The Hidden — Chapter 10 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH 10

CHAPTER TEN:  THE LAIR

 

Zelda remembered the name she’d seen on the poster in the grocery store the day before. She pictured the darling little girl’s face in her mind, her sweet smile beaming like polished silver, and it made her want to cry to think all she must’ve gone through.

“How did you get here?”

Susie reached up and touched Zelda’s cheek, hardly daring to believe she was real. She had effectively given up hope of ever being rescued. Now, although cloaked in darkness, her face filled with wonder. If Zelda could have seen, she would have thought she looked like a child taking in the sight of all those enticing packages piled beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

“One of the females brought me,” she said evenly.  Her voice was detached and remote, drifting in the dark like a single, tiny star in the middle of a black, black night. “They need slaves to help them. I’m supposed to be for Dzhankah when I get old enough.”

The child was speaking nonsense. Zelda decided she was probably in shock and had lost all touch with reality. “Honey, what do you mean ‘they’? Are you saying there are two of these creatures?” She shuddered at the very idea.

“More than that,” Susie answered. Then her voice became very sad as the star winked out, smothered by the thick black blanket of despair. “You’ll see.”

The sound of soft, stealthy movement came from the big chamber, and both of them stopped talking and strained their ears to hear. Something large was approaching them in the dark, its feet scuffling along the floor like burlap bags full of cement. The two captives clung to each other tightly, and Zelda held her breath, afraid to make any noise.

Whatever it was stopped in the doorway. Zelda could hear it making sniffing sounds, and she could smell its animal odor in the stygian darkness just inches from her.  Her skin crawled in anticipation of a heavy, wet muzzle being placed against her skin. But the creature didn’t touch her. Instead, just when Zelda felt she was about to burst, it moved on.  Its footfalls faded off into the distant, echoing depths of the cavern.

After a time, Susie whispered, “Did he… hurt you?”

“No. It went away.”

“Not that one. I mean the one who brought you in. Did it — you know — have sex with you?”

There was a pause in the darkness. “No.”

“It will,” Susie warned her. “You won’t be able to stop it.”

Zelda contemplated this. After a time, she asked: “Is there a way out of here?”

Susie shook her head, and Zelda felt the movement in the dark. “If you try to get away, they just grab you and drag you back. They can see real good down here. And there’s lots of ’em.”

“What ARE they? Where do they come from?”

“They’re the monsters under the bridge. My brother told me about them, only he just said there was one. They live down here in these caves, and the caves go on and on. They hide in the woods and the corn fields during the day. Then at night, they come back down here.” Susie scratched her nose. She was beginning to relax, a little bit, but she still held on to Zelda’s hand.

“My brother says their favorite food is little girls, but they haven’t eaten me yet, just slapped me around some.”

Zelda sat in the dark, thinking. “Where do they go when the corn’s been picked?” she asked. “And how come nobody ever sees them?”

“I think they hibernate in the winter. You know — like bears? They don’t eat people too much. At least, they don’t bring ’em back down here to eat. They live mostly off of deer and squirrels and rabbits and stuff.”

“How long have you been with them? Since you disappeared? What do YOU eat?”

“I eat what they bring me — raw meat. I got sick a lot at first, but I had to eat something. You’ll get used to it. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it seems like a long time.”

Zelda had never heard such fatalistic despair in a child’s voice. She reached out and cradled the poor child’s head in her arms. “Well don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m going to get us out of here somehow, just you wait and see. We’ll get you home safe to your family, I promise.” She took Susie’s fingers and crossed her own heart with them, feeling like Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.

A flicker of a smile crossed Susie’s lips, but the darkness of the cave was as deep as the darkness of her spirit and the smile was wasted. She squeezed Zelda’s hand and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here, anyway. How did YOU get here?”

“My husband and I —” Zelda stopped short at the thought of Nate. She could not reconcile herself to the fact that he was dead. What was it Susie had said? They didn’t bring the humans back down here to eat? Oh, God! Is that what happened to my husband? Did those beasts devour him?

It was one thing to be widowed, but this was ghastly. She bit down hard on her lower lip. This was not the time for grief; she would not allow the tears to come until later after they were safe. She cleared her throat.

“We were having a picnic,” she finally continued, her voice thick with emotion. “They jumped us, and they dragged me down here.”

“Will your husband come save us?” Susie asked without much hope in her voice.

“No, honey, he’s dead. I’m afraid we’re on our own, you and me.”

They huddled together in the pitch black, each lost in their own thoughts for a time. Susie thought of her brother, Doug, and how he’d probably got in real trouble for losing his little sister. It was the one comforting thought she’d had to cherish during this hellish nightmare. It wasn’t much, but she liked to return to it whenever she was alone. Suddenly Zelda interrupted her thoughts with a question.

“Susie, you say they need slaves. What for?”

“Oh, things like bringing ’em water and cleaning up the bones, things like that. Mostly, I think they’re just saving me for when I grow up. You know — to breed.”

“You don’t know that, Honey. Not for sure you don’t.”

Zelda thought for a moment.

“You DO seem to know an awful lot about these creatures, though. How did you learn so much about them?”

“They told me,” was her simple reply.

 

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The Hidden — Chapter 9 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH chap 9

CHAPTER NINE:   SUSIE

The abuse began when she was seven. Doug called it playing “Something”. That way he could ask her in front of their parents: “What d’ya want to do this afternoon, Suze?… Wanna play Something?”

Only she and her older brother knew what he meant by this. She didn’t really like it but she accepted it. Doug was six years her senior, and she was used to doing pretty much whatever he wanted. It wasn’t like he beat her or anything. He never forced her to do it — not physically, at any rate — but Doug had a way of playing on her emotions. If she refused, he would actually cry. It so amazed and frightened her to see her big brother crying that she would eventually give in. She felt sorry for him. After all, she loved Doug, as only an admiring little sister can. She wanted him to be happy, and playing “Something” always seemed to make Doug happy.

The first time they did it was in the big barn. It was a hot summer day and Doug said he had a new game to play, up in the loft. Being farm children, with the nearest neighbors two miles down the road, it wasn’t unusual for thirteen-year-old Doug to be playing with seven-year-old Susie all afternoon. In fact, their parents encouraged it and were pleased with Doug for “watching out” for his little sister the way he did. The way they saw it, most boys his age wouldn’t want anything to do with a younger child, but Doug seemed to dote on little Susie, spending hours a day with her. And she obviously loved and admired her older brother, catering happily to his every whim. Yes, her parents agreed that they were closer than any two children they ever saw.

In the beginning, it was just touching and feeling. They took turns — first he would be the patient and she would be the nurse. Then she would be the patient and Doctor Doug would have a look. It was fun! But it did make her feel funny inside. However, she didn’t like the way Doug made such a big deal about not telling their parents. Why would their parents care about some dumb game they’d play? But Doug insisted, and after she thought about it, she was impressed by the idea that he trusted her with a secret that only the two of them shared.

So she kept quiet…

And as time went on and they grew older, Doug kept asking to do more and more. And Susie grew to dislike his little games. They made her feel… dirty, like something that washed up on the beach. By now, though, she knew she was a co-conspirator in their little secret. If their parents found out, surely she would be punished as much as Doug for what they were doing.

Susie began to despise her brother.  He no longer made her feel “special” and loved when he touched her.  She had made up her mind this was going to have to stop.  Some way, some how, she was going to escape this situation.

