Short story: ‘Back The Way You Came’ (Rural horror / Southern Gothic)

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Back the Way you Came

My cousin Erwin is one of the best people I know.  Erwin is also nuttier than a squirrel cellar.

I don’t know all the details, and it’s none of my business, but Erwin never had much of a childhood.  He never talked much, and he sported shiners from time to time, and he had a bit of a nervous tick; but he never talked about it, and people in our town don’t like to pry into other people’s business (which, of course, means they turn a blind eye to people being treated bad; ask my friend Molly to tell you about her dad sometime).  I do know that when he was a teenager, Erwin started drinking; Uncle Fritz was an alcoholic, so everyone wrote his boy off as another lost cause.  When he was sixteen—I think I was in middle school about then—my mom sat him down and told him as much.  And, on his 17th birthday, Erwin ran away from home to join the Army.

He was never much of a letter-writer, and we didn’t see him in person again for almost a year.  When he came home, he looked ridiculous—his kinky red hair cut down short, his legendary ginger beard gone, wearing a dress uniform that didn’t fit because they don’t make clothes that fit for a guy so tall and rangy—but the nervous tick was gone.  He walked tall and proud, and when he spoke, people listened.

We didn’t see him again until I was in my junior year of high school.

Erwin Rommel Benson came home with a tan beret, a jacket with more medals than a third-world dictator, a chest full of shrapnel, and a head full of cobwebs.  He was the same old Erwin, always helpful and generous, always fun to be around, but something was . . . different.  He has a way of looking at people who displease him, an empty look that makes you feel as tiny and worthless as teenage-alcoholic Erwin had once been.  People tend not to contradict him, or deny him what he wants.  He talks to himself sometimes.  He cries, screams, and thrashes when he sleeps.

I don’t believe he’s ever told anyone what happened in Afghanistan.

Everyone knows there are three questions you never, ever ask a veteran.  When Erwin came home, we threw him a big party; everyone was drunk, and everyone was stoned, and my friend Molly was on something else on top of it all.  That night, she got three out of three.

“So, Erwin,” she said, “you kill anybody?”

He leveled his eyes at the high-school kid who’d just asked him that question, took a long toke, and in a robot voice he said, “Yes, m’am, I sure did.”

“What was it like?”

“Fuggin’ sucks.”

“How many’d you kill?”

His eyes twitched and he involuntarily clenched his fists.  There was a bottle in his hand.  It shattered under his fingers.

“Not enough,” he muttered.  “Not enough.  Not enough.”

I tell you all this so you’ll understand why the rest of the story happened the way it did.  That was one time Erwin’s dark side came out.  The summer after my graduation was another.

***

Me, I never knew my dad.  My girlfriend and I have known each other since we were kids, and her dad was something of a surrogate father-figure for me growing up, which was convenient; but Erwin, after he came home, took to the roll pretty naturally.  It was Erwin who taught me to shoot a gun, clean a fish, skin a deer.  Whenever Linda and I have a fight, which is mercifully rarely, Erwin always knows what I should say to get back in her good graces.  He bought me my first beer, and my first pack of smokes, and he helped Mom buy me my first car.  He also taught me how to set a dynamite charge with a rat trap for a detonator, and how to dig a bear pit, and how to run a trap line, and I got a few purely academic lessons on what one ought to do with game wardens.  Erwin is full of useful information.

Erwin’s lifetime of medical insurance, disability payments, and hero’s pension allowed him to work part-time, no-stress jobs one at a time, freeing up his days for his favorite hobby:  Loafing.  The fact that he started dating a forty-something widow who owned her own home certainly didn’t hurt matters.  To a normal person, taking your barely-legal cousin and his girlfriend on a month-long camping trip in the north Georgia backwoods to celebrate the end of high school would require things like planning, preparation, maybe even prior warning.  Erwin Rommel Benson is not a normal person.  Normal people do not burst into same cousin’s bedroom in the middle of the night—while same cousin happens to be on top of his girlfriend at the time—and say, “Oh, good, y’all’s both here.  Git packin’; we leave at 05.”

Mom loves Erwin to pieces, and Linda’s parents trust her a lot more than they probably should, so that was how I spent the most fun, most insane month of my life.  Erwin’s jeep had been almost full of cases of Schlitz and bags of weed, in addition to all the hunting and camping supplies that he just stores in there, and he knows places in the mountains where Fish & Game won’t go.  So off we went, the four of us—Erwin had somehow managed to convince his own girlfriend to come—off into the mountains, a million miles from anyplace where decent people go, to spend our days hiking and fishing, our nights getting stoned and getting laid.  That trip is one of the best memories I have, right up there near my first kiss with Linda.  Nothing bad happened until we were on our way home.

