sure, I might get lucky, like when I knew those deputies were going to go by when you wanted to move the car.”

Leaving Munson to stew in his wonder of what the night would hold, Doug and Ardy moved to the kitchen.

Doug squatted down and started picking up the silverware. Ardy moved to the sink and started dampening a kitchen towel to wipe up the blood.

“You’ll p-probably want to re-wash all these,” Doug said inspecting a fork, “Where’s your d-d-di-di?”

Ardy smiled and tossed him the wet towel. “Dishwasher? You’re it.”

As Doug finished picking up all the silverware and scrubbing it in the sink, working at bloodstained cutlery with an S.O.S. Pad, Ardy knelt down over the puddle of her own blood and started hand mopping the spot. Periodically, she would turn and glance over to Munson’s immobile throne through the doorway. The killer wasn’t moving.

After a few moments of silent scrubbing, Doug said, “So, um.”

“Would I go out with you if ya asked?” Ardy said without looking up.

“I-I-I w-was g-g-goin’ t-t-ta ask ab-b-bout whatwe’regonnado n-n-next.”

Ardy stared as he stammered out his answer. He suddenly seemed so innocent, a teenager asking a girl out on a date, embarrassed and nervous as anything.

“Oh, Douglas–”

“Y-You c-c-can c-call m-m-m-me D-Doug.”

“Doug, I’m so sorry. Ardy didn’t have to pretend. She flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Doug. I didn’t read your mind, I swear. I was just finishing your thought. I-I thought y-you–”

“N-Now whose st-stuttering?” He laughed. Ardy laughed too. He smiled as her sincerity sank in. “I don’t know if I could d-date someone who could read m-m-my-my mind, tell the t-truth.”

“I could imagine,” she said. “But just think of all the good stuff. We’d never get into any fights because I’d always see your side.”

He chuckled. “We’d always get into f-fights because you’d see that I h-had a side.”

Ardy raised an eyebrow, “But don’t you think most couples get into overblown arguments because they misunderstand each other?”

“D-Do they? I’ve never . . . .” He let it trail off as he decided whether to place the forks tines up or tines down in the drying tray.

“Never what?”

Doug took a deep breath, jammed the forks tines-down in the utensil tray. “I’ve never really had a l-lasting relationship. Not long enough to know what a fight would be l-la-like anyway. M-My st-stuttering.”

Ardy rose and stood next to him. She pried the forks out of the tray and rearranged them tine side up. When their eyes met, she smiled at him. “I never even realized you had a stutter, Doug.”

“T-That’s because I’m in my st-store. And when I’m t-t-talkin’ there it’s like I-I’m h-home, ya know?”

Ardy turned to face him with her whole body, and touched his arm to turn him so they’d be face to face. “Then why don’t you take home with you. Take a deep breath and relax. Talk to me. I’m not going anywhere, Doug. You’re fine.”

“N-Now if I could read your mind . . . ,” he laughed.

She sighed and started wringing out the bloody towels. “I wish you could, Doug.”

He saw her chin quiver slightly and shyly moved away. He went about adjusting the chairs around the tiny dinette. He kept glancing back at her until finally he gathered up the courage.

Stepping up next to her, Doug reached into the sink to take the towels from her. When his hands closed over hers, he paused. She looked up at him, her gaze distant, detatched.

Doug pushed his glasses up his nose with a scrunched-up expression before he said, “T-There is a way I can read your m-mind, Ardy.”

Her face formed the question.

“J-Just tell me,” he whispered. “T-Tell me what you saw . . . when you w-were . . . .”

“Dead?”

* * *

The kitchen was cleaned top to bottom. After the blood and broken drawer bits were cleaned up, Doug and Ardy went about scrubbing down the rest of the room. As Ardy cleaned the oven (“Can’t tell you the last time I did this”), Doug worked at dusting higher shelves and replacing ant traps. They talked and laughed. There were quiet moments where Doug risked putting a hand on Ardy’s shoulder. But she never told him what she saw or heard while her body’s heart was stopped. She just kept changing the subject, got him to talk more about himself, filled in bits about her lonely life without making it sound, well, lonely.

“So you lived here in town your whole life and I never saw your anywhere but the store?”

Doug wiped his brow with the back of his hand as he replaced the final glass in the cabinet. “N-No reason to, really. I m-mean, aside from church, I d-didn’t need to go nowhere. I live in back of the store, ya know, in the add-on after old man Hammond d-d-died.”

Ardy asked him what church he attended.

“St. Matthews, across t-town.”

“Why there?” she wondered. “Isn’t Trinity closer to where you live? That’s where I go.”

He shrugged. “Dunno. Like the drive I guess. Give me time to think and sort out my life.”

Ardy thought about it. The route from the general store to St. Matthews on the other side of town cut past Crescent Lake and through Palley’s Woods. It would be a beautiful drive, especially in the fall. “I see.”

“Strange,” he mused without offering anything further.

“What’s that?”

“All this time, I could have seen you every Sunday.”

“Stranger still.”

He squinted at her. “What’s that?”

“Your stuttering seems to have sputtered out.”

They shared another smile together. Neither one had thought about R. Lee Munson in the other room until a loud knock boomed at the front door.

“Oh, my God.”

Doug held up a hand. “Are you e-e-exp-pecting anyone?”

Ardy shook her head but still glanced up at the clock. It was after 9 p.m. “No. Nobody.”

They both went into the main room which was aglow from car headlights beaming through the closed blinds in the front.

There was another bang at the door. “Hello!?” The muffled voice on the other side was male, young. The car was running and loud rock music thrummed from what could only be an open driver’s door.

“W-Who?” Doug started, but Ardy held up a hand to silence him. She was staring at Munson who was sitting up straight in the throne, still bound, but intently focused on the door. He was smiling mischievously.

He turned his head slowly toward her and her new friend, the store clerk. His smile twisted slightly. “I told ya. I told ya I was hungry.”

Ardy and Doug followed each other’s gaze to the table next to Munson. Somehow he had managed to lean into it enough to leverage it toward his chest. The satchel the killer had brought in had been sitting on one end of it the whole time. Munson was able to bounce the table enough to overturn the case and spill the contents toward him. Ardy saw syringes, vials, handcuffs, plyers, rubber gloves, a couple small 35mm film cannisters, a couple loose bullets, and a cell phone.

The phone had been chewed open.

Ardy gasped. Doug moved quickly for the Glock and held it at the ready.

She read Doug’s thought, He called for backup!

But she also read Munson’s.

“I was hawwwwwwngry,” Munson said in a mock whine.

Pounding on the door resumed and made Doug and Ardy jump.

The young man outside tried one more time. “Pizza King. Anybody home?

Chapter 16 – “Contemplating the Olive”

September 12, 2008 - Leave a Response

“Whatcha gonna do? Ya gotta open the door for the kid,” Munson grinned.

Ardy kept glancing from the door, to Doug, to Munson.

Doug sneered down the barrel of the pistol toward the killer. “W-We don’t have to d-do-do anything. We can just not answer the d-door, lunkhead.”

“Do-do? Lunkhead? Oh, that’s a good one, bird tester.”

“My name is Mr. T-Testerbird, ja-ja-jackass.”

Munson laughed. “Even better.”

Ardy barked in a harsh whisper, “Would you two knock it off?

Doug offered, “Can you read the g-guy’s mind?” and nodded toward the door.

“Don’t bother,” Munson croaked, cleared his voice and shouted, “Hang on! Be right there!”

Both Ardy and Doug flinched. Doug darted forward with the Glock. His hand tensed on the grip.

Ardy pushed the barrel of the gun up and stepped between them, “No!”

“That’s my girl,” the killer crooned.

Ardy and Doug: “Shut up!” Then Ardy, “Just a minute. I gotta get my purse.”

The kid beyond the door said, “Um. No prob.”

“Help me with him.”

Ardy and Doug took a minute circling and re-circling the throne, trying to find the best grip, testing the heavy chair’s strength by tipping it from side to side. Doug suggested they could each get on one side, tip it back a bit, and slide Munson into the next room or the kitchen.

“There’s a door to the bedroom. Kitchen doesn’t have one,” Ardy suggested.

“G-Good point.”

But as the two tipped back the throne they discovered it was much heavier than anticipated. Both let out a grunt, Ardy groaned with the strain and Doug let out a huff of exasperation. Munson decided to make matters worse by wiggling as they tipped him back.

The chair gained momentum and slipped through their fingers, landing with a loud thud on the hardwood floor. Munson let out a grunt but then started chuckling like an idiot.

“W-Watch him,” Doug said, and raced to the couch, across to the bedroom, back again. His arms were overloaded with blankets and pillows.

Ardy said, “What are you going to do with those?”

“B-Bu-Burry him.”

Munson laughed harder. “That’s ironic.”

As Doug wrestled a wad of damp rag into Munson’s mouth and wrapped his head in duct tape, Ardy went for her purse and fished out some cash. She got to the door just as the kid on the other side started to lose his patience and knock again.

“Coming.” She glanced back and saw that Doug had arranged the blankets and pillows to look like — well, it didn’t look like anything beyond an overturned heavy chair with blankets and a killer underneath, but it was the best he could do.

This is stupid. I’m an idiot. It’s not going to work, Doug thought.

“What did you say?” Ardy frowned at him.

“Wha? N-Nothin’.” He nodded toward the door with a sour expression.

Ardelene Jacobi threw on her best fake smile and opened the door as she fished into her purse.

The kid was just that. No more than seventeen or eighteen, he had starchy white-blond hair under a crooked Pizza King cap. He wore a matching red windbreaker over a Korn t-shirt and jeans, and his shoes showed the one-sided wear of a skateboarder. His eyes were bright blue but the bags under them betrayed long nights of videogames or drug-scoring mischief, Ardy couldn’t be sure which, but she knew they weren’t from test cramming. The car was a gray primered Monte Carlo with a Pizza King sign strapped to the roof. Metal music blazed from the open door.

Upon seeing Ardelene barefoot, tracing up her slender legs to her shorts and settling on either side of the mast of the sailboat on her t-shirt, the boy grinned. “Hey.”

Ardy held the purse up to block the view of her chest as she continued digging inside. She also stood so there was no clear view of what’s going on inside. “How much?”

“Are you the psychic chick?” the teen asked. He shifted his weight to his other foot and no longer appeared to be in a hurry.

“Yeah, that’s me. How much?”

“Wow. That’s cool. My ma believes in that crap, but not me.”

Ardy looked up and met his eyes, “How much?”

“Maybe I can come by and have my fortune told some time, huh? Maybe. That’d be cool — oh, it’s sixteen fifty minus tip — You could prove you’re psychic by tellin’ me somethin’ you couldn’t possibly know.”

Ardy withdrew a ten, a five, and two singles and handed them to the kid who took the money without counting it and stuffed it in his jean pocket.

“I thought I heard a man’s voice before. You gotta customer?” the kid persisted as he slowly handed the pizza box over to Ardy. He stood kind of angling himself toward her as though he was contemplating a risky move, not quite releasing the box when Ardy tried to take it from him.

“Nobody but me,” Ardy said. “You must’ve heard the TV.”

“Oh,” the kid smiled. He licked his lips and finally released the box.

Ardy took the food and started to step back into the room.

The Pizza King kid took a step forward too.

That’s when she blurted out, “When you were twelve, Todd, you pushed your six year-old sister off the swings in Billy Laird’s backyard. You broke her jaw and knocked three teeth down her throat. You swore her to secrecy under the threat of a beating and later told your parents she fell out of a tree. Just last year you copped a feel on Lydia Sidgewick at the Junior Harvest Dance when she feel asleep on the bleachers. You got so excited you had an accident in your pants and had to leave. Now get the hell away from my shop.”

Ardy stepped back and kicked the door shut with a slam. She spun and collapsed her back against it and took three exhausted breaths before sniffing back tears and straining to stay quiet.

Munson was buried in bedding and hadn’t heard what went on at the door, and Doug only heard bits and pieces. The latter now stared at Ardy with his mouth hanging open.

They both held that position until the car door slammed and the kid pulled away, the Monte spewing gravel from her drive before screeching away down Route Nine.

“You okay?” Doug asked after another moment.

Ardy took a final deep breath and smiled. “Let’s eat.”
* * *

After righting Munson’s chair, removing his gag and fixing the table, the three sat around the pizza box and ate. Doug had suggested he would feed the killer his slices, but Ardy let Doug keep the gun and instructed him to shoot Munson in the face if he didn’t behave. Then she untied his left arm so he could eat.

They ate in silence for a short while, not realizing how hungry they all truly were.

Surprising to both Doug and Ardy, Munson was the first to speak. His voice was calm and friendly and added to the illusion that they were just three friends enjoying a late night snack together.

He said, “Thank you, Ardy. Doug.”

The couple looked at each other. Doug suggested, his cheek stuffed with pizza, “W-W-What for?”

Munson didn’t meet their eyes. He centered his gaze on a small olive stuck to the cardboard in the pizza box. “I just been thinkin’.”

Ardy finished chewing and swallowed. “What about, R. Lee?”

Doug shot her a glance for using the killer’s familiar name but let it slide.

“You all are gonna save me.”

Save you?” Doug asked.

“From Hell.”

Ardy and Doug looked at each other. Neither spoke.

Munson glanced at each of them, then back to the olive. “I’m sorry. I just feel kina . . . I don’t know . . . . Repentant? It’s just I been thinkin’ about all you said, Ardelene, about what my life has been like. I need t’change. I need to be free and make it right — even though killin’ Clye was all I had to do to make it right in my estimation. Well . . . ,” he glanced up at Ardy, “Maybe that was wrong too.”

“That’s good, R. Lee. That’s the first step.” Then to Doug, “Re-tie his arm so we can clean up this mess?”

“Sure.”

Munson cooperated while Doug carried out her wish. He didn’t even struggle after they left him alone.

In the kitchen, as Doug folded and crushed the pizza box into the garbage pail, he whispered, “You’re not s-serious?”

“About what?”

“Letting him go.”

“Now who’s the mindreader?”

Doug huffed. “D-Don’t need to be. It’s obvious you’re fallin’ for his line of malarkey. I think we should call the c-c-co-cops.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Ardy offered with a shrug. “We’ll just leave him tied up for now. And . . . I just want to relax a bit before we call the Homer P.D. He wont’ do anything.”

“Hope you’re r-right,” Doug said. He smiled at her and left the kitchen as she stacked plates in the sink.

He worries too much and reacts too quickly, Ardy thought. She couldn’t tell Doug how right he was; that Munson was dangerous. That there was more inside him than a repentant man. There was another side that was confused and afraid, and prone to bouts of blind rage.

And she couldn’t tell him that the Pizza King kid was planning a return.

Or that he was planning on bringing his buddies and some booze.

Ardy yawned. She smiled at the irony of the yawn. There would be no rest this night.

Chapter 17 – “Curse of the Old Gypsy Woman”

September 11, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy paced the floor of the bedroom, uncomfortably arguing with herself about telling Doug about the pending visit from the kid from Pizza King. She had left him in the front room, to keep the first watch on Munson, but hadn’t mentioned what she read in the teen’s mind.

Doug paced too. He walked back and forth in front of Munson’s throne and scowled at the killer. He was holding the pistol in his right hand, waving it when his whispers became excited. He said, “I know she’s l-lying. I know she saw something in that soft sk-skull of yours.” The pistol waved. “I should just blow your head off while she’s s-s-s-sleeping — say it was an accident.”

Munson appeared to ignore him. He simply followed the bouncing barrel of the Glock. “Hey, hotshot, could ya’ll put that down?”

Doug snapped, “What? T-T-This?” He brought the gun up and pressed the gun to Munson’s left nostril.

Looking cross-eyed down the barrel, the killer hissed, “Please. Please, Doug. Your finger is on the trigger.”

“Shut up!”

Ardy opened the bedroom door and squinted in at the two. “What’s going on?”

“W-We were just having a little–”

“Chat,” Munson finished.

She came out and approached Doug purposefully with her hand out to take the gun. “Here. You better give that to me.”

He tucked it under his arm and half turned away like a child concealing a toy. “No, n-n-no. That’s okay. I got this.”

Ardy stood her ground, hand out, and glared at Doug like a scolding mother.

After a moment, he relented and handed her the weapon grip first.

“Thank you.” She turned and headed to the bedroom.

“Where are you going?”

“To bed. I’ll sleep better knowing this is in here with me.” And with that, she closed the door behind her, leaving Doug defenseless with the duct-shackled killer.

Munson hissed a laugh. “I am gonna kill ya, you know?”

Doug smirked but stepped away. He backed to the couch and plopped down on it, never once taking his eyes off Munson and staring at him the way a coyote glares at a hunter. He yawned.

Munson smiled and began softly crooning Lullaby.

“Ha ha,” Doug mumbled, “Very funny.”

* * *

An hour must have passed, or maybe it was six or seven. Ardy couldn’t be sure because her exhaustion hit her like a sledgehammer. She woke with a start as if responding to a sudden loud noise, but she was sure the sound was in a dream and not in the world. Glancing at her nightstand she saw both the pistol and her alarm clock. She had been asleep for forty-six minutes.

Rolling to a sitting position, she swung her feet to the floor and stood slowly. She strained to hear beyond the door to the next room as she lifted the pistol off the nightstand.

At the door, she opened it slightly. There was no creak to betray her spying. The room beyond was dimly lit by a small lamp on the floor by Munson’s throne. She could see the killer’s feet still securely taped to the legs of the chair, and beyond that she could see the dim shape of Douglas Testerbird stretched out in a fetal position on the couch.

As her eyes traveled up Munson’s chair she felt a sudden chill.

He was staring at her. Unblinking.

His grin was slow, greasy, and reptilian. “Can’t sleep, sweetie?”

Ardy opened the door all the way and approached the couch as Doug stirred and sat up.

“W-W-What’s wrong?”

“Can’t sleep.”

Doug stood and stretched. “It’s been a weird night. No wonder.”

“No wonder,” Ardy echoed.

Doug looked her up and down. She looked exhausted, defeated. Her eyes were baggy and her skin was dull. Her hair was matted and flat against the side of her head and her eyes were dark in the dim room. Ardy’s downturned lips were sad, gray. He hated to see them this way, to see them any way but smiling.

That’s when she stepped up to him and kissed him. It was a short kiss, dry, but their lips were warm against each other.

“Y-Y-You read m-my mind,” he said dully.

“Go to sleep, Doug.” She nodded toward the bedroom. “I got this.” Her smile rolled up when she mimicked his earlier declaration.

Drained himself, Doug nodded and stepped past her and Munson to the bedroom and closed the door.

Ardy set the gun on the end table and curled up on her side, staring at Munson as he continued staring at her.

“This ain’t too comfortable, ya know,” he grumbled.

“You shouldn’t have killed anyone,” she yawned. Then, making it clear that she couldn’t be moved by him, Ardy squirmed and rolled over on the couch, turning her back to him.

* * *

Munson woke with a jolt, as if the chair he was in suddenly came to life like “Old Sparky” and zapped a couple thousand volts through his nerve endings. His neck was stiff from hanging his head and a shock of pain raced down his spine.

Doug sprang bolt upright on the bed. “Ardy!”

Ardy rolled off the couch, her rump hitting the floor with a loud thud before she scrambled to her feet and snatched the Glock off the end table.

Doug threw open the bedroom door, and rubbed at his wide eyes. “What is it?”

Munson spat, “Ssh!

Ardy craned her head to listen, the pistol aiming where her ears strained; toward the front door.

Then the sound of a car door slamming. Muffled voices.

“It’s them,” Ardy whispered.

Doug whispered back, “T-Them who?”

Munson couldn’t read minds, but he had a feeling. “Pizza boy.”

Doug made a face like he’d taken a big bit of a sour taffy apple. “What? What would he want?”

Ardy closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her body relaxed a bit, her head tilted. Her lips moved in time with a muffled voices beyond the door.

Are you crazy?

I tell you she’s here. She’s here alone. And she’s hot.

The old gypsy woman?

She’s not a gypsy. She’s a babe.

That’s not what my gram says.

I can prove it.

Okay, so prove it. What’re you gonna do — just knock?

Don’t have to.

The silence that followed was ocean deep. “Only two of them . . . .” Ardy’s eyes snapped open and focused on Doug. “Get back,” she said in a normal tone.

The explosion of wood splinters and brass shards from the door latch rained into the room. The muzzle flash from the shotgun blew the door open in one night-splitting blam!

The Pizza kid stepped into the room — ca-chuck! — charging another shell into the chamber.

“C’mon out, gypsy girl,” the boy called through the whisps of gunsmoke.

What happened next only took a few seconds but stretched into a slow motion eternity.

“No!” From Doug.

The kid started to whirl toward the sound of Doug’s voice in the bedroom doorway, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Ardy screamed and raised the pistol. She squeezed off two quick shots as the shotgun exploded into the room again.

The kid cried out, a wounded yelp, and stumbled back. There was a grapple of arms around his shoulders and neck and two bodies tumbled backward onto the porch. The shotgun fell to the floor, the sound of it cracking to the floor was lost in a the shrill ringing in Ardy’s ears.

Ardy raised the pistol again. A furious terrified flood of emotion exploded from her chest, down her arms, and squeezed the trigger for her. Two more times the pistol jumped in her hands, orange flashes popping and small brass shells tinkling deafly on the hardwood.

Doug was yelling something as Ardy continued forward.

Outside a car door slammed shut. Cries of pain continued from inside the car.

I got him! Ardy cheered herself within but simultaneously felt shame and regret. Oh, my God. He was just a kid!

Tires chewed gravel, then skidded on the blacktop as the car sped away.

The front door remained open.

As the roar of the engine faded toward downtown Homer, thunder mumbled in the distance.

Doug’s arms folded around Ardy. She dropped the gun and turned to him, burried her face in his chest and cried. “Oh, God . . . . I shot him. I shot that boy.”

Doug patted the back of her head, squeezed her. Said, “You d-d-defended us, Ardy. You d-d-didn’t kill the kid. He’ll be okay.”

She shook her head against his shirt. She couldn’t shake the images. “Nooooooo….” It was a long sob.

“Hey. Hey now,” Doug took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. Their eyes flickered with a distant flash of lightning showing through the open door, a momentary current between them. “Listen to m-me: You. Did. Not. K-Kill. Him.”

Ardy sniffed but could offer no argument. She heard his cries, saw a glimpse of the friend pulling him toward the car.

“His buddy is probably dumping him in the Homer E.R. right now.”

Ardy sniffed again and fresh tears came.

“It’ll be all right. Ssh, ssh, ssh.”

Ardy let herself sink into Doug’s embrace. She didn’t realize how much she needed him now, to hold her up physically as well as mentally. Ardy hugged him tighter and called over his shoulder, “R. Lee,” sniff, “You okay?”

Doug slowly released her and turned.

They both turned together.

Munson sat, his head thrown back. Blood drying on his face — or what was left of his face — and down his chest.

This time Doug made no effort to stop Ardy’s screams.

Chapter 18 – “Lazarus”

September 10, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug Testerbird continued to hold Ardy Jacobi in his arms as they rocked side to side on the couch. She continued to sob into his sodden shirt and her sweaty grip around his waist refused to loosen. Doug was staring toward the open door and the ruin of wood and splinters where the handle used to be, and to the roiling burnt blue-gray clouds of a night storm rolling in.

He tried not to glance toward the corpse in the chair to his right. Munson, the killer. Munson, the potential rapist. Munson, the confessed murderer, was dead in a very gory display. It was worse than the movies, Doug thought, and no one ever said anything about that burnt smell, that burnt blood smell.

Doug petted Ardy’s hair, smelled her lemony shampoo and the mingling musk of sweat and tears. When the evening began he was intending to make a visit for small talk, visit her at her place of business (albeit also her home), and make the first efforts to get to know her. He had kept some cash in his pocket to pay for a psychic reading, just to show good faith in the visit. But all he really wanted to do was get to know the woman who was a regular to his general store on the other side of town.

That was all.

His temples buzzed at everything that had happened since. He walked in on a killer who tried to murder him. My head’s still throbbing. He heard proof — painful proof — of Ardelene Jacobi’s true life gift of psychic power. He shared pizza with the woman for whom he had a crush — with the man who had tried to kill them. And he was in a gun battle with a couple of teenagers from town.

Doug sighed. This was unreal. This was–

Wait a minute. He stopped petting Ardy’s hair and forced himself to look past Munson’s corpse to the kitchen. Something happened there too. Something . . . unreal.

Ardy came back from the dead.

Doug felt an involuntary shudder pass through him. No, it was more like a shiver, but it wasn’t enough to stir the woman in his arms who had fallen into a tense slumber. Cradling her head and shoulders, Doug eased her into a fetal position as he slid off the couch and stood slowly. He took two steps toward the kitchen and stopped when the floorboards creaked. After glancing over his shoulder to make sure Ardy was still sleeping, he moved to the kitchen doorway and stood staring at the floor.

He remembered the spreading pool of blood, the knife that had embedded in her chest. Ardy was dead. She had died and spontaneously returned to the living.

What was that she said? She had to save him? Munson? She had to save Munson. And something about a Michael. Was Michael the kid with the shotgun?

Glancing back at the dead killer, Doug muttered, “Well, that didn’t turn out so well.”

Doug went to the rack of drying silverware and pulled out the steak knife that could have been the one that impaled Ardy. Holding his thumb and forefinger out, he measured the length of the blade with his hand. Then, thumb and forefinger held in a stiff ‘L’, he pulled his hand back to his armpit to try to judge how deep the blade would have plunged into his own chest. There’s no doubt. And the blade was as sharp and straight as ever. There was no way it could have bent off a rib. It had gone into her heart. Ardy had died right here.

If she could bring herself back from the dead, Doug wondered if she could do the same for R. Lee Munson.

He cringed and shook his head to himself. No. She was far too shaken, far too vulnerable, ruined, to even consider trying.

* * *

Ardy was floating in Doug’s mind, not asleep, but wide awake mirroring his every thought, vision, dream, and mental picture. She saw how he thought about her, what his intentions were for coming, how he suffered, struggled and fought through the night. It charmed her that he was consciously trying to be a knight in white armor. He was just being himself: Doug Testerbird — General store proprietor, paranoid, afraid of guns, a bit of a show-off, timid, but also tender and very very sweet.

