Halloween Short Horrors

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Monster Love by E. M. Duesel

Photo by Pixabay

A shadow stood amid the trees in the dark of the night gazing up at Lila’s well-lit room; her curves sensuously slid across the folds of pink silk that adorned her body. His own body pulsated with desire from head to toe. Though sexual in pretense, he played that part in many lifetimes, and in each period of living, his style reflected the sensuality of the times. Mysterious and erotic, he enticed ladies into his darkness, and they succumbed to his allure. In each lifetime his desire grew with the blood lust that cursed him. But, it no longer was enough for him to ensnare his prey. The ravenous need for blood now lacked the interest it used to, and Lila was the first woman of late to pique his interest and who might dare to satiate his unexplained appetite.

       Stas Bardhi’s jet-black hair, sleek black jeans, custom made black leather jacket and boots, all enhanced the power he needed to lure 21st century ladies to his crypt, but this century kept him on guard for those girls who lived his lifestyle. Vampirism was now blood sport and humans enjoyed a certain fascination with the legend. They understood nothing about the reality – the salty but slightly metallic drink of human blood meant to furnish life to centuries long dead people. Still, they knew enough to thwart his plans if they got too close. Thanks to them, Stas was able to control his craving for blood due to the vampire group that so enthusiastically recruited him – amateurs… human… and willing. The women fell at his feet. His charm was irresistible to them. But, this one… this one showed no interest – not even a glance.

       Lila stood before her mirror, she brushed her blonde hair with long strokes, making love to the honied locks. Song drifted from her elegant mouth. Stas hissed a sigh of feral desire. Her magnetism levitated him to the second-story window where longing very nearly exposed him. His breath shortened while his body trembled. Claw-like nails emerged, his canines surfaced, and he haphazardly scratched the pane closest to him. It was enough to startle the animal within out of his stupor.

       With a voluptuous twist, Lila stopped brushing her hair and gazed undisturbed at the window. Without breaking her song or her stride she slipped out of the silk robe, exposing long legs and a nighty that covered just enough, but not too much. Stas’s heart pumped fiercely. “Control, Stas… control!” he stammered. He dropped to the ground and ran away.

       Lila Pernell was scheduled to sing at The Treble Clef the following night. New talent came and went through those doors. Some went on to more illustrious careers while others were content to play and sing for themselves. Lila didn’t seem to have that hunger for celebrity, and Pete Burger, the owner of the establishment was just fine with her coming every week to sing. She had a following who were hypnotized when she sang, and they were all drinkers. If a guy was lucky, he left with Lila at the end of the night. Pete never saw repeats, but always a new one mesmerized by Lila and thrilled to be chosen.

       The cool evening settled in. October breezes juddered the leaves from their branches and keen bargoers bustled into The Treble Clef. Alone and out of sight, a frustrated Stas waited across the street for the provocative temptress who not once gave him an encouraging look.

       “Hey, girl! You singing tonight?” A lovely young brunette called out to Lila who just seemed to manifest out of the park next to the bar.

       “Yes, I am. Are you coming?”

       The girl linked her arm into Lila’s and said, “I am.”

       Lila brushed something from her shoulder and as it fell to the ground, Stas waited and then retrieved it after the ladies entered the bar. It was a feather. It wasn’t a small feather either. It had to be at least ten inches long. Striking blue and yellow, this climate was an unlikely place for this kind of bird to exist. Where in this park would there be a bird with this kind of feather? He pocketed it and went into the bar.

       As he found a table, Lila had already settled in behind the microphone. The small crowd, mostly men, hushed with anticipation. Lila’s sultry voice began singing a bluesy melody that sent shivers down Stas’s spine. The same excitement continued from last night and grew within him. His ears throbbed as blood pumped potently through his veins… ka-thump, ka-thump, ka… “What can I get for ya, Stas?”

       Stas’s intense physical reverie was disrupted by Pete Burger. “Uh… uh… what?”

       “Can I get you a beer or somethin’?” Pete smiled as he chewed his gum, knowing what Stas had on his mind.

       “Uh, yeah, sure. A beer. That would be good.” Stas smiled and then directed his attention back to the oh so stimulating tones of Lila Pernell. Lila’s deep V-cut dress revealed a plump cleavage which rose and fell with each controlled breath she took. Stas was entranced and had to find a way to get her attention. He was not used to being ignored.

       “Here ya go. Would you like an introduction?” Pete asked as he plunked the beer down.

       “You… uh… you can do that? I mean, you know her?” Stas had never been so bemused by a woman. Usually, he was the one who did the flummoxing.

       “Sure, stick around after her set. I’ll let her know you want to buy her a drink. That work?” Pete loved watching these guys get thrown over. It was a sick kind of fulfillment, but it floated his boat.

       “That’s great. Yeah, thanks.”  Stas managed to keep a level head while Lila sang one sexy song after another. Sweat seemed to surface with each quiver. To date, he was unaware that vampires perspired. He swiped at his brow oblivious to the effect she had on him.

       Lila finished her set. He saw Pete whisper something in her ear and she looked in Stas’s direction. Stas managed a suave kind of smile. She slayed him and he didn’t know why. She returned the smile and coolly walked over to his table.

       “Hello, my name is Lila Pernell.” Lila held her hand out.

       Taking her hand in his, Stas kissed it and then blurted, “Yes, I know. Uh… I’m Stas Bardhi. Won’t you sit down?”

       Lila slid into the chair next to him. She leaned in and said, “Do I know you, Stas?”

       “I… I come in to hear you sing. Maybe you remember me from here.” Stas stammered.

       Lila moved in closer. She lifted her lips to his ear and whispered. “Do you make a habit of slinking around a girl’s bedroom window?”

       Stas gasped. He turned to face her. “I… you are the most appealing woman I have ever seen.” He took a second to regain composure and then gazed into her eyes. “And, you see, I have known many, many women.” Stas, feeling his old charm, moved his face closer to Lila’s. “You…” he swallowed, “… you unnerve me. You take my breath away.”

       Moving even closer Lila said, “Ohh… well, we should leave and maybe I can give you your breath back.” Lila’s lips barely touched his.

       Stas’s heart launched into rapid drum beats against his chest. He had to squelch a rising growl in his throat. “I would like that very much.”

       Her neck pulsed with such intensity that Stas didn’t know if he would be able to control his desire. His fangs were right there – right next to her jugular. Her heartbeat was strong and steady. He was stimulated to the point of clumsy. He stood up and stumbled over the leg of a chair. Captivation overruled embarrassment. He followed the enchantress out. Another feather lay on the ground before him.

       Once outside, Lila took Stas’s arm and led him into the park. It was dark, but Stas liked the dark – the darker the better. He was trying to decide whether to toy a little with his prey. The kill should not be tonight, but another night when he had finished feeling every sensual caress, smell, taste, and touch this exquisite creature had to offer. Only then would he finally plunge his canines deep into her sweet, porcelain neck. Maybe a third night should be added to foment the blood that coursed through that luxurious body.

       Lila eyeballed the young vamp walking so suggestively next to her. She stopped to molt a bit and shake off the down before he saw. He didn’t know. She was surprised, because she didn’t think her real self could be hidden from other cursed creatures. But, here he was… all hers. She took him deep into the park, but before she got to her lair, Stas stopped. Lila said irritated, “What?”

       Stas pulled Lila into himself. He placed his arms around her firm body and brought her close. She sighed a breathy song as he licked her neck and nuzzled her breasts. He pulled her body close in order to bring her breasts to his ear. He could feel and hear her beating heart. Lila was so taken aback by the passion that her defenses softened, causing her song to escalate. It hypnotized Stas. His fangs emerged and his nails grew, but before he lost total control he fought off his animal urges and stopped. Lila’s song ceased. They stood apart regaining control.

       “Well… that was…” Lila gulped “… that was something.” She didn’t know what to think. The heat between them was baffling. Why didn’t she just continue her song? Why didn’t she lure him into her lair? She had the advantage. He didn’t know her real secret.

       “Yes. Well, that was quite… unusual.” Stas wanted more, but he needed to wait. He moved nearer to Lila. “Let’s do this again… tomorrow.”

         The fascination was so strong. He craved her; to taste her just once more before he left. Lila rubbed up against him. She began to hum a hot, sensuous tune. Stas tried to control himself, but it was all too much and again they found themselves entangled. In a fever, he recognized that if he wanted more it had to be drawn out for only one more night. Lila’s power over him was too much.

       Knowing that she too wanted to tease her plaything, Lila wrapped her arms around him, but as she began to kiss him, down sprouted from her follicles. She stopped her song and let Stas continue to nuzzle her, but when he noticed that she was no longer singing he lessened his grasp. Lila’s arms reverted to their normal smooth and silky appendages. Surprised and entranced by each other and still breathless with desire, they brushed lips, stepped apart, and departed.

       Stas walked back to his crypt. He was hungry and knew he must find a willing participant. It was a mere necessity. If he wanted to prolong his encounter with Lila, he had to be satisfied. The vampire group would have to suffice, so he arrived there and found ample women to feed on. None of them was Lila; none of them lifted him to the heights that she did. None of them riled his blood… none but Lila. After eating, he went to watch… just watch her once more.

       Lila’s bedroom was perfect. She made sure that the windows were long and wide so if she wanted her prey to see her, they could. She felt his eyes devouring her. It was her snare, but she felt the most comfortable in the cave she inhabited in the woods – her lair. It allowed for her to be in her natural state. Some of her cousins were water nymphs, but she was Greek and stunning and she knew it.