The jeep rumbled down an old logging road, catching air on the bigger ruts, while Erwin and his girl Mary sang along to the radio and me and Linda made out in the back seats.  We were teenagers, with oddly liberal parents, from a podunk Appalachian town without much to do to pass the time; back then, before real life started wasting our time, you couldn’t’ve pulled us off each other with a crowbar.  Every once in a while, Erwin would look back and holler, “Jesus Howard God, dude, you just gonna do ‘er in the back of my jeep?”, and I’d take my hand out of Linda’s jeans, and Mary would laugh.

I mentioned that Mary was in her forties.  A couple months before, I’d been calling her “Miz Mary” and she’d been teaching me civics.  I really do love my hometown.

After topping a mountain, the logging road dipped into a low valley and we lost the radio.  That happens sometimes in the mountains.  Erwin popped in one of his Hank Williams CDs.

Linda broke away from me to holler, “Oh, come on, man, don’t make us listen to that Wonderbread noise.”

Like a proper Southern gentleman, Erwin replied, “Listen here, girl, you shut yer wahoo mouth while Hank is talkin’.”

They grinned while they did this, this being their idea of friendly banter, no matter how uncomfortable it made everybody else.

“I can’t listen to this music,” Linda said, “it’ll . . . oh, God, it’s already starting, I can feel it . . . the change . . . skin, whitening . . . IQ, dropping . . . the urge to drive me one of them there pick-‘em-up trucks . . . Erwin, it’s turning me into one of you!

“That there’s racism, and this here jeep is one of them safe spaces.  I won’t take that kinda talk from no half-breed wahoo.”

“You’re one to talk, squarehead; your daddy named you after a Nazi.”

“Field Marshall Erwin Rommel tried to kill Hitler.  And anyways, kid, I don’t wanna be the bearer of bad news or nuthin’, but that feller yer goin’ with, the one what you was knuckle-divin’ with a minute ago?’

“What can I say?  We all have our kinks.  Mine is fat, dopey white boys.”

“Gee,” I said, “thanks, babe.”

She grabbed my crotch and whispered something unladylike in my ear.

Mary, in her teacher voice—the half-whisper that still dripped with authority—said, “Erwin, sweetheart, I think you missed a turn.”

Erwin squinted and surveyed his surroundings.  After a bit, he stopped the jeep and said, “Nope, I’ll do you one better.  Didn’t miss no turn.  Took a wrong one.”

“Do you know where we are?”

He looked around again.  “Nope.  Sure don’t.”

Erwin was the only one who’d brought a cell phone, and its GPS put us somewhere south of Blue Ridge, which was impossible.  After a reset, it put us close to Pigeon Forge, which was at least twice as impossible.  He dug around in his bag until he found an analogue watch, a compass, and a couple of maps.  That proved equally useless; abandoned logging roads aren’t likely to show up on maps, and all the landmarks look the same from the bottom of an empty valley.  Erwin cursed.  Somewhere up above us, a turkey buzzard echoed the sentiment.

“Well,” he said after stowing his land-nav kit, “I got a half a tank of gas, and I got three jerry cans and four spare tires and a spare battery and a winch.  I vote we hit the road, and eventually the road’ll go someplace.”

That sounded reasonable.  We drove.  We didn’t see any cars, any houses, or even any other roads for ages, just trees, mountains, and wildlife as the sun swung up overhead and started dipping west.  We ran out of gas and Erwin deployed his jerry cans.  The road, and the day, went on.

It wasn’t too long after that that the logging trail terminated into a dirt road that looked like it saw regular use.  Erwin turned north, which we figured was the closest thing to the right direction, and we passed around a joint and the last of the Schlitz to celebrate.  The road still rolled on into nowhere, but it was clear it had been used recently, and we occasionally passed driveways.  Even so, the sun was hanging low to our left by this point, and we must have been driving non-stop for ten hours; if we’d been going north that whole time, we should’ve been well on our way to Ohio.  But we were all buzzed, and we were all stoned, and none of us had really wanted to leave the woods to begin with, so nobody noticed.

At last we saw a welcome sight: a truck went by us, going the other way.  Then the dirt road transitioned into cracked and pitted pavement, and we found the gas station.

It looked like an old barn that had been augmented by a concrete pad and a few gas pumps.  Cars, trucks, and farm equipment were parked all around it, and there were men milling about wearing flannel shirts and bib overalls and straw hats; they looked less like rednecks and more like some Yankee’s idea of caricatures of rednecks.  Erwin pulled up to one of the gas pumps, and before any of us could pile out, he said, “Let’s be careful in there.”

