Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2012
When the Shadows are Hungry and Cold (A Milestone Story) by Kealan Patrick Burke
On the night he came upon the witch, Bryce Carrigan was patrolling alone, and drinking a bottle of Buckwheat Prime Beer, a local brew that tasted like someone had wrung their dirty socks into a dish full of rainwater, but sure got your head spinning. It was also cheap, and with the ever-present threat of unemployment looming like a goddamn thundercloud over his head (already their “police force” had been reduced from five men to two—three, if you included the dispatcher, Sheila Graham, who might as well have been a man—in the past year), not to mention a baby on the way, that made it the beer of choice. Besides, after you’d had the first one, the taste got a little better, but then he assumed that was true of most vile things.
It was a pleasant night, cooler than it had been in some time, and Bryce drove the back roads with the radio low and the window down, allowing the breeze to flow into the car. His stomach was a little shaky, a feeling he blamed squarely on the greasy burritos he’d wolfed down at Iris’s place. The woman could fuck like a champion but damned if the food hadn’t tasted like two sheets of rolled up newspaper painted with an egg yolk. Still, he hadn’t complained. Being with child, his wife wasn’t all that eager to let him have a poke, was downright against it to tell the truth, so he didn’t see the harm in going elsewhere to get his lay as long as it didn’t become a habit. And like the beer, the whore was cheap too. He liked that. Liked it even more that she wasn’t judgmental.
Eyes half-closed, he was reflecting on Iris’s pale, willowy body looming over him as he ran his hands down her over her small breasts, the slight, soft intake of breath when she came (or pretended to, for all he knew), when it registered that there was something in the road ahead. He frowned, eased his foot off the gas and squinted for a moment, knowing what he was looking for out there in the night and hoping like hell he wouldn’t find it.
It was, at is so often was in this goddamn town, a wrecked car.
Quickly tossing the beer bottle out the window and into the tall grass at the side of the road, he brought the patrol car to a halt. The unoiled brakes squealed in protest. For a moment he just sat there trying to talk himself out of the buzz, then he popped the glove box and rummaged around until he found a pack of gum with a stick still left inside the crumpled package. He sighed through his nose and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he chewed. He was in no hurry. He could see how damaged the car was and it looked bad enough that he doubted he was going to find anything other than a mangled corpse inside the steaming wreck.
Eight, he thought, with a slow shake of his head. This one makes eight so far this year, and it’s not even winter. That was when the snow and ice came, the nights got longer, and the number of accidents doubled, though it was hard to call them accidents when nothing appeared to have caused them. Deer, mostly, was Sheriff Dale Underwood’s opinion. They like that patch of road. And though Bryce never contradicted his boss, he had also never seen a deer that could cause the kind of damage that was done to these cars. But Dale’s theory was better than his own, because it didn’t involve the supernatural, so it made him feel better to go along with it. Otherwise, he’d have to start thinking about invisible barriers around the town that chose who got in and who got out, and that made no sense at all. So if the front of those wrecks made it seem as if they’d run right into a brick wall at sixty miles an hour, well, then it was probably just one hell of a big deer, like Dale said.
He snatched up the radio. “Dispatch, this is Bryce. Sheila, you there?”
“Where else would I be?” she droned back.
I don’t know. Getting hormone injections? “We have a wreck out here on the north side of town.”
“Well, fuck me and good for you! The usual place?”
“Right on the border, yeah.”
“Haven’t checked yet, but it’s bad enough. I’ll get back to you once I’ve had a look. Might as well call Dan Haldeman and get the tow truck out here. Damn wreck’s right in the middle of the road.”
“Not for the minute.” He hung the radio back on the cradle.
Grabbing a flashlight from beneath the passenger seat, he paused to make sure his gun was in his holster. Frequently he forgot the damn thing at the station, despite Dale chastising him about it more times than he could count. On those occasions, Bryce had to resist the urge to remind his boss thatn in the four years he’d been a deputy, he’d only had cause to discharge the weapon three times outside of the shooting range, and not once had the gun been pointed at anything bigger than a coyote. Guns made him uncomfortable, which was why he’d sought out the job of a deputy in a town so quiet it seemed unlikely he’d ever need to use one.
“Sounds like a story I’ll be telling the boys at your funeral while we raise a toast over your shot-up corpse,” Dale had said, and the point had been made clear.
Now, gun securely snapped into his holster, Bryce stepped from the car.
He hitched up his belt and felt it wedge against his gut. He was putting on weight, the probable result of eating Iris’s greasy cooking. He made a mental note to be careful not to let it get out of hand in case Sarah got suspicious, though he could always fall back on the old stereotype and claim he was eating one too many doughnuts while on duty. If Sarah gave it any thought at all, however, she’d remember that there hadn’t been a place to buy doughnuts in Milestone since the night Benny Caldwell of Benny’s Bakery went nuts, stuffed his wife in the oven, set it to 425 and then blew his brains out with a .357 Magnum.
Sighing, Bryce raised the flashlight and ran the beam over the wreck.
The only sounds in the night were the hissing of the steam from beneath the crumpled up hood of the car, which by the decal on the twisted grille appeared to be a Dodge something-or-other, and the arrhythmic ticking of cooling metal.
“Christ,” he muttered, approaching with a caution that was not customary in such situations but which he felt, without knowing why, was advisable in this one. Sheriff Underwood would have called that gut instinct and smiled at him in a fatherly way. Bryce himself smiled a little at the thought, but it quickly faded. That instinct, of which Dale would be so proud, was a red neon sign flashing a single word in his mind: TROUBLE. He didn’t know why, and that bothered him even more. Nothing about this scenario looked any different from the others he’d had to deal with. But the wariness within him was so strong he paused to consider going back to the car and radioing the station again. But what would he say? Hey Sheriff? Any chance you could tool on out here? I’ve got the heebies. That was if Sheila, their tremendously overweight and foulmouthed dispatcher, even bothered to pass the message along to Dale. Obnoxious as she was, she seemed to have a keen sense for situations that required her to hoist herself up off her chair and waddle into the Sheriff’s office. And he had a feeling this situation would not qualify. At least, not yet. Which meant, for now, he was alone.
Get on with it, you big baby.
He started walking again.
If somebody was alive in the wreck and not too badly hurt, he’d radio for Doctor Hendricks. For worse, someone would end up having to ferry the injured party to the Sisters of Mercy Hospital in Saddleback. And if it was a stiff, they’d attempt to ID the body, call the police department nearest the person’s address so the next of kin could be notified, assuming they had any (which, in Bryce’s experience, they never did—the dead always seemed to be not only strangers, but loners too, which Bryce thought was pretty odd in itself, as if Milestone was some kind of suicide magnet for friendless out-of-towners), then bring it on over to Hendricks for preparation in his basement mortuary. After that, it was on to the Morning Rose Cemetery and a burial presided over by Reverend Lewis, who would do his best to look sincere as he muttered something profoundly obscure and, with a gnarled hand, sliced the air over the grave into quarters. All very routine. Then Bryce would go back to the station, file the report, and tell Sheila all the gory details, while Dale observed him from his desk, searching for a sign that the sight of the body had troubled Bryce more than he was letting on.
“Hello?” he called to the night.
In the beginning, such sights had bothered him. The only corpse Bryce had ever seen up until that point had been his father’s, and that had looked like a wax dummy someone had laid in the casket as a joke. He had felt no connection to that fake-looking thing, and in a way it had comforted him, told him the shell didn’t matter, only what it had once contained. Had he come upon his father’s mangled Buick and found the old man with his chest pulverized from the force of the steering wheel, his eyes bugging out as his insides were forced up into his throat, his severed foot lying sideways on the road and still wearing its loafer, well, that would have been different. Then, he might have screamed and clawed his own eyes out. Though when it came to the first accident scene, he hadn’t reacted that way at all. Instead, he’d just nodded at Dale when asked if he was all right, then he’d smiled, said something he couldn’t remember, and vomited copiously all over the elder man’s shirt and shoes. It was the look of irritation on the Sheriff’s face, which to the man’s credit he quickly shed in favor of concern, that yanked Bryce back from the edge of the precipice upon which he’d been teetering, ready to plummet into stark raving madness. Because from the beginning, Dale Underwood had been someone he’d wanted to impress, a man who commanded respect and had little trouble getting it—a man like his father. That look, there and then gone, was all it took to steady him.
But later, in the dark, when sleep was further away than the moon, Dale had not been there to talk him back from the edge of the abyss where the seething mass of shattered human bodies tumbled endlessly upward, their mouths open and screaming. But he’d been there the next day, ready with a speech reminding Bryce what he already knew: They’re just bodies, son, flesh and blood machines to carry the soul around. Once the soul goes, the body’s just like an abandoned car, and not much good to anyone anymore. What you see out there won’t be pretty because the pretty part’s up in Heaven playin’ horseshoes with the Almighty.
Funny that he should remember those words now, Bryce thought, because the car in the middle of the road was abandoned too. Broken glass crunching beneath his boots, he tried the driver side door. It was not locked, but the collision (with what?) had warped it sufficiently that it wouldn’t budge. He poked his head in through the glassless window and inspected the interior of the vehicle, his flashlight beam alighting on a deployed airbag smeared with blood.
The breeze tickled the hair on the back of his neck and slipped down the back of his shirt. Bryce shivered and did a quick three hundred-and-sixty degree sweep with the flashlight just in case it was something else, but saw nothing. He turned back to the car, noting the veritable mountain of fast food wrappers littered in the passenger side footwell. The glove box was hanging open like an idiot’s mouth, the interior light glowing a dull amber. It had coughed its contents out onto the passenger seat, and Bryce could make out a package of unopened tissues and a tire-pressure gauge among the explosion of papers. He made a note to check those papers for some identifying documentation if the owner turned out to have wandered off, and then drew his focus back to the driver seat. Fragments of glass glittered in the light as he poked his head further into the car and angled the beam to the left and down, illuminating the darkness beneath the dashboard.