       Standing in front of the mirror, Lila stroked the long hair that took the place of her beautiful plumages. She pondered how she would get Stas into the lair. He might just go willingly. There she could seduce him, and no one would hear his growls and hisses. It excited her to think that she had caught the eye of a vampire. He was divine – handsome, sexy, and oozed obsession. It was such a shame that he would only last another day as he was about to become her greatest conquest. His death deserved passion; a death song meant for carnal bliss.

       The next evening, Stas joined Lila at The Treble Clef. As they sat together at a secluded table, their legs touched. Sparks ran through them and drove them to impatient attraction. Lila had just finished singing her set, which pushed Stas over the edge. Body heat nudged them to the bar exit, and they left to walk through the park, but this time Lila walked them deeper near her lair.

       “Lila, let’s talk.”

       “Are you going to tell me that you love me?”

       “I can tell you that I love you as much as someone like me can love.”

       “Is that it? Should I sing to you some more?” Lila pressed her body against him laughing.

       “No, please, not just yet.” Stas laughed. “I need to tell you something. It will probably shock you, and I may lose you.”

       Lila pouted her lip, “You gonna tell me that you’re a vampire?”

       Stas was stunned. Did Lila really know? “Are you kidding?”

       “I’ve known from the beginning. What you don’t know is…” She slithered closer, “… that I’m a siren.”

       Stas jolted away from her. “Okay… wow. That’s why you affect me the way that you do.”

       “Yes. It leaves us with quite a dilemma, don’t you think? Do I kill you or do you kill me?” Lila laughed at the quandary. “I mean, we’re monsters. That’s what we do, right?”

       “Lila, I’m a vampire. I don’t die.”

       “But, I’m a siren. I have the ability to sing you into sweet insanity, and then to death.”

       “You mean I could die, like die, die?”

       “It’s what I do. So, what will happen to me if you drink my blood?”

       “I can either drain you completely, and you’ll die, or I can turn you into a vampire like me. That’s what usually happens. But you are a siren, so that’s up for grabs. What’s left for us?”

       “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

       “Look, all I know for sure is that you send me into orbit when you sing to me and when you sing while I am turning, it’s all I can do to stay sane. It has been a long while since someone could do that to me. I have never felt such excitement and I’ve lived over two centuries, so… look… if it kills me then it kills me. I mean, what a way to go, right?”

       “I don’t die unless someone escapes me. When I start my death song, maybe you could run like hell away from me. Then I would die.”

       “Trust me when I tell you that I may not have that kind of willpower. I say we leave it up to fate. But, until then let’s enjoy.”

       Lila giggled. “Let’s play.” She slinked toward him singing her sexiest blues tune.

       Stas was helpless. He moved in on her and found new places to explore as his fangs crept out and his fingernails grew to claw-like points. Lila maneuvered Stas into her lair all the while letting him gently nibble on her neck. He grazed it with his canines. Lila shivered. They tripped through piles of bones that lined the cave. Lila’s singing quivered from excitement and Stas became even more aggressive. They didn’t know who would live through it this last time and they didn’t care.

       When Stas tore her clothes with his nails, Lila’s song reached a fever pitch. Stas howled with excitement. He couldn’t get away, he didn’t want to run away, he wanted to devour her. He lunged at her knocking her on her back. He straddled her and Lila’s song intensified. Stas’s fangs plunged into the sweet, soft neck he fantasized about, and her blood gushed into his mouth and trickled down her throat reaching her breasts. He licked and sucked the red substance from her breasts and Lila’s voice lifted to a deafening pitch. Stas screamed in pain, holding his hands over his ears. Lila’s passion was out of control as she sang the siren’s death song. Her monster could not stop. Stas reached out to her one last time before he disintegrated, and his ashes joined the bones strewn across the ground of Lila’s lair. She finished her death song as her neck pumped out her final bit of blood. She dropped drained, closed her eyes, drew one last breath and died.

Monster love – ain’t it beautiful?

The End

Yenaldlooshi by Rick Reed

1

Josh and Beth Hamilton drove south on New Mexico State Highway 666, deep into the Navajo Reservation, smack in the middle of what Josh jokingly referred to as “Injun’ Country.”  The area known as Four Corners is the only place in the U.S. where four states touch and Highway 666 runs through all four.

This was their first trip west of the Mississippi River, and their first real vacation since their marriage exactly two years, one month and three days ago. The fire engine red Jeep Liberty was brand new and was purchased as a present to celebrate the release of Josh’s first novel.

Two years of hard work and sacrificing had finally paid off for them, and Beth felt a sense of well-being that she had not dared dream of. In her mind she could still hear her mother’s hurtful words, berating her for her decision to “move in” with Josh while they were both still in college. Then disapproving of her decision to marry Josh.

“He’s a dreamer.” Her mother had said.

“He’s a writer,” Beth corrected her.

“Even worse. He’ll never be able to support you.”

Her mother had been horrified and refused to even visit. She had only been with her family once since the marriage and she didn’t like to think back on that trip. She hated that her family had pulled away from her. She imagined this was her mother’s idea of a nightmare come true. Everyone was disappointed in her. But she would stand by her husband. Maybe their place wasn’t a palace, but at least Josh was able to write full time and in the end he’d proven himself as a storyteller. A published author!

His first book, It Came From the Corn, would hit the stores just before Christmas, and he was already deep into writing the next one. The publisher liked the first book so well they immediately signed Josh to a three-book contract, and the advance money had allowed her to quit her part time job. The future was finally looking up for the Hamilton’s, her family be damned.

An hour earlier they passed a mountain identified on her map as Shiprock Mountain. To Beth it looked like a jagged tooth sticking out of the flat desert, but Josh told her it was named Shiprock because it looked like the wreckage of an old sailing vessel was setting atop it.

Beth had considered telling Josh they were near another landmark made famous by Josh’s favorite author, Tony Hillerman. Hillerman wrote novels about a fictional Navajo tribal policeman, Jim Chee, and the famous Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.

She could have told him, but she didn’t bother. Josh was on a “schedule”. Yesterday morning he’d announced, “We’re going to the Painted Desert today,” and had then driven the hundred miles like a maniac, not stopping for restroom breaks or food.

Today they’d already traveled from Tuba City to Monument Valley, northeast of the Hopi Indian Reservation, and then on to Red Mesa in the Chuska Mountain Range. Tonight they would stay in motel cabins shaped like teepees. Beth had hoped to sightsee the Anasazi ruins outside of town, but that wasn’t on the planned route and so wouldn’t fit in Josh’s agenda.

When Josh had a goal in mind he was completely focused on completing it. In that way Josh was like her father. Her memories of family vacations were like most people’s nightmares. As a child she had been plagued by both motion sickness and a weak bladder. Her father’s “agenda” hadn’t allowed for either. She eventually outgrew the car-sickness, but right this moment she felt her bladder would burst if they didn’t stop.

She looked at the gas gauge and quickly calculated at least another half-hour of driving before Josh would stop for gas. Although they hadn’t seen another vehicle for an hour she couldn’t just go anywhere due to a shy bladder.

“How could I have married a man just like my father?” she asked herself.

“D’ya say something, hon?” His total concentration on the road, knuckles white from gripping the wheel.

“I said I need a bathroom break.”

“Just a few more miles.”

She groaned and looked out of the window in an effort to put the urgent need out of her mind. Cottonwood trees grew few and far between in arroyos caused by rainwater rushing from higher ground. Mostly it was desert with mountain ranges in the distance and it was breathtaking as it rushed by her window. She couldn’t help but be awed by the spaciousness of the desert.

They’d spent the last several days touring Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, and would end their trip in Arizona. This was supposed to be a pleasure vacation, not a working one. But in all fairness, this was how Josh would make their living now. And writing wasn’t like other jobs. You couldn’t just turn it off.

At first, the rejections from publishers were too numerous to count, and she was amazed that he hadn’t given up long ago. But each rejection made him more determined. Her husband was definitely not a quitter. She smiled at the memory of the first advance check coming in the mail. He’d opened the letter with shaking hands, then had let out a war hoop, danced her around the room and smother her with kissed. He was like a child sometimes, but that was one of the reasons she had fallen in love with him. He was a good man. What you saw was what you got with Josh. No surprises.

He’d promised that when he sold his first book he would take her somewhere nice to celebrate. She was thinking maybe Cancun, or Hawaii. She’d always dreamed of going to Hawaii. But here they were, traveling State Road 666 because Josh had heard the highway designation was changing soon to State Road 491, and he couldn’t pass up the chance to travel down the Devil’s Highway before it was just another state road. Josh, being a horror writer, knew there was a book in this trip. He was so excited she finally gave in.

Tomorrow they would cross back into Arizona where they would tour Window Rock, and then south through St. Michaels and Hunters Point to the Painted Cliffs. From there he planned to cross back into New Mexico to the small town of Zuni where they had rooms reserved at the Navajo Inn. He had finally relented about visiting Anasazi ruins. It wasn’t exactly Hawaii, but she had to admit they had been witness to some fantastic desert and mountain scenery, and visiting the ruins would be a special treat since she had always been interested in archaeology and mythology.

The entire Zuni village lived in rooms that had been carved out of the side of a mountain. Simple things, like obtaining food and water, must have been a grueling daily task for those people. She was amazed at how a primitive civilization had not only been able to survive in the desert, but had created an entire village on the side of steep cliffs. Her life was so easy in comparison. She became panicked when the power or water was off temporarily, or when they were nearly broke.