“Careful of what, sugar?” Mary asked.

“Dunno.  But somethin’.  This place feels fucked up.  Like, ‘Stan fucked up.  I don’t trust it.”

We all paused to take in the ambiance.  It could’ve been any gas station in Georgia, or in Tennessee, or Kentucky, or Mississippi, or Montana, North Dakota, Alberta; really, it could’ve been plucked from any sufficiently rural area anywhere in the world.  The people looked and moved like people we all knew and had grown up around.  But Erwin was right; the place felt . . . off.  Somehow, we knew that it wasn’t a good place to be.

“Alright,” Erwin said, “let’s get in, get our shit, and get the hell outta here afore we run into Boss Hoggs and Daryl and his other brother Daryl.”

We piled out.  Everyone glared at us.

That much at least didn’t raise any red flags.  I’m usually pretty good at hiding my power level and passing for normal, but being Linda Kilgore’s boyfriend means you get used to being stared at.  In part it’s just because she’s smoking hot and a lot of men don’t know how to act right.  But she’s also Cherokee, and she dresses like she just time warped out of a London night club in the ‘80s, and she wears a big silver pentangle around her neck and likes to carry a long hunting knife on her hip.  A stranger asked her about the knife once.  She told him it was for scalps.

If you’ve spent much time in the Deep South, you know that people can be almost perversely polite, to the point where it’s downright creepy.  People you’ve never even seen before will walk up to you and ask you how things are going.  There was none of that here.  Everybody in the gas station either glared at us or outright ignored us.  Erwin paid for some gas and went out to pump it.  The rest of us went to the bathroom, picked out some snacks, and went to pay for them.  The clerk on the register was an old Cherokee man.  When Linda’s turn came, she gave him the money and said, “Say, Grandfather, Tsalagis hiwonisgi?

He nodded, and they conversated for a bit.  His Cherokee was smooth and natural, while Linda’s was academic and stilted, but they seemed to understand each other just fine.  Linda looked worried.  When we left, she leaned in close to me and whispered, “Dude, this is creepy.  That guy said we need to get our gas and get gone as soon as we can, that we shouldn’t let the sun set on us, the people around here don’t like strangers.  At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.”  A thoughtful pause.  “It’s hard to say; the word for ‘stranger’ is the same as the word for ‘enemy’.”

A sheriff’s deputy had pulled up next to the jeep and was jawing with Erwin.  I’ll never understand my cousin; he doesn’t believe in God, and he’s not exactly patriotic anymore, and I saw him disappear into a bedroom with two other dudes at his homecoming party, but he never has a problem playing nice with the other rednecks.  He told me once that, in Afghanistan, he sometimes felt like he had more in common with the Northern Alliance fighters than he did with the rest of his group.  He says he has a theory that growing up in the mountains makes people turn out all fucked up, but generally fucked up in the same ways.  He says he plans to travel to Switzerland and Vietnam to test his theory, and that he’ll publish his findings in a book he’ll call “Hillbillies is Hillbillies: A Systematic Study of the Socioanthropological Effects of Topography.”

“So we fired ‘er back up,” Erwin was telling the deputy, “and we hit the road, figurin’ we’d git someplace eventually.  I reckon this here is someplace.”

The deputy chuckled.  “I reckon it is, buddy.  Y’all in the market for some directions?”

“Yessir, we sure is.  I ain’t even sure where in the great state of Georgia I’s at, so if’n you could point me towards the Interstate I reckon that’ll do me.”

“Well, stranger, you shoulda nosed south afore you got on the paved road.”  He leaned in close, his friendly smile becoming a leering grin.  “Whatchu gonna wanna do is git back on this here road and go back the way you came.”

He got into his patrol car and disappeared.  We piled back into the jeep, nobody speaking, and then Erwin pointed forward and hollered, “Who in the hell could be so goddamn stupid?”

We all looked to see where he was pointing.  Sitting on the dashboard, as plain as day, was a sandwich bag containing three joints.

“That there county mountie looked right at it,” he said, “and didn’t say a damn word.  I dunno about y’all, but I’m startin’ to feel real unwelcome.”

Linda told him what the station clerk had said, and added, “These people don’t seem too keen on making new friends.”

We saw no reason to inconvenience them any further.  Erwin nosed the jeep back onto the road, and we headed south, onto the dirt road, past the logging trail we’d come from, deeper into the unknown.  The sun was setting now, turning the sky to fire.  Knowing where west was let us know when the road started to bend that way, and by dusk we were going north again.  We didn’t make it to the Interstate.

Around the time it got dark, we were all getting that feeling of wrongness again.  Erwin felt it first, and strongest, but we all knew something was off.  So, when we came around a bend and saw the same gas station we’d left two hours before, we weren’t as surprised as we might’ve been.

