ONE HORSE, KENTUCKY
October 25, 1995
One Horse, Kentucky, is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mailbox towns. Not worth the ink required to print its name onto the North America Road Atlas ’95—the one you must have read seriously wrong to end up there. It’s home to a few fast food joints along Highway 88 from Cave City en route to Greensburg, a last-chance gas station, and an old tavern that perpetually smells like stale beer, urine cakes, and bleach applied with a dirty mop. There aren’t many homes in One Horse, but the few that exist are in desperate need of repair. The trailers too.
But One Horse, believe it or not, is also where the cosmic teeth of the universe gnash and grind as the engine of existence turns one eon at a time, because it’s in podunk towns like One Horse where reality begins to tear, where the world tremors, and The Bleeding starts.
As it’s doing today.
The hole opens at the epicenter of the town, small at first, just wide enough for a single ant to fall in, but it quickly grows, and soon the entire anthill pours inside. Within minutes, a pond becomes a waterfall over its edge. Minutes later, the kudzu-wrapped trees and stones behind One Horse’s Chevron station bend inward and are consumed. The gas station follows, as do pumps six, five, four… A red ’93 Toyota Celica is swallowed. It doesn’t take long before all the houses and trailers are gone. Most are small and put up no fight. The elementary school is pulled into the pit, along with all the students inside. Moms, Dads, teachers, plumbers, fast food workers, even the one and only cop in town—all are devoured amid screams of terror and blood-curdling shouts to the heavens.
But the abyss remains hungrier than the heavens.
Once the entirety of One Horse is consumed, the hole stops growing, and all that remains is an echo from deep inside the void. It sounds like the screams of thousands, maybe millions of people—far more voices than have ever occupied One Horse. More than Kentucky, maybe. A flock of starlings dance in the blue skies over the hole, and only The Creator knows what they see inside.
It’s then that one gargantuan spider-like leg, segmented too many times and covered in hair, reaches out from inside the hole and slams down upon the edge of the crumbling pavement, attempting to find its grip amongst the rubble. Soon, another leg appears, and then another.
Two men in black suits and ties, wearing black sunglasses and black fedoras, stand there and watch the terrifying creature’s emergence, unfazed, like they knew this would happen. They don’t even take the slightest step back when yet another ungodly leg bursts from the hole and finds purchase upon the ground. They don’t acknowledge the black helicopter thumping overhead, nor the gasp of the braking semi-truck beside them. They pay no mind to the soldiers pouring out of the semi’s trailer, each one of the grunts brandishing their own assault rifle, and the two men don’t watch as the men raise their weapons to the creature and start to fire. They’ve seen this all before.
This isn’t their first Bleed, and it won’t be their last.
While the soldiers battle the spider-legged creature from Hell, muzzle flashes lighting up the night like the Fourth of July, Daniel Cleeve pulls his black ’86 Chevrolet Caprice Classic up to the scene and carefully selects the right shade of aviator sunglasses from the collection he keeps in a foam-padded briefcase on the passenger seat. There’s maybe twelve pairs of sunglasses in total. Some have gold frames, some silver, and all have different colored lenses. This evening, Cleeve chooses a pair with a wine-red tint. He steps out of his company-issued vehicle and adjusts the collar on his blazer, then the cuffs. With a few absentminded flicks of the flint, he lights a gold Zippo and holds it to the end of a Lucky Strike cigarette that’s tucked in between his lips. There’s something inscribed on the casing of the Zippo, some kind of sigil he traces with his thumb. His lips move wordlessly under his handlebar mustache as he goes over the board-approved “Next Steps After A Bleed” flowchart in his mind. A jet stream of cigarette smoke trails behind him as he walks to the edge of the pit that used to be One Horse, ready to greet whatever it is that is now butchering soldiers.
Cleeve checks the gold Casio watch on his wrist, the sanguine thrum of more company helicopters approaching from the north. Hopefully, this little meet-and-greet goes a bit more smoothly than the last one, which just so happened to be in Kentucky as well. Hopkinsville was a mess, and Cleeve doesn’t have time for that right now. He has a plane to catch after this, and he’d like to be present before the next hole punches in from the cosmic slurry, not after. According to the techs back at the labs in Apex Door HQ, it should be happening way up north in Michigan, in a little town called Grafting. And it should be happening soon.
Friday, October 27, 1995
Barry & Lich
Roughly sixteen hours until the Grafting Quake
The clouds above Grafting are a dune-scape upside down, brushed with the pale orange glow of impending daylight. They are low in the sky, and they are heavy. The people of Grafting don’t know it yet, but their town is about to Bleed.
Amongst the sleepy Grafting residents is Barry, sitting with his feet hanging over the edge of his van’s floorboard, door slid open to allow for some fresh air circulation this brisk, sunny morning, as he tries to smoke a Camel cigarette without hating the taste. It’s not his cigarette of choice, it’s just the brand he stole from the inside pocket of his mother’s boyfriend’s jacket. His mom Judy and her latest fling Karl are inside the trailer home next to the van. As it is, there isn’t much space in there, the walls are made out of sawdust and Elmer’s Glue. So, ever since Karl started showing up, Barry has been living in his long-gone dad’s old van, parked in the gravel driveway underneath a trellis of dead vines.
Barry is almost eighteen, and he reckons he’s got the same look his father must’ve had while smoking a cigarette on these very floorboards, back in the old man’s “lone wolf days”—that’s how Senior referred to the late ’70s. The van is just about all that’s left of him.
Barry leans back in his cocoon of a sleeping bag and turns on the Mr. Coffee plugged into an adapter in the cigarette lighter next to the radio. Soon, there’s a steaming coffee mug in his hand, and his face contorts from the first sip. Like always, he forces himself to appreciate the bitterness of the drink. He’s feeling both way too old for this shit, and far too young. Barry reaches for his guitar, also a relic of his father’s, a vintage Gibson Explorer, all black. He works his way through a blues bar along the twelfth fret.
Windows of the trailer are open behind him because it’s that weird time of year where the afternoons are hot, and the nights are cold as hell. So, you sleep with the windows open. Can always add more blankets. Barry can hear Karl’s ragged snoring, but that’s not the worst of what Barry has heard, sitting there since the moon was bright in the sky. He heard the other stuff, too, in the quiet between songs on his Discman.
As the dawn breaks all the way to broken, a golden beam of sunlight strikes the undeniable masterpiece of a mural painted on the van’s exterior. I mean, just look at it! This is a 1980 Dodge Street Van, the round bubble-window on its side like something from Nemo’s Nautilus, only it’s been painted over to resemble a full moon; and three wolves, airbrushed with photographic detail, are howling at it. The van is otherwise brown…ish, but that graphic, man. That moon. It looks just like the real one Barry had been staring at all night. Those wolves, the way they howl, Barry gets it. He sometimes thinks maybe one of them is Senior. Middle one, probably.
Barry sets his guitar on the rumpled sleeping bag behind him and hops out of the van. He tosses the empty coffee mug into the weeds as he steps inside the trailer.
It’s the kind of quiet that’s unsettling, keeps you on your toes, like when you enter a sleeping dragon’s chamber and you’re low on hit points. Which is fine with Barry. He knows all about that. Just the other night during a Dungeons & Dragons session, he and his party took it to a dragon, no problem. So, this is nothing. Barry knows just how to sneak through his own home.
Of course, Karl had come home last night in a pair of whitewashed Lee’s, and of course those jeans are on the floor next to Judy’s bed. They’re like the denim version of a can crushed on a forehead, compressed from the top down, hastily unzipped and stamped out of with the urgency of middle-aged horniness. And of course, the worn wallet in the back pocket is thick as a goddamn brick.
In his Dungeons & Dragons group, Barry isn’t a rogue, or a thief, or a weak-ass halfling. He’s a motherfucking highland warrior. When they meet every other week at Sammy’s house, Barry brings his sword, Bludzorg, and with it, he fucks shit up. There’s catharsis in being loud and obnoxious like that, like all the men his mom has brought home since Senior departed the land of the living. With Bludzorg in hand, decibels belong to Barry. Not to Karl or the others before him. Barry’s the one who gets to be loud and violent. He’s no slouch though. His highland warrior is unmatched in battle, but he also knows how to sneak, how to steal shit from orcs and stuff.
So, it’s with ease that Barry plucks that brick of a wallet from Karl’s jeans and pulls all the cash from the billfold without either snoring adult waking in the slightest. He scores eleven one-dollar bills from the theft. Nice.
On his way out, he thinks: Yeah, Bludzorg can come too. The sword hangs in a room he hasn’t slept in since who knows when. He snatches the sword, kisses the blade, and then leaves without a sound.
The county fair is held not far out of town, on the way to Makade City, and the county fair is like Grafting’s Woodstock. This is northern Michigan, after all. I know the county fair might not mean much to you, but it does to these folks. Grafting is small, but you should see the towns around it. By comparison, Grafting might as well be Detroit. So, when the county fair is on, it’s more like the “upper state fair” in this part of Michigan, with dozens of tiny towns all showing up. Barry and his friends always throw a tent out there on that weekend. The shit they get into, man.
Every year, a blacksmith pitches a yurt on the same spot along the main strip of the fair, and for years, Barry beelined to that yurt, found himself there every day, looking at the medieval-style weapons that hung from the canvas walls. Eventually, the urge to act became too great, so he stole money from the jar of cash beside Judy’s bed—from the wallet of her current one-night-stand—then walked into that yurt, grabbed the sword—that glorious work of art—and said aloud, “This is mine!” Whispered to the sword, “You are Bludzorg.”
So yeah, Bludzorg now rests against the back of Barry’s sleeveless black denim jacket, frayed at the shoulders, as he raises a middle finger to the trailer door closing behind him.
“Fuck yourself,” Barry says to everything still inside. Especially Karl. Fuck Karl.
Barry hops in the driver’s seat of his van and sinks into the faux-sheepskin seat cover. He tries the engine, but even in mid-October, it’s still cold enough to need convincing. After a few attempts, it finally turns over, and the whole unit rumbles. Barry’s got the defroster on blast. He presses a tape adapter into the deck, the other end plugged into his Discman, and pulls a binder full of burned CDs. He leafs through the wilting plastic pages for…something. It’s early, man, so nothing heavy, not yet. Nine times out of ten, it’s Misfits, The Cramps, Scorpions, Metallica, or Dio. But this morning? It’s Simon & Garfunkel. He skips to “America.”
Once there’s a baseball-sized patch of defrosted windshield, Barry feels that’s good enough to navigate the streets of Pistol River Sunrise, the trailer park he was born and raised in. Soon, he’s pulling out onto Plainview Road, headed east towards town. Pistol River Sunrise is soon behind him, and the Zettle farmlands are racing by. Then, Pistol River Golf Course, and finally, the intersection of Plainview and Higgins. Higgins is the main artery running through Grafting, and at that intersection is Roscoe’s Trading Post, a gas station that serves as a last bastion, a sentry tower, a cairn at the edge of civility and lawless lands. The lawless lands in this scenario are from whence Barry came, and the civility is Grafting-proper, a right on Higgins and down the avenue some. He pulls into the station’s gravel lot and rolls the van up to the brick building. He knows Roscoe and his better half Suzanna have opened the joint by now. Their house is right behind the station, and Barry saw their Rottweiler, Brick, lying in the yard as he pulled in.
Barry steps out of the van, eleven one-dollar bills burning a hole in his pocket. But what’s this now, plastered on the blue-painted cinder block of Roscoe’s?
“Ah, there you are,” he says aloud.
It’s a show poster. Lettered inside a banner dripping with blood is the announcement: THE MOW IS BACK. Below the announcement are the names of five bands: Wolf Harp, Alien Organ Donor, Motel Bloody Hell, Friday the 666th, and Broodthirsty. A flying saucer hovers above the band names, and caught in its tractor beam is a cow with a joint in its mouth.
“The MOW is fuckin’ back.” Barry can feel the anticipation strike a match in his gut. “And I’m playing opening night. And opening night is tonight.” Hell-to-the-fuckin’-yeah.
He pushes his way into Roscoe’s.
“Hey kid, we don’t want any trouble,” says Roscoe. His voice is a slab of concrete, his words dredged from the other side of decades of smoking a pack of Pall Malls a day.
“Well, trouble is here, man,” says Barry.
Roscoe wears a red polo, upon the chest of which his name is stitched in cursive. Wispy gray hair hangs to his shoulders.
“Yeah, I can tell. How you doin’, son? Judy okay?”
Barry shrugs, makes his way to the snack aisle. “I’m fine, man. Judy’s whatever. How’s it hangin’?”
“Low and to the left.”
Barry laughs, scans the shelves for a very specific snack. “Gross, man.”
“Extra brown spots this morning too.”
Barry shakes his head, “You need mental help.” Then he sees it, the reason he stole whatever cash was in Karl’s wallet, the reason he stopped at Rotten Roscoe’s in the first place. Freshly stocked on the third row from the bottom, the waxy packaging of Donner’s Cherry Pies. Man, those pies. Chunky sugar crystals over a flaky crust, sour cherries inside. Barry snatches three. Two are for him, because he’s a growing boy, and one is for Lich. To complete this breakfast of champions, Barry snatches a jug of Sunny Delight from the refrigerated section, then plops his bounty on the counter in front of Roscoe.
Roscoe raises a wiry gray eyebrow at Barry. “Donner pies again, huh? You know I only stock those things ’cause of your ass?”
“Thanks, Ross.” Barry smiles.
“I hear the cherry filling is really a mix of cow testicles and mouse eyeballs,” Roscoe says as he scans the three Donner Cherry Pies and the Sunny Delight.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“Yeah, I was young once too.”
“Oh, and a pack of Camel Reds for my dear old mom, please.”
Roscoe stops, locks eyes with Barry from beneath a Neanderthal brow. “You seriously pulling this shit again, Barry?”
Barry smiles. “You never know.”
“I do know, actually,” says Roscoe. “That ain’t even Judy’s cigarette. Tell me you’re not smoking Camel Reds.”
“’Kay, I won’t.”
“Barry, seriously kid. You’re not even old enough to buy cigarettes, for one.”
“Eh, I’m eighteen in two months.”
“Secondly,” Roscoe continues, “you should keep in mind that the best time to quite smoking is before you start.”
Barry rolls his eyes. “Jesus, you sound like Principal Comely.”
“Just think about it, kid. You’ll end up like me if you’re not careful.”
“A successful business owner with a peach of a wife and a bad-ass dog? Sign me up.”