The thought of water brought her back to the present, and her bladder. If he didn’t stop soon she would show him a different ruin… wet leather sets. The thought made her chuckle.

“D’ya say something hon?”

He was still hunched over the wheel like a race car driver. The sight wasn’t that funny but she started laughing and couldn’t stop. This was like a bad comedy and she knew if she didn’t stop laughing she would pee herself. That made her laugh even harder and Josh finally looked at her. He was probably wondering if she had lost her mind. And that made her laugh even harder.

  The section of road they presently traveled was flat, straight, and you could see for miles in any direction. A couple of miles west of the highway a structure shimmered in the distance. She crossed her fingers and said, ” There’s something up ahead. We should stop or you’re going to have to lift you feet.”    

The look on his face brought on a new round of laughter. She could read the conflict of staying on schedule versus the desire to please his wife. It was more than she could stand. They’d been driving for nearly five hours with barely a dozen words spoken between them.

“Please stop! I mean it!”

“Okay. I’m stopping already. Sheesh!”

He slowed the SUV and saw a dirt road that led through juniper and scrub brush. The SUV bumped off the shoulder and, what seemed like an hour later he turned into the dirt lot of a dilapidated gas station, or trading post, or whatever it is they call these places in Injun’ Country. The building sat on a bare dirt lot. The area around it seemed drained of any color. The car was still rolling when Beth’s door flew open and she ran for the side of the structure.

He rolled her window down and yelled after her, “Why don’t you go inside?” But she was already out of sight. He shut the engine off and saw the gas needle was almost on empty. He could have sworn he filled up at the last stop.

He couldn’t understand why Beth had to go to the bathroom every five minutes. Probably because every time they stopped she wanted to load up on Coke’s and snacks and water and such. Then she’d have to stop again five miles down the road. At this rate they wouldn’t make their room reservations tonight. His whole schedule would be off.

He looked down at the map and tried to find where they were. He was no good with maps. If the map was left up to his skills they’d be in Canada.

“I hope you read the map right back there.” He yelled in the direction Beth had disappeared and noticed a giant cactus loomed at the side of the building. He hadn’t noticed it before, which was strange, because it was easily thirty feet tall. Its curved arms reached out with balls on the ends like hands. The bottom branches were black and rotted.

He wished they had more time and he could get some pictures of this monster. He hadn’t seen anything like this in his research for the trip. But they didn’t have time. He hadn’t counted on the constant stops. He had a nagging feeling they weren’t where he thought they should be. He’d had that feeling since they got onto State Road 666. It hadn’t been very clearly marked, but the last road sign declared they were near Four Corners. He knew from their road atlas that was where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico met. He’d also found on the internet that the Devil’s Highway didn’t run through it but he had no desire to see a dumb plate stuck in the ground that wasn’t anywhere near the spot the states touched.

According to Beth they should be near the turnoff for Red Rock by now. They hadn’t seen a crossroad for the last fifty miles. Nothing except this mile long dirt road that ended here.            

He hadn’t told Beth yet, but if he could sell another book he was going to buy he a brand new Jeep. A white one with all the bells and whistles. Well, maybe with On-Star anyway. As a joke he might put a porta-potty in the cargo area. And he was going to take her to Hawaii. It was her dream to go there and go to a luau and snorkel and see giant sea turtles. He didn’t swim. He would settle for sitting on the beach and watching his wife in a skimpy two piece.

The sun was unbearable so he started the engine again. He needed to get gas. He looked in the side mirror and as if he had made a wish there was a pump. With Beth squirming around he must have missed it. This place had been deserted for years but he hoped it would still have some gas. He got his wallet out and walked around the Jeep.

The sun was unbearable so he started the engine again. He needed to get gas. He looked in the side mirror and as if he had made a wish there was a pump. With Beth squirming around he must have missed it. This place had been deserted for years but he hoped it would still have some gas. He got his wallet out and walked around the Jeep.

The pump was right out of the 50s with a glass globe like a fishbowl on top and crank handle. The brand had weathered away from the rusty metal, there were no markings for brands or prices and no slot for his American Express Card. He hadn’t thought to bring much cash and even if he had, who was there to pay? He looked closer and found a small window thickly covered with dust. He wiped the dust away with a finger and saw the amount last purchased was $6.66. Back then that was enough gas for a huge truck. He’d have to get a picture of that.  

“I think the place is deserted, Josh.” Beth had come around the other side of the structure and was standing beside another cactus. This one wasn’t quite as tall as the other, but it was wide, and the top part was shaped like some kind of animal. A dog maybe. He hadn’t noticed that cactus either when they stopped.

“That was quick,” he said, wondering why she hadn’t gone inside.

“There’s nothing back there.”

A splintered and almost unreadable sign hung over the door that read: TRADING POST. The windows were coated with dust and a screen door was hanging from its hinges, slapping against the door frame with a wind that came up suddenly. But for the wind and the banging door everything was eerily still.

“It’s deserted, Josh.” She looked back the way they came but could only see brush and cacti, no road.

“You okay to leave?” he said. He hoped they wouldn’t have to stay longer.

“I can’t wait to leave this place. It gives me the creeps.”

“Well then, let’s mosey on down the road darlin’.” Josh said. He loved Westerns and mimicked what he thought was a cowboy. She didn’t have the heart to tell him he sounded like a Midwestern farm boy.

“Time’s a wastin’, and all that,” she said, and they got back into the Jeep. The air conditioning felt like heaven.

“Wait. You didn’t get to go to the restroom. I’m sorry honey, we’ll stop the next place down the road. I promise.”

“You’re a sweetheart, but that’s not necessary.” Beth said. “I went behind that big cactus.”

Josh’s eyebrows shot up.

She smiled at his reaction. “I don’t think anyone saw me except the cactus and maybe a scorpion or lizard and they won’t tell anyone.”

Josh made a U-turn on the hard-pan and drove back down the road while Beth busied herself with the map.

“What the heck,” she heard him say a few moments later. She looked up to see that they had driven into a dead end. Cacti, as big as the ones beside the old station, were blocking the dirt road and the brush was too high to go around them.

“Those cactus weren’t there.” He said.

“Are you sure you went the right way?”

“I must have. I never turned anywhere.”

Beth knew that Josh could get lost in a room, but she didn’t pick at him. Instead, she said, “Just turn around and go back to the station. I’ll watch from there to make sure we get back to the road.”

Josh grunted and put the Jeep in reverse and traced over his own tire tracks.

Five minutes later they had still not found the station, nor come to the highway.

“This is impossible!” He looked in the rearview mirror and even his tire tracks had disappeared. He knew he had only driven in a straight line.

“Over there,” Beth said suddenly, and over the tops of some smaller scrub brush the top of the giant cactus and a rusted tin roof shimmered. He backed a dozen yards further and the station came into view.

He let out a deep breath and could feel his face getting red. Logic told him he must have gotten turned around somehow, but he still couldn’t understand where all of the cactus had come from. He was sure he hadn’t seen any large clumps of cactus while driving from the highway to the station. But then he hadn’t noticed the two large cacti on the sides of the building.

He put the Jeep into 4-wheel drive and stopped near the gas.

“Okay, Tonto,” Josh said teasingly, “Kemosabe say point us in the right direction this time.”

Beth looked at the terrain behind the Jeep, at the map, and again at the terrain.

“Did I ever tell you the real meaning of the word Kemosabe and Tonto?” he said. He was nervous and when he got nervous he talked to cover it. He knew he’d told her at least a dozen times while he was doing research for the trip but she would let him tell it again. It would take his mind off the fact they were lost.

Beth said, “Kemosabe was what Tonto called the Lone Ranger. It means ‘a wise person’. But Tonto means ‘a stupid person.'”

She opened her door, stood on the running board and looked in every direction.

“Where do we go?” he asked and she didn’t answer. Beth never got lost. That was his job.

“Something’s wrong Josh.”

“Don’t tell me you’re lost, too.”

“I wasn’t paying attention when you left here a while ago, but I would swear that the highway was over that way,” she said, pointing almost due east.

“Then that way it is,” he said, and put the Jeep in gear.

“Or maybe that way.” She was pointing due west now.

“This isn’t funny, Beth.”

“Well, this is a Jeep, and the four wheel drive works. You might scratch the paint a little but I say we drive east until we find a place we can see the highway again.” 

“Good idea,” he said, and then slumped in his seat.

“What’s the matter now?” she asked.

Josh pointed up. The sun was almost directly overhead. He knew the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but with it directly overhead it was hard to tell which was which. 

“Just go that way,” she said, pointing straight ahead.

There were no tire tracks in the hard packed earth around the trading post an d none on the path they followed, but he wasn’t too worried since they would only drive a short way before checking for the road again. They could always turn around. After driving what he thought was about five hundred yards he stopped and opened the door and stood on the running board. There was less brush ahead of them but behind them, the way they’d just come, it was thick and tumbleweed and cactus hadn’t been crushed by the tires. It was as if the cactus and brush was moving on its own, deliberately blocking their path, leaving them only one direction to drive – forward.  Beth saw the look of frustration on his face as he sat behind the wheel and pulled the Jeep’s door shut.

“You must have done something.”

“What? What could I have done?” He grabbed the steering wheel with both hands to keep them from shaking. “You were watching the whole time. I never turned the wheel.”