And that’s how her life transitioned from a nightmare to a horror story.

About a month ago, she and Doug were down at “The Fort”. That’s what Doug called the new playhouse shack he’d built out of scrap lumber down by the river. Susie had been excited when he had started building it, envisioning a place where she could take her dolls and have tea parties and other such little-girl fascinations.  It was to be their special clubhouse.

But that wasn’t what big brother had in mind. He had been growing more and more worried that they would be discovered in the loft or in his bedroom late at night where they sometimes played “Something”. And their parents couldn’t always be counted on to be away from home when he was in the mood for games. What they needed was yet another secret… a secret place where they could go and their parents wouldn’t know.

There was a clearing on the bank of the river, just below the bridge, and Doug could hide the building amid the poison sumac and small scrub trees which grew there. He made a path which ran a circuitous route through the woods and down along the river, bending back at an angle, to come in from behind the shack so nobody would be likely to see it from the road and discover their little hideout.

They would ride their bikes down to the bridge, hiding them in the Queen Anne’s Lace growing thickly by the roadside. Then they followed the path from the west side of the bridge, out through the woods until they wound around and came out on the east side, just twenty or thirty yards from where they’d started. The idea was to throw off anybody that might be following them. Doug wanted to be completely and safely alone with his secrets.

They’d followed this trail dozens of times during the construction of “The Fort”.  One of Doug’s favorite things to talk about while they hiked through the murky wood was the Monster that lived beneath the bridge. It lurked there in the deepest shadows, drawn back against the wall so nobody could see it. But if you got up real close and peered way back in the darkest corner, you might just see two eyes, glowing pallidly from its grotesque face. The Monster’s favorite food was, of course, little girls.  And he was always hungry.

Susie didn’t like Doug anymore, but she did believe him. It never occurred to her this might be just another of his little mind games — that he might be playing on her childish naivete to get his jollies. She had no way of knowing that Doug, like most pedophiles, received his pleasure not only by physically abusing his victim but by emotionally dominating her as well.

There was a monster, all right, but it didn’t hide in the shadows beneath the bridge. It walked the path with her and forced her to do terrible things — things that would haunt her subconscious for the rest of her life.

On this particular day, August third, the story of the Monster had really gotten to her. She listened with rapt attention as Doug masterfully described the creature’s glowing red eyes and shaggy, blood-stained coat. He lowered his voice and growled in a chilling voice that verbally painted vivid pictures of the horror that lurked there in the shadows. He carried a stick with him, and his hands would wrap tightly around the shaft as, occasionally, he would pause and elaborate on some finer detail of his story. As Susie listened, the sounds of the forest seemed to come alive, and the shadows beside the path hid evil, hulking creatures that glared hungrily form their depths.

By the time they reached “The Fort”, she was happy to get there, and she sighed with relief when Doug slid the deadbolt over, locking them safely inside. The shack was sparse with a dirt floor, a stained mattress and a crate turned over to act as a table with a small porcelain lamp.

Doug immediately walked over and pulled out the pack of cigarettes he kept stashed beneath the mattress lying on the floor. Flopping down on his back, he propped his head and shoulders against the wall and lit up. He inhaled deeply, shaking out the match and tossing it into the corner. He tucked the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and squinted up at her through the smoke curling around his head.

He spoke around the butt of his cigarette. “Take your clothes off.”

This surprised her. Doug had never taken off all her clothes or even his.  He was too paranoid and in case his parents came home unexpectedly, they could easily hide their activities.  Now that Doug was growing older, they no longer bothered with pretending or roleplaying.  Doctor Doug no longer came to see his patient, only her nasty older brother, with the hair sprouting on his chin and various other places.

The closest they ever came these days to make-believe was when Doug made her say things to him that turned him on. Sometimes, she didn’t even know what the words meant, but she had learned not to ask questions because he liked to explain by showing her. Later she would try to convince herself she hadn’t said such things, pushing the knowledge and the words far down in her mind.  She buried a lot these days — nasty, shameful secrets buried deep like so many rotting corpses. And God help her if they ever rose from the dead to walk the hallowed ground of her consciousness.

“No!  It’s too dirty in here.”  She complained weakly.  The walls of their clubhouse suddenly moved in around her, tight and choking.

He ground out the cigarette in a silver ashtray on the crate.  With a louder command, he said, “I said take off your clothes!  Get on the mattress if you want to stay off the dirt.”

“Doug, no–“

Doug sprang to his feet and lunged at her.  He slammed one hand upon the wall above her head as he leaned in, towering over her in a threatening manner and stood so close she could smell the stale cigarette and feel the heat of his breath.  He growled in that Monster voice again, “In The Fort, you do exactly as I say, when I say and how I say it.  Susie, do you understand me?”

She sniffed and tears started to well up in her eyes.  “Dougie… you are sca–“

He slammed his open palm into the wall again over her making the shack shake and screamed this time in her face, “Do you understand the rules of The Fort?  Or do you want me to lock you outside for the Monster to eat you?  Take off your goddamn clothes now!”

Susie could only stare back at him, dumbfounded at the rage in his voice and the lust in his eyes.  When he raised his open hand intending to slap her, she nodded profusely and started unbuttoning her shirt.

He doesn’t mean it.  He wouldn’t let the Monster eat me… he wouldn’t.  She struggled to hold onto that thought and not burst out in tears of shame and fear as she still undressed as he demanded.

“We are going to add to our game today.  A little something to Something.”  He then chuckled at an internal thought, a joke at her expense.

He studied every minute movement she made.  She felt like an insect under a magnifying glass.  And the malicious tone of his voice chilled her.  Susie shivered standing in her undies.

“Take’em off and lay down.”

Turning red with embarrassment, she obeyed.  This would be the first time that he had seen her fully naked.  Something was…wrong.  Something unknown and something more to his intentions… And being struck had never been a part of “Something” before.

He yanked at his grey sweatshirt and threw it to the side of the mattress.  As he unfastened his belt and broke from leering at her, she ventured, “What did you mean by adding to the game?”

Doug ignored her as he continued undressing.  He turned his back to her as he fumbled with his jeans.  He then lit another cigarette.  When he faced her again, she saw he had the black leather belt wrapped around his fists.

“It’s time to make you a woman, Suze.”

The world around Susie shut down, frozen in the span between two heartbeats and then shattered like glass.  She finally realized what he meant and what he meant to do.  He was crossing a line, dragging her over it against her will and ending her life as she knew it.  She was too young to fully understand the ramifications of rape; she just understood on instinct that he was bent on destroying a part of her forever.  It was “Something” beyond hurt and innocence.  It was a step that could never be taken back.  She would not give him that.  He had taken too much from her.  Too much!

An animal-like instinct took control of her.  Maybe self-preservation or something else; whatever it was, it steeled her for him.  She would not react until she was ready although her body trembled in terror.  As Nate had discovered, there were some people in times of crisis that would flee or panic, others would lock up and freeze where they stood or some people that refused to be victims and fought back.  Susie Dawn Chamness was a fighter!

He placed her between his legs and stood over her, straddling her body on the mattress.

“Going to make you my little woman today.  Mine!”  Doug snarled down at her.  Then he squatted and snatched her left hand, making to tie it in the belt.

That was his mistake.  With her right hand, she lunged forward and snatched the lamp off the crate and shattered it upon his jaw.  He flew backward, knocked off balance by the strike and smashed his head on a stud in one of The Fort’s walls.