Roscoe shakes his head. “It wasn’t easy.” He hands Barry’s breakfast to him.
“Thanks, man. I’ll catch ya later.”
“Seriously, Barry, I think—“
Suddenly, the whole station shudders. It’s as if the floor is a vinyl record that skips on the turn table. Everything shifts just slightly to the left, then locks back in. It’s subtle, only violent enough to knock some snack-sized chip bags onto the checkered tile linoleum and cause the beef jerky display next to the cash register to topple on its side.
Barry has to steady himself with one hand on the counter, and he nearly drops his bag of Donner Cherry Pies and Sunny Delight. He and Roscoe blink at each other.
From the back, Suzanna shouts Roscoe’s name.
Suzanna emerges. “What the fuck was that? Oh hi, Barry. You feel that?”
“Honey—” starts Roscoe, and the pair descend into a whole back and forth about what happened, what needs to be done about it, what needs cleaning, checked on, etcetera, so Barry leaves without saying goodbye.
On his way out, he glances at the show poster for opening night at the MOW, and whatever happened in there is already ancient history. He climbs into the van, fires it up, and makes his way down Higgins towards the courthouse.
Higgins is still fairly empty of traffic this early. There’s a couple of cars parked along the street downtown, most likely belonging to last night’s later patrons of Lumberjack’s Tavern. So, Barry makes good time. He glances at the old abandoned factory as he passes by. It’s tucked away on an overgrown private drive just down the street from the courthouse. He and his friends always referred to it as the Door Factory, having broken into it countless times in search of copper wire to scrap, or just to spook themselves on the creepy vibes. Its nickname came from what they’d stumbled upon way in the back: tall industrial-sized shelves loaded with molded doors in various states of manufacturing, covered in dust and long since claimed by spiders and termites and who knows what else.
That seemed like a lifetime ago, back when Barry’s dad was still around, and Barry would ride shotgun in the pickup. He’d spend most of the day in the front seat of Senior’s Chevy, while the old man would sit on the hood, waiting. That was in the parking lot of Scott’s Hardware, and Senior was offering two strong hands and capable woodworking skills to the patrons on their way out. When he was on this side of town, Barry couldn’t help but reminisce about these local haunts. It was liked dipping his toes into the cold springs of nostalgia.
He pulls the van to a stop in the courthouse parking lot, gathers his Donner Cherry Pie bounty, and follows the sound of a weed trimmer coming from the other side of the building. A bright orange extension cable snakes from the brick building’s corner, and Barry grins as an idea forms. He shifts his payload into the crook of one arm, bends down, and unplugs the cable. The sound of the weed trimmer dies, and in that silence, he hears Lich.
“What the hell?”
Barry can hear the sound of his poor friend smacking at the weed trimmer. Then, he plugs the orange cable back in.
The weed trimmer whirs back to life, and just when Barry feels like Lich is comfortable enough whacking those weeds, he unplugs it again.
Barry hears the clank of the weed trimmer being dropped into dewy grass, and finally, what he had been counting on all along: Lich’s approaching footsteps. Just as Lich turns the corner, Barry leaps at him with the unplugged extension cord in one hand, a Donner Cherry Pie in the other. “Special delivery!”
Lich leaps back with a yelp. Then the horror washes away as he sees Barry, who is on his knees, smacking the wet grass histrionically, back hitching with laughter.
And then Lich—
But wait. What the hell kind of name is Lich, anyway?
Lich and Barry play Dungeons & Dragons together every week. Years ago, Lich’s character died early in the campaign, and his soul was transferred into the undead lich the party had been fighting at the time. I know, maybe that doesn’t explain things, but for the group, it was everything, so now he’s just Lich. Barry joined the D&D group after Lich earned his moniker, so Barry doesn’t even know Lich’s real name. He just knows that Lich is his best friend.
“You done, man?” Lich asks Barry, who’s rolled onto his back, catching his breath, pies, Sunny Delight, and extension cable spilled all around him.
Lying there, Barry inhales deeply, wipes at his eyes, and nods. He holds up the extension cord. “Need this? Come on, dude, got a job to do. Weeds ain’t gonna whack themselves.”
Lich shakes his head, snatching the cable. He plugs it into the outlet.
“It’s dangerous to go alone,” Barry says in a terrible, low-register English accent, handing Lich one of the Donner Cherry Pies. “Take this.”
“Oh, hell yes.” Lich snatches it and tears through the packaging.
The two boys lean back against the pale brick of the courthouse and eat in silence as the sun burns from blue to orange in the waning dawn hours. Barry takes a pull from the Sunny Delight, then hands it over to Lich, who does the same.
“You know,” says Lich, “hedge trimmers are in the shed back there if you want to make yourself useful.”
“Eh, I wouldn’t know how to get into the shed.”
“It’s unlocked, man.”
“I don’t know, Lich. Sounds like it could be a liability issue. What if I lose my head in a tragic hedge-trimming accident? Then, City of Grafting is suing you, and yeah. Too risky,” Barry pats Lich’s shoulder, “I wouldn’t want to do that to you.”
Lich smiles, shaking his head. “Whatever.”
“So, guess what.”
“Show at the MOW tonight. Want to go?”
Lich smiles. “Oh yeah? Say, Wolf Harp isn’t playing are they?”
Barry hocks a loogie that’s neon red from the Donner Cherry Pie filling. “You ready to play?”
Lich nods. “Can’t wait.”
“Been a while since we dusted off our old Wolf Harp tunes.”
“Yeah. How do you feel about it?”
“I can’t wait, either.”
For a moment, they just lean there against the courthouse brick, mouths full of pie.
“How’d they sneak that one past Sheriff Keller? His life’s mission is shutting the MOW down.”
Barry shrugs. “Our job is not to ask, dear buddy.”
Lich sighs. “Is there a cover?”
“Bet there is. Old Man Rudy may be a punk rocker, but he’s cheap as hell.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Lich says. “Is it going to go late, you think? I mean, we’re opening, so I should be able to pack up my drum kit and get out early. Right?”
“Dude, what? You don’t want to sneak beers with me after the gig?” Barry waves dramatically. “Those are victory beers, dude. We need those.”
“Yeah, I get it.” Lich shakes his head. “It’s not like I don’t want to… Just, I don’t know. It depends.”
And then Barry gets it. “Oh. Your mom is pulling another Houdini?”
“Fuckin’ bitch, dude.”
“Come on, man,” Lich says quietly.
Barry sighs. “Sorry. It just seems like she’s leaving you alone with the twins more and more lately. These benders she goes on… It just pisses me off.”
“Yeah. Anyway, I can’t leave the twins alone too late if she’s still gone after school. And even if she’s back, well, probably still can’t leave them, ya know?”
Barry shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and claps Lich heavily on the back. “Fuck it. We can just not show if it comes down to it.” He smiles. “That’d be pretty metal anyway. We can always crush some Golden Eye instead. Sheriff Keller will probably sniff the thing out and shut it down anyway. Probably best not to be there when he’s hungry for blood.”
Lich smiles. “You’re not tired of getting your ass kicked in Golden Eye?”
“Look at the balls on this kid. Just keep picking Jaws, and I’ll keep whooping your ass.”
“Whatever, man. Real original playing as Bond.”
Barry holds up his index finger like his hand is a Luger, hums the James Bond theme, then pretends to blast Lich in the face with the finger gun. “All right. We got school in like an hour. Where’s those damn hedge trimmers?”
The Show Will Go On
Roughly eleven hours until the Grafting Quake
What is this, second period? And what subject is this? Math? Science? Whatever it is, don’t ask Barry. He has no fucking clue. He’s been on auto-pilot since the first bell, and now he’s just scribbling in the margins of that college-ruled notebook he stole from the school lost-and-found last month. So far today, he’s done his best freehand rendition of the Metallica logo, sketched a capital “S” with a pyramid for a hat and an upside down pyramid for a bottom, and in the top left corner, he’s doodled a pretty decent xenomorph chasing after R2-D2. Various iterations of the logo for his own band, Wolf Harp, fills the rest of the page. He’s working on one now that has a Judas Priest look to it, when Mrs. Camden calls on him.
Barry snaps to, or so he thinks. The haze of stupor clears to sort of let him know that this might actually be the third or fourth time Mrs. Camden has called on him. Barry’s good at improvising, but he missed the initial question, so all he’s got to work with is…
Barry looks around the class like, Can you believe what’s happening here? But they just look back at him like yeah, they can.
Barry finds Lich at the back of the classroom. Lich is mouthing something, but goddamn, what is he saying? Barry squints, answers back with a wordless huh? It should be easy enough for his friend to understand, and Lich does, but all he can do in response is…mouth harder? What the hell, Lich?
Mrs. Camden spots the wordless exchange, so she interrupts with, “Barry, can you repeat my question?”
Shit. How will Barry get a whole Camden-question from his pal’s terrible lip synching? Lich, bless him, starts to try, but no. Time for a new tactic. Time to go Wolf Harp on the situation. Do what he does when he has his Gibson Explorer—just shred in the key of Doom.
“Can I ask a question about that, Mrs. Camden?”
She looks befuddled. Caught off guard. Perfect. “About what?”
Wait. What subject is this, again? Barry’s mind races. It’s, uh, well… It can only be one of a handful of things, so he decides to roll the dice. Second period is now American History.
“Isn’t that a matter of interpretation?” he asks. Because what about history isn’t?
Mrs. Camden frowns, and some in the class chuckle. “No,” she says. “Solving for x is most certainly not a matter of interpretation.”
Barry snaps his fingers. “Oh, right. My mistake.”
Second period is not American History, by the way.
Barry continues, “In that case, you just gotta figure out what y is.”
Mrs. Camden nods. “And what is y?”
At this point, Barry knows he’s in Algebra I, which is actually third period, not second, so at least he can now fail in key. “Uh…thirty?”
And that’s when the bell rings. Phew. Close one.
Under the watchful eye of Mrs. Camden, Barry packs up his scribbles like they’re as important as the real notes the other students had been taking. Maybe she’ll believe the answer to What is y? really is in his notebook if he packs it right.
He and Lich walk out of the classroom together, and there is no confusion about what period comes next. If that was third period, then next comes fourth, and fourth period is lunch.
“You hungry?” Barry asks.
“Starving to death,” Lich confirms.
Lunch at Ottawa Heights.
Imagine an episode of Nature, David Attenborough’s golden voice strangely audible in your ear, as you survey the landscape of foldout lunch tables and the herd of awkward teens. You see the lions first, because they’re hard to miss. They’re most likely feasting on food paid for with stolen lunch money, and they’re totally laughing about it. Chet is the head lion, and also the starting quarterback for the varsity football team. With him are Patrick, the team’s top wide receiver, and George, the school’s all-conference tight end. The three are also Owls, because that’s the team’s mascot, but forget about that for now.
You see the gazelle table next, because like the lions, they’re also hard to miss. They eat timidly from a cluster of sandwich baggies they’ve packed for themselves even though their parents give them lunch money every day. The gazelles know where they stand, and they know their lunch money will be stolen, so they plan ahead. The gazelles are weak, not stupid.
You see other types of animals too. Chattering hyenas, sloths baked out of their gourds, peacocks, chameleons, even those weird little beetles that roll big balls of dung.
And finally, there’s Barry and Lich.
Lich’s family doesn’t have much, so like all the great bottom feeders of the world, he learned at a young age to value the scraps. So, every day after fourth period ends, he gathers up all the empty soda cans left out on the lunch tables, and at the end of the week, takes them to the bottle drop at the IGA, which pays him enough money to buy another week of hot lunch. Today, he’s used that money to snatch two trays of cheese pizza, sliced into squares, both of which go straight into his backpack in exchange for a butter sandwich wrapped in newspaper, Lich’s actual lunch this afternoon. If you’re not familiar, a butter sandwich is two slices of slightly stale Wonder bread separated by a thin spread of salted IGA-Select butter that’s only a few days beyond it’s expiration date. Yum.
But hey, at least the twins will have dinner tonight.
Barry, meanwhile, just guzzles those half-pint chocolate milks that come in the tiny cartons, not a care in the world. Every day, he slugs that shit like he’s just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but he’s cool with it as long as this is how he gets to go out. In Barry’s humble opinion, whatever the hell is in those carton chocolate milks is worth more than all the hot lunches in the world.
Approaching them now is Sammy. She has stringy brown hair and wears a rumpled green military jacket that’s several sizes too big. She plops down next to Barry, who glances across the table at Lich like, ready?
“Have you leveled up?” she asks, pushing up her square glasses and dropping a stack of binders and notebooks onto the table. Sammy is rare among the bottom feeders. She’s got a tray with a steaming square of cheese pizza, just there, out in the open.
Barry laughs. “Have I leveled up?” He swivels his head to lock eyes with Lich across the table. “Have I leveled up?”
Lich smiles, then takes a bite of his butter sandwich.
Barry levels his gaze on Sammy. “Are you seriously asking if I, Bludzorg the Dismemberer, leveled up after our last session?”
Sammy rolls her eyes, already flipping to the checklist in her dungeon master journal. “Fine, so you’re prepared to use your new abilities?”
Barry’s cocky grin droops somewhat. Quietly, he asks, “Which abilities did I unlock?”
“Whatever,” says Sammy, and she hands him the player’s handbook. “Make sure you’re ready for next Wednesday, okay?”
Lich pauses his chewing.
Barry glances at his frowning friend, then back to their noble dungeon master. “Why?”
“Because,” Sammy says. “Next session will be a TPK if you’re not utilizing your next-level abilities.”
“Fair enough,” says Barry. He shrugs at Lich, and Lich shrugs back in agreement, takes another bite of his butter-wich.
“Fair enough,” repeats Sammy. She folds her D&D journal shut and moves on to her movie journal. She freehands a series of squares across a blank page and starts sketching different camera shots within each one.
“What are you working on?” Lich asks.
Sammy turns the notebook so that the pages face Barry and Lich. She places her finger on the first storyboard panel. “Fade in,” she says. “A young college girl, brunette, cute, watches from the backseat of a VW bus as her friends pick up the last friend for their weekend camping trip.”
She points to the next square.
“Mandy is her name. She leans forward to ask Bradly if he’s sure this is a good idea.” Sammy deepens her voice, pretends to be Bradley, “Yeah, babe. No one camps in the canyon this time of year.”
She points to the third square.
“Their new friend, Billy, pulls out a bong and they all start smoking it. Mandy asks if anyone is nervous about the canyon. Wasn’t it just one year ago that all those Boy Scouts disappeared without a trace?”