“I know. I know, Josh, but this is… it’s impossible.”

“Tell me about it.” He began to edge the Jeep forward.

“What are doing?” she said a little too sharply, and he felt his face go red.

“Well, we can’t just sit here.” He hooked a thumb behind them and said, “and we can’t turn back. We can’t even walk through that stuff.”

Beth turned in her seat and watched behind as Josh slowly pulled forward. She wasn’t sure what she expected to see. Maybe the cactus would pull up roots and walk. But nothing happened. The road behind was impassible. She was still watching when Josh let out a string of obscenities. When she looked out the front windshield she saw what had upset him. They were once again back at the old station – back where they had started.

Josh pulled up to the pump again and turned the engine off.

“Josh, we can’t stay here,” Beth said, but he immediately pointed to the gas gauge. The needle was on empty.

2

Beth rummaged through the glove box. “What are we going to do, Josh?”

He didn’t know. He’d never been in a situation like this, but he wasn’t going to give up easily. He was a writer after all. He merely had to use his imagination; come up with a plan. Then it came to him.

“There’s probably still some gas in that old gas tank,” he said excitedly. “We just have to figure out a way to get it.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Beth said, and pulled a cell phone out of the glove box. “Triple A.”

“Good idea,” he agreed, but he didn’t think they would find them if they themselves didn’t know where they were.

The last time they’d had car trouble, Josh had fiddled with the engine for hours before he gave up and called for help. She couldn’t believe he would let her call Triple A just to bring them gas. But she wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. 

She turned the phone on. It beeped twice and the screen went blank. She held the button down longer and the face finally lighted, but as she tried to auto-dial the number for Triple A the signal strength showed only one bar, then went dead again. 

She threw the phone down on the seat. “Why is this happening to us?” 

“Try plugging it in,” Josh suggested, and began fumbling in the console for the power cord.  “Found it,” he said triumphantly.  He plugged one end into the phone and the other into the cigarette lighter but nothing happened.   

Twisting the plug around in the receptacle, he began swearing, which for Josh was never worse than a “darn” or a “Jeez.”  Josh’s swearing reminded Beth of a cartoon character, and she couldn’t resist teasing him so they wouldn’t panic. 

“Heavens to Betsy! Suffering succotash! We’re out of gas, Yogi”

Josh looked at her, and as usual, couldn’t resist. 

“The cigarette lighter thing-a-ma-jig doesn’t work, Boo-Boo,” he said in a pretty good imitation of his favorite cartoon character, Yogi Bear.  He started to chuckle and soon they were both laughing. 

Beth suddenly twisted around to look behind them. “Where did he come from?”

Josh glanced in the rearview mirror.  An old man was standing behind the Jeep.

“Guess you might have had an audience after all,” Josh said teasingly, and she punched him on the arm.

“Go. Protect me,” she said, and pushed him out of the driver’s door.

At an even six foot tall, Josh never considered himself particularly tall, but he positively dwarfed the old man whose unkempt hair was the color and coarseness of colorless straw and fell stiffly from under his battered engineers cap.  His bib overalls were stained with something Josh didn’t even want to guess at. Josh guessed his age somewhere between ancient and prehistoric.

“’Ya here fer’ gas young fella’?” came a voice that sounded even older than the man appeared.

“Sure am, old timer,” Josh answered, and winked at Beth. 

The old man stared at Josh with what Josh hoped was a grin. The teeth were stained and broken like a Jack O’ Lantern’s, and a dark stream of gooey brownish spittle drizzled down his chin. Josh stared at the dripping mess with disgust, and wondered if the old codger didn’t notice, or just didn’t care. 

“S’matter?” the old man said looking Josh straight in the eye. “Got a big booger on ma’ face or sumthin’?”

Josh shot a glance at Beth as if to ask, “Can you believe this?” 

The old man glared at him for a full minute before he said, “Kinda’ a smartass, ain’tcha?”  

Josh was taken aback. He didn’t know if the old man was mental or just being rude. But he should have called the man an old timer.

“Listen, all we want is gas and we’ll be on our way.”

The old man straightened as tall as his small frame would allow. 

“You got sumpthin’ ag’in this place?”

Josh looked to Beth for help. He wasn’t used to this type of confrontation. It was obvious now the old man was looney. 

“This is a lovely place,” Beth said, stepping out of the Jeep. “We just need some gas, sir”

“War’nt talkin’ to you, Missy.” His eyes never left Josh’s face. To Beth it seemed the old man was deliberately picking a fight with Josh… and enjoying it.  

“Where’s the next gas station?” Josh asked.   

“They’nt no gas fer’ hunnerts’ a miles.” 

Beth tried to remember where the nearest city was but she didn’t know exactly where they were. She’d had to pee so bad she lost track. If they couldn’t get some help there was no telling how far they would have to walk for help. 

“Get in, Beth.”

She got in. She’d never seen him really angry. Josh reached for the ignition, paused, then looked at Beth. 

“Where’s the key, Beth?”

“You had the key when you got out.”

“No I didn’t. It was in the ignition.” 

“Well, I didn’t take it.”

“’Ya lookin’ fer’ this?” came a voice right next to her window.

The old man was standing there, the keys to their Jeep dangling from his fist, an amused look on his haggard face. 

Beth rolled her window down and reached for the keys. The old man dropped them in the dirt, shrugged, then turned his back to her. He didn’t walk away. He just stood with his back turned.  

Beth’s face flushed with anger as she stepped from the car to retrieve the keys out of the dirt. She didn’t know how the old man could have gotten them, but she was sure she hadn’t taken them out of the car. 

Josh took the keys from her, put the key in the ignition and turned it hard enough to snap it in half. Nothing happened. He turned it again and this time the engine sputtered, missed, then coughed a great cloud of white smoke from the exhaust and died. 

“Josh?”  

“Nothing’s the matter,” he snapped at her and twisted the key and pumped the gas pedal. The engine coughed again and sputtered to life. He let out a deep breath and she could see his shoulders drop, the tension visibly falling away from him. But as he put the Jeep into gear the engine died again.

“Y’er out’ta gas,” the old man said gleefully. 

Josh looked up and jumped in surprise. The old man’s wrinkled, brown stained face was only inches from his window. His toothy smile was like a tar pit with bones sticking out. The old guy giggled and walked away.

“No kidding!” Josh yelled with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “When did you figure that out!” Under his breath he said, “Asshole.”

He looked at the gas gauge and he was indeed out of gas now. 

“I could have sworn we had a quarter tank when we pulled off the highway.” 

Beth sat, staring straight ahead, feeling helpless. She was fairly sure the needle was on one quarter also, but it was on empty now. All they had to do was get some gas.  Why couldn’t Josh quit sparring with the crazy station attendant and just get the gas. She had never seen him act so childishly.     

Josh knew his wife well enough to know she was angry with him. He loved Beth more than life itself. Swallowing his pride was a small thing compared to her safety. 

“I’ll go apologize to the geezer and we can get some gas. There has to be some here. He had to get here somehow. Then we’ll stop somewhere up the road and fill up and get something to eat.”

Beth let out a sigh of relief. She knew it was hard for him to do this, and she would show her appreciation later tonight. But for now she just smiled and squeezed his hand. 

The old man was behind the JEEP again when Josh got out. “Listen, Mister… uh,” he began.

“Name’s Yenaldlooshi, but my friends jes’ calls me Coyote.” He smiled again, and more sticky black ooze escaped from his lips. 

“Well, Mister Coyote,” Josh said, not meaning to be rude, but unable to take his eyes from the drool on the old man’s face, “we could really use a hand right now. We’re out of gas as you can see.” 

The little man stared long and hard before answering. “I said my friends calls me Coyote. You can call me Mister Hagondes.” Josh could swear that he had just told him a different name. Yen-something-or-other. The old guy was just messing with him. Who ever heard such silliness as being called Coyote anyway. And what kind of name was Hagondes? Anger grew inside but he forced it back. He was in no position to make demands. The old geezer could call himself Jesus Christ if he wanted. Who cared?

“Mister Hagondes,” he began again, “can you help me get my Jeep started?  Or possibly let us use your telephone? We would really appreciate it.”

“Cain’t let ‘ya use the phone, Bubba,” the old man said with a chuckle. “Cain’t give ‘ya no gas neither.”

Josh let out a deep breath he’d been holding in. That was the final straw. Before he could stop himself the words flew from his mouth, surprising even himself. “Why the hell not you old bastard?”

The old man didn’t seem to notice. In fact, he was smiling. “Why not’s cuz we don’t have no gas till tomorree. But don’t worry, boy. I’ll get you in the mo’nin.” He hooted with laughter and waltzed out of sight. 

Josh felt a tingle raise goose bumps on his skin. Something else was very wrong.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but there was… something. 

Beth watched the exchange between the men and tried to keep quiet. It was obvious the old man didn’t like women. And now it was just as obvious the old man was insane. 

She quickly inventoried their foodstuffs. Half a small bag of potato chips. She tried to roll down her window but nothing worked. She opened the door and called Josh over. 

“I think he’s insane,” she whispered. “I don’t think we should anger him.”

“Anger him?” Josh said incredulously. “He’s enjoying this. He’s…” he started to say “crazy”, and then realized his wife had just said that.

Josh took a few slow breaths and tried to calm down. His pulse was racing in tune with his rage, but the anger felt good. At least it was doing something. 