By the time his thought process had taken him to the kitchen and the knife, Ardy was already seeing where he was going and she had to admit —

Save him.

— There had to be somthing to it.

* * *

Doug cringed and shook his head. No. She was far too shaken, far too vulnerable, ruined, to even consider trying.

“No, I’m not,” Ardy called from the couch. She was sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “I’d like to try what you’re thinking, Doug.”

“How d-did you–? Oh.”

Ardy chewed her lower lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t go into your head on purpose. I just sort of drifted out of myself and found myself in you.”

“If this were any other n-n-n-night,” Doug said as he returned to the couch, “I’d say that s-sounded freaky.”

She stood and met him. “Oh, and this isn’t freaky?”

A flash of lightning painted blue masks on the sides of their faces as they stood before each other. The thunder that followed rumbled through the rafters of the building and rain burst down in sudden steady sheets.

Doug ran to the door and closed it. It took a couple tries after clearing away some splinters. Ardy pulled over a folding chair from the corner which he used to prop the door closed. “N-No way to l-lock it,” He observed.

“I think we’ll be okay,” Ardy half-smirked. She kissed his cheek.

“W-What’s that for?”

“‘Cause if it weren’t for you, I’d be suicidal crazy right now.”

Ignoring the reference, Doug turned to face the center of the room, Munson’s half-face corpse staring into the shadows cast by the desk lamp on the floor by his feet.

Ardy squeezed his arm. “Shall I try?”

He nodded slowly, then scowled, “How d-d-do you even know w-what to do?”

She shrugged and admitted, “I’m not even sure.”

They approached Munson’s death throne and stood on opposite sides of it. Ardy cringed slightly when she placed her hand on Munson’s shoulder. “Ew.”

“What?”

“He’s already cold.”

“Ew,” Doug agreed.

Ardy closed her eyes and immediately had to admit it: “You’re right. I don’t know how to do this.”

“How did you d-d-do it, um, to, um . . . .”

“Myself?”

He nodded.

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know I was dead until, you know, after.”

He nodded again but only feigned understanding.

Ardy said, “Maybe if I try to duplicate the vibration?” She looked toward the kitchen.

“The vibration?”

“A phony psychic expression. It’s like saying I’m trying to get in tune with the spirits beyond.”

Doug made a face, “But that wasn’t real — I mean when you s-s-said things like that.”

Ardy left him and went to the kitchen doorway. She looked down to the floor as he had done. “I know. But for some stupid reason it seems to fit here.”

Doug nodded though her back was to him. He looked down at the side of Munson’s face that was still intact, the open, glazed, unblinking eye and the speckles of drying crimson around his cheek.

Doug reached up to close the eye like he had seen them do in the movies, out of respect or honor or just to keep it from getting dusty before the undertaker got to it.

And it winked at him.

Then it rolled in its socket and focused on him.

A gurgle came from Munson’s throat. The crooked mouth worked. “Don’t net me no….”

“Ardy! It’s working!”

Doug looked up.

Ardy was lying on the kitchen floor, in a fetal position, apparently in the throws of a violent seizure.

Turning back to the reanimating murderer, Doug found himself looking face to whole-face as Munson’s visage reconstituted itself: brain, blood, muscle, bone all re-forming as shotgun pellets emerged and rained to the floor with a tick-tick-tickticktick.

“God.”

Munson’s eyes focused on Doug and tears welled up and flowed from them. The killer sobbed, “Don’t let me go.”

“Please,” Munson rasped, “Don’t let me go.”

Chapter 19 – “Back Without a Hand Basket”

September 9, 2008 - Leave a Response

Rain bashed at the roof of the Psychic Parlor on Route 9, heavy drops ripping down on lightning strikes like sparks from Thor’s hammer. It was only an hour or so from sunrise, but the night refused to let go of the darkness.

Doug stood in front of Munson’s chair and stared agape at the man’s reconstructed face. It sported the scars of a dozen or so puncture marks and his right eye was slightly more caved in and lower than his left, but beyond that there was no sign that a quarter of the man’s brains were sprayed out by a shotgun blast.

For nearly ten minutes, Doug watched mystified as Munson’s visage reformed around his ruined skull. The whole time the killer cried and screamed not to be released — From what? Doug wondered — and begged and pleaded and wept.

Ardy regained composure at some point during Munson’s resurrection and rose from the floor in the kitchen. Doug hadn’t gone to her because he figured the seizures were probably part of the “attempt to resurrect a guy” process and how many times do you see someone come back to life before your eyes?

Now she stood beside Doug, her arm twined around his and they stared down at the weeping murderer.

“It’s a m-m-miracle,” Doug muttered. “You did it.”

Ardy then burst into tears herself and fell to her knees in front of Munson. She wrapped her arms around him as his tears increased as well.

Doug stepped back, not quite getting the picture and deciding it was best to let it calm down on its own.

That is until Ardy started tearing at Munson’s bonds.

“No! Ardy don’t!” Doug stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders, but she turned and swatted him away.

Munson raised his bloodshot eyes to Doug’s and screamed with the anguish of a man who had just been told his wife — no, his pregnant wife — no, his pregnant wife who was told she could never have kids before today — was mangled in a horrific car accident.

But that wasn’t right either. Munson’s — and for that matter Ardy’s — tears were the deepest wretches of anguish and sorrow he had ever seen. They were almost surreal in their magnitude.

Then Doug realized — gazing into Munson’s wide and soulful dark eyes — what was causing the terrible reaction. Doug’s breath hitched in his throat and he backed away helpess to understand what Ardy and the killer had shared.

As Ardy tore off the last of the duct tape, Munson struggled to stand but collapsed on the floor. Ardy fell down beside him and tried to wrestle him back on his feet, both continually crying and screaming.

When he was back on his feet, Munson’s and Ardy’s arms wrapped around each other and they hugged and wept.

Doug glanced around, searching out the Glock, and found it on the floor near the bedroom door in a silvery flash of lightning through the window. He went to the weapon and picked it up. He considered holding it levelled at Munson in case the killer was going to try something — in case this impossible act were the most outrageous yet Oscar-worthy performance in the history of fakery. But, instead, he went with his heart and tucked the pistol into the back of his pants.

Lightning flashed again and thunder followed immediately like the roar of napalm over the farm fields across the road. A large white bread truck coasted by, its driver keeping several miles under the posted limit so he could see through the torrent on his windshield.

Doug stood at the broad picture window and gazed out into the darkness. The horizon was yet to show despite the morning hour and the storm was as bad as it was over an hour ago.

He turned and looked at the silhouettes huddled together on the couch. R. Lee Munson’s and Ardy’s tears had all but dried up, but the two continued to cry. Periodically, they would groan. Once in a while, one of them would wail. But they had yet to address him or comment, or to say anything beyond the odd “Oh no,” or “Oh, God, please, no.”

So Doug continued to wait them out. He considered leaving, but quickly squelched the idea. Munson was a murderer and Ardy. . . . Well, Ardy he was falling in love with.

He turned back to the window and closed his eyes as lightning struck again. The flash made a sudden red blip appear on his retinas through his eyelids. In a whisper, he prayed.

He prayed that he would not see what they had seen.

He prayed he would never see Hell.

And he prayed that the two tortured souls on the couch would never see it again.

Even R. Lee Munson.

Chapter 20 – “Begins The Long Storm”

September 8, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug stood in front of the Psychic Parlor, Ardy’s home and business, under the ramshackle awning that served no protection from the torrent of rain coming down. He studied the face of his watch until a lightning strike illuminated the dial. 5:44 a.m.

“It should be light by now.”

A crash of thunder rode a silver bolt out of the black sky. The flash lit up the rain which glowed in waving sheets like the Aurora Borealis.

Soaked through his skin, rapidly blinking the warm summer rain out of his eyes, Doug let it wash over him. Through him.

Back inside, Ardy huddled with Munson on the couch, the two of them still weeping uncontrollably over their shared experience in what he could only assume was a sleepwalker’s journey back from Hell.

The memory of Munson’s re-forming face, the inverting pocks of pellet-impact, the cratered eye socket, kept re-playing in Doug’s mind. As awareness flooded back into the re-animating corpse, Doug had glimpsed something terrifying in the killer’s face — just before Munson realized he was back.

It was like looking into the lifeless face of Medusa’s freshest victim. A face that had absorbed all the worst fears of all of humanity in one collected — what was it? Thirty minutes or so–?

The sound of a rare vehicle in the dark storm raised his attention and Doug moved around the corner of the building. The semi tractor-trailer roared past cutting sprays of rainwash into the air, then vanished into the dark, its series of yellow trim lights and red-eyed tail lights slowly diminishing as it headed out of town.

“We have to get out of here,” Doug observed aloud. Another crash of thunder-lightning seemed to agree with him, or ward off such thoughts, he couldn’t be sure which.

Continuing to argue with himself, or the night, Doug explained, “It’s t-t-too dangerous to stay here. That kid from the pi-pi-p-pizza place. He’ll call the c-cops. Or his friend will. We’re all gu-gu-g-guilty of ssssomething.”

Doug looked down and watched the machinegunning drops of rain splash the muddy puddle that oozed into his shoes. He hadn’t even noticed.

“Or m-maybe we’re all dead, have been dead all n-ni-night, and this is some sort of hell right h-here.”

This time the lightning didn’t answer, but a sudden gust of hot wind pushed Doug back. He stumbled a half-step until his back hit the building. Slucking his feet out of the puddle, he moved back to the porch front.

He looked through the front window and saw nothing he could recognize around the glow of the table lamp resting on its side on the floor. The rivulets of rain blurred the scene inside, but he didn’t really need to see. They were still on the couch.

But he had to wonder. How long would this last? If they had, indeed, come back from Hell together, what would keep Munson from deciding that’s his fate anyway; he might as well have a fun killing spree while he’s back.

Heck, Doug thought, I’ve seen enough horror movies to know demons might want to hitch a ride in his soul, come back incarnate to God’s green earth just to lay waste to creation.

Or is that ridiculous?

No more ridiculous than seeing two people come back from the dead right before my eyes.

Doug went back inside and replaced the makeshift doorstop. Then he pulled off his muddy shoes and socks. The rain was more quiet in here but still played out a drum solo on the roof. Ardy and Munson still huddled on the couch in each other’s arms, both still dry-crying and breath-hitching between sniffs and groans.

He crossed to the bedroom and closed the door. Then he padded barefoot to the closet and looked through Ardy’s clothes. On an upper shelf he found an oversized HOMER ACADEMY t-shirt. Everything else, even sweat pants and shorts, were too small for him. Stripping down, Doug took his pants into the bathroom and wrung them out in the sink. Then he hung them on the back of the door to continue drying. He leaned into the shower and started a steamy stream that rivaled the torrent outside only by its temperature.

* * *
The shower felt good, the massaging spray on the hard lump on his head made it smart, but it felt good on his aching shoulders. He used the same lemon-sweet shampoo Ardy had used earlier and scrubbed himself raw with the bar soap.

When he emerged from the shower he checked his watch on the sink. 6:21. Outside the bathroom window, though glazed, he could see it was still pitch dark.

* * *

After pulling on the HOMER ACADEMY t-shirt, Doug slipped back into his damp pants and buckled the sodden leather belt. He rolled up cuffs on the bottom and sat on a chair near the closet door. With his head in his hands he tried to weep but couldn’t.

Funny, he thought, how long Ardy and Munson were crying when he couldn’t manage a single tear despite the lighter version of hell they’d all been through tonight — well, last night.

Stretching and rubbing his eyes, Doug went to the door and opened it. Munson was laying on the couch, apparently asleep, his leg twitching like a dog’s during a nightmare about fanged rabbits. He was sucking his thumb.

Ardy was gone, but the aroma of fresh coffee filled the room.

Doug turned toward the kitchen in time to see Ardy’s tear-streaked face appear with two steaming coffee mugs.

“I’m sorry,” she said handing him a mug.

Doug sipped gratefully. He touched a hand to her shoulder. “It’s all r-right. I understand.”

Her chin quivered, threatening a new batch of tears, but she sucked it in, composed herself as best she could. “No. No, Doug. You can’t understand. I pray to God you never have to come close to understanding.”

He cleared his throat softly and, asking the only question he could, he said, “W-What happened, Ardy? What happened to him?”

She touched a finger to her lips to shush him and directed him back into the bedroom with a nod of her head. He obliged but turned to face her only when he sat on the edge of the bed. He was too exhausted to stand any longer. Ardy stepped up to him, looked down at him.

“We were in Hell.” Her gaze lifted and trailed off. Doug watched her eyes as they remembered the visions. She cringed, chewed her lower lip. Her bloodshot eyes watered anew. “Oh, God, Douglas, it was Hell. It was really –” Her chest hitched and she sobbed, “– Was horrible. Horrible.”

An avid watcher of horror films and science fiction, Doug knew the artistic versions of Dante’s Inferno. Hell was a huge lake of fire, demons prodding suffering souls with pitchforks and raping them over and over while the devil, all red-skinned and horned, laughed at the suffering.

Doug reached up and wrapped his arms around her waist. She hugged his head as he leaned forward and rested his cheek against her chest.

“Oh, God . . . . Horrible.”

“D-Don’t, Ardy.”

“I can’t erase that time from my head, Doug. I can’t.”

“You have to t-try to at least dampen it with new mu-mu-m-memories then, g-good memories.”

She released him, sat beside him on the edge of the bed. Looking into his eyes, she said, “How do you feel in church?”

He frowned not getting the question.

She said, “You’ve felt fulfilled at times, haven’t you? I mean, like there’s someone there, listening?”

He nodded. “Sure.”

Her gaze trailing off again, she said, “This was a million times worse than the opposite of that.”

Doug added that to his sci-fi image of hell. When you considered being so un-fulfilled, all the pitchforks in the world wouldn’t matter. Doug put his arms around her again and squeezed her as she convulsed with fresh tears. She wailed into his chest and he wondered if the crying would ever stop.

Eventually, he was able to get her to lay down in bed. He snuggled up beside her but just to keep her company, give her someone to hold on this earth.

As her sobs faded, traded for soft snores, Doug’s mind became more alert.

Something occurred to him with a flash like the lightning outside.

If Ardy was with Munson, psychically projected into his mind, his thoughts, his soul’s flight . . . .

How could she have resurrected him?

She hadn’t even touched him.

Who or what brought R. Lee Munson back from Hell?

And why?

The storm dramatically answered Doug’s thoughts with a cannonade of thunder and white hot flashes.

Chapter 21 – “Wrong Turn to Redemption”

September 7, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy stirred and stretched. The bed was comfortable and so were Doug’s arms. She opened her eyes and watched him sleeping there, clothed like her, both on top of the covers. They had both passed out from exhaustion, crying in each other’s arms until their bodies just couldn’t support another tear.

She craned her head around him and looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was just after 7:30 in the morning. She turned to the window, a black rectangle in the East wall until a bolt of lightning showed the silvery rain outside.

“Something’s wrong.”

Doug grumbled in his sleep at the sound of her voice, but instead of waking he rolled onto his side and fell deeper into blissful unconsciousness.

Letting him sleep, Ardy slowly rolled off the bed and went to the window. The rain was lighter than it had been a couple hours ago, but the lightning and thunder were just as fierce. And the sky was as black as –.

A deep dark pit too deep for love to find.

No! Stop it.

Ardy crossed her arms purposely digging her fist into the sore spot between her bicep and breast where Munson’s bullet had cut. She scrunched up her face, forcing the images from her mind. Then she thought of Munson and gasped. He had been left alone in the living room.

She went to the bedroom door and opened it, expecting a host of horrific images, but everything was as it had been. Munson was curled up on the couch where she had left him.

But his eyes weren’t closed. He wasn’t sleeping anymore. He was staring at her, his chin quivering slightly.

Ardy approached slowly, her hands clasped chastely in front of her waist. “A-Are you okay, R. Lee?”

Munson’s visage was completely different from the false-front killer’s mask he wore the previous night. He was a frightened child, aware of his own heartbeat and how close he was to going back to . . . that place.

“I–” he rasped. He cleared his throat and started again, “I’m scared, Ardy. I don’t know what happened to me.”

“Yes you do. I was with you. We both know what that was.”

Munson studied the floor, his hands. As Ardy approached she noted that his face had completely healed and was completely scar free. He said, “But I don’t — I didn’t believe–.”

“That’s why,” she said crisply. Ardy sat next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. She was no longer afraid he would try to rape or kill her. In his present state he couldn’t harm a dust mite.

“Why didn’t–?” He shuddered and began to cry again. “W-Why didn’t she –?”

Ardy patted his back and shushed him. She spared him the trauma of finding words and took a deep breath, easing herself into his wounded spirit, his troubled mind.

She filled in, “Why didn’t your momma ever tell you about Heaven n’ Hell?”

Munson nodded through a sob. “I mean I knew enough.”

“You knew enough to know good from bad, that murder is wrong.”

Another nod, deeper and filled with bottomless sorrow.

Ardy straightened a little, took a deep breath. “God knows you’re here, R. Lee.”

The killer shook his head, “No he don’t. He don’t. I-I felt it.”

Ardy licked her lips, tried to think of how to tell him what she felt she should. She wanted to say that she had been to the other place, the better place, or at least outside its door. She wanted to tell him that she was charged with saving him.

And now she knew that meant his soul. Not his life.

“R. Lee,” she began, “God wants you to be saved. He wants all of us to be saved.”

More tears, a head hung low moved side to side. “No he don’t. Not me. I don’t deserve it.”

“The news is, none of us does. That’s the trick.”

Munson sniffed, met her eyes. “Trick?”

“Well, I ain’t no preacher. I don’t know how to put it.” She paused hoping he would somehow get it, but he just continued waiting and watching. “How did Pastor Green say it? . . . Everyone is a sinner, R. Lee, and it don’t matter if you stole a bicycle when you were seven or murdered someone when you were seventy. It’s all a sin.”

“But I can’t believe anyone but another mur–. But a guy like me would deserve th-that thing,” he waved his hands at the floor weakly, “That thing we saw.”

Ardy didn’t know how to answer that. Someone once said that everyone goes to Hell when they die, but they only stay so long as it takes to burn away their sins. Then, like Jesus, they ascend to be with God.

That seemed like as good an answer as any, but it wouldn’t help this situation. R. Lee was a lifetime of dread sin. And, while he never killed all the others he claimed, he had hurt people along the way. All the way to Clye, the man he murdered in cold blood. But there was something else in his eyes, in the soul Ardy felt while she was inside him. There was something inside that needed — that could still experience — redemption.

“R. Lee, there is a way. There is a way.”

Munson stood up on shaky legs and began to pace the room. He lifted the lamp off the floor and replaced it on the table. He fidgeted with scraps of duct tape from where he had been held in the big chair. The whole time he mumbled to himself, paced back and forth.

Then he stopped, looked at the big picture window, then to his watch. “Oh, God.”

“What?”

He pointed to the window. “Why is it still so dark?”

Lightning flashed outside. It made them both jump.

Ardy said, “I don’t know. The storm, maybe?”

“My time in Hell has just begun, Ardy,” he sniffed and chewed his lower lip. “Just begun.”

“No. That’s not true. There’s redemption.”

Munson looked at her but didn’t seem to consider what she was suggesting. Another thought entered his mind.

He moved quickly to her and fell to his knees. He put his palms on her knees and looked up into her startled face. “I know what I got to do.”

Ardy blinked. Shook her head. “What?”

Munson stood nodding his head vigorously like a general who just plotted out a flawless plan of attack. “I know. I know. I know how t’ make it right. I do.”

Ardy stood and went to him. He turned to face her. “What, R. Lee?”

He took a deep breath and rested his hands on her shoulders. “I got to bring ‘im back, Ardy. And you’re gonna help me.”

“Wha–?”

“Clye. You can do it. You can bring him back and he can forgive me.” Munson’s eyes flashed with the excited fury of a man who just figured out how to escape Hell, which is just what he was hoping. He gently moved Ardy aside and went to his satchel and began to re-pack his murderous belongings into it.

“R. Lee, no,” Ardy whispered, but mostly to herself.

It’s not that Munson’s idea was so bizarre considering everything else that happened this night. There was just one fact he didn’t know.

Ardy hadn’t brought him back from the dead.

And she sure as anything couldn’t bring back a man dead and buried in Palley’s Woods all night long.

Ardy shivered as she watched Munson pick up pace and wake into a new excitement.

The storm outside seemed to weaken, but only slightly, as if it was sitting in expectation for what would happen next.

Chapter 22 – “One Flew Out of the Cookoo’s Nest”

September 6, 2008 - Leave a Response

“R. Lee, you can’t,” Ardy pleaded. She pushed against his chest and put on her best pitiful expression. “You can’t leave here. It’s too dangerous.”

“I am leaving here,” he said and zipped the satchel closed. “Where’s the gun?”

Ardy shivered and pulled back. “What? You can’t be serious after–”

“Not for me, little girl. For y’all.”

She avoided glancing toward the bedroom and hoped they could get through this without disturbing Doug. Doug hadn’t gone through what they did. He wouldn’t understand their argument, or Munson’s passion.

“R. Lee, please.”

Munson grabbed her by the upper arm and turned her toward the door. “Let’s go.”

She tried to pull away but his grasp was too tight, pinching. “Ow! You’re hurting me.”

He stopped and spun her to face him. He clamped his hands on her arms to hold her straight and leaned into her eyes. “You can’t stop me. No way. And you know this is somethin’ I gotta do.”

Ardy shook her head. Tears, from where she couldn’t fathom, trickled from her eyes. “Not this way, R. Lee. This ain’t the way.”

“I need ya, Ardy. I need ya to bring ‘im back.”

Mustering all the strength she could find, Ardy ducked and spun away from him, prying herself out of his grasp. She ran around the fortune telling table and stood with it between them.

Munson glared, sized up the table. Ardy knew the old R. Lee Munson would have simply toppled it, the lamp, and the cracked crystal ball to the floor. But the new Munson didn’t.

He simply took a deep breath, turned, and sprinted out the front door.

NO! R. LEE, WAIT!” Ardy caught part of the table as she tried to run after him and fell to the floor.

“You’ll come after me!” He called from the storm. “You’ll have to.” His voice trailed away as he rounded the side of the building and sloshed to his car.

R. LEE!

Ardy got back on her feet and stumbled toward the door. Doug burst from the bedroom and caught her in his arms just before she got to the rainswept threshold. She collapsed, weeping, into his arms, crying, “Come back. Come back.”

The gutteral rumble of Munson’s car echoed around the building until it pointed West on Route 9. Doug and Ardy saw his ghostly profile as he sped off into the storm. Lightning flashed and made it appear like his car winked away into nothingness.

“He’s g-g-gone? Where did he go?”

Ardy’s eyes met Doug’s. She sniffed. “He went to where he buried Clye. He thinks I can bring him back to life and he can somehow ask forgiveness for killing him.”

“T-That’s insane.” Doug said it without realizing the entire night has been insane.

Ardy blinked more tears away. “And this isn’t?” She pulled away from him and motioned at the room, recalling everything that had transpired here from Munson’s original threats and attacks to the gun battle between the trio and the Pizza King twins.

Not to mention the two spontaneous resurrections.

“W-W-Why did you try to stop him, Ardy? You know he c-can’t do anything but get arr-rr-ested. Maybe that’s the penance he de-deserves.”

“No. No, it isn’t. I’m supposed to save him, Doug. Me. Me and someone named Michael?”

“Michael Who? D-Do you even know a M-M-Michael?”

Ardy looked ceilingward as if preying for an answer. “I haven’t a clue, Doug. Maybe it’s somebody out there? Maybe it’s a minister or a cop, or maybe it’s a relative of his. I don’t know.”

Doug stepped close to her, put his hands on her shoulders. “Well m-maybe now it’s in G-G-God’s hands. Ma-Ma-aybe we’re s-supposed to s-s-ss-step aside now and let Him t-take over.”

“No.” She allowed herself to ease into an embrace. Ardy knew Doug needed answers more than she. After all, Ardy had been to both Heaven and Hell tonight. “It was clear, Doug. I have to help him. I have to find this Michael.”

Doug looked out the open doorway. Lightning flashed again. Sheets of rain speckled the rivers of runoff water from the rural route. He could only shake his head slowly, unable to see what she was thinking as easily as she could read his mind.

Ardy put her hand to his chin and turned him to face her. “I know you can’t understand why. I know you can’t imagine what I seen tonight — or what he’s experienced.”

“C-‘Cause I didn’t die and come back, y’mean.”

“It’s more than that, Doug.” She sighed. “How can I explain?”

“I know,” he shrugged. “You’ve su-seen stuff.”

“I was with him in Hell. Jesus — or God — somebody spoke to me and told me to save him, to find or talk to or see this Michael person.”

Doug studied her eyes. He finally smiled weakly. “You don’t have to w-worry about me. I’ve seen things here I can’t explain and never could. I t-trust you.”

Ardy turned and moved toward the bedroom.

“I d-don’t want you to go after him alone.”

She stopped and turned. “Even if I could bring Clye back from the dead, I would want you by my side.”

Doug’s brow creased. “How do you mean ‘if I c-c-could’?”

Ardy went back to him and put her hands in his. “Don’t you know?”

He shook his head, confused and bewildered.

“Doug,” she whispered. “I’m not the one who brought R. Lee back to life. And I sure as heck couldn’t resurrect myself.”

His shocked expression misted over like the speckled sheen of rain on the picture window.

“I’m not the healer, Douglas Testerbird. You are.”

Chapter 23 – “Doug Has Time to Think”

September 5, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug’s car was an old yellow Datsun, “Like the one Chris Mc-Mc-Muh-McCandless had,” he said as the vehicle rumbled away from the Psychic Parlor and forged into the dark raining blackness of the bizarre morning.

Ardy looked over at him and smiled, studied the lines of his face, the handsome profile so determined but also boyish and innocent despite the previous night’s horrors. There was even a strength and smartness in the way he pushed up his glasses. “I’m sorry, Doug. I know this is where I usually nod and say, ‘oh, yeah,’ but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She smiled.