“Didn’t see no Interstate,” Erwin grumbled.  “Didn’t even hear no fuckin’ cars on no goddamn Jesus Christ horse-fuckin’ tit-lickin’ goddamn Interstate.  That pig took us fer a damn ride.”

“Well, sweetheart,” Mary said, “what’s your plan?”

“I’m gonna git back on that logging road and drive.  The one end took us someplace; t’other’n should, too.”  He gulped.  “But, dammit, I’m gonna need more gas.”

Mary sighed.  “Well, there’s only one place to do that.”

We pulled up to the station.  The bubba-rednecks stopped milling around when they saw us; they stood up and watched us, their eyes burning with hatred.  Erwin stopped at the pump.  Mary opened the glove box and took out a .45 automatic.  They traded, the pistol for Erwin’s car keys; he hid the gun in the back of his jeans and addressed the three of us:

“Listen:  This is fucked.  I don’t know what’s goin’ on and I don’t goddamn want to.  Lock the door and don’t open it ‘till I git back.  If’n I ain’t back in ten minutes, go.  If’n you hear shots, go.  Just go.  When the jeep runs outta gas, git out and run.  Understand?”

We nodded.  Erwin disappeared into the station and came back out in less than five minutes, looking flustered.  Under the watchful eyes of fifteen or twenty angry rednecks, he filled the tank, and he filled his jerry cans, and he found some empty soda bottles and filled those, too.  He hopped back into the jeep, caught the keys when Mary threw them, started up the engine, and peeled out, all in one fluid motion.  Linda asked why he looked so out of sorts.  He sighed and said, “Kid, they wanna kill us.”

“Do what, now?”

“They didn’t do nuthin’ and they didn’t say nuthin’, but I can tell by the way they carry theirselves.  Them ol’ boys got murder on the brain.  Well, they can throw a flyin’ fuck at the moon, sez I; we are outta here.”

He laughed as he told us that, going hard on the accelerator and plowing down the road at a decidedly unsafe speed.

We almost made it that time.

About a hundred yards out from where the paved road ended, we heard a siren go off and saw a sheriff’s patrol car pull out of a driveway and stop across the narrow country road, blocking it.  Erwin barely had time to pump the brakes and screech to a stop.  The same deputy who’d given us bad directions jumped out, service pistol in hand, and hollered, “Hands where I can see ‘em!  Git outta the fuggin car!  Now!”

Erwin’s neck started twitching, and his shoulders tensed up until they almost touched his ears, but he complied slow and easy, keeping his threat level low.  The rest of us followed suit.

When we were all lined up along the side of the road, hands in the air, the deputy leveled his gun at Erwin and said, “Boy, I know you got a cannon on yer.  Hand ‘er on over, real nice and slow-like.”

Slow and easy, Erwin took the .45 out of his jeans, laid it on the road, and kicked it over.

“Thankee much, young man.  Now listen here:  I tried bein’ polite.  I tried givin’ y’all a chance.  But y’all out-of-town folks just cain’t leave us God-fearin’ people alone.  Y’all always gotta be pokin’ y’all’s peckers in other folks’ business and ruinin’ my evenin’.”

“Boss,” said Erwin, “we didn’t never want no trouble.  All we wanna do is git on outta here.  We don’t want no trouble.”

“Well, you fuckin’ found you some trouble, you apostate faggot son of a bitch, and now I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!  Don’t not a oneuh y’all fear the Lord, I know!  And y’all boys, and you, you lil’ red-nigger girl, y’all’s a messuh queers!”  He leveled his gun at Linda and said, “I’ma show you what we do with cunt-lickin’ red-nigger girls ‘round here, praise the Lord!  We’s gonna bend you over a barrel and show you what a man does, ‘till you got a size-ten twat!  Restuh y’all gonna watch!  Then we gonna kill you!  Bleed you!  Eat the fuckin’ jelly outta y’all’s fuckin’ eyeballs!”

The deputy was shaking at this point, with a long string of drool trailing from the corner of his mouth.  He turned the gun on Erwin, said, “You first, baby-killer!  You die first!”

He racked the slide on his pistol.  I watched a round fly out of the action and land on the road when he did it.  The gun and been loaded and ready to fire from the beginning; he wasted a round just so his gun would make a scary noise.

I didn’t really see what happened next.  I saw Erwin twitch, and then, the next instant, the disarmed deputy was on the ground with a bloody gash over his left eye, and Erwin was standing over him, gun in hand.

“Now, listen here, boss,” Erwin said, “we never wanted no trouble to start with.  We just wanna go home.  You trackin’?”