“Okay,” he said, “let’s reason this out.” 

Beth grabbed the map and got out of the car. The old man was sitting cross-legged in the dirt in front of the station. His eyes were in deep shadow under his thick hair, and she felt them boring into them. 

“We’ve driven about fifty miles or so down this part of 666.” She made some quick calculations. “Next town is Sanostee. Probably thirty to forty miles south but that’s a guess. Shiprock is maybe thirty miles behind us. There’s nothing to indicate a road here.”

“How long would it take us to walk in either direction?” he asked. 

She carefully didn’t mention that they hadn’t seen another vehicle since they’d turned onto this section of Highway 666.   

“Well, I was never a Girl Scout, but I would guess we can walk about two to three miles in an hour, so it could take anywhere from eight to ten hours depending on the heat.  We might spot a car along the way.”  

“We’ll need water. And food.”

She looked toward the station. The old man put something into his cavernous mouth and began chewing. Whatever it was it seemed to squirm. Fresh brown juice ran between cracked and bleeding lips, down his jowls, and hung from his chin like mucous.   Insane, she thought. He is totally insane.

She looked at his heavily lined and weathered face and wondered how long he had been out here alone. Was he alone? The thought made her wonder how he had survived out here. He didn’t seem to have transportation, so maybe there really was a gas truck coming. If that was true, he probably had someone bringing him supplies. Maybe he lived in the station and there was water inside. 

“Maybe we should just spend the night here, Josh,” she suggested. “He said we could get gas in the morning.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” His eyes flicked towards the old man. 

The old man saw Josh looking at him and deliberately opened his mouth wide exposing something dark and putrid looking. A stream of slimy liquid spilled down his chin and he swiped it away with his fingers and wiped it on the front of his overalls. Josh quickly turned his head away. This brought a fresh round of hooting and cackling from the old man. 

3

Josh knew Beth was right. The old man was opening his mouth to show what he was chewing, then taking delight in Josh’s disgust at the spewing slime. He also knew they couldn’t count on the old man’s help. If it came down to it, he could force his way into the Trading Post. Tie the old guy up. Not hurt him. Just keep him out of their way.

When Josh looked up again the old man was glaring at him, an intense hatred glowing in his beady eyes. Josh involuntarily looked away, embarrassed at his own thoughts and feeling that the old man had somehow been reading his mind. He pulled Beth towards the back of the SUV. The old man abruptly started cackling, as if he was aware of the discomfort he was causing and enjoying it. 

“This guy seems dangerous honey.  Maybe we should try to walk?” Beth suggested.

“It won’t be dark for several hours yet, but it’ll be roasting out here until the sun sets.”  Josh squinted up at the sun and then back towards the road, scratching the back of his neck as he always did when in thought.  “Of course, there might be even less traffic after dark, and so less of a chance of catching a ride.”

Beth hadn’t thought about any of that.  And Josh was right.  Maybe they should wait until morning.  Morning was a long time away, but surely the old man would let them use the restroom, get some water and such.  The Jeep was like a furnace inside. They’d have to find somewhere in the shade.

“You wanna use the shitter . . .get sum ‘thin t’eat and drink?” the old man said suddenly appearing beside them. 

Now Josh was sure he could read minds.  He was about to answer, but then remembered that every time they said they needed something the old man would say that he didn’t have any. 

“Come on then,” the old man said, surprising him. 

Instead of asking more questions, Josh and Beth followed him to the Trading Post.  If the man tried to stop him, he’d push his way past.  Whether they tried to walk out of here now, or stayed until morning, they’d need supplies. It was a matter of survival. 

To their surprise the old man opened the broken screen door and motioned for them to enter. 

“Come on Missy Hot-Pants,” he said to Beth, and eyed her up and down like a world-class lecher.  “Can’t bring the shitter to you, now can I?”

Her face turned red, but she somehow managed to keep quiet. 

The inside was smaller than it looked from outside and it was one big room with a countertop off to one side. A heavy ancient looking cash register sat at one end of the counter. There were no doors or windows. There was no hint of an air conditioner, but it was surprisingly cool inside the store.  Wood shelving with peeling white paint leaned against one wall. Completely empty. No lights hung from the ceiling, but she could see a rusted square container at the back of the room. She could hear it hum so it was connected to power. She went to it and saw it was a large cooler with sliding metal doors on top. She slid one of the doors open and a blast of cold fog hit her in the face. When it cleared she saw bottled soft drinks, bottled water, and the edge of a cardboard box under the other sliding lid. There were no brands on any of this.

Meanwhile, Josh was checking out the cash register.  It was the only thing sitting on the bare wooden countertop by the door.  The keys were yellowed with age and looked like real ivory. He’d seen one of these in an old movie, where the clerk pulled a handle to ring up the sale and the register made a “cha-ching” sound. 

Josh looked around for the old man, intending to ask about the register, but his breath caught in his throat and his eyes stopped on an item on the wall behind the counter.  Even their current predicament was forgotten as his attention was drawn to the old crank-style telephone hanging not four feet from him.  A feeling of giddiness came over him and giggled as he stared, slack jawed, at the telephone.  This had to be one of the first telephones ever made.  And it was in pristine condition.  The brass crank handle gleamed as if freshly polished.  In his mind he could feel himself turning the crank, sending a small current through the line that would light a tiny bulb on the operators switchboard.  The switchboard operator would then answer and connect the caller with the party they wished to speak to. 

Beth came back and saw Josh was mesmerized by a pink Princess phone, the kind with push buttons, setting on the end of the counter. With great effort she forced him out of his dream-state.  She doubted the phone had worked for many, many, years.  But the fact that it was here raised hope. 

If there was electricity and a phone maybe a town was close by.  After all, not every little town is always marked on maps.  The problem would be getting this old fart to tell her which direction and how far to the nearest town.    

While Josh puzzled over the phone, Beth gave up and made a beeline for the water and sandwich makings.  The last time they’d eaten was in a truck stop outside of Kayenta, Arizona early this morning. 

She scooped up several bottles of ice-cold spring water from the refrigerated case and deposited them on the counter.  She hurried back to the case and slid the lid to the other side. She expected to find out of date lunchmeat and moldy bread but was shocked when she saw a couple of plastic wrapped sandwiches and a New York cheesecake complete with Bing cherries and sauce. Sitting next to her favorite dessert in the whole world was a can of Aunt Jane’s whipped cream.  The same kind that she and her sister used to pig out on when they were kids.  At first it didn’t seem possible that these things could be there. 

“Josh,” she said in a reverent hush.   

“What is it, hon?”

“Come here,” she said.  “You’ve got to see this!”

Josh pulled his gaze away from the phone and trudged to the case. He looked inside but didn’t see anything but dried green fungus and black mold. 

Beth pointed to the bottom of the case with a huge smile lighting her face. 

“What?” he said.  The case wasn’t even refrigerated.

“Right there, silly,” she said, still pointing.  “Don’t you see it?” she asked in exasperation.

Josh looked again and there were two plastic wrapped sandwiches, and two bottles of water. She put several bottles of the stuff on the counter already. It wasn’t cold but it would have to do.  Even though his stomach was growling earlier, the fare in the case didn’t look appealing. 

“We shouldn’t touch that mystery stuff,” he said. 

Beth let out an exasperated sound.  “Don’t you see the New York cheesecake?” 

“Where…” he started to ask, but now he did see the cheesecake.  And right next to it was a can of Hershey’s syrup.  They both loved cheesecake.  Beth liked it with whipped cream and cherries. She thought he was a heathen for drowning his piece in chocolate syrup. 

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s buy all of it.”

Beth was clapping her hands like a child.

“You know I love Hershey’s syrup,” he added.

Beth hadn’t seen the syrup, but she grabbed the whipped cream.”  

They took the items to the counter and the old man smiled. That is, if you could call the tepid gash in his rotted mouth a smile.  

“Got everything ‘ya heart desires Missy?” 

“It’s wonderful.”  Her mind was already tasting the fresh cherries. 

“And for the mist’uh’?”

“I, uh, guess that’s it,” Josh said, still eyeing the antique wall phone.  He’d always wanted one of these but being a full-time writer had made a lot of demands on their marriage, not to mention their budget. Before he and Beth had married he’d had big plans.  He was going to move to the east coast, live in a cabin overlooking a lake, write best-sellers.  His cabin would have a collection of memorabilia from his travels.  An old wall phone would be just the thing.  This wall phone, to be exact.  In two long years of writing he’d purchased nothing that wasn’t essential.  Now he had money and he intended to have that phone.

“How much for the phone,” he blurted out.

“Not fa’ sale.”

“And why is that?” Josh snapped. 

“S’not fa’ sale bub.”  The old man’s eyes narrowed, and he suddenly reached under the counter.

Beth felt her breath suck in.  Was he going for a gun?  

The old man produced a cardboard box from under the counter and taking the cheesecake from the countertop, he dropped it into the box.  He picked up the bottles of water and other items and threw them in on top of her beautiful cheesecake.  She knew her beautiful cheesecake must be smashed.

“Let’s just get what we have honey,” she pleaded with Josh, hoping he wouldn’t anger the old man anymore.  The thought of that dessert being ruined was just too much.  It was all Josh’s fault.  He’d gotten them lost and just had to start an argument and now she would have a smashed mess instead of a wonderful slice of cheesecake.  Why did he have to ask for that stupid phone anyway?

