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  • CHAPTER ONE

     

    Blue

    I entered the world wearing a dark mask of membrane, a shadow-veined caul that covered my head like an opaque executioner’s hood. Seconds after I was born, Ebeneezer, the big ball of gray-striped Manx cat my mother carried everywhere—including into the delivery room of my birth—crawled into my crib and licked the caul from my wrinkled, wet face. I still remember that first cleaning: the pink sandpaper pressure of Ebeneezer’s tongue, the bump of his pointed feline teeth against my face, the soft brush of rumbling fur, the gentle push and pull of his padded paws kneading my baby skin.

    Neither Ebeneezer nor my mother—the Gypsy fortune-teller, Callista Marie—was to be present for the rest of my childhood. Both, however, touched me for forever in those first few squalling, newborn seconds—

    Ebeneezer the Cat: Lying innocent and quivering in my crib, being bathed and comforted by the Manx cat’s careful ministrations, I bonded with Ebeneezer before I was cradled in Callista’s lithe arms. Consequently, for all of my life I’ve held a deep abiding love of gray, tiger-striped cats. As evidence of this, for the last four years one of my closest companions has been Grendel, a wild Canada lynx. He is fifty-eight pounds of gray-striped muscle and good nature, and few people I know are blessed with as fine a friend.

    My Mother, Callista Marie the Gypsy: Cally’s tambourine-tuned body, rolling the mystic dice of heredity and chance within her womb, threw a seven and won a cache of wonderments, one of which was the caul she then draped over my developing eyes. True to the superstition of being born with a caul, I have a loving awe of the everyday magic that’s nestled into the warm, woven folds of every second, that’s tuck-pointed and troweled like precious mortar into the wet furrows of our brains. The magic that’s enfolding, alive, and everywhere, gliding unseen across our paths and following us along walkways. The magic that strokes our temples with alchemist’s fingers, whispering into our ears, “…from ordinary, to dreams…to dreams.”

    It isn’t only that I wore a caul that has influenced my life—it is also that my twin brother did not. Cally’s womb, although a warm and safe haven, was also a crowded one, shared by me and my identical-fraternal twin.

    My older brother—born two minutes before me and christened Garrett James, then quickly renamed Alassadir by the band of Gypsies who immediately took him away as their king (which, according to my father, was exactly the deal he’d arranged). However, soon after taking my brother, the Gypsies again returned and also took away my mother and Ebeneezer (which, according to my father, was not at all the deal he’d arranged).

    Caul, cat, and Gypsies: There have been more usual births.

    As a child, I used to ask my father, “Why this brother I never knew? Why is he now King of the Gypsies, and I am not? Why did you choose him?”

    “It wasn’t because he was first-born, Blue,” my father answered. “It wasn’t that at all.”

    Nor was it our appearance.

    Looking at us lying side by side, both babies new and splotchy with the exertions of birth, my father couldn’t see a single difference between the two. He saw the exact same hair, the exact same face, the exact same fingers and toes. To him, the magnificence of birth had wrapped both my brother and me in the same swaddling cloth, making us identical halves of the same miracle and blinding him to any differences.

    “Right then,” he always said, “with both of you in front of me, you both looked exactly the same. Of course, I was wrong. You weren’t identical twins, you were fraternal. But to me, right then, you both looked exactly alike. Right then, the two of you were the world’s first identical-fraternal twins.”

    I eventually learned why my brother, and not I, was given to the Gypsies as their king. I learned that the reasons for my father’s choice were decided when he was six years old, when his dog Warlock was killed by a lightning strike that left behind only a charred stick of tail and a melted nugget of the silver dog tag that had attracted the lethal electric bolt.

    The dog tag was a wide, dangling silver totem.

    As a boy, my father had crafted it at a stamping booth exhibition during a family trip to the Indianapolis State Fair. Beneath a sign proclaiming “50 CENTS PRINTS ANY MESSAGE!” my father dropped two quarters into an industrial-green metal box and began turning a large, black-lettered dial. Letter by letter, he spun the dial back and forth through the alphabet, directing hydraulically-driven steel stamping punches at the edge of a blank, round emblem held clamped in vises behind the thick glass of the exhibit’s display. Working slowly, biting the inside of his cheek in concentration, he filled the empty spaces around the silver tag’s circumference, encircling it with the legend: WARLOCK, DEAR & PROVEN FRIEND OF THE WITTWERS. Hitting the display’s red, mushroom cap-shaped FINISH button, he reached down as the round medal dropped first into the machine’s internal darkness, then rolled out through a narrow slot and into his cupped hands.

    Lifting the tag to eye-level for inspection, it felt good against his palm. The medal’s heft was substantial and reassuring, its metal bright from the stamping. The silver token’s newly struck edges caught the sun and hurled back the light like a warrior’s polished shield. Looking at it, my father smiled. Slipping the medal into the deep boy-pockets of his corduroys, he then shuffled down the rows of other booths to enjoy the rest of the fair.

    At home the next day, with a single hammer-swing at a ten-penny nail, he struck a hole through the tag. Then, with much ceremony, he attached the medal—as an amulet of loyalty and friendship—to the wide brown leather collar that circled Warlock’s massive neck. Warlock, a chocolate Labrador retriever, full of keen intelligence and unrelenting love, walked proudly back and forth displaying his new gift. The dog gazed at my father in unquestioning adoration, his muzzle lifting as he barked deep woofs of canine joy.

    Weeks later, while searching nearby farm fields for plowed-up arrowheads, my father and Warlock were walking through open acres of just-harvested corn. As they walked, broken cornstalks reached up to them from the ground like skeletal, beckoning arms. Suddenly, without warning, an Indiana thunderstorm purpled the air around them and filled the sky with circular stair-steps of black clouds.

    Feeling the storm’s coming violence, boy and dog began running home. Within moments the storm was upon them. Torrential, rushing brooms of wind and rain soon swept away my father’s yells and Warlock’s mournful howls. White pebbles of hail began striking and stinging them as they ran through the open field.

    What happened next wasn’t the clearest detail in my father’s memory of the storm. Like an old movie that suddenly skips whole scenes ahead, my father recalled only a momentary, startling absence of sound and then a thick, soppy sense of sluggardly movement, as though he were swimming in a lake of honey. In fact, his memory was not so far from the truth. When found by his father after the storm, my lightning-struck, almost-unconscious father—his eyes closed, his clothing smoking and torn—was crawling like a dazed, scorched mole through the wet field’s deep, sloppy mud.

    Recovering in his bed, my father learned the reason he was alive was because the lightning bolt that hit him had first struck and killed Warlock. The electrical strike had been drawn to the metal talisman on the big Lab’s collar. The dog’s electrocuted body had already been buried in the field where he died. The only remaining bits of my father’s lifelong friend were a blackened stub of Warlock’s burnt tail and the smelted, silver tag. Crying, holding the tag close, my father began to understand the universe’s darker, malevolent forces. This understanding was greatly increased when he saw that the lightning had not entirely destroyed the medal’s motto, but had instead, with malicious glee, erased and folded the letters into a grotesque, mocking epitaph: WARLOCK, DEAP FRIED HE IS. Reading this, my father trembled with the pure, clean rage of a six-year-old. Shaking his clenched child-fist at whatever powers had conspired to do this, he suddenly understood that eternal battle lines had indeed been drawn. From that day forward, he kept the metal nugget with him always, only parting with it when, as a reminder of love and evil, he gave it to me before he died. I still carry it in the small leather bag I wear around my neck.

    One month after the storm, hoping to draw my father out from the sepulchral mood that continued to cloak him like tightly wrapped black sheets, his father took him for a ride in the country. The direction of their ride was random, an unplanned afternoon drive along rural dirt roads. Random drive or not, however, they eventually came across something as predictably sure to happen as the seventeen-year locust swarm. Approaching an isolated farm, they saw a large plywood sign propped against the home’s roadside mailbox. Freshly painted in tall, barn-red letters, the sign was a simple, pithy one: PUPPIES. FREE.

    Despite his determined loyalty to Warlock’s memory, six years old is six years old, and a pen of scrabbling, yelping puppies makes a heady music that quickly courses through a child’s bloodstream and into his heart. For my father, it soon became only a question of choice, the most important choice of all: which pup to pick?

    Looking to his father for help, my father then learned—and buried as absolute truth deep inside his brain—one of the tidbits of arcane knowledge that families pass down through generations. Looking into my father’s eyes, his father conveyed to him a gem of mysterious wisdom: “Choose the pup with the darkest roof-color in its mouth,” he said. “The darker the better. That’ll be the pick of the litter, son. That’ll be the keeper.”