Susie didn’t wait to see the outcome.  She bolted to her feet, grabbed her pile of clothes and flung herself toward the door.

She didn’t even feel the knob of the deadbolt in her hand as she jerked it open and escaped down the path into the woods.  Numb from the terror, she felt nothing.  Her only thought was to get out — had to… had to… had to…

If Doug caught her now, he would really hurt her.  He might not even stop hurting her this time!

Seconds down the path, she heard The Fort’s door explode open and heard her brother calling after her.  His voice chased after her as she ran, running its icy fingers along her spine and snatching at the long strands of blonde hair trailing behind her.

Doug followed after her, calling her name and demanding for her to stop. Susie had one shot at losing him — she left the dirt path, plunging into the thick undergrowth of the forest and forging her way through the thicket down to the river’s edge.   She desperately pulled on her clothes and shoes before she waded on out into the river, which was no more than waist-deep at any point, this being the dry season.

It would take Doug some time to traverse the path and catch up with her.  She decided to follow the river under the bridge until she came to the other side. Once there, it would be a simple task to retrieve her bicycle and ride away.  She had no idea where to go, but she knew she didn’t ever want to see her brother again. Hot tears boiled down her cheeks, making everything she looked at swim and wriggle as she splashed her way along the river. Her face was flushed with shame and anger and her breath came in great hitching sobs.

This was a girl whose whole life was in turmoil. She couldn’t go on with things the way they were, and yet she had no idea where to turn to affect any change. With an unknown strength, she was taking the only action she could, she was running away. She intended, in fact, to keep right on running until something made sense — until she found a place where her life could be as it was in her fantasies.

The water was extremely cold, and her legs were beginning to ache. Occasionally, she would slip on the smooth gravel lining the bottom of the river, but she managed to maintain her footing, flailing her arms and stutter-stepping to regain her balance. At last, she reached a sandbar and she was able to step out of the water, warming her legs in the August sun.

The sandbar continued on under the bridge, but as she stood there, gazing into the darkness beneath it, her brother’s words came back to her and she locked up with dread. The Monster lived under the bridge and his favorite food was little girls. If she went under there, she would see its glowing eyes and it would come snarling and snapping out of the shadows.  The last thing she would do in life would be to soil herself before it clamped down with its yellow teeth.

She had had enough humiliation for one day.  So there lay her only means of escape, on the other side of the bridge on the other side of the Monster hidden in a patch of weeds by the side of the road. In a quandary over what to do, she collapsed to her knees sitting upon her haunches down in the middle of the sandbar, folded her bare arms across her chest and wept.

All the degradation and torment of the last four years of her life came out in a heart-rending rush of self-deprecation.

How could I be so stupid as to let myself be used like that? How am I ever gonna wash away his… grime?  Wash away what he has done to me?  The sins unfolded in her mind and all the buried feelings of disgust burst forth.  These were feelings and emotions a little girl her age should not be forced to deal with.

Her cries were heard.

Susie reached out and gathered a handful of water, which she brought up and splashed into her face.  As her life replayed for her, she began to feel anger.  She allowed the anger to build, leaning on the strength it brought with it. She kindled and nursed it, like a small fire, and her soul began to warm itself beside it.

She began to think along the lines of what her next move would be… should she go forward, or should she go back? Where was she to go now, home to her parents? Could she ever hope to make them understand what she’d been through? A small wisp of hope sprouted somewhere inside her. Maybe if she told her mother everything, she would not be punished too harshly, maybe her mother would understand. She would never be able to tell her father, of that she was certain.

But maybe, just maybe if I could convince Mother to forgive —

“Suze!”

She looked up startled to see Doug silhouetted against the sky atop the bridge. He was leaning over the side with his hands on the rail, looking down on her in the water.  Blood flowed from two lacerations along his jaw and cheek.  She jumped to her feet and splashed over to the bank, where she climbed out and charged off into the woods again.

“Wait, Susie, wait right there!” he called in vain.

“Leave me alone!” she screamed over her shoulder, “I’m running away — far away, where you’ll never touch me again!”

The briars cut into her legs and snagged her clothes as she crashed through the undergrowth, but she continued on until she connected with the path again. Here she hesitated, undecided as to which way to turn. Her brother would be coming back from the bridge. She groaned a bit and then charged off into the undergrowth once again.

She had gone maybe forty feet into the woods and was just about to pause for a rest when something hit her in the back and sent her sprawling amidst a patch of may-apples. Rolling over and sitting up, she looked to see who had struck her, but to her amazement, there was no one there. She remained on the ground for a moment and listened, but not a sound could she hear, save for the calling of birds in the trees and the sound of Peepers calling brightly from the water’s edge.

Then she heard Doug’s footsteps, padding down the path and continuing on toward the shack. He was panting heavily, and he swore when he stumbled across a root. She waited for him to go past, and then rose insecurely, figuring to try the path once more, now that the way was clear.

When she turned, she was face to face with the Monster. It must have followed her from under the bridge. The poor girl hadn’t the strength to run and she hadn’t the breath to scream.  She was struck dumb, and all she could do was stand there and wait for it to eat her. Doug for once had not been lying to her.  Her life had never been a happy one and now she was to die a violent death at the hands of a horrific fiend.

The shaggy beast swayed slowly back and forth on its four legs, sizing her up.  Slowly, she reached behind her hoping to find a stick to defend herself, but before she could do anything it attacked. In two swift bounds, it was upon her, its forepaws on either side of her head and its ghoulish face snarling fiercely into hers. She whimpered pitifully and buried her face in the leaves which littered the forest floor.

Her cries were cut off and she fought for breath as it flipped her over and grabbed a mouthful of her shirt collar, carrying her by the scruff of her neck as a mother wolf would transport her cubs. It bounded off, noiselessly, into the woods; and the last time Susie ever heard her brother’s voice, it was echoing through the trees: “I’m sorry, Susie! I’m sorry! Susie, come back… If you tell anyone, you will be SOR-R-R-EEEE!!!”

Susie thought wildly of the story of Little Red Riding hood, alone in the forest with the Big Bad Wolf.  She closed her eyes and wondered how bad it hurt to be eaten.

 

The Essential Elements of Book Covers — Derek Barton

Book Covers Blog

When there are hundreds of new books traditionally published or self-published on a daily basis, how will your work stand out?

When a reader scans through the Amazon or Kindle online sites and spends one to two seconds on your novel’s image, how will you keep their attention?

These are just two of the critical questions you should ask yourself and give serious thought to when it comes to your book’s cover.  The easiest way to make or lose sales depends on how you present your novel.

It is just that simple, and yet, IMPORTANT.

I have possibly two or three of my own works coming out this year so I wanted to be sure I had all the available tools and weapons from the industry at my disposal.  Thus, for the last month, I have been reading articles, documenting notes and discovering just what the professionals consider a “professional book cover”.  What were the keys to the “best” covers and what are the strikes that torpedo cover art?

Here are some of the laws or elements that the professionals have suggested and I have outlined here for you!  They are broken down into three subjects:  Overall Principles, Style and Typesetting.