Doug was embarrassed. “I’m I always like that?”

She said, “I always liked that you talked to me and gave me the time of day, but I don’t know half the stuff you talk about.”

“You mean like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘X-Files’ and stuff like t-that?” His smirk was understanding. “I f-f-figured.”

“Hard to find girls who’ll listen to ya and know what you’re talkin’ about, huh?”

He shrugged, “Yeah, you can say that. I’m kind of a g-geek at heart I guess.” He took his foot off the gas. The car was cruising to a four-way stop. “Which wwwway?”

Ardy glanced out the window. “Oh, straight for quite awhile.”

Once they were through the intersection, Doug was silent. Ardy scooted over toward him and rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s okay. I am too.”

“N-No you’re not,” he smiled. “How could you be?”

“Hey, just because I don’t know Luke was Leia’s father doesn’t mean–”

“Vader.”

“What?”

“D-Darth Vader. Actually, Anakin Sk-Skywalker was Luke and Leia’s father. In Episode Five, The Empire Strikes–”

“What?”

Ardy started giggling uncontrollably, clutching her stomach to stave off the cramps of hard laughter.

“C’mon, w-w-what?”

“Y-You are–.” She wheezed and laughed out loud.

Her laugh was light and infectious. Doug stole glances at her. Something about her look, beaten, bruised, cut, scraped, haggered, weary-eyed, but laughing as hard as she was, made his heart leap. He couldn’t help laughing himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “I’ll stop.”

“Promise me,” Ardy said, finally catching her breath.

Doug glanced at her. “Yeah?”

“Promise me one day you’ll show me all five of those Star Wars movies.”

Doug roared with laughter. Now it was he who was clutching his gut.

“Now what?”

“There –” gasp “There are s-six movies, not f-f-five.”

As the yellow Datsun vibrated a swath through the black rain, Ardy and Doug laughed and slapped each other’s knees.

“H-How did you get to be a psy-psychic?” Doug asked as the laughter died down.

Ardy studied her hands in her lap. “I don’t know. Munson came in and I just knew–”

“N-No, not for real. I m-mean why that as a p-profession?”

Ardy smiled and looked out the window at the passing black-as-night morning as though she were searching for the answer. “I can’t say for certain. All my life I had this way of talking to people, making them feel better about themselves. Ya know?”

“Then why didn’t you become a psychologist or something like that?”

Ardy looked at him hard, but smiled, “Doug. This is Homer, Indiana. I live — barely — in a dilapidated ranch farmhouse. Where would I get the money to go to college?”

He shrugged. “Grants? L-Loans?”

She shook her head. “Nah. I love it here too much. I make just enough to get by. And, when I don’t, they help me out at the church — probably because I spend most of my time there helping them out.”

Doug nodded. Then he smiled. Ardelene Jacobi was actually talking to him, conversing with him. He felt warm in the pit of his stomach. He reached over and put his arm around her.

For one brief moment they forgot about the night, and the mission they were on.

* * *

R. Lee Munson’s car rocked like a heavy boat on rough seas. Branches and twigs tinked and clicked and scraped against the side as he coasted through the deep dark Palley’s Woods.

“Got t’ be here somewheres.”

He stopped at the site of an overturned wheelbarrow, left rusted and forgotten for decades. He remembered it. And now the memories of Clye’s murder. The sign on the door, “Clyde R. Morrow, Attorney.” The choking, the struggling, the dragging of the heavy sack of concrete that was a lifeless human body.

Munson left the car running but put it in park and set the brake. “I come back for ya, Clye. We gotta get things straight between us before I die again. And I imagine you too.”

He got out of the car and reached into the back seat to get the shovel and spade. The rain was pelting hard and there were wide puddles of mud and stagnant rivers of dark water in twin lines where his tires gouged through the forest. It was going to be tough getting out of here, but maybe, he thought, Clye will help push me out. His laugh was dry and humorless.

Stopping, his hand on the open car door, R. Lee turned and looked into the deep blackness of the woods — like Hell. Lonely, cruel–,

“Don’t.” He winced against the memory and cried through a prayer, “Oh, please God let her be comin’. Let Ardy be comin’ to save me.”

* * *

Palley’s Woods stretched like a pulled-apart horseshoe around the northern side of Homer, Indiana, a snaking dark forest that was the outskirts to everything else. Baseball fields, farmland, a truck stop, abandoned old homes from the last turn of the century, were all dots around the periphery of the inverted green scar. There were creek tributaries that wound through it, a few old wells covered in old planks of plywood, thick bramble factories, poison ivy-oak-sumac stretches, felled trees, car parts, trash bags, and more than a few bodies.

Munson’s victim wasn’t the only one to call Palley’s Woods home. There were a handful of mob-hit dumps from the late 1920’s, now just skeletal fragments lost to all but legend. One little girl and a little boy, one lost in a well and another torn apart by a leopard that got loose from a traveling circus. Another was a hiking accident and two were drownings in what the locals called Puma Pond (it had been a long standing argument to change the name “Cause o’ that boy that puma et.”)

The pond, and the spiderweb of creeks meandering through and around it, all fed Lyle River. The Lyle twisted down from Homer and got lost in lakes somewhere south in Brown County below all the covered bridges and in the clefts of the hills down there.

While the trip from Ardy’s Psychic Parlor to the side of Palley’s Woods where Clye was buried in a shallow grave wasn’t a far one, it was now an immense distance.

Doug stopped the car, put it in park. He clicked on the brights. “Is it gone?”

Ardy leaned forward and squinted through the brief window of clarity offered by the Datsun’s wipers. “I can’t tell, but I wouldn’t do it, Doug.”

“Only one way to b-b-be sure,” he said and got out of the car. A blast of hot summer rain sprayed in and brushed Ardy’s cheek.

“Be careful!” she called just as he slammed the door. He gave her a thumbs up through the window to show he heard.

Doug stepped carefully up to the first couple of planks of the wooden bridge over Lyle River. A few steps beyond, the Datsun’s headlight beams were swallowed by blackness. A roar like rapids hissed and threatened from that dark. It sounded only inches below the bridge’s — what was left of the bridge’s planks.

Doug turned back to the car and got in. He was soaked through Ardy’s HOMER ACADEMY t-shirt and his hair was plastered to his forehead.

“It’s gone, isn’t it?”

“Yup. N-No other way around is th-there?”

Ardy groaned. “Not unless we turn around, go through town, and try to catch Route 6 on the far north side.”

Doug craned his neck to look into the black sky. According to his watch it was after 8 a.m. “In this weather, it would t-t-t-take us almost an hour to get around to th-the other su-su-side.”

“Do we have a choice?”

“I have to think.”

Chapter 24 – “Three Hunters”

September 4, 2008 - Leave a Response

“We can’t st-st-stay here and wish the bridge b-b-back,” Doug, dripping wet, muttered as Ardy stared helplessly out the windshield and the breeching darkness. She nodded as Doug backed up the Datsun and turned around.

Before Doug shifted into drive, he turned to Ardy, “C-Can you see him? Where is he na-now?”

Ardy took a deep breath, nodded slowly, and closed her eyes. “I’ll try.”

* * *

Because Clye Morrow’s grave was a murder victim’s bed, Munson hadn’t marked the spot with anything telling. He didn’t expect to have to find the grave again to dig him up.

Now Munson stood, shovel in hand, rain sheeting down in broken showers around the thick canopies overhead. Backlit by the yellow lights of his car, Munson cursed and threw the shovel down before collapsing beneath a tree where he sat and cried.

* * *

Ardy opened her eyes and was surprised to find Doug speeding through the night. They were just passing her Psychic Parlor on their way around town to the other side of the river.

“Oh, my God,” Ardy whispered and turned to watch the parlor vanish in the darkness.

Doug hadn’t been paying attention. His eyes were on the road. Last he knew, Ardy was off in psychic land trying to see what the killer was up to. “W-Where is he?”

“Go back!”

“What!?”

“The parlor! There’s a car there and the door is open.”

“What?”

Ardy turned to him. “Turn around!”

Doug slammed on the brakes and the car slid and shimmied across the pavement until it nestled with the gravel edge of Route 9 five feet from a cornfield. The corn stalks tossed and waved their silky heads like psychotic fans in the light storm.

He faced her, “What car? M-Munson’s?”

“I- I don’t think so. Somebody’s in my house, Doug,” Ardy’s eyes were wide with terror, the terror of losing everything she knows.

Doug took a deep breath before putting a hand on her shoulder to calm her. “Ardy, Ardy, r-ru-relax.” He put his palm on her cool cheek. “Think about last night. Think about why it’s s-s-still pitch dark at nine in the morning. Think about your power, m-mine, Munson.”

Ardy flinched, “Oh, God.”

“You see? Whoever c-c-could be there, they’re not there to do anything . . . um, natural.”

She flinched again, spasmed. Doug’s eyes grew wide. “Ardy? Ardy, wuh-what’s wrong?”

Ardelene Jacobi’s flinches became more rapid until she fell into a seizure. The whites of her eyes showed, her tongue lolled through her lips.

“Ardy!”

* * *

Munson wiped the rain and the tears from his face before sniffling and laughing to himself. “This night is a nightmare!” Then his eyes settled on something that rang familiar, a scar of skin where his shovel nicked off a chunk of bark the evening before. It was hard to believe it wasn’t the same night.

He was sitting on the X.

Munson stood and hefted the shovel. “There you are.”

He resumed digging, roughly with heavy gouges at first, then more gently when he thought he was getting close to flesh and cloth, cold and wormy, and waterlogged in the heavy downpour.

“I’m gonna to save you, Clye.” Munson stopped to rest, survey his work. “And yer gonna forgive me so Ardy can save me. It has to be.”

He continued digging, and with each scoop of muddy earth he cried fresh tears. “It has to be. It has to be. It has to be.”

* * *

“Where is the bitch?”

Billy Laird came back from the kitchen and tossed the crumpled pizza box on the floor. In his right hand was a gleaming chrome .357 magnum from his dad’s gun case. “This was in the trash. No gypsy girl, gimp, or other dude.”

“Told ya I was here,” Todd Namer pointed to the box with the barrel of his own weapon, a .22 also from Billy’s dad’s gun case. “Proof.”

“So what? Where’s she?”

Todd and Keith Rogers broke out of the E.R. in Homer Community Hospital when the doctor there said the police would have to be involved. Todd’s wound, though a shallow gouge in his shoulder, was caused by a gunshot (“That idiot Keith told the truth!”) and that meant a procedural visit by the local authorities.

Todd wanted to settle this himself. No one would miss the crazy gypsy girl and her two sick friends. Besides, Billy was smart. He’d have an idea on how to pin their deaths on each other. So he ditched the hospital before even giving his name.

Careful not to leave traces, Todd wore leather gloves to conceal his fingerprints. Billy didn’t believe the crazy story about a shootout so he didn’t bother with fingerprints.

Rain washed in through the swinging open door as Keith entered. Unlike the others, he wasn’t armed. “Anyone here?”

“Like you care!”

“Look, man, I’m sorry! I’m not about to go back to juvy because of y’all.”

Billy pointed his gun at Keith. “Both of you shut up!”

Keith and Todd looked up at the bigger, and by default leader, kid.

“They’re not here.”

No one said anything for a few seconds, so Todd spoke up. “So what do we do?”

Keith said, “We get the heck out of here.”

“No! I have unfinished business with that whore,” Todd spat and raised his gun to the other’s face.

Keith raised his hands to ward off the shot as Billy barked, “Knock it off!”

That’s when it happened. It was imperceptible and serpentine. A shadow, something like an oil slick on the floor of the parlor, waited in the gloom. It relished the day of night. It longed to feed on the three souls in the room. It wanted to breathe again like it used to . . . . Back in the ancient times, the Time Before The Fall.

The shadow moved. It struck cobra-swift and wound its way around Todd’s leg and into his pores. It orgasmed in the boy’s hot bloodstream, so dark and pointless, so easily driven. Like an animal. The prey. The host, if you will, felt none of this. All Todd experienced was a sudden awakening. An awe-inspiring uplifting and charge of unmatchable energy.

Then Todd shot Keith.
* * *

Ardy woke from a milky daze. Red and blue swirls swept through the air above her until her focus improved and she saw the patriotic twinkles reflected in droplets on the windshield. Her seat in the yellow Datsun was reclined and she was gazing weakly through the raindazzled glass. The red and blue . . . lights . . . .

Police!

Ardy reached out for Doug but the driver’s seat was empty. Elbowing herself up to look out the window Ardy saw that they were parked under the awning of a dimly lit gas station on the north side of Homer. Doug was walking toward the car with two bottles of Pepsi from the pop machine outside the service station. On the road to the left was the squad car. A lone officer in a smokey hat was directing a car through a dead intersection.

Doug smiled when he saw she was awake.

Ardy didn’t smile in return.

She had taken turns in each of the three teenagers’ heads as they discovered the parlor abandoned, knew their murderous intent. Well, one of them at least — Todd, the one she had wounded. Billy was angry, unpredictable, filled with rage, and had an anxious trigger-happy side.

Keith . . . .

The youngest one . . . .

Keith died just moments before she left him and returned to her own mind.

Ardy was growing weary.

Weary of experiencing death.

Chapter 25 – “Little Maggie May”

September 3, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug slowed as the rain beat harder against the yellow Datsun. “I have to stop.”

Ardy sipped her Pepsi and leaned forward squinting out the window. “Not a bad idea. If you keep going, you’ll run off the bridge from the other side.”

He pulled over and slid the car into park but left the motor running.

“It’ll slow down soon,” Ardy said hopefully. The sky answered with a roar of thunder and a blistering flash of lightning.

In the bang, both Doug and Ardy got a clear photo-flash of the canopies of Palley’s Woods around them. They were closer to Munson and neither had to be psychic to feel it.

“I d-don’t like it,” Doug said as if just remembering they were tracking a sadistic killer.

“He’s not like that anymore,” Ardy said, reading him. “I promise.”

“How can you pra-promise that?”

Ardy looked out the window and traced the rivulets of rainwater with her eyes. “It’s hard to explain.”

Doug studied his hands on the steering wheel for a moment, then relaxed and rested them in his lap after killing the Datsun’s engine. Only the sound of rain like loud static filled the car’s interior. He said, “I don’t know w-what to think.”

Ardy reached over and touched his hand lightly. Then she took his hand in hers and squeezed. “You have to trust me.”

“I do, Ardy. I duh-do.” Their eyes met. It was one of those movie moments where the couple leans in and kisses. Maybe they both knew that, but neither felt it. They may have wanted to but something much larger than them was at work here.

Lightning flashed again and in front of the car Ardy glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye. It was a girl, a little girl in jeans and a sodden pink top. Her face was sallow, pale, and her eyes were deep and dark.

She stood staring in at them. She was right in front of the car.

Ardy screamed. Doug jumped and yelled.

“What!? What!” He looked ahead but saw nothing but the rain.

“There!” Ardy screamed pointing into the same raining darkness where Doug was looking.

But the girl was gone.

Ardy took several deep hitching breaths, her hand on her chest. Her eyes darting from side to side, straining to re-form what she could swear was there a moment ago.

Another flash of lightning illuminated nothing but the rain-dotted blacktop and the woods beyond.

“Ardy?” Doug leaned forward to peer into her eyes but she was avoiding his gaze, still seeking the phantom child in the night.

“Sh-She’s gone.”

“Who?”

“She was there — The little girl.”

Doug studied the night. There was nothing but the dark and the angry storm.
* * *
R. Lee Munson finished his dark and gritty work. The shovel lay aside in a muddy slop of grunge that was once a living, breathing human being. Clye Morrow lay rumpled and as dead as he was when Munson killed him the previous night.

“Well, Clye, here we be.” Lightning flashed and illuminated Clye’s open flat milky eyes. The dead lawyer taunted him from whatever hell had swallowed him. Munson felt only sorrow and pity. He knew first hand, after all, what Clye was feeling now. The man’s soul was trapped in a hell of his own making, void of love, void of sanity.

“I’m sorry, Clye. I purely am. Ain’t nothing less than you deserve, that’s f’sure, but I think you had enough.”

The next flash of lightning illuminated a tattered ragamuffin in a sodden pink shirt and soaked bluejeans.

The girl’s blond hair was dirty and plastered to her pale face. Her dark eyes were wide and focused on Clye’s body over Munson’s shoulder.

If he would have turned slightly to the left he would have seen her approach.

The child lost in the storm.
* * *

After Ardy finally calmed down, Doug listened as she described the little girl. She finished with a glare, “You believe me, don’t you?”

“Ardy, after la-la-la-last night I find it impossible to n-not believe anything.” Doug scanned the night. The lightning didn’t cooperate, didn’t show the road, the forest around them, or the lost little girl in a pink shirt. “I don’t see her, but I b-believe you saw her.”

Ardy took a deep breath. “Go.”

“What?”

“Go. Just go.”

“But–”

She pointed up the road, “We’re close, Doug. Please, just go.

“But w-what about–?”

“She’s with R. Lee. I didn’t actually see her. I felt her.”

“Gotcha.” Doug started the Datsun, pulled it into gear, and sped off leaving a muddy toss of gravel in his wake.

He absently turned the car’s heat to low.

* * *

Munson stood and lifted the shovel off Clye’s corpse. “Well, all we gotta do now is wait for the miracle touch to come bring ya back. Then you and I got to talk.”

The lights from Munson’s car, which had been dimly lighting the forest around him with a rain-sparked haze of light, now danced slightly. The sound of a car door clunked in the storm.

“What the–?”

The car started, its headlamps dimming as the battery power shifted from the lights to the starter. The engine turned and revved.

“Who is it!? Ardy? Douglas?” He hefted the shovel like a weapon, but only intended to use it in self-defense. “Who’s there!” he called.

By answer, the car stereo cranked on and blasted “My Wish” by Rascal Flatts.

Munson slowly approached the driver’s side, deciding not to call out again. Neither Doug nor Ardy would find him here and start up his car. Come to think about it . . . . Nobody would.

As he approached the door, he saw a small sallow face peering out at him in the green glow of the dash lights.

It was a little girl, probably no more than ten or eleven. She was mouthing the words to the song and slowly swaying side to side as she stared at him with eyes so dark he couldn’t be certain if they were looking at him or through him.

“W-Who are you?”

She started to giggle and rock from side to side. Then she hit the door lock switch.

Munson dropped the shovel and slapped his palms against the glass. “Open the door!

The girl sang louder, her voice nearly lost in the vibrating churn of music inside. Her eyes were closed tight as she screamed the words, “My wish, for you, is that this life becomes all that you wanted to . . . .

Munson pounded on the windows and cried out, “PLEASE!

But the girl sang on, the day stormed on in the darkness, and Munson’s screams echoed up and up into the trees and the unforgiving forest of death.

Chapter 26 – “Ain’t No Darker Road”

September 2, 2008 - Leave a Response

Todd scratched his cheek with a bloody finger. “Damn.”

Lightning crashed again outside, but he had long since stopped flinching. Now he stood over his two dead friends, Keith — whom he shot, partly for telling the doctor at the hospital that his gouged shoulder was caused by a gunshot; and Billy Laird — who died slowly because a .22 doesn’t have much stopping power.

The first shot to Billy’s chest acted like a punch and just sent the taller boy staggering back a little, his eyes wild with disbelief. He hadn’t expected the shot and that was Todd’s only saving grace. The second shot, to the throat, was enough to cause a lot of blood to squirt out, but it didn’t stop Billy from raising the .357 (now that, thought Todd, has stopping power). The final three shots were from only five-four-three feet away and hit the bigger boy in the mouth, cheek, and eye.

Just to be sure, Todd had emptied the weaker weapon into Billy’s face until it looked all messy.

Feeling the bile hitch in his throat, Todd turned away, stepped over Keith, and went to the doorway to watch the storm. He was somehow more powerful after taking a life, a giant. Yeah, him. The shortest kid at school.

Things would change now. With each distant flash of lightning he felt a surge of freedom.

After all, he was a murderer now, and couldn’t very well go back home — or to school.

He was free. Free and powerful.

He was free to do whatever he wanted, take whatever he wanted. Todd Namer was going to need a new identity. He would wear the tough new name like a suit of Kevlar armor and use it to conceal his true identity or his purpose; his purpose of fulfilling the destiny he had just made for himself.

Todd didn’t need his parents anymore, his big sister, Billy Laird’s little sister, school, or a stupid job. He had two guns now. He could easily take whatever he needed from people he ran into. And he could stay up as long as he wanted. And he could buy whatever he wanted with his stolen money. And he could have sex with any girl he could overpower.

These thoughts made his chest heave. He howled into the night like a lone wolf ready to begin the prowl.

But he couldn’t start stupid. Todd turned and quickly examined the room. There were some things he would have to do quickly to get rid of any evidence linking him. He would have to cut off Billy’s head and bury it somewhere because .22 bullets stay stuck and don’t punch through.

“Maybe,” he thought allowed, “My sweet gypsy girl will come back while I work.”

I’ll show her I mean business.

I’ll show her nobody laughs at me.

I’ll show her good.
* * *

You do that, Todd. You do that, thought the inky blackness snaking around Todd’s soul.

* * *

“Ardy, Ardy, wuh-what’s wrong?”

Doug had pulled the Datsun over and shook Ardy’s shoulders with both hands so hard that her teeth were clicking together. “Ardy!”

She snapped awake and reared back in the seat with a loud gasp.

Doug let go of her and leaned back against the door with a shout.

Ardy breathed heavily, staring straight ahead, “Sorry, Doug.”

Doug put a hand to his chest and caught his breath. “That’s all r-right. What ha-ha-happened? Where were you? Was it the little girl in your v-vuh-vision, M-Munson? Se-Suh-Something else?”

“I’d say this fell into the ‘something else’ category.”

Doug straightened in his seat, put his hands on the steering wheel, and rested his head on his right wrist. “I’m not sure I w-want to know.”

Ardy studied him silently for just a moment before putting her hand on his shoulder blade. She rubbed his back warmly before saying, “It’s the pizza boy. His name is Todd.”

Doug peeked at her over the crook of his elbow.

“He just killed two of his friends at the parlor.”

Doug was now sitting fully at attention in the driver’s seat. “Your p-parlor? The p-p-parlor?”

“I’m afraid so. He’s cleaning up the mess he made after gunning down his two buddies. He’s . . . .”

“What is it, love?”

Ardy slowly shook her head. “He’s . . . deranged, sick. I don’t know. He’s psychot–”

They blinked at each other.

“Did you just call me ‘love?'”

“Nuh-No,” Doug shrugged.

“Yes you did,” Ardy said through a rare smile, “You just called me love.”

Doug swallowed hard, faced straight ahead. “Maybe we should f-find Munson.” He put his hand on the key to start the car but Ardy put her hand on his. She leaned toward him.

“I’m psychic, you know.”

He stared at her hand on his, then looked into her eyes. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Ardy leaned in closer. “It’s okay.”

Doug leaned toward her, they glanced at each other’s lips, then eyes met. “Just d-d-d-duh-don’t.”

Ardy’s whisper was a breath across his lips, “Don’t what?”

The kiss was short, chaste, but there was so much love and passion in that one brush of lips to fill a lifetime of love. Maybe it was part of the ‘weirdness’ of last night. Maybe it was some ‘new weirdness.’ Whatever it was, they both felt it. They both felt each other’s love.

“What were you going to say?”

Doug blinked. “Don’t. Don’t keep peeking into my mind like that.”

“You didn’t stutter.”

His smile was twisted, slightly perturbed that she shunned the subject.

Ardy squeezed his hand and kissed his cheek. “Doug, I didn’t need to use psychic powers to know how I feel about you, or how you feel about me.”

Doug’s smile straightened and gained strength. There was too much going on the past twelve hours to add a new emotion to the mix. And he knew things weren’t over. Not by a long shot.

“Let’s go,” Ardy suggested.

He was way ahead of her.
* * *

Munson sat on the muddy ground with his back against the left rear wheel of his car, his head in his hands, tears mingling with the rain down his cheeks. The radio in his car was still blaring and the little girl, for all he knew, was still sitting in the car swaying side to side.

“Please come out,” he begged for the forty or fiftieth time. And again he promised, “I won’t hurt you.”

Then, unlike the countless other times, the door opened and the radio cut off.

Munson jumped to his feet and moved back as though the creature inside the car was some kind of otherworldy enemy, a vampire or hobgoblin. “What are you?”

The girl was silhouetted by the day-night, the glare of his car’s lights behind her. In the dim he could still see she was wearing a pink top and dark jeans. Her blond hair was straight over her shoulders and somewhat matted and tattered. Dirt smudged her face, her sad expression.

Munson crouched down to her level and held out a hand. “Please, little one, I ain’t gonna hurt you.”

She took a step forward, tentatively. Now it was she who was wary.

“What’s yer name?”

“Maggie,” she said. “My name is Maggie — and I’m not a little one. I’m nine!”

Despite the declaration, Munson could tell she truly was a little one. Her education had lacked something somewhere, he could tell. The school-hoppers could find each other regardless of circumstances. It seems they had found each other.

“I won’t hurt ya,” Munson whispered.

“I know,” Maggie smiled. “But the boy will be here.”

“Boy?”

Maggie nodded slowly.

“Before Ardy and Doug find us.”

Chapter 27 – “Prediction: Todd”

September 1, 2008 - Leave a Response

Todd Namer stood naked and bloody in the psychic parlor and surveyed the landscape.

“Looks pretty good, Todder.” Todder was what his former mother used to call him. No more. No more since he was now his own man, his own God. He didn’t need his mother or father, didn’t need his friends — who were dead anyway. He only needed his wide open future.

He had daydreamed about it as he went about cleaning up the bodies of Keith and Billy. There had been a lot of stagnant, stale metallic-smelling blood all over the place. But he cleaned it all with bleach and other chemicals he found in the kitchen and bathroom. He had taken off all his clothes and put them in the Gypsy Girl’s clothes washer. They’d be out of the dryer soon.