    With those words— with that single lesson so reverently imparted to his excited, believing son—my father’s father, as surely as if he’d known what he was doing, determined that I was not to be the Gypsies’ king.

    Faced with the surprise of twin sons when only one baby had been expected, my father needed to choose which child to give the Gypsies and which to keep. Perhaps not even understanding or remembering why he did it, he opened Garrett’s mouth and peered inside, delicately pulling back the tiny lips to more clearly look at the toothless gums and nub of tongue.

    Next, he did the same to me.

    Then, without hesitation, full of the same confidence he’d felt while picking out a new puppy all those years ago, my father handed Garrett James to the Gypsies to be their king. And kept me as his son.

    “So you see, Blue,” my father later explained, “it wasn’t because your brother was first-born. I gave him to the Gypsies because you were the pick of the litter. You were the one I had to keep.”

    After providing a home for two new souls and then crocheting a caul to warm my face, it seemed that Cally’s body was not quite done. Her restless creative nature next picked up a paintbrush and, with an artist’s deliberate stroke, began coloring my palate—the roof of my mouth resembles a smudge of indigo ink, the shadowy hue of a blue-black night. (“This one, Dad,” my father had said so many years ago, absolutely sure of his pick as he clutched the squirming puppy in his arms. The dog’s pink tongue was bright against the black cave of its mouth. “I’ll take this one.”)

    On the day of my birth, as the Gypsies held my twin brother above their heads and danced to the chanted music of his new Gypsy name, “Alassadir. Alassadir. Alassadir,” my father watched me in my crib and listened to me gurgle as Ebeneezer purred and nuzzled my head. “This one,” my father whispered, “I’ll take this one.” And in rhythm with the Gypsies’ song for my brother, my father also softly sang, singing my new name to the world: “Blue. Blue. Blue.”

     

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  • CHAPTER TWO

    Blue. The Circle

    There is another Stonehenge. Another tall staggered Circle of weathered, white limestone pillars. A place pregnant with magic—ancient, holy, hidden, secret. A ring of forgotten Stones standing in the soft, gray blanket of mists that cover the wooded hills of Brown County, Indiana.

    It is a quiet, sacred place. Full of life and warm comfort.

    Like the green eyes of my Elissa.

    When I first found the Stone Circle, I softly walked around its circumference. With the reverence of a new father feeling his infant’s first pink breaths, I moved from Stone to Stone. As I walked, I counted—eleven tall straight Stones and one Stone tilting inward, steeply leaning toward the Circle’s center.

    On the day of discovery, I stayed for hours, murmuring thankful prayers, caught somewhere between joy and fearful awe. I wanted to touch the Circle, to rejoice at its finding. Yet was afraid to move too close, was certain I’d be found out, that the accident of its revelation would be corrected and the Circle dissolved. Fearfully, I reached my hands out to the Stones. I reached slowly, carefully—

    —pressed my open palms against one of the limestone pillars. Felt its surface, electric and cool—

    And the Circle remained.

    The twelve Stones stand on the hill called Jonah’s Belly.

    Like old friends, their fellowship is hushed and filled with long pauses. They are motionless in most of the sweeping weather that touches them. Are unmoved when quick, snapping winds fill the air with leaves that swirl like drunken birds. And they stand firm in the sudden drenching storms that groove and cut the ground with sluicing, downhill rushes of water.

    The Stones: Strong. Mute. Stationary. Except—

    In a certain rain…the fine, beaded rain that glistens gently on the air before slipping down to earth…in this rain...magic.

    In this rain, the Stones dance.

    The dance is a slow minuet of slight degrees, an almost imperceptible pattern of rhythm and time. The Stones sway as if nudged by whispers, leaning from side to side as though brushed and moved by the touch of unseen wings.

    And there are songs…

    …though sung by Stones, the songs come from deep within some large and crimson heart, pulsing with life and love. The songs are a low hum of rising and falling notes, like the dozing, winter breath-chant of a hibernating family of massive bears. The songs are filled with memories of long-ago times—times when the warrior, Always One More Arrow, knelt within the Circle, suckled on its magic, and blessed it as aalhsoohkaani waal…consecrated ground.

    The songs make me tremble when I hear them. I listen quietly, often crying—my tears mixing with the fine rain, then falling to the earth. As I listen, I sway slowly from side to side, dancing with the pillars.

    The Stone Circle soon claims me. It catches me in its full, swelling tide of magic, rushing over, around, and through me. I feel it everywhere. Like an ocean, beneath its surface there’s an undertow, a force drawing me through the depths, pulling me to its center, sweeping me along. In the curl of this rolling wave, it seems that all my paths begin leading back to the pillars. No matter in which direction my trips begin, I’m somehow always returned to the Circle’s heart. The Stones capture and bring me to them. As surely as a long-forgotten, dried flower will fall from a dusty, opened book of poems, I begin falling just as surely toward the Stones.

    At home in our cabin, I decide to test the Circle, to learn the strength of its magnetic draw.

    As an experiment, I ask Elissa to watch me from a chair. I explain, somewhat sheepishly—my magic is usually more subtle than this, more unassuming—that I’m practicing something new. She laughs and sips her lemonade, the ice ringing like tiny church bells against the clear glass as she tips it back to drink, then holds it out to me in questioning salute.

    “Should I put on my sequined tutu and be your assistant?” she asks, grinning as she stands and kisses me. With her lips pressed gently against mine, she pops an ice cube, half-melted from her warmth and tasting of sweet lemons, into my mouth.

    I return her kiss—now thinking thoughts of things other than the Circle, wondering about the possibilities of a sequined tutu—when suddenly she sits back down, saying, “No, your magic is important. Practice. I’ll be here when you’re done, Blue. Just hurry back.” She looks at me and nods, understanding how much I love her for her words. Understanding how important her belief is to me.

    “Back soon,” I answer, then turn and walk into one of the cabin’s long, narrow closets. And almost immediately, there inside the closet, the Circle asserts itself: the path is made. Like the enchanted wardrobe of The Chronicles of Narnia, once I’ve edged past a tangle of clothes hangers and no-longer-worn business suits, I find myself, only seconds later, standing on Jonah’s Belly, staring at the Stones. And in that moment’s quiet pause, I feel frightened and happy and anxious, because now I know for certain: something is going to happen. Something soon—

    Why else this brandishing of power?

    A few nights later I fall asleep, tangled with Elissa in a warm naked knot on our sheets. I dream strange bits of dreams, of shadows moving, of a bearded Indian, of old men screaming, their limbs bloody and bound—

    —then I awaken at the Stones, brought to them as though each dream had been an opaque, climbing wisp of stairs leading me to the Circle.

    I lie there, feeling disoriented. Unsettled. Not because I’m at the Circle, but because of something else. Something unfamiliar. After a moment, I realize what it is: I have never been inside the Circle before; I have never looked outward at the hill from the center of the Stones. Until now, I have always stayed outside the ring like an anxious suitor, arms full of candy and roses, waiting to be invited off of the front porch and into the sitting room.

    The night around me is warm, warmer even than the moments before when Elissa and I lay curled together like two sun-freckles. Even in the Circle, the faint, loving odors of our bed are still around me like an ethereal, scented flesh.

    The grass I’ve woken on is soft against my back. Above me, a loose web of clouds drifts free of the moon, and a sudden spill of moonlight pours down the hill, painting my body the same gleaming color as the white limestone monoliths that surround me. I remain perfectly still, a single glowing spoke within a wheel of tall Stones.

    That’s when I hear it—

    The sound that knifes through me.

    The sound that I know has called me here.

    Hours later, skin scratched and burrs sticking to the fine hairs of my legs, I walk back home from the Circle. The night is bright. For a moment, when I first see the cabin through the woods, the reflections of the moon in the two large front windows looks like a pair of white, pupil-less eyes emptily regarding my approach.

    I step inside, try to slip quietly back into bed, but don’t quite make it as Elissa rolls close and whispers, “Practicing again?” then wraps her arms around me, pulling me into the sweeping nutmeg and cinnamon wash of her skin.

    “Poetry,” I answer, carried away in her river.

    Early the next morning. I’m awake. Feeling guilty. Sitting alone at the window. Watching the night draw slowly back, revealing an inching conjuring of dawn, all pink and frothy gold. Coffee steam keeping me company, curling out of the mug and around my fingers.

    Sitting. Watching. And wondering. Should I have told her?