There was a pair of shoes under there. White sneakers speckled with blood, the laces untied, as if the driver had removed them for comfort. He couldn’t be sure, but judging by the size of them, he guessed the driver had been a woman. A cursory check of the backseat revealed nothing but more trash, some old clothes, and a stuffed teddy bear with one of its black button eyes missing lying on the floor. The sight of it leering myopically up at him gave him the creeps and he reversed course, backing out of the car and giving the tall grass behind him another sweep of the light. He was looking for a trail, some sign that the driver had walked, crawled, or been flung into the field, but the grass hadn’t been trampled. In the breeze, it stirred lazily as if responding to the light.
Bryce made his way around the back of the car, and that’s where he found the woman.
Startled, he stopped in his tracks. Time to call Dale, he thought, but made no move to do so.
The high, swollen moon had illuminated a glittering path of broken glass on the dark road. Within the myriad cobalt sparks, the woman knelt and keened to herself, occasionally jerking forward to stab at something on the asphalt. She wore what appeared to be a hospital gown, white with a pattern of small dark shapes. Flowers, probably, or something equally innocuous, intended to make you feel as if things were just dandy when just the fact that you had to wear it meant they most certainly weren’t. Through the gap in the back of the material, he could see the shadowed bumps of her spine and when she spasmed forward to jab at the road, her bare ass was exposed. If she was aware of this, it didn’t seem to bother her. Nevertheless, Bryce averted his gaze in case she suddenly snapped her head around to look at him.
“Ma’am,” he said, the peculiarity of the situation forcing his hand to the butt of his gun, because it had occurred to him that there was nothing to suggest that the woman hadn’t escaped from a mental home, like something from an urban legend, intent on murdering anyone and anything that crossed her path. Certainly her behavior indicated that she was unstable, but he knew it could just as easily be shock. The gown, however, tilted his suspicions toward the former theory.
The woman’s long dark hair hung in her face. He couldn’t tell from here if she was injured, but assuming she’d been driving, the blood on the airbag suggested as much, so he made his way back to the patrol car, leaned in through the window and grabbed the radio.
“Dispatch, this is Bryce.”
“Go ahead, Lone Ranger,” Sheila droned. “You got a body for us?”
“Yeah, but it’s currently walking around dressed in a hospital gown.”
“Huh. That’s new. I’m guessing you want Dale.”
He thought about this for a moment. He did want Dale, if only so he wouldn’t be stuck out here alone in the unnatural quiet with a potentially psychopathic woman, but he knew it would look a damn sight better if he took care of this himself. Of course, if the woman did turn out to be a lunatic and attacked him, he would regret not taking the opportunity to summon the Sheriff while the option had been available.
“No,” he decided. “Just let him know the situation. Dodge…Dynasty, I think, busted to hell out here on 23 North right by the exit sign. The usual spot, like you said. Another deer, most likely.” As he spoke, he eyed the car, the accordioned hood, the shattered lights, the engine block driven back into the vehicle, the wheels bent back and up into the chassis, and he shook his head. Maybe if the deer was driving a tank. “Driver is a Caucasian female, probably mid-thirties—”
“I haven’t gotten a good look at her yet. She’s busy attacking the road. Might do to call some of the hospitals and see if they’re missing a patient.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Sheila said, and he knew she wouldn’t. The grim fact of the matter was that the woman was an outsider, and as soon as outsiders crossed into Milestone, they more often than not ceased to matter to the world beyond the town’s borders. Indeed it was Dale’s contention that not mattering to the outside world was what drew such people to Milestone in the first place. Bryce thought there might be something to that. After all, he had once been an outsider himself, had moved here from Nebraska, and though he hadn’t intended on settling in Milestone—the damn place wasn’t even on any of the new maps—it was where he’d ended up.
“You get ID?” Sheila asked, and Bryce clenched his teeth.
“Not yet. Working on gauging the woman’s condition. I’ll get back to you when I have a name.”
“Yeah, why don’t you do that, because, you know, we could be looking that shit up as we speak, checking if that car was stolen. That’s what we do here at—”
“Send Doctor Hendricks out here, Sheila,” he snapped and tossed the radio into the cab.
Bitch. He headed back to the woman, but not before he unclipped his holster and checked to be sure the gun was loaded. It was, and that made him feel better. The thought that he might ever have to draw down on a living human being, that he might have to do that very thing tonight, however, did not. He put the gun away and snapped the holster shut.
Despite the vague hope that she might have run off never to be seen again, the woman was exactly where he’d left her, crouched there naked but for the gown, hair over her face as she twitched and lunged at something on the road. He stopped a few feet away from her and cleared his throat.
“Ma’am, my name is Deputy Bryce. I’m with the Milestone Sheriff’s Department.” Spoken aloud, the words sounded a lot less confident, less authoritative than they had when he’d rehearsed them in his head. Not that it mattered, because the woman continued to ignore him.
“Are you hurt?”
Should have told Sheila to send Dale. He’d know what to do. Admitting this to himself only made him angry that he didn’t know. Sucking in a quiet breath, one hand still on his holster, the other holding the flashlight, he moved closer to the woman.
“Ma’am? You’ve been in an accident.”
She froze, and so did he. Slowly, she looked over her shoulder at him. He had the impression of a cold blue eye narrowed in suspicion, saw the pale slope of a cheek striated with old scars and new blood, and then she spoke. “Take…your child,” she said in a voice her broken nose had made dull and stuffy.
She might have smiled at him. He wasn’t sure, and when he raised the light to her face, she flinched and turned away. A moment later, she was jerking and stabbing the road again. Rather than approach her from behind, which he felt might be a mistake, he turned back and rounded the car on the other side which meant that he was half in the ditch, but at least this way she’d be able to see him coming.
As he drew close again, he was forced to remove his hand from the holster to steady himself against the ruined Dodge or risk losing his footing on the dew-slick grass. She did not look up at him, but at last he was able to see what she’d been doing.
She had a thick white nub of chalk in her hand, and she wasn’t stabbing anything; she was drawing.
“Ma’am, can you tell me if you’re hurt?”
“Go ‘‘way,” she mumbled. “I’m dot fiddished.”
There was glass embedded in her face, a piece the size of a dime protruding from the skin just below her eye. Blood was pouring from her badly broken nose, and he knew he had to get her back into town before she did something to make it worse, maybe slapped herself like crazy people tended to do when they got frustrated with their own mangled thoughts, and drove that busted bone right up into her brain. Sure, it wasn’t likely anyone was going to care whether she died or not, and he’d been out here long enough to figure she was alone, but he had his conscience to worry about.
He lowered the light to the drawing. From his position by the car, one leg one the road, one in the ditch, and his head cocked to one side, it was difficult to make out what it was. Within a ragged circle was what appeared to be a crude picture of some kind of animal’s head. A horse, perhaps, but with a mouthful of jagged teeth better suited to something more predatory. Hell, for all he knew she’d been trying to draw a dinosaur. It was a simple, almost childlike depiction, and the fact that she had chosen to do it here and now, after an accident, told him his initial concern that she had come from a mental hospital might turn out to be right on the money after all.
“Ma’am, I’m not going to hurt you. If you’ll come with me, I can get you fixed up. Get you warm, and—”
Abruptly, she rose. Her bones cracked and popped. Glass tinkled to the road from where it had been stuck to the flesh of her hands and knees. Other pieces sparkled from where they had been driven into her skin. Streamers of red ran down her bruised and dirty legs. She stood there, weaving slightly, her unruly hair keeping her face in shadow but for the gleam of one eye. She looked like a witch, and though he didn’t quite know it then, ever after that night, that’s how he would think of her.
“Easy, Miss,” Bryce said uneasily. “I’m here to help.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said. “You always touch me.”
The moment felt loaded with tension, a taut wire that could snap or bind them together forever depending on what happened next. He edged closer, trying to make himself look smaller, less imposing, less of a threat, and reached a hand out to her. There was only about six feet between them.
She raised her left arm and pointed to his right, into the trees and the tall grass on the opposite side of the road. He risked a quick glance but saw nothing but shadows. Had someone else been with her after all? Someone who maybe had gone to get help? He was about to ask when she spoke again.
“Take your child,” she said, and now he understood that she was not addressing him at all, but some figment of her feverish imagination, or some memory that would never mean anything to anyone but her. “Follow the signs.”
He nodded to placate her. “All right.” Edged closer still.
Three feet now.
“Let’s go on and get you—”
Abruptly she went rigid as if he’d struck her, and she screamed, the chalk falling to the road as her hands came up, fingers hooked. It was the reaction of a sleepwalker woken from a dream, or a mother watching something terrible happening to her child.
In the few precious seconds he had for rational thought, he envisioned pulling the gun and leveling it at her, heard his voice only slightly heightened in panic as he barked a command at her to stop. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he yanked at the gun and it budged only slightly. He cursed. Unwilling to look away from the woman for even a second, he tugged on the weapon until, with a sound that suggested the holster itself had ripped, the weapon came free. But by then she was already on him, her body surprisingly heavy, knocking the wind out of him as the top of her head caught him under the jaw. Tiny red suns supernovaed in his vision as his teeth clacked painfully together and he reeled backward. His nose filled with the smell of her blood and some other unidentifiable stench, something vaguely medicinal, as her impetus drove him to the ground and she straddled him. He relinquished his hold on the flashlight. The beam passed over the woman as it rolled over his chest, lending her face a demonic, campfire-story cast before she was once more in shadow.
“Ma’am, stop!” he yelled at her as he grabbed a handful of her gown, just above her left breast, and tried to shove her off. In response, she became a dervish of frantic movement, a flurry of teeth and nails that bit and tore at him as he struggled to free himself from beneath her.
“TAKE! Your CHILD!” she screeched at him, and emphasized the last word with a bony punch that loosened one of his teeth. As she clawed at his face, she laughed a single hideous cackle and began to roll her hips, grinding herself against him. He dimly realized that she was damp down there, the moisture soaking through the right leg of his standard issue uniform pants, but whether it was arousal, piss, or blood he didn’t know, nor was he all that eager to find out. He only wanted to be free of her, a job that should have been easy but which was proving impossibly complicated. She began to moan and for an absurd moment, he wondered if he were dreaming all this, if he were really in Iris’s bed and she was fucking him in his sleep. A rush of guilt followed at the realization that it had been she, and not his wife that he’d imagined, and then he snapped back to himself and used his free hand to grab the woman by the throat. It felt like grabbing a bunch of wires encased in a cold, saggy rubber glove, and inwardly he recoiled. Her hands found his. Dirty, uncut nails drove deep into his flesh. He hissed air through his teeth as his grip on her throat tightened.