“Goddamn cocksucking devil-loving son of a bitch!  We’ll kill you!  We’ll bite yer fuckin’ heads off and drink yer blood, I swear to God!  Praise God!  Elohim, Adonai, Elohim, Adonai . . .”

“Sir, I’ma have to ask you to please calm down so’s we can have us a conversation.”

“Die, you bastard!”

The deputy’s hand shot to his ankle.  Erwin pulled the trigger twice, putting two slugs into his heart.  As he went limp, his hand discharged a .22 magnum he’d had concealed in a leg holster.

We were all quiet for a while.  Then Erwin kicked the dying, unconscious deputy in the ribs and said, “Well.  That just happened.”

No-one else spoke; we were all sort of in shock.  Good old Staff Sergeant Erwin R. Benson, 75th Rangers (ret), however, looked down at the whole mess with all the shock and horror of a man who’s ordered a Big Mac and received a McDouble.

“Git in the jeep,” he said.

We got in the jeep.  Erwin turned it around, slammed on the accelerator, and peeled off onto the first side road we came to.

“Called me a baby killer,” he said, breaking the silence again.  “That sister-fuckin’ hillbilly redneck lawman what’s prob’ly voted Republican his whole daggon life called me a baby killer.  Goddammit, that ain’t natural.”

This is when I spoke up.  “Erwin, he called us fags.”

“Well, bud, I’s sorry if’n he offended yer sensibilities.”

“No, dude, listen to me.  I saw you hooking up at your coming-home party.  And you remember Molly and Jim?  Halloween party last year, I hooked up with Jim and Lin hooked up with Molly, for shits and giggles, to see if we’d like it.  Erwin, how in the goddamn shit-licking hell did he know any of that?”

He considered this, then added, “He also knew about my .45.  This here situation just keeps gittin’ more and more fucked.”

Mary put her hand on his knee and said, “Erwin, sweetheart, get us the fuck out of here.”

We drove on, through the night, Erwin trying his best to trend toward the north.  I don’t know why he picked north; probably just the need to pick some kind of direction coupled with a desire to get away from rednecks (discounting the fact that North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and both Virginias stood between us and the borders of Yankee-land, but whatever).  After a while, the road narrowed as we passed over a wood bridge spanning a wide, rocky crick.  Erwin slowed down and switched off his headlights; there’s not much light pollution so far into the mountains, so on a clear night a man can safely drive by moonshine and starlight (assuming, of course, you live in a world where deer and bear are both extinct).

“This here’s startin’ to look like a damn driveway,” he grumbled.  “Keep y’all’s eyes peeled.”

It wasn’t long after that we saw a flickering red light through the trees—a bonfire.  We rolled down all the windows and listened; sure enough, we could hear voices.  Truth be told, we could hear what sounded like a whole congregation being led in song:

“Would you be free from the burden of sin?

There’s power in the blood, power in the blood

Would you o’er evil a victory win?

There’s wonderful power in the blood!

 

“There is power, power, wonder-working power

In the blood, in the blood

There is power, power, wonder-working power

In the precious blood of the Lamb!”

And so on and so forth.

Erwin spun the jeep around.  Before we were back in sight of the little bridge, we saw the same sort of flickering light, and smelled smoke.  Erwin set his .45 in his lap, shrugged, and drove on for want of anything better to do.

The firelight died away before we got to it, and when we did, we saw that the bridge was gone.  There was a strong odor of smoke in the air—the foul, coppery smell of pressure-treated wood smoke—and a few smoldering embers on either side of the crick.

“Fuck,” Erwin muttered as he put the jeep in reverse, “fuck fuckity fuck.”

“What’s your plan, sugar?” Mary asked.

“Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck,” Erwin explained, his temples pulsing.

He drove the jeep off of the road, into the woods, and managed to find a tall thicket of laurel to hide behind.  He stopped, stretched, and said, “Well, folks, I’m slap plumb out of ideas.  We cain’t go the one way, and we cain’t go t’other’n, and I ain’t about to drive through no woods in the dark.  Unless anybody’s got a better idea, I vote we hole up and wait for mornin’.”

“What happens in the morning?” Linda wanted to know.

“Same as every mornin’; sun comes up.  I got four spare tires and a Warn winch, and this here looks like it’s mostly old-growth timber; I can drive through it if’n I got light to see by.”

Linda shrugged, and so did Mary, and so did I.  Ideas seemed to be at a premium.