    If there is one thing—only one single thing—that I could change about the time I’ve shared with the woman-treasure sleeping in my bed, it would be none of our moments or minutes or memories. Not a single one of our differing ideas. Not even the arguments that she shouts at me on occasion. None of it. Not one second. Except—

    Except for the “almost family.”

    The “almost family” that we almost were, with the son we almost had. A boy who would now be ten months old. A boy who’d be sitting in his highchair, burbling in sweet child-talk about the wonders of everything new. A son who’d play with the still-untouched roomful of boxed and packed-away toys—with the tricycle, the soccer ball, and the three huge stuffed animals in the corner (a massive lion, tiger, and bear from the LAND OF OZ COLLECTOR SET, ALL WITH NIGHTGLOW EYES!). A boy who would have opened all of the child-riches still wrapped and waiting in their untorn labels of Fisher-Price, Mattel, and Johnson & Johnson.

    A son who almost was. Part of the family we almost were. A family filled full of dreamed futures for the torn, dented body of our boy. Born at only eight months. Born with no fire, with no light or saving magic. And with no chance. Our baby boy—punched out from Elissa’s body in a single crushing moment. Dead—

    For a reason she thinks was an accident.

    For a reason I know was not.

    Through the window, the sun is now flooding the ground, its light quickly rising.

    I give thank-yous to heaven for each day that passes, for each day that gives us the balm of more time and more healing, for each day when the hurt is further soothed. And although full forgetting is not what I want, I am grateful that the almost family is finally almost gone. I truly believe that Elissa is now almost able to not think about it when we hear the back-and-forth creak of a child’s swing set. Or eat cotton candy. Or bake snickerdoodle cookies.

    She can almost not think about it at all—

    Almost.

    So now I’m awake. Feeling guilty. And wondering: Should I have told her? Because even though I told her about last night’s adventure—about my dreams, about waking at the Circle, about my naked walk back home—I told her nothing about what I heard only seconds after I’d awoken within the Stone Circle. And said nothing about what I still heard minutes later, after assuring myself that I was awake. Because if I told her what I’d heard, then how could she not hurt again? How could she not wonder, and dwell on, and then how could she not go searching after—

    The child I heard crying.

    The child I looked for and could not find.

    The child crying on Jonah’s Belly.

     

     

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  • CHAPTER THREE

    The Warrior, Always One More Arrow

    Night.

    He sits in the darkness, wearing only moonlight. The moon cloaks his shoulders, draping his back in a fine silver cape. He hears the songs sung by the Circle of Stones. Hears their warnings, senses their sorrow. And he knows what approaches. Knows, but cannot see. Not yet, not clearly. Still, though, he knows. Time again, he thinks. The path is built. The way is open.

    A familiar, twisting spasm runs along his hunched back. At the first wrenching pain, he sucks a quick, hissing stream of air through his ivory-yellow teeth. He grunts. Shakes his head. Feels his eyes tearing. He waits for the clenching pain to recede. Thinks, Try not to squeal. Try not to moan.

    When the hurt is finally gone, he thinks again of the songs and the Stones. Still here, he thinks. He looks down at his wrinkled hands. Again shakes his head and grins, thinking the same thoughts about himself. Still here—still here watching, still here waiting. Still here, circling in the darkness.

    He is surprised to be “still here.” Surprised and grateful. But he feels old inside this skin. Old and weak. Sitting quietly, looking at the moon, he absent-mindedly scratches his shoulder, his black fingernails scraping across a fresh rash of small, itching bites. Wonderful, he thinks, scratching the tiny bumps. More fleas.

    He settles into himself. Closes his eyes. Clears his mind. Calms his thoughts. Then looks outward, sending his sight…away. Sending it down the streets. Over the hills. Searching. Searching until he sees the Stones. He sees them moving, dancing in the rain that’s now falling on the hill, falling as lightly as a brown sparrow’s tears.

    He sees that the man is there again. The man now so often at the Circle. The man who has become a part of things. Yes, he thinks. Time once again. Soon. The same as it always was. The same as it always will be: Blood builds the path. Blood opens the way.

    He watches the man. Listens to the Circle’s song. Feels the blood stirring within him. He stretches his hands toward the stars that look like uncounted glittering minnows against the blackest river-clay of night. He leans his head back and starts singing with the Circle, singing in a growl from deep within his throat. Singing a song of older times, of times when the hill was Ninkya—Mother—to all those living on and within her. Of the time when he wore his first skin, the warrior Always One More Arrow. A time when he waited at the Stones, watching and circling—a time when blood built the path, when blood opened the way.

    He sings, then grows quiet and pauses. Listens again to the pillars’ song, listens and hears...something else. Something not heard before—

    A child. Crying.

    He tugs his thick beard. Grunts in puzzlement. Listens to the fragile, broken crying. Then he searches for the child, looking, but not finding. Searching until he is nestled and drowsing in the soft patchwork of sleep that Mother Moon throws down upon him.

    A child, he thinks from almost-dreams.

    A child on Jonah’s Belly.

     

     

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  • CHAPTER FOUR

    Stacy B. The Matchman

    Flat tire, she thought, the front right—

    —and screamed, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as the car pulled fast to the side, straight at the trees, straight at the BIG ROLL DOWN THE HILL, and she screamed again and yanked the wheel left, turning it too hard, turning it too far, wanting to get away from the sharp drop-off that fell downhill forever into the trees and vines and darkness, and the car jerked and swung hard left—

    —back to the road, away from the ravine, but now the rear tires’ traction broke free and the car’s back end started sliding across the loose road gravel, back toward the drop-off, back to the BIG ROLL DOWN. And oh, Stacy B., she thought, don’t fall down there, don’t disappear, and she—

    —hard-steered right, pumping the brake again and again and again and, god, why was she driving so fast she’d been so stupid and the car was shuddering and should she keep pumping the brakes or keep steady pressure on and now the car fishtailed, swerving fast across the road, the back-left tire swinging over the road’s edge, the loose edge-rocks under the tire starting to crumble and give way, and she could hear the spinning tires firing machine-gun gravel sprays under the car, the tiny thrown stones ringing tat-tat-tat-tat against the metal, and she sensed gravity shifting and felt the car’s rear end slanting down, slipping through the collapsing edge as the front end started tilting up, lifting off the road—

    —and she stopped pushing on the brakes and instead quick-gunned the engine, praying, please baby please baby please, but the car’s rear kept slanting down, kept falling toward the deep dark place below, then she—

    —pulled the wheel left, into the spin, pulling hard but not too hard, pulling just enough, and she lightly tapped the brake twice, then let her foot slip to the gas and pressed softly, pressed gently, pressed oh-so-hardly at all. Wanting traction. Wanting control. Wanting to GO FORWARD NOW. And she prayed out loud, praying, “Please don’t spin, please don’t spin, please don’t spin,” but she felt the tires spinning and spinning, but then felt them—

    Gripping.

    Then pulling.

    Then edging. Forward. Slowly.

    Onto the road.

    And she started braking.

    And the car started slowing.

    And then—

    It stopped.

    Her hand slow-floated down to the key. Turned off the car. And suddenly—

    Nothing.

    No spinning wheels. No shooting stones.

    Nothing.

    She looked around. Saw hardly any hint at all that she’d just about shuffled off this mortal coil. Well, not so much “shuffled” as rolled end-over-end (“ass-over-eyeballs” is what her dad would have said) all the way down hill-and-damn-dale. I mean, really, she thought, letting out the explosion of breath she’d been holding, just look at all of the green nothing down there…

    Still gripping the steering wheel—adrenaline still filling her veins, little shake and tremor aftershocks still rippling through her—she watched a floating swirl of gravel dust settle on the ground. So much for the morning’s quest for peace and quiet, she thought. So much for inner reflection and soothing thoughts.

    Screw all that. She didn’t need those anymore—

    —what she needed now was to get a tire changed. And that was truly going to make for an interesting rest of the morning, wasn’t it, Stacy B? Because even though she could change a tire, she wouldn’t—not here. Not on top this steep dangerous ridge of dirt and gravel road. Because—besides knowing how to change a tire—she also knew how to call KarKlub. “Car troubles? Klub ’em with KarKlub!”—it was printed right there on the “dues-fully-paid” membership card in her purse. The same purse holding her cell phone. All of which meant, really, that there was just one remaining problem—

    The scenery.

    The scenery was a big problem—

    —all of the incredible damn beauty around her: the pretty hills, the dense growth of trees, the deep valleys. But mostly the hills. It was the pretty hills that were truly screwing her, all of them so green and rolling, sharply up and quickly down, as far as she could see. Hills with views that were disturbed in no way at all—not by billboards, not by buildings, not by houses, and—this one’s the important one, Stacy B., she thought, looking at her phone’s blank display, this is the one that really makes it really rich—not by cell towers. She did the quick math in her head—

    No towers, which meant—

    No signal, which meant—

    No service, which meant—

    No calls.