Overall Principles:

  • Keep it simple!
  • Let the cover “breathe” —  keep the cover open and not crowded.   If they don’t know what to focus on, they are just going to skip past it.
  • Use no more than three different colors and include black, white, or grey.  
  • Focus on a theme or emotion.  Relate it to what your story is about.  This is your novel’s billboard after all!
  • Find good imagery.  Don’t use anything blurry or cluttered which can confuse the reader and make them move on.

 

Style:

  • Place a darkened border around the edges to make the cover POP or stand out.
  • Beware using centered text as it creates a “wineglass effect”.  This effect has become cliché and earmarked as amateurish.
  • Create an imaginary box for implied margins.  All your words, titles and names should stay within the box and not go to the edge of your page.
  • Consider “ghosted boxes” or page divisions for text.  This can help keep fonts colors from blending or contrasting with your image colors.
  • Composition – make a grid of your cover and keep in mind the placement of each itemThis will prevent clusters or odd centering issues.

 

Typesetting:

  • Limit your cover to as few typefaces as you can.  The fewer fonts you have the more simplistic, cleaner look.
  • Avoid script and calligraphy typefaces!  If the title or YOUR NAME is hard to read, then what is the point?  I broke this one myself on my first book cover version — It may look awesome to you, but if the reader cannot tell what it says, then no one will care what it says.
  • Distressed text should not have uniform letters.  If your font looks like it has marbling, be sure that there isn’t consistent marbling in each letter or it will not look natural.
  • Don’t stretch or condense words!
  • Kern your text – letter spacing.  Kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a visually pleasing result.  It will also prevent your words from being misinterpreted.

As I stated above, these are just the most consistent laws or elements discussed when describing the fundamentals to book cover art that I have found.  There are other factors that can produce or reduce sales.  And sometimes there are “break out” covers that will not adhere to these rules and are very successful.  It all comes down to fan judgment and book sales success to really know if you scored well on your book cover design.

I truly hope that this is beneficial to your own book cover creations and if you have a suggestion or an element that you would suggest, feel free to comment.

 

The Hidden — Chapter 8 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH -- Chap 8 #2

CHAPTER EIGHT:  TRAPPED!

The clearing was undisturbed, dead-silent. Zelda’s sleeping bag and blanket lay where they had been the night before. The tent and campfire were as they should be, and cooking utensils and coolers hadn’t been touched. There were no signs of a struggle, not even any tracks. Everything was where it was supposed to be except for his sleeping wife.

A cold blanket of dew drenched everything and a fine mist hung low over the fields, shrouding the plants like a veil. Nate leaped to his feet and his head swam. He ground his fists into his temples and waited for the grogginess to ease. When it cleared, he stepped over to the tent and looked inside. The tent was empty. Sunlight streamed in through the nylon mesh window and puddled in a square on the floor.

Straightening up, he called her name loudly and waited. The only sounds were those of the crickets and the ever-present rustling of the corn. He wasted no time chiding himself for falling asleep, there would be time for self-recrimination later. His first concern was finding Zelda and keeping her safe.

Struggling to remain calm and think clearly, Nate bent over and picked up the hand ax, where it had fallen from his belt while he slept. Scanning the horizon, he tried to decide in which direction to search. There was no sign of the creatures from the night before, and when he thought of them, it was hard not to believe it had all been just a dream. But if the events of the previous night were a figment of his imagination, then where was Zelda and what was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere, toting a sidearm and an ax?

No, Natey-boy, they were real, all right, and what’s worse, they took Zelda right from under my nose while I slept!  His inner thoughts bore into him.

Still, he couldn’t let himself believe she was dead…or eaten.  He had to try to find her — but where to start?

His backpack lay near the smoldering remains of the campfire. He picked it up and then, deciding it would be better to travel light, tossed it up into the lower branches of a small sycamore tree. There it would be safe to retrieve later, and it could dry in the sun.  He took a few steps toward the cornfield and hesitated. If they were out there, Nate wouldn’t stand a chance in hell against them.  Better to stay out in the open as much as possible.

He started toward the woods, staying close to the fence row. All the while, he scanned the area for tracks or some sign that they’d passed this way. The thought of going for help occurred to him, but he rejected it for two reasons: How would he get back and how would he convince the authorities of his story? It was obvious that he and Zelda were in this on their own, and he was determined not to let her down.

His muscles ached from spending the night on the hard, cold ground, but he didn’t spend much time concerning himself about it. Foremost in his mind were thoughts of his wife and her safety. Nate didn’t want to even think about what life would be like without her.

It was strange, really, when you thought about it. Nate had come close to losing her emotionally in the city, and they had come way out here to find each other again. Now that he’d regained her love, he’d lost her physically. In a real sense, he felt the pain of her absence more now than he would have at any other time before this day. Squaring his shoulders and thrusting out his chin, he marched, squinting into the morning sun.

I am not going to lose you like this!

The soft call of a dove murmured through the morning air, lending a sad, haunted feeling to the day. Out in the field, a flock of crows flew up, beating their dark wings and croaking harsh epithets at each other. They seemed exasperated at his intrusion.

About half-way to the edge of the woods, he noticed something in the bean field. He was unable to quite make out what it was, but something dark was sticking up just enough to be seen above the plants. Nate blinked his eyes, rapidly, and tried to bring it into focus. But it was no use. He would have to get closer.  Which meant abandoning the fence row and the small amount of cover it afforded, but he couldn’t pass up any leads that might help him find Zelda.

The dew-covered plants soon had his pants soaked up past his knees, but his boots kept his feet warm and dry.

When he had gotten to within a few feet of the thing, he began to slow down, partly due to caution and the fear he had of discovering Zelda’s partially clad, savaged body.

At first, it appeared to be a wet grocery bag, but then he saw that it was pink and wrinkled, with tufts of hair protruding from it. He heard the buzzing of flies, and his mind pictured the corpse of his wife, her scalp ripped from her head, lying in a heap among the rows of beans. Remembering the severed head in the tree, he wavered, unable to approach any nearer. Indecision pulled at him. He couldn’t just ignore it and continue his search, knowing she might be lying out here in the sun.  He had no choice but to look.

Resigning himself to the task, he took another cautious step.  The hair on his own scalp raised when the clump of flesh moved and an unholy roar sliced through the air. Before his startled eyes, a creature like the one from the day before rose up from its hiding place in the beans and charged him. Its mouth was split wide in a hellish snarl, and it lurched forward on two legs, wielding its claws, menacingly.

Nate snatched the gun from its holster and then remembered how low he was on ammunition. He had only the four bullets remaining, and he may need them before this ordeal was over.

If I can make it to the trees on the fence row, I may be able to avoid wasting any shots!

During the siege of their camp the night before, his thoughts had turned to the partial corpse, rotting in the tree above them, and it had dawned on him that these creatures must not be able to climb. Whoever the poor unfortunate whose head had been left behind must have tried, not quite successfully, to escape using that route.

This was why Nate had been following the fence row — in hopes that, were he attacked, his theory would prove correct.  Now he was going to have a chance to find out, provided, of course, he could outrun this horrific beast.

As he spun around, however, he heard yet another growl and saw a second beast rushing at him from the direction of the fence row, effectively cutting off his escape!  This one, apparently, had been hiding in the beans as well, and Nate must have walked right past it.

Damn things were stalking me!

These were obviously more clever creatures than Nate would have guessed.  Coming at him this way, it would be difficult for him to kill both of them. By the time he got a shot off at one, the other would be on him.  It was rather like chasing down and tagging a baseball runner caught between first and second base.