“Title screen.” Sammy grins. “What do you get when you cross Night of the Living Dead with Friday the 13th and The Hills Have Eyes?
Barry and Lich look to each other for the answer, but neither says a word.
“The CREEPS…” Sammy shouts, “…Of Casper’s Canyon! A few nearby students look up from their lunches, seemingly baffled by the outburst, and Sammy settles back into her regular speaking volume without paying them any mind. “Its my new film. Just getting started.” She thumbs through the rest of the storyboard. “Anyway, Barry, you’re the stoner they pick up in the beginning. And Lich, well, you’re one of the creeps, no offense.”
Lich takes a pretend bow.
“Problem is, I’m sorta stuck.”
“Why?” asks Barry. He aggressively slurps the final drops from his chocolate milk carton.
“Because,” Sammy explains, “my characters have to be really dumb to investigate Casper’s Canyon further. But they also have to keep investigating Casper’s Canyon further.”
“Oh,” says Lich. He doesn’t really get it. He’s thinking about the square pizzas in his backpack and how he’d love to take just one little bite.
“So, whats the big deal?” Barry asks. “Just make the characters dumb.”
Sammy glares at him. “The Creeps of Casper’s Canyon is set to be my big statement to the world of cinema, my shot across the bow of all the other indie filmmakers out there. And in that spirit, I refuse to sacrifice my characters to the plot. My characters are complex. They have real motivation. They—”
“Why do they have to investigate?” Lich asks.
Sammy blinks. “Because they hear screaming,” she says.
“Who’s doing the screaming?” asks Barry.
“Their friend,” says Sammy. “Patty. She was just stabbed to death by one of the creeps.”
“Why shouldn’t they investigate that?” Barry asks. “Their friend is in trouble.”
“Yeah,” says Sammy, “but they’re not going to put themselves in danger. They don’t even know if they can help.”
“But Patty is their friend,” Barry says. He looks at Lich like, Why is this so hard for her to get?
Sammy rolls her eyes. “Okay. Maybe I’ll just have them call the cops.”
“Patty’s their friend, Sammy.”
“Forget it,” Sammy says, folding the notebook. “Hey, I saw your guys’ band on a show poster out front. Are you really playing tonight at The MOW?”
Barry glances at Lich. “Maybe,” he says.
“I just need to make sure the twins are okay first,” says Lich.
Sammy pushes her glasses up her nose. “Your mom gone again?”
Sammy sighs. “Jesus, man. First off, fuck her.”
“Come on, Sammy,” Lich says. “That’s my mom.”
“Yeah, sometimes,” Sammy says. “Whatever. What if I watch the twins tonight? Would you guys be able to play?”
“Oh, shit,” Barry says. He looks expectantly at Lich.
Lich mulls it over. Sammy can’t be any worse than he is at watching the twins, and she’d definitely be much better than his mom. “Yeah, okay,” he says.
“Eyyy,” Barry exclaims in his best Fonz impression. “Hell yeah, Lich!” He climbs on top of the lunch table and starts air-guitaring right there in front of everyone. “Wolf Harp rides again… Tonight!”
Lich can’t help himself. He pulls his drumsticks from his back pocket and assaults the laminate tabletop with a God-forsaken paradiddle.
The lions don’t like that. Chet looks at Patrick, who looks at George. They should be the ones at the center of everyone’s attention. Not Barry and fucking Lich. Chet is thinking about all the ways to put them in their place.
With his pinky and forefinger, Barry thrusts the horns to the ceiling. With his other hand, he points at Lich. “You ready, buddy?” He shouts with fried vocals.
Lich just nods, then rips a mock drum fill across the tabletop—imaginary snare, across several toms, down to the floor tom—but instead of finishing with a ghost crash, he points his right-hand drumstick at Barry.
Barry grins, then plops back down to his seat. “God,” he says, shaking his head. “I can’t fucking wait.”
Twenty minutes before the quake
The East side of Grafting, Michigan, lives off a five-day work week just like everywhere else in the country, but outside those five days, there’s these two days, Saturday and Sunday, that are kind of like a pocket dimension for the town’s east-side residents. To them, these days are more than just the weekend; they exist entirely outside of normal space-time. The east side landmark, Lumberjack’s Tavern, for example, is packed full of familiar faces every Saturday night, and to every patron there, drink in hand, Friday afternoon is a distant memory, and Monday is merely an abstraction, a thought experiment, a vague promise of something that might one day come to be. But not now. Now is Friday night. There’s dancing, there’s fighting, and there’s drinks—cloudy drinks, warm drinks, and cheap drinks that should be even cheaper. Joe's Pub on the other end of the east-downtown sprawl has the spillover. The East Grafting residents that aren’t at Lumberjack’s are there. Time is meaningless in both places, because both places exist on the wrong side of the tracks.
The good side of the tracks is on the west side of downtown, with it’s old brick buildings, cobblestone streets, and fairy lights strung from the manicured trees along quiet Higgins Ave. They can have their Copper Mill Park, with its pristine beaches along the Pistol River. East Grafting is where real Michiganders live, and where they’ve lived for generations. I mean, hell, someone’s gotta grow all the veggies for those west-side seasonal salads, and slaughter the cattle for all their double-bacon pub cheeseburgers on toasted pretzel rolls, right? The harvest and the red meat comes from east of the tracks. You’re welcome.
Anyway, let’s look at The MOW.
Those tracks cut a line straight through Grafting, wrapping around the downtown and eventually running parallel to Higgins Ave., where Higgins becomes Highway 99. If you fired up an old Ford and went south along 99 on your way out of Grafting, and came to where you saw the tracks running alongside, you might just miss a place like The MOW. Six days a week, it’s an empty building, full of nothing but ghosts and settled dust. Looks exactly like what it is: an abandoned Maintenance-of-Way structure beside the railroad’s ballast, a building not utilized since the logging days. Well, not utilized as a lineside structure anyway.
See, five days a week it’s a tomb, but on Friday and Saturday, it’s a port-of-call for all the punks, grunge monkeys, metalheads, and social pariahs in Grafting and the surrounding towns. On Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a venue for whatever music must only be played outside of town, in an otherwise empty building astride the railroad. Tonight’s show is a lineup of stoner rock bands from south Michigan, just one local playing. Inside the MOW, it’s all denim jackets with cutoff sleeves, Megadeath T-shirts, shoulder-length hair, and the musky scent of teenage body odor mixed with the tang of an older brother’s ditch weed. The concrete floor is slick with sweat, spit, and spilled gas station beer. There’s a mosh pit near the stage. If you don’t want to get cracked in the skull by a flailing elbow, give that section a wide berth.
The local band tonight is Wolf Harp, a two-piece stoner metal outfit working the moshers into a frenzy with their syncopated double-kick, drop-C riffage. Screeching solos split the thunderous halftime feel. That’s Barry’s outfit. Him and Lich, they are melting that crowd.
Playing guitar is one thing. But playing on stage? In front of what feels like a million raised hands, in the humidity of a thousand lungfuls of breath, lost in that singular haze of body heat? It’s just different, man. It’s just different. Your best friend is behind you, pounding the drum kit with all of the conviction of a thunderstorm. A whirling crowd amalgamates before you. Some of them are your age. Others among the audience are older than your dad would be if he was still alive. That crowd, it’s an organism writhing as one unit, an ocean tide dredging up entire human bodies to float and kick and punch the air, screaming and sweating as they drift across a sea of reaching hands. Barry, smashing a vintage Elektro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal, is the moon right now, pulling this crowd towards him like the moon pulls the tide.
Barry drags a note along the high E string, all the way from the first fret to the thirteenth. His black Gibson Explorer shrieks in saturated fuzz like it never did when it was his dad’s guitar way back when. Certainly not anytime he saw his dad wield the thing, which was only ever unplugged, the quarter-inch cable just spooled away from the jack beneath the bridge pickup to snake its way towards the ghost of a Marshall stack that Barry Sr. had pawned at some point, for some unknown reason. Dear old Dad would look back from time to time just to make sure that, yeah, he really had gone and pawned it, and all he’d see in its stead was a rectangle of permanently compressed carpeting stamped where the Marshall stack used to be. Cat lays there now.
Barry, just a lad at the time, heard Senior talk about how much the Marshall stack was worth. And Barry really noticed the black Gibson Explorer. Wanted it. Coveted it. That’s why when his dad went to go pawn everything, Senior couldn’t find the black Gibson Explorer anywhere. Tore the trailer apart looking for it. Never looked under the trailer, though. Behind the lattice skirt, with all its purple Morning Glories.
Barry didn’t go back beneath the trailer for it until a few years later, the day Senior croaked. Dug it out from a few generations of growth that had been trying to break the thing down in its hardshell case, as if it was biodegradable or something. He extracted it from the broken lattice, snapping away roots and shaking away topsoil. He opened the case one latch at a time and held that guitar up to the Michigan sun like King Arthur must’ve wielded Excalibur.
Barry screams into the mic with a deep-fried vocal. He’s Merlin, not Arthur. A wizard. And he has everyone under his spell. He and Lich are playing their version of “Sad But True” by Metallica. And what Barry screams into the mic is a beckoning for nothing less than more. More violence, more emotion, more fuck you. And the crowd is responding. Devil horns and middle fingers pierce the air above the roiling crowd below.
It’s Barry and Lich up there on a makeshift stage, hastily constructed in slapdash planks pulled from the piles behind this old Maintenance-of-Way structure alongside the railroad tracks. Barry screams, his face painted red beneath the stage lights, and Lich is a blur behind the drums, shirtless and wearing only basketball shorts.
This is Wolf Harp. The way Barry wields his guitar like a true axe, the way Lich pounds at those drums with his stainless steel drumsticks. Let’s put it this way: they’re opening this night, and Alien Organ Donor is up next, and the guys from Alien Organ Donor are considering leaving.
What could top this? I mean, look at those guys. Barry has his foot on the stage monitor, guitar propped on his knee. He’s gritting his teeth all the way through a tap solo north of the twelfth fret (that’s danger zone), ripping back to a chord progression in drop C, three keys below standard tuning. Closer to Hell. Everyone here, closer to Hell. And loving it.
Only the rage of Mother Earth herself could match this show. Earth head-banging on its axis; that alone is the follow up to Wolf Harp.
And somehow, that’s exactly what happens.
At first, it’s hard to tell. Because the whole building is rattling, isn’t it? Been doing that since Barry introduced a half step riff, C to C# in a specific interval with Lich’s double-kick. The old planks that compose the floor began their ripple then, and the crowd worked that shit up to a tempus.
But then the stage lights fall into the crowd.
At first, its like, hell yeah. They fall in a shower of sparks, and the crowd absorbs that violence back into their mosh pit.
But then the floor drops out, and half the crowd is swallowed into a dark pit.
As the stage begins to cave in, a warm molten glow emanates from a cloud of steam and some noxious gas that’s been regurgitated from the bowls of the planet.
Barry, he’s there to play a gig. He’s a professional. Lich holds down the beat, looking a little worried, but won’t stop as long as Barry keeps shredding the neck of his Gibson Explorer.
The ceiling is now collapsing all around them. Beams fall on the stage around Barry and Lich. Only then, and only because he has no other choice, Barry stops playing, and Lich stops too. They begin fleeing from the stage as the only sounds now are the terrified screams of more and more souls being lost to the yawning pit, and the splintering chaos of an old wooden building crumbling into the Earth’s superheated crust.
Exit stage right, boys.
As if on cue, some important-looking beam collapses onto Lich. Barry can hear his friend crying out amidst the madness, like it’s the only sound for miles, and he goes back for him without hesitation. He flips his guitar around and props the headstock under the beam, then hoists the fallen support with his makeshift lever. He only needs to provide enough clearance for Lich to belly-crawl to freedom.
For a split second, it works. Not what Barry expected. The guitar, endowed with the power of metal, holds. Lich crawls forth from the wreckage, and he reaches a lanky arm to Barry.
Barry grips his best friend’s hand tight. “Come on, buddy!” he shouts.
Lich urges forth a groan to help power his extraction, but just when he’s almost free, another beam falls.
Falls right onto Barry.
In those final moments before unconsciousness, Barry can hear Lich shouting his name. He can hear the screaming, the crumbling, the disaster.
And then he’s gone.
Apex Door Field Assessment Unit 3
Todays Date: Friday, September 8, 1995
Time: 9:03 AM
Assessor Number: 7
Assessor’s Handler: Orson Caster
Location of incident: Grafting, Michigan
Person(s) affected: Calvin Purdy
Reason(s) for field assessment dispatch:
The home of Mr. Purdy was initially identified following an intercepted emergency call made to local police. Mr. Purdy described poltergeist activity that included Board-approved KI’s necessitating dispatch.
Key Indicators mentioned (please refer to the latest edition of the APEX DOOR FIELD ASSESSMENT MANUAL for updated glossary of Key Indicators to choose from):
Loss of sleep
Heightened emotional states of experiencers
Increased tendency towards violent behavior
Adverse response to religious ritual (Christian)
Please describe the incident(s), including any anomalous phenomena:
We visited the home of Mr. Calvin Purdy on the morning of Friday, September 8. Mr. Purdy was initially reluctant to allow us conversation. Upon pulling up in the driveway of the residence, we were met with Mr. Purdy bursting from his home with a pump action shotgun. He greeted us with verbal warnings, indicating violent action was imminent were we to refuse his demand to leave his property. Assessor Seven was able to deescalate the behavior before exiting the vehicle.
We met in his living room, and Mr. Purdy served me coffee.
I interviewed the experiencer and discovered he was the head of a household that included three daughters and two sons, as well as a wife. These individuals were no longer present. According to Mr. Purdy, these individuals had left him, and it was not his fault. It was my impression that Mr. Purdy intended to “shoot” the entities responsible for summoning the poltergeist that now afflicted his domicile.
I was able to expand upon several of the KI material, and I deemed Grafting as meeting the criteria for further assessment, following a specific detail. Mr. Purdy had described one particular visitation from an entity not matching a shadow figure.
He described that recently following the departure of his spouse and offspring, he had been caught off guard to see his wife cross the space in the living room behind the back of his sofa. He witnessed Mrs. Purdy enter the kitchen and turn on the light. According to Mr. Purdy, she had been unresponsive to his attempts at verbal exchange. She turned a corner in the kitchen without a word uttered in response to his pleas and questioning, which included:
“Jen, is that you?”
“Jen, where are you going?”
“Why aren’t you talking to me?”