    Not a single antenna line showed on her phone. Officially fucked, and officially stucked, she said to herself. But really and truly especially stucked. Stranded on top of an unknown hill, on a road with no other cars, with a phone that didn’t phone, she was ab-so-certainly royally and officially—

    Wait!—

    Something? A phone-flicker? A shadow-line? Maybe a signal?

    —then gone.

    She waited. Whispered, “Come on, come on, come on, come on—”

    —nothing.

    Then there again. And still there, still there, still—

    —then flicker and fade.

    Back again.

    —staying? Long enough? Maybe?

    Yes!

    “Now you’re working with me!” she shouted. “Now we can deal!”

    She wouldn’t have much talk-time, not with the flakey in-and-out signal. Unfortunately, the sketchy reception took KarKlub off her list of possible calls (“Car Problems? Klub ’em with KarKlub. May I have your membership number, please? Hello? Hello?”) Even if she called back every time the connection broke, a different KarKlub person would answer each time, making her need to start her explanation all over again. Besides, what was she going to tell somebody at “1-800-Probably-A-Foreign-Call-Center,” anyway? That she didn’t know where she was? That she didn’t have a damn clue? Or, even better, that getting turned around and lost had actually been a part of her plan all along…a plan of trying to relax, of getting away for the day. And the plan had been working perfectly fine, thank you so very much—

    Until now.

    She nodded, one hand holding the phone, the other arm propped on the steering wheel, her fingers lightly drumming against her cheek. She knew the answer. Knew it was the only answer. But she needed a different one. Wanted a different one. Because, after all, she was smart. And capable. And, damn it, she should have a different answer. An answer that wouldn’t worry him. Because he already worried too much. Had already loved and worried about her every day for twenty-six years.

    And now she could think of only one good answer: Worry him some more.

    She needed to call Dad. Loving, sad Dad. Loving for the entire twenty-six years of her entire life. Sad for the same twenty-six years since losing her mom. Dad: watchful and protective every single moment since his long-ago attendance at the worst-of-all-days’ hospital version of Let’s Make A Deal. (“Ok, Frank, we’ve got your wife behind curtain number one! And, Frank, as a special surprise: WE’RE KEEPING HER FOREVER! But, Frank, in appreciation for playing our game, you’ve won this brand-spanking-new BABY GIRL to raise alone! With no help or support at all! All prizes are final! Thank you so much for playing our game.”)

    Call Dad. Worry him one more time.

    It was Saturday morning. He’d be at his office. No matter how many times the connection broke, she could keep calling until he had the whole message. She’d tell him that she was on a high ridge “—somewhere north of Plum Creek Road, but with no idea how far or close I am to anywhere I’d recognize.” Then she’d ask him to call the sheriff’s department, tell them to send a car out to look for her, that she’d honk every few minutes to help them find her. And once she’d finally been found, once she knew where the hell she really was, then she’d work out the details with KarKlub—

    And she’d tell him not to worry. Would tell him she’d be back in the city tonight. That she’d come over and they’d get some dinner together. Her treat. Make him promise to let her pay—

    It was a good plan.

    She dialed. Discovered that her prediction was right: he was working at the office. Was already talking on the phone, the busy signal loud, strong and clear in her ear. She hit End, quickly hit Send again.

    Still busy.

    She spent the next twenty-five minutes doing the same back-and-forth finger move between the two buttons. Then had an idea: She hit Auto Redial and watched to see what happened—now remembering that as long as the connection held (Please oh please, oh please) the phone would keep dialing until the call finally went through. And once her dad’s phone rang, her phone would ring, too, letting her know that she’d finally—really and truly—reached out and touched someone (Hallelujah!).

    Then she saw it.

    A black car—

    —she looked up from her phone, looked in the rearview mirror, then swung around and stared, startled by its all-of-a-sudden appearance. Parked behind her. Just sitting there. Twenty feet away. No cloud of “just-stopped” dust falling to the ground around it. The air now settled and still. Meaning the car had been there...how long? Watching me? What the hell, Stacy B? she thought. What the holy hell?

    The black car’s hood was painted with flame-blue lettering, the blue letters tipped with yellow and orange, reading NOW YOU’RE COOKING WITH GAS! The rising sun angled through the black car’s rear window. The sun rises in the east, she thought, looking at the light. Meaning: I’m pointing west. I can tell that to Dad, can tell him I’m on a road heading east to west. The sunlight backlit the inside of the black car, revealing the silhouette of a dark man-shape behind the wheel, a shape that now moved, its shoulder dipping toward the door.

    The car’s door opened quietly. In fact, she noticed, everything was quiet. Where are the sounds? she wondered. I’m in the woods. There are supposed to be sounds. But there weren’t any sounds. The silence was full, complete, pressing—

    —then was suddenly shattered by a vibrating, growling roar. A deep, primal reverberation rising from somewhere far down the steep ravine. From where I almost went over the edge. From where I almost rolled ass-over-eyeballs.

    She listened to the sound. Thought, Roaring? A lion? Here? Then thought only about the driver getting out of the black car and walking slowly toward her. A tall, narrow man. His suit blacker than the car. A torch of bright red hair. Despite the distance, she could see the lit-blue circles of his eyes. He looks like a match, she thought. Like a matchman.

    Then, and even as she saw it, she knew she couldn’t have seen it—

    He flickered.

    Shimmer-faded out, then shimmered back again—

    —but I couldn’t have seen that. Not really. Not truly. And, hey, Stacy B., she told herself, let’s be honest and tell the viewing audience what else you don’t think you really saw: that the Matchman didn’t just flicker and fade. No, he flickered and became… something else. Something quivering and bunched and large. Something you saw for just a dust-speck of time before he was back again, before he was solidly here. Here and walking toward you.

    No, she thought. I couldn’t have seen that. I didn’t see that. Not really. Not truly.

    He stopped beside her door. Bent his knees and sank down till he was looking at her, his elbows resting on the open window. “Looks fun,” he said.

    “Not really,” she whispered. “Not much”—and didn’t know when she’d started crying (was still thinking, I didn’t see that. Not really. Not truly), but could feel the hot tears on her cheeks.

    “Oh, now, kitten,” he said. “It’s not so bad. Just a flat tire. We’ll get it fixed up.”

    “Really?” she said, feeling a small hope. And even though her voice was still quivering (but only a little, only the smallest bit), and even though she still felt tear tracks on her cheeks (but they were already drying, were hardly there at all), she started feeling better. Started understanding what had happened—that she’d seen a trick of dust and light, a blurry blink of nerves and emotion.

    “Really and truly,” he said. “Stay in the car and pop the trunk. I’ve got it from there.”

    “Sure?”

    “Sure.”

    She pushed the button. Heard the trunk open. The trunk lid lifted higher than the back window, blocking the sunlight behind the car and darkening the inside, leaving her in a twilight murk. He tapped his hands against the doorframe. Stood straight and turned. Said over his shoulder, “Don’t worry. You’re gonna be cooking with gas.”

    She watched him in the side mirror. Saw him disappear behind the car. Couldn’t see him, but heard the muffled shuffle-slide of things shifting inside the trunk. The car rocked as things were pushed and pulled. Then she saw him in the side mirror again, dropping the spare tire onto the road. The tire bounced twice and fell over, smacking into the gravel and raising a powdery smoke-ring halo up from the road. He came back to her window holding the car jack and tire iron in his hands.

    “Just sit still,” he said. “Don’t—” and then he paused, interrupted by another rumbling roar. Louder this time. From somewhere closer in the green vines and branches. And then—

    He shimmered again—

    —it happened so fast that if she didn’t want to, she didn’t have to believe what she saw. Didn’t have to believe all of the teeth, all the bulk of raw, folded, yellow skin and scales. Didn’t have to believe any of it because ever-so-quick it was him again. It was only the Matchman.

    He stood still. Eyes half-closed, looking toward the sound. Breathing quickly in and out through his nose.

    He’s sniffing, she thought. Sniffing the air, searching for the scent.

    After a moment he looked back at her. “That’s some kitty-kitty out there. That’s some puss-puss,” and he made a kissing noise in the air, like inviting a cat to play. He listened again. She listened, too, hoping to hear a sound, any sound at all. But heard nothing. Only quiet.

    He shook his head. Looked at her. “Well,” he said. Tilted his head and grinned. Said it again. “Well.”