 “Come on Josh.  Let’s go!”

Josh looked at Beth.  Her face was scrunched up in “the look.”  The look that said she was right, and he was wrong, and he’d better admit it.

“Yeah, right!” Josh yelled in her face.  “You get what you want, and I get nothing.  That’s what I get for marrying you.  Nothing!”

Beth was even angrier.  He was acting like a ten-year-old. Her sister acted the same way when they were kids.  When her sister didn’t get exactly what she wanted, she called Beth names until it ended in a screaming match.   

“Quit acting so simple-minded,” she snapped at him.  “We wouldn’t even be here if you’d stopped for gas like I asked you to.  But no-oooo, not you.  We always do what you say, what you want.” 

She snatched the cardboard box from the counter.  She wasn’t giving this up.  Not for Josh.  Not for anyone. 

 The old man’s callused hands made sounds like leather as he rubbed them together in glee.  Fresh spittle drooled from his slit of a mouth as it cracked in a vacuous grin.   

“Well, if you didn’t have to pee every five seconds we could make a trip farther than the backyard.  God! Why don’t you carry diapers?”  He was screaming and it felt terrible and good at the same time because he couldn’t stop.  

The man was sitting cross-legged on the countertop and said, “Get ‘im, Missy BB!”  Brownish snot ran from his nose and he snorted between bouts of laughter. 

Beth stopped short at hearing what the old man had just called her.  How could he know that name?  How?  She looked at Josh, and although she could tell he was still angry, he too was looking like he had just awakened from a bad dream.

“Wha . . . what did you just call me?”

“Missy BB.  Missy BB,” the little man said, and jumped down to the floor, dancing back and forth behind the counter. He stopped abruptly and stared at her over one shoulder. 

“That’s what she called you ain’t it?”

Beth was reeling now.  “How could you possibly know that?” she stammered. 

“D’ya want this stuff or not?”

“We’ll take it,” Josh said quickly, and reached for his wallet.  “How much?”  He pulled his American Express card out. 

“What’s that?” the old man asked, eyeing the card suspiciously.

Josh looked at Beth, but nothing the little man did surprised him now. 

“It’s my credit card.” 

Josh put the card down on the countertop, and the holographic image of the flying dove glimmered.  

The old man jerked back seeing the image on the card.  He leaned forward, slowly, and began sniffing the plastic card like an animal would do to something it wasn’t sure was dangerous. 

“What’s it do?” The old man wasn’t grinning now, and this was the first time Josh had seen him unsure of himself. 

Josh looked in his wallet.  Two hundred dollars in cash was all he’d planned on this trip, but he didn’t want to try and explain how a credit card worked to a psychotic recluse. 

“I’ll pay in cash,” Josh said to Beth’s relief. 

“Don’t want money,” the man said, making a face at the plastic smell of the card.

The original plan of just taking the items was looking like a real possibility.

The man gave Josh a sly look, and once again Josh was sure he was reading his mind. 

“You cain’t have it less’n I get sum ‘thin. I want your souls.”

Josh wasn’t sure he’d heard him right.  But as it sank in he wondered why he had expected anything sane to come out of his mouth. 

“You want our souls?” Beth repeated incredulously. 

“Missy BB.  Missy BB,” the little man danced around, then stopped and leaned forward, staring her in the eye mere inches from her face.  “Ain’t such a BB brain after all.”

Beth backed away like she had been slapped.   

“Go on to the Jeep,” Josh said. “Take the box, Beth, and go to the truck. I’ll take care of this.”

Her legs felt stiff as she moved towards the door. The old man never stirred from his spot behind the counter but his eyes gleamed. She stopped at the door and turned.  “Josh?”  Her voice was faint, and she felt as if all of the strength had been wrung out of her.

“Go,” Josh ordered. 

Beth hurried through the door but stopped just on the other side as a blast of hot air caused her breath to catch in her throat.  The sun was so bright it hurt. She squeezed her eyes to tiny slits, but even that seemed futile. A headache began to form, and she felt suddenly sick.  She hoped Josh would hurry, because she couldn’t stay here much longer. 

She moved around to the shaded side of the Jeep and placed the box on the hard-packed ground.  She knew it would be hotter inside the car than outside now, especially without the a/c working, and she realized it would not be possible for them to stay in the car until nighttime when it would cool down.  In the desert, the nights were considerably cooler than the days.  At least they’d have a chance if they walked.               

She looked anxiously at the station door.  She should never have left Josh in there alone.  But the door opened, and Josh came out with a cardboard box under one arm and a smug look on his face.

The old man suddenly emerged, and her breath caught in her throat as he rushed up behind Josh with a murderous look on his shriveled face. His bony arms and hands were outstretched as if he intended to throttle Josh.  At the last second he stopped and looked directly at her, smiling that disgusting putrid smile. 

Josh’s mood had completely changed from the anger inside the Trading Post.  His smile was easy and genuine.  There was no sign of the panic she’d been in his eyes. “He said we can spend the night inside the Trading Post.” He held the box out toward her. “And look what I got!” 

She stared at Josh, sizing him up.  Hoping he hadn’t lost it in the stress and heat of this terrible day.  But the smile on his face told her what she needed to know. It was kind of quirky, the right corner of his mouth turning down instead of up like most people. It was her Josh.

She looked from his face to the box. In the very bottom of the huge box was a small pink princess style phone. The one that she’d seen on the counter by the register.  Her fear came back in a rush.  In a shaking voice she asked, “Is this some sort of joke Josh? Because if it is…” She couldn’t continue.  It was just too much.  Beth Bartley, who had always prided herself on keeping her emotions under control was coming apart.  Tears welled in her eyes and she didn’t see the confused look on Josh’s face as he looked into the box and saw the wall mounted antique phone.

“It’s no joke honey.”  He put the box down next to the open door of the Jeep.  “I was finally able to reason with the old guy, and well… we came to an agreement of sorts.”  She said nothing. He couldn’t imagine what he had done to cause her to act this way. She should have been happy for him.  Actually, she should be proud of him.  He’d been on the verge of resorting to violence, but he’d somehow gotten through to the old geezer. He’d gotten the old crank style telephone for almost nothing. And on top of that he’d negotiated a place for them to stay for the night that wasn’t in the desert.  

“What do you mean agreement Josh? What have you done?” 

“What have I done?”  She was beginning to get on his nerves.  “What I’ve done is find us a place to stay out of the heat.  It wasn’t my idea to stop here, but I’m trying to make the best of it.”

She reacted as if he’d slapped her in the face. She pulled the pink phone from the box and shoved it into Josh’s chest.  “For God’s sake Josh . . .it’s not an antique.  It’s a pink-push-button-phone! It’s not even junk.”

Josh looked from Beth’s tear-streaked face to the crank style phone he was cradling in his arms.  Suddenly the phone wasn’t important anymore.  He dropped it to the ground.  But instead of shattering, the phone soundlessly and slowly fell to the hard-packed clay as if it weighed no more than Styrofoam. 

“What the…?”

 “Josh.  What’s going on!”  Beth clutched her husband’s arm, both of them now staring at the undamaged phone as it began to shimmer.  A strong smell of electricity permeated the air, the phone began to glow and then simply vanished. 

“What the hell!”

“Please Josh, let’s just go.”

He looked at her a long moment before answering. 

“Go where?”  He looked out over the scrub brush and cacti that seemed even closer now, out toward where the road was supposed to be and estimated they were at least thirty miles to the last town they had passed.  Maybe more.

Beth knew what he was thinking. They would be shredded trying to walk through that mess. “Maybe we can get the Jeep running?”

Josh gave her a sarcastic look.  He couldn’t tell a sparkplug from a carburetor.  And unless she was a closet mechanic, they were stuck here. No gas. No phone contact. No help.

“Maybe he has a vehicle out here,” she suggested hopefully.  “He has to have transportation. Surely he doesn’t live here.”

“Did you see anything when you were out back?”

“No,” she admitted.  “But there might be a home just down the road.”

“What road? I’m sorry Beth.  It’s just so hot out here, and he offered to let us stay inside tonight. I didn’t think it would be safe to walk after dark and we may yet have to walk out of here.”  He shuddered, thinking about coyotes and snakes. 

She didn’t want to walk, but she didn’t want to stay in that scary Trading Post with a crazy guy. “We have plenty of time to find the road.”  She looked at her watch and was startled to see that it was after 6:00 in the evening.  It had been noon when they stopped.

“I thought so, too,” Josh said.  “But the old man said the sun would be down in less than an hour. Guess the heat must have made us crazy, too.”

“He scares me,” Beth said. “I never told you, but my sister used to call me Missy BB when we were little.”

“You never talk about your sister.”

She felt a shudder of fear run through her.    

“I know. We used to have terrible fights. Mom wouldn’t let us argue or call each other names so Bonnie started calling me Missy BB, meaning BB brain. And then she’d dance around just like he was doing today. My poor dead sister is the only one that would know about that name.  I never told anyone else. Not even you.”

She remembered the fights weren’t physical, but she’d taken a verbal beating that hurt just as bad. She and Bonnie were just patching things up when the car accident killed her parents and her sister. Josh knew about the accident because he had taken her home from the hospital. She was the lone survivor. Not a scratch.  The police, the doctors, even the newspapers said it was a miracle.  And in a way, it probably was, but she was the only one who knew the whole truth.  A truth that no one would ever believe.

He didn’t need to hear the rest to feel the grief that went with her words. 