Mr. Purdy pursued Mrs. Purdy into the kitchen and found no individual other than himself occupying the space. Having recalled her location (her sister’s residence in Grand Rapids), he called the number, and a brief conversation made clear that Mrs. Purdy was still in Grand Rapids, a three hour drive from Grafting. The conversation over telephone was apparently brief.
Mr. Purdy was reduced to tears while describing the incident. He attempted to get information from myself and Seven. When we left, he asked how he could get in touch for a follow-up. He appeared emotionally compromised to the point of self-harm.
Seven required a glass of water after its body temperature had clearly increased to detectable levels. Skin yellowed throughout conversation, sweat beaded, and cranial wire was losing security from right ear. He swallowed a stabilizer with the water and was able to continue assessment.
Seven informed me that our unit must remain in Grafting, Michigan, to explore future incidents.
Conclusion & Recommended Next Steps:
The town of Grafting, Michigan, requires further information-gathering. Seven was able to provide me with three locations within Grafting that must be visited next for further assessment.
Increased stipend to include hotel stay. Increased stipend to account for Seven’s insistence that the tap water is contaminated and therefore requires Apex-issued bottled water only. Increased stipend to account for local cafe visits, as they are said to have the best milkshakes north of Detroit.
Friday, October 27, 1995
Small Town Sheriff
Roughly thirteen hours until the Grafting Quake
It’s earlier in the day, and we all know that an earthquake is nigh, due sometime after dark, but we’re taking a look back at late afternoon, when Sheriff John-David Keller is pulling his cruiser up to Rotten Roscoe’s, the gas station on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Ninth Street. It’s approaching the weekend, and that’s when he tops off the gas tank. He checks his reflection in the rearview, using both hands to tuck the wavy bangs of his dark hair behind his ears. His cheeks dimple as he reaches a finger up to his teeth to pick out the remains of this morning’s eggs-on-toast. Exiting the cruiser comes with a fanfare of clanging: keys, cuffs, coiled cable running up the receiver on his shoulder, snagged already on the five-point star pinned to his chest. Keller gets the pump going, flicks the little metal tab into place, and let’s the gambit run itself while he goes inside for his favorite on-duty snack. And no, it isn’t donuts, but nice try. Keller would laugh at that.
A bell jingles above his head as he steps inside the little mart, and Roscoe looks up from his book of crossword puzzles.
“Hey, Sheriff Johnny Boy. Come for the unleaded, stay for the pepperoni sticks, right?”
“That sounds about right. How are you, Roscoe? Staying out of trouble?”
Roscoe, he’s one of those older guys who are as soft and kind-hearted on the inside as they are disheveled and unkempt on the outside. He smiles a broad smile that it is scarce as far as teeth go. His eyes smile too. A haggard beard piles up on the crossword puzzle he’s leaning over. He’s got his red Rotten Roscoe’s work polo on, looks like it’s seen better days. Roscoe stands with a back bent by a life of bad decisions, something he’s doing his damnedest to make up for now in his twilight years. Or as Roscoe would tell you, in his “old youth.”
“Straight as an arrow as always,” Roscoe says as he snatches Keller’s favorite brand of pepperoni sticks off the carousel display next to the cash register. “You see the poster next to the door on your way in?”
Keller glances through the glass door. “Guess I missed it. What’s up?”
Roscoe shrugs. “Check it out on your way out. Hey, how’s the old man doing these days?”
“He’s alright, all things considered. Still has plenty of moments of clarity, so no incidents since the last one.”
The old man is Keller’s dad, Bill. Truth is, those moments of clarity were getting further and further apart. That incident? Well, back in mid-spring, when the snow was just beginning to melt during the day and would freeze into a crusty slush at night, Bill Keller had found himself lost in some memory of the Korean War, dredged up by his Alzheimer’s. Bill stumbled through the streets in boxer shorts and a bathrobe, taking cover behind snow banks, shouting the names of men long since turned to ghosts. And at some point, one of those moments of clarity rushed in long enough for Bill Keller to realize that no, he wasn’t in the Korean War. In fact, that whole mess had wrapped up a lifetime ago, and he was actually somewhere in Northern Michigan. Bill found himself shivering terribly in the middle of a street he didn’t recognize. His eyes were the eyes of a frightened child. He hugged himself there, teeth clattering, and all he could think to do was shout the only name he knew didn’t belong to a ghost: the name of his son. Eventually, porch lights flicked on along the street, and the kinder folk of Grafting helped him inside one of their homes. They all knew Bill Keller, former sheriff for many years. A good man. A man who’d been gracious and selfless for so long that finding him in such a state was almost the same kind of tragedy as finding him dead. Maybe it was worse than that. Unlike his fellow soldiers, Bill may not have given up the ghost yet, but it was certainly haunting him from the inside out. And nights like that night, the ghost was so close that you saw it there, swirling milky white in his terribly sad eyes. Keller had been on duty when the call came, and when it did, he felt an overwhelming sense of shame and inadequacy, and the kind of anger that brings a man to tears. The church stepped in for a while to help Keller take care of Bill until the sheriff was able to arrange for a private nurse who now lived with the Kellers full-time. God bless that woman.
“You good, Sheriff?”
Keller blinks and finds Roscoe looking at him, holding out the sealed pack of pepperoni sticks. “I’m not just good, Roscoe, I’m great.” He winks as he took the pepperoni sticks. The bell jingles above him again as he said, “Be good, Roscoe. I’ll tell Pops you asked about him. He’ll appreciate that.”
Roscoe waves goodbye as the door shuts behind him.
Outside, Keller turns to get a good look at the poster. It’s a flyer for a band called Wolf Harp, playing tonight at the MOW. The flyer promises to “ear-fuck you into another dimension,” which, cute, Keller thinks. Shows at The MOW usually mean a busier-than-normal night for him and his deputies.
“Thanks for the tip, Roscoe,” he says to nobody as he replaces the nozzle back in its pump and fires up the cruiser. Keller tears the seal to his pepperoni sticks, wishing it was the pack of cigarettes they were meant to replace, rolls down the window to let the tang of cured meats the fuck out, and heads to his station.
Let’s hone in on the sheriff’s station for a second. And I do mean a second (well, a handful of them anyway), because what really is there to say about this place? It’s a single-story cinder block building painted tan, like a brutalist built the place and then picked the most lifeless paint swatch for it on the way out. It sits atop a little knot of a hill at the far end of a cracked parking lot that is in such a state of ruin, it looks like Mother Nature is winning the war to reclaim that land for herself. The lot is shared with the county courthouse, the tallest building in all of Grafting, with not two, not three, but four floors full of people busying themselves with boring shit. There’s some patrol cars parked out front of the Sheriff’s station, and there’s also a defunct school bus and some junker Grumman Long Life mail trucks amidst a couple rows of vehicles unclaimed from impound. Looks like Sheriff Keller may be running a scrapyard on the side. Inside the station, its the same linoleum tiling you probably remember from elementary school, white and speckled black to hide the years of accumulated scuff marks. A band of blue brick is the only color amid the tan cinder block hallway.
Any given day, the place is quiet.
There’s a rail-thin woman named Danni sitting in the plastic chairs that make up the waiting room. She may as well get paid by the hour, considering how often she’s in there to collect her baby daddy, a dude with a bleach blond buzz cut, septum piercing, and neck tattoos.
Keller nods at her on the way in. “What’s Jacob gotten himself into now?”
The young woman, and I do mean young—Danni would be a college student in another life—holds a newborn under a nursing cover. She shakes her head, “I swear to God, I am done with his horseshit, Sheriff.”
Any given day, young Danni is done with his horseshit.
Keller nods back, never having broken stride towards his office. He tries to remember if last week Danni had said those exact same words put together that exact same way, or if it’d been the week before.
He can’t go too far without Debs interrupting his step. And this time, he does break stride, because, well, you’ll see.
“Um, excuse me Sheriff, couple calls came in you oughta know about, young man.” Debs sits in her chair at the reception desk as if she was grown from a Petri dish in that very spot. It’s as if her sour tone has enough brine to have fermented her entirely, and her beehive hairstyle looks like a rocket primed for launch because even it knows just how unpleasant this woman is, and it no longer wants to be around.
Keller walks back, leans over the desk and props himself on his elbows. “Is today the day, Debs?”
“Oh, God.” She rolls her eyes, lifting a highlighter-pink Post-it with her notes scribbled ineloquently in red ink. “Will you just take this please?”
“I think it might be. I think today just very well might be the day you and I have been waiting for.”
“I’m gonna go for it.”
“Johnny,” Debs says, a slow smile creeping.
“Debs?” Keller says.
“Oh lord, here we go.”
“Will you make me the happiest man on Earth and—“
“Goodness, you’re too much.”
“—And marry me?” Keller takes her hand.
With a heavy sigh, and a gentle smile, Debs says, “Johnny, you know Ralph and I been married probably since you were still in diapers.”
Keller loops his thumbs in his belt straps. “Oh, you didn’t know? I came out of the womb housebroken.”
“Sure, ain’t that something. Don’t you have some police work you could be attending?”
“Nope,” Keller taps at the badge on his chest, “the day they pinned this on me was the same day all the bad guys packed up and headed for greener pastures.”
Debs shakes her head, laughs like a snorting horse. “If only. I’ve highlighted a few calls for you on this Post-it. Will you take it already?”
He does. “Fine, but I’m coming for you, Debs.” He blows a kiss as he heads back to his office, catches her smiling more deeply than she probably had meant to, but not without rolling her eyes one more time.
The Post-it noted three action items. His campaign manager had requested an appointment (elections weren’t until next November, but she wanted to get an early start). Doug Comely, principal of Ottowa Heights, wanted a call-back. Yeah, naw, John David thinks. High school boys shitting in the urinal was not a county issue. Sorry, Doug, but we’ve been over this. The third item was a complaint about kids skateboarding in Copper’s Park, and he knew that wasn’t a complaint that came in from any phone call. That was Debs’s own grievance.
A knock, knock at the doorframe announces Deputy Michael Pipes who he steps into the office carrying two Dixie cups of steaming coffee. “Hey, Sheriff.”
“Mikey, how’s it been?”
Mikey shrugs. “’Nother day in paradise,” he says as he sits in the canvas chair opposite Keller’s desk.
“If this is paradise…” Keller shakes his head to finish the thought. “Thanks for the cuppa Joe.”
“Don’t mention it. How’s your dad?”
“Better,” Keller lies.
“How about the missus?”
“Eh, you know,” says Mikey. “Up my ass.”
“Funny. Usually you’re the only one up there.”
“There’s more room up there than you think,” Mikey says. “Hey, speaking of my wife, I was hoping to punch out early if you think we’ve got the coverage?”
“Early? You getting slack on me, Pipes?”
Mikey laughs. “Nah, but it just so happens to be me and Marie’s anniversary. Wanted to get home before she’s counting sheep.”
“Ah, no shit? Congrats man! Did ya get her something nice?”
A lopsided smile dimples one side of Mikey’s face. “I think so.”
“Well…” Mikey sighs. “Got a minute?”
“Got two, Pipes.”
“So, you know how we honeymooned in Key West?”
“So, while we were out there, Marie just couldn’t get enough of the beach. She loved it. So one day, she wants to go to all these shops and stuff, and I say I want to hang back. But really, I went to the store, got me a Tupperware, and then went to the beach she loved, right to the spot we were hanging out all day. I scooped a bunch of sand into the Tupperware, even found some shells. Last week, I had Cam from Woody Works make a little sign that says”—Mikey gazes out at an invisible Florida sunset, hands splayed—“Mikey and Marie’s Private Key West Beach.” He smiles, proud of himself.
“Mikey, that’s fuckin’ adorable. But tell me you spent more than the dollar for a Tupperware.”
Mikey Pipes holds up a finger. Reaching into his breast pocket with his other hand, he withdraws a velvet box. “Ready?” he asks.
The sheriff nods.
Mikey delicately pulls back the lid and reveals a shining gold band, with a humble diamond crested upon its bevel.
Keller’s eyebrows arch. “Well, look at that.”
“I proposed to Marie with an onion ring, Sheriff.”
“A what now?”
Pipes shrugs. “I couldn’t afford anything. Marie was in school. But she said yes, man. Her dad was able to lend us money for a wedding band at the marriage ceremony, but I always wanted to give her the ring she deserved. So, I’m going to put this ring in our mini beach and propose to her again tonight.”
A wide smile spreads over Keller, the kind that includes the eyes, the ears, the hairline. “You dog,” he says. “She can’t top that. Wow, man.”
“Actually,” Mikey Pipes folds the velvet box shut, tucks it back in his breast pocket. “I think she might.”
“How in the hell so?”
“She hasn’t been drinking when we go out. Been asking me if I could support us in case she needed time off at the hospital. And this morning, I saw a little box gift-wrapped and set on the table. The note on it said ‘I have something to tell you,’ and she drew a little smiley face with heart eyes.”
Keller processes this. Eyes go wide as the imaginary light bulb flicks over his head. “You mean…”
“Kid on the way, Pipes?” Keller’s hands are splayed on the desk.
Mikey Pipes shrugs. “Could be.”
“Hell.” Keller leans back in his chair, which accepts his weight with a shrill squeak. “Who else is on tonight? Art?”
“Oh, well shit,” says Keller. “Tam is better than two Mikey Pipes’s put together. Yeah, no prob, man.”
“Cool. Thanks, Sheriff.”
Mikey stands and is headed for the doorway when John David says, “Oh hey, Mikey.”
“Should I say Deputy Pops?”
Mikey laughs, shakes his head no, not that, not yet.
“Do me a favor and post up out by The MOW. Apparently there’s some rock show going on. Just keep an eye out for a bit before you call it a night, will ya?”
Mikey nods. “Sure thing, boss.”
“And Mike, don’t sweat the small stuff, okay? We’re not here to bust teenagers for smoking Marlboro’s. I just don’t want a bunch of drunk kids operating motor vehicles all over my town. Cool?”
“Roger that.” And Mikey is hasta luego.
It is just Keller and his bright-pink Post-it again. He makes a mental note to call his campaign manager and forget the rest, then crumpled the Post-it and tossed it into the trash.
All Keller can think about is his deputy—a soon-to-be-daddy in a new marriage. The sheriff smiles the kind of smile that’s meant for someone else’s face. It isn’t the smile of a dad, or a husband. He is neither of those, just imagines how nice it must be. It’s a good for you kind of smile.