    “Please,” she said, not knowing exactly why (and heard her voice quiver again, felt her tears falling again). “Please.”

    He walked to the front of the car and squatted down near the flat tire, where she could only see the top of his red hair. He raised his head high enough to see her and saw she was looking straight at him. He smiled. Stared back at her over the expanse of the hood. Made the same kiss-kiss noise he’d made before, only this time made it to her. Then ducked his head down again.

    She felt the clanking bump of metal on metal as he put the jack under the car, then felt the first lurching sensation as the car began lifting, and she heard the click-click-click of the jack notching up and felt the car keep rising. Rising high enough now that she couldn’t see his hair.

    Rising higher.

    Still higher.

    Too high.

    She looked out the window. Saw a tilting view of the ravine. Looking down, she thought, The woods are lovely, dark and deep. And as the car lifted even higher, she knew that she was done. Knew she was done because, looking over the hood, she knew that she saw (really, truly) a leathery hand with black claws gripping the car. Pushing the car up. Pushing it over—

    —and she knew she was still crying, but also knew she wasn’t screaming. Knew she wasn’t making any sound at all. Instead, she just stared down, down to where she’d soon fall. She watched, silence surrounding her. Hearing only the click-click-click of the jack still rising. Hearing only the ringing phone—

    Ringing phone?—

    —on the tilting seat beside her, the phone had started ringing. She reached for it, thinking, Daddy? and pushed Call. Then heard a distant voice. “Stacia? Stacy?” and she started screaming then, screaming “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” into the phone, because now the car was tipping. Tipping. And rolling. And falling. And now up was down, and down was up as she tumbled over and over, falling into the deep, green and black place far below.

    Finally stopping.

    Still alive.

    Dazed. Making small, hurt noises. Seeing through one open eye. Her left arm not working. Her right arm raking open as she dragged it across the jagged jigsaw of window glass in her lap.

    Her hand found the door handle. Pulled at it weakly.

    Then she heard it. A snuffling, slobbering noise. Calling thickly to her in a muffled, grunting croak. Calling, “Here, kitty-kitty. Here, kitty-kitty.” Walking heavily through the brush. Getting closer. And closer.

    She heard it stop beside her. But couldn’t lift her head. Couldn’t see what was standing there. Could only feel blood dripping off of her chin, falling onto the glass in her lap. Then she sensed the shadow of something reaching in. Felt the touch of scaly hide on her face. Heard “Hey, puss-puss.” Then felt the first curved claw. Felt it pushing slowly into her open eye. Then the eye burst open and spilled like an eggcup of warm dew across the glass and blood already in her lap—

    —and she felt the claw reach deeper. Felt it snag behind the cartilage of her nose and pull, dragging her out of the car. Then felt a second claw. Slicing through her belly. Dragging along her spine. Felt it snag on her backbone and lift.

    At the very last—from somewhere very, very far away—she heard the chuckling kiss-kiss sound again. And heard the thing’s noisy savoring of smells and meat as its snout pushed through the open bowl of her ruined flesh. And then she was gone. Really and truly. Gone so far away that she didn’t feel the final pull and tug of its teeth. Gone so far away that she didn’t feel the chewing.

     

     

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  • CHAPTER FIVE

    Elissa. Gordy. The Glammerys. Grendel

    Looking at Gordy, Elissa wonders again at the feeling she has when he’s around, the feeling that she’s safe, that anything bad would have to go through him first to get at her or Blue. Maybe feeling that way because Gordy already saved them once before, at the accident. Or maybe because he’s one of the few people that Blue loves, a part of Blue’s small family of people and beasts. She knows that Gordy loves her and Blue, too. That they’re also a part of his small family…maybe even all of it. The thing is, with Gordy it’s simple—no matter what, he’ll be there for them, always, and then some after that. With him, it’s not complicated: Once he’s in, he’s in all the way.

    She sits at the top of the porch steps, watching him sip his lemonade. Gordy’s on the red porch swing, looking out over the cabin’s railing. He stares into the woods, seeming to calculate the plusses and minuses of adding to what he’s already said. He takes another drink, using the time to do a few more mental calculations before he looks at her.

    “Blue’s told you about the Glammerys, right?”

    “A little, I guess. Some.” She stands. Walks over. Sits beside him on the swing. “Not much, though. Not really.”

    “As careful as he is,” he says, “seems he would have told you more than just a little.”

    “Why? What do the Glammerys have to do with being careful?”

    Gordy sets the tall glass on his knee, holds it there with his fingers cupped over the top. Legs of cold water run down the outside of the glass and soak into his uniform, forming the shape of sunrays on his leg. His feet push against the porch floor, just enough to keep the swing moving slowly back and forth. “Some things are just good to know,” he says. “Doesn’t mean anything bad will happen if you don’t know. Just means you’ll know how to act when you need to. Most of the time, it’s good knowing what to expect from certain things. Like knowing that making noise in the woods will scare rattlesnakes away, but those same noises will tell the copperheads where to come looking for you.”

    “Gordy, I’m sorry, but you’re losing me—I’m not following what you mean. Blue said the Glammerys were the reason you two became friends. That they were how you two got to know each other.”

    “True enough…they’re how we all got together.”

    “You and Blue?”

    “Blue. Me. Everybody—Creel Glammery, Simon Glammery, Sarah Murphy. Of course she’s dead now, Sarah is.”

    Elissa watches him talk. Sees his mouth draw tighter when he says “Sarah.” “Blue said you two got into it with the Glammerys when you were younger,” she says. “I remember there was a girl, but didn’t know her name—Sarah. He said that all he did was watch after the girl. That—whatever happened—you handled the Glammerys.”

    Gordy looks at her. She senses his amusement. “That’s what he said? That I took care of the Glammerys? That he took care of the girl?” He smiles. Says softly, “You know, sometimes our Blue decides to remember things a little differently than everybody else. That’s not always a bad thing; hell, I usually like his version best of all. Sometimes though...sometimes I think the actual black-and-white of things is how they’re supposed to be, that it’s exactly the way they shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, I think...” The sentence drifts off as he looks somewhere else, somewhere she knows that she can’t see.

    After the accident, Gordy was wherever he needed to be—doing whatever he needed to do to save her and Blue. First at the stream. Then the hospital. Then at the cabin. He took care of the two of them, helping them to heal. Making sure that nothing else happened. She knew that he’d been standing guard over them. That he’d been protecting his family.

    Even now, though, as comfortable and safe as she feels around him, even knowing how much he loves them…sometimes he makes her feel anxious. Maybe even a little afraid. The fear seems easy enough to understand: Gordy is a big man who wears a badge and carries a big, loaded weapon to work. And he’s good at his job—a job where he spends large amounts of time alone in the woods, trying to catch people who’d gladly shoot him. But those things aren’t why she feels nervous. She’s thought about it and thinks she’s finally figured it out. It’s because Gordy is a gun. He’s quiet, efficient, strong. By design, he’s easy to understand—like aiming and firing. He doesn’t say much, but doesn’t need to. And, like a gun, there’s a certain responsibility which needs to be recognized when he’s around, a recognition of certain facts—like the fact that once something starts, Gordy will be there until it’s done, no matter how it turns out. He doesn’t have a stop button. Once something bad starts to happen, it’ll end like it ends—but it will definitely end…and he’ll have the final word. He’ll make sure of it.

    She knows that he sees events as moments of simple flowing logic—from this to this to this, all the way to the end. It’s probably why he’s so good at his job. Probably why things work out okay for him when he’s dealing with the kind of people he deals with—because they know, too. Because when they look at him and listen to him, they know that he’ll go as far as he needs to go—that he’s already made all his decisions about everything that might happen along the way. Maybe that’s what makes them think twice about causing him any trouble—because maybe they aren’t as certain about how far they’re willing to go, because maybe they aren’t so willing to take it to the end.

    She can tell, whatever questions he’s been worrying about, he’s found his answers. He quits pushing against the porch. Lets the swing come to a slow, floating stop. Says, “I’m going to tell you about the Glammerys, the way I remember it happening when Blue and I met.” His gaze moves from the woods to her eyes. “Some of what I tell will sound different from the Blue you know. But not bad different, at least not to me. Not to you either, I’d guess.”

    He looks at her then. Waiting for her agreement. Waiting for her nod before he starts.

    She nods.

    “Some of this is then, and some of it’s now. With the Glammerys, it’s easy moving back and forth like that, getting everything mixed up. I don’t think time really matters to the Glammerys, because not a lot ever changes in the shithole where they live.