“I love you Josh,” Beth said, and he wondered for the millionth time how he had ever been so lucky to have a wonderful woman like this fall in love with him, a pencil pushing geek.  Actually a word processing geek, but why mince words.  He regretted being harsh with her today.

“I love you, too.” He wrapped her in his arms and held her tightly.

“Let’s take this in before it melts.” She gathered up the water and other things while Josh rummaged under the driver’s seat.

“It’s under the Phoenix Sun in the back,” she said.  She was referring to the newspaper they had picked up in Flagstaff.  It was as thick as a telephone book back home.  What Josh was looking for was his book on Native American Mythology.  A dictionary of sorts.  It was the only thing he’d bought on this trip–outside of the pink princess phone–and he had read the eight hundred plus pages at least twice. 

“Here it is under the newspaper in the back,” Josh said. 

Beth smiled.  When Josh had a task at hand he was so singular minded he might as well be on another planet.  That was one of the things that made him such a gifted writer. He could study a particular subject or location to the exclusion of all else, and then re-create his own version of it in his story.  But he would forget his own head.

Josh hefted the book and put it in the box with the telephone.  He gathered the maps of the Navajo Reservation they had gotten from AAA and put them in the box. 

“Do you have everything now?”

“D’ya say something hon?”

This was the man she’d married.  The absent-minded word-slinger, and not the angry man she’d seen in the Trading Post.  That man had scared her. 

They carried their things inside the Trading Post where the temperature immediately dropped thirty degrees.  The refrigerated box was gone and in its place now were two cots.  They reminded Josh of the ones he’d slept on at Camp Carson when he was a Boy Scout.  Bright red with blue and green Southwestern patterns. The pillows were mashed flat from years of pillow fights. 

Beth felt a cold fist in the center of her stomach upon seeing the cots. The plain white sheets and pale woven blankets reminded her of the ones that had been on her sisters hospital bed where she’d died.  The sight brought back the smell and feel of the hospital.  But it was a place to sleep, and they would need to rest soon, because tomorrow might prove to be a very bad day if the gas truck didn’t come and it was very possible it may not have been coming at all. 

“Dibs,” Josh said and put his box down near a cot and sat down on a rock-hard mattress.  Beth sat her armload near the other cot. “We’d better hydrate, hon.” He took a bottle of water and offered another to Beth.  “There’s several more in here. It’s a good thing we bought most of the water. No telling what he did with the cooler.”

“Thanks,” she said, and twisted off the cap. The bottle felt icy.  

He took a sip and then swilled it down.  “This is really good!” 

Beth opened hers and took a tentative sip.  Josh was right. It was good!  The best water she’d ever tasted!  She had thought it hadn’t had a label, but it did. Indiana Crystal Spring. The water never tasted this good at home.  She only bought it because it was the cheapest.  Being the wife of an aspiring author, you had to learn to budget. 

“I’m sorry I said what I did about that telephone,” she said, and opened a second bottle.  Josh was half-sitting, half-laying against the wall.  Three empty bottles lay between his feet. 

“It’s okay honey,” he said opening a fourth bottle. 

She took a drink from her own bottle.   “It’s just that I would never have imagined you for the pink princess phone type.”  She let herself smile now that the worst seemed to be over.  At least they had a place to stay out of the heat.

“I’m not the pink princess type,” he protested. 

“Whatever you say.” She wondered why he was still touchy about that damn phone.  “If you want a pink princess phone, then you should get a pink princess phone is all I’m saying.” 

“Beth, what are you talking about?”

“Please don’t get mad again. I don’t care about the phone.  Forget I said anything.”

His hands curled into fists.  He’d been through enough of this shit with that crazy old man.  He didn’t expect to be picked on by his wife. 

“The wall phone that I have in this box,” he said, and pulled the box over to him. “is one of a kind. Look here.”  He opened the box, intending to pull the old crank-style wall mounted type telephone from it, but inside all he found was a small cheap pink push-button princess phone. 

He pushed the box away.  “This isn’t the phone I put in this box Beth.”  He looked inside the box again, as if expecting another phone to be in there.  “I swear, the phone I got from the old man was hanging on the wall behind that antique cash register. It was wooden, with two metal bells on the front, and a crank handle.  I’ve never seen this phone before.” 

“That was the only phone in here, Josh,” Beth said hesitantly.  “It wasn’t on the wall. It was on the counter by the register.”

“The antique register, right?”

“It was a newer one. Like a computer,” she said.  

Josh got up and walked to the counter.  Sure enough, the antique register was gone, replaced by a fairly new one. 

“What’s going on here?” he said and began looking around the store. The few sets of shelves that were in the middle of the floor were gone. He examined the wall where the phone had been hanging.  Not a nail, not a hole, no sign that anything had ever been there. 

“It’s okay, Josh,” Beth said. “He took it all out. I don’t know how or why, but that’s the only possible explanation. Let’s eat.  We’ve had very little to eat.” She wanted to add that they would have eaten if he would have stopped. But she didn’t want to push it.

“I’m not losing my mind,” he insisted, but he felt as if he were trying to convince himself of this.  “I saw those things!”

“We must have been dehydrated, Josh. That made us see things. We made them up because we want to see them.” It was uncomfortably cold, but his shirt was soaked with sweat. She remembered from her PT class in high school that fever was a symptom of dehydration.

Josh had just sat down but jumped to his feet again. “Get out here! I know you’re watching us. Show yourself!”

“Josh!  What’s wrong honey?” Beth took his arm and felt him literally shaking. 

“It’s the old man, Beth,” he said. “He’s doing this. He’s been picking on me since we stopped here.”  He pulled away from her and began pacing.  “And how did he know what I was thinking? The register? The phone?”

Beth was scared, and seeing her husband going to pieces wasn’t helping either of them. 

“And how did he know what your sister called you when you were a child?  Huh?  Tell me that.  Explain that one.” 

“Josh!  Please!  You’re scaring me!” She buried her face in her hands. She had wondered the exact same things, but what really scared her was the old man.  He was insane but there was something else wrong with him.  The only word she could think of was ‘evil’. He was evil. He stank of it. He didn’t belong here, in this place.  He belonged in a comic book, or a horror story.  But this was real wasn’t it?  The store, the heat, the cactus, all of it was real.  Wasn’t it? 

Josh recovered at the sight of his wife’s panic.  This wasn’t like him, to react so strongly to everything.  But from the moment they had stopped here nothing had seemed right to him.  It was like a bad dream, and not just bad luck as he had first thought. 

“I’m sorry hon,” he said sincerely.  “We’ll get through this.  I overreacted.”

He sat beside her and put his arm around her shoulders.  Her skin was slick with sweat, and for just a fleeting moment he wondered why her skin should be so hot in the cool air of the Trading Post.  Then he spied the pastry box that held the New York Cheesecake and the Hershey’s syrup and forgot all about his wife.

“You’re right about not eating for a while.  I’m famished!” He set the box on the edge of the cot.  “What say we eat some of this?” 

Beth peeked between her hands, then wiped at her tear streaked cheeks. 

“Okay,” she said, “but we don’t have anything to cut it with or plastic ware.”

Josh stood and dug deep into his jeans pocket and produced a folding knife. 

“Au’ contraire, mon cher,” he said in a fake French accent. “Perhaps Madame would care to cut ze pastry?” He offered the handle of the small pocket knife over his arm like a maître ‘d.   “We can eat with our fingers.”

Beth put the pastry box on her lap and opened the box. She threw the box to the floor and screamed. 

“What the…?” Josh saw something rancid and crumbly and moving in the box. Centipedes, scorpions, beetles and maggots teemed out of the box and spread across the floor at their feet.  He kicked the box away from them and they held each other.

“I don’t know if that was supposed to be a joke. but we’re going to find out right now!”

He looked toward the front to see if the man had come back but saw there was no counter, no cash register. Nothing.

“Josh,” Beth said. “Look.”

Sure enough, the box with the infestation of bugs, the cots, and the things they had gotten from the store were gone. They were in an empty room with a dusty floor now and it was getting warmer. All that remained was the knife in his hand and the book on Native American Mythology.                 

“My God, Josh!  Where did everything go?” The change was so sudden and startling that it felt like she had awakened from a long sleep and found the world deserted. 

She looked at Josh and he was covered with dirt from head to toe, as if he’d been laying on the ground and making dirt angels.

He reached up and brushed her hair with a hand. Dust billowed in a dirty cloud. Her hands were covered with dirt. Her white cotton blouse had black smears of something that looked suspiciously like the stuff that continually oozed from the corners of the old man’s mouth.  There were never any cots.  They had been laying on the floor. There was never any water. Their thirst was back. Nothing about this place was real.

“We’ve got to get out of here, Josh,” she said, trying to maintain control because control was sanity, and if she let herself panic she would be lost here in this nightmare place. 

Josh put an arm around her as they moved in silent agreement toward the door. 

All thought of a plan, or needing supplies was forgotten.  They only knew they had to get out of this room.  They would worry about getting out of the desert after. 

Josh put a hand on the doorknob just as someone pounded on the other side.  Thinking it was the old man, Josh balled a fist and threw the door open and was eye to eye with the biggest black dog he’d ever seen. It snarled viciously and spittle foamed around its snout.  Josh slammed the door shut just as the huge animal leapt. 

The crashing force of the animals weight would have knocked the door open if Josh hadn’t leaned into it and slid the bolt home. They backed away as the animal continued to bark and throw itself against the door rattling the hinges.