After the consensus had been reached, Erwin got us all out of the jeep, opened the back, and rooted around by starlight.  He came up with four rifles:  Two M4s, an AR-15, and—oh sweet Motherland—a Mosin-Nagant.  The nugget was Erwin’s (of course it was), I got the AR.  He said, “Alright, listen.  Keep yer weapons close by, keep ‘em locked n’ loaded, but don’t shoot nuthin’ if you ain’t got to; right now, whatever’s out there don’t know where we’s at, and I wanna keep it thataway.  If it does come to a firefight, them battle rifles is highly illegal, so we’ll have the drop on ‘em.  But I say again:  They don’t know where we’re at.  Keep it that way.”

We huddled together, sitting on the ground behind the jeep.  Nobody spoke for a while.  Erwin started shaking, and I noticed there were tears welling around his eyes.

“Dude,” I said, “are you alright?”

He nodded.  “Don’t worry ‘bout me, I’m just freakin’ out a little bit.  I did kill a man, y’know.”

That threw us.  In all the excitement, it hadn’t registered that we’d all watched my cousin shoot a man and leave him to bleed out in the middle of the road.  I started hyperventilating, and I heard Linda whimper.

“Whatever y’all’s feelin’,” Erwin said, “it’s totally normal.  If’n anybody needs to freak out, this here’d be the time to do it; just try not to go makin’ too much noise.”

We tried not to.  There were noises—whimpering, heavy breathing, Erwin’s quiet sobbing—but nobody had much else to say.  That is, until Erwin lifted his head and asked, “Hey, y’all believe in ghosts?”

Linda and I shrugged; we do, but that’s a whole other story in itself.  Mary looked at him and asked, “Sugar, are you sure you want to talk about that?”

He nodded.  “I’ve had that same bad feelin’ ever since we got lost.  I know what that feelin’ means, and they got a right to know.”

In the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, a million miles from home, with the Midnight Revival Choir giving us a capella accompaniment in the form of “That Old Rugged Cross,” Erwin told us his story.

“I were in the ‘Stan,” he said, “workin’ with some-or-‘nuther group, don’t ask what one.  We was trackin’ some tallybans through the hills over into Pakistan.  Their trail passed through this here village.  We’d been there before, got real buddy-buddy with the locals, gave ‘em some food and water and whatnot, helped ‘em fix some busted utilities, stopped by to tell howdy when we was close by.  Friendly village.  The locals was all dead.  Men, women, little kids, even the fuckin’ dogs and goats, shot in the head and piled up in the middle of the village.  It was fucked up.  We went through lookin’ for survivors—like I said, they was on our side—and we found us this woman.  Woman holdin’ a baby.  Joey—he was our squint, Joey, smartest sumbitch I ever met—said somethin’ at her in Pashto.  She threw the fuckin’ baby on the fuckin’ ground and whipped an AKM out of them robes they wear.  I leveled my weapon and put a hammered pair right in her tit.  The bitch was dead, and the baby was dead, so we moved on.”  He paused to collect himself.  “That night, and every night after so long as we was in country, I seent that same woman out in the hills.  I figured it were the trauma makin’ me see shit, so when we was stateside I went saw the shrink.  Shrink gave me some conversation and some pills.  That helped for a while, but . . . but . . .”  Another pause.  “A while after, I woke up in the middle of the night ‘cause I’d heard the door to my barracks room swing open.  She walked in, that same klashin slung over her damn shoulder.  I informed her all about how she were a figment of my imagination.  She smiled—Jesus fuckin’ God, I’ll see that smile every time I close my eyes ‘till the day I die—and she leveled her klashin, and she pulled the trigger.  Round screamed right by my head and roont my damn pillow.  Then she walked up to me and traced her fingers across my chest.  Fuckin’ burned.  I blinked and she were gone, so I went back to sleep, writin’ her off as another nightmare.”  He leaned forward, glaring at me in particular.  “Nobody else heard no gunshot, of course.  But hallucinations don’t open doors.  Nightmares don’t put bullet holes in folks’ pillows.  Hallucinations don’t do this shit.”

He pulled down his shirt.  Barely visible in the starlight and amongst the ginger hair was a long scar across his chest that looked almost like calligraphy.

“Next day, I writ it down on some paper and asked Joey about it.  It’s writin’.  Urdu word, means ‘death’.  Listen, y’all:  Whenever she’d show up, I’d get this funny feelin’, like a ice cream headache in the back of my neck.  I been feelin’ that ever since we first realized we was lost.”

Linda looked up at the moon, trying to gage the time.  She sighed and said, “Morning just cannot get here fast enough.”

It was about that time that the screaming started.

Abruptly, the singing off in the distance turned into a kind of harmonic droning, and over that we could hear a woman screaming.  We could hear her clear as day, begging for her life, begging for someone not to do something, begging for help.  Erwin tapped me on the shoulder, said, “Come on, buddy, back me up.”