    “Years ago, one of the reasons I chose my job was so that I could keep seeing the same places I saw growing up—every gully, every ridge, every creek and trail. I grew up exploring it all, knowing even then how special it all was, how lucky I was to have it.

    “There are so many places around here that are sun-drenched and warm. High-ridged places where the view opens up to miles of treetops and color. Where redbud and dogwood trees blossoms make you feel like you’re walking in clouds made of flowers. Where the correct feeling is simple gratitude for being allowed to be part of it all—”

    He paused a minute, then, “But the Glammerys don’t live in one of those places.

    “They live in a place that’s just...wrong. A place that the sun almost absolutely misses. Hell, the little light that does shine in their hole, they hide from it, crouching inside their collection of dented trailers and broken school busses, turning themselves into a clan of withered, gray people. That’s what they are, really—a shitty nest of nasty, gray people.

    “You have to work to find it, but there’s a rough gravel road that leads to a dirt rut, then the rut leads up a steep fold of narrow hills. Those hills form an enclosed wall around a damn hole that looks like a sharp sucker punch straight down into the earth. Funny thing, though, those hills aren’t half as tall as the hole is deep. The hole just keeps twisting down and in, sinking deeper and deeper into the shadows, getting so dark it’s hard to see the bottom....

    “But I’ve seen it.

    “Actually, finding the Glammerys isn’t that hard. All you have to do is follow their trash trucks home. They run a trash route. For a little money, they’ll haul away whatever crap you put out by the road. Truth is, even without the fee, they’ll still take your trash. Then, feeling like it’s Christmas morning, they beeline straight back home—because that’s where they take every scrap of shit they collect. Right back home. Then, sitting there—parked at the top of their pit—they sort through all the trash that’s piled high in their trucks, looking through it for ‘the good stuff.’ After they find all the things they want to keep—everything they think they might use one day—it all gets pitched down the hill, bouncing and rolling to the bottom. Everywhere else in this county, the hills are a picture of trees and rocks and water and vines. But not at the Glammerys’. Their hills are a tumbling dump of washers and dryers and broken furniture and machines, all of it rusting and rotting and broken.

    “Almost nothing except the Glammerys lives in that hole. Whenever I’ve walked through, there’s no sign of anything. Nothing. No squirrels, no deer, not even birds. The only other thing living there is a herd of skinny, mean goats walking up and down the hillsides, eating whatever they find growing around the trash piles.

    “At the bottom of the hole, along with all the junk that’s been pitched down that far, it looks like somebody rolled down eight busted-up trailers and two bent-up school buses. Some of the trailers and buses have plywood tunnels built between them, connecting together like the little plastic tubes that join gerbil cages together...and this is where the Glammerys live. This is their home-sweet-hole.”

    Gordy laughs. “It’s a hell of a picture. Dirty goats and dirtier Glammerys. Two filthy herds living together. Each one watching the other. Everybody feeling hungry.

    “Speaking of food, I don’t know what the Glammerys eat. I’ve asked Bill Shepard about it. Bill manages the Hungry Sack store. He says they’ve never been in his store. Not even for beer or gum. I think they’ve got two ways of getting food. One way’s poaching—which, of course, is the reason I enjoy my continuing association with their fine little family. I’ve had more than a few of those tussles with them—the kind of things where if I hadn’t won, I’m sure I’d have ended up as little pieces of goat kibble.

    “Their other food is fresh road kill, mostly the deer that people hit and call them about. I don’t know how it started, but when a car hits a deer around here, the Glammerys usually get the call. And once that roadside dinner bell rings, they get there quick, usually Creel and Simon. From what I’ve heard, by the time someone makes the call and drives back to where the deer was, often as not it’s already gone, with maybe only a drying puddle of blood and a few sticky wads of Creel’s calling cards left around to step in…I’ll get back to those ‘calling cards’ in a minute.”

    Gordy settles himself more comfortably. “As small as Brown County is, it’s hard to believe but there are three separate elementary schools, each one going to eighth grade. After that, everybody goes to the same high school. So even though Blue and I both grew up in Brown County, we didn’t know each other till ninth grade. High school. Since the Glammerys went to my elementary school, Blue never had the early pleasure of their company that I’d already enjoyed every single school year.

    “There are five Glammery children, all boys—each one a different point on the family pentagram. The oldest one is Creel. Then Simon. Both were in my class. That’s how it was with them: two in my class, two in the next class—Renny and Harlan—then Merl, the last one. It wasn’t that any of them were held back, or that any were smart enough to be moved ahead so that two Glammerys were in two classrooms at the same time—it’s that there are always at least four women living in those trailers and buses at the bottom of the hole. Some have their own place. Some shack up with the boys. But no matter where the women stay—alone or with the boys—their daddy, Clete, visits whenever he wants. I don’t know what kind of woman gets collected by a Glammery, but I do know that once they fall down the hole, not many climb back out. Still, there always seems to be a new face or two. And years ago, two of those women at a time were delivering Clete’s demon children into the world.”

    Gordy shakes his head. “As dirty and feral as Clete is, his boys are worse. Creel and Simon are the meanest. With those two, every school day was a chance to hurt someone in a brand new way. One year they carried baling twine in their pockets. They used it to give out what they called ‘class rings.’ The way they’d do it, they’d catch someone in one of the usual places that people and animals get brought down by predators—around watering spots, or accidentally separated from the herd. One Glammery would hold the captured kid’s arms while the other one looped a circle of twine around the kid’s wrist. They’d pull the twine back and forth across the skin, like a little rope saw blade. When they were done, the wrist was a circle of blood and raw flesh.

    “There are people around town today who still have a white circle of scar tissue on their arm. It’s their own special class ring, a personal memento of their golden school days with Creel and Simon.

    “I’d like to tell you that I protected everyone from Creel and Simon back then, but it wouldn’t be true. I just didn’t pay much attention to the Glammerys or to anybody else. All I thought about was spending every moment I could in the woods. Even in grade school, I was big and I was strong, and not much of anything frightened me. I wasn’t easy prey, and the Glammerys knew it. By spending so much time alone, I didn’t make many friends, so, as long as they weren’t involving themselves with me, I didn’t involve myself with the Glammerys or what they were doing.

    “Of course, that changed later.

    “For as long as I knew them, one thing never changed. From the very first days, Creel always had a wad of chewing tobacco and bubble gum soaking in his mouth. A big brown mess that bulged in his cheek like a wad of dripping mulch. He didn’t spit out the juice, so he must have swallowed most of it. Little brown-green streams of it were always leaking out of the corners of his mouth, running down onto his chin and T-shirts. He had a habit of pulling little pieces of the wad out of his mouth and sticking them to things—those were his calling cards. Call it what you want, either marking his territory or just one more dirty way to pollute the world around him, but you could track Creel’s movements by following his trail of dripping, sticking, messy gobs. Whenever he stayed in any one place long enough, a perimeter of the shit would build up around him. At the end of every year, Creel’s desk was a brown, barnacled mass of mouth-slime, tobacco, and bubble gum.”

    “In the first year of high-school, in the first week of ninth grade, I fell in love for the first time. With Sarah Murphy. Even knowing how silly it sounds, I swear I can still feel it. Maybe because she was the first girl I’d ever felt that way about. Or maybe because it was a crush I never had the chance to grow out of. Either way, we shared enough classes that I could sit and stare at her for most of each day. And she looked back just enough times—with just enough of a smile—for me to believe I might actually be able to talk to her. By the end of the week, all I could think of was her long, light red hair and brown eyes.

    “Before saying one word to her, I was already planning all the places in the woods that I couldn’t wait to show her. Places where I’d pick her a bouquet of wildflowers. Places where we’d watch a pack of coyotes playing in a field.”

    Gordy pauses a moment. Lingers in his memories. Shakes his head and sighs. “High school was the first real chance for all the county’s kids to meet and feel each other out. By the time students from the three elementary schools and the students already at the high school were all blended together, there were a lot of new people to get to know. And a lot to figure out about where you belonged in the mix.

    “While I was spending my first week trying to learn about Sarah, the rest of school was getting to know the Glammerys. It wasn’t an easy introduction. Creel and Simon had learned a new trick over the summer, something they called Dots and Plugs.

    “Working together, they’d pick a victim for their game. First they’d knock the person down. Then they’d give ‘dots.’ Simon would sit on the person’s chest and hold them down. Creel would kneel near their head. He’d crouch there, winding coils of the kid’s hair around his index fingers. Then he’d yell, ‘Dots!’ and rip up with his fingers. Almost-perfect circles of hair and scalp would tear off of the kid’s head. After that, when the blood started flowing, Simon would yell, ‘Plugs!’ and Creel would pull a big, sticky dripping ‘calling card’ out of his mouth. He’d split the wet brown ball in half, then squash the two gobs down onto the kid’s bleeding scalp. By then, Simon would already be punching the screaming kid, warning him not to tell anybody or else they’d make sure to ‘get even.’