Todd relished the nudity. His skin, sticky with blood and sweat, was like a dragon’s scales. Nothing could hurt him now. He felt wary, alive, his pulse pounded with the thought the Gypsy Girl would come home and find him here, savage and ready to pounce. She would be his first female victim, and the thoughts of what he would and could do with her were far more dark than anything imaginable.

He would kill her quickly, out of respect.

But only if she cooperated.

Todd daydreamed about traveling the world, a modern day vampire with a gun. He would live by night — anywhere he could go — and take everything he wanted. He would kill his victims in different ways so the police could never track him down. He’d kill indiscriminately in every state in the nation and every country in the world. He’d kill for revenge, for lust, for fun. And no one would stop him.

No one could stop him.

* * *

The storm eased up its tremor but the rain continued unabated. Though lighter, it was still heavy enough to be annoying.

It wasn’t annoying to Clye Morrow, Munson mused. Clye lay on his back, his face pale as the belly of a frog and just as slimy. Grit and grime channeled down his bald head and cheeks and into his ears from the corner of his open eyes. His clothes were dark with mud and indistinguishable by type or color.

“Didn’t you hear me, Mr. Munson?” Maggie asked.

He couldn’t look at her. After all, he had been to Hell. He couldn’t be sure something didn’t follow him out to taunt him and drag him back; some nightmarish specter, a fugitive from a Japanese horror film, a little girl with long matted hair and dark eye sockets.

“Hey!” Maggie came away from the car door where she was leaning and smacked him on the knee. “Listen!”

Munson, who had been sitting with his back against a tree staring at Clye’s form in the muck, looked at the girl. “What?”

“Do you like music?”

“Wha?”

“I said, Mr. Lazypoop, do you like music?”

Munson shrugged, looked at her suspiciously. “What do you want from me?”

“I want to know,” Maggie took a deep breath and screamed, “DO YOU LIKE MUSIC!?”

Munson pulled himself off the tree and dove for the girl. Landing on his knees, he wrapped one arm around her waist and clapped his other palm on her mouth. “Sssssh!”

He held her for a while, looking around, straining to hear if her hollering was picked up by anyone in the woods. “Please,” he said, looking from tiny blue eye to tiny blue eye, “Please don’t do that again.” He asked if it was okay to remove his hand from her mouth by nodding reticently and making ‘sad eyes’ with his glare. When Maggie nodded into his palm he released her.

“Then don’t do that again!” She admonished with a wagging finger.

“I’ll tell you what,” Munson said, “I’ll answer five questions without hesitation or games, if y’all’d be kind enough to answer just one o’ mine.”

“Okey-dokey Mr. Donkey.” Maggie smiled broadly. Even in the din he could tell her teeth were brown and crooked. She plopped down in the mud across from him and rested her elbows on her knees like a little girl waiting to hear a bedtime story.

Munson rolled his eyes heavenward before asking, “How did you know about me? About Doug and Ardy? How did you know their names and that they were coming? And you mentioned a boy . . . . Who is he? Is he Michael?”

Maggie waited for him to finish then rolled her eyes in impersonation of the man before her. “You said one question so I’m going to just pick one of those.”

“Okay, how about–?”

“No. Just one of yours for five of mine. We had a deal,” she scowled.

Munson sighed, looked around the dark woods. “Go ahead.”

“I know about you because I had a dream about you. I dreamt that a mean killer man crawled out of a dark fiery hole that went all the way to hell. I dreamt his two friends — Doug and Ardy — that’s a funny name.” She giggled after saying Ardy’s name.

“Go on.”

“I dreamed that her and her boyfriend came to save you, that Ardy,” giggle, “will save you from yourself.”

Munson had a vision of suicide and knew — knowing what hell is like first hand — that wasn’t going to happen. “I don’t get it.”

“You grownups, so funny. Wait ’til Michael hears about this.”

“Who is Michael?”

“Uh-uh. One question, ‘member?”

Maggie stood up and wiped the mud off her seat with filthy hands, then she turned and walked toward Clye’s corpse.

“What are you doing!?” Munson struggled to his feet to stop her, “Maggie, don’t go by him.”

“He’s a dead zombie now,” Maggie frowned.

Munson put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. He crouched down to look her in the eyes. “Don’t look at him. And no . . . . No, he ain’t dead. Not really. Ardy’s gonna make him wake up so I can . . . so’s I can talk to ‘im.”

The killer lead the girl back to the car. “Here. Let’s sit in here until they git here. No sense gettin’ any more wet n’ muddy than we already are.”

Maggie climbed into the car when Munson opened the door for her. As he climbed in after, Maggie said, “You ain’t gonna talk to him, Mr. Munson.”

Munson glared at her with a sudden glint of deep fear in his dark eyes. “Why not?”

“Because he’s dead too long.”

“Wha–?”

“Yeah. That’s gonna make you really sad.”

“What are you talkin’ about? Too long?” But Munson already had that feeling. He hadn’t been dead all that long when Ardy brought him back. What if Clye’s corpse is ruined.

“It’s something I know,” Maggie said. “Sor-ry.”

“No. No, it can’t be.” He buried his head in his hands and cried loudly and suddenly. Clye’s resurrection was his only chance at redemption. If Ardy can’t bring him back — “No! No, I can’t go back!”

Maggie put her little hand on his arm. “Don’t worry, Mr. Munson. There’s always the boy you kill.”

Munson sniffed back tears and shot his head toward her. “What?”

“The mean boy. You’re gonna kill him to save me. Then Michael will come and teach you ’bout redendention. Redamen– Redempent– ”

“Redemption,” Munson whispered.

“That’s it.”

Outside the day was still black as midnight, and the rain began to cool.

The outdoor temperature gauge in Munson’s car began its slow descent.

And all R. Lee Munson could say, was “No, no, no.”

Over and over again.

And cry.

Chapter 28 – “A Shadow of Frost”

August 31, 2008 - Leave a Response

Somewhere between Todd’s bloodbath and Munson’s interview with Maggie, the odd little psychic girl, Doug and Ardy found themselves miles away and trying to find access to Palley’s Woods.

“Wuh-W-What’s this now?” Doug squinted through the rain dotted windshield at the blinking blue and red dots in the distance. “I hope that’s not on Heh-Henderson.”

“What?” Ardy looked up from where she had been studying her hands in her lap. She had been daydreaming about Doug’s kiss, his tenderness, his boyish fear with the solid iron bar of bravery packed inside, his cute geekiness and how his stutter vanished for that instant. She wondered if they fell in love if that would squelch the stutter all together. She wished all this was over so they could just talk and hold hands and go on a date to the movies, or maybe go to church together on Sunday.

But then, she mused, in some weird way it’s as if all this horrific nightmarish stuff was concocted to bring them together so they would fall in love.

Doug braked and coasted to the soft shoulder of the two-lane. “Crap. It is Henderson.”

Several blocks ahead lay Henderson Avenue. It was a long lane through a short suburb on the far north side of town and probably the best chance for reaching Palley’s Woods the long way. Another bridge had washed out preventing them from making it to Munson via the short cut on the north side.

Ardy wasn’t as familiar with this side of Homer. “What does that mean?”

Doug sighed, “It means we’re trapped on this s-s-s-side of the river. It means we can’t get to Muh-Munson on the other side.” He sighed again and turned up the heat in the car. “It means we’re tr-tr-trapped in Homer.”

Leaning forward, studying the waves of blue and red light ahead of them, Ardy said, “Go forward. Maybe it’s not a bridge. Maybe it’s just an accident we can go around.” She patted his arm to encourage him but also because she couldn’t stand not touching him, feeling that he was close to her. Despite the warmth in her heart, Ardy shivered.

“You okay? I t-turned up the heat.” Doug put the car in gear and steered back onto the rainslicked blacktop.

Ardy didn’t answer. Instead she looked at the heater dial and locked on the little white notch turned to the broadest band of red. “What’s wrong with the world?” She grabbed the window crank and rolled down the window. The rain that misted in was frosty, the air a sudden bite that smelled like snow.

She quickly rolled it back up. “Oh, my God.”

“I know,” Doug said, craning his head and studying the midnight sky. “It’ll be nu-noon in an hour or so and it’s as b-b-b-black as if the sky was covered with a buh-blanket.”

“And why is it getting so cold?”

“I don’t know, love. I d-don’t know.”

She smiled, suddenly and inexplicably unconscious of the darkness, the cold, and the fact she had died and come back the night before. She only heard one word, spoken by him.

Then she remembered the last time she felt such warmth in her heart. It was when she was on the Other Side and feeling the flow of love from all the people around her, the distant light growing warmer. She no longer feared or wondered about death. But she did fear dying without getting to know Douglas Testerbird.

The Datsun coasted to a stop as the tempest of blue and red machinegunned around them. A silhouette of a hulking drill instructor came toward them from the harsh light. The smokey hat identified the man as a state policeman well before Doug rolled down his window to speak to him.

“What’s g-gu-going on, officer?”

The cop’s breath came out in a puff of steam. His teeth chattered. It was August. He wasn’t expecting to need his winter uniform coat. “Y-You’re kidding, right?”

Doug shrugged it off as the cop leaned down to glimpse Ardy in the passenger seat.

Doug said, “I know. Weird n-n-night — I mean day.”

The officer’s expression twisted slightly. “May I ask where you folks were headed this morning?”

Doug didn’t glance at Ardy. That would belie a mystery that might lead to interrogation. Instead he looked forward at the single-squad road block. “Out of t-t-t-town. We were on our way thuh-th-through to Indianapolis when the suh-storm hit last night.”

“Where you folks from?” The cop tilted his face to peer into the back seat. “No luggage?”

“We’re from Covert. J-J-Just a day trip.” Doug said, trying to put his own face in front of the officer’s. “Is the buh-buh-bri-bri-b-bridge to 41 out . . . sir?”

The officer stepped back and straightened up. “Can you explain where you got those bruises, sir? And the lady?”

Doug glanced at Ardy. She wasn’t bruised. She wasn’t marked at all. She was beautiful. A little haggard maybe, weary and tired. Except for the bandage showing around her arm beneath her short shirt sleeve, she was beautiful. As for himself, he wanted to say he had been bashed by a crystal ball, almost blown away by a shotgun, and generally beat up by circumstances since adding the extra dash of cologne before leaving home last night.

Ardy sensed something wasn’t going right. There was a problem with this picture.

The cop said, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the car.”

That’s when Ardy turned her gaze forward and her eyes lit upon the silvery glint of a snowflake on the windshield. Then everything went black-red-blue-white-black-red-blue-black-blue-black . . . black.

* * *

Todd Namer knew the roads would be impassible because of the rain. He also knew — somehow — that he couldn’t wait in the parlor for Ardelene to return. She wasn’t coming home. He knew . . . . He somehow knew she was out there somewhere in the dark day. She was with that guy and they were trapped.

He didn’t know how he knew, he just knew.

It was a knowledge that came with power, with the power that grew inside him and coursed through his arteries like burning kerosene.

He had finished cleaning up the parlor and decided it was time to leave. He would follow his new wolf-like senses through the dark until he found her.

Todd dressed in his jeans and sneakers, but left his shirt off. He enjoyed the feel of his rock hard abs, the taut fierceness of his muscular chest and arms. He wasn’t like this yesterday. Yesterday he had a bit of a pouch and was pale and somewhat scrawny-limbed. Cold frosty air was swirling in through the broken front door, but Todd only felt comfortable.

“Must be the vitamins,” he laughed. He tucked the .22 into the back of his jeans and carried the .357 at his right side. He left through the front door, kicking it completely off its hinges with a flying scream.

Landing on his feet outside, Todd surveyed Route 9. The rain was mixing a bit with tiny snowflakes, sleet. The sky was still midnight black. A pinpoint of warmth in the direction of far off Palley’s Woods called to him.

Todd took a deep breath of the day-night and sprinted into the frost-starched cornfield toward Palley’s Woods.

And destiny.

* * *

Good, Todd. Run. Run hard. Feel the energy coursing through you, the energy of the darkness.

* * *

Ardy wasn’t inside herself anymore. She had expected to wake inside Doug’s mind, perhaps experience the fear and anger being imposed by the state policeman as he ordered Doug out of the car.

Instead, Ardy was inside the officer’s head. And this is what was whirring by in a mad dash of insanity: What the hell is wrong with these people? Don’t they see what’s going on? There are creatures out here and they’re probably part of it. I should shoot them now. Nobody on the radio. No way out of town. That guy in the car over there, torn to pieces. What did that to him? Creatures. There was a creature in the frost, all black and formed like a man — Oh, Christ — don’t think about it. It’ll come get you. What if this guy is one of them. I should shoot him. I should shoot him because he probably hurt that woman. He got bruised by her fists as she fought off his attacks in the darkness. Poor girl. Oh, God, what if he transforms into that black frost thing and attacks her while I’m here. I should just shoot him. I should kill him now. I have to defend her. Myself.

The cop, whose name was Frederick Duffy (“Sly” to his drinking buddies because of his weak resemblance to a certain Rambo film star), had Doug walk around behind the Datsun and open the trunk. Sly was reaching for his sidearm.

Oh, God, Ardy, wake up! Get up! Get out of this psycho’s brain and yell! Scream! Wake up!

“Just nice and easy, pal,” Duffy told Doug. He was waiting for just the right moment, for a window of opportunity when Doug would have to take his eyes away for at least four seconds, enough time for Duffy to draw his revolver and squeeze off three quick shots in his back.

Doug must have sensed something was completely wrong with the cop because, while he obeyed every order just as slowly as it was given, he never once took his eyes away from the officer.

Ardy swam in the mental sea of paranoia looking for a way to get out. The only image that played itself over and over in Frederick Duffy’s mind was the willowy black creature that skulked along the roadside, retreating from the twisted wreckage of the car in front of his patrol prowler. Whatever it was, it was real — or so Duffy’s mind believed it was real — and it was inhuman. And evil.

Duffy didn’t have the luxury of having seen this day unfold through a series of murders, resurrections, visions, and signs. All he knew was that he was a cop who went on duty one night, it started raining, the sun never came up, and now it’s getting very cold and creatures are causing cars to wreck.

And the radio in the police car didn’t work.

That was a random thought that seemed to be the anchor to this long string of links in Officer Duffy’s mind. The cop felt alone. He was Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. He was Will Smith in I Am Legend. The world was crumbling and no one would answer his calls for help.

Naturally, he reasoned, anyone he sees now cannot be human.

Doug only knew something was wrong, very wrong, and that his actions — or inactions — would have a very severe bearing on whether he could keep Ardy and himself alive in the next few moments. His eyes were locked on the cop’s eyes. The cop’s eyes were drilling into Doug’s eyes.

Neither man noticed the tall, slim creature, like a marionette coated in shining black oil, rise up behind Doug. The rain was swallowed up by its body and snowflakes that touched its smooth skin melted into the oily surface with an infinitesimal tisking sound.

Ardy, whose attentions and senses were those of Officer Duffy now, didn’t see the thing either.

And she didn’t see it when the thing stepped into Doug, forming his shape and sliding into him like a shadow chased into hiding by the sun.

She only saw Doug’s expression suddenly change.

She heard him hurl of stream of obscenities at the cop.

Then she saw him charge.

Back in her own body, Ardy jolted awake by gunfire.

And screamed.

Chapter 29 – “Waiting Him Out”

August 30, 2008 - Leave a Response

Munson was wondering if he should get out of the car and re-bury Clye Morrow.

He sat behind the wheel, Maggie next to him in the passenger seat playing “church steeple” with her fingers. The engine was running and the heat was on. He didn’t know why it was happening, but Munson noted the sudden and fierce drop in temperature over the past hour.

“What’re you gonna do?” Maggie asked, moving her fingers from the “steeple” to the “open the doors to see all the people” position.

“I don’t rightly know.” In truth Munson didn’t know what to do, let alone say. He came to Clye’s grave to dig him up so that Ardy Jacobi could resurrect his heartless ass and they could dialog about murder and death and hell and resurrection . . . . and redemption.

But along came the little girl, Maggie. She told him, matter of factly, that Clye was as dead as any rock on the swelling river bank, that Ardy wasn’t going to bring him back to life, and that Munson was going to have to protect her from a “crazy boy” on his way out here to harm her.

“You have a gun, right?”

“Not anymore.”

“How come?”

Munson frowned at his reflection in the window. “I gave it to some friends.”

“Ardelenie and Dougie?”

Munson squirmed in his seat and half turned to face the girl. He rested his massive calloused hand on her dainty fidgeting digits and said, “Tell me, Maggie, please . . . .” He waited for her to look up at him. Her eyes were enormous and mysterious like onyx. Her skin was smooth but dirty and tracked by long dry tear tracks. She was so innocent. “Please tell me how you know these things, and where you came from.”

Maggie pulled her hands out from under Munson’s and turned in her seat to face him. She suddenly looked so adult. “It’s ending.”

Munson seemed to know what she meant, but he was terrified at the prospect. He was more terrified that the observation came from a child. He swallowed hard, “What is?”

The girl looked out the window, leaned forward and craned her neck to look out down the slope beyond the headlight beams. Then she began to fidget again, mumbling to herself in a sing-song voice.

“Maggie,” Munson said, trying to sound like a cross adult, “What’s ending?”

The girl sighed, yawned, and rubbed her eyes. Then she said, “You needn’t worry about that. You have to fight the boy.”

“What boy?”

Munson was getting exasperated, but his ultimate lesson — the price he paid by spending moments in hell — curred him, and he held his temper at bay.

Still, the girl was testing his resolve, taunting him — though not purposely he felt. She was a strange little thing without a beginning or an end. Maggie was just there. She appeared before him in a flash just like the lake of fire and the darkness, the screaming, and the oblivion without love. Only Munson felt she was something more, a key. Perhaps her few words were links in a chain that would suspend him high over hell’s gate and possibly even swing him into the arms of salvation.

God, it’s been a long night, Munson sighed.

“Maggie, dear, please. Tell me what I have’ta do.”

She stared into his dark eyes, considering — or determining how next to change the subject.

“Magge,” Munson insisted, “What boy?”

“That one,” Maggie said and pointed to the figure standing over Clye’s body in front of the car.

Chapter 30 – “Another One Bites the Dust”

August 29, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy’s breath came in short chopped clouds as she strained to hear signs of activity outside the car. The driver’s side door still stood open and, despite the Datsun’s chugging heater, the air had grown frigid.

Long moments passed without a sound or source of movement. Her ears had stopped ringing after the popping gunfire. She knew the police officer was planning to gun down Doug, afraid he was going to transform into some sort of monster. Then, she recalled, he did.

Something happened to him. He charged the cop screaming like a . . . like a . . . well, like a demon.

Now he was–.

Doug!

Ardy struggled for a moment with the handle on her own door before throwing it open and charging out into the street. A light snow was replacing the black rain but it was not yet sticking to anything. Perhaps the deep summer earth was still too warm to accept this strange turn to the weather. The red and blue lights on top of the police cruiser still thrashed the surrounding forest chasing black shadows away. The car the officer had stopped still sat diagonally across Henderson street. And no one, not a soul, seemed to care.

She fumbled around the back of the car, almost slipping on the wet pavement, and stared at the most bizarre scene yet from the past eighteen hours.

The officer lay on his back, a dark hole under his chin, burned around the edges from his own weapon. Over him stood Doug. Doug . . . was worse off.

Though he was still standing, his vision was blank, glazed over and dead. Two dark holes decorated his head: one on his forehead slightly to the left, the other had ruptured his right cheekbone. Another dark hole stained his polo shirt just over his heart.

He was dead, had to be. But here he stood gazing blankly toward the sky over the black horizon, his eyes as unseeing as those of a mannequin.

“Oh, my God, Doug! No!” Ardy ran a couple of steps toward him but stopped. Something wasn’t right here. Well, of course something wasn’t right, but she felt something was actually horribly, horribly wrong. Something else was here, something far worse than anything she had seen on earth.

But maybe not in hell.

* * *

Munson stared at the figure through the frosted windshield. It appeared to be a shirtless teenager, his upper body rippling with muscles. The kid, if you could call him that, was staring down at Clye Morrow’s body. He was breathing heavily as if he had just run a great distance to get here. The kid didn’t seem to care about the car, whether or not anyone was in it staring at him. He was fixed on the body at his feet.

He couldn’t let the opportunity wait. Munson had also seen the gun in his hand, a rough looking .357. It was past time to wonder where Maggie got her information, where Ardy was, or what he would do now that he couldn’t redeem himself through Clye Morrow. Moving with the quick reflexes and killer instinct that fed his bloodlust just twenty hours earlier, Munson opened the driver’s side door and dove-rolled into the dark forest, kicking the door shut behind him.

The kid responded as expected. He leveled the pistol toward the sound and squeezed off a shot, then another. The reports echoed through the frosted forest.

That’s two, Munson thought. Four to go.

* * *

“Who are you?” Ardy called. “What have you done with Doug?”

The dead-Doug marionette twitched before leveling its blank gaze on her. “Doouugg?” it hissed. Ardy was absurdly reminded of Night of the Living Dead.

A chill colder than this freakish night-day vibrated through Ardy. She had heard that sound before, that hissing cold voice. That was the voice of him — the lowercase him. The him of darkness and anti-love. The him who hated Him.

“Leave him alone! This is not your place!”

The Doug-thing twitched again. Ardy could swear one of his eyes had started to focus.

“Noooooooo,” it hissed. Doug-thing took a staggering step back, raised its hands and smacked at its own face. Then, in Doug’s own voice, “Noooo!”

A tiny black metal slug dropped from his forehead and tick-ticked on the pavement.

“Doug! Fight it! Fight it! Come back to me!”

“I will take your Doug with me,” he hissed at Ardy, “To the place you came from. Then you will follow by your own– No!” Another twitch. More like a seizure.

I love you!” Ardy screamed, hot tears welling in her cold eyes.

That did the trick.

* * *

The rock Munson hurled arched perfectly through the darkness and clocked the kid on the temple. The boy didn’t flinch. The rock just tousled his hair and dropped with a thump.

Super boy turned toward the rock’s trajectory and fired his pistol again. Two thunderous booms shook the bark of the trees around them.

That leaves two, Munson counted, and rolled to his left, further from the car.

But this time the boy didn’t fall for it. He smiled wryly and said, “Oh, no you don’t. I know what you’re trying to do.”

Munson froze. Panic started to build in his chest, it stoked his muscles for the charge he knew would come.

“Fine,” the kid said, “I’ll just have to waste your girlfriend.” He then turned, aimed for the passenger side of the car, and fired his last two shots. Spiderwebs of safety glass cascaded out from the dime-sized holes that drew a direct line to Maggie’s position in the passenger seat.

“No!” Munson screamed. Anguish and loss flooded through him but he didn’t care. He only knew he had to stop this kid, avenge the girl. Or maybe Maggie’s okay. Maybe he missed. She predicted this, right? He’s going to save her, right?

But the boy was too fast and knew what would happen. In one smooth move, he dropped the empty .357 in the mud at his feet and, while whirling on Munson’s position, drew the .22 pistol tucked in the back of his pants and leveled it at Munson’s throat.

R. Lee Munson actually heard the three shots and felt them tear through his neck. He had no voice to cry out, no way to call on God to save him from The Pit. But at least he could think it. At least he could–

Then he was gone again.

* * *

Ardy stood shivering so badly her teeth chattered and her vision blurred. “Doug?”

Doug stood about eight feet from her. He too was shaking, his eyes wide. “I-Is it g-gone?”

She shrugged, “I d-don’t know. I-I’m n-not sure.”

Tears streaked his face, “W-Where was I, Ardy? W-Where d-d-did it take me?”

Ardy’s chin puckered. She knew where he had been. She recognized the look in Doug’s eyes. It was the same look Munson had when he was brought back from the brink of hell.

Ardy!?” It was a scream. A scream of absolute fear and anguish. “Why is it so d-dark!? Why is it so cold!?” Doug collapsed onto the pavement hugging himself. The three slugs that had ended his life lay scattered on the road. The dark shadow that had taken hold of him was gone.

Ardy ran to him and embraced him. He was as cold as the road and his shivers were racked by his heavy sobs and screams of anguish.

Doug glanced toward the dead cop. “It made me do that, Ar-Ardy. It ma-ma-made me ga-rab the gun and ma-ma-make him shi-shoot–”

“Ssh, no,” Ardy sobbed, kneeling before him. She took his head in her hands, kissed him on the corner of his mouth more to silence his anguish than anything else. “Don’t.”

“It t-t-took me, Ardy,” Doug snorted. “It took me away from God. I can’t go back there. Please don’t let me go bu-back there!”

“Sssh, love. Sssh. I won’t. I promise I won’t let it take you again.” She pet his head now wet with melted drops of sleety snow. “I-It’s okay, my love. We’ll be okay. I w-won’t let-t it come again.”

Doug’s cries, like Munson’s the night before, were filled with the darkest kind of knowing, the deepest, hardest truth to learn.

All she could do was hold him and rock him. All she could wonder was what had taken hold of him and why. And why it had let him go.

And if R. Lee was okay out there in the darkness of Palley’s Woods.

Chapter 31 – “Maggie in the Dark”

August 28, 2008 - Leave a Response

Not satisfied that Munson’s rapidly-cooling and breathless body was beyond reviving, Todd Namer straddled him and brought the barrel of the .22 down to his staring lifeless eye.

A shot, then another, crack-echoed through Palley’s Woods. They weren’t loud shots, the .22 being smaller than the .357, but the woods were quiet enough that they may as well have been cannon fire.

Todd tilted his head, admiring his handy work. Even if this guy somehow survived three shots to the neck and two to the skull, he wouldn’t be able to see without any eyes. “Good enough,” he smiled.

Turning his attention to the idling vehicle and its bulleted windshield, Todd thought of the Gypsy girl inside, bleeding to death — or dead — from the two shots he had fired through the glass. The shooting out of the eyes, he decided, would be his “calling card.” Everybody needs one, he smiled, especially in this new dark age.

He approached the passenger side and tugged at the handle. The door came open easily but not because it was pushed by a lifeless body within. In fact there was no body to be found at all. The two shots ripped ragged holes through the car’s passenger seat and into the back seat as well, but there was no body to slow down the slugs. Climbing into the warm car interior, Todd looked under the seats, in the back. Nothing. No sign of the Gypsy.