“Ma’am…I’m warning you,” he growled. “Stop, now.”
She continued to struggle, continued trying to scream though she was no longer able to draw the breath needed to carry it. Her fingers tensed and the nails, embedded deeply in the flesh of his hand, began to pull, trying to drag the wounds wider. He grimaced, bucked his hips in an effort to launch her off.
“Chillllld,” she said and the laugh that followed her words sounded like a clogged sink draining.
Despite the panic, the shock, he tried to calm his mind, to recall the rules, the laws, the procedures, and instead got Dale’s voice in his ear.
This is why we carry guns, son.
The notion brought a jolt to his brain, as if he’d touched the tip of his tongue to a battery and he slowly looked away from the woman, to the gun.
It would be self-defense, he thought. Assuming anyone ever asked.
Dale again, or at least the assumption of what Dale might say: You know they wouldn’t. Nobody ever does. And we’re officers of the peace, ain’t we? I don’t reckon you’ll ever meet a woman who needs peace more than this poor wretch, so may as well do the right thing. The good thing.
Bryce looked back to the woman. Her struggles were weakening, her grip on his hand growing looser by the second. Against his skin, he could feel the pulse in her wrist slowing. In a moment she would pass out from lack of oxygen to the brain and there would be no need for the gun. But what if it went too far? What if she didn’t just pass out? What if she died? He’d have killed her, a stranger, right here on the road. This violent madwoman, who up until about ten minutes ago had been none of his business, still had to mean something to someone, no matter what he’d tried to tell himself Dale would say. And it wouldn’t be Dale who’d have to live with the consequences.
He was no murderer. He decided that he might come out of this a little worse for wear, but so far all she had done was take a few nicks out of him, nothing terminal.
“I’m going to release you now,” he told the woman, forcing back into his voice the authority the panic had leeched away, and slowly relaxed his grip on her throat, even as he brought the gun up between them and aimed it at her heart.
Despite the threat of the gun, he expected her assault to begin anew. But it didn’t. Instead she took a series of huge whooping breaths, coughed once and then sat stock still atop him, her head tilted slightly, chest rapidly rising and falling. Air whistled through her broken nose. Fresh blood trickled down her chin, speckling his shirt.
Bryce brought his free hand up and held it in a gesture of placation. “Okay,” he said quietly, and slowly began to sit up. “Okay. Good. I don’t mean you any harm, Miss. Now just let me up.” He wiggled his legs to emphasize his demands, but she didn’t move. Her eyes gleamed blackly in the gloom. She remained still, watching him.
Jesus, he thought. She’s like a damn child. His heart pounded mercilessly against his chest as he braced his free hand against the asphalt, intending to gently, but firmly, force her back and off of him.
He only looked away for a moment, but that was all she needed.
A flash of movement and he felt the gun ripped from his hand, her nail scoring his index finger, and he looked with shock at the woman, who was now pointing his own weapon at him.
His skin went cold.
His bowels turned to water.
He’d been tricked.
He’d been a fool.
And now he would die.
The woman smiled. “Take your child,” she told him as she cocked the hammer. “Follow the signs.”
“Don’t,” Bryce pleaded, and this time the moistness at his crotch could not be blamed on the woman. His focus narrowed, withdrew from an awareness of the world to an awareness only of the gun and the bullet that any second now was going to come roaring out of it on a comet path of fire and smoke to blow him into oblivion.
He thought of Sarah, of Iris, of Dale, sitting behind his desk back in town wondering if the crash victim was giving his deputy any trouble, and he thought of his unborn child growing up without a father. Thought of his own father and felt a flicker of love dancing with a flame of hate.
He thought all of these things and felt desperate tears fill his throat as the grass whispered and somewhere out in the fields nightbirds began to chatter about the myth of dawn.
“Please, don’t,” he said again, and brought his hands up before him as if they could ever hope to hold back death.
And when the woman turned the gun around and rammed the barrel between her lips so roughly she chipped her front teeth, it took him a moment to realize that tonight was not his night to die after all. But there was no relief as she pulled the trigger and the back of her skull flapped upward like a badly fitted toupee in a windstorm, no relief as whatever had made her whoever she was exited the earth, no relief as her brains spattered the road behind their bizarre little tableau. No relief at all. Only a ringing in his ears, an awful chill that crept deep down inside his soul and settled there, and Dale’s voice telling him ever-so-calmly that this was what happened to strangers in their town, and that it was right.
* * *
Bryce was glad to leave the dirty work to what Sheila called “the vultures”. With the spinning amber lights of Haldeman’s tow truck hoisting the wreck up onto the bed and Hendricks poring over the dead woman’s body as if it were a butterfly tacked to a corkboard, Bryce let Dale guide him to the patrol car.
“No paperwork,” he said in his gravelly and comforting drawl, as he chewed on a stub of a damp cigar that thanks to multiple cancer scares, he wouldn’t and couldn’t light. “Not tonight, and if need be I’ll take care of it in the mornin’.”
They reached the car and, satisfied that the vehicle would hold Bryce up should his strength suddenly leave him, Dale removed his arm from around the younger man’s shoulders. Bryce, hands planted on the hood as if he were about to be frisked, shook his head. After taking a series of deep breaths meant to dissuade vomit from surging up his throat (he had already thrown up twice, but nobody would uncover that little detail unless they scoured the deep grass to the right of the body), he said, “It’s okay. I can do it.”
The Sheriff, whose face was a granite mask of hard edges and shadowed crevasses, leaned in close, his breath smelling like a mixture of wet tobacco leaves and whiskey. He was not wearing his hat, and though Bryce had seen him this way many times, it never failed to look odd. The wedge of flattened gray hair that lay atop the old man’s wide skull looked like a rain-sodden newspaper boat. “What I’m sayin’, Bryce, is that there ain’t no need to put a hurry on this one no more than there ever is with any of the others. Ain’t nobody gonna be houndin’ us for details anytime soon, so don’t let it be a worry, all right? Not right now, at least.”
Bryce, who had fully intended to file the paperwork if only so he could put some modicum of closure on this terrible night, nodded and offered the Sheriff a wan smile. “Yeah. Okay.”
Dale clapped a meaty hand on his shoulder. “That’s my boy. Now look. We’ve done about all we need to do here for one night. Dan’s got the wreck cleared; Doc’s got the body. I radioed the details in to Sheila and she’s lookin’ the woman up as we speak. So I say you get you home to that fine wife of yours and pour yourself a stiff whiskey.”
Though the idea of alcohol made him even more nauseous, he agreed with the Sheriff’s suggestion. But he had no intention of going straight home. He wasn’t ready to face Sarah. Not yet. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t understand, or be there for him. It was just that her understanding would come from love and sympathy, not from experience. Right now he needed someone who could take him out of himself, and his wife was not that woman.
“You’re right,” he told Dale. “I know you’re right.”
The Sheriff nodded. “Good man. You did what needed to be done here tonight. Remember that when your brain tries to tell you different.”
“Okay,” Bryce said, but knew it would not be that easy. Dale knew blood and death well, knew what the human body looked like when undone. He had inspected the scene tonight as if it were nothing more bothersome than a cow on the railroad tracks. Bryce realized in that moment that no matter how many bodies he saw in his time on the force, it was never going to get any easier. And certainly not when he had a hand in the violence as he had here tonight.
Another slap on his shoulder pulled him from his thoughts. Dale was studying him closely, his small gray eyes catching amber shards from the tow truck lights.
“You sure you’re goin’ to be all right, son?”
“I will,” he lied.
“Well, let me drive you home, just in case. You look rattled and the last thing we need is for you to add to Haldeman’s burden.” He grinned toothily, but Bryce felt a surge of panic.
“You don’t have to do that,” he told the Sheriff. “I think driving home with the window down might steady me a bit. Really. But thanks.”
He thought he saw a gleam of dawning in the older man’s eyes, an impression strengthened by the small, slight smile on his lips, but all he said was, “If you’re sure.”
“Well, I’ll walk you to the car at least. I’ll hang around and see if I can find out who this woman was.” He led the way to Bryce’s patrol car, a satisfied grin on his face. Clearly this was a part of the process he relished. Bryce wished he could say the same. Every step he took away from the scene he felt the pull of the dead woman, daring him to look back, to take stock of his handiwork. He managed to resist until he was sitting in his car. Then it was right there before him. And though the body was mercifully covered in a white sheet, he could still see the blossom of red at the top, and it was enough to present to him in full what he’d seen.
The woman grinning around the muzzle of his gun.
The flash of light illuminating the inside of her mouth, turning her cheeks transparent for only the briefest of moments, but a moment his nightmares would stretch into an eternity. The back of her head lifting and falling again like a dismissive hand. The blood, the smoke…the smell.
Not twenty minutes ago that woman was a living, breathing human being, he thought. She even managed to walk away from one of this town’s many crashes. Now she’s a hunk of meat with a hole drilled in her skull. And it was your gun that did it.
But, a more forgiving part of him countered, you didn’t pull the trigger. You didn’t make her kill herself. And if you hadn’t been there, chances are she’d have found some other way to end it. Because she was insane. And sometimes the only help people like that can find is death.
Eager to be away, he started the engine, and stabbed the radio with a thick forefinger. Twangy country music filled the car. “There you go,” Dale said approvingly. “Bit of Hank Williams for ya.”
Bryce thought that even if he’d cared for country music, which he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to hear the song anyway so loud were the conflicting voices of sympathy and condemnation in his head.
“See you tomorrow,” he told his boss.
For the majority of the short haul to Iris’s place, he tried not to blink.
Because whenever he did, in the brief pulse of darkness, he saw an animal drawn in chalk chewing on the remains of a dead woman’s skull.
* * *
Thankfully, Winter Street was deserted, though in that moment, Bryce wasn’t sure if he’d have cared if a parade had been marching right down the middle of it. All he cared about now was getting inside Iris’s place and staying there amid the warm glow of her candles until the chill left his heart.