    “So nobody told. Not a single person. Because no one knew—and no one wanted to know—what Creel and Simon might do if they decided to ‘get even.’ You’d think that someone in charge might have asked a few questions about all the students walking around with smears of greasy ointment on raw, red, bald spots. But no one asked anything.

    “Instead, in the grotesque way of things, what happened was that the Glammerys attracted a group of fans. Some were like-minded wannabes. Others were just scared kids who’d rather side with a bully than risk his wrath. The fan-boy group began to surround the assaults, chanting, ‘Dots! Dots! Dots!’ and ‘Plugs! Plugs! Plugs!’ at the right points in the game.

    “It was clear the Glammerys were quickly becoming the kings of their new castle, and they found it much to their liking—especially with all of the village peasants acting so properly terrified. For almost everyone, Creel and Simon were a new kind of fear that they had no idea how to handle. It seemed the Glammerys were going to keep playing their games for the rest of the year, maybe even all through high school. And it might have gone on that long...except for what happened on Monday of the third week.”

    Gordy shifts his posture. Thinks for a minute. Takes another sip of tea. Continues his story. “Truthfully, by the end of the first week, I’d spent the whole weekend practicing: practicing where I planned to take Sarah, practicing what I’d say along the way. It’s embarrassing, but I actually made a little map of the places we’d go. Even drew little pictures on the map of all the ‘treasures’ we’d see—pictures of deer, a fox den, pine trees, a stream full of broken geodes. (I remember drawing them so their crystal interiors reflected the sunshine like gold.) Silly things like that. I also went to an outcropping of dark flint I’d found, the kind the Indians used to make the best arrowheads. I picked out a piece the right size to make a perfect heart-shape. I chipped and shaped the stone, making sure it was exactly right. Then, being careful not to shatter the heart, I drilled a small hole in it and threaded a soft piece of leather lace through to make a necklace.

    “The whole time that I was making the map and necklace, I was planning my conversation with her. Figuring out what I’d say first, then what she’d say back. Planning every word with all of the weird, wonderful focus of first love.

    “It turns out, I was wrong to think that I wasn’t afraid of anything: I was terrified of talking to Sarah. During the second week, every time I saw her, the conversation I’d planned flew right out of my mind, leaving me sitting mute behind her in class. Or dipping my head and ignoring her when she walked by me in the hall. All I was able to do was wrap the heart necklace inside of the treasure map and push it into her hands as she stood by her locker one day. Then I stumbled away, not able to think of anything else after telling her, ‘Here, this is yours.’ I couldn’t even stay to watch her open the paper. Was certain she’d start laughing at what she saw.

    “The next day though, the last day of the second week, I didn’t hear a single thing that anyone said in any of my classes. All I could do was stare at the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. The girl wearing a necklace of heart-shaped stone. And when she smiled at me and mouthed, ‘Hello!’ I was so thrilled I could only smile back before looking away in uncertain joy—not knowing what to do next except promise myself that next Monday, on the first day of the third week, I would definitely talk to her then.

    “Monday came. Sarah was wearing a dress covered with a pattern of strewn daisies. Her red hair looked like early morning sunlight on a straw-covered field. She was beautiful. But, once again I couldn’t bring myself to talk with her. I told myself I’d wait till the day was over. That I’d talk to her then, right after school.

    “Those hopeful thoughts filled my head through the rest of my classes. They’re what I was thinking at the end of the day as I left the building, my head down until I heard the chorus of ‘Dots! Dots! Dots!’ coming from the side of the school. Drawn by the noise, I walked over and looked around the corner.

    “I saw Simon on the ground. Creel was kneeling. Their fan club was circled around them. Through the spaces between the legs, I saw a quick jumble of confusing images. I remember thinking, Digging up a garden? That’s what it looked like to me. Like they were digging up a flower garden. Their hands were moving deep in the plants, pulling and grabbing. Then I saw that Creel’s hands were wrapped with red hair—hair the color of sunlight in the morning. And I saw that Simon was pawing at a field of daisies with one hand and holding someone’s mouth closed with his other.

    “Sarah.

    “Simon was sitting on her, his knees holding down her arms while he grabbed at her. Over the chanting of ‘Dot! Dots! Dots!’ I heard myself yelling then. And felt my legs and arms moving, charging at the group. And knew I was going to kill them.

    “As I covered the distance, I heard a new sound. Not my yelling. Not the crowd’s. Something else—a sound not supposed to be heard where people are found. It was an animal’s hunting scream—a bellowing, growling roar. The sound froze everything—hell, it even made the fan club shut up. In the middle of the sound was a furious movement—a body hurtling, low to the ground, launching through the crowd and into Simon, wrapping its arms around his neck and lifting him off Sarah with the strength of its spring. Then I saw that it wasn’t a lion or a tiger.

    “It was something worse for the Glammerys: it was Blue.

    “He landed in a crouch on Simon. One foot on Simon’s throat, the other on his chest. He was facing Creel. I saw his body tense and coil for the next attack. Creel was staring at Blue and—I actually saw this thought register on his face—somewhere in Creel’s wrinkled brain he realized (hell, we all realized) that this wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before.

    “Simon was lying stunned under Blue. He wasn’t moving. Hadn’t moved since his back slammed into the earth. Creel, though, he was still kneeling by Sarah’s head. He tried to stand up, but he tripped and fell over backward. When he hit the ground, he drew his legs up to cover himself and threw his hands up to cover his neck. Blue roared again, still nothing in his voice or eyes that anyone recognized as human. Only this time, the sound broke the crowd’s frozen fear and everyone scattered. Still crouched on Simon, Blue stood up and gave a light, crunching jump, up and down, making something crack and pushing a thick wheezing noise out of Simon’s mouth. Blue looked over at me—his head tilted, like a cat asking a question. I looked at him, then down at Sarah. He nodded, somehow understanding, and I moved to Sarah’s side. She was crying, and she folded into me. I brushed her red hair with my hands.

    “Then Blue stepped off Simon and moved toward Creel. Creel started making his own strange, afraid kind of noises—some sort of whmm, whmm, whmm sound. He tried scooting away, shuffling backward on his shoulders. Blue crouched a bit, then there was a blur—I’ve never seen anyone move so fast—and suddenly Blue was sitting behind Creel, with Creel’s head almost lifted into his lap. His legs were scissor-locked around Creel’s neck, squeezing his breath out. Creel reached backward, his hands scrabbling, trying to grab Blue’s face—which was when Blue, staring at the top of Creel’s head like he’d found an unfamiliar bug, drew his arm back and then pistoned it forward, driving his fist into the crown of Creel’s skull.

    “Creel’s mouth popped open. His greasy cud of tobacco and gum rolled onto his chest, and his head settled down into Blue’s lap. His arms dropped down, too, and his body sagged a few inches deeper into the earth. That was when Blue coiled two thick wraps of Creel’s hair around his fingers. Then he whispered, ‘Dots.’ And then he pulled.

    “Then said ‘Dots’ again.

    “Then pulled again.

    “And again.

    “And again.”

    Gordy stops for a minute. When he resumes, his voice is different. Thoughtful. “When he was done, when something normal—something human—put itself back in the driver’s seat behind Blue’s eyes, back in control of the little levers and switches in his head, he looked over at me.

    “‘Hey,’ he said.

    “‘Hey,’ I said back.

    “The Glammerys didn’t come back to school after that. Simon’s ribs were broken. His throat was so hurt and swollen that he couldn’t talk for most of a month—and for weeks after that, he could only make dry, squeaking sounds. Even now, all these years later, his voice still isn’t right. And Creel’s concussion kept him in the hospital for most of a week, his head swathed in a turban of bandages and black salve. The salve was supposed to help heal the hairless, seeping skullcap he was wearing. Some hair eventually grew back, but it came in unevenly, in unconnected tufts, like a bunch of matted, mossy humps.

    “With Simon and Creel confined to a hospital, the other students began reporting the horrors of their first ten days at the Glammerys’ hands. Sarah’s parents had a number of private meetings with the school officials, then took her out of the school. Then they moved away. In the end, that’s what happened to everything. It all just went away. The Glammerys went away. Sarah went away. Blue didn’t get into trouble. And as simply as that, it was over. By the end of the next week, the daily routine of Brown County High School became a wonderful pattern of uneventful and predictable tedium.