The ticking wall clock suddenly reminded Keller that time waits for no man, especially not him. There was no partner waiting for him at home, no love of his life he could surprise with a Tupperware full of sand. There wasn’t a ring tucked away in his breast pocket. No promise of the baby he’d always wanted to hold, sing to sleep even on fitful nights. There was no woman to come home to, no loving wife to greet him with the kind of hug that melts away all the pains of the day.
Back at home, there would only be his dad, confused, lost. Maybe in a moment of clarity, the man would recognize his own son. Or maybe at his worst, he would look at Keller like he was a complete stranger, a man he’d never met once in his life. A life that had been extinguished years ago. A life that Keller pretends is still there.
But good for Mikey Pipes. Keller smiles that smile again. Good for him.
The harshness of that bright-pink Post-it pulls him back from the dimension where he’s the husband and the dad he thought he would be by now. What does it say again? Oh, yeah. Time to call Lex Kemper back and set up an appointment to discuss whatever was on her mile-a-minute mind. And by the way, referring to Lex Kemper as “Campaign Manager,” although technically correct, really paints the wrong kind of picture. See, Lex is only eighteen, would be a senior at Ottowa Heights this year had she not been an all-around over-achiever who graduated high school early and fancied a career in politics. She pretty much has her pick of universities, but she wanted to get a jump on the political science stuff anyway. And what better way to do that in a small town like Grafting than to help the town sheriff get re-elected?
Keller gave her the job with a shrug and a handshake, since in his mind, he didn’t have much to worry about in terms of being re-elected. As he’d put it to Lex a few months ago when he first hired her, there’d been a Sheriff Keller in Grafting since before he was born, and there will continue to be a Sheriff Keller in Grafting for as long as he has the strength needed to turn the keys in his cruiser’s ignition—or until he dies, whichever comes first. Besides that, Lex was super excited about the whole idea, and he figured it couldn’t hurt, so why not? Maybe Alexandra Kemper would become President Kemper one day, and in that case, he might as well get on her good side now while he still can.
Keller drags an old office phone across the desk, blazing a trail through unopened mail, loose pencils and pens, and a random assortment of crumbs, then picks up the receiver and dials Lex’s number—which Deb had written on another bright-pink Post-it and stuck to the phone’s cradle. Lex’s mother picked up on the other end.
“Hey, Denise. How are ya? This is Sheriff Keller.”
“Oh hi, Sheriff. I’m great, thanks. You?”
“Swell. Is Lex around? Guess I missed a call from the future president of the free world.”
Denise laughs. “Sorry, but you just missed her. I’ll let her know you called back though.”
“I do appreciate it. Have a good one, Denise.”
Keller hangs up the phone and looks at it for a minute, reckons it may have been white once, before it turned a cream color, and is now the color of American cheese, but he can only guess. Then it’s a few hours of bullshit.
First, he heads to Copper’s Park to shoo the skaters away from the tennis courts. You’re welcome, Debs. An unexpected call comes in from dispatch about a fender bender at the IGA, so deals with that next. Following the fender bender, he passes a vehicle that is just way too obviously blowing past the speed limit. C’mon, man. It’s almost dark by the time he heads back to the station. On they way back, he’ll swing by where Tam has posted up on the north side of town, just to check in. But first, he grabs the two-way radio receiver on his shoulder and aims it at his mouth.
“Hey, Pipes. How are things at the MOW?”
A crackle of static, then: “Looks like a real gas. Judging by the kinds of folks going in and out, I think it’ll be busy. Hopefully they wrap it up soon. Gotta get back to the missus.”
“All right. I’m on my way out to see what’s been going on over on Tam’s side of town. I’ll have her come relieve you. Doubt the north side has been all that active anyway.”
“Thanks, Sheriff. Keep me posted.”
The drive through downtown Grafting is quick, since it barely spans the length of three city blocks. Sure, compared to any town in the neighboring counties, Grafting is like Atlantic City. Or maybe more like Branson, Missouri, but you get the idea. In any case, here’s some of the sights you spy on that twenty mile-per-hour cruise headed in from the north:
First, it’s a Chevron station that sort of marks the spot where signs of civilization start to appear. The post office comes next, three flags whipping atop the poles out front. Then, there’s a slight downward grade to the narrow bridge that crosses Pistol River, and on the other side of the Pistol, there’s a few businesses that look like they used to be houses, not your typical business-y type of structures. A hair salon occupies one, and Wendy, the owner, resides on the top floor. A real estate office occupies another, but its always darkened and locked up since Grafting isn’t exactly a hot destination for new prospective home buyers—you live here because you were born here, not because it called to you from across state lines. Another business is a hobby shop called Ant’s Good Stuffs. He’s got rare baseball cards in there, old hard-to-find coins and stamps, that kind of thing.
After the row of house-offices, you come upon a two-story, brick building painted in a pale ocean blue—that’s Pistol River Pizza, and it’s the only pie joint in town. Pistol River Pizza sort of establishes what can truly be considered “Downtown,” or Old Grafting, as it’s called. This is the stretch of three blocks mentioned prior, and it’s nothing but old brick buildings from back in the logging days, all of them two stories high. Next to Pistol River Pizza is the Grafting Cinema 2, and the old couple who’ve been running the place for what feels like five hundred years still refuse to play movies that are rated R, and will only play certain movies that are rated PG-13. The marquee out front advertises HEAVYWEIGHTS and WATERWORLD, so they obviously approved that one.
Beside the Grafting Cinema 2 is Buck’s Five & Dime, where the kids all load up on candies before heading to the movies. They scoop a mean Superman ice cream cone in the summer. There goes Lumberjack’s Tavern, sort of out-of-place here, one of those watering holes that keeps Keller and his deputies busy. Rounding off the strip is Rob’s Hardware, which Rob set up shop in after the First Bank outgrew it sometime back in the ’70s, when Keller was a kid. Rob hangs all the landscaping tools in the building’s old bank vault. Says if he ever has to barricade against the commies or something, he’d like to do it in a room full of chainsaws. Ditto for the vice versa. If the wrong kinda fellow went in and maybe got a bit too precious about the wares, well, there’s a big-ass vault door to trap him inside.
On the other side of street, there’s a fabrics shop, a pub, and the Copper’s Cafe, which is open 24-hours—that’s pretty cool. There’s also Movie Knight, the video rental store. The sign out front is of a medieval knight on horseback, leveling a lance as if jousting, from which the name of the store hangs on two rusty rings. Keller likes that one. He was actually disappointed to see Blockbuster recently open up in Pinewood Plaza, next to the IGA up the street. Cal, owner of Movie Knight, put a banner in the storefront that had the Blockbuster logo in a red circle with a line going through it. If you talked with the chubby proprietor for more than thirty seconds, you’d hear him refer to “ballbuster” more than once.
On a Friday night like tonight, plenty of folks are walking up and down the Downtown avenue, going from Buck’s 5 & Dime straight into WATERWORLD, or crossing the street with a stack of Pistol River Pizza Pies in hand to rent a movie from Movie Knight.
None of them have a clue about the coming earthquake. Well, almost no one. There is one fella, he might know something, but talk about looking out-of-place. He wears black pleated pants and a gray snakeskin blazer, a cattle-skull bolo tie hangs over the snap buttons of his white, collared shirt. He’s just standing there outside Lumberjack’s Tavern, lighting a cigarette with a gold Zippo while he watches the Sheriff’s cruiser through a pair of gold-framed aviator sunglasses with deep-purple-tinted lenses. Yeah, he for sure knows something. But we’ll get to him in a bit.
In the meantime, Keller is pulling up alongside Tam’s cruiser, which is parked in the Pinewood Plaza. He retrieves a pepperoni stick from the bag that’s been resting on the passenger seat since he’d left Rotten Roscoe’s that morning, tucks one spicy end behind his molars, and steps out of the cruiser like a slick-as-hell hombre. Tam is already rolling down the driver’s-side window of her own cruiser as he approaches.
“Hey, Tam.” Keller flicks a wave, one hand wrapped around his belt.
Tam nods. “J.D.” One thing about Tam is she’s not exactly a socialite. She’s no Zelda Fitzgerald, if you get me. Woman of few words, and honestly, the sheriff could never venture a guess as to why. Either she was incredibly pissed, deeply depressed, or profoundly apathetic. Maybe all three. But he caught on pretty early that her shitty attitude—whatever the cause—was unintentional. She tried her best to seem pleasant, which goes for something, I suppose.
Tam shrugs. “Couple citations.”
“Pretty much what I thought. Hey listen, Pipes is clocking out early tonight. It’s his wedding anniversary. But right now, I have him scoping out some music act at The MOW tonight, because—well—you know how those things can get.”
“You mind heading over there and relieving him?”
“Saturday night. Who’s posting up Downtown, Sheriff?”
“I know, I know. I’ll hang around here in case dispatch hits us with anything. I’ll keep a special eye on Lumberjack’s.” He winks, which he immediately regrets.
“Why me?” Tam asks flatly.
That kind of takes Keller off guard. “Come again?”
“I’m already here. Why don’t you go relieve Mike?”
If Keller were to be honest, he’d tell her that he’s the Sheriff of this town, and he can do whatever he wants, and what he wants right now is to watch Downtown while Tam covers for Mike at The MOW. But instead, he nods and says,“Well, that’s really good point. You know what? You got this side of town locked down pretty good, so why go and mess up a good thing, right? I’ll cover for Mike.” He smiles.
“Well, alrighty.” Keller slaps the hood of Tam’s cruiser. “Guess, uh, keep up the good work then. Tally ho, or whatever.”
Tam makes a little bit of a face and rolls up the window while Jonh-David thinks to himself tally ho? Yeah, tally fuckin’ ho. He’s got no idea where that came from, feels weird about it, but more than that, he feels weird how quickly and easily Tam had challenged his order. But she’s right though. There’s no reason to get his jockstrap in a wad. Tally ho was a lot worse than anything else that had just happened. Maybe that’s another good idea from Tam: don’t speak up unless there’s something to speak up about. That might just be the cure for tally ho.
The sun is down by now, and the sky is just getting dark. The first blips of the evening’s stars wink into the sky overhead as Keller navigates the drive to The MOW. He’s piloting the cruiser with naught but his right wrist, and its like his limp fingers are guiding the way ahead. He’s rolling down the windows, and he’s got a song on the radio blasting from the towers of Z93.3’s classic rock hits. It’s not often when the group called Status Quo hits the airwaves around here, but it makes sense when it does, because its the only their only hit: “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” There’s just something about the right song in the right situation, ya know? And I truly mean the right song. Not just a good one, doesn’t even need to be one that you heard before. It just has to be the right song, man. Keller can’t really put his finger on why, but tonight, “Pictures of Matchstick Men” fits that bill.
The early October day has burned itself into a cool evening, and outside of town the tall pines and elms have reduced to juniper and sage brush. The sky is big out here, especially with all the trees and buildings out of the way. Keller gets it, why kids and rock ’n’ roll old-timers alike head all this way out to the boonies for their shows. He’s jealous, actually, now that he thinks about it. Must be nice, smoking your stuff outside after a great gig in a repurposed maintenance-of-way structure alongside the railroad. Looking up at a sky full of nothing but bedazzled infinity.
Keller is smiling already when he pulls up alongside Deputy Michael Pipes’s cruiser. He gets out, leans on the hood like he did Tam’s, and waits for the deputy to roll down his window.
“Pipes, what kind of dirtbag husband are you, sitting on your ass out here, catching a second-hand high on your first ever wedding anniversary?”
Pipes smiles. “Big-time dirtbag, Sheriff.”
“Dirtbags don’t make great dads, do they?”
“Get the hell out of here, man. You have a date to catch.”
“Roger that. Thanks J.D.”
The sheriff waves away the gratitude like it were a house fly, and then Pipes is gone.
Keller falls back into the driver’s seat of his own cruiser and watches the The MOW for activity. The muffled sounds of the bands playing inside create a sort of resonance that feels just fine over the gravel parking lot. That’s when the radio crackles with Tam’s voice.
“Ah, shit. Fight outside Lumberjack’s. Stand by.”
Keller tilts the radio on his chest, “Roger that, Tam. Let us know if you need backup.”
Crackle. “It’s the Zimmer boys again. Pretty sure I got this.”
Ah, the Zimmer boys, trading blows outside Lumberjack’s. It’s almost like that’s how you know Friday is waning into Saturday. Comforting in a way, like the tide going in an out.
Then another crackle, this one from Sandra back at dispatch. “Got a 12-29 up Pine Mountain.”
John David answers: “Copy that. Any more details, Sandra?”
“It’s Ronald. Says his house is getting hit by something.”
A knot forms above Keller’s brow: “12-5, come again, dispatch.”
“I don’t know, he says his house is shaking, and the windows are shattering.”
Jesus, okay. “Pipes you hear that? Over.”
After a moment: “Copy that, Sheriff. Need me to check it out?”
Keller sighs, “Sorry, Pipes. Would you? Tam’s wrapped up with the Zimmer boys, and I’m out at The MOW. You’re closest.”
Nothing but the muffled sound of the band at The MOW. Keller can almost see Pipes punching his steering wheel. He’s supposed to be pulling up to his house, ready to wine and dine his newlywed wife. Then, “No problem, boss. On my way. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
A tremor ratchets through the parking lot, shifting Keller’s cruiser. It’s a sensation Keller has never felt before. It’s so alien, he wonders if it really even happened.
He clutches the radio. “Careful, Pipes,” he says.
Another tremor rattles everything. Keller steps out of the vehicle, fresh pepperoni stick in hand. Goddamn, he wished it was a cigarette. He eyeballs his cruiser, like maybe that old Chevy just has the shakes all on its own. Things seem calm enough while he’s out on the gravel lot, standing on his two legs, but he’s also wiping sweaty palms on his pleated pants, because something just feels off. The sun has retreated, the stars are hazy, the muffled bands have shifted to a dissonant key. Keller is breathing sharply through his nose. He’s got a look on his face that says he doesn’t trust this night anymore.
Then the radio crackles with Pipe’s frantic voice.
“Send all units to my location now! We’ve got multiple homicides here, it’s… Oh my God…”
John David nearly tears the receiver from his chest. “Pipes, what’s going on?”
“Tam, did you hear that? Over.”
Keller glances at The MOW. Whatever might happen here after the bands are done playing—someone passing a joint around, high schoolers drinking gas station beer—that shit doesn’t matter anymore. He throws himself into the cruiser and cranks the engine.
He’s still chewing the pepperoni stick when the earthquake hits.