This second creature galloped on all fours and moved much quicker than the first. In fact, Nate could see that, given its present speed, it would overtake him in just a few more bounds.

It was time.  He had no choice but to spend some ammunition now. Surely things couldn’t get much more desperate than this. He whirled and fired a round at the first creature. Not waiting to see the effect of his shot, he dove, headlong and attempted a clumsy somersault into the beans, kicking up a cloud of dust as he fell. His dive was at right angles to the path of the second beast, whose claws raked the side of Nate’s boot as it charged through the spot where he’d been standing. By the time it halted its rush and doubled back for another pass, Nate was already running.  The creature let out a roar of rage and gave chase.

Nate had badly underestimated the speed of these creatures. Although he believed he killed the first, placing a hollow-nosed .357 slug right through its chest, there was no way he could outrun this second creature.  It would be on him before he made half the distance to safety. And placing another such shot while on the run for his life would be beyond luck and closer to a miracle. There was no time to stop and plant himself to fire.  All he could do was redouble his efforts and run like he had never run before.

He heard a vicious scream from behind and put his head down, concentrating on which branch he would leap for if he did, through some marvel, happen to make the trees.

***

 

Zelda awoke to a nightmare. A hard, scaly paw was shoved down hard upon her mouth, covering nearly half her face and making it almost impossible to breathe. She could feel the sharp claws digging into the side of her neck, and she saw the silhouette of the creature’s face leaning over her.

She tried to struggle, but the beast was much too powerful. She was a tiny rag doll in its grasp. Straining her eyes to the left, she could make out Nate’s body lying motionless by the fire. Zelda cried out against the filthy pads of the creature’s paw, but her voice was muffled to practically nothing.

In terror, she realized that the creature had come back and killed Nate. And now it had her in its grasp. She prayed the end would be mercifully quick.

Silently it picked her up and smashed her against its chest. The dry, wrinkled skin and the tufts of matted hair ground hard and rough against her cheek.  Its pungent, animal odor revolted her and made her retch.  Rising up on powerful hind legs, the creature shuffled away from the campfire and out into the night, dragging her along like a child carrying a stuffed toy.

Out into the beanfield, it carried her, the wet plants slapped coldly against her bare legs. Tears blinded her vision as she watched the campfire growing smaller and smaller, swallowed by the darkness. Suddenly, it stopped and dropped her roughly upon the ground, removing the gagging paw from her mouth. Her jaw ached from the pressure it had exerted on it and her lip had been cut by one of its pads.

She cried pitifully for it to stop, to leave her alone, but the creature stood there in silence, staring at her from the blackness of the night. Finally, it brought its cruel face to within inches of hers and glared hungrily into her eyes. The smell or its breath nearly gagged her and she turned her face.  It reached out and, hooking one of its claws through the sleeve of her sweat-shirt and guided her arm down toward its belly where her hand came to rest on a huge throbbing lump of turgid flesh.

She lashed her arm back from it as though she’d laid her hand on a hot poker, ripping her sleeve in the process. She opened her mouth to scream but her captor brought a paw hard across her face and the night erupted in a blinding flash. The last thing she remembered before she lost her grip on consciousness was being rolled over on her belly and feeling the creature’s hot breath on the back on her neck as it grabbed a mouthful of her collar.

Sometime later, she awoke in complete darkness.  There was cold, damp stone beneath her cheek and her body ached with the aftermath of spending a long time unconscious upon a hard surface. She tried to remember where she was and what had happened to her, but she was completely disoriented. And, being in total darkness, there was nothing for her eyes to fall on to help her adjust.

Slowly, she pulled herself back from the world of the dead. She moved around, gingerly, flexing first one limb and then another. Everything seemed to be working, but where was she? And how did she get here? Suddenly, she remembered. It came back to her in a rush — the path, the monster, the clearing, Nate’s death, the abduction and the attack in the field… everything!

She sat bolt upright and hit her head on something hard. Sparks flew across the backs of her eyes and she slumped to the floor again.

With mounting horror, she realized she was in a hole of some kind.

Oh my god! The damned thing buried me alive!

Her heart hammered in her chest and a sharp metallic taste came to the back of her mouth, threatening to choke her. She reached out her hand and waved it around panicking in the darkness until she came upon a wall. Following it, she groped her way until it met another wall, about four feet along.  Continuing along this wall, she came to an open space where this chamber apparently let out into another one. On her hands and knees, she stretched her arm out into this open space, leaning out as far as she dared. In her mind, she got the feeling she was in a cave of some kind, the walls being made of hard stone, and not in a hole in the dirt, as she had first imagined. Crawling past the “doorway”, she continued to feel her way blindly in the dark.

Suddenly she touched something soft and warm — and alive! And then she felt a hand grasp her arm and hold it firmly. She cried out and tried to pull away, but the grip held fast.

“Sh-h-h-h! Quiet… it’s all right.” The voice was small and soft, like that of a child. “I’m not gonna hurt you… Shh-h-h!”

Zelda stopped struggling and listened. She could hear breathing and the rustling of clothing.

“Please?… Please?” the tiny voice whimpered. Whoever it was, drew nearer to her and folded their arms about her. She was surprised to realize, it WAS a child. Even in the dark, she could tell it was a little girl, a frightened little girl, that was clinging to her desperately, and crying. Her hands came up instinctively and stroked the child’s soft hair. It was matted and tangled, but it still held the softness of a little girl’s tresses.

“Okay… okay.” she soothed. “Don’t cry now, baby, don’t cry.” She held the little girl for a while, letting her cry. In truth, after all that she’d been through, it felt good to have someone to hug.  She rocked the child back and forth in her arms, patting her back and stroking her hair some more.  Finally, the sobs eased and the child’s stiff body relaxed a bit.

Pulling back a little, she asked, “Who are you, baby?  Do you know where we are?”

The child stopped sniffling, but she still clung tightly to Zelda’s hand. “I’m… My name is Susie Chamness, and… I don’t know where this is exactly, but it’s a bad place — real bad!”

 

***

 

 

Nate saw the branch growing nearer and nearer, and to his amazement, he grew confident that he was going to make it! With every muscle, he strained to reach the tree and climb to safety. He didn’t dare take time to look back over his shoulder to see if the thing was gaining on him. He could only assume it was about to overtake him and every precious second counted in his race for survival.

The cold, damp plants felt like hands that clutched at his legs, threatening to trip him and send him tumbling among the weed-strewn rows to meet his doom. He could hear the creature’s labored breathing close on his heels — hot and moist, on the back of his neck. Any second now, a sharp blow to the middle of his back would send him sprawling and then the beast would be on him.  Its heavy body bearing him to the ground while its talons ripped at his guts and that foul slobbering maw opened wide to swallow his face.

He reached for the low-hanging branch and leaped. Primal instinct told him that the creature was already in mid-air. His hand grasped its rough surface and he swung his legs in a “skin-the-cat” maneuver over the branch and hauled himself up into the tree. As he executed these gymnastics, he expected to feel the claws of the beast, snaring his leg and dragging him back to a horrible death by dismemberment.  Once again, the thought of the rotting remains in the tree from yesterday flashed through his mind.  He wasted no time in scrambling even higher into the tree.

It wasn’t until Nate had climbed to a perch about fifteen feet up among the branches that he paused to assess the situation. Looking down at the base of the tree, he was surprised to see the creature was not there. He turned his gaze back to the beanfield he’d left in such haste, and there it stood, glaring at him from over the body of its fallen comrade.

