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

TH 6 v2

 

CHAPTER SIX:  FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

***

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was…. a MONSTER.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank God, I didn’t bring the shotgun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

TH CH 5

CHAPTER FIVE — THE CLEARING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stood laughing as he gave her an angry look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed and hugged him tightly.

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

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

***

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

“Uh-huh.” She replied cautiously.

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong? Nate, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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