Todd was now a slick and oily combination of excited and disappointed. He was disappointed because the fortune teller who insulted him last night was missing. He was excited because the anticipation of their final and deadly meeting gave him a charge.

“Besides,” he muttered to himself, “I didn’t want it to be this quick anyway.”

Leaving the eyeless guy and the filthy hard corpse to lie together until they were covered by snow, Todd got behind the wheel of Munson’s car, put it in reverse, and left the woods behind.

* * *

From behind the seclusion of a thick oak, Maggie watched, shivering. As the car’s headlights bobbed and faded from sight, a deep blackness closed in around her.

Leaving her alone with the two dead men.

She smiled.
* * *

Ardy drove the Datsun slowly along the icy road while Doug whimpered, curled in a ball in the passenger seat. Like Munson the night before, he could only cry uncontrollably and repeat “No, no, no,” or “Why? Oh, Lord, why?”

She knew the anguish he had experienced, though she couldn’t understand why Doug had been in hell after his death. His life had been a righteous one — or at least as righteous as a mortal life can be. Perhaps, she thought, it had something to do with the dark specter that had possessed him.

“Doug, honey,” she tried.

His response was a brief noise that could have been an acknowledgment or a jolt of surprise at her sudden address.

“Doug, I know what you were through. I was there myself, remember? With R. Lee.”

Doug’s tears refreshed and he shook with sobs, “Oh, Ardelene, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry you went through that.”

“I know, honey, I know. But I’m out of it now, and so are you. We both are.”

She let another forty or fifty feet of road pass beneath them before pushing further. “Doug. What can you tell me about the thing that possessed you?”

To Ardy’s surprise, Doug spoke right up without hesitation. He said, “It was an Alterling.”

“Alterling? What’s that?”

“I don’t know. I just know that’s what it called itself inside my head.” His tone dropped and he said, “It gripped my soul with its teeth.”

“What?”

Doug shook himself out of a trance. “W-Where are we?”

Ardy squinted out the window. Streaks of snow flashed in the headlights. The woods around them were growing white between the shadows as the snow stuck. The time on the Datsun’s dashboard clock read five minutes to noon, but it may as well have been midnight. “I’m sorry. I have no clue.”

“Stop at the next cross street so we can get our bearings.”

“Okay.” Then, “Are you all right?” She risked a glance in his direction.

“I’m fine. Why?”

“Oh, no reason.” She turned back to the road, but kept glancing at him, his solid jawline. “It’s just that your stuttering has completely stopped.”

“You know where I was. If you had a stutter, do you think you’d still have it after coming back?”

She didn’t know if that was a point, or if the — Alterling? — was somehow to blame. What if it left something behind. What if part of it were still with him?

Ardy looked at him. Doug was sitting up, staring straight ahead, and had a look of determination in the corner of his eye. Ardy had never seen Doug look so . . . . Fierce.

Chapter 32 – “Legad”

August 27, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy pulled the Datsun to the side of the road after rolling over the thickening slush for fifteen minutes. The tires protested against the icy gravel as the car slid to a stop half-slumped in a ditch off the back road to Palley’s Woods.

Doug blinked out the windshield, his eyes still drilling into the snowy night, determined. But for what Ardy didn’t know. Not sure if he was still possessed by . . . by whatever that was, she stopped the car.

“What’re you doing?” Doug said, glancing at her. His eyes were wild and unsettling.

“You’re scaring me,” Ardy muttered. The car remained idling, but she had one hand on the key in the ignition and the other on the handle.

Doug forced himself to glance from the key hand to the handle hand. “W-What are you doing, Ardy?”

“How do I know it’s you?” Her chin quivered and she felt tears heat the corners of her eyes. She remembered the horrifying scene, the holes in his head — now no more than pimple-sized scars — the hiss and groan of the Alterling within him. “He’s a deceiver,” she said, remembering a felt warning from the beings she herself had touched on the other side of death.

“Who is?”

“Doug, don’t.”

He twitched. “I don’t understand,” he said and sniffed.

Ardy turned off the car and clutched the keys to her chest. Something wasn’t right. Doug’s sniff wasn’t as the others had been, not to draw back tears. No, this sniff was feral, animal. He was smelling the air in the car, gathering her scent to determine her next action.

“Ardy, don’t–” Doug started. But it was too late.

Slamming her shoulder into the door as she pulled the handle, Ardy rolled into the road and scrambled to her feet. Lights from an oncoming car grew slowly from the blurred horizon. Turning toward the lights more to escape the darkness, Ardy raised her hands in the air and started waving wildly. “Stop!”
* * *

Todd blasted the all-metal radio station loud enough to vibrate the seat of the dead guy’s car and make the broken safety glass crinkle and crack with each beat. He wasn’t running the car’s heater. The sudden wintry blast through the shattered windshield didn’t bother him.

He had only one purpose in life, to find the woman who pained him and brought him to this route. The gypsy fortune-telling woman would soon fall into his grasp and he would delight in so many torturous pleasures he wouldn’t be able to contain himself. Already he was starting to sing a toneless droning song that ran through his brain like a tune that won’t go away. Though he had never heard it before, it was stronger than the heavy rock blasting the car speakers. It was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

But he didn’t care.

He didn’t care about what he had left behind either. The fingerprints left on the discarded .357 entered and left his mind as he left the forest and followed his animal instincts down the side road. It didn’t seem to matter that he was leading a forensics trail a blind CSI officer from TV could find in . . . well, in a snowstorm.

Todd no longer remembered his parents, his home, or his friends dead at his hands. His memories were erasing with each flake of snow that drifted in the shattered glass and melted on the vinyl of the ruined seat next to him.

He only had his lust.

And the voice in his head telling him he was strong. He was infinite. He was powerful. No man could harm him. No god could touch him. As long as he dwelt in the darkness of the Alterlings’ home, nothing could touch him.

For a creature without a soul is more infinite than the legions of saints gone before.

“I’ll have to remember that one,” he growled to himself, the smile almost pointed as though his teeth were already flesh-rendering sharp.

Then a momentary flash of frustration raged in him. He jammed the brakes and rode the twisting slide. The car stopped at a forty-five degree angle across the center lane. “Where the hell am I going? Where is she?”

The voice within him said, She’s here. She will come to you if you will it. If you demand it.

“But how? I don’t have that kind of power.”

But you do. You do, Legad.

“Legad. What is that?”

The name he gives you. My name.

“Who is he?”

Your master.

“But I have no master. I am power.”

No. You are his tool. It is his power you feel.

This made Todd pause, to doubt. Immediately the cold air from outside began to razor cut the flesh of his arms and chest. He felt weak. He felt memories ebb back into his heart, a vision of his mother crying as she tended a gash he got on his knee as a child.

“No! No, don’t leave me this way!”

Who commands you, Legad?

“Him. The master. Our Master.”

Are you sure? You have to give yourself fully to him. No doubts. And his power shall be yours to wield.

Todd didn’t even think about it as he savored the name. “Legad is ready, master. I am your will.”

With each breath Todd — and Legad — felt the strength and heat and determination fill his heart and turn it black. The brief image of his crying mother became a flash of his mother tortured by his own hands, her fear and godlessness filling him and making him even more powerful.

Jamming the car back into gear, Legad straightened the wheel and continued driving into the snowy downpour. He rocked from side to side as he chanted his name and vowed to use his master’s power to fill his rage and lust.

Just as the master wills it.

“Now, my master,” Legad groaned in a voice that came from a pit deep within himself, a voice he didn’t recognize, “I am yours to abuse and to raze.” A cold tear streaked his cheek but he wasn’t crying from fear, rage or even happiness. He was overcome with the pure bliss of surrendering himself to another’s will. He knew that his master would continue to monitor him, to guide him. And, should he bring the woman to her knees, the voice in the darkness would breathe hot kisses on his neck and anoint him with the blood of a thousand lost souls. And if Legad should fail, each sense would be filled with the sharp pain of his master’s lessons. He would accept punishment with relish and possibly even find sexual gratification in the rage of his master’s disappointment.

Perhaps, Legad mused, he will have both. He will have the woman and do to her what the master would do to him. Then he would surrender himself to the dark one’s will and allow himself the pleasure of his lord’s tendering.

He didn’t realize that he was still Todd and that the ancient name Legad meant “slave.”

He didn’t realize that his master had already carved out a plan to use him and discard him in a cold black fire.

He didn’t realize there is no bliss in torment.

“Bring her to me, master.” Legad whispered through the broken howling windshield.

And was instantly rewarded as the gypsy woman came running directly into the path of his headlights, waving and screaming for him to stop and pick her up.

“Thank you, master,” Legad grinned and licked his chapped lips.

Chapter 33 – “The Babysitter”

August 26, 2008 - Leave a Response

Maggie May had a hard time dragging R. Lee Munson’s lifeless corpse to the tree on higher ground. It was dark and wet and the sleeting snow was starting to become more razor sharp and frigid.

Her teeth chattered incessantly, but Maggie knew if she kept moving, kept push-, pull-, dragging R. Lee’s heavy body up the slight incline, the exertion would warm her up. It was working a little bit, but the freeze was just too much and she had to keep stopping to rub her hands together and stomp her feet.

“It’s okay, Mr. M-Munson. D-Doug will be here soon and then we’ll all be okay.”

Maggie couldn’t take the cold much longer. She didn’t know much about frostbite or other things that happened to you when you were freezing, but she knew enough to know it hurt real bad, your fingers and toes turned black and fell off and you died.

Glancing at Munson’s body, then to Clye Morrow’s frozen corpse, she compared their clothes to her own. Either man’s suit jacket might be enough to wrap around her twice. That would keep her warm. Mr. Munson’s, she mused, was probably still fairly warm from his body heat and it wasn’t as caked with ice and snow as Mr. Morrow’s, but she couldn’t do that to her friend.

Mr. Munson would need his jacket when he woke up. He’d be very cold.

Maggie crouched over the other man’s body and worked at peeling him out of his suit jacket. the material seemed hard like paper because of the snow and frozen mud and crackled when she pulled it away from him. His body beneath the suit was as cold and hard as plastic when she poked it. His glazed eyes had collected little cups of snow but still stared skyward. His bald head was dull and white as the ground.

After she wrapped the cold hard fabric around her shoulders, she sat next to Mr. Munson under the tree and held his hand. Every once in awhile she squeezed it and rubbed it and said, “It’ll b-be okay, Mr. M. D-D-Doug-g’s c-coming.”

* * *

Legad, who was once called Todd, could not believe his luck. He couldn’t wait to eventually meet his master face to face and give himself over for reward and the bliss of careless enslavement.

But for now, this was his slave. This was the songbird flown away to avoid him, now back to the roost. Back to the master.

The woman was more beautiful than he remembered. Despite the bizarre freeze coming down from the bizarre night, she was dressed in an over sized tee with a sailboat on it and a pair of baggy shorts. Her untied sneakers made splashes in the wet snow as she mindlessly flailed toward him, glancing over her shoulder repeatedly at a pursuer Legad could not see.

Slamming on the brakes, Legad gripped the wheel hard and howled. The road was too icy under the fresh coat of summer snow and the car’s heavy wheels were sliding and rotating toward her.

She kept coming and noticed too late that her own momentum and the momentum of the car were going to collide.

“Noooo!” Legad cried, envisioning the crunch and thump of her body breaking in half over the hood, denying him his prize. “Nooooooo!”
* * *

Doug sat in the passenger seat of the Datsun staring at the snow coming down through the open driver’s door. He hadn’t moved accept to lean toward the open door to accommodate the angle of the car’s dip toward the ditch.

Ardy had bolted from the car and ran out into the street, into the darkness of the single lane road cutting Palley’s Woods in half. Doug had no idea why.

The last thing he remembered was approaching the police officer and reaching for his wallet. Next thing he knew, he was sitting in the passenger seat of his own car as it listed toward a ditch on the side of the road, watching as Ardy ran out into the storm–.

Toward a pair of speeding headlights.

“Ar-rr-Ardy!”

Doug’s first impulse, to bolt up the angled seat and through the door that was already open, only brought him to a halt as the center console gearshift jammed his knee. The crack of the gearshift harmonized with his shout of pain and covered the shushing roar of the sliding tires and the sickening crunch as Ardy was hit by the car. But he sensed the hit without hearing it.

“Ardy! N-No!

The pain in his knee gone, Doug pushed against his own door but it wouldn’t budge. The styrofoam shriek between the metal parts told him his door was rapidly freezing.

No, no, no, no, no….” Crack! the door finally gave as he shouldered into it with all his weight. Doug slipped and fell between the door and the car, and was momentarily pinned as the car door jammed against something unforgiving. His mind remembered the angle and he remembered from somewhere that Ardy had pulled over angling the Datsun into a ditch. The narrow cleft in the earth didn’t allow for the door to open all the way and Doug’s momentum only landed him in the precarious and painful position on his side with the door pinning him.

“Ardy!” he cried, but only heard shuffling of snow under loose footfalls and the sound of something being dragged through the slush. A car door opened, then slammed shut. “Ardy! Ardy, answer me!

Even as another car door slammed — Did somebody pick her up and put her in their car? Are they taking her to the hospital? — Doug squirmed and inched his way out of the Datsun and into the ditch. His palms broke through thin layers of ice and splashed in shallow freezing water. Sharp reeds frozen by the sudden winter flash storm cut at his legs, back, and arms.

The car that hit Ardy was now releasing plumes of steam from its exhaust, kicking up fans of loose snow, and making a whirring sound like a tortured banshee as its tires found purchase on the sleeted pavement. By the time Doug had limped to the edge of the road, waving his hands for the hit-and-run-Samaritan to stop, the car was already roaring past.

Through the shattered portions of the windshield on the passenger side, Doug noticed Ardy slumped over, her head lolling on the shoulder of — wait. Is that the kid that took a shot at me earlier? The one who killed Munson with the shotgun!? . . . It is!

But there was nothing Doug could do but watch as the car sped away, its red tail lights fading into the blackness churning with snow.

Laughter, cold and hollow as if it were coming from a tiny recording within a tin can, found Doug’s ear and spun him on a heel.

There, leaning against the car, was the Alterling. The creature resembled a human in shape but no light, not even the reflection of the Datsun’s headlights bouncing back off the snow, were enough to give this shadow form.

But Doug knew what it was. He had been held in its arms before, pinned by its teeth, poked by its bony finger.

The laugh told Doug he had just played an unwitting role in a grander scheme.

Having seen and felt hell with his own soul already, Doug was sobered against the creature and knew how its deceptions worked.

The Alterling pushed off from the car and stood up straight facing Doug. It hissed, “Your girl isss dead now, ssso you die.”

“N-No,” Doug defied, “You c-ca-can’t frighten me or get me to d-deal with you. I won’t give you the gr-gra-grace.”

He didn’t know where the words came from, nor was he even sure what they meant, but they seemed to have an effect. The creature cringed as if hurt, and turned and started to walk into the woods.

It glanced once more at Doug and smiled crookedly with teeth as black as its night-skin. “You don’t have the power to offer grace.” It hissed the last word as it turned and vanished.

* * *

Deep within Palley’s Woods, Maggie gave up trying to stay warm against Mr. Munson’s cold corpse. She lay with her head on his shoulder, snow powdering her tiny weak frame. A body that had taken on the stillness of her partner.

She no longer felt the cold, only tired.

Very, very tired.

Chapter 34 – “The Dance of the Alterling”

August 25, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug had only wasted a few minutes trying to re-start the Datsun before giving it up. Abandoning the car as Chris McCandless had done–Doug noted the irony–and hoped he wouldn’t be found dead in an abandoned bus.

Hugging himself against the cold, he looked into the darkness where Ardy vanished with her abductor, then he glanced toward the dark woods where the Alterling had vanished with its dry tinny laugh.

Without a car, he didn’t stand a chance of catching up with the Pizza King kid. He could only hope Ardy was alive, okay, and strong enough to fight off whatever it was the kid was going to do. Doug knew he stood a better chance trying to run down the creature that appeared as suddenly and strangely as the night-for-day snowstorm in the middle of August.

Besides, there was something about the exchange with the night creature, something that told Doug the truth and the ability to help Ardy lay with any mystery attached to the happenings of the last 20 hours. That creature had what he needed, he was sure of it.

Glancing once more down the road, he muttered a brief prayer of promise, “I’ll fa-fah-find you Ardy. I swear,” and jogged into the woods after the Alterling.

* * *
Legad almost wrecked the stolen car a half dozen times. He found it difficult to concentrate on the icy road. There she was, the gypsy girl, unconscious next to him. He kept pulling his eyes away from the road to watch her chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. He watched her hair toss in the harsh breeze from the ruined windshield. He rested his palm on her bare thigh, feeling the coldness of the skin, rubbing it to keep it warm. He wanted to touch her in other places too, but knew enough to remain patient until he found a place to have his fun. Legad needed a quiet place, a warm place, a place hidden from passersby.

He couldn’t believe the absolute luck and power he was experiencing. And it was all thanks to her.

Another stolen glance, another rub on her thigh. He avoided touching the other thigh. It looked funny. In fact, that whole leg looked funny. Too many knees and it was turning colors.

It was this woman who scorned him like so many others, like all the girls in school who put out for guys like, like . . . . He couldn’t remember his friends, the ones he killed and devoured.

“Huh. Funny.”

It didn’t matter anyway. He took his eyes off the road again and forced his hand, his poking fingers, between the passenger seat and the woman’s bottom.

Withdrawing his hand when the car shimmied on a sudden patch of black ice, Legad gripped the wheel tightly.

Her fault, he decided. She distracted me to make the car slide like that. I can’t wait to tear her to pieces. He proclaimed silently then that he would dispose of her body by eating it — raw.

When he was done doing other things that is. He smiled. His teeth felt sharp.

Legad gave the woman’s leg a pinch and she moaned but didn’t wake.

“Good. Brain still works.”

Taking his eyes off the road again, he raised his hand to her chest and cupped his palm around a breast. The cold air was doing wonderful things to her–

The car slammed into a brick wall. Somebody screamed, short and shrill. What was left of the glass shattered in and rained down on Legad. His head cracked the steering wheel and the car’s forward momentum turned into a shunting corkscrew. The woman’s head thumped the passenger glass, but her seatbelt held firm. Blood sprayed Legad’s face and bare chest and a giant fist with matted hair poked–master!?— through the broken windshield and punched him square on the nose, sending shivers of color through his vision before everything went black.
* * *

“You’re leaving your girlfriend behind.” The voice was dry but coarse, like tearing sandpaper.

Doug stopped his run through Palley’s Woods and rubbed his arms to generate some brief warmth. He glanced left and right, up, right again but couldn’t figure out where the voice had come from. He knew the Alterling was close, but he lost the foot path some time ago.

It was dark. Doug could only make out dim tree-like shapes in front of him. He couldn’t see the thickness of the forest beyond. It was just a black velvet curtain.

From the darkness, it came again. “The boy is going to murder her, you know.”

“W-Where are you? Show yourself to me you c-c-c-coward.”

“They are all going to be mine,” the paper voice rasped. “Legad is going to bring them to me. All the souls. After he makes them turn away. The days of the world are finally over and the Son hasn’t got a clue.”

Doug wanted to ask a dozen questions, but was suddenly afraid the only reason the creature didn’t move back inside him had something to do with the answer to those question. So he pretended he knew. “Why do you n-n-need him to turn them away. D-Do it yourself.”

A shadow, darker than the dim around him, passed by. Doug tried to lock onto it with his straining vision, but he couldn’t. Then the voice returned, even closer, from the opposite direction.

“Because I am tired of doing all the work. This is my springtime. This is my birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” Doug sneered, and whirled on what he thought was the source of the voice only to get poked in the cheek by a twig.

“You know you don’t stutter when you’re angry.”

“What of it?”

“Interesting. Why don’t you let go your feelings, give in to hate and embrace the dark side,” the voice rasped in a deeper monotone.

Doug laughed. “That’s from Star Wars.”

“What of it?”

He was being toyed with. The smile dropped from his face and Doug slowly turned on a heel. Maybe the thing was right. Maybe if he unleashed his rage he’d suddenly find his fingers around the creature’s neck.

But no. That’s what it wanted. He felt it. He had to play it closer to the heart. He had to think positively, to call upon God to get him out of this mess–like Obi-Wan Kenobi calling upon the good side of the Force to defeat Darth Maul.

This isn’t Star Wars, you idiot. Stop that! This is serious.

To emphasize the seriousness, the alterling took a deep audible breath before making anew proclamation.

From a new location, higher in a tree: “He’s going to rape her corpse, you know. Stupid boy. He can’t get the order right on anything.”

Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Doug clamped his eyes shut and put his hands over his ears. He screamed until his throat burned, “Go away! Leave us alone! Shut up! Why are you doing this?

When he finally stopped, Doug put his hands on his knees and slumped. He labored to catch his breath. It was too dark to see the plumes of breath billowing down from his mouth, but he figured that’s what the shapes were.

Until one of the shapes reached up and grabbed his pant leg.

Chapter 35 – “Talking to Deer Head”

August 24, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy Jacobi dreamed she was being dragged to the edge of a glowing orange lake of fire. Freezing air burned her face, but her arms and legs were warm. In fact, her right leg and right arm, the ones held out to ward off the heat of the lake, were beginning to bleed smoke.

“No.”

Thrashing from side to side, Ardy saw what was taking her to the lava pit. On the one side was R. Lee Munson brandishing the slippery grin of a mass murderer, just as she remembered the first time she saw him. The other shape belonged to Pizza Kid. His pimply expression was wild and lustful. And he was naked.

As she approached the lake, fire snapped and crackled from her shin and thigh. In just a couple of seconds her entire right leg was engulfed in searing flames.

“Don’t! No, please! Don’t!”
* * *

Though the pain in the dream was intense, and the circumstance increasingly urgent, Ardy felt herself wake slowly, groggily, and realized the pain was genuine and crackled without the snapping sound. But her right leg and arm weren’t burning. They were broken and contorted. And, from what she could see in the hissing yellow glow of a Coleman gas lantern, they had been crudely splinted with curtain rods, a dirty two-by-four, and tied with torn sheets.

Delirious with agony, Ardy lolled her head and forced her eyes to focus on her surroundings. She didn’t remember getting hit by the car. She only remembered being in Doug’s Datsun, pulling over for some unknown reason, and running out into the snow. Now she was here.

“Where–?” She croaked. Her voice was weak and cracked, but she had to hear it to make sure she wasn’t still dreaming. A pulsing cramp ached in the part of her thigh that didn’t burn, but she dare not move it to get comfortable, if that were possible.

The place looked like some kind of windowless cabin. Dark red-brown plank wood made up the walls and ceiling. Cobwebs laced the air like the remaining filaments of nightmares. The only door was heavy oak and stood slightly ajar. Snow drifted in with tiny swirls on the hardwood floor. The bed Ardy currently occupied was musty smelling and the blankets under her body were itchy and oily at the same time, and its springs were large and uncomfortable through the thin mattress pad.

Despite the freak winter chill outside and the breeze coming through the slightly-open door, Ardy felt as though she were burning up. Her head pounded in time with the throbbing explosions of pain in her leg and arm. The pain and discomfort screamed and refused to let her make sense of what was going on around her or even recall the events of the day that lead her to this place. Her only calming thoughts were fleeting memories of the Kind Ones, the angels or whatever they were who touched her gently on the other side when she had died for a short time.

When was that? I died? Impossible.

That odd memory or delusion seemed to be the only strand of mental webs she could reach, so she concentrated as best she could on that. What on earth made me believe I was dead? Am I dead now, suffering and burning in hell–?

Then she remembered the other death, the one that wasn’t hers. The one she “rode along” on. Who was that?

Then, as quickly as she was starting to remember, her visions faded away.

The oaken door creaked as it slowly opened.

Ardy’s eyes alternately grew wide, then squinted, as she tried to focus on what was surely a living nightmare.

Into the cabin-room walked a creature with the body of a man, naked and muscular from the waist-up, with the head of a deer. The antlers on his head numbered six points and, to Ardy, resembled the horns of the devil.

Reflexively trying to scoot away from the creature as it reached out for her, Ardy felt a surge of pain peel through her insides from her ruined thigh, into her groin, and up into her chest.

Then she was mercifully unconscious.

* * *
Whatever it was that grabbed Doug Testerbird’s pant leg released it and withdrew. Sure the trickster Alterling was baiting him somehow, he kicked angrily in the direction of the retreating gripper only to meet nothing but air.

“You’re on your own, now, Douglas,” came the paper-tear voice from somewhere far off to the right. “Try not to hurt the little one before you take her to Legad.”

All Doug could do — considering living through death, witnessing murder and despair, feeling the day and temperature give way to a freezing and frost-filled night in August — was stare and scream. His yells echoed in the woods but his raspy-voiced friend was true to his word and did not take the bait.

“Please! Please! I need you.” Knowing full well that he was beseeching an agent of God’s own enemy, but feeling this evil shadow was the only thing that could help him find and rescue Ardy, Doug dropped to his knees and cried. He leaned back, bellowing to the treetops skirted with snow, “Please! I have to find her. Help me! Somebody, help me!

“It’ll b-be okay, D-D-Doug. N-N-Now that you’re he-he-here.”

The voice belonged to a young girl, her clicking teeth tapping out I’m freezing in Morse Code. She was behind the small arm that had gripped Doug and was now huddled next to a snow-covered, and apparently dead man. She was wrapped in the filthy jacket of another corpse rapidly becroming part of the snowscape nearby.

Doug stumbled back and fell against a tree before sliding down onto his rump. “W-Who are you?”

When the girl didn’t answer right away, he persisted with, “Are you okay? Where are your p-parents?”

The girl coughed and said, “My name is M-Maggie. I don’t have any parents.”

Doug started to ask, “Then who–?” but Maggie cut him off.

“This is Mr. Munson. I think you know him.”

If he wasn’t already on the ground, the last comment would have knocked him there.

The girl seemed to warm with Doug’s presence as he continued to grow colder. She stood and brushed herself off before turning to Munson’s corpse to brush the snow out of his hair, off his shoulders, out of his ruined eye sockets–

“Don’t,” Doug commanded. He reached out to pull her away from the body. Who was this kid? How does she know R. Lee? Why isn’t she scared out of her wits? He’s dead? Dead!