    “For the next four years, on weekends and after school, Blue and I roamed these hills together. We both had the kinds of family stories that make a person hesitant about sharing them with anyone. Because of that, neither of us ever really had a close friend. But after that day, more than being friends, it seemed like we were brothers. Like we’d adopted each other.”

    Gordy stops talking. Elissa lets the quiet settle. They listen awhile to the creaking of the porch swing. Then he looks at her. “I grew up mostly alone, and mostly in the woods,” he says. “Usually, if there’s a fight, I’m the hunter, the one who’s in pursuit. But truthfully, if I knew Blue was after me—if I knew he was hunting me…I believe it would scare me shitless.”

    She can tell it is the end of his story. She feels the sadness it left in him, some sorrow still there from long ago. She touches his shoulder.

    “He loves you, Gordy. I love you.”

    She sees him trying to shake off the mood, trying to leave it behind with his memories.

    “I know,” he says. Then asks, “You all right?”

    She knows he’s asking if it was okay that he’d told her the story. That he wondered if she had any questions. She does.

    “Gordy, what happened to Sarah? You said she died?”

    His eyes flick to the woods again. “Let me tell you about that some other time. I’ll tell you...just later, okay?”

    “Okay,” she answers, knowing she’s found what is making him sad. Reaching over, she intertwines the thumb and three fingers of her left hand into his right hand. Holding his hand, she knows that he can feel the small bump of bone where her pinky finger used to be.

    They sip their drinks, drinking down to the bottom where the unmelted sugar makes the ice taste like candy. Their feet nudge the swing back and forth.

    “The Glammerys,” she says flatly.

    “Yes—Glammerys.”

    “Why’d you tell me about them?”

    “Because I don’t know where Creel and Simon are. They’re missing. And as happy as that makes me, it also means I need to find them. Blue knows they’re missing, too. Knows I’ve been looking for them for a while now. I’m just letting him know—and now you—we still haven’t found them. That we’re still looking.”

    “Why, though? Why even look?”

    “Curiosity. Caution. A little of both. I don’t like not knowing where they are. It’s not good for any of us. They’ve been missing almost a year, and the rest of the clan isn’t very happy about their absence. As a group, the Glammerys don’t have a lot of things to focus on, and that can be a problem. I just want to make sure they stay down in their little hole, no matter how worked up they get themselves. I’m not worried about it…but…still, I want to keep Blue aware of things. Like I said earlier, with the Glammerys ‘then’ and ‘now’ don’t really have a lot of meaning. I don’t trust them to think logically. Given the history between Creel and Simon and Blue and me—and as upset as the rest of the Glammerys are—there’s a chance they’ll start dwelling now on things from back then. See?”

    Elissa is silent. Doesn’t want to ask, but has to. “Gordy, you said they disappeared about a year ago?”

    “Yeah. About then.”

    “But…a year ago,” she says, voice faltering. “That’s when…when…”

    “I know,” he answers. “I know.” He puts his arm across her shoulder. Feels her shaking. Knows she is trying not to remember. He wonders if she realizes she’s pulled her hand away and is now pressing it against her stomach, pressing where her son had once turned and moved and kicked and grown.

    He reaches out. Gently takes back her hand. “Hey,” he says.

    She does a slow, quiet exhale. Pulling her thoughts back, gathering things together from her own sad place. Gives it another half-beat to be sure, then looks at him. “Hey,” she says back.

    They sit. Watching the woods.

    The bramble of tall grasses and curled vines beside the cabin begins moving, rustling as something large walks through them. Elissa and Gordy watch a low break in the green growth that offers the hint of a narrow, well-worn trail beyond.

    “Grendel?” Gordy asks.

    Elissa nods, staring at the spot she knows he’ll come through. “And maybe a friend, too.”

    A large inverted triangle of a furred head pushes through the brush. The head’s tufted ears are tall and pointed. A lush Fu-Manchu mustache of drooping fur and whiskers outlines the mouth. The cat’s golden eyes stare at them. His lips are drawn back, revealing a sharp, curved clamp of feline incisors—and also a small black-and-white puppy limply dangling from between the lynx’s teeth, blood dripping down the little dog’s foreleg.

    Gordy follows Elissa off the porch, mumbling as much to himself as to her. “You do know that I am a conservation officer. I am supposed to pay attention to certain things like the Endangered Species Act. I mean, he is a wild animal. And I am—aw, shit!” He kneels beside Elissa. Looks at the hurt pup in Grendel’s jaws. “What’s this one? A little Border collie?”

    “Mostly. Maybe some Lab, too,” Elissa answers, then murmurs soft words to Grendel.

    The cat purrs soft sounds back.

    Elissa eases her hands around the pup’s ribs, then lifts the dog’s weight from Grendel’s mouth. Grendel opens his jaws wider, releasing his hold on the puppy, then settles back on his tawny and gray-speckled haunches, his long hind legs folding deftly beneath him. His golden eyes watch Elissa as she chants a stream of low, comforting tones, talking to Grendel and soothing the pup, saying, “I’ve got her, Gren. I’ve got her now, thank you, boy, that’s a good pup, that’s a good girl, you’ll be okay, you’re a good girl.” She carefully lays the pup on the ground. “Hit by a car, you think?” she asks Gordy, her hands stroking the pup, lightly touching its limbs, gently manipulating its flesh, feeling for injuries. The pup’s eyes flutter half-open. A little cry-whimper escapes its throat. “Broken shoulder,” Elissa says. “A few ribs. A cut on its leg.” She cups the dog’s head. “The vet will tell us what’s going on inside.” As she speaks, Grendel inches forward on his massive furred paws, getting close enough to start licking the pup’s wounded leg.

    Gordy watches the big cat care for the dog. “How many does that make this month?”

    Elissa thinks for a moment. “It’s been more than usual. Two other dogs. A fawn. A raccoon. A big hawk. Two rabbits. He carried them all in like kittens. Except for the raccoon, they all made it. The bunnies are living in the hutches out back. The others went to the wildlife sanctuary. All of them were like this one, each one hurt in some way.”

    Gordy shakes his head. “I’m surprised he didn’t eat the rabbits. Actually, I’m surprised he doesn’t eat all your rabbits, not because he’s a bad cat, but because that’s what cats do. These big cats love the taste of rabbit.”

    “Gordy, he probably does eat rabbits. Probably lots of them. But he brings home the broken things. And he’s never bothered the hutches. I think he just knows…everybody here is family.”

    The big cat nuzzles the pup with his moist buckwheat-brown nose.

    Keeping one hand on the dog, Elissa reaches out her other hand, scratching Grendel between the ears and rubbing his broad forehead. He presses his head against her hand, his eyes starting to haze and close. “Sleeeeepy-eyes,” Elissa murmurs. “You’ve got such sleeeeeepy-eyes.” The cat’s head starts sinking downward, dozy from the petting and the soft, hypnotic words. Then he stands up and shakes himself. He looks at Elissa and Gordy. Seems to say, Okay, I’m trusting you two to handle this now. Then turns and pads back into the woods. His small, black, tail stub, held straight up, disappears last.

    Gordy and Elissa watch Grendel’s silent exit.

    “Un-damn-believable,” says Gordy. “And that’s the only reason I don’t do anything about it. Who’d believe me?”

    Gordy walks to the back of his truck and pulls out a soft carry-blanket, then comes back and squats beside Elissa. He helps her bundle the pup into the blanket’s pillowy folds.

    “Time to go,” he tells the ball of black-and-white fur. “Time to meet the vet.”

    They both stand at the same time, lifting the blanket and its patient. As they walk toward the truck, the dog pushes its cut leg outward, free of the blanket. The injured leg brushes across Elissa’s abdomen, smearing a wet crescent of blood onto her blouse, above where the shirt is covering her stomach’s puckered, scarred flesh. Elissa looks down. Sees the smudged, dripping red streak across her belly and feels the ground shift as a dark weight of sudden memories pull at her heart. Her breath hitches in her throat. Gordy feels a brief, halting tilt in her step. The abrupt moment of unevenness causes the small dog pain. It cries out and starts biting at its own leg, attacking the hurt.

    They stop walking.

    Elissa closes her eyes. Catches her breath.

    After the slightest pause, she leans close to the pup and looks into its frightened eyes. She begins murmuring. Begins hushing away its worry. Keeps talking till it’s calmed.

    The pup quiets.

    Elissa’s breath evens.

    After a while, they continue their careful walk to the truck.

     

     

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