“Dude, are you out of your goddamn mind?  Whatever’s happening to her, it could happen to us next.”

“I just need to see.  Come on, follow me and do what I do.”

I followed him, trying to step where he stepped and move like he moved.  He, of course, moved through the dark woods as quiet and easy as a tomcat, the muzzle of his big rifle leading the way.  The fire got closer.  The chanting and screaming got louder.  After a bit, we came to the edge of a beanfield with a trailer and a couple of pick-up trucks barely visible out on the far side.  In the middle of it was a big roaring bonfire surrounded by men, women, and kids.  Some wore flannel and overalls, but most were garbed in suits, starched shirts, dresses, as if they were attending Sunday service.  All of them were standing around the fire in concentric circles, eyes and hands turned up, droning wordlessly, save for a group just by the fire.  An old man in a black suit and a ridiculous cowboy hat, holding a big leatherbound Bible, was presumably overseeing the whole affair.  Two big guys in flannel and overalls stood by him, holding a 4×4 post between them.  Tied to the post was a thrashing, screaming woman.

The man in the cowboy hat held up his hands and hollered something; we couldn’t hear what.  The droning died away and he repeated, “Brothers and sisters, do you fear the Lord?”

The crowd informed him that, yes, they did fear the Lord.

“And do any of you doubt the power of the Lord?”

They made it known that they didn’t.

Preacher-man gently set his Bible down on the ground and thrust his hands into his pockets.  As soon as he did, two rattlesnakes slithered up his arms to settle around his shoulders, coontails buzzing.  He held up his hands again and said, “Behold now the power of the Lord!  Brothers and sisters, our God is a jealous God, jealous and strong, stronger than the mountain!  The Lord, who spoke from the whirlwind!  The Lord, who spoke at ol’ Moses from the burning bush!  The Lord, who showed the Pillar of Fire to His children in the wilderness!  The Lord, who died on that old rugged cross to save our unworthy souls from perdition!  Brothers and sisters, I’m a-tellin’ you right now, you gotta fear the Lord!”

Erwin tapped me and pointed at the sky.  Just over the fire, though it was impossible to tell how high up, lights were gathering.  They looked like fireflies, and they looked like satellites, and they looked like planets, all at once.  They buzzed around like fireflies for a while, then formed themselves into a rotating circle directly over the preacher’s head.  He noticed them, too, and seemed happy that they could join him.  He threw his hands up high and hollered, “Behold, brothers and sisters!  Behold!  He breaketh the bow, and snappeth the spear in sunder!  Be still, and know that I am God!  I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in all the Earth!  The Lord of Hosts is with us!

“The Lord of Hosts is with us!” the aforementioned brothers and sisters echoed.

“In God’s holy name,” the preacher went on, “we got us a woman here who does not fear the Lord!  Well, us holy, God-fearin’ menfolks spent a good long night teaching her how to repent, repent, repent!  Praise God!”

“Praise God!”

“Praise God, brothers and sisters, praise Him, praise His name Elohim, Adonai, Iod-Heh-Vod-Heh, Shemhameforash, Elohim, Adonai . . .” He smacked himself on the head, as if unsticking a CD, then went on.  “It’s judgment time, brothers and sisters, and by God it is written in the Good Book that the non-believer, the maker of iniquity, the blasphemer, the filthy stinking harlot shall perish in the Lake of Fire!  And I tell you, brothers and sisters, the Good Lord is pleased with this good work of ours!  I tell you, even now one of His angels waits to carry this harlot’s soul into perdition!”

At the words “one of His angels,” I felt the same oh-shit-this-is-wrong feeling that Erwin had described: An icy, prickling stiffness in the brainstem, as if you could get an ice cream headache in your brainstem.

“God is good!” the preacher informed us.  “God’s mercy is there for all of us, and God’s love is deeper than the deep blue sea, even for us poor, poor sinners.”  He turned to the bound woman, who looked like a pig on a roasting spit, and who’d stopped caterwauling and started silently weeping around the time the Sunday-school lecture began.  He said, “Sinner, will you renounce your wicked ways?  Will your soul be washed bright and clean in the blood of Jesus Christ?”

The woman did something that surprised me—surprised everyone—and made Erwin grin in admiration.  She spat in the preacher’s face and hollered, “Fuck you!  I’ll fucking kill you, you goddamn inbred hillbilly rapist son of a bitch!  I’ll kill all of you!  Go ahead, burn me!  Fucking do it!  I’ll fucking wait for you in Hell, and when you die and come see me I swear to Jesus fucking Christ I will fist-fuck you so hard you’ll have to—“

The big guys holding the stake didn’t have to be told to throw it on the fire.