Apparently, it hadn’t bothered to pursue him at all, only apparitions from his imagination had chased after him.  Its main concern had been the death of its mate. Bending over the bloody corpse, it pressed its muzzle gingerly against the shoulder and nudged. Drawing back, it stared intently into the lifeless face.

Nate was reminded of the nature films he’d seem where an elephant would try to rouse the fallen body of one of its herd-mates after it had been shot by poachers. Had they not been such grotesquely ugly creatures, Nate might have been moved to sympathy. As it were, he was merely curious to witness the act.

He wondered, could these two have been mates, male and female? He knew that some animals, wild geese, for instance — and wolves, mate for life.  Could this be true of these creatures as well?

The beast laid a paw on the body of the fallen one and rocked it gently back and forth. Shifting back to glare at Nate in his tree-top perch, it roared its defiance.  Nate imagined he could hear a note of grief in that challenge, that made it seem all the more terrifying and he was glad for the relative safety of his tree.

He watched as the creature looked sadly back down at the body once more and then, walked over a few feet and squatted down in the beans. There it sat, maintaining a vigil over Nate while giving an occasional glance back over its shoulder at its mate.  The beast, however, kept its distance.

Nate had a nasty, unsettling feeling that, should he climb down for one instant from the safety of his branch, the creature would be all over him, guns or no.

How long is this to last? He thought, miserably. Then his thoughts returned to Zelda, out there… somewhere.

“Could she still be alive?” He asked aloud but doubted it.  He could only pray for the best at this point.

It occurred to him that perhaps his gunshots had attracted some attention and help would soon arrive, but then he remembered that hunting was very common out here in these wooded areas.  HIs brief hope evaporated.  No one would give a second thought to a couple of reports off in the distant fields.

Suddenly, the isolation that had so attracted him to this remote farm lost its appeal and he longed for a little bit for the company of his fellow man.  Meanwhile, here he sat, helplessly up a tree, with no way to search for his wife. It was maddening!

“GO AWAY!” He yelled at the creature, but it sat like a stone and made no move. It merely continued to shift its gaze back and forth between Nate and the dead beast to its rear. “GOOD! I hope that WAS your mate I killed, you ugly bastard!”

He leaned back against the rounded bole of the tree and said to himself, “That’s a start on evening the score,”

The creature, looking unimpressed, licked one of its paws and just waited for its moment…

 

2018 Jan & Feb Bi-Monthly Goals — Derek Barton

Goal #1

THIS IS MY YEAR!!  (My new mantra!)

 

It is a brand new year with a whole year of opportunity!  I am super excited by what I have planned in store for 2018.  With these bi-monthly goal blogs that I started using this last July, I have really put in a lot of work and accomplished a lot which I will now be able to share with you guys this year.

A quick recap of the year and what I finished up in December:

From July through November —

** Finalize my Chapter Outlines for Bleeding Crown
** Completed my first draft of Bleeding Crown
** Wrote 43,000 words in July
** Completed two large book giveaways (one being my Indie Book Giveaway)
** Obtained over 1500 email subscribers
** Completed a monthly newsletter every month
** Outlined the first three books of the Elude Series
** Created a NaNoWriMo Outline Prep folder
** Completed the first wave of editing for The Bleeding Crown
** Started a 2nd job for extra money for Book Project Saving and monthly income
** Posted 6 chapters of The Hidden, the collaboration I am working with my father

Completed For November & December:

**Complete NaNoWriMo Challenge: 50,000 words — HUGE WIN FOR ME!  This was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend the challenge for any writer out there.  It motivates you and their site provides a ton of information, networking and forums.  Here is their site:  National Novel Writing Month
** Start Round #2 of Editing for The Bleeding Crown
** Create marketing campaign for CWC Audio Book
** Research Arizona Book and Comic cons.
** Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of month
** Keep up The Hidden saga on website every 2 weeks

Now for 2018, I have also decided to not only break down my goals every 2 months, but I am also determining when those goals should be accomplished within the two month period.  This will help me be even more successful and organized, but it will also keep me on track.  I am using an Excel Chart Setup for this and have already broken down goals for the first half of the year on there.

For January & February:

** Complete the 2nd wave of edits for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by 3rd Week of Jan
** Start 1st wave of edits for Elude #1 — Begin by 4th week of Jan
** Work of Cover for The Bleeding Crown — Begin by 2nd week of Jan
** Complete Marketing Campaign for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by 4th week of Jan
** Complete story subplot and finalize The Bleeding Crown (25,000+ words) — Begin by 2nd Week of Jan
** Finalize work on Marketing Campaign for Consequences Within Chaos Audiobook — Begin by 2nd week of Jan
** Write a separate blog entry outside of goals and The Hidden Saga — Finish by 2nd Week of Feb
** Lose 15 pounds by end of February — Lose 2 pounds a week
** Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of month — Completed by Feb 15th
** Keep up The Hidden saga on website every 2 weeks — Finished by 4th Week of Feb

By the end of this year, my hope is to be able to produce for you The Bleeding Crown (sequel to Consequences Within Chaos) by mid-2018, Consequences Within Chaos Audiobook on Audible.com by mid-2018, the first two books of the Elude (horror/action story) by the end of 2018 and the complete work of The Hidden online (and subsequently published in 2019!).

As I said, it is going to be an intense and productive year ahead, but I am so excited to share my worlds and my writing with each of you!  My wish is that for all of you as well to have a great, productive and wonderful new year!

 

Goal #2

 

 

The Hidden — Chapter 7 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH -- Chap 7

 

CHAPTER SEVEN:  THE SIEGE

 

Dzhankah wasn’t stupid. It was his hubris that had failed him. And perhaps his overconfidence.

Oh, he’d seen guns before and he was well aware of their capacity for destruction. Many times he’d seen deer hunters bring down their quarry from yards away, with just a single shot. He’d heard the report of the gun and seen the blood and hair fly from the deer as their legs buckled and they fell, kicking, to the ground. And then he’d watched as the hunters walked calmly over to claim their prize without even breaking a sweat.

But, he couldn’t understand how they could derive any pleasure from killing this way. There was no chase. There was no last-second pounce with the victim straining with every final ounce of its strength in a terror-stricken struggle for life. They never even got the pleasure of facing their prey and seeing the helplessness in its eyes as it realized it was doomed.

What excitement could there be in killing something without feeling its life-juices spraying in your face and ebbing from its body as you held it, pinned and squirming, on the ground?

Worse yet, the hunters always gutted the carcass, leaving some of the best parts of a kill behind. Whenever he witnessed this he made sure none of the entrails went to waste.  It wouldn’t be fair to the deer to be killed and then not have the honor of becoming a part of their conqueror. This was about as close to a sense of morality as Dzhankah ever came. There were some things he would not desecrate.

Yes, he knew about guns, but those that he’d actually seen had always been rifles, or shotguns — great big, long guns that made great big, loud noises. This weapon that the Meat had held out in front of him was a puny little thing. He had had no idea it could actually pose a real threat.  A popping noise and maybe a prick upon his skin and that would be the end of it. How was he to know it would roar like thunder and punch a hole in his belly big enough to place his paw in?

The prey had fired twice, in rapid succession, the first bullet missing its mark completely.  It was the second which had toppled the mighty Dzhankah like a ragdoll and done all this damage to his innards.