Must be demented, Doug reasoned as the girl retreated from his reach. She’s lost it. Who wouldn’t in all this? This crazy night?

“Please don’t touch him. He’s . . . He’s not . . . umm.”

“He’s dead. I know that.” Maggie stared down at Doug, then glanced to Munson’s body as if to say, Well, aren’t you going to do anything?

Doug eased off the ground but didn’t rise higher than a squat. He waved a finger loosely in Munson’s direction. “How– H-How do you know–?”

“R. Lee Munson.”

Doug nodded, stare vacant.

“He finally found me after all these years. He saved me from the crazy boy.”

“Y-Years? C-Crazy boy? Who–?”

“The one who took your girlfriend. Ardelene.”

Doug stood, almost hit his head on a low dark branch lost in the shadows of cris-crossing trees. “Ardelene?”

“Ardy to her friends,” Maggie filled in, perplexed that she had to fill in so many blanks that Doug should already know.

“I-I know. She–”

“The crazy boy’s got ‘er. He drove off in Mr. Munson’s car before you got here. Long before.” She emphasized the time she spent waiting by brusquely rubbing warmth into her arms.

Doug stepped closer to her, crouched down to eye-level. “T-Tell me how you know these th-things.”

Maggie shrugged. “After you wake up Mr. Munson.”

Doug glanced at the body. “I can’t do that. I don’t–”

“Yes you can. You can do it just like you did it before, like you did it for Ardy. Before it’s too late.”

“But I didn’t–” Doug started to protest, swinging his arm back and brushing his fingertips inadvertently over Munson’s cold hard shoulder. In that imperceivable instant, tiny jolts of lightning fired through Doug’s fingernails and surged into the corpse. “–have anything to do with those things. It’s Ardy. She’s the–”

And that’s when Munson drew his first breath in over an hour.

* * *

Ardy lay shaking, staring up at the dead black eyes of the deer-headed creature who sat next to her bed. Fear and pain, not the cold, had her head quivering and thrumming from side to side.

When she woke she found her good arm and leg were bound to the bed where she lay and a broken syringe lay on her stomach which heaved with each laborious breath.

The creature checked her pulse, pressed the back of a bloodied hand to her cheek to feel her temperature. It let out a short grunt of satisfaction but it showed no other emotion. Ardy was so out of it from the trauma of the accident she still wasn’t believing her eyes. Having been to hell twice already, she was sure this was yet another layer of it.

“Who?” she croaked.

The creature twitched at her voice, leaned its deer snout closer as if to hear better. A drop of puss-clotted blood dripped from a torn nostril and tapped her t-shirt just above her left breast. It made her wince and pinch her eyes shut. She tried to wish it away, tried to cry out from her soul for the warm loving spirits she knew before.

But when she opened her eyes, it was still there, silent and horrifying.

“P-Please. Who?” Ardy muttered through a sudden flow of hot tears. “Where am I?”

No reaction from Deer Head.

Going only by what she knew of the past insane day, Ardy did the only thing she could. She plead for her soul. She wept through the words, “I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me anymore. I-I’m so sorry.”

The creature bellowed something from its throat that sounded like, “Muhr Maharmu!?”

Ardy flinched and cried out. Pain echoed through her bones as the Deer Head reared back, then forward again.

“Muhr Maharmu!? Mvoaw vahkum nahr mu!”

“No!”

Then Ardy’s eye glimpsed a twinkle from another dangling snot in the creature’s nose as the ambient light of the cabin were suddenly concentrated in that point for the purpose of catching her eye . . . .

And drawing her in.

Within seconds, Ardy understood everything.

Chapter 36 – “Faith and Patience”

August 23, 2008 - Leave a Response

R. Lee Munson leaned against a tree, his right arm steadying himself as his shaky knees threatened to bring him back down to the ground. With his back to the girl and Doug, he looked headless, his face hidden from their view below a bowed head while his eyes reformed in their ruined sockets.

“What makes this so hard,” he said in a strangely soft voice, “Is that everything is frozen.” Then he chuckled.

Doug could only stare shaking, partly from the cold, partly from terror. He glanced from Munson’s back to the little girl – what was her name, Maggie? – smiling up at the reanimated murderer.

Maggie looked to Doug and said, “See, I told you it was you. You did it, Doug. You did.”

“I-I did?”

Maggie nodded as Munson slowly turned around. Doug was thankful for the darkness. He could see the dark hollow shapes that once held his eyes, now slowly forming dim whites and amoebic irises.

“M-Munson?” Doug tried.

Munson nodded. He cleared his throat tentatively like a flu victim testing his voice after an all-night fever. “I’m cold.”

“I can imagine.”

Munson slowly shook his head. “No you can’t, Doug. . . . You can’t.”

Doug watched as Maggie approached the articulate zombie and reached her hand out to him. “Hi again,” she said.

Not sure he was believing what he could see through the dim, Doug thought Munson smiled down at her. “Thank you, little lamb. I’m sorry I left you.”

“You did what you were s’posed to, Mr. M.”

He nodded again and shivered under his blood-crusted jacket. To Doug he said, “Ever have your intestines frozen sixty degrees below normal body temp, Testerbird?”

Still stunned, but suddenly remembering Ardy, Doug said, “I don’t know how you— How I—. We have to go after her.”

Munson looked down to Maggie. The little girl clarified, “The Crazy Boy took her, I guess, after he shot you in the eyes.”

Doug stammered, “He sh-shot you in the—”

“Doug’s right,” Munson smiled to the girl. “We have to save Ardelene. She’s important to this whole thing.”

“What do you mean,” Maggie smiled back, “Important?”

“Later, child.” Then to Doug, in that same soft voice, “Where, Doug? Where was this?”

* * *

No pain.

Nothing but bloodlust and ferocity. Ferocity personified.

That’s what Ardy was feeling inside Deer Head. The creature was called “Legad,” at least in its own mind, both of them were. She felt two beings inside the boy. One was virtually a carbon copy of the other, but Ardy knew it wasn’t always this way. The alterling named Legad was absorbing Todd Namer, using him like a tool. Their collective head was swirling with promises she recognized as false but apparently Legad thought of them as the largest pot of gold at the end of the most beautiful rainbow ever. Inside his head she saw her own torture. She saw his plans bobbing in a pool of blood. He planned to rape her. He planned to eviscerate her with his fingers. He planned to break the bones that had not yet been broken.

And from what Ardy could determine, the only thing keeping him from starting his chores was that he didn’t know what he could do to her without making her pass out. Any one of the incredible horrors he gleefully played with in his mind would undoubtedly shock her into unconsciousness. It seemed important that she survive the pain to bring him his pleasure.

The psychic connection started to weaken as Ardy mentally cringed away from the terror film she starred within the creature’s mind. Then she found herself kicked out forcefully as another being pried itself into its mind. This third brain was ancient and dark, more vicious than anything Deer Head was dreaming. This was a persona who existed since time began. The only thing Ardy could get from him before going back to her own body was that he wanted to make someone suffer, someone he could never make suffer but would try nonetheless.

He wanted to make God cry.
* * *

Doug followed as Munson and Maggie lead the way through the woods. Maggie kept step behind her Frankenstein friend who didn’t seem to need to see in the dark to navigate his way around the trees of Palley’s Woods.

“Munson?” Doug called as they hiked. They had all been silent for the past fifteen minutes or so.

“Yes, Doug?”

“What about your f-f-friend back there?” Doug remembered it was Munson’s running off, the whole adventure outside the safety of the Psychic Parlor that got Ardy taken. It was all because he thought Ardy could resurrect his murder victim. It was all because he wanted to repay Clyde Morrow, to bring him back to life so that he wouldn’t go back to hell again when he died.

“What about Mr. Morrow?” Munson said without slowing or looking back. He had obviously thrown in the name to acknowledge to Doug that he was fully aware of his original reason for coming out to the woods.

“If I’m the one with the resurrection powers, as Maggie says, don’t you want me to revive him?”

“It’s too late, Doug. Hell already has him.”

Doug jogged up a couple steps to close the distance on Munson’s back. “But you were in hell. You c-came back.”

“That wasn’t my plan, Doug. That was God’s.”

“What about all that redemption you were babbling about? I thought you had to confront him.”

Munson continued his pace, Maggie jogging alongside like she were running to the playground with her friends.

Doug jogged up again, this time within reach. “You can’t just leave him there, R. Lee. It’s because of you Ardy came out here—”

Munson suddenly stopped and whirled on Doug. He took the skinny store owner by the collar and lifted him back off his heels and slammed him against the rough bark of a tree. The air knocked out of Doug’s lungs with a cough. “Look, Doug, that wasn’t the reason I came out here. I came out here so that you and Ardy would come looking for me, so that Legad would come looking for her, so that Maggie would find me and lure you to me, to bring me out of hell for the last time, so that he would not be prepared for the return.”

Munson took a deep breath and loosened his grip on Doug’s collar. He smoothed the other man’s shirt and placed a palm against his cheek. “If you can’t just have faith, Douglas, you’ll never understand anything.”

As Munson and Maggie resumed their brisk walk, Doug sniffed back a tear and forced his chin to stop quiverring. “Who?” he called after them.

Munson stopped and turned. His eyes were blue and warm. Doug could swear that wasn’t their color earlier when they’d first met.

Doug repeated, “Who? When who returns.”

Munson smiled and took a deep breath. “The first teacher, Doug.”

“Teach—?”

“The Christ.”

* * *

Ardy was starting to feel more clear, though somewhat loopy. Her head swam in big round circles and she no longer felt her arm and leg. In fact, her whole body was floating, waving like flotsam on a polluted creek ridge. Every time she looked at Dear Head she laughed at him.

“Vlagh ju rhunkus gungy,” the Head said.

“Oh, shut up,” Ardy said, and laughed again. “I can’t even understand you.”

Suddenly the creature stood and placed its bloody human hands to its animal head just under the devil horn antlers and pushed ceilingward. Ardy watched, wide-eyed, as the Deer Head peeled back off a bloody human face. As she watched, the head dropped behind the boy she now recognized as the Pizza King kid, the delivery boy from the shootout. Ardy realized the look she was giving him was one of saucer-eyed horror, but all she could do was bust out laughing.

“Now you shut up!” Pizza Boy said, peeling bits of gutted dear head and brains from his cheeks and nose. “If I hadn’t hit this stupid thing and totalled the car, we’d be at the church by now!” Then his anger surged and he brought a crimson fist down on Ardy’s bandaged broken arm.

Her laughter suddenly electrocuted by a white hot flash of agony, Ardy heaved and thrashed on the bed. That caused a chain reaction through her body, waking up her leg even through the tranquilizer and heavy drugs Legad administered that he had found in Munson’s car. She quickly collapsed to a shudder and merciful unconsciousness.

Shuddering himself, more with anger and ferocious despair, Legad screamed until his lungs burned. Then he reared back and punched Ardy’s body as hard as he could.

At least that’s what he had planned to do. Someone grabbed his arm as he extended it backward and twisted it behind him until it snapped at the elbow. This time all Legad could do was whimper as his Master forced him to his knees.

“It seems I made a mistake choosing this vessel,” the Master hissed with a shushing paper-tear voice that chilled even Ardy’s unconscious spine. With that, the Master reached down and snapped an antler off the roadkill deer’s head.

And pushed it into Legad’s ear.

Chapter 37 – “Rock of Ages Cleft for Munson”

August 22, 2008 - Leave a Response

Munson stood by the roadside staring up into the sky, watching as the snowflakes whirled down out of the darkness, his breath billowing up in soft gray clouds of warmth. “It’s beautiful,” he muttered.

Maggie looked up at him appreciatively.

Doug, who was losing patience with each moment away from Ardy, said, “How can you s-say that?

Doug made a motion to check the time on his watch, then realizing he wasn’t wearing one smacked at his wrist. “It’s probably three in the afternoon.”

“So?”

Doug snorted and raised his palms to the sky. “Look, Munson. It’s insane. This whole day has been insane.”

Munson tilted his head back, closed his eyes and caught a snowflake on his tongue. Maggie laughed and mimicked him, giggling as the tiny frosty swirls kissed her red cheeks.

Doug growled, “It’s August!

Munson laughed. Took a deep breath. “August winter.”

August winter,” Maggie repeated. She met Doug’s eyes with a mischievous smile, then noticed the look on his face and let her expression fall. She hugged Munson’s legs and edged behind him.

Munson noticed her fear and gently put a hand on her head. Looking to Doug, he said, “Why are you afraid, Douglas? You saw me rise like Lazarus just as I had before. You did that. Are you afraid you won’t be able to do the same for Ardelene?”

In the silence drifting between them, Doug slowly closed the distance. His hands were clenched into cold fists as he blinked the snowflakes off his eyelashes and pushed his breath out in long huffs. Maggie whimpered and now hid completely behind Munson.

“What happened to you this time?”

Munson tilted his head, blinked his new blue eyes. “Explain.”

“Your speech. The slow and calm way you’re t-ta-ta-talking. How you’ve . . . ch-changed. It ain’t you.”

Munson blinked slowly, sniffed a long breath of the cold air.

Doug said, “Your eyes. The fact that you don’t seem concerned about Ardy.”

“Why would I be? I mean,” he shrugged, “Like I said, you can revive her if she’s dead.”

Doug’s shoulders hitched, then heaved as an overwhelming shudder of emotions: fear, pain, confusion, anger, and sadness tore through him. He fell to his knees, hands on his face, weeping and groaning. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I d-don’t. I don’t,” he cried. Then after a long wail, “I want my momma.

Munson watched as the young store owner was swallowed by his own despair. He watched speechless as Maggie went to Doug and wrapped her arms around him to comfort him. He watched as Doug cried harder collapsing into the young girl’s arms, screaming for his mother.

“August winter,” he whispered. “August winter.”
* * *

Ardy regained consciousness in waves of pain rolling up from her knees to her gut. Her head was spinning, her broken arm twisting and swaying like a knotted rope toward the sky. Trees moved by her, upside down, and she realized her arm wasn’t reaching up toward anything. It was dangling useless, swinging behind the marching jean legs of the hideous Pizza Kid, the Deer Head. She tried to speak, tried to ask what he was doing with her, but there was no answer. She could only go along for the ride, carried over the shoulder of the carrion-wearing monster. She closed her eyes.

* * *

“We need to go, Douglas,” Munson said calmly.

Doug sat on the slushy road, his face burried in Maggie’s chest as the little girl petted his head. He nodded into her and forced himself to his hands and knees.

“It’ll be okay in the end,” Maggie said, and rejoined Munson taking his hand.

Doug stood and brushed himself off. “Okay,” he said with sardonic surrender. “Whatever.”

Munson and the girl turned and started to walk up the stretch of road that split the darkness of Palley’s Woods.

“Whatever!” Doug called after them. “I’ll f-f-f-forget all this,” he waved at the dark trees canopied with white snow. “I’ll forget the fact that I can bring people back from the dead. I’ll forget Ardy can enter people’s thoughts. I’ll forget that little girl there can sa-s-see the future. I’ll forget that it’s dark in the middle of the day and it’s snowing in August.” A deep b-b-breath, then, “I’ll even forget that you’re a murderer.”

Munson stopped and turned. Maggie did likewise, standing next to her friend. “All this has changed, as you said, Douglas,” Munson intoned, “Yet you don’t realize that I have changed too.”

“Oh no, Munson. I get it. You’re different too.” Doug was being sarcastic, waving his arms crazily and crying again. Though this time his tears were the tears of a madman surrendering to a cascade of thoughts and feelings he couldn’t understand.

Maggie looked up to Munson who nodded to her. “It’s time?” she asked.

Munson smiled down at her. He nodded.

“What’s this?” Doug called, “Secrets?

Maggie skipped carefully through the slush to the roadside and started digging in the shallow ditch snow for something there.

Munson said, “You’re not going to help us, Doug. I have to make you fall unconscious by striking you with a stone.”

Doug straightened. “What?

Maggie lifted something that looked like a turtle shell, slick black and curved. Doug recognized it as a rock. He shouted, “You can’t be serious.”

Maggie called, “You’re not going to calm down. You’re just going to get worse. Mr. M. has to carry you to the church so we get there in time.”

Doug glanced from side to side. He had fallen back as Munson and Maggie lead the way. Now he was standing at least fifty feet away. It would take a professional ball player with a steady windup to tag his melon with one throw at that distance. He laughed. “No. You’re not s-s-s-se-serious.”

Munson took the rock from Maggie and, in one smooth move, tossed it in a tall underhand arc toward Doug.

Doug, tracing the arch with a wide grin, stepped easily aside as the rock crunched on the asphalt under the slush cover a few feet from him. He barked a laugh. “Ha! Now it’s m-m-my turn.”

Maggie took a safe position behind Munson as Doug retrieved the stone. Munson stood tall, took a deep breath, and clasped his hands behind his back.

Doug turned his left shoulder to Munson and eyeballed him like a pitcher waiting for the perfect call. He nodded at the invisible catcher, kicked up his left knee, and lost his balance as a black ice sheet under his right foot gave way. Doug landed with a thud on his back. The rock came down on his forehead with a cluck.

Maggie giggled but stopped when Munson met her gaze seriously. “Sorry.”

“He’s having a hard time, Maggie,” Munson suggested as he approached Doug’s unconscious form.

“He is,” the girl agreed, “But he’ll be okay for Ardy. I know he will.”

Munson nodded. He knelt beside Doug, lifted him over his shoulders, and fireman-carried him down the road in the direction they had been walking.

“You don’t usually use a rock, do you, Mr. M.”

Munson shook his head, readjusted Doug’s bulk.

“The sword with the fire coming out of it would have been cooler.”
* * *

Ardy’s eyes opened and slowly focussed on the roof of the grumbling car. The gentle sway of the back seat she lay crumpled on told her they were in motion. To her right she saw the plane of the passenger seat. A fluffy hole the size of a dime had been punched through it. Cold wind from a broken windshield puffed through it and around the seat. She groaned and whimpered as the little lightning bolts echoed through her body again.

The sound alerted the driver who turned and looked at his backseat passenger with crooked eyes. It was the Pizza Kid, but his head was oddly shaped and ruined by the deer antlers that had been pushed into his temples and ears at odd angles. The points protruded from his forehead like the horns of the devil. His right eye was staring at the bridge of his nose, dried blood rimmed the socket. His left eye blinked at her in an unintentional perverse wink.

He had the expression of a reanimated corpse, which is what Ardy suspected he was. She didn’t know how, when, or why. But none of it surprised her.

She couldn’t scream. She couldn’t laugh Doug’s laugh of insanity. She couldn’t ask where he was taking her. All she could do was close her eyes and pray.

Chapter 38 – “Quiet Worm, Don’t Squirm”

August 21, 2008 - Leave a Response

Maggie absorbed the warmth from Mr. M’s hand as she walked with him down the center of the deserted stretch of road between the two hemispheres of Palley’s Woods. She thought about asking him why it seemed there was no one around except the three of them: Mr. M., Maggie, and Doug who hung limply over Mr. M’s shoulder.

“You’re so strong,” she offered, then wished she hadn’t said anything. She was rather enjoying the hush of the August Winter silence.

“I have to be, child,” Mr. M said.

Maggie sighed and gave his large hand a squeeze. It was amazing how warm it felt considering how cold it was in death just about an hour ago. But she didn’t want to think about that either.

Instead, she concentrated on who she was and wondered where she would be tomorrow. And, in thinking about that, she couldn’t help but remember and wonder how she got to be where she was now. What she was yesterday. A worm.

* * *
“Stay quiet, little worm. Stay quiet,” man said.

That’s what Maggie Morrow called her father. She didn’t call him “daddy” or “papa,” or even “Clye,” his given name. Because he wasn’t her father. He couldn’t be. Fathers don’t touch their daughters the way he did. They weren’t supposed to hurt them.

“Stay quiet, little worm. Don’t squirm,” was a little rhyme he used to tell her before the touching began. He used to repeat that mantra over and over as he went about his duties and she, the dutiful daughter, would try to detach herself from him, from life. She tried to imagine she really was a worm because things like this don’t happen to worms. They don’t cry or scream. They don’t even talk. Worms just crawl and eat dirt and get eaten by birds.

She used to imagine —

“Stay quiet, little worm. Don’t squirm.”

— that a giant robin would swoop down through her bedroom window and swallow her up so she’d be away from it. So she wouldn’t have to wonder about daddies and why they would say, “Stay quiet, little worm. Don’t squirm.”

After it was over she wouldn’t cry or whine. He would smack her with his palm and tell her that was just the beginning if she ever told anyone about his duties. He would open a manilla folder and show her black and white pictures of horribly dead people, eyes staring like unblinking dolls, weeping holes in their cheeks and foreheads. Sometimes they’d be in pieces with dark black liquid in puddles around them and tendrils of slop splattered all around. “Little worms,” he’d say, “who talked.”

Then he would leave her with the nanny, Miss Rita, as he went off to his law firm to make money to buy more toys, dolls, crayons, and books for her. To make money to buy her silence.

She never told Miss Rita about it because every time she thought about telling her, Miss Rita would pull at her long stringy hair and say, “Doesn’t your dad ever buy peanut butter?” or “Don’t you hate that Friends isn’t on TV anymore” or “Hey. Wanna color?” and those distractions were so welcome and needed that she pushed the other thing away. She could forget about man until he came home from work and sent Miss Rita away. Some days that would be that. They’d have a quiet dinner, or man would ask about what she colored that day. Sometimes —

“Stay quiet, little worm. Don’t squirm.”

The last time she saw him, well before he became like the pictures, he sat on her bed staring off into space.

She didn’t ask him what was wrong. Worms don’t talk, remember. But he answered her anyway. He said, “You had a brother.”

Maggie Morrow kept the covers pulled tight to her chin, kept staring straight ahead, but her eyes and ears grew wide. She felt the blood heating her ears as man talked.

“Robert Lee, he was called.” Man paused, imagining some pictures she was glad she didn’t see. He smiled. His ugly pink tongue touched his lower lip. “Huh. Don’t know why I started thinking of that little shit.”

Then he looked at her and said, “You can go out on your own before you become a teenager. I don’t need that kinda crap, I’ll tell ya.”

She didn’t ask what kind of crap. She let him imagine she asked it.

“He was the property of my last wife. She didn’t like the games we played, so she took him away.” His black eyes fell on her for a moment, over his shoulder, the back of his bald head crinkled. “Good thing for me your momma died, huh?”

That was the first time Maggie ever felt like crying, not like a worm at all. She never knew her momma, but imagined she was not like man at all.

“Well, little worm,” he said, rising to his feet, “No lesson today, huh? I think you know the rules by now.”

More silence. More vacant stares. Then the last words man ever said to her, “Okay, I’m gonna go pick up Miss Rita. You get some sleep ’til she gets here.” Then he was gone.

That night she prayed herself to sleep. She prayed for her brother she never knew she had to come back and save her. She prayed her momma up in heaven would send him.

And she did.

Maggie changed when the news came. She had already started having the strange dreams. The dreams had dirt and shovels, rope, guns, and a glowing eye behind a pane of glass. She dreamed of boys delivering pizza and of store clerks coming to court lovely young psychics.

The news came in the form of neighbors and strangers who never rescued her when she needed it. But now they were here to comfort her, to tell her that her father had gone to heaven. That a bad thing had happened. That a bad man had taken him away. Others talked about something called ‘video surveillance’ at his office. And others, when they thought she wasn’t around, said things like ‘disgruntled client’ and ‘strangled him to death with his own tie.’

But she knew the truth. She could see it on the day the darkness came. That morning she felt the rain coming down on her face as she ran away from her house and the crying neighbors.

“Let her go!” they called. “Let her run it off!”

“Poor child!” others called. Miss Rita was not among them. Maggie knew that but didn’t know how she knew. She just did.

But she giggled as she ran. Her brother had returned and made man go away. And God told her in her waking, running, giggling dream that she would find her brother in the dark and the snow. Winter in August!? Yes. Apparently, yes.
* * *

Maggie Morrow squeezed Mr. M’s hand again, this time to get his attention.

He smiled down at her. “Yes, Maggie?”

“Did you know my brother, Mr. M?”

“Robert Lee?” Mr. M looked ahead and smiled. “No. But I understand he played his part well.”

“I knew he would,” Maggie giggled. “I just knew it.”

“I’m glad, child. There’s a lot you have to know before the end. A lot.”

She abruptly stopped and pulled back on his arm.

Mr. M released her hand and turned to face her, lowering himself to one knee so they could be eye to eye. He lowered Doug to the snowy pavement and gently rested his head.

“Mr M,” Maggie started.

The man who looked like Robert Lee Munson — except for the crisp blue eyes — took Maggie’s hands in his own. He smiled. “You wish to talk to him?”

The little girl couldn’t say anything. Her chin quivered and icy tears welled up in her eyes. She nodded.

Mr. M’s blue eyes closed. His brown eyes opened. He instantly looked softer, warmer, forgiven.

“Oh, Maggie,” R. Lee cried. He pulled his little step-sister to his chest and hugged her hard. Their shuddering tears mingled as she rubbed her hands up and down his broad back and his large hands hugged the back of her head and neck like a warm hood. “I’m so sorry,” he sniffed. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of it.”

They separated to soak up each other’s faces, faces they never knew. Faces that would have had different lives if not for the circumstances that caused them so much separate but identical physical and emotional pain. They were instantly a brother and sister who had always known and loved each other.

Munson said, “I knew what he did to me, but I didn’t know he–”

Maggie pressed a finger to his lips. Tears cascaded down her cold red cheeks as she shuddered. She couldn’t tell him. She could only stutter, “Nobody needs to know anymore.”

They hugged and cried some more, catching up on lost years of love in a single embrace.

When they parted a second time, Munson stood. He said, “I have to go now.”

Maggie sniffed and nodded. “Will I see you again?”

Munson slowly shook his head. “I still have much to repay. I was lost before I was found, and I did a lot of bad things before I freed you from fath– from man.”