He was relieved when he heard her descending the stairs. A moment later, the door creaked jarringly open and she smiled sleepily at him, her hair in disarray. Her green eyes studied him briefly from an oval face the color of snow, registering the specks of blood on his uniform, the stains at the crotch and knees of his pants, and all without surprise or judgment.
“This is unexpected,” she said. “Two visits in one night. Are you getting addicted?”
He shook his head dumbly, unsure how to respond, or even if he was capable of such a thing. He felt drained, useless, and curiously afraid, as if the worst had not even happened yet.
“Rough night?” she asked, the hint of her customary coquettish smile vanishing.
She stepped away from the door, held it open for him and cocked her head toward the steep flight of stairs behind her. “Come in.”
The walk up the stairs exhausted him. It seemed endless, even with her arm around his shoulders. Abruptly he was his own shadow, devoid of dimension, condemned to the dark and all that it promised. Two steps from the top, he fell to his knees, driven there by overwhelming self-pity, fear, and confusion, as if someone had hollowed him out, and he wept uncontrollably until his forehead was pressed against the last step and Iris was sitting beside him, stroking his back and saying nothing.
Later, when it seemed as if he had no tears left to shed and the embarrassment at breaking down in front of Iris temporarily restored some semblance of composure, he allowed her to bathe him as she sang a song he didn’t know but would never forget. He leaned back and closed his eyes, his head against the porcelain edge of the tub, the water not too warm, her hands on his body soothing, magically sucking the cold blackness from within him, and he began to feel better. More human, and less lost, and when Iris spoke, he jerked awake, surprised to find he had been dozing.
“What?” he asked.
“I said stay with me,” Iris said. “You can sleep if you need to, but not in the tub. Might be hard to explain to your wife why you’re more wrinkled than ol’ Cadaver.”
Cadaver was a local, possibly the oldest one, and a staple at Eddie’s Tavern up on the hill. Nobody knew his age, but guesses ranged from his eighties to the low triple digits. That he had no voice save the one lent him by an electronic voice box and seemed content to pass his time counting pennies, which he kept in neat little towers on the table before him, only added to the impression that he belonged in death’s employ.
“Okay.” He shook himself alert and sighed as Iris cupped her hands, dipped them in the water and rinsed him off. “Thank you.”
“For being good to me.”
She smiled. “That’s what I’m paid to do.”
He looked squarely at her, a question he might have asked at any time during their brief interludes now of critical importance to him. “Is that the only reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you only do this because it’s your job. Isn’t there…anything else?”
She continued to rinse him off, the water cascading down his shoulders. “I guess there is if you need there to be.”
“That’s not an answer.”
She shrugged. “Sure it is. Maybe not the one you’re hoping for, but it’s an answer all the same.”
He wanted to pursue the topic, but held his tongue. Iris had not survived in this hellhole of a dying town by falling in love with every guy who entered her room. And though he desperately yearned to believe he was the exception, he didn’t have the courage, or the will, to push her into telling him the truth in case it turned out he was wrong.
“You need to get some sleep,” she said.
“Will you lie with me?” he asked, hating the need in his voice.
She looked at him and smiled. “Of course.” Then she stood up, flicked the water from her hands and exited the room.
He rose, quickly toweled himself off, and when he entered the main room of her apartment, lit solely by at least a hundred candles spread out around the floor because of the peculiar effect she had on anything electrical, he found her waiting in bed for him, the covers raised in one hand, inviting him in. The candlelight was kind to her, and when he joined her, she became the light and was equally kind to him.
Afterward, he slept, and found the nightmares waiting.
#* * *
Respect is not always earned; often it is driven by fear into those too young to tell the difference between them. Such was the way with young Bryce and his father, who had mastered the art of doling out kindness and cruelty in equal measures so that his son was never quite sure what kind of weather he might find behind his father’s eyes.
The dream this night is more a memory, one he has not revisited in some time.
He is eleven, freshly returned from hours of joyful adventuring in the imaginary world he has designed for himself amid his family’s rows of corn. There is dust on his sunburned face, in his clothes, dirt caked to the knees of denim jeans that are barely a month old. His shoes are scuffed, his smooth hands grainy from crawling soldier-like through enemy territory in pursuit of his nemesis, the evil General Spinks, a role played rather unwittingly by their seven-year-old Border Collie, Sampson. He is no less a child of summer, a child of wonder, and on this day, that wonder is about to be driven forcefully from him by the sight that awaits him upstairs.
Finding the kitchen, the mudroom, and the living room of their farmhouse quiet, occupied only by dust motes parasailing through shafts of warm sunlight, the backyard host only to a panting Sampson and the clothesline upon which his mother’s dresses dance as if wishing she were still in them, he hurries upstairs, checking the carpeting to be sure he isn’t leaving a trail of mud that might earn him a slight, but no less unwelcome, cuff around the ear.
Voices stall that concern and quickly replace it with another. He raises his face, eyes wide. He does not move, afraid his presence there is a violation, upsetting some delicate balance of a kind he is not yet old enough to fully understand, and listens.
His father is not shouting, for he has never needed to shout. Instead, his voice is tense, low, and seething with poison.
“You dirty cunt,” he says, and Bryce swallows. He doesn’t know the meaning of that word, though he has heard it before. Once at school, courtesy of Jim Keeley, the bully; more often from his father when something his mother has done has incensed him. All he knows for sure is that it’s not a good word. Not at all. And suddenly he’s afraid.
“John, listen to me, he was only here to ask if—” his mother pleads.
“Shut that fucking mouth of yours before I break it,” his father responds in that same low, even tone that nevertheless portends worse things to come. “I knew by the look on your face when you saw me come in. The guilt. The fear. You’re caught, and how do you think you’re going to get out of it?”
“Yes, please John, look at me, I would never—”
A strange sound cuts her off and makes Bryce jolt where he stands. Over the years the sound will gain definition in his dreams, become more accurate, but to his eleven-year-old’s frightened ears, what he thinks he hears is someone hitting a bag of grain with a hammer, then a crumpling sound, then silence.
A moment later, the bedroom door to his left swings open.
#* * *
“For Chrissakes, Bryce, wake up.”
He opened his eyes to confusion, disorientation, and the startling awareness that there was a man standing over him. In an instant he was awake and sitting up, the sheets clutched to his chest like a modest courtesan, and looked to his left. The bed was empty. Iris was gone. He blinked once, twice and looked up. From the gloom resolved the features of the man before him, ill-lit by the feeble wedge of yellow light from the open door to the stairs.
Bryce was struck dumb.
The man standing beside the bed and looking more ferocious than Bryce had ever seen him, was Sheriff Underwood.
“What…?” he finally managed to say. “What are you—?”
“Get the hell out of that bed, Bryce, and put some clothes on.”
The confusion of sleep still clinging to him, and convinced this must all be a dream, Bryce was slow to obey. Instead he squinted at the older man and shook his head. “What’s going on?”
“It’s your wife, Bryce. Nowt get up or I’m goin’ to have to drag you up myself.”
It’s your wife. Of everything the Sheriff had said thus far, those three words were the only ones to properly register and though still confused, Bryce was finally awake. He glanced at the alarm clock—analog of course, as digital would never work around Iris—and pulled himself up into a sitting position. “What about her? Is she okay?”
“No, she’s not. Hendricks got a call from her about an hour ago. He picked her up and brought her to his place, where he’s treatin’ her as we speak. He called me to bring you there.”
Moving as if in a dream and still having trouble reconciling the image of his boss standing in Iris’s apartment looking pissed as all hell, Bryce began to search for his clothes. He had almost given up when he found them folded neatly at the end of the bed.
“What happened to her?” he asked in a small, broken voice. “Is it the baby? I mean, did she have it?” He knew even as the words left his mouth that this was unlikely to be the case. She was only five months pregnant. If she had the baby, it would almost certainly be dead.
Although Sheriff Dale’s tone softened slightly, his expression did not. “I don’t know all the details, son. All I know is that she started bleedin’ a lot and called Hendricks, which was the smart thing to do. I can’t say much more than that, nor would I assume to have the right. I’ve just been tasked with makin’ sure you’re brought along to be with her. She’s askin’ for you.”
Like the dream, memories of the night’s events came flooding back.
Making love to Iris.
The witch, blowing her brains out.
Dale, telling him to go home.
Iris, again, smiling ever-so-slightly as she told him in no uncertain terms that she would never love him.
The guilt. The horror.
And ais if they had been lying in wait for his full senses to return, both feelings came flooding back in a wave so strong it almost debilitated him. He choked on a sob and smacked a hand to his mouth, his tear-filled eyes finding the Sheriff’s disapproving face. “Oh…” Bryce moaned into his palm. “Oh…Jesus…”
Dale slowly shook his head. “Not now,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of time to put yourself up on the cross later, but right now someone else needs you, so postpone the pity-party.”
Galvanized, if only a little, by the truth in the Sheriff’s words, Bryce finished dressing in a hurry, then let his boss lead him out of the apartment.
He found Iris at the foot of the stairs where she must have stayed after admitting the Sheriff and hearing why he’d come. She was dressed in a pink silk robe and leaning with her back to the wall, her eyes on the opposite one, arms folded. She’d been crying, her mascara leaking in harlequin trails from her eyes. The Sheriff did not look at her as he let himself out. Bryce, filled with shame, paused. There were a thousand things he wanted to say, but none of them would come. Then there was no longer a need for him to speak as she leaned forward, lightly kissed his cheek, and whispered softly in his ear: “Don’t ever come back here.”
#* * *
He expected an endless lecture from Dale all the way to the clinic at Hendricks’ house, but that’s not what he got. Instead, the Sheriff seemed almost rueful, and stared out at the night with eyes that seemed to have lost their focus.
“You’ve done well in this town for a long time,” he said to Bryce. “And I reckon that’s because despite your inability to keep your dick in your pants, you haven’t fucked with it much.”
Bryce, who was startled to find himself growing tired again, rolled his window down and sucked deeply of the chill air.
Dale sighed heavily. “But I guess Milestone had some plans for that woman, or you, or both. Hell, I don’t know how it works. But I do know that you don’t interfere with what it wants or it’ll find a way to make you pay for it. I’ve tried to keep you safe from that reality for years now, but you just keep waltzing blithely through your own universe as if it’s the only one that matters.”