After he left the Meat, standing there in the path, he crawled off into the corn to lick his wounds. At first, the pain was small and dull, seemingly distant. But, as he crouched there in the dirt, straining to reach his throbbing belly with his tongue, the pain came home… with a vengeance! His entire side was wracked with a white-hot, searing flame. It sprung from inside with needle-sharp teeth, gnawing and chewing into his guts. There was no ebb and crest to it. It simply roared to life and remained at peak power, making Dzhankah want to howl in agony.  But he bit down hard on that desire and forced it back where it came from.

Dzhankah was a hunter — there would be no screams even in the face of death. His head began to spin giddily, forcing him to lie back and rest for a while.

As he shifted around between the stalks, trying in vain to make himself comfortable, he discovered the hole in his back. In his mind’s eye, he saw a deer, shot by a hunter. In its coat, there was a small hole where the bullet had entered, but when the hunter rolled it over, he exposed a gaping wound that had ripped a large portion of the deer’s side away, leaving broken ribs jutting from the mangled flesh.

And then, for the first time in his life, Dzhankah was afraid. How ironic that he, who had brought fear to the hearts of so many, should be such a stranger to the emotion. His own heart had never trembled. But now, the icy fingers of impending doom were inching their way through his guts and climbing up his spine.

He was struck with the realization that his victims had not only been dying as he devoured them, they had also been suffering as well. Before this attack on his person he hadn’t any idea what torture could be like, and therefore, he had no way to empathize with his kills. It wasn’t so much that he was ignorant of pain — he just had never given it much thought. It was somewhat akin to the way a man when he steps on a bug never stops to contemplate how the bug may be feeling.

This, then, was the main reason why Dzhankah had let himself be shot: no one had ever hurt him before. And, although he knew on an intellectual level, that he could be wounded, in his heart he didn’t believe it could ever happen to him. He was young, for his kind, and like the youth of all species, he was unaware of, and seemingly unconcerned form with his own mortality. He had been impetuous and now, as a result, he was facing death. And death was an even better hunter than he had been. When it stalked, little could deter it from its course.

But Dzhankah was nothing if not brave. He would not face death lying down. Wincing with agony, he crawled to his feet and worked his way through the corn rows with slow determination. If he were to die, he had business to finish. Bleeding profusely, he made for the clearing.

 

***

 

When Nate reached the clearing, Zelda was nowhere to be found. His eyes swept the area and he called her name. When there was no answer, he cupped his hands around his mouth and repeated it, only louder. Suddenly he heard her answering cry from somewhere ahead and he darted over to peer into the empty tent. When he emerged, Zelda was sprinting to him from the bean field, where she had been lying down, hiding. Tears welled up in her eyes and she made little groaning sounds as she strained to reach his side.

They embraced and held each other silently for a long time, each of them drawing strength from the other as only two people in love can do. At length, they pulled back and she covered his face with kisses.

“What WAS that thing?” she demanded to know. “Is it dead? Did you kill it?” Her face was streaked with dirt from the dry ground of the bean field. He took her arm and led her over by the fire, away from the corn.

Looking back over his shoulder, he said, “I don’t know… I shot it. But I don’t think its dead.” The corn rustled ominously in the evening breeze.

“Oh Nate, what are we going to do? We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Not now we can’t. Night’s coming on and we definitely don’t want to meet that thing in the pitch black halfway down that path.”

“Then what?”

Nate stood, surveying their situation. He looked back at Zelda and sighed, wondering what was going on in her mind. He wouldn’t blame her for falling to pieces in a gibbering heap or worse yet blaming him for dragging her out here to face this horror.  Just for a fleeting second, he thought he saw the return of THAT LOOK – the look that said, This is all your fault. I still love you, but you let me down by putting us in this situation.

He had hoped they’d left THAT LOOK in Chicago where it belonged. He searched her face again, but it was gone, apparently a figment of his imagination.

She had more strength than he gave her credit for.  Well, if she was going to be strong, so was he. They’d make it through this nightmare somehow, he promised himself. Firmly setting his jaw, he gave her one more hug and then turned to the trees along the fence row.

“Help me gather firewood,” he told her. “We’re going to need plenty to last us through the night.”

 

***

 

She watched him walk away and then turned to survey the surrounding corn. The idea of being out here in the dark after all they’d just experienced was not a pleasant one, to say the least, but she understood that they had no choice. Nate was right. They would need LOTS of firewood. If she had anything to say about it, they would have the biggest, brightest, most blazing fire in history.

She turned to follow him. From somewhere in the tree line, a mourning dove cooed softly settling a false sense of tranquility over the scene.

A half hour had passed, and as the last fading rays of sunset glimmered and faded to blackness, they sat huddled by the fire, alternately staring hypnotically into the flames and gazing into the corn. They talked little, each lost in their own thoughts and worries.

Whenever the night noises would startle them or make them jump, both of them would stare into the corn. Zelda’s grip would tighten on Nate’s arm and Nate’s grip would tighten on Mr. Smith & Wesson.

“I… uh… I left your backpack out there,” he murmured, reluctant to bring the scene back to mind. “But, luckily, I was in such a hurry to get out of here that I didn’t get too much of our stuff in it. We’ve still got mine, with matches, and the flashlight… And we’ve got plenty of water in our new canteen.”

He held the items up for her inspection as he listed them. She smiled when he mentioned the new canteen. She had laughed at him earlier in his eagerness to buy all the provisions they needed for this outing, calling him the world’s oldest boy scout.

Well, he’s definitely earned his badges on this trip. She thought.  Again her heart filled with love for this “city slicker”, trying his best to deal with a horrible situation and to get them home safely. She leaned her head on his shoulder and fixated on the soothing dance of the flames.

“Do you think it will come back?”  The question was barely audible.

“If it does, it’ll get another dose of this.” He flashed the gun in the firelight.

“I sure am glad you brought that.”

He smiled and patted her knee. “It was your idea. But you’re right. Somehow I have the feeling we never would have outrun that thing. Did you see the size of it?”

Zelda thought back to its evil leer. “I saw more than I ever wanted to see.” She gathered the blanket closer around her shoulders.

The night wore on and they labored to distract themselves from the nightmare that hunted within the cornrows. They continued to talk, discussing plans for the future and their life together. The threat of the creature’s attack was always there, hanging over them, but talking helped to keep it in the back of their minds where they could manage it.

Around midnight she stirred beside him and spoke: “Nate, do you think we’ll ever have… children?” She listened carefully to the tone of his voice when he responded.

“Sure, Honey,” he said, poking at the fire with a stick. “I’d like to have kids, you know that. It’s just been impossible up to now because of our financial situation. But we’ll have ‘em, one of these days.”

“When?” She raised her head to look at him.

“Well…”

“I mean, I don’t mean to pressure you, or anything, but I just kind of need to know, you know?” We have the money now.”

“Yes but, we’ve only just begun to experience the kind of life we’ve always wanted. Don’t you think we need some time to ourselves… to travel and such?”

She sighed, heavily. “I suppose, only…”

“I mean, kids are great, Honey, but there’s so much in life we’ve yet to do! And kids would only slow us down.”  He coughed into his hand and then said, “Kids will be great, but first things first, I have to get you out of here and back home safely!

She was silent for a while, thinking.

“Nate?”

“Hm?”