The girl nodded again and fresh tears glittered in the corners of her eyes.

Before returning to the darkness, R. Lee knelt again and hugged his little step-sister good-bye. “Before this day is over,” he said, “You’ll be with your momma who loves you more than you could know.”

Maggie hugged him tighter and cried harder.

When she finally pulled away from him, his eyes were once again hard but loving, the cool blue of a determined soul, God’s soldier.

“Mr. M?” she sniffed. “Thank you.”

He lifted Doug onto his shoulder again and took Maggie by the hand. “Let’s go, shall we?”

They walked off into the night without another thought of worms or death, the child, the store clerk, and the archangel in the killer’s body.

Chapter 39 – “Plans of the Fallen One”

August 20, 2008 - Leave a Response

Deer Head wasn’t Deer Head anymore, but he was still grotesque, still something other than Todd, the delivery boy for Pizza King. Ardy watched the creature work, her head mushy and filled with non-thoughts as the pain wallowed up inside her and raged in burning rivers up and down her skin. Her head was pounding like a large dull hammer that was in turn pounding her body into a splintered piece of wood.

Like a large nail into arcacia wood.

St. Peter’s church was located on the outskirts of Palley’s Woods, but far from the center of the town of Homer. Only the most devout Catholics from the countryside gathered here, and usually only around Easter or Christmas. Other times, it served as a hall for easy stringless marriages or BINGO games. You would think that the eve of Doomsday would bring throngs of people to the house of God to beg forgiveness, especially with the evidence of an August winter and mid8day midnight all around them.

But as Legad told her as he lay her broken body on the fat beam of wood, “All fornicators. They’re saying good-bye to life by living it.” He cinched the cord tighter around her arm and whispered in a cold dead breath reeking of stale blood, “Only the idolaters would be caught dead here tonight. Now who’s the fool?”

Ardy didn’t understand the question and could barely understand where she was or why a reanimated delivery boy with antlers jutting through his skull was dismantling the inside of the church.

All she could say was, “Water.” And it came out weak, pained, and wincing.

“Of course, child,” Legad smiled crookedly. “None too soon, none too soon.”

Moments later he returned from the sacristy holding a golden communion chalice. He poured the water clumsily over her mouth and she lapped at it drunkenly. As he poured, Legad giggled like a teenager involved in an elaborate prank, and muttered, “He who drinks my water shall have eternal life.”

Ardy coughed up the water that went down the wrong pipe and cried out in pain.

Legad noticed something below her vision and ducked out of sight. Whatever he was doing was causing new waves of pain to rocket up her legs. When she saw her own tennis shoe fly up against the wall she understood he was simply removing her shoes.

“P-Please, dont’,” she managed.

“Ssssh.” The monster reappeared in her face, the one straight eye glaring at her. “Save your strength for your death. You’ll need it.” Again, the dry laugh.

* * *

Ardy continued to fall in and out of consciousness for the next hour, or so it seemed. All the while, Legad – as he had introduced himself at one point – busied himself trashing pews with a fire ax and lighting candles. One moment he was in a rage and decapitating the wooden Christ figure from the large cross over the alter. The next he was quietly humming Amazing Grace as he lit candles at twelve points around the church’s interior.

Her breathing was labored and came in rattles and rasps.

“Do you know why–” he suddenly snapped, appearing at her right ear and startling her. She jostled and felt new waves of pain, not just from her legs but her wrists and arms now too. “– I’m keeping you so close to death but refusing to let go of the rope?”

Ardy could barely comprehend the miasma of memories swimming through her soupy brain. The only returning image that meant anything to her was that of Doug. His memory was keeping her grounded, keeping her hopes alive. She knew he would come for her soon — if he hadn’t been devoured by the alterling. As for other dreams: resurrections, heavenly guardians, gravelly drags through hell, gunshots, snow, Deerhead . . . . She let them swim behind her eyes weakly without trying to decipher them. The only thought keeping her from giving up the ghost was Doug. If not for him, it would be that easy. Somehow, she knew that if she just let her heart break – that would be the last part of her to die. He’s okay, she told herself. He will return to me.

“Not going to answer? C’mon, Ardelene, you have to keep your strength up.”

“He’ll come,” she whispered.

“He who? Douglas?”

She would have nodded but was using what little strength she had to hold still. It was hard enough to breathe as it was. Then it dawned on her to keep her thoughts bottled up. If this thing knew Doug was coming for her . . . .

Legad sat on the post of the communion rail and sighed. “You can’t keep your thoughts from me anymore.”

Ardy turned her head slightly to look at him. When the reanimated face showed no emotion, she turned back and closed her eyes.

“That’s right. It wasn’t your power at all. It was mine — well, his.”

When Ardy refused to acknowledge him, Legad kicked out at something by her feet. A wooden scrape sounded and bolts of pain in her legs, feet, arms, hands, and chest made her come alive with a scream.

“Pay attention,” Legad cried over her lingering scream. When she fell silent again, he smiled, “Better.”

Ardy’s dry and cracked voice winced, “W-who is he?”

“Ah. Glad you asked.” Legad stood and started to pace. “The age of darkness, the reign of the Fallen One, is upon us.”

“Lucifer,” Ardy whispered.

“Clever girl. Or just a churchgoer.”

“Follower.”

“Follower of the Son, huh?”

“Father, Son . . . .”

“Blah, blah, blah. Listen.”

Ardy forced herself to meet the gaze of the horned head, the bent eye.

“All that stuff on TV, movies. It’s great.”

When he wouldn’t elaborate, Ardy took a shuddering breath and offered, “What’s great about it?”

“It’s all sin. All of it. The Way,” Legad said with arms raised heavenward, “Is lost.”

“Lost,” Ardy smiled weakly, “Like the TV show?” Her laugh brought spasms of agony and her scream was weak and pitiable.

“Pride goeth before the fall, Ardelene. Not funny.”

“Before – gasp – the fall – gasp. That’s your boss – gasp – you’re talkin’ about.”

“My boss, as you call him, has ruled his domain for thousands of years. Yours,” Legad started pacing again, “Well, yours was nailed up to a tree – much like you are now – by people like you.”

Ardy now recognized the source of the new pains. She forced herself to turn her head to the left. Her left arm, outstretched on the cross that once held the decapitated Jesus, was bound with curtain cord. A thick knife of metal, she guessed from a broken candle holder, had been hammered through the carpal tunnel of her wrist. There was no feeling but pain from her elbow-up. She didn’t even bother to look across at her right. The pains matched. And, though she couldn’t look down at her feet and badly broken leg, she could imagine what Legad had done there.

And then the full of it cascaded down over Ardy. She was going to die today, for good and forever. Doug wasn’t going to save her after all. This was the last day of Earth. This was the end.

But something didn’t seem right in what was left of her mind. “No,” she whimpered.

“Yes,” Legad laughed. “Oh, yes.”

“No,” she weakly explained, “This is. Not right.”

“Hm? How? — Oh, don’t answer. Save your strength for the end. I’ll fill in the blanks for you.”

Legad was suddenly joined by a host of dark phantom creatures, the Alterlings. Nine of them gathered around Ardy’s cross and set about the task of lifting her upright. As they hoisted, repositioned, and clumsily jostled her one degree higher at a time, pain gave way to numbness. If not for the cord pulled tight around her broken and bruised legs, her chest, and her arms, Ardy was sure the weight of her body would pull her down off the cross. She hung limply, limbs burning.

All the while she rose higher and higher, Legad entoned, “Earlier I asked you a question that you didn’t answer, sweetheart. I asked you why it was you thought I was keeping you alive, or killing you slowly. You didn’t answer.”

Ardy’s only answer this time was a grunt and truncated scream of agony.

“The reason is bait.”

She released a final groan as the cross was propped against the wall behind the altar. The Alterlings drifted down. There were now twelve, six on each side of the church. Legad sat in one of the unbroken pews and steepled his fingers. “We gave up two of our angelic powers to a couple of humans far from the site of the Son’s return.

“One was given the sight of the future, the other the sight of the heart – the ability to literally walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Legad scratched at a raw spot on his forehead where one of the antlers had poked through. He crossed his legs before continuing. “We knew that would open the door, distract the guardsman – so to speak – and allow us to walk the earth which was rightfully ours to toy with in the beginning.

“So we brought the darkness.

“If you weren’t here, you’d probably be home watching or listening to the news, hearing about the strange goings on in the Middle East, the strange turn the war is taking, and about the very special prisoner of war being transported out of Jerusalem.

“A thief in the night,” Legad muttered to himself more than to Ardy.

“Ardelene, my dear, you served us well. But your time is over.” Legad stood, took a sharpened curtain rod – fashioned someone like a spear – and approached the altar. “Even now the other gifted one approaches, and brings his soldier. It’s been a long time since my master and the archangel have spoken. Should be quite the reunion.”
* * *
Gravity had been playing its part. The true tool to bring death in crucifixion was not the nail or the hot sun, the deprivation of food or water. With the body weakened and the arms held outstretched, pulling open the ribcage, breathing became toxic. The expanded lungs have no muscle power to push out bad air and the victim begins to suffocate with his own air.

Ardy was already too weak and her breathing broken. Legad wasn’t trying to keep her awake. He was trying to kill her quicker by making her scream and talk. They were on the way. He no longer needed her alive. She was dizzy and couldn’t keep her lolling head up to gaze upon the creature that had done this to her.

Her body was already dying. Pain was trading hands with a cold numbness and periodic aching waves as nerves slowly died off.

She hadn’t really heard any of Legad’s speech. She was busy trying to form her thoughts into prayers and mental cries of repentance.

Then she saw Legad approach her with the makeshift spear.

He said, “It’s too bad you won’t be here to see it.”

She used the last of her energy to force a smile and whisper, “Forgive–”

Then Legad thrust the pointed rod into her side. Ardy felt the skin and organs puncture, but there was no agony left to be felt. Instead she felt her spirit tumble out of her body and soar up toward the warmest, most loving light imaginable.

Chapter 40 – “Doug Finally Sees the Light”

August 19, 2008 - Leave a Response

Michael stopped where the road split. The broader snow-covered lane to the left would head back into town. The thin band of gray-lit snow breaking the trees to the right would lead to St. Peter’s church. “This is the way?”

Maggie Morrow, now appearing much more mature than her eight year-old frame, stepped forward and pretended to sniff the air, examine the bark on nearby trees, study the snow at her feet for evidence of earlier trails. She said, “Snow already covered most of everything. Can you feel her no more?”

The archangel slowly shook his head. A tear glistened in the corner of his eye.

“It’ll be okay, Mr. M. I promise.”

A groan sounded from Doug still slung over Michael’s shoulder like a large sack of flower. Michael knelt and gently lowered him into the snow.

Shaking himself awake, Doug said, “W-W-What happened?” Then he registered Maggie and Michael and it all came back to him. He shuddered and scooted away from them. “Stay away from me, Mu-Mu-Muh-Munson, or whoever the hell you are.”

“Not hell,” Maggie said.

Michael, in Munson’s form since the killer’s death hours ago, held up placating hands. “If you remember, Douglas, it was you who fell on the stone. I didn’t actually hit you.”

“Yeah,” Maggie offered. “You were acting crazy. You were gonna hit us.”

Doug’s breathing fell less heavy and he stood on shaky legs, dusting himself off. He examined the road to his right, behind his two companions, and over his shoulder.

Thumbing the direction over his shoulder, Doug said, “That road dead-ends at St. P-P-Peter’s church.”

Michael nodded.

“She’s there? Is that where he t-took Ardy?” Doug started to turn, head down the snow covered lane, when Michael’s hand stopped him. The grip made Doug wince, “What are you doin’, Munson. We gotta help–”

Maggie said, “She’s dead.”

Both men turned and looked down at the little psychic girl who announced the fact as though she were commenting on the cold.

Doug knelt before her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Luh-Listen to me, s-sweetheart, she’s not d-d-dead. We have to hurry so we can su-save her.”

Maggie scrunched up her face and looked up at Michael who raised an eyebrow as if to say, want me to tell him?

Michael offered. “Doug. You have to listen to her.”

“To her? What about to you? What are you d-doing to save Ardy?” Doug stood and positioned himself in front of the man to challenge him. His voice raised in a harsh whisper, he said, “Ever since you came into the picture, you’ve tried to k-k-kill us, rape her. You brought all this down. You are the one who came onto the scene with your guns and knives and rope. It was you who k-k-kept us prisoner in her store. You’re the muh-murderer. You are the one keeping me from going to her even n-n-n-nuh-now!”

Maggie patted at Doug’s arm and kept repeating, “No, no, no, no,” but he wasn’t listening.

And his voice got louder. “I tried to tell her not to come after you. I t-t-tried to protect her. I tried–” His voice broke and he sniffed back tears.

“Doug, don’t cry,” Maggie pleaded, her own chin quivering.

Michael’s grip on Doug’s arm loosened and he raised his other hand to Doug’s cheek. “Douglas, listen to me. I’m a soldier. I’m not equipped to handle this and I don’t have time right now.”

“He’s right,” Maggie said.

“On the way here Maggie explained the whole thing to me. There is a plan, Douglas, and it’s not yours. It’s His.” Michael pointed skyward.

“Whu-What are you talking–?”

“It’s too complicated. And it’s not complicated at all.” Glancing to Maggie, Michael said, “From the mouths of babes, Douglas. The mouths of babes.” Michael pushed past Doug and started down the narrow road.

“Wh-What are you doing?”

Michael turned and looked at the store owner and the little girl. His smile was weak. “What I was made to do.”

“I’m c-coming with you,” Doug said, anger fresh. Maggie grabbed him around the leg and held firm.

“No, Douglas. That’s not how it’s written. Please do this for Ardy. Listen to the girl. She will explain everything.”

“No. I’m c-coming.” Doug pushed Maggie back and started after Michael.

Doug!

He stopped.

Michael continued, “You were right.”

Doug cocked his head and gave it a slight shake as if to say, About what, exactly?

Michael’s blue eyes closed. When they re-opened, they were Munson’s brown eyes. Weariness cascaded over his body and his expression was one of sorrow and deep, deep regret. The change was subtle, but it was enough to scare Doug back a few steps. Maggie hugged him as Munson spoke.

“You were right, Doug. This was all my fault.” Munson spoke through tears that formed narrow streams down his cheeks. “I’m paying for it now. For all of it. For my whole life. I’ve been used to play a part here today — as you have. As Maggie has. As,” he sniffed, “Ardy has.

“You were right, Doug. I was an evil man, unforgiven because I didn’t seek the forgiveness as you have.

“Look around you. You know something larger than any of us is coming. The darkness. The cold. The abilities you and Ardy, and Maggie, all have. That’s not happenstance, Doug. That’s not coincidence or some miraculous turn of cosmic energy.”

Doug shook his head. “This c-c-can’t be G-God’s will. He can’t be allowing all this pain and suffering. This – This c-c-chaos is not heavenly. It’s –”

“Hell. You’re right.” Munson blinked, smiled, “Why do you think he sent Michael here?”

Doug stared. Blinked. He forced all the rationale from his mind. He pushed away the Star Trek and X-Files and movies and TV he loved so much, perhaps too much. He thought about the only thing that could make sense in all of this; that what Munson was saying was true. Doug went to church regularly, he prayed hard. He wasn’t involved in missions or church groups, but he was regular. He understood.

Or thought he did until today. “I don’t r-ruh-ruh-re-remember this in Revelation.”

“That’s because it hasn’t happened yet,” Munson offered. He came back to Doug, rested a hand on his shoulder. “You saw me die. You know where I was, what I have to go back to.”

Doug nodded slowly. His chin quivered in pity for the man.

“I’m telling you what I saw with my own soul. Hell is readying for war.”

Doug’s eyes grew wide. He glanced down at Maggie who was nodding in full understanding, as if this little girl could possibly conceive —

Munson stepped back. “You were right. I was a cold-blooded killer. I had lost my way as the seed spread on poisoned ground. But I had known it once. When I was little.” He looked at Maggie and smiled the smile of a proud brother. “God is sending me in there with his archangel to face not only my demons, but the demons of the world.”

Doug shook his head. “I-I still don’t understand. How do we compute in all of this?”

“He’s coming back, Doug. This is it. The big game. We’re all getting off the bench now to play our part. He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

And his k-k-kingdom will have non-nn-no end,” Doug finished the prayer, his expression shifting from ignorance to shocked disbelief.

“Maggie was blessed with the answers you need, Doug.” And with that, with a blink from brown eyes to blue, Michael turned and walked purposefully toward the church in the snowy dark.

Feeling useless, Doug called out the only thing he could think of, “S-Save her.”

Michael barely turned his head in acknowledgment.

Maggie pulled on Doug’s sleeve. “She’s already been saved, Mr. Testerbird.”

Doug took a deep shaky breath and crouched in front of the girl. He nodded, “Okay. Now tell me what I have to do.”

Maggie smiled. Then her smile faded. “You have to have very strong faith, Mr. Testerbird. More than me or Mr. M, or even Ardelene. Yours will be the hardest part of all.”

He nodded again. “I c-can duh-do it.”

Maggie looked at his forehead as though she could look into his mind and read his thoughts, which she could. She said, “I’m not Yoda, and you’re not Luke, and Darth Vader is not in there. It’s easy to say you can do it because it’s easy to say it in the movies.”

Doug forced a laugh. “But I can. I’m g-going to do it for her, f-f-f-for you. I have to.”

“Really?”

“R-Really.”

“Then you’re ready to betray me – a little girl – to the devil?”

Chapter 41 – “The Big Game”

August 18, 2008 - Leave a Response

Ardy had heard the stories.

A tunnel of bright light. A voice. Love. Family. The desire to stay though you must go back.

This, she thought, is what happens when you are welcomed in and cannot go back.

She was dead with no chance to turn around. This was the end.

And the beginning.

Since Ardy arrived — if ‘arrived’ is actually an operative word for ‘dying,’ the kind voice in the light soothed her, eased her fears, loved her, and forgave her.

Ardy was aware of her own being, but not of legs or arms or even eyes or ears. She just… was. Afloat in glory, Ardelene Rachel Jacobi was now reborn with the name given to every soul in heaven. She was simply The Returning Child.

There were no features that she could make out, but she seemed to be aware of houses upon houses upon mansions upon estates, all glowing white and gold, silver and pearl. She saw no flowers, but she was aware of the freshest bouquet she had ever smelled, an energizing spirit-swelling airy experience. She didn’t blink because she didn’t have eyes anymore, and her focus seemed to be everywhere at once. In a flash, she absorbed everything. The Truth.

And all around her were others. They felt like family and friends but had no distinctive individuality that she could pinpoint as “Uncle Ned,” “Kind Old Lady Henderson,” or even “Mom” or “Dad.” But it was like they were all here, all welcoming her to The One Love.

The feeling was an indescribable rush of warm love and forgiveness. She felt large arms enfold her and soft lips kiss her forehead, though there were no arms or lips or foreheads to be found among the light. There was no pain. There was no memory of pain.

There had been a sharp sting after Legad sent her Home, but it wasn’t the feeling of her soul ripping from the earthly body it had been used to for over three decades. The sting was deep and internal.

And with the sting came a soul-deep probing question deeper than any accusatory inquisition. The voice whispered, “What have you done with my son. What has my son done for you.”

Spoken as a statement rather than a question, The Returning Child felt herself suspended over the Great Pit, precariously dangling by a thread of her soul as the answer was pulled from her heart. There was no need to pull out a No. 2 pencil. There were no lines to fill out. There wasn’t even time to study or consider the depth and meaning in the words. The Returning Child just pictured what she understood from years of Bible study and church attendance. It was just something she felt: that the being behind the gentle voice gave up his one and only son so that she could be here now. Her eternity had been bought and paid for. She could not express the thanks for His sacrifice. And she cried for the last time in her existence, eternal or otherwise.

The question. The answer. Took less than a millionth of a second to register.

And the whole time: the sting.

“It’s your sin burning away,” the voice had said. “You are unburdened. You are forgiven.”

And after the sting it was true. The Returning Child was incapable of even understanding what a sinful thought was. Modesty, anger, greed, lust, any and all desire… were gone. All that was left was love and worship. The ‘air’ was filled with the most beautiful melodic song and The Returning Child instantly felt herself drawn into the currents of the melody. If she could cry, she would be wracked with tears of absolute joy. The only ‘want’ was the ‘want’ to remain in the Glory, to become one with love.

This was nothing like the experience in the kitchen before Doug touched her and brought her back to life. This was truly it, no turning back.

Heaven.

Until something like distant thunder, The Returning Child could feel, rumbled through her spirit.

“You cannot stay,” He said.

The Returning Child couldn’t understand. A few seconds into eternity, after passing that proverbial tunnel and bridge to Eden, and she had forgotten all that she once was because so much of what she was came with the sin that had evaporated away. All that was left of her was devotion and love, a forgiven child. A Returning Child. A child being given unconditional and perfect love.

And all she could do was obey.

It was the least she could do. And the most.

Somewhere a small part of her stung again. It was the pinch of loss. She could not bare to leave this place, to leave His Glory.

But in time, she did.

For He promised she would return again. Very soon.

R. Lee Munson found himself standing at the side door to St. Peter’s church, his palm resting on the door, his fingers splayed like an awkward star. He was once again alone.

After all this time, after burning and branding and having love taken from him in hell, Munson was back on earth where the archangel Michael had led him.

The silent spirit of the angel had been inside his body and spoke gently inside his ear. “Do not fear, Robert Lee. You are a soldier with me this day. We will enter into His kingdom and you shall be forgiven.

“You have but to ask.”

Then Michael was gone.

Munson cried softly, sniffed, watched his frosty breath float up to the security light above the side door. “I can’t. I can’t do this alone. I am no soldier.”

But no answer came. Michael had already filled Munson’s mind with what must be done. It was God’s final test for him to see if his heart would comply. And then the archangel left.

His final words, “You are loved. In that, like me, you will find the strength you need to sacrifice as He had for you.”

When Munson finally opened the side door to the church, armed only with a single word given to him by God’s soldier, his strength immediately purged and he dropped to his knees and wept.

The inside of the church had been demolished. Splinters of pew wood were scattered amongst broken candle sticks, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, offering and communion plates, and shards of broken stain glass.

Around the debris, carefully arranged to offer the best lighting, were fields of candles. The candles became tighter clusters as they were placed closer to the altar. And the altar itself was tipped over and was used to prop up a giant crucifix. Nailed to the cross was not Jesus but Ardy Jacobi. Her left arm and leg had been badly crushed, her left foot twisted grotesquely sideways so the high C flute from the demolished pipe organ could be used to nail her feet to the makeshift sedile. Still hanging from her side was what appeared to be a curtain rod. Blood was congealing down the shaft and puddled darkly on the floor below her. She was pale, her face a frozen mask of pain now released from suffering. The bloodied hair that hung down one side of her face moved slightly from the breeze by the open door. A couple candles blew out. The breeze eased the smell from the feces smeared on the walls, over the broken pews and floor, and on Ardy’s face and clothes.

Near the entrance to the church, hanging from the balcony, was a teenage boy. Munson recognized the clothes, and what was left of the face. It was the Pizza King delivery boy, his head misshapen and spiked with what looked like antlers that had been shoved into his ears and the back of his head. A curtain cord was snug around his purple neck and twisted around the railing above the entrance. He too was dead, but Munson shuddered to think of exactly when that spirit would have departed.

He gasped when he saw the nine shadows standing at attention behind the railing. The Alterlings had no facial features, but Munson felt watched, studied.

“I expected Michael.”

Munson reared back, felt his heart hitch in his throat, at the sound of the soft voice.

The man was suddenly in front of him, the one who had been so familiar at the beginning of the day, at earlier moments in his life. The stranger. The pervert. The abuser. Clye Morrow.

“You are not Michael.”

Munson stood, brushed at his pants, and glanced around for some explanation for how the dead man was now animated in front of him. Morrow wasn’t resurrected as he was, as Ardy had once been. Clye Morrow moved stiffly, his gray eyes locked always forward, never shifting. His mottled gray skin giving off the stench of chilled earth. He couldn’t even be called a zombie. There were no words for what this thing was, but two: Munson’s nightmare.

“I had thought to bring you back, Clye, to beg you forgiveness for me killin’ you,” Munson mumbled.

The Clye-thing didn’t blink. It merely stared at him without showing emotion. Maybe it cocked its head slightly as if to say, “I’m listening.” But it didn’t.

“Regardless what you done to me, I was going to ask you to forgive me.”

“Were you?” The mouth cracked.

Munson nodded slowly, suspicious now that he wasn’t talking to Clye Morrow at all, animated corpse or not, this was just the shell. Something else – someone else – was in there.

“Don’t,” it said. “Because I won’t give you what you seek. Your time in the Pit is not yet done.” Munson could swear it smiled. “Hell is eternal, Robbie.”

The name made Munson’s skin crawl and chill numbly. It was the name he was called — was called just before —

“Quiet worm,” it smiled, “Don’t squirm.”

“No!” The years of memories, the pain, the touching, flooded back and Munson surged forward with fury and a wellspring of anger. “No!”

Clye Morrow’s corpse stepped aside, with some agility for a stiffened dead man, and allowed Munson to stumble past him. Two alterlings were quickly on him, one on each arm, grabbing him and spinning him to face the rotting abuser. They held him like the lackeys of a bully, arms pinned and ready for the blows to come.

The Morrow-corpse stepped up to Munson, rested a cold palm over his heart, and rolled out a crackling dry and rot-smelling tongue from between blackened gums and crooked teeth. It leaned forward and touched the tongue to Munson’s ear as the captive redeemed tried to twist and turn away.

It whispered, “I am the light bearer, Robert Lee.” Then it stepped back and bowed.

“Like the song,” Munson felt himself sneering. Where the tongue had touched his skin it felt scaly, crawly. He said, “Won’t I guess your name?

The corpse smiled. “Call me deceiver, composer of lies, the first traitor. Whatever. Your… cultural reference …only proves to me that the time is ripe, that the window of the second coming will be our open door to return.”

So, the devil returns with the Son, seizing the opportunity to take what isn’t rightfully his.

Munson cleared his throat, tried to stand taller, struggling between the alterlings unearthly grip. “Michael sent me to stop you.”