Bryce grinned without humor, and when he spoke it was as if he were predicting rain and couldn’t care less whether or not he was right. “She said ‘Take your baby’.’”
The Sheriff looked at him. “What?”
“The witch. The woman. The one who ate my gun. She said ‘Take your baby’. I thought it was just some kind of lunatic gibberish. Didn’t think it was a threat. Guess the joke’s on me.” His voice started to waver on the last word, and before he knew it, or even knew why, he was laughing hysterically.
Dale pointed at the glove box. “Open it. There’s a flask of whiskey in there. Drink some. Hell, finish it before you lose your shit entirely.”
“Might be a little late on that score,” Bryce mumbled, but did as he was told. The first sip from the flask cauterized his throat and he hissed air through his teeth. The whiskey was good, and succeeded in bringing him back to himself, however briefly.
“Better?” Dale asked, watching him carefully.
“A bit, yeah.”
“Good, then keep sippin’ on it till I get you where you need to be.”
Bryce took another draw from the flask. It hurt less this time, and coated his spasming nerves with wool. He exhaled. “I don’t get what you mean about the town,” he said, and his voice seemed to come from somewhere other than his mouth. Rather, it was as if there was someone on the roof of the car, muttering at the two men through it. “It’s just a town. Towns don’t have minds of their own.”
Dale appeared to consider this, his eyes narrowed as he chewed on his lower lip. At length he said, “When I was a kid, we had a dog.”
The change in topic was so abrupt, Bryce had to wonder if he’d fallen asleep again and was dreaming it. Images of his own beloved hound, Sampson, flickered through his mind as if it had become a flipbook.
“A German Shepard,” Dale continued. “We called him Bones. Can’t remember why.” He smiled, just a little, clearly warmed by the memory. “I loved that goddamn dog. I had two older brothers and a younger sister. They all loved him too, but it was me he chose to follow wherever I went. He was about the only friend I had. Good guard dog, good hunter, but gentle as mornin’ rain.”
Still reviewing mental pictures of his own dog, Bryce was nevertheless still listening. He found a lot to which he could relate in the Sheriff’s words. Sampson had been his best friend too, his only friend, and still to this day he missed him.
“One day I came home from school and Bones didn’t come runnin’ out to greet me. That had only ever happened one time before, when my Pa had taken him to the vet to get a shot for somethin’ or other. So while I was worried, I figured it was the same this time around. Maybe he’d chased somethin’ he shouldn’t have and was now at the Doc’s gettin’ his wounds seen to. I hurried up the path and into the house, where I found my mother sittin’ at the kitchen table starin’ out the window. I asked her where Bones was, and she looked at me, as if I was made of glass, and said, ‘You need to go talk to your Pa.’‘” Dale sighed and shook his head. “I knew that wasn’t good, but as afraid as I was, I knew it would be worse not to do as I was told, so I went lookin’ for my father. Found him out back, diggin’ a grave just big enough for the dead dog that lay beside it. ‘‘Course, once I saw that, all the fear and everythin’ else was pulled right out of me and I started cryin’ my eyes out. My Pa heard me, dropped the shovel and came over to me. Got down on his knees and looked me square in the face with those hard gray eyes of his, his mouth set like the curve in a horseshoe. Big mud-stained hands on my shoulders, he said, ‘Listen to me carefully, Dale, and listen good. Bones was a good dog, a nice dog, and I guess we’ll never know what got into him today, but whatever it was, it weren’t good. He came back from one of his hunts…changed, and he bit your little sister on the hand. Damn near took her fingers clean off. When I tried to stop him, he turned on me. So I had to put him down. Do you understand?’‘”
Dale chuckled bitterly. “I remember noddin’, maybe tellin’ my Pa that of course I understood, but I didn’t. The years educated me on that score, but damned if I still don’t feel a punch in my gut every time I think of Bones lyin’ there on his side in the dirt, bloodied tongue hangin’ out of his mouth like a red ribbon. He was a friend, you see, and I loved and trusted him, believed he would always be there and never do a bad thing to anybody who didn’t have it comin’.”
At the sensation of his own pain tangling up his guts, Bryce looked at the Sheriff. “Why are you telling me this? Why now?”
Dale didn’t look away from the road as it opened up before them to reveal the clusters of unlighted houses at the north end of town. “Because Milestone is like that dog. It can be your friend or it can try to destroy you, dependin’ on circumstances. And it can cause you pain and bloody you up real good if you cross it at the wrong time. I think, for you Bryce, this is that time, and if you have any sense at all, which I know despite your occasional stupidity, you do, you’ll tread carefully from here on out.”
“We make our own fortunes,” Bryce said. “It’s too easy to blame it on Milestone, or fate, or God, or whatever. Was I supposed to let that witch kill me tonight? Is that what you think your town wanted?” He was getting angry now, the inner heat stoked further by the whiskey and Dale’s ridiculous attempt to make him believe any of this had a damn thing to do with, of all things, a town. But as preposterous a notion as it was, his current vulnerability might have permitted him to believe it if not for the simple glaring fact that his whole life had been one stroke of miserable luck after another, long before he’d ever set foot in Milestone.
Without being summoned, the image of Dale’s dead dog floated before his eyes. Abruptly it was replaced with another image: Sampson, panting in the back yard. And finally, Dale’s father, dropping down before him, but wearing the face of Bryce’s Pa.
Off you go now, and don’t you come back.
“I used to think that too. Used to be a man of faith,” Dale said. “Not any more. There’s no God in Milestone except Milestone itself. And if you think any different, you may as well start diggin’ your own grave right now.”
Bryce scoffed. “So you traded one superstition for another.”
Dale was silent for a moment, then, “Look, I’ve never sat you down and told you all the things I know about this town. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for that. Mostly, it’s because you’d think I was batshit crazy if I tried—hell, you already probably do—so I’m not gonna waste my breath with the stories, the things I’ve heard and the things I’ve seen. But if you’re plannin’ on stickin’ around Milestone till the bitter end, then I reckon you’ll learn all it has to teach you anyway. Just like I have. So for now I’ll just keep it to a few basic home truths.” He glanced briefly at Bryce and the conviction in those old wise eyes extinguished some of the fire in the younger man. “Milestone ain’t right. You’ve probably guessed that much. Nobody ever thinks of a town as bein’ alive, as havin’ any kind of will. But Milestone does. It’s had one since the very beginning, or so they say. Since the day that man in the top hat came ridin’ his big tall bike up out of the mine and planted the music box in the dirt in the middle of Main Street, this place has been anythin’ but normal. It’s its own world, and that world can end for any one of us if it decides that how it needs to be. No matter what happens beyond its borders, in here we live every day in the shadow of the apocalypse. Everybody knows that, but for most folks, it’s no big deal. Nothin’ to get worked up about, because aside from the odd incident here and there, you could almost let yourself forget it isn’t Anywhere, USA. People go about their lives, and Milestone leaves them alone. But everyone is here for a reason, Bryce. There are no coincidence, no miracles, and no innocents in Milestone. We’re here because it wanted us to be, and we all serve a purpose. Like pieces on a chess board. Most of us just don’t know what that purpose is. And we won’t, until the town decides it’s time for us to know.”
“Christ,” Bryce said, grinning bitterly. “You know I’ve always respected you. You have to know that. I’ve shown it enough. But…do you hear yourself right now? You sound like one of those crazies on the news after a cult has been arrested for sacrificing virgins.”
“I’m just tryin’ to help you understand. I know it isn’t easy. It never is, for any of us, but you have to admit you’ve felt it.”
“I understand what you’re trying to do,” Bryce said. “And I appreciate it. But wild stories aren’t going to change the fact that everything I’ve done tonight, everything I’ve ever done in my whole goddamn life has been my choice. Nothing influences it, nothing controls it. It’s just me.”
“Then what about the woman?”
“What about her?”
“You said before that she said somethin’ about takin’ the baby. Sounded like you believed she had said or done somethin’ to hurt your child.”
“I wasn’t thinking straight, that’s all.”
“So you’ve changed your mind?”
In truth, Bryce hadn’t, not at all, but he felt as if admitting it now would blow his argument to hell and he needed to stand his ground, because Sheriff Underwood seemed to be peering into his very soul, picking through the skeletons he found there, and trying desperately to make Bryce see a light his eyes were not capable of registering.
“No. I was half-asleep and still rattled. She was a lunatic, that’s all.”
“Simple as that?”
“Yes. Not a witch. Not Milestone’s puppet. Nothing. Just a crazy bitch who drove here on her way to someplace else. It was just unfortunate that our paths happened to cross tonight or she might still be alive.”
The Sheriff said nothing for a while. When finally he spoke again, Doctor Hendrick’s house stood before them like an oblong of shadow pierced by a solitary slice of yellow light from a rectangular window beside the door. Bryce felt his guts tighten. Dale pulled into the driveway and killed the engine. Then he sat back, looking deflated and very old.
“You can tell her you were with me. Your wife, I mean. When she asks.”
Bryce shook his head. “No. I may be stubborn but if there’s one thing I’ve learned tonight, it’s that I can’t—and never could—outrun my lies.”
“Nobody can,” Dale replied. “Life’s too goddamn cruel to allow it.”
“Thanks anyway though, and thanks for…the talk.” He looked at Dale, but Dale kept looking straight ahead, one elbow crooked on the window, his hand massaging his temple. Bryce started to open the door. The Sheriff’s words stopped him.
“She’ll leave you.”
Bryce looked back over his shoulder. “What?”
“If you tell her the truth about Iris, Sarah will leave you. Assumin’ she doesn’t already know.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“I read a line once. Can’t remember where, but it was this: ‘The worst thing a man can have as a shadow is his wife. Instead, she should be the light that helps cast it behind him.’‘”
“Poetic,” Bryce said. “But she’s never been my shadow.” Even as he said those words, he was not recollecting his relationship with a woman he always told himself he loved. He was remembering the day his father walked out of the bedroom he shared with Bryce’s mother, and what he saw both on the man’s face and on the floor in the room behind him. His father had cast a deep shadow and his mother had drowned in it. In that moment, he could only wonder how long his own shadow had become.