“Seven million dollars would pay for an awful lot of babysitters.”

He chuckled and kissed her brow.

“I mean, you know, we could get a nanny for the kids whenever we went away… and when they were big enough, we could always take them with us. It’d be fun taking our family around the world… London… Paris… Rome and the Eiffel Tower…

Her words trailed off as she drifted toward sleep.

 

***

 

After a time, Nate gently lifted her head from his shoulder.

“Sweetheart, why don’t you lie back here and get some sleep?” he asked, but it wasn’t really a question. “I’m wide awake, and I’ll keep watch.”

She began to protest, but he silenced her with a finger over her lips.

“Don’t worry. If I get sleepy, I’ll wake you and you can take over. Now relax and get some rest.”

Zelda patted his hand and stretched out by the fire. She was already asleep when he kissed her cheek and tucked the blanket up around her chin.

It was about an hour later that Nate noticed the eyes glowing in the light of the campfire at the edge of the corn.

It had dawned on him slowly. He sat, idly poking the embers of their fire and waiting for the night to pass. The air around him was filled with the drilling chorus of millions of insects, as could be expected from a late summer night in an Indiana field. As he gazed out into the night he gradually felt someone was watching him, and then he became dimly aware of two glowing coals floating in the air about twenty feet away. So stealthily did they appear, that at first he wasn’t even startled by them, only curious.

It took a few seconds for it to dawn on him the menace those eyes represented. He felt as though he had been drugged or hypnotized and his addled brain failed to respond the way it should. At length, though, his fuzzy mind warned him that he was in danger and he sat up straight and brought the gun out. He started to wake Zelda and then thought better of it. What if it were just a coon or something… better to let her rest.

As he stared into those red burning eyes, they remained steady and unblinking. Was it the creature? Or was it — dear God, please let it be — just some ordinary denizen of the woods, come to investigate this stranger from Chicago, with his fire popping and snapping in the darkness.

With trembling fingers, Nate switched the gun to his left hand and, keeping it trained on the intruder, picked up a small stone. He hurled it side-arm straight at the glowing orbs in the dark field, but they never even flinched. Instead, they remained steady, maintaining their unblinking vigil.

He sat still for a while, contemplating what he should do if the creature were to come charging into the clearing, snarling and roaring and snapping its jaws. His first move would be to cover Zelda, and his second would be to empty the four remaining bullets directly into the gruesome face of that misbegotten freak. And when it fell, he would take his camping ax and hack off its ugly head.

But Nate had no reason to fear the creature he’d seen on the path that afternoon because the mighty hunter Dzhankah would hunt no more.  He laid ten rows from the edge of the clearing as still and cold as the night air.

 

***

 

Nate had had enough of this. He was tired of being terrorized by this creature. After all, HE was the one with the gun. And hadn’t he bested this thing once already? Why should he sit, trembling by the fire? It was time to throw down the gauntlet. Still holding the gun trained on its target, he stood and tucked the ax into his belt. Picking up the flashlight, he shined the beam out into the corn and for a second he thought he saw a large shape, but it melted into the shadows.

Switching off the beam, he saw that the glowing eyes were gone as well, and he breathed a little easier. Probably WAS a coon, he thought.

Suddenly he felt, rather than heard, a presence to his right. Turning quickly, he saw the eyes again, and although he was a city boy without much experience in these matters, they sure looked to him to be too big and too far apart for a raccoon. He was about to bring the flashlight into play again when he was distracted by another pair of red dots, glowing to his left. He glanced back at the original pair for confirmation, and sure enough, there were now two pairs of eyes out there in the corn.

The two were then joined by a third and then a fourth and fifth. The field around the clearing had become a waking nightmare, alive with eyes and the stealthy rustling sounds of large bodies, moving in the night. As he slowly turned, he saw that they spread out in a circle, completely encompassing the clearing.

Shaking violently now, he flipped the switch on the lamp in his hand. To his horror, he saw the creatures, huge grotesque copies of the original nightmare from the path. His mind was raging too much and it was much too dark for him to pick out minor details, but he could see at a glance they were more of the same.  They met his gaze with subtle snarls, but did not react outright or seem surprised by the flashlight.

By God! There were so many of them. Backing up to the edge of the fire, he swept the beam of light back and forth, trying to keep them all in sight as he brandished the gun in accordance with what he saw.

The creatures merely stood their ground, shuffling about and growling softly from time to time. Their growls resembled the low grating grumble of a large stone, dragged over cement. They stood on all fours or squatted patiently. Some even stretched out on their sides, garish nightmares languishing by the campfire of his camp. All of them riveted directly upon him.  When he could bring himself to look back, their gaze bore down deep within him, searching his very soul.

He now knew he had been right not to awaken Zelda. What good would it do her to wake up now and see the horror that surrounded them? It would be far better to let her sleep in blissful ignorance of the demonic horde that encircled their camp, staring… staring… staring…

Why didn’t they do anything? There were enough of them to overwhelm him easily, despite his weapon. Had they witnessed the battle in the corn this afternoon? Was the one he wounded out there with them? Nate played the light around and didn’t see any that looked wounded, but he really couldn’t be sure.

Whatever their reason for not attacking, he hoped they would hold off until sunrise. He stood studying them for some time and then, fearing for his batteries, he doused the flashlight. Turning back to the fire, he threw on another couple of logs and settled uneasily back in a squatting position as they flamed to life. The red embers were reflected back at him from twenty or thirty places out there in the dark, and he remained alert to see if they were advancing any.

A sudden dread overcame him as the thought occurred that they may be closing the circle ever so slowly, an inch or two at a time so as to be almost imperceptible to him. Then, when they got within leaping distance they would be on him in a slashing, clawing heap. His hand longed to shine the light on them again to plot their positions, but he held off, telling himself to be calm.

Instead, he glanced at his watch, holding it up to the firelight… 3:37. It would be light in about three or four hours. Until then he would sit quietly and watch. And if one of those bastards came an inch within the circle of his firelight… BLAM! Monster Mash.

Until then, all he could do was wait.

So began the siege. Nate waited by the fire as the minutes dragged slowly by. He stoked the flames and occasionally dropped in new fuel, well aware of the fact that the fire was their only friend out here in the darkness. The monsters kept their silent vigil, and the crickets in the field droned on and on.

After a time, fatigue began taking the edge off his horror, and his senses began to dull. Occasionally, his eyelids would droop and he would catch his head nodding sleepily. When this happened, he would shake himself and move around, glancing apprehensively out into the darkened field at the red glowing embers and the horrors lurking there behind them.

Yawning, he leaned back, propping himself on his elbows. He looked up at the starry sky, cold and silent witness to the drama unfolding below. In the depths of the nearby wood, an owl hooted, impatiently, once… twice… three times and was silent. It was a lonesome, haunting sound. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened.

When he opened his eyes, the sun was shining and birds were chirping. He rolled onto his side and reached for Zelda, but she was gone.

 

The Hidden — Chapter 6 — 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.

 

The Hidden — Chapter Five — 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.

The Hidden — Chapter Four — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH 4

CHAPTER FOUR – ZELDA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susie Dawn Chamness

Age 11

Last Seen: Aug 3, 1993

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

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

The Hidden — Chapter Three — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH CH 3

 

CHAPTER THREE — PASSING THROUGH:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something definitely moved there in the corn!

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the first time that night, Roger was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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