I was gaping at the whole spectacle, AR held limply at the low ready, but Erwin had been watching it all down his iron sights.  As soon as the woman hit the flames, his big Russkie rifle bucked in his hands.

The back of the woman’s head flew out in a plume of white bone shards, brown hair, grey chunks, red mist.  I barfed in my mouth.  Of all the messed-up stuff I saw, that’s the scene that’s going to be burned into my nightmares for the rest of my life.

Erwin racked the bolt and fired again.  The preacher dropped.  The shot had gone wide, wrecking his shoulder instead of tearing open his lungs, but as he dropped the two rattlesnakes sank their fangs into either side of his neck and held on until he hit the ground.  They slithered off toward the woods, coontails silent, no doubt pleased as punch to no longer be involved.

Then the fire went out.

The billowing flames died away to glowing embers in an instant, as if someone had flipped a switch.  The glowing ash pile started to heave, broke away at the top like there was a woodchuck inside, and this . . . thing crawled out.

I won’t even try to describe what it looked like.  I can’t.  There are no words to describe what I saw crawling out of that ash pile.  But I will say that it had four faces, and it had six wings, and it damn-sure had plenty of eyes.  Jesus fucking Christ, those eyes.

Erwin shot it.

The round punched through one of those awful goddamn burning eyes, and the air was filled with a deafening noise like radio static.  The congregation, who’d been looking around for muzzle flash, were now galvanized into action; they came at us at a run, screaming, howling in agony, as if they were the ones who’d just been shot.  Erwin slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Burn your magazine over their heads.  Scare ‘em.”

Erwin didn’t see what I saw—the glint of blue gunmetal on belts, and then in hands.  I leveled the AR, held down the trigger, and God help me I burned the magazine into their chests.  Then we ran.

Slinging the rifle, Erwin waved his arms around and hollered, “Don’t shoot!  It’s us!  Don’t shoot!” as we neared the jeep.  Sure enough, Linda and Mary, having heard the gunshots, were hunkered down and ready for trouble.  We piled into the jeep and got back on the road, heading for the crick.  When we reached the downed bridge, Erwin put the jeep in 4-wheel-drive, shifted into first gear, and plowed right into the water.

“Holy fuck!” he hollered, laughing and weeping all at once.  “Holy fucking fuckity fuck!  Frankie, did you goddamn Jesus Christ see that bullshit?”

The jeep skidded around on slick rocks, struggled over big rocks, and the current made us drift left.  Linda yelled, “Erwin!  I think it’s too deep!”

“We’ll make it, goddammit!” Erwin explained.

“How do you know we’ll make it?”

“Because we goddamn have to!”

A gunshot behind us.  A bullet punched into the back windshield and out of the front.  The crick wasn’t all that deep, but it was wide, and the going was slow enough that our friends had caught up with us.  Linda, Mary, and I, all of us far too terrified to be scared, reacted; we leaned out of our respective windows, leveled our weapons, and laid hammered pairs downrange, exactly as Erwin had shown us when he’d come home.  We weren’t actually aiming, but the blood-mad churchgoers were beyond fear, wading right into the crick, shooting from the hip as they ran; they only had handguns, and were running wild, so none of their shots came as close as the first.  We had rifles.  Automatic ones.  They were running faster than we were driving, but none of them made it near the jeep.  In the end, we were all three crying too much to aim anyway.

After roughly a million years, the jeep reached the far bank, foundered on the sand for a horrible moment, and lurched back onto the road.  Linda and I cradled each other in the back seats, sobbing.  Mary crumpled up to hug Erwin’s knee while she sobbed.  Erwin drove, determined to save his sobbing for later.  

Eventually, we did find the Interstate, and that allowed us to figure out roughly where we’d been.  After cleaning up and calming down, we found a Georgia Highway Patrol barracks.  The rest of us were against it, but Erwin insisted that Georgia is a stand-your-ground state and ergo we’d done nothing wrong; so, excluding the underage drinking, excluding the pot, excluding the illegally-modified firearms and the monsters crawling out of bonfires, we spilled everything.

They threw us out and threatened to kill us.

When we walked out, defeated, an elderly Cherokee woman—secretary or dispatch or somesuch, I guess–who’d walked out just before us for a cigarette grinned a toothless grin at us and said, “I heard it all.  That was an alright joke you guys tried to pull, I guess, but you made the usual amateur mistake.  Next time, you should research your location better.”

“What do you mean, Grandmother?” Linda asked.

She laughed.  “Sweetheart, that place you pointed to is State Park land.  There is a town up there, sort of, but it’s been abandoned for a good fifty, sixty years.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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