Dale finally looked at him, and the watery sadness in his eyes took Bryce aback. “Maybe not. Maybe you’ve been hers.” Then he started the engine and gave Bryce a half-hearted wave and the message was clear. He had said all he was going to. All he was able to.
#* * *
It was clear from the moment he opened the door that Doctor Hendricks knew everything. And so did his wife. As Bryce entered the hall, he offered the reed-thin but not unattractive Mrs. Hendricks—whose first name he did not know, as he was sure she’d never been mentioned in any of the few conversations he’d had with the doctor over the years—a courteous nod. Standing at the foot of the stairs and dressed in a floral nightgown, she glared back at him, her elbow propped up on the newel post, bony hand clamped around a tumbler of dark liquid he suspected was probably alcohol. Face warming under the intensity of that look, he turned instead to the Doctor, whose demeanor was only moderately less hostile, perhaps because professionalism dictated he retain his bedside manner, even when dealing with people who tempted him to abandon it.
“How is she? Can I see her?” Bryce blurted.
The Doctor glanced wearily at his wife. “Brew us some coffee, will you?”
For a moment it looked as though she were about to object, but then she sighed dramatically, and like an ageing Hollywood siren, swished away into the kitchen, the ice in her glass clinking. The Doctor stared impassively after her for a moment, then his bespectacled eyes found Bryce. In those eyes, he saw reproach, perhaps the lecture expected but not received from Sheriff Underwood, but like his boss, the Doctor did not mention all that was wrong with this night and the players involved. Instead, he stuck to the matter at hand.
“Do you know what Paroxetine is?” he asked, taking Bryce’s elbow and leading him down a long ill-lighted hallway with a maroon carpet that reminded Bryce of coagulated blood.
“No. I’ve never heard of it. Why?”
“How about Paxil?”
Exasperated, Bryce shrugged free of the Doctor’s grip and stopped walking. “Look, Doc, no offense, but I’m not a fucking pharmacist, so why should these names mean anything to me?”
Calmly, the Doctor folded his arms and stared up at one of the lights affixed to the wall. Bryce followed his gaze and noticed a cobweb stretching from the shade up to the ceiling like an artist’s sketch of illumination. “They should mean something to you because it’s what your wife has been taking for the past three months.”
“What is it?”
“An anti-depressant, Deputy. One I would never in a million years prescribe for a pregnant patient.”
“Because it causes high blood pressure, which in turn puts the baby at risk.”
Bryce swallowed. “And did it? Harm the baby, I mean? Was that why she was bleeding?” He felt his body tense as if awaiting the impact of something enormous and cold that was barreling toward him. And still, when the answer came, he realized there was no way to ever prepare for such things. Not when their whole reason for being was to obliterate you where you stood.
“Yes, it was. And yes, it did. She miscarried, Deputy. I’m sorry.”
Bryce heard the requisite sympathy in the man’s voice, but knew it was not for him. The Doctor might as well have said: I’m sorry your wife lost her baby, and all because she needed drugs to forget how miserable you made her. Well, no drug is going to make her forget where you were when your baby died, hombre, and you can take that to the bank.
The self-flagellation and chastisement that had been lingering on the threshold for almost three hours inched further into Bryce’s consciousness, but he held it at bay. There would be ample time for that later. Numb, he asked to see his wife.
The Doctor moved only slightly to block access to the door at the end of the hall. “It’s not a good idea. Not for the moment at least.”
“I need to see her,” Bryce said, his voice fragile with tears. “Just for a minute.”
“For fuck sake, Doc, why the hell did you send for me if you won’t let me see her?”
With infuriating calm, his voice low and patient, the Doctor told him, “You’re her husband. She needed you here and nobody could tell her where to find you. The panic was not helping, so I called Sheriff Underwood. Perhaps I should have given him more time to compose a good lie, but time was a luxury we were not afforded. So I told him to fetch you and bring you here. You may see her for as long as you like, but not until she’s had some rest. She lost a lot of blood. Aggravation, which your presence would certainly cause her, would only exacerbate her condition. So I suggest waiting, which you can feel free to do in the spare bedroom, or the hall, whichever you wish. Or you can join my wife and me in the kitchen, though it may be a little cold for you in there.”
Bryce knew Hendricks was not referring to the temperature, but resisted the urge to tell the man to mind his own fucking business and direct his pious judgment elsewhere, but he had reached a level of anguish that was almost incomprehensible to him. It stole the words from his tongue and spun his mind in ragged circles. Throat dry, heart trip-hammering against his chest, he feared he might throw up again and put a hand against the nearest wall to steady himself. The wallpaper, a headache-inducing pattern of pink and blue roses, reminded him of Mrs. Hendricks’ dress.
“You need to sit down. I understand how hard this must be for you,” the doctor told him, sounding only slightly more sincere than before.
But Bryce didn’t want to sit down. What he wanted, more than he’d ever wanted anything else in his life, was to be dead and free from a nightmare that had begun with a mad woman in the road and ended with the death of his child.
“I want to see her,” he repeated, using the fingers of his free hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I won’t wake her, I promise. I just want to see her. That’s all. I have a right to see my goddamn wife.”
Hendricks studied him for a moment, looked about to argue, when his eyes drifted away from Bryce’s face to someone standing behind him. Bryce didn’t turn, but he heard the voice.
“Let him see her,” Mrs. Hendricks said. “It’s the least he can do. Now that he’s here.”
#* * *
She was awake, and only when he saw her puffy eyes open and staring up at the cracks in the ceiling of the small narrow room, did he realize he hadn’t wanted her to be. Though the bed was small, she looked lost within its folds, her face gray and emaciated, her arms like denuded branches upon the navy-colored sheets. Her hands were bunched into fists.
“Hi honey,” Bryce said, his voice a fractured whisper as he tried to compose a smile even as he avoided looking at her. Instead he took in the two waist-high plastic tubs that had been shoved against the wall. One of them contained white sheets spattered with blood; the other, towels equally stained. Between the tubs and the bed was a metal tray on wheels that held an array of surgical instruments, each gleamingly morbidly in the fluorescent light. He quickly looked away and approached the bed, lowered himself down to sit beside her. Took her hand—so cold—and began to stroke her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
He hadn’t expected a response, but when he heard her hair whisper against the pillow, he turned and saw that she was looking at him, her blue eyes diluted by tears. Her lower lip was trembling. She was ruined beauty incarnate. “When did you stop loving me?” she asked.
The question hit him like a bullet between the eyes, and he shook his head in protest, both at the fact that she felt he didn’t love her and at the dismal realization that she was right.
“Don’t say that,” he replied. “Don’t ever say that. I never stopped loving you. I still love you.”
She continued to stare at him. “Can I tell you when I stopped loving you, then?”
“Honey, I…” Words failed him. There simply was nothing to say in response to such a condemning question. All he could do was wait.
“A year ago,” she continued. “You were late home by an hour. I was raised to trust men who claimed to love me, and God knows I loved you. So I wasn’t suspicious. Didn’t even think of Iris Gale. Instead I worried that something might have happened to you. The same worry that goes through the mind of every cop’s wife, I suppose. Will tonight be the night he doesn’t come home? So I made up some turkey sandwiches—just so I could say I wanted to bring you something to eat in case you were doing overtime and got hungry instead of having you think I was overreacting—and I drove to the station. You weren’t there, of course. Dale wasn’t there either. Only Sheila.”
A thread of anger veined the cold hard slab of hurt and panic in Bryce’s chest at the thought of what that fucking bitch might have told his wife, but he stayed quiet. Venting his hatred of the woman now would only cause further damage. But later, no matter how this all turned out, he was going to have a few choice words for that fat she-man. Oh, yes.
“She told me you were on patrol,” Sarah told him. “And I believed her.”
Bryce found this hard to believe, but again held his tongue. Sheila had never mentioned this incident to him in the year since it had happened. And given the enmity between them, surely she would have used it as leverage to gain some kind of perverse control over him. It didn’t make sense.
“She said she’d heard from you not ten minutes before I arrived. Said you were dealing with a wreck on the north edge of town. Someone hit a deer, or something. I thanked her, left the sandwiches and told her to give them to you when and if you checked in. Of course I found out later that there had been a wreck all right, but you and Dale had cleared the scene hours before.
“A few weeks later, I ran into Sheila at the store, and I brought it up. Again, she lied, but this time I could see it in her face, in the way she avoided looking at me. So I asked her one final question. I asked her who it was, because by then your occasional late nights had become regular ones. And she offered me this rotten look of sympathy that made me feel an inch tall, and said, ‘Who it always is.’”
She said nothing more for a while, and though Bryce continued to stroke her hand, he didn’t think he had ever felt less connected to the woman lying beside him as he did now. In pulling up the files of his life with her—marked FIRST MEETING, FIRST DATE, FIRST SEX, MARRIAGE, FIRST MISCARRIAGE, SECOND MISCARRIAGE, DEATH OF HER MOTHER, FIRST AFFAIR—he found that although the history was clear, he couldn’t recall one instance in which he had ever truly loved her. Sure, he had said it numerous times and had tried to show he cared, but now, during perhaps the only time he had ever been completely honest with himself, he realized his feelings for his wife existed solely on the surface. She, like everyone else he’d ever met since the day his father almost beat his mother to death in their bedroom, had never managed to penetrate his shell to the true inner core of him. Worse, he wasn’t sure he had that capability himself. It simply spun lazily within him, a black hole that consumed all emotion, but gave nothing back.
But it remained, as always, easier to lie. He wasn’t completely heartless, after all, and he could think of fewer cruelties than adding the loss of love to the loss of a child.
“It doesn’t mean I didn’t love you,” he said, focusing on her hand, on the lines on her fingers that made them seem better suited to a woman twice her age. “Doesn’t mean I don’t still love you. I was being adventurous, looking for something different. It was about sex, that’s all. And I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
When he looked at her, he was surprised to see her smiling at him. It instilled in him the hope, no matter how contradictory or ironic, that she might not leave him. Because despite the reality of their situation, he couldn’t imagine a life without her. Not in this town, not anywhere. And with the door to Iris—a woman he believed he might have been able to learn to love, given the chance—firmly shut in his face, he had nobody else. And being alone was the most terrifying thing he could think of. Alone, the shadows could get you.