The ground ahead goes lopsided before Keller can swerve aside, and that freshly formed ditch swallows the passenger side of the cruiser. The whole Chevy rears to the side like a scooter caught in a storm, the forward momentum of the vehicle just powerful enough to barely catch some air. Keller’s head smacks into the driver’s side window with enough force to crack the glass into a spiderweb. Then his head smacks that same spot again as the vehicle lands on its side. The window shatters entirely—all of them do. Keller’s head hits the ceiling, which is underneath him now. He blacks out.
The Nightmare Begins
Roughly Thirty Minutes Before The Quake
This wasn’t the first time Deputy Michael Pipes had turned down the gravel driveway that led to the Cornings’s getaway cabin up Pine Mountain. Usually he was following up on a call from Brock Corning about something better suited for Animal Control. It was always a black bear in the cans, raccoons scritch-scratching along the roof, a pissed off owl hooting its head off. But Corning, each time, insisted that no, this was the real deal, this wasn’t like last time. Tonight, it’s a home invasion or something.
See, it’s a short list of contenders, but Brock Corning might just be the wealthiest man in Grafting. He rocketed up the net-worth leader board after he invented that cover that automatically rolls over the payloads of dump trucks—payloads of gravel, mulch, that kind of stuff. Corning had grown up with a rusty spoon in his mouth just like the rest of Grafting’s residents, was living in a trailer when he finalized his little invention, but now he has a private jet on lease just in case he gets a taste for an authentic Chicago-style hot dog straight from the source. But the wealth came too quick, it seems, and led to some pretty extreme paranoia. Paranoia that had Brock Corning spending his money as quickly he got it, not because he wanted to, but because this way, there’d be nothing left for others to steal. See, according to Corning, the “poors” of Grafting are out to get him. It’s why he got himself an isolated cabin about thirty minutes from town and calls the Grafting Sheriff’s Department anytime he thinks a break-in is underway—which, according to police logs, is often.
So Pipes, he’s already pissed. This rich dick is making him late for a date. A very important one. But that’s what the wealthy of Grafting did. They confused service industries, including public service, with servitude. What does it matter if they treat the grocery clerk like shit, or haul this deputy away from his wife for nothing? Black bear in the garbage again, raccoons on the roof, owls—sure, it isn’t an emergency, but someone has to look into it, and this is the man’s job. He should be grateful.
But just as Pipes is approaching that bend in the long driveway that will open up to the cabin in all its glory, the earthquake hits.
Pipes has never experienced an earthquake before, he doesn’t have any frame of reference for what should be considered “normal” during the event, but he knows that whatever he sees ahead of him is unusual. What he sees is the approach of the earthquake. It’s coming from the Corning cabin, looking less like geological phenomena and more like the shock wave from an exploded bomb. The ground ripples in a wave of exploding asphalt and dirt—boulders flying everywhere, trees buckling in their roots—and the wave is coming closer. Pipes’s first instinct is to swerve out of the way, but when he does, he positions the cruiser the wrong way relative to the incoming calamity—perpendicular, like if a surfer took a wave broadside—and the cruiser is flung into the air just like the rest of the forest floor.
The cruiser whirlybirds through the air. Pipes has gone rag doll, smashing against the window, the center console, the steering wheel. The radio in the dash unhooks and whips about like a snake. Pens are suspended in the air around him, his hours-old coffee lifts from its cupholder and sprays over the windshield. Then the car lands hard on its side. It wavers, then with a whining creak, falls firmly back to its four tires.
Pipes sits there for a moment, still buckled into the driver’s seat. He takes stock of the mess around him. He’s trying to blink himself out of a stupor. The security lights at Corning’s cabin, that were just minutes ago shining through the pine trees, are now gone. Okay, maybe this quake knocked out the power, jumbled some battery wires loose. But if so, that doesn’t explain what he hears crackling over the radio, still miraculously affixed to the cruiser’s dash. It’s the voice of a young man, uncannily familiar, saying he’s on his way to the scene. Not Keller’s, not Tam’s.
That stupor, blink it away, shake your head, you didn’t hear what you think you just heard.
Pipes opens the driver’s-side door, and it groans against the dents and scratches recently acquired. He’s surprised he can stand up straight, though he does need to steady himself with one hand on the hood. He’s got a Maglite in his hand, feels the first hint of pain there as he tries to grip it. The way the cone of light wavers in the still settling dust from the quake alludes to some kind injury to his hand. That, or he’s just terrified. He is making his way down the ruined driveway because this isn’t just another case of black bears in the garbage. Corning is in real need of help, Pipes is certain.
The driveway. It’s not in good shape. Once it was a winding asphalt road with so many layers of tarmac that you wouldn’t feel the lightest bump on your way. Now its a treacherous coil of deep pits, ragged gashes, upturned roots.
That’s difficult terrain. It’s not easy to navigate even without a concussion, which Pipes is pretty certain he has. He trips a few times, adds fresh wounds to the ones already incurred. As he approaches the spot where the driveway once fed from the forest into a wide meadow where the cabin had been erected, Pipes isn’t sure of what he’s seeing. He blinks. Smacks his Maglite a couple times. But still, there it is.
Or rather, there it isn’t.
Here’s what Deputy Michael Pipes should’ve seen:
Picture-perfect cabin, straight off the cover of Cabins: The Magazine, if that’s a thing. Two stories, big deck overlooking an artificial pond, four car garage, portico over a looped driveway, big-ass American flag, hung like some kind of trophy. Lights on inside, portico lights firing as his cruiser pulls up. Pipes should’ve been greeted by Corning himself. He’d be in his bathrobe, that patriarch of the manor, flashlight in hand, complaining about Pipes’s tardiness before the deputy could roll down the window.
Here’s what he saw instead:
The cabin is not there, no trace of it. The meadow is not there. The pond isn’t there either. Just a smoking, black crater, with a dimming amber glow coming from somewhere inside its core. Corning’s Chevy Corvette is sliding backwards into the crater like a Frosted Mini-Wheat slides down the inside of a cereal bowl. The headlights are on, and the car is running.
Pipes unholsters his pistol, holds it with both hands. Like what, is he going to shoot the crater? Order its hands behind its back? Better safe than sorry, maybe, but really, it’s just training. Instinct. He calls out, “Brock?”
Even Pipes knows how useless that is. There’s no Brock. There’s nothing but a Corvette rolling backwards, headlights now aimed at the sky like two SOS signals, calling for help. The radio is heavy on his chest, waiting for him to give in and call for backup. But he has this feeling like the moment he goes for the radio, something bad will happen. Instead, he walks to the edge of the smoldering crater, the clatter of scree tumbling in beneath his boot. He shines a light into it, the beam animates a haze of smoke and fog. Smells like some combination of sulfur and copper, and gasoline. The Corvette is gone now. Disappeared into the core. The amber glow flares with this latest morsel. Then, it’s extinguished entirely. The crater is now a dark pit.
Pipes shines his light down the slope of the empty crater to its epicenter, and suddenly the circle of light disappears. He aims the Maglite away from the epicenter, and the circle of light emerges again. The black bowl sparkles as it refracts the beam of Pipes’s flashlight. He shakes the cobwebs from his skull and trains the flashlight on the crater’s center again, but once again, the light is consumed. The beam remains—he can even put his hand through it—but it doesn’t terminate as a circle of illuminated rock like it should, like it does everywhere else inside the crater. It just ends in blackness.
“Son of a bitch.”
There’s a sound coming from within—low, grinding, wet. He tries calling out again, because why not?
A sound rips through the night air, almost as if in reply, but Pipes knows it’s something else. In fact, it’s the last sound he expects to hear in the moment, and he almost doesn’t believe his ears. But then it comes again, and he can’t deny it any longer. It’s the sound of a revving chainsaw.
Pipes jumps, aims his light all over the crater’s interior. “Mr. Corning? That you?”
The chainsaw stops.
“Hello?” Pipes tries again.
Another rip from the unseen chainsaw, and this time Pipes can pinpoint it coming from the woods across the crater. Just one mechanical growl, then silence again.
Pipes walks slowly backwards to his cruiser, light trained on where he thinks the sound is coming from: that ring of trees along the crater. He holsters his pistol and feels behind him for the warm hood of his cruiser. His eyes never leave the forest line, and he’s careful to watch the lightless gaps between the evergreen trunks. He finds the hood and feels his way to the side of the vehicle. The door’s still open, so he navigates backwards around it, and drops like a heap into the driver’s seat. The door feels heavy on its hinges as he swings it closed behind him.
The windshield is shattered, and the moonlight is a fractal pattern on his chest. He grabs the keys still inside the ignition and turns. The cruiser, which many would have left for dead, idles for a moment and then rumbles loudly to life. The headlights flicker; the taillights too.
Pipes grabs the receiver from it’s cradle, but before he can depress the talk button, he hears laughter. A young male adolescent, by the sounds of it. And the laughter is coming from somewhere behind the cruiser, opposite the direction of the chainsaw. He swings his flashlight through a gap in the fragmented remains of the rear passenger side window, shouts at the trees caught in its beam, “Who’s there?”
The crunch of forest detritus.
Mikey Pipes unsnaps the button strapping his pistol into its holster. He steps out, stands up, plants steadying hand on the roof of the cruiser as he aims the pistol into the inky gaps between birch and pine, painted red by the glowing taillights.
“Come out with your hands up!” he commands.
As soon as he hears his own command echo back, he understands that no one will be doing anything like coming out with their hands up. It’s all up to the young deputy’s gut now, and he’s blinking sweat from his eyes, licking his drying lips, when it occurs to him: he’d spent so much time obsessing about what tonight was supposed to be—the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect words to say—he never entertained what the night could be. He just assumed that with enough planning, it would go great. He never thought for a second about it going oh so terribly wrong.
Okay, Pipes, take a breath. Sure, he never thought a crazy thing like this would happen in Grafting, but that doesn’t mean he can’t handle it. He still went through the same academy training as every other cop in the United States. C’mon, Pipes, assess the situation, quickly now.
There’s at least two people out there.
One of them has a gas-powered chainsaw.
The chainsaw is not a threat from this distance. It’s scary, sure, but it’s only threatening in close proximity, which his pistol will prevent. Not sure if the suspect has another weapon, though. Could be deadly from distance.
And what about the other guy? The one laughing somewhere in the trees behind the cruiser. Is he armed?
Better find out.
When Sheriff Keller comes to, it’s not all the way. Awareness arrives one layer at a time, like ocean waves washing in. It goes like this:
- Wave One: He blinks, understands that he is a living thing.
- Wave Two: He’s aware that he is inside his police cruiser, but it’s not right.
- Wave Three: He understands he’s laying on the roof. Seatbelts, wires, the cable of his dash-mounted radio receiver all dangle from above because…
- Wave Four: The cruiser has been flipped over entirely. Keller wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, so okay. But why is he even here?
- Wave Five: Keller relieved a deputy. Who was it? Mikey Pipes. He relived Deputy Mikey Pipes for some reason. Keller was to post up…
- Wave Six: At The MOW. It’s Saturday, after all. There’s a show here, might be illegal substances passed about. But instead, there was an earthquake.
On the Seventh Wave, Sheriff Keller rests. Drinks in all those waves, puts it all together. And then, he crawls from his overturned cruiser, elbow over elbow along the gravel lot. He looks at where The MOW should be, but instead of the old Maintenance-of-Way structure turned rock hall, he sees a pile of debris. And then all that awareness that’d been creeping in is replaced by pure instinct—and instinct to help. To rescue.
Keller stands, tries to run, stumbles, gets up, moves at whatever pace his brain can stomach. He makes his way to the pile of rubble. There is already someone there, a white-haired man in a black T-shirt covered in Sheetrock dust, flinging aside the detritus. Keller recognizes him immediately. That’s the old-timer, Rudy Gartner, mechanic at X-Factor Auto, where he pridefully restores classic cars. You’d most often find him bent into the empty engine cavity of something like a Chevy Nova, garage reverberating with z93 Classic Hits.
“Rudy?” The sheriff coughs. “You okay?”
Rudy turns. He’s pale, trembling, mouth slack. He blinks a few times before a light comes on behind his eyes. “Sheriff, thank God you’re here, man. I don’t know what happened. We were just rockin’ out, and all the sudden it’s like boom, and…”
Keller lays a hand on Rudy’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Rudy. There was an earthquake, but it’s okay now. Listen, you’ve got the right idea. We need to get these folks out of the rubble. How many were there?”
Rudy looks at the pile that was once a music hall. “Right. We need to get them out, man. Holy shit.”
“How many were in there, Rudy?”
He shakes his head. “Dozen? Maybe twenty? Wait, I don’t know. Could be more than fifty.”
“Got it. Okay, well let’s get to work. You take that area near where the front door was, I’ll look over here. Be careful of broken glass, rebar, nails, that kind of stuff, okay?”
“Yes, sir.” Rudy limps over to where Keller had been pointing, begins to move aside the splintered remains of the front door.
Keller squats to his haunches and flings away what mess he could muscle. A hand springs from the ruin, and Keller pulls a young adolescent male from the pile.
As the boy begins to wobble away in shock and pain, Keller grips the youth’s arm. “Help!” he commands.
And the young man helps.
That same chain of discovering individuals in the collapse and immediately recruiting the uninjured among them to help, leads to a crowd of maybe twenty concert-goers digging bodies from the ruin. The moon is high as they execute their excavation. Keller finds himself gripping the soft forearm of a heavier person. He needs to push aside splintered wood and torn shingles before he can pull a stout young kid from the pile.
The kid, he’s talking frantically, saying one thing over and over: “Lich, Lich, is Lich okay?”
Keller tries to calm the kid. “Relax, son…”
“Lich!” The kid calls out.
Keller doesn’t have time for this. The kid is free, so let him go crazy.
“Lich! It’s Barry! You hear me, pal?”
Keller continues his dig. “Barry, is it?”
The stout kid looks over at Keller with wide eyes. “Uh-huh.”
“You hurt?” Something about this kid looks awfully familiar. Awfully.
“Are you hurt?”
Barry, a high schooler by the looks of it, shakes a cloud of dust from his wavy black hair and black attire. “Am I hurt?”
“Can you stand okay? Can you lift anything without it hurting?”
Barry blinks. Lifts his own hand up in a sort of flex, as if to check if there’s pain. “Yeah,” he says. “I can.”
“Best way to find your friend is to help.” Keller grunts as he lifts a shard of drywall.
“Uh-huh,” says Barry in a stupor. “Wait. Are you the sheriff? Sheriff Keller?”
“We can chat later, okay?” Keller won’t answer that question directly, because he suddenly knows why this kid is so familiar… Spitting image of his father, isn’t he?