Without pause or reflection, the light bearer said, “Why would he send a condemned murderer?”

The church around them groaned against the unseasonable chill outside. A candle flickered. Ardy’s body remained limp and suspended. The alterlings remained at silent dark vigil for their master.

“I remember the taste of your soul, your tears,” the devil chuckled. “It was sweet, like candy. How did it feel, by the way, to be so far from His love? How did it feel to be abandoned, lost? How did it feel to know others were raised above you, held in His arms? How did it feel to know you lived a lost and mistaken life, to be constantly reminded that you had taken the wrong path? How did it feel to know his Son was the door you neglected to open…. And thus cost you your eternal soul?”

Munson’s chin quivered. The devil was right. It hurt. It hurt bad. “It felt like hell,” he muttered.

“Welcome back,” the devil in Clye Morrow’s corpse said, and stepped up and embraced R. Lee Munson with a cold crusty hug.

“No. Please.”

The light bearer concluded the embrace by taking Munson’s face in his hands and kissing him on the squirming and resisting mouth. “Sssh,” he smiled. “Quiet worm. Don’t squirm.”

Feeling the snap coming, Munson’s eyes grew wide and welled with tears. As Michael suggested, he said only one thing. “Forgive you.”

And with that the devil snapped Munson’s neck with a twist and let his lifeless body collapse to the floor in a heap.

Chapter 42 – “Lucifer”

August 17, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug finally stopped crying and rested his hands on Maggie’s shoulders. What she had said, what she told him he had to do — to save Ardy — to save everyone — was too much to comprehend. But, then again, this whole day was too much to comprehend.

“I’ll try,” he nodded.

“You have to do more than try, Mr. Testerbird,” Maggie said doubtfully. “If you don’t do it, so many people will suffer at the end.”

Doug took a couple stumbling steps backward and turned, his head tilted back toward the black sky. More tears threatened to come, but he was dry. All he could do was sniff and shudder.

“It’s so much to ask.”

He looked at the little girl. “That’s what I was just thinking.”

She smiled and rolled her eyes as if to say, “Duh.”

He nodded and rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Right.”

“You can do this,” she prompted.

Doug clapped his palms against his sides. “Oh. I can do this? I can hand over a sweet little girl to the devil himself?”

She nodded. He could tell she would be able to tell him how all of it will play out, but a higher power, a super secret something between God and the child prohibited that.

Because it’s all on my faith, Doug figured.

Maggie, reading those thoughts, nodded again. Her smile carried the glint of a happy tear in one corner of her eye.

“This is crazy.”

“We have to go now,” Maggie said with the seriousness of a guard shouting, “Dead man walkin’!”

And that’s exactly how Doug felt when he swallowed that lump and held his hand out to take Maggie’s. He smiled sourly but surely, “Okay. Let’s go.”

The devil stood over R. Lee Munson’s body, fuming.

He wished he had the power to urinate – or at least spit – on the corpse, but he was in the form of a corpse himself. All he could do was clack his dry teeth and gurgle angrily.

Munson’s last two words before the devil took him, damaged him, stabbed him. “Forgive you.”

“How could he? He was mine.” Lucifer, as The Fallen Angel was once known, looked to the alterlings standing about obediently but uselessly. “I promised him an eternal pardon!”

The alterlings didn’t have to answer. Whenever he was angry at himself for becoming angry with God, Lucifer always spoke all the parts of the dialog.

“Oh, sure, he’s got Jehovah pulling his soul strings now – the Greater Pardon. The pardon I never got!” Whirling around, Lucifer extended the bony fingers of Clye Morrow’s animated corpse and put them through the shadowy neck of an alterling. The creature cried out in a wet gulping yelp before exploding into a cloud of soot.

The other alterlings didn’t shrink away. Instead, they came closer — slowly — to their master’s will.

“He only said that so He would take him back! He was mine!” Another alterling collapsed at Lucifer’s vengeful touch. Then another. A fourth. “Damn him!”

Then the brittle, battered, decaying and ripe-smelling body of Clye Morrow locked its limbs and jolted to attention. The rictus grin cracked and snapped, peeling back to reveal a fresh new glistening pink tongue.

The brittle fingernails snicked off and fluttered to the floor. Rotted skin and clothes peeled off the body like a reptilian shed revealing the smooth lines and tanned muscles of a perfect being beneath.

In Lucifer’s frustration, he sucked himself into the earth’s surface from the darkest reaches of The Pit. He needed his own strength, the eons of power and bloodlust, and centuries – the eternity – of pent up anger and regret, vengeance and fury.

Enough was enough. Let Him send His son back. He didn’t fall to my temptations; let’s see how He falls to my revenge.

And if I can’t take His son, I will take His sons and all of the earth.

Lucifer’s rage subsided when the last of the alterlings had fallen and the last strip of dead skin had fallen from the corpse. Now he stood in the ruined church, in his personal glory, a specimen of perfect wingless angel. Lucifer’s skin was bronzed and rippled with the muscles of a soldier. The tight curls around the crown of his head reflected copper in the flickering candlelight. His jaw was stern and square, his eyes blue but piercing with coldness.

He twitched his angular nose toward the side door where Michael — his former comrade — had sent the mortal forgiver. Here two more alterlings rose up and faced him.

In a calm voice, the lyrical sing-song voice of an angel, edged only slightly from the Fall, Lucifer instructed, “There is another coming. The resurrector. I must armor myself for the coming storm. You must keep him from my sight until the Son proclaims himself with the first of the seven signs.”

The alterlings bowed their shadowy bodies and turned to leave.

“But leave him untouched,” Lucifer commanded. “I want back the power God took from me. I want to drink it from his soul when all else lies in ruin.”

The two shadows departed and left the devil to prepare his long awaited attack.

The drift of snow through the opened door of the church carried with it the fine sent of ash. Lucifer closed his eyes and drank it in. It was the smell of the first moments of war.

Chapter 43 – “The Testerbird of Faith”

August 16, 2008 - Leave a Response

“Test of faith. Test of faith. Test of faith.”

Doug kept repeating the mantra as he left Maggie alone in the dark behind him. He kept picturing her standing their, the tall black shadows of winter-laden trees surrounding her. No light. Coldness. Silence. But he had to.

Doug didn’t know exactly what God’s plan was, why he chose him, or how he was going to carry out the mission. All he knew was that he would confront the devil.

And the devil would gloat over Maggie’s corpse. Something that could easily be prevented if Doug just turned and went back to the little girl. Lucifer would spare her — and Doug — if he just went back, snatched up the child, and ran until there was no more darkness and no more frozen summer.

The voice came from behind him. It was a tone he had heard as a teenager. It was vile and cruel. It was the voice that hurt.

“Testerbird!”

Doug stopped, but didn’t turn around. In his mind, he felt Maggie prod him on, “Don’t stop. Go!” But he held fast. The moment, the test of his faith, was at hand.

“Testerbird, I’m talkin’ to you!”

It was Munson’s voice – or was it the Pizza King kid’s? He couldn’t be sure. He wanted to turn and see who it was, but —

Doug continued walking, hands in his pockets, head down, tears burning his eyes.

“We’re going to rip her to pieces, you coward! Don’t you care!?”

Maggie screamed. The sound of a brief scuffle found his retreating ears.

Doug stopped again. “No,” he muttered. It was a silent command to them to stop though he felt he possessed no such power. It was a command to himself to not stop but to follow his course though he couldn’t in good conscious…. But I can’t leave the child like that? I can’t

“Here comes an arm, Dougie,” the voice called. More screaming. Maggie’s cries were like knives flying into his ears. The muffled cracking sound —

“No! No! No!” Doug broke into a run, away from the shrieks of Maggie’s torture and the tormenting laugh of her otherworldly attackers.

“Come back, coward!” They cried, a little farther back now. Something thrown tumbled through the air to Doug’s right and kicked some snow off tree limbs. It was only a couple feet long, swaddled in a wrinkled man’s suit sleeve, and had five fingers.

“No! Damn you! No!”

Maggie’s screams continued like a shrill siren announcing the end of the world.

Lucifer spat out the chunk of Ardy’s heart he was chewing like gum. He cocked his head, studied her ruined body torn open by his own fury, the beautiful blacks, purples, reds, and browns of her entrails spilled out onto the floor. Her heart had no flavor. It was gone. She had been taken up and would not be his.

The light bearer looked over his shoulder to the hanging Pizza King boy. Legad, formerly known as Todd, had failed miserably.

He knew how this happened. It was his own fault.

For centuries, Lucifer had been waiting for this day, the Second Coming. He knew it would be at such a time when God would harken back to the Great Flood. “Your second failure,” the dark lord sneered. The first, Lucifer maintained, was creating man in the first place.

“We had paradise.” The bitterest three words the fallen angel had ever known.

“Now we have nothing. Well,” he allowed a smile. “You have nothing. I have hell.”

The return of the Son was supposed to be heralded by the Great Conversion. All souls pointing heavenward with the shocking realization: The Christians Were Right.

“Doomed to failure,” Lucifer whispered turning away from the crucified psychic. He sat next to the altar, on the step leading up to the bashed-in pulpit, and rested his head in his hands. The devil wept. “If you had kept me with you. If you had forgiven me, instructed me. I would have been there to warn you of your mistake, the lapse. Your damn pride!

“Not mine! Yours!

Now God’s world had changed. The great teams of society were split even more than in His time. Even if more than the pathetic third of humanity were Christian, there are still less than one percent who claim themselves as God. Colleges teach existentialism. War in the holy land paints an even darker picture. Patriotism is the new Christianity, and that makes for strange and prideful bedfellows. “Science is the new Christ,” the devil sneered.

Lucifer scratched his eyebrow.

“Media. Entertainment. Movies, television, the internet — the Almighty Internet.” He looked toward the ceiling, scowled as if he was making direct eye contact with God. “These golden idols your Moses cannot cast down for you.”

Lucifer’s victory would be bittersweet. He had planned for this day, saw it coming. He saw the rise of distraction. He saw the numbers of human souls as they fell into his hands increase thousands fold. He even held the beating hearts of so-called Christians in his hands. They confirm their religion, they may even speak kindly of Christ, then they lust in church over the kneeling skirts at communion. They covet the neighbor’s new car in the church parking lot. They hate the pastor for not allowing their marriage. “It is decay, as this flesh,” Lucifer sniffed as he plucked a piece of Clye Morrow from his bronze forearm.

All of this.

All the world’s distractions, the absence of love for God, enabled the fallen angel to rise again. Lucifer was walking God’s earth because, as he figured, it wasn’t God’s earth at all. It now belonged to these worms, the two-legged imps. The mockery of creation itself.

He was made whole. The irony was that he was made whole in a house of God. His Son returns, and the devil walks among those who will crucify him a second time.

“What then? The promised fire?”

Lucifer stood and stretched. “Only too happy to oblige.”

He shouted to the ceiling, “You sent me one who peddles lies for a living instead of your legions of angels. You sent me a murderer, a sinful lamb, instead of your archangel assassin. You send me a man distracted by false gods, instead of a redeemer of light.

“And they all fell before me. They all fail when you send them. Because they are only human, they fall. All of them.”

“Not all of them,” Doug said from the doorway.

Chapter 44 – “Tricking the Trickster”

August 15, 2008 - Leave a Response

Doug had stopped outside the side door to St. Paul’s the same way R. Lee Munson had with the Archangel Michael perched invisibly on the shoulder of his soul. The only difference with Doug was that he had no archangel support. And he was wrestling with the massive waves of guilt at listening to Maggie’s tortured screams and final quiet gurgle.

“I could have saved her,” Doug whispered in prayer with his forehead on the door. The shadow cast by the security light above gave him a harsh and useless silhouette in the snow between his feet. His faceless self stared up at him not offering anything close to hope. “God, give me strength. I don’t understand any of this. I don’t know what’s going on or what I’m doing. I couldn’t save Ardy, but I could have ran back and taken Maggie out of here. I could have….”

He let it trail off. He knew God wouldn’t answer. All of this was a test of his faith. But there was more to it than that. In Maggie’s little otherworldly pep-talk, she had given him some instruction as what to do. She couldn’t give him the whole psychic profile — that would defuse the whole “faith thing.” All she could say was, “You’ll know what to say when you get there, but remember, he’s a trickster.”

Doug had blinked, “W-Who is? Who’s a trickster?”

“The devil, silly.”

“But I-”

“All you need is your faith. Your trust in Him. It’s easy, Mr. Testerbird. Just leave me to die.”

Doug couldn’t argue with her because she wouldn’t have it. In fact, he didn’t believe it. After all, the diminutive Yuri Gellar had an inside track with the murderous Munson. Doug still didn’t know who to trust, why, or when.

You couldn’t have a greater test of faith.

He took three deep breaths, armed with nothing but his faith, and opened the door.

Maggie had been wrong. There was no devil here. What Doug saw was a tall, hard-bodied (and naked – let’s not forget naked) bronzed blue-eyed male model in the midst of some ranting soliloquy.

“…You send me a man distracted by false gods, instead of a redeemer of light. And they all fell before me. They all fail when you send them. Because they are only human, they fall. All of them.”

Doug took one more deep breath. “Not all of them.”

Lucifer was not God, hadn’t heard God’s whispers in his ears for thousands of years, and hadn’t had the gift of precognition since The Fall. So, he jumped at the sound of the scrawny man’s voice. The devil jumped and rested his hand on his chest. “Who-?”

“I’m Douglas. I’m here to stop you from whatever it is you’re doing.”

It was obvious by the stiff way the intruder held his neck that he was avoiding letting his gaze fall upon the ruin that was Ardelene Jacobi. Perhaps they had something? Lust? Something I can use, Lucifer mused.

“Sinner!” the devil accused, pointing dramatically at Douglas’s chest with a muscular finger. “Your fate is sealed. You will join me in hell.”

Doug hadn’t expected that kind of response (yeah. What kind of response was expected from your first conversation with a fallen angel?) and looked around the floor for something to use as a weapon. A leaky vial of holy water perhaps, a silver bullet and a convenient revolver, mandrake root, a mirror. How do you fight the devil himself?

Lucifer stood and stepped around an overturned pew. Doug glanced up before stepping back, surprised to find the dark angel was endowed – actually well endowed. He didn’t know why — maybe it was a movie or something — but he always expected that angels were sexless.

“You can run from me, earth crawler. Your soul will be mine upon your death and I will sup upon it like I did the entrails of your beloved bitch there.”

Doug pinched his eyes closed, almost tripped backing around some wreckage from the pipe organ, and stammered, “Y-You can’t. I have faith. I believe.”

Lucifer continued stalking Doug. With a powerful arm, he uprighted a statue pedastal and tossed it aside. He took another stride toward the shivering store owner as Doug arched his way around the other side of the church. The devil sneered, “You believe in aliens. You believe in reality TV. You believe in Star Trek. You don’t even know God.”

Doug stopped. Stood firm. “You’re right.”

Lucifer stopped pursuing, but he didn’t look surprised at Doug’s response. Instead, he lowered his head slightly and gazed out from under a malevolent brow, his grin of perfect white teeth almost a ferrel expectation of flesh.

Doug said, “I’m a sinner.”

“You confess to me?

“I confess to God. Though I’m not worthy of His redemption.” Where were these words coming from? Doug was silently thankful for all the years of churchgoing. The various memorized and rote-induced creeds were coming back to him though he never expected to recite them like this.

“A shame. But you are worthy of mine,” Lucifer leered.

“I don’t want — or need — yours,” Doug said and continued backpedaling.

The devil pursued. Doug was walking backwards, glancing over his shoulder more rapidly, watching his step. Lucifer was closing the distance.

Doug was now almost to the crook of the makeshift cross that held Ardy’s ruined body. That’s where Lucifer would trap him. What now, Lord? What do I do now? I could have saved the girl and now the dark angel is going to strangle the life out of me and eat my soul like candy. What am I supposed to do to stop this?

God answered by allowing Doug’s heel to catch a step up to the podium across from the pulpit. He stumbled back, his arms pinwheeling uselessly. He landed on his rear with a thump and reflexively held his arms up to protect his face.

Lucifer closed the gap growling. “When I am through with you, meat, you will pray with all your heart to a darkness that never answers.” He lunged for Doug and lifted him by the shirt collars. He slammed him back against the cross-bar of the cross.

The altar wreckage-converted-to-crucifix was hard and heavy. The air was knocked out of Doug’s lungs as Lucifer slammed his back against the bar. He winced and glanced right to see Ardy’s upturned impaled palm. He closed his eyes against it as Lucifer lifted him and pushed the back of his head against Ardy’s ruined ribcage.

The devil’s hands closed around Doug’s throat and began to crush his esophagus like an old tin can. And that’s when it occurred to him.

Doug’s eyes widened with the realization. He’s one of us! He’s human!

His mind raced marathons at the speed of light. Crazy thoughts (like anything today could be crazy by comparison to this day itself) darted from ear to ear. Doug thought this wasn’t really Lucifer but an impersonator, maybe an alterling possessing a man as with the cop.

But in those ice blue eyes Doug saw an eternity. And in that eternity, regret and suffering. Thousands of ears of suffering. As Christ walked the earth as a human being so that God could taste of mankind’s guilt and sin, suffering and cruelty; Lucifer was now walking the earth to taste of love and regret, fear and forgiveness.

Just before the vertebrae in his neck snapped, Doug managed a harsh whisper, “I forgive you.”

Lucifer relaxed his grip and leaned closer as if he could see the truth of Doug’s words in the soon-to-be-dead man’s eyes. As with the killer before, there was Truth here, a deep and impenetrable light. God was present in this soul after all. He dropped the store owner who landed on the floor in a heap with his hands clawing at his collar, gasping for air.

“I DON’T WANT YOUR FORGIVENESS!” Lucifer roared. “I WANT HIS!”

And with that, the prince of darkness glanced up into Ardy Jacobi’s dead eyes which were now very much alive. He saw the girl’s throat move as she swallowed against the stiffness and waves of renewed pain. He saw her eyes blink. He saw the tears well in them. He saw her ruined limbs twitch and her face scrunch up against the agony.

In a language he hadn’t heard in centuries, Ardy said, “You have it, Lucifer. You are forgiven.”

E P I L O G U E

August 14, 2008 - Leave a Response

“That’s one hell of a story,” the man said around a mouth full of sandwich.

The woman he arrived with glared at him. “Jim!”

The man – Jim – forced a large swallow. “I mean come on! Deer head? God forgiving the devil? What kind of shit is this?”

“Jim!”

“It’s okay,” the old man smiled and waved a dismissing hand toward the woman’s husband. “Like the truth of the August Winter, it’s all down to faith.”

The couple came in to the roadside novelty store on their way through Indiana toward Colorado. It was their honeymoon and they were playing out an extended cross-country road trip in lieu of the usual cruise or flight. “The way things are these days,” the wife had said with a roll of her eyes. “Besides, we can really get to know each other intimately this way.”

“Yes, you can,” the old man had nodded and winked.

The couple had told him they were intrigued by the sign: “PSYCHIC” spelled out in unlit glass neon tubes above an eye and the word CHURCH painted on the glass underneath. The shop looked like a run down wild west saloon, the imagery heightened by the vast acres of dead farmland surrounding it – and nothing else. The sign on the door said OPEN, so they stopped.

The old man who greeted them at the door smiled with dark yellowed teeth and an old GOD IS MY CO-PILOT baseball cap. He wore a scarf around his neck despite the 90-degree heat. With the assistance of a bamboo cane, the old prospector stepped aside and used a sweeping motion with a papery thin arm to invite the pair in. “I get so few visitors, as you might imagine. Please excuse the dust. It’s been a dry summer.”

“Yup,” the man said, unwrapping a subway sandwhich as he crossed the threshold and taking a huge bite of it.

The woman playfully smacked his arm and said, “Jimmy!” as she pointed to a NO FOOD OR BEVERAGES sign behind the dusty glass. Both ‘Jimmy’ and the old man waved it off. The old man saying, “You kiddin’? C’mon in. Can I getcha some lemonade?”

“No thank you,” said the wife.

“Nup,” said Jim.

The couple eyeballed the strange collection of items scattered about the main room of the PSYCHIC CHURCH and smiled nervously as if they had just found themselves wandering into a psychotic wonderland of the bizarre and unpredictable.

An old faded pizza box under glass, barely readable as PIZZA KING, had a price tag of $150. The bench seat from an old car with a hole punched through the passenger seat was listed at $750. A shovel, rope, and satchel bag was selling as a “unique set” for $800. There were crumpled men’s suit jackets, salt and pepper shakers, horribly stained – “Was that blood?” – woman’s tee shirts, a battered car bumper, and what looked like a large collection of splintered wood and organ pieces in a box. The box was labeled, ARDY’S CRUCIFIX and was listed at $2,000.

“Quite a collection ya got here,” the man snickered around a chomp of roast beef and lettuce and who-knows-what.

“The sign says ‘church’,” the woman pointed out.

And that’s when the old man told the story about the day a serial killer stepped into this very room and met a beautiful young psychic girl and how, on that day-turned-night over fifty years ago.

The whole time the old man spoke, pointing to different items around the store, the wife stared wide-eyed and the man rolled his eyes as if to say, That’s why you want all that money for an old pizza box. Now I get it – forget it!

But for a time the husband – Jim – stopped munching on his foot-long and glared, sometimes catching himself in disbelief, other times sneering and glancing at his watch.

During the times he was caught up in the story, his wife was completely wrapt, leaning forward with her hand on her chest or fanning her face and muttering, “Oh, my God,” and “Really?”

They had looked around, taken pictures, chomped on his sandwich, giggled and huffed for what seemed like an hour or two as the old man recounted the story of Ardy, Doug, Maggie and the killer Munson in mysteriously smart detail for such an old story.

When it was over, the old man said, “Care to purchase?”

The man laughed. The woman asked, “Do you have a restroom?”

The old man pointed to a side door. “Through the bedroom there. Forgive the mess, but the can is clean.”

As she stepped away, Jim shoved the last bite of his sub into his maw and attempted to to compact it with his teeth. His cheeks inflated and he pushed the drool in with his finger.

The old man smiled crookedly, a look that simultaneously called Jim a pig and said ‘to each his own.’ He turned toward a broken set of antlers hanging on the wall, glazed with some kind of reddish brown stain, and said, “Oh, these are from Deer Head – still intact. I forgot the price tag. Six hundred.”

Jim thought of something funny, or perhaps he was going to make an observation about the price. Whatever the case, his voice cut as the wad of half-chewed sub was inhaled into his throat and jammed his windpipe.

The old man heard the scuffle and turned toward the man. He rushed to him to see if he could help.

Jim, rapidly turning purple and making the “I. Am. Chocking.” hand gestures, stared at the old man with his eyes bugging out and tears streaming down his cheeks. The old man stood in front of him with his powdering fingertips on Jim’s chest and saying, “Eh? You’re choking? Are you chocking?”

Jim clenched his left fist and wrapped it with his right hand. He attempted weakly and with no success to give himself the Heimlich maneuver five or six times before stumbling backwards and collapsing to the floor.

The old man raced to his side and lowered himself slowly with his cane. He leaned over the man who reached up and pulled at the scarf, his dying watery eyes practically screaming, For God’s sake, help me! and darting from side to side as if to yell, Where is my wife!?

The scarf pulled away from the old man’s neck revealing a savage dark brown bruise that looked clearly like a thumb on the left and four fingers on the right. The neck itself looked pinched and weathered.

Jim’s eyes fluttered with the realization. Then he died.

Rose Bloomfield checked her makeup in the splotchy and greasy bathroom mirror after trying to balance herself on one leg while she flushed the toilet with her foot.

This was kind of neat. The old man’s story went on and on, but it was fascinating to listen to. Wow, the old people in these backwards hole-in-the-wall towns sure could spin a yarn. She loved Jim and was glad he bowed to her whimsies like that.

“Oh, wow! Stop there. Stop there!”

They had only crossed two states and two camera cards were already filled. Maybe, she thought, they could stop at a Walgreens or something and download what they had so far. Eighty terrabites wasn’t that much, was it?

She wondered vaguely if Jim would continue to be that way throughout their marriage. Would he still be willing to turn the car around to check out an antique store run by a one-armed farmer, or will he spend their post-nuptuals in a recliner watching the Bears?

Rose shrugged and applied a fresh coat of lipstick. She smacked her lips and noticed a faded picture stuck to the far right side of the mirror. It was so faded it was almost transleucent and that’s why she hadn’t noticed it. It was a photograph from a deeply yellowed – almost browned – newspaper. She leaned close to see what she could make out. It looked like a photo in an obituary column. It appeared to be of a woman in her thirties in a baseball cap. Her smile was bright, but the death notice type belied the emotion depicted. The caption was faded and partially obscured by a message in long evaporated ink – maybe a love note? – the type read, “ARDELENE R. JACOBI.”

“Aww,” Rose blinked. “How sad.” She didn’t know who the old man was. She supposed he could be one of the characters in the story, but he had introduced himself as Gus and said he bought the old Psychic Parlor intending to make it into a gas station.

Why isn’t Jim calling me to get back on the road? He’s probably caught in another long story with old Gus. I better save him.

Rose came out and saw Jim sitting on a folding chair near the front door. Old Gus was taking a half glass of water from him. Jim looked like he had been crying.

“Honey!?” The doting newlywed, Rose jogged to her husband.

Jim waved her off. “I’m okay [sniff]. I’m ready to go.”

To Gus, “Is he okay? What happened?”

Gus smiled and shrugged. “Bit too much o’ the sandwich. Down the wrong pipe.”

Rose patted her husband lightly on the back as he turned for the door. “Honey. What have I told you about that? You’re going to choke to death one of these days.”

Jim looked over his shoulder, past Rose, and gave old Gus a confused but familiar look.

In moments they were gone, Gus waving after them.

Old Man Testerbird, as he was called – sometimes Gus because that’s what he told people, turned and cane-hobbled back inside. Once inside he allowed himself to collapse on the dusty couch where he once held the only love of his life all those years ago.

“There’s another one for ya, Ardy,” Douglas wrinkled his chin and nodded. “Another one.”