“You’re still fooling yourself,” she said, and that hope began to crumble. “And that’s what’s going to kill you in the end. The refusal to see the world as it really is, to see people for what they really are. To know your place in it and the consequences of the choices you make. All these years I loved you, believed I’d die with you, that nothing would ever come between us. But I was wrong.”
He shook his head. “Baby, Iris isn’t—”
“It’s not Iris,” she said. “It’s you.”
He could think of no lie with which to counter her words. She was right, and clearly knew him better than he had, or might ever, know himself.
Helpless, he let the tears come, and when she removed her hand from his and used it to gently stroke the side of his face, the sorrow overcame him.
“I’m leaving you,” she said, her own voice broken. “Because that’s what you want.”
“No, it…it isn’t.”
“And it’s what I want.”
“Now I want you to leave. If I’m able, I’ll be home in the morning to get my things, and I’m going to go stay with my aunt in Carson City for a while.”
“Sarah, don’t. Don’t do this. We can get help.”
“No,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “We can’t. But maybe you can.”
Abruptly he felt a familiar flare of anger and stood, surprising her. “Fine.”
He expected her, wanted her to protest, but she didn’t. Instead she watched him, and in that moment he knew she had lied to him too. Because in her eyes he saw the grief he had bypassed in order to plead his own case; he saw the sorrow, and he saw the love. But it was love she would learn to let go, and the reality of that wasould the last his mind was able to take.
“I’ll be at home,” he said, and turned to leave.
Her words stopped him, sucked the air from his lungs and the burgeoning anger from his chest.
“We lost our son tonight,” she said. “I was going to name him Edward, after your father.”
Quietly, without looking back, and feeling as if his bones had been replaced by frozen glass, he exited the room.
#* * *
Ignoring Doctor Hendricks’ concerned inquisition and the smug iciness of his bitch of a wife, Bryce stormed out of the house, only to find Sheriff Underwood parked outside the gate waiting for him in the patrol car.
“Figured you’d need a ride,” he said, when Bryce opened the door.
“How long have you been here?”
“Drove your car back to your place. Got Haldeman to follow in mine. Figured I’d check in on you before I went home just in case things went the way I expected them to.”
Bryce nodded his thanks and sat into the car.
“Picked up more whiskey too,” Dale said, once again indicating the glove box, and when Bryce opened it, perhaps a little too eagerly, he saw that this time it was not a flask, but a bottle.
#* * *
Sarah didn’t return home the next day, or the day after that, and after interminable hours spent rushing to the window at the sound of every car that passed close to the house, Bryce called Dale.
That night, sitting on the porch of the Sheriff’s two-story farmhouse—a farmhouse that had not seen a farmer in over thirty years—and watching the lights in the town below winking out one by one as night eased into early morning, Bryce felt more relaxed than he had in days, but knew it was not only temporary, but fake, courtesy of the quart of whiskey he had already consumed. Beside him, Dale was smoking his cigar, something Bryce had never seen.
“Figured if there was a time to stop giving a shit about what doctors have to say, it’s now,” he explained and grinned. He puffed on the cigar as if it were the most beautiful thing he had ever touched to his lips.
For almost an hour, they sat in silence made companionable by the distance between what each man had experienced over the past few days. Neither pretended to understand what had happened. Dale did not offer any more stories about a town with a mind of its own, nor did he try to connect the myriad tragedies to the will of anything but the great unknown.
Then, with the moon like a blind eye trying to stare them down from the black velvet cape of the sky, Bryce posed one of the many questions that refused to leave him alone.
“Do you think it was her?”
“The woman. The suicide. Do you think she had anything to do with this?”
Dale shook his head. “No.”
“You don’t think it’s strange what she said about the child and what happened to Sarah right afterward?”
“How can you say that?”
“She was just a woman, Bryce. If we wanted to, we could make connections between anythin’ to explain them. She was just a crazy woman, that’s all. Just like you said yourself.”
“I know, but—”
“Her name was Karen Thompson.”
Bryce gaped at the Sheriff, whose craggy face was limned with moonlight as breath plumed from his mouth.
“You found out who she was?”
“Yep. Sheila made some calls. The car registered to an orderly named Pete Clovis at St. Christian’s Mental Home in Saddleback. Turns out Ms. Thompson was a patient there. Admitted sixteen months ago after multiple suicide attempts and numerous reports of her walkin’ bare-ass naked around her neighborhood screamin’ about an invasion. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Considered a danger to herself and others. Apparently our Mr. Clovis was havin’ his way with her after hours. She usually just let him at it. That night, she didn’t. Bashed his head in with a chair, took his keys and let herself out. Stole his car and…well, you know the rest. Took them two and a half hours before they even realized she was gone. So…that’s your witch for ya.”
“Yeah. Hell of a facility they have up there.”
Bryce mulled over what he’d heard. The alcohol-induced humming in his brain made connecting Dale’s words to anything that might have happened in real life difficult. Rather it felt as though he were thinking someone else’s thoughts on their behalf.
“Still strange that she would say—”
“Let it go,” Dale told him, and the old authority was back in his voice. “It’s done. Case closed. Funny coincidence, is all. And if she’d stuck around a bit longer, maybe she’d have given you tomorrow’s sports results too, or maybe started recitin’ the pledge of allegiance backwards. She was nuts, she’s dead, and she’ll get buried. Now you need to get busy forgettin’ her or you’ll end up in the same place she was. Move on. Start rebuildin’.”
Bryce chuckled. “Rebuilding what? There’s nothing left.”
“There’s always somethin’ left,” Dale said. “The trick is havin’ the heart to find it.”
Bryce looked at Dale for a long time, and the oddest thought occurred to him. It made little sense, but it was there and somehow seemed significant.
You cast the same shadow as my father did. Only nobody drowns in yours.
#* * *
By the time he got home he was so drunk he couldn’t walk unassisted and Dale had to take the keys from him and let him into the house. Once alone, he had only the impression of dark shapes huddled around him like a quiet jury before he collapsed facedown on the floor and into oblivion, which, despite its promises, was not merciful.
#* * *
His father stands before him. Eleven-year-old Bryce keeps his eyes on the man’s belt, as that is what’s right in front of his face and he is afraid to look up.
Bryce lets his eyes dart to the left—sees an enormous clenched fist (working man’s hands, boy) and right—a baseball bat covered in blood. His innards turn to sludge; his knees begin to quiver.
“What are you doing inside?” Pa asks, breathing harshly. “On a day like today?”
Bryce opens his mouth to respond, and only air comes out. His mouth feels filled with the same dirt that coats his skin and clothes.
“Do you hear me?”
His father drops to his haunches and sets the baseball bat down. A drop of blood beads on the floor. Over his shoulder, Bryce can see into the bedroom. It looks as it always does and always will in his memory henceforth: an oak bureau, scratched and chipped on one side after Uncle Grant lost his grip on it when he and Pa were heaving it up the stairs and slammed it into the bannister. Atop the bureau, pictures of the family, captured in better times, Ma, Pa, and Bryce squinting into the sun at Virginia Beach, Bryce in Little League gear swinging for all his worth at a ball he would ultimately miss, Bryce at age three looking with amused wonder at the enormous hound who would go on to become his best friend. The window, lace curtain gently moving in the warm breeze. The bed, still made, cream and brown coverlet unmarred, unruffled. Beside the bed lies his mother, but he can only see her bare legs from the knees down. One of them has an ugly purple-black bruise. He is relieved to hear that she is crying. It’s barely audible, but even as a child he knows that any sound from her is better than none. He also knows that his mother must have said something terrible to make his Pa hurt her. What that might have been he doesn’t know, doesn’t care to know. All that matters is that he answer his father before a similar fate befalls him.
“I…I came in to get some water.”
His father’s face is inches from his, a tanned canvas upon which networks of fissures and grooves radiate outward from the corner of his eyes, nose and mouth. His lips are thin and taut, spread like a wound around a mouthful of large yellow teeth. His breath smells sour, like old beer and cigarettes.
“Some water,” he says.
“And maybe a sandwich,” Bryce adds, because he feels as if it’s expected of him.
“And did you get them?”
“Do you still want water and a sandwich?”
“Why not?” His father’s eyes bore into his, searching.
“I got scared.”
“And what scared you?”
“You shouting at Ma.”
“Are you still scared?”
“You’re a good boy, Bryce. Do you know that?”
“Do you love your Daddy?”
“Do you know Daddy loves you?”
“Good. Then let’s go for a little walk.”
He rises on a wave of sweat and old smoke and takes Bryce’s hand, and slowly leads him down the steps. To the boy, each one of those steps seems like a razorblade upon which his innocence could be shorn in two. There is too much to process. What did Ma do? Will she be okay? Have I done something? What will he do to me?
And then the screen door is shrieking wide and the sun is blazing, forcing him to shade his eyes. His father, a giant in a red and white check shirt and jeans with threadbare knees, surveys the rows of corn and turns back to face his son.
“You like being out here, don’t you, Bryce?”
“Yes sir. Very much.”
“On days like today, it’s a much better place for you to be.”
“Do you know why?”
Because he doesn’t, Bryce shakes his head.
“Because sometimes a boy needs to be out in the world getting warmed by the sun instead of being shut up inside when the shadows are hungry and cold. Now I want you to run and play.”
His father smiles. It’s an odd smile, and one Bryce will never forget. “I love you son. Off you go now, and don’t you come back. Not for a while.”
“No matter what you hear.”
#* * *
Bryce awoke to a skull-shattering pain and groaned, a thunderous roar echoing through his head like the memory of a gunshot. Wincing, he kept his eyes clamped shut and saw ghosts and headlights.
They found him in the barn. Heard the Deputy say most of his head was missing. Everyone seemed to forget I was there. Saw them carry him out.
Raising his head off the floor felt like trying to yank a ship’s anchor up by his teeth and he grimaced. He had drooled in his sleep and his cheek and chin were wet. With enormous effort, he managed to roll himself over on his back. The muscles in his neck were like live wires, sparking and shocking him whenever he tried to turn it. He gave up and lay flat on his back, arms akimbo.