Barry, he’s scared. Keller knows, and that’s why the sheriff appreciates the effort he sees from the kid once his loose focus has been redirected to the task at hand. Barry is flinging aside warped planks and piles of rotten insulation like nothing. He can hear the boy panting in breaths: Lich, Lich, it’s okay, Lich. I’m coming for you, buddy.
After enough people are helping to clear the rubble, Keller steps back, catches his breath, hands on his thighs. So, what next? What part of training should he lean on here? What experience to draw from? What to do when the world has shaken around you? He imagines the collapse of downtown Grafting, can see those century-old buildings reduced to rubble. Thinks of his deputies out there, dealing with the aftermath of… Shit. Tam is stationed downtown right now.
“You guys are doing great!” he shouts to the people pulling the piles of the broken MOW away. “Keep it up! I’ll be right back!”
The sheriff rushes back to the overturned cruiser, where he gets down flat on the gravel and crawls in through the shattered driver’s side window. The receiver to his radio is dangling by it’s coiled wire. He reaches up, snatches it. “Tam, 9-5-2, over.”
Keller reaches up with the same hand, twisting at the knobs on the radio. There’s no power. He smacks it. Obviously that does nothing. He wriggles in more deeply, legs still splayed outside the window. Propping himself on an elbow, he fumbles for the keys. Slams them into the ignition, turns.
The cruiser coughs, but that’s about it.
Keller tries again.
The cough sustains into a low growl, but dies.
He contorts himself around, dropping the receiver. He’s reaching up to pump the accelerator with one hand, turning the key in the other.
The cruiser roars to life. Doesn’t sound pretty, though, idling upside down. The radio lights ignite, and Keller collapses on his back, snagging the receiver again.
“Tam, 9-5-2, over.”
“Tam, you okay? You copy this?”
Only static at first. But then, “Copy that, Sheriff. All’s good here. Zimmer boys needed to get pushed apart, but then they hugged and cried about how much they love each other. Then they punched each other around, but not in a fighting away. Been pretty slow, otherwise. You?”
Keller blinks. The patrol car’s haggard idling drowns out the scene just visible beyond the upside-down hood: punk rockers and rock-and-roll souls desperately extracting the maimed from a pile of rubble that was once The MOW.
“Sheriff, you there? Over.”
Keller holds the receiver in front of his mouth. Licks his dry lips, thinking.
“Tam, what’s downtown look like right now?” Keller is surprised at how similar his voice is to the capsized cruiser idling around him.
“I said. It’s slow now. Last-call crowd is still inside, and I guess they’ll be there until they can’t. But nothing I can’t handle. Over.” Not an ounce of concern in her voice.
Keller shakes his head. “The buildings, are they still standing? Over.”
A moment of static. “The buildings, Sheriff?”
“The buildings, Tam. The cars, the street lamps, everything. Are they still standing?”
Enough of a pause goes by that Keller is about to ask again. “Sheriff, I’m not sure what you mean. Everything’s like any other night. Are they still standing? Like, as in, they haven’t collapsed or something? Yeah. Everything’s fine. Keller, you okay?”
How. How is that possible. “Tam, did you feel the quake?”
“The what? Repeat that, Sheriff, not sure if I heard.”
Tam makes no reply.
Keller adds, “Over.”
The white noise of radio static. “Sheriff, I don’t follow. Like an earthquake?”
Like an earthquake? What do you fucking think? “Yes, Tam, like a fucking earthquake.”
“I mean… No, sir. No earthquake. What’s going on?”
Good fucking question. “Tam, there was an earthquake here at the MOW. The entire building collapsed. My cruiser is about to die, and I’m not sure how much time we have. I need ambulances, I need the fire department, I need you, I need Mikey. Get fucking everyone out here now. Over and fucking out.”
Keller wriggles back outside through the driver’s-side window. The gravel grinds through two layers of clothing to make even more painful what must be a broken rib or two. He stands slowly. It’s like one of those nature show clips of a foal that’s just hoofed its way out of that horsey placenta sack and is standing for the first time. All shaky knees. Keller steadies himself against the upturned cruiser, hand on the undercarriage. He reassures himself that of course Tam has gotten right on it. She’s contacted dispatch, the ambulances and fire trucks are on the way. Of course they are. It’s Tam. Hell, with her on the job, Keller wouldn’t be surprised if the Ghostbusters hearse shows up.
He makes his way to the rubble, assures the folks still standing, and especially the ones that are not, tells them that yes, help is on the way. He just got off the horn with dispatch, he tells them, and they’re sending all they got. Behind him, where the cruiser idles upside down, he can hear some kind of transmission. Sounds like Mikey. Good, Mikey’s been clued in then. Keller steadily makes his way back to the upside down patrol. He kneels to hear Mikey Pipe’s transmission.
“Send all units now!”
Keller has never heard this kind of terror in Mikey Pipes’s voice before. The deputy is usually calm, collected.
“We’ve got multiple homicides here, its… Oh my God..”
Keller is whacked with a sudden sense of deja vu. He’s heard Mikey say this already, he’s sure of it. But it was before the quake… Right? But it’s only coming back in fragments, and he can’t waste any more time. He drops to the gravel and snags the dangling receiver as Mikey Pipes continues:
“Five girls and three boys. Oh my God, Keller, it’s… I know these kids…”
Keller interrupts what has started to sound like a stream-of-consciousness transmission from his deputy. “We’re on our way, Mikey.”
In reality, Keller ain’t goin’ nowhere in an overturned cruiser, and with Tam occupied downtown, that leaves Deputy Arthur Novak. He calls to dispatch, and it’s Amber who replies.
“Sheriff, Tam filled us in. First responders en route. Over.”
“Amber, did you get Mikey’s transmission just now?”
“He’s reporting homicides at his location. He needs backup urgently. You understand?”
“Sorry, Sheriff. Come again? Over.”
Keller sighs. “Amber. Radio Deputy Novak now. Mikey needs backup at his location. Over.”
“On it, Sheriff.”
He’s not sure if it’s the tumble in the cruiser, the tragedy unfolding out in the gravel lot alongside the train, or what, but things are not adding up. Must be his own scrambled brain. Keller takes a minute to breathe. Breathe it all in, every wave.
The cruiser stops idling, and the lights go out on the radio. It’s dead.
Just to make sure, Keller tries the receiver in his hand. “Dispatch, you get that? Over.”
No sound, not even static.
“Tam, you copy? Over.”
Keller releases the receiver from his grip, and it hangs suspended in front of his face. He crawls out of the cruiser, stands like a lanky foal again, and now he’s watching a black Chevrolet Caprice Classic with yellow government plates pull into the gravel lot alongside the collapsed MOW. A man steps out, and though it’s night, he wears a pair of gold-framed aviator sunglasses. More deja vu. Overhead, Keller hears thunder.
Only… That’s not thunder, is it?
The man in the sunglasses is wearing a smoky tweed suit. He’s adjusting his sleeves, and even through the aviators, Keller knows the man is looking right at him as he flicks a gold Zippo and lights a cigarette. He drags hard on the cigarette pinched between forefinger and thumb, and a tight half-smile creeps up one side of his face, taking a handlebar mustache along for the ride. He then pops his blazer, sending a light cloud of dust up to frame a moonlit aura around him.
Something clicks, and Keller knows for sure that no, that’s not thunder. Thats the thrum of several helicopters approaching. He can see their conical beams. And as he watches, they part. One is headed for The MOW, the other two twist north towards Pine Mountain.
Keller walks unsteadily to meet the man in the tweed suit. The man extends a hand, a large ring on every finger, each one bearing some odd symbol engraved into metals of varying color, and studded with jewels of crimson, violet, black, and more. He’s got that crook in his lip, like Elvis Presley, a permanent condescending grin. He unplugs the cigarette from that crook, and amid a cloud of smoke, he introduces himself.
“Damian Cleeve. Pleasure, Sheriff. You look like you could use some help right about now.”
Keller shakes the hand, which is sandpaper against his own clammy palms, and cuts right to the chase. “You FBI or something? What’s with the suit and sunglasses?”
“FBI?” Cleeve laughs. “Far from it. But if you really want to know, think of me as an expert in seismology.” He adjusts his aviators. “As for these, well, let’s just say I have sensitive eyes.”
Keller cocks his head, “Seismology?”
“Yes, sir. Do you know what a—”
“I know what a seismologist is. Question is, what are you doing here?”
Cleeve motions a hand at the rubble behind him. “Where there’s a shake-up like the one that took down this building, especially where geographically there are no fault lines present, I will be there. It’s a little-understood phenomenon, and there’s nothing more tantalizing to a man in pursuit of knowledge—like myself—than a phenomenon that is not well understood.”
As adrenaline wanes to fatigue, Keller begins to feel the injuries he recently sustained, cusps those maybe broken ribs in one hand. He glances at the ruin that once was the MOW, gauging the work ahead. It’s a lot.
With a heavy sigh, he looks to the stranger. “Listen, I dont know what you’re game is, but right now, I could really use another pair of hands until support arrives. Would you mind?”
Cleeve twists and regards the pile, pulls a cherry bright at the end of his cigarette. “I would mind, yes. You see, I’m here for something else. Someone else, actually.”
Keller’s eyes narrow as he slowly moves his hand to his pistol. “I thought you were just a seismologist?”
“Yes, and this individual is very important to my study.”
Keller grips the holstered gun handle. “Who?”
Cleeve smiles. “I’ll know them when I see them.”
Keller is about to press Cleeve further when someone calls to him from the destruction.
“Sheriff, you oughta come see this!” It’s Rudy Gartner. The old-timer is hunched with the pain of moving heavy rubble, one hand on his hip, one waving at Keller.
Keller turns back to Cleeve. “Stay here, Mr. Cleeve. I’d like to ask you a few more questions.”
Cleeve nods, reaches for the pack of cigarettes inside his blazer’s breast pocket. “Whatever you say, Sheriff.”
Keller does a sort of half-jog over to where Rudy is bent and regards the area where the mechanic is pointing a shaky finger. The sheriff swears under his breath at the carnage before him. It’s just one arm poking out. The white dusting of Sheetrock powder highlights the crimson flow of blood running down the forearm, dripping from the end of each finger. Following the arm up to the shoulder reveals a more grisly scene. Where a head should be is a large chunk of concrete, wet with ragged flesh, hair, and bone. The skull beneath has been decimated.
“Christ on his throne,” Keller mutters.
Rudy is looking away from the grotesquerie. “Sorry, Sheriff, but I ain’t prepared to help with a thing like that.”
“That’s all right, Rudy. Why don’t you take a breather? Paramedics should be here soon, and they’ll be able to handle this better than we can.”
Keller takes a look around and counts the survivors. Some are helping dig through the mess, others stand like wavering zombies. Many return Keller’s gaze, recognizing him as someone who can help them make sense of this catastrophe, but he’s just as confused as they are. He counts twenty-three.
“Hey Sheriff, little help?” The summoning comes from the other side of the collapsed building.
That half-jog again, and Keller is met by a teenage girl who’s name he can’t recall, but he knows he knows her. She looks like she’s been crying. She points, then walks away with a whimper hitching her shoulders. A leg protrudes from beneath a splintered load-bearing beam. Keller heaves a shuddering sigh. When are the damn paramedics getting here? And where in the hell is Tam?
“Ah, there he is,” says Cleeve, walking up behind the Sheriff.
Keller turns. “Pardon?”
Cleeve motions to the leg in the rubble. “The man I’m looking for. I’ll take it from here, Sheriff.”
Keller looks to the leg, then back to Cleeve. His eyes turn dark. “Listen, pal, I don’t have time for your sick jokes, okay? Now get the hell back before I book you for interfering with an investigation.”
Two androgynous individuals Keller hadn’t seen before appear suddenly out of the shadows behind Damian Cleeve. They wear black tuxedos and wide-brimmed hats that cast enough shadow to obscure their faces entirely. One grips the load-bearing beam with a spidery hand. This is a beam that has supported the weight of a plaster and concrete ceiling for countless years, through a century’s worth of winters, but this tuxedo’d individual heaves the beam aside as if it’s nothing more than a twig. The other goon wraps a pale grip around the ankle of the corpse beneath and drags it free.
Before Keller can process what he just witnessed, he lays eyes on the corpse that has been dragged from the rubble and sees something that makes even less sense. He gazes upon the corpse of Rudy Gartner. Black tendrils crawl out of the cadaver and seep with a molasses-like viscosity into the ground.
“How…?” is all Keller can muster.
Cleeve lights a cigarette, tucks it into the corner of his lopsided grin. He likes knowing what Sheriff Keller doesn’t.
The sheriff walks around the collapsed MOW enough to see the other side, where Rudy Gartner is taking that breather Keller’d recommended. Rudy catches eyes with the sheriff and waves. Keller stupidly waves back, as if he’s not standing next to he man’s cooling corpse.
Keller steps back to regard the corpse, which is now at the center of a triangle formed by the two henchmen and Cleeve, who stands at the apex. He pulls a bone-grip hunting knife out of nowhere, and holds it with both hands—the hilt with one, the flat of the blade with the other.
Keller draws his pistol and clicks back the hammer as he trains the barrel on Cleeve.
Cleeve looks up at the sheriff. Hesitates. “You definitely don’t want to do that.”
“Stop right there! Put down the weapon, and tell your men to stand down!” Keller is surprised by the shakiness in his voice. That’s a first.
“Sheriff,” Cleeve sings, “you won’t be using that.”
“I will if I have to.”
“You really shouldn’t.” Cleeve takes a step forward.
“You think I’m prickly, Keller? You should meet my bosses.”
Keller swallows, his gun wavers. “Who’s your boss?”
Cleeve takes another step forward. “I’m trying to help you, Keller.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I get that. But I’m asking you to trust me.”
“How can I trust you?” Keller’s voice is manic-sounding in his own ears.
“By listening.” Cleeve takes another step.
From the other side of the collapsed MOW, an older man shrieks in pain.
“You know who that is, don’t you?” Cleeve asks. He takes one last step forward and offers Keller the bison bone-gripped hunting knife like he’s the Lady of the Lake offering Excalibur.
The man who screamed in pain was Rudy Gartner. Keller knows.
“Rudy doesn’t have much time,” says Cleeve.
Keller adjusts his grip on the pistol. “What’s going on?” he asks. He can tell he sounds desperate. “How is Rudy’s corpse here if Rudy is still alive over there?”
“This here is my Rudy,” says Cleeve. “Your Rudy is doing much better, but not for long, I’m afraid. That’s why I’m offering you this knife, and why you need to move quickly.”
“You really think—“
“Quickly, Sheriff,” Cleeve interrupts.
Keller slowly holsters his pistol, and plucks the knife from Cleeve’s flat palms.
“Good. Now listen to me carefully. The longer you try and make sense of this, the quicker you will fail. Do you understand?”
Keller turns the knife in his hands. Of course he doesn’t understand. He glances back to Rudy’s dead doppleganger. The black, viscous roots have emerged from the ground now and are seeping back into this other Rudy Gartner. They’re letting off some kind of vapor.
“First,” says Cleeve, “ignore the area where your Rudy says it hurts. He’s wrong. Just locate the base of his skull and find where his spinal cord connects to the brain stem.” Cleeve illustrates for Keller by turning slightly and touching two fingers to the desired spot on his own neck.“This is where it is. Cut it out, Sheriff. Cut it out before it digs deeper.”
“Before what digs deeper?”
Rudy Gartner screams again from the other side of the rubble.
“Sheriff,” Cleeve grips Keller’s hands around the knife. “Base of the skull. You’ll see a bulge. Slice it to release the spider. Then stab that spider, stomp it into a pulp, okay?”
Keller blinks. “A spider?”
Cleeve releases his grip. “I’ll be back for my knife.” He turns to follow his two henchmen as they drag the doppelganger corpse away. The black tendrils reach for the defiled body, and Keller swears he sees the corpse twitch.
Then more voices: “Sheriff! He needs help!”
Keller runs to find a group of four worried onlookers surrounding Rudy Gartner, who writhes in pain upon the ground.
“There’s something in there!” Rudy cries. He’s arching his back, clutching at his gut, nodding down at it with gritted teeth.
The bystanders turn to the sheriff with worried expressions on their faces, and they’re all silently asking Keller the same questions: What is he going to do? What should they do? What’s happening to Rudy?
Keller kneels down beside the old-timer and glances apologetically back at the onlookers. “Rudy, hey, listen. It’s me, Sheriff Keller. I need you to roll over for me, okay?” Keller helps the man roll.
One of the onlookers, a teenager says, “The pain is in his stomach, Sheriff.”
Keller ignores the kid. He doesn’t know if the boy’s right, doesn’t know if what he’s about to do is right—maybe Rudy ends up dead after this, and this Cleeve motherfucker’s advice is just some sadistic trap—but right now, Keller can only think to do exactly as instructed. So, with Rudy rolled onto his belly, Keller straddles him and presses Rudy’s head into the gravel. There’s a bulge pulsing at the base of the man’s neck. It’s like something’s caught in there, kicking and squirming and turning over. Keller brandishes the knife and points the tip of the blade at the undulating mass. The onlookers gasp.
“What are you doing…?” someone whispers.
“Just—“ Keller starts to say, but swallows the words trust me. He plunges the knife into the coiling bulge.
Rudy screams, and the four onlookers leap back. One of them falls flat onto their ass. Another nearly faints.
The sounds inside the skewered tumor are sickening—slurpy and wet. Keller digs the knife deeper until there’s a snap, and something shrieks from inside the bubbly mess of blood. Spidery legs with too many joints shoot out from the punctured flesh and curl quickly around the blade.
“Jesus in hell,” one of the bystanders utters.
But Keller doesn’t hesitate. He adjusts the angle of the blade until he has the proper leverage, and with one swift motion, he digs out whatever’s been hiding inside. Still reeling from the sight, he stands and turns the blade in his hand to more closely examine his boon. At the end of the hunting knife, a creature, black and blood-slicked, glistens, its skin like shining pleather. Its hairs are stiff, and its body is thick and round like a hockey puck. The segmented legs hold tight around the blade like a fist. Keller counts ten of them. The hockey-puck body is furry, and some kind of bodily fluid trickles from the rim of its lamprey mouth. Keller turns the thing over to discover two mouths, actually, one on each side of the body. Needle teeth bite at the weapon that’s been stabbed through it. Eventually, the brainless movement ceases, and Keller drops the knife.
Sirens can be heard now, echoing across the field on the other side of the train tracks.
Rudy Gartner is quiet.
Keller knows all the survivors of the MOW’s collapse have gathered around him now—he can feel their stares, hear their unasked questions. He kneels down beside Rudy and rolls the old-timer onto his back. Rudy looks up at him, blinking.
“You’re all right, Rudy. You’re gonna to be fine now. Medics are on the way.”
Someone points at the spider-like thing at the end of Cleeve’s knife. “What the fuck was that?”
Keller stands, unable to find who asked that, unable to provide an answer. The sirens are loud now, and a police cruiser pulls into the gravel parking lot, overhead lights bathing the scene in red and blue. Two ambulances and a fire engine are close behind. The cruiser pulls to a hasty stop, and Tam steps out. Her face is a knot of concern as she walks briskly towards Keller, one hand on her pistol.
“What the…?” someone whispers.
Keller looks back to who said that, then follows the aim of their index finger. It’s another teenager, a young woman, and she’s pointing at where Keller dropped the knife. The creature at the end of the blade is emitting a dark vapor, and black tendrils are rising from the ground—the same black tendrils as before. Keller watches the familiar things wind themselves around the ten-legged creature and pull it apart into a million pieces. They withdraw back into the ground with their bounty, leaving a clean blade behind.
Tam is upon Keller now. “Sheriff, you okay?”
Keller doesn’t think, just nods.
“What the fuck happened here?”
Death of A Deputy
Mikey Pipes is stepping as lightly as he can through the pitch-black woods that surround the smoking crater where a log mansion used to be. He’s wiping sweat from his forehead as he steps slowly in a permanent hunch, wrists crossed ahead of him, one hand aiming a flashlight, the other a 9mm pistol.
Everything around Pipes seems impossibly quiet. He, on the other hand, seems like the loudest living thing to traipse through any forest ever. It’s like all of God’s green creation was specifically designed to crunch, crack, snap, gasp, or otherwise amplify every step, every breath, each rapid heartbeat of Michael Dorian Pipes, and him alone. So, he’s going slowly. Surely the same carpet thatch of twigs and pine needles that betrays his every bootfall must break beneath the movement of whoever is out here with him. That’s what Pipes is thinking, and that’s why he stops every several steps. Just listens. In those moments, it’s the pounding of his heart he hears. And Mikey, he hates himself for it. For being so afraid. Because, afraid of what?
The woods under a moonlight sky? Some jackass running around? Probably not even armed because said jackass surely would’ve fired at this point.
Afraid of what, Mikey, you bitch? he asks himself. And there in the darkness, an answer surfaces in the form of a mental image. It’s not the image of a rifle being fired by some loony in the woods, not a revving chainsaw coming down on him from behind, not a hairy monster twice his size, ready to tear him apart. The image in his mind is of the gift from his wife, wrapped delicately on the kitchen table, hearts-for-eyes drawn next to the note: I have something to tell you. The velvet box in his breast pocket gets heavier the deeper Pipes descends into the forest. He’s afraid of that. Of losing that.
Whatever is going on out here, Pipes decides, is not worth the Tupperware full of sand. He can see Marie waiting for him, waiting to tell him the good news about their baby, and he says, “You know what, man? Fuck you.”
Nods. Clarity comes with conviction. He shouts, “Hear me? Fuck you!” Shouts into the silent night of the woods, with all the conviction of granite. But then, a new sound makes Pipes jump.
It’s the sound of his cruiser erupting with the chatter of frantic voices. Even from where he stands, frozen in his slow walk into the woods, he recognizes Sheriff Keller’s voice, but can’t hear what he’s saying. Mikey crouches, pistol trained ahead, and trots in the red glow of taillights back to the cruiser. He’s about to pull the receiver on his chest and ask that Keller repeat his last transmission. He’s at the open door of the cruiser now, unpinning the receiver from his chest. But before he can press the talk button, it’s his own voice he hears. It’s coming through the radio. From inside the cruiser. But Pipes isn’t speaking.
“Send all units to my location now! We’ve got multiple homicides here, it’s… Oh, my God.”
That’s what his voice is saying.
Pipes drops the receiver and lurches away from it as if it had turned into a snapping cobra. He stares at it, listening:
“Five girls and three boys. Oh, my God, Keller, it’s… I know these kids…”
Sheriff Keller’s voice breaks the crackle, “Where are you, Mikey?”
“Holy shit, uh… Brock Corning’s. His place on Pine Mountain.”
Pipe’s voice continues to speak while Mikey stares dumbstruck at the cruiser radio, trying desperately to figure out how in the hell this could be happening. He was either hallucinating, or someone in town really wanted to go to jail for impersonating a police officer.
“Jesus in heaven,” the voice on the radio says. “That’s Amber Corning and Kat Honey. Sheriff, their heads… Oh, God.”
He’s crying. Mikey can hear it in his own voice, the hitch in communication, the quick release of the transmission. He looks around the woods, every pitch-black gap between the crooked trees feels like a one-way window watching him. Watching him listen to some Pipes impersonator crying mid-transmission. The sound makes Mikey’s throat tighten. He can’t remember the last time he actually cried.
“Their heads,” his voice continues, shaken but trying, “are burning in the fire.”
The sheriff is quick to respond, “We’re on our way.”
Pipes looks towards where the cruiser headlights are aimed. Where Brock Corning’s cabin should have been standing. Nothing but smoke wafting above a crater where the cabin used to be.
“Christ,” Other Pipes continues, “I can see more bodies by the shed. Where are you guys? I need help!”
Pipes looks up. No shed to be seen.
And then, the gas-powered choke of a chainsaw.
Pipes looks out through the spiderweb cracks spread across his cruiser’s windshield. The moonlit silhouette of a tall, lanky individual stands on the other side of the crater, holding the black shadow of a chainsaw over its head. A shock of wispy hair drifts, oddly static in the breeze. A cough of smoke is climbing from the back of the chainsaw.
Pipes grips his 9mm as he steps from his cruiser, “Hey!” he shouts, steadying his aim on the top of the open driver’s-side door. “Drop the weapon and hands up!” His breath hangs in clouds beneath his nose, like that’s as far as his command will ever get.
Other Pipes continues his transmission, continues to describe the crime scene victims. “We’ve got a mix of clean cuts and ragged ones. Sheriff, you there?”
In response, the lanky figure across the crater pulls the ripcord on the chainsaw.
“I will shoot, motherfucker!” Pipes screams.
Another rip of the pull cord.
“I won’t ask aga—“
Pipes can’t finish his sentence. A split second is reduced to a millennia, and the deputy feels everything in slow motion. First, he feels a razor cut in his lower back. Vorpal sharpness turns into pressure as whatever has entered his body from behind is pushing entirely though it. What felt like a knife wound is now a Charlie horse blooming inside his stomach.
“I have a really bad feeling, Sheriff…” comes Other Mikey’s transmission.
Pipes is staring at his gut, watching something emerge from his belly button and push his buttoned-up uniform shirt outwards. Finally, a blood-soaked blade bursts through the fabric, the point of which stops with a gentle tap against the driver’s-side window Pipes is leaning against. He drops his pistol.
A hiss of static. “I think there was more than one. Had to be, man. Had to be!”
Pipes reaches for the blade that’s exploding from his belly, wraps his hands around it, just to make sure it’s real. It is. Real enough to slice the fingers that grip it. Is this…? Is this a fucking sword? He wants to turn around and see who’s pushed this medieval blade through him, but even turning hurts. It hurts his organs, and it hurts his bones. Hurts from the inside out like nothing ever has. But he tries anyway.
The radio barks, “Sheriff, I need backup, man! Are you getting this? Anyone?”
Before Pipes can turn and face his attacker, the blade is ripped violently from his midsection, and he drops helplessly to his knees. His mouth is hot and wet with the blood that now leaks from the corners of his mouth. Pipes turns, his back against the open cruiser door. The attacker’s body is wide, stout, with that same oddly static hair as the perp across the crater. Pipes cant make out the face, but he can see two trails of steam rising from where the eyes should be.
Pipes doesn’t mean to, but he says, “Please.”
The shadow breathes heavily, looming over its prey. It laughs. The same adolescent laugh as before.
Pipes shuts his eyes hard against the pain. Sees in the black behind his eyelids that gift-wrapped box, the heart-eyes note.
Pipes stands, tries to run, but stumbles and falls at the lip of the crater. He pushes himself back up to his knees and clasps his hands together as if in prayer as he watches the stout, sword-bearing shadow approach. “Please, you don’t need to do this. I won’t tell anyone.”
The shadow lays the flat of his sword on Pipes’s shoulder. Then he hears the revving of the chainsaw and sees the taller, skinnier silhouette appear alongside the sword-bearing one. The taller one lays the flat of the chainsaw on Pipes’s other shoulder. Together, the gardening tool and the medieval weapon make an X against Pipe’s neck, like a giant pair of horrid scissors.
Tears slick Pipes’s cheeks, drip from his chin with the blood that trickles from his mouth. “Just wait, wait.”
The chainsaw roars to life, idles on his shoulder.
“Please, I’m going to be a dad.”
Saying that out loud for the first time, Pipes can’t help but smile. It’s pleading, it's desperate, but there is genuine joy there. A dad. Him. In that moment, he closes his eyes, thinks about his baby yet to born.
The chainsaw moves slowly towards Pipes’s neck, and so does the sword.
Behind his tightly shut eyes, Pipes imagines holding his newborn in the rays of morning sunlight that beam through the hospital room window, Marie catching her breath in the bed at his waist, glowing.
The ripping chainsaw breeches the skin on one side of his neck at the precise moment the blade draws blood on the other side.
Pipes shudders with the anticipation, a fresh flow of tears spilling from clamped eyes as he imagines his baby’s first word. How excited he and Marie are about that. How they hold their baby’s hand to steady the child’s first steps. First time riding a bike. First day of school, backpack all packed, waving goodbye from the bus. Goodbye. Mikey Pipes waves back.
The chainsaw and the sword lurch through his neck entirely. The young deputy’s head rolls down along his shoulder and falls to the ground.
There must be some validity to what they say about how long your consciousness survives after your head is removed from your body, because Pipes definitely felt the cold, wet grass on his cheek, and he very much saw his own body fall headless beside him, felt the noodle arms of his headless torso inadvertently slap his head away and send it rolling into the crater. And on the way down, he absolutely heard the laughter of two high school boys and the sounds of them high-fiving.
Pipes’s last thought barely has time to form before the light inside his mind fades for good.
Your daddy loves you, baby. He always will.
Copyright © 2023 Stephen S. Schreffler