The white noise hiss of the rain began to register through the cotton in his buzzing ears.
Then he heard a car door close, followed by the growl of a familiar engine, and his eyes flew open.
He struggled to rise, but if it was as if the lower part of his body had been weighted down. “Sarah!” he roared, realizing now that the sound he’d heard had been the front door slamming shut. She had come home as promised, packed her things and was leaving him. And all without waking him to say goodbye.
>i>While you lay passed out on the floor in a puddle of your own drool. Do you think that’s what you’re owed?
“Fuck,” he grumbled and struggled to his feet. He all but fell toward the door in his haste. Yanked it open, and saw Sarah’s yellow Volkswagen beetle racing up the drive toward the road. Panicked, head pounding, he lurched back inside and grabbed for his keys on the table by the door. They weren’t there. Frowning, pulse in his throat, he checked his pockets. Nothing. Had Sarah hidden them so he couldn’t try to follow her? No, she’d never—
He grabbed the handle of the front door, pulled it wide. The keys were still in the lock where Dale had left them.
He pulled the keys free and ran full pelt out of the house, not bothering to shut the door behind him, and almost lost his footing on the rain-slicked mud.
His wife’s car was nowhere in sight.
#* * *
In the tavern upon the hill, an old man who looked like death sat counting his pennies at a table by the window. Though it made his joints hurt sometimes, he enjoyed the rain.
“Another whiskey, Cadaver?” the tavern’s owner Eddie called from the bar. The long, narrow room was empty but for the two men, though it wouldn’t stay that way for long. It was Saturday night and Saturdays were always a popular night for the desperate and lost to come seek out the company of fellow sufferers.
Cadaver nodded and a moment later Eddie, always too boisterous and loud for Cadaver’s taste, slammed the drink down on the table before him, much harder than was necessary.
“There you go, my good man!” he enthused.
Cadaver watched one of the pennies fall from its copper tower. It hit the table and rattled for a long time before finally coming to rest.
“Whoops,” Eddie said with faux sincerity. “Hope I didn’t make you lose your count.”
Troubled, Cadaver continued to stare at the coin as he raised the wand to the voice box in his throat. “No,” he replied. “You could never do that.” Then he slowly lowered the wand and turned his head toward the window. The glass was smoked, but still he could see in his mind what was out there to be seen. What he existed to see.
Milestone was awake.
#* * *
The rain grew heavier the further he went, making Sarah’s car at times appear invisible and little more than a yellow smudge at others. Hunched over the steering wheel, Bryce willed the windshield wipers to do their goddamn job as he peered nearsightedly out at the road. He was driving as fast as he dared, but not as fast as the car would go. In conditions like these, he worried that he would lose sight of Sarah, only for her car to magically reappear right in front of him with no time for him to slow down. So for now, it would do to keep pace with her. If he was lucky—though the past twelve hours suggested he would be a fool to bank on that—she would realize his pursuit of her would not wane until she conceded to pull over and talk to him. If he wasn’t, well then he would drive all the goddamn way to Carson City until she had no choice but to realize he was not going to let her just up and leave after a decade of marriage.
But why? a voice inside him asked. You don’t love her.
It didn’t matter why. That she was determined to be gone, not just from him, but from Milestone, was clear. It was how she was doing it that stuck in his craw and tore at his heart. Yes, he had cheated on her, multiple times, and yes it had meant he wasn’t there for her when she needed him most. But other than last night when emotions were running high, they had never once discussed it. She had known about his indiscretions for a year, a whole fucking year for Christ’s sake, and rather than confront him, she had kept it inside, allowing it to rot her insides and the baby he had ultimately given her.
So yes, fine: He was an asshole. But she was not entirely blameless either. And there were choices. Always choices. There’s always something left, Dale had said. The trick is having the heart to find it. Well, he had the goddamn heart. Did she? Is that why she was running? Because she was weak? He needed to talk to her. Just one more time. If not to convince her to stay, to work things out, then to let her know he wasn’t a fool, and she was the one quitting what they had spent ten years building. Once he had said his piece, then to hell with her, he would take Dale’s advice and go back home and start repairing his life. There was always Iris.
Up ahead, he saw her Volkswagen speed past the sign which read: YOU ARE LEAVING MILESTONE! HOPE YOU ENJOYED YOUR STAY. And though he couldn’t make it out in the rain, he knew that beneath those words someone had added IN HELL in childish lettering. At the sight of her car clearing the border, something within him twisted, and he realized he was losing her, that he might never see her again, and for just a moment, he was that frightened child again, standing on an adult border, beyond which lay fear, and hate, and hurt, and all manner of dark, ugly things that could come get you whenever they got hungry, or cold.
He realized he wanted to be loved without ever having to love back because he wasn’t able.
Love killed unborn babies.
Love put guns in father’s mouths and painted barn lofts with their brains.
Love was a life of light when it worked, and a hell of shadows when it didn’t.
Love was watching your wife trying to escape you when you had never learned how to escape yourself.
Bryce hit the gas as he reached the border, not knowing it had closed.
Just for him.
The car stopped dead as if it had hit a brick wall, the front and back ends caving in and crushing Bryce in the middle, the glass from the windows shattering instantaneously and showering down to hit the road where it tinkered and mingled with glass from the stolen car Karen Thompson had been driving when her own border had slammed closed.
The last two things Bryce saw before the darkness swallowed him were his wife’s car rounding a bend and on to her future, and a deer standing in the middle of the road, regarding him with dumb animal curiosity. Remembering Dale’s explanations for the car wrecks over the years, Bryce almost smiled at the irony, but realized as the lights flickered and died, that, like so many things, he had forgotten how.
#* * *
In the months after Deputy Bryce Carrigan’s death, there were no more inexplicable wrecks, and Dan Haldeman’s towtruck got a well-earned rest. Dan himself went back to his first love, which was fishing, and when he died one fine summer day of a stroke, he was found lying in his boat, face turned to the sky, and smiling slightly. The reel of his fishing pole had snagged in one of the gunwales when he’d fallen, and at the end of his line was one of the biggest catfish anyone had seen in quite some time. Arguments about who could claim rights to the catch were settled by Sheriff Underwood, who took it home and cooked it up for breakfast, claiming that as it was most likely the struggle with the fish that had caused Dan’s stroke, he was taking it in for questioning. In a show of good sportsmanship, he invited the men over to share it with him.
Iris closed her boutique and other than a visit to Sheriff Underwood to hear the truth about what had happened to Deputy Carrigan, she was scarcely seen outside her apartment. The only sign that she was still there was the glow of candlelight visible between her curtains and the ebullient testimonies of the few locals who still sought out her company.
Strangers came to town, some of them friendly, some of them not. After his attempts to sell them the word of God proved fruitless, the venerable Reverend Lewis stopped trying. He grew tired, dispirited, and in the spring of that year, he was found hanging by his neck in his living room. It would be three years before he was replaced.
Eddie of Eddie’s Tavern talked so incessantly about what he planned to accomplish on his imminent trip to the Orient that, despite it being the only watering hole in town, some customers began to drink at home.
Sheriff Underwood began to consider retirement. Losing Deputy Carrigan had soured him on whatever it was Milestone thought his role in the town was supposed to be, and he was ready to be done. But not without some closure. Thus, on a fine August day, he asked Sheila if she’d be interested in taking a drive with him to Saddleback. He purposefully made it sound like a romantic proposition because it was about the only way he knew to guarantee her acquiescence, and though he was frequently haunted by loneliness, he had no plans to ever court a woman again. If he did, he figured he could do a little better than Sheila, whose physical appearance and habitual abrasiveness had never appealed to him. That was, if Milestone didn’t decide it was time to punch his ticket in the meantime.
As he’d hoped, she agreed, even going so far as to suggest they pack a lunch for a kind of picnic at Yarmouth Lake. He told her to go ahead, but that he had somewhere he needed to go first.
That somewhere was St. Christian’s Mental Home, a long, four-story brick building surrounded by elm trees and capped on each gable by gothic turrets. It looked suitably forbidding. Inside, Dale met with Doctor Eric Steenburgen—the same doctor Sheila had spoken to on the phone the night Karen Thompson died. Eric was a congenial man, and gave the Sheriff a brief tour of the facility, a tour which ended at the room from which Karen had escaped on that fateful night.
Inside, Dale found the room typical, and just as he’d imagined it. Four walls, the paint chipped and pockmarked. A toilet bolted to the floor, a chair and a bed, also bolted to the floor.
“She worked it free,” Steenburgen told the Sheriff, nodding toward the chair. “Probably took her a while, but she certainly had that. And God knows we can’t blame her for what she did. It was an embarrassment for us all to hear what she was enduring while under our care.”
Dale walked to the window. “I’m sure.”
“As far as patients go, she wasn’t our worst,” Steenburgen went on. “So very sad.”
The Sheriff started to turn away from the window to face the doctor, but something demanded he look again. Look closer. He did, and when the significance of what he was seeing outside fully dawned on him, he smiled slightly, even as an ache of sadness squeezed his heart, a heart that would keep on beating for another eleven years before finally giving up the ghost. The cancer would, as the doctors had warned, end his life, but he would say when that day came that he didn’t regret taking up cigars again, that it made his final days a little more pleasurable. And it would be the cigars, he’d say, and not Milestone, that ushered him out. And that was just fine.
Outside were more elm trees and a high brick wall. Just visible over that wall, towering over the opposite side of the highway, was a large billboard depicting a growling tiger with cartoon eyes. Above it, in blocky blue letters, were the words: TAKE YOUR CHILD TO SADDLEBACK ZOO. And at the bottom: FOLLOW THE SIGNS TO EXIT 33.
Take your child. Follow the signs.
“Everything okay, Sheriff?” Steenburgen asked at the sight of Dale’s shoulders shaking.
Dale nodded. “As okay as we have any right to expect, I guess.”
Afterward, although he had intended on conjuring up an ailment that would make bypassing the picnic a necessity, he took Sheila to Yarmouth Lake, where they sat in cordial silence and watched the children feeding the birds and squealing in delight as the sun dappled the water.
Later that night, as he lay in bed, he would think it would have made a good day to die.
By the time a sleep free of shadows came to claim him, he would conclude that it had been a better one to live.