“That was a Coyote,” Josh said.  “Biggest one I’ve ever seen!”

“We’re trapped!”

“It’s okay, hon,” Josh said, “it’s just hungry.  It’ll go away when it can’t get in.”

“It wanted to kill us Josh. Do you think it belongs to the old man?” she whispered.

He wanted to say that it was impossible for anyone to keep a wild coyote like that.  But he couldn’t say it.  With all that had been going on he wasn’t sure what was real or imaginary, or what was impossible.  

She buried her face in his chest and her words were muffled. “I’m going crazy, aren’t I?” 

“No,” Josh said angrily and held her tighter.  “We’re not crazy.  It’s the old man.  I don’t know how, but he’s behind all this.”  He held Beth at arm’s length and looked in her eyes.  “Listen to me.  If we were crazy we wouldn’t both be seeing the old guy, would we? We’d see different things. Like the cheesecake, and the water, and the pink princess phone.”

She was still scared but the way he’d said “Pink Princess Phone” cheered her. Just a little. And what he said made sense. 

“The old man made us see those things,” he said, not knowing why he said it.  But for some reason it made sense.  And the more he thought about it, the plainer it was to see. 

“I know it sounds crazy,” Josh said, “but just listen to me for a minute.  I think we’ve been drugged. When we came in here we were both expecting to see different things.  And that’s exactly what happened.  I imagined this place as one of those places out of the history books, complete with the old register and crank style phone that I saw.  You were thinking of other things, and that’s why you saw the cooler.  I didn’t even see the cooler until you mentioned it.”

Beth was staring at him and didn’t know if she thought he was crazy or if she believed him.  He pressed on anyway, unable not to stop the thoughts as they came to him. 

“And the cheesecake.  I know you had to have thought that up.  How in the world would he get a fresh New York Cheesecake with Cherries and whipped topping out here in this Godforsaken place?  I doubt this place is on any bakeries delivery route.”

“I believe you,” she said.  “And I remember looking at the gas gauge just before you pulled in here.  There was at least a quarter of a tank.  I remember that because I had to go to the restroom, and I knew you wouldn’t stop until we were on fumes.”

“And when he said we were out of gas, the tank showed empty, and the car wouldn’t start,” Josh finished for her. 

They both had the same thought, but Josh put it into words. “If that’s true then there is really nothing wrong with the car, and we have plenty of gas to make it to the next town.”

Beth looked at the only door that left this room.  “So how do we get to the car?”

Josh picked up the book on Indiana mythology and started flipping through the pages.  “That was a coyote, but it isn’t like one I’ve ever seen in my research.” He stopped leafing through the book and stared wide-eyed at a page. 

“Josh.  What is it?”  She didn’t understand what was going on.  She wished her sister was here to help her. Bonnie would know what to do. And the thought surprised her because, until today, she hadn’t really thought about her sister for a long time.  However, today, it seemed she couldn’t quit thinking about her.  Maybe it was because her sister had always been her opposite.  Where Beth was willing to let Josh make all the decisions, Bonnie would have had to be in charge.  Where Beth was scared out of her wits, Bonnie wouldn’t be afraid in the least. 

“We have bigger problems than the coyote,” Josh said.  “I knew the names he gave us were familiar.” He started reading from the book.

“Hagondes.  That’s one of the names he gave me.  It means boogeyman, a cannibalistic trickster.  The Indians tell stories about the Hagondes to their kids to make them mind.”

“Are you saying the old man is a cannibal?”

“Just listen Beth.” He flipped a few pages.  “Okay.  Here it is.” He read from the book. “The Hagondes is also called Coyote, or skinwalker, an Indian witch.  Hagondes can change his appearance to that of an animal–like the coyote–or can assume other shapes, like that of a man.” He closed the book.  “Everything in this book about this type of witch fits perfect with what has happened to us.  He’s been playing with us.”

“Okay,” she said skeptically, “if that’s true, then what does he want from us?  Why is he doing this?”

He opened the book and skimmed until he found something.

“What is it, Josh? Let me see.”

She took the book and saw the heading on top of the page: YENALDLOOSHI.

Josh said, “That’s one of the names he called himself. Remember?”

She read out loud.  “Yenaldlooshi.  Navajo, southwest tribe.  Literally ‘he who walks on all fours.’  A human witch who wears coyote skins or takes the shape of the coyote.  Or a spirit that takes the shape of a man or coyote. Said to gain their power by eating the victims souls.”  She handed the book back to him. “My God, Josh!  This can’t be true!”

He was glad she hadn’t read any further.  Especially the part about how the witch has sex with the dead and prefers the female victim.  On the next page was a color drawing of a man/beast hunched over a naked woman. Its long claws were ripping her chest open, its bloody snout raised in the air.

Josh walked around the room, pressing hands against the walls, but they felt solid enough.  If this was all in his mind, it sure seemed real enough.  Still, there had to be a way out of this.  He just needed time to think.  How do you defeat a skinwalker? 

“How do we kill it?” Beth asked.

Hearing her say this made him sad. Beth was the kindest person he’d ever met. She’d stop traffic to get a turtle out of the road. There must be a way to kill them. It would be up to him to do it.

He opened the book and searched for anything about skinwalkers. There were dozens of articles, and each one was different from the last in how skinwalkers came to be, and what their powers were.  The only thing that seemed to be a constant theme, the one thing most of the Native tribes seemed to agree on, was that the skinwalker was invincible and could not be killed. 

Josh said, “As incredible as it sounds, the old man is a skinwalker. It’s the only logical explanation for all this.  He just appeared from nowhere.  He could read our minds, so he knew what button to push to make us fight. Skinwalkers can also make you see things.” 

Beth’s eyes widened at the memory of how she and Josh had flung insults at each other.  That was something they had never done before.  “Remember how he cackled and rubbed his hands together when we were arguing?” she said.  “He was pulling our strings like a marionette wasn’t he? Eating some of our souls.”  

She brightened. “I think he feeds off our emotions. Fear. Anger. Greed. Even love. Maybe that’s part of our soul. He offered to take care of us if we gave him our souls and I thought he was either joking or insane. Maybe he’s got what he wants now and will let us go.”

Josh was quiet for a long minute.  “I’m afraid it’s worse than that.  According to the book, the Yenaldlooshi is pure evil and uses his victims for rituals, and…” his voice trailed off, and he looked at the floor.

“What?  Tell me Josh!” she demanded. 

His eyes played over her sea green eyes, the tiny nose, and the little dimple that always crinkled her right cheek when she smiled.  For some reason he remembered the salty taste of her tears when he asked her to marry him, and she had been so happy that she burst out crying.  He loved this woman more than life itself.  And the funny thing was, he’d been with her the last four years and hadn’t realized just how much he loved her.  Hadn’t told her how cherished she was.  How appreciated.  Instead he’d pursued his damn writing and had taken for granted all the things that he now realized might be lost forever. 

He’d let her down. How could he now tell her there was no way out of this.  That they were at the mercy of one of the most vicious and evil creatures that ever plagued the earth.  He had two jobs. To love her and to protect her. Because of his selfish need to get published he’d led them into this Trading Post, and quite possibly to their deaths.

Beth seemed to sense Josh’s shame and reached out with a dirt encrusted hand to touch his face. “It’ll be alright, Josh. We’re together. You’re my strength.”

When he thought back on this later, he would remember that it was this one act of total selflessness on his wife’s part that had actually saved them.   It was the thing that sparked, no, shamed him into action.  Even in his concern for his wife, he had been wallowing in self-pity.  But her dirt smudged hand touched more than his face.  It touched his very being, and like a powerful catalyst, propelled him into what would end with the showdown between man and man-beast, or more accurately, between good and evil.  The strength of their love would save them.

He hadn’t wanted to tell her his suspicions of what the Coyote would do to them, but he decided she deserved to know everything.  They were a team. If they were killed at least they would go down fighting.

“I may have made a mistake, Beth,” he said, and took her hands.  “The old guy wouldn’t take money for water or other things that we took.  All he wanted was a photo of us.”

“What would he want that for?”

“He was being a real shit,” he said, looking at her for understanding, “and I tried to settle him down.  And it was working… or at least I thought it was working. He apologized for being cranky and said that he was closing this place and we would be his last customers before he moved on. He wanted the photo to remember us by.”  Josh slammed a fist into his palm.  “How could I have been so stupid?  I actually started feeling sorry for him.”

Beth moved closer and put her arms around her husband.  “It’s okay Josh.  You’re a good man.  You did what you thought was right.”  She stretched up and kissed him on the cheek.  “That’s why I love you so much.  And besides, what harm can a picture do?”

“According to the book he—or it–can’t be killed.  He’s invincible, and as old as the earth itself.”

“Well, if he’s so powerful then what is he waiting for?  Why doesn’t he do something?  And why would he want our picture?”

“I think it’s for some type of ritual.  We can’t just sit here and let this thing kill us, Josh,” Beth said, and the strength seemed to come back to her voice.  “We need to find a way out of here.”

“Okay,” Josh said to his wife.  “What do you propose?”

“You read the book again,” she said flatly.  “There must be something in there. A weakness. I’ll look for a way out of here.”

Josh sat on the floor; the book open on his lap.  And in a few moments he was lost in his research, impervious to anything around him. 

Like Josh had done, Beth walked around the walls of their prison, pushing here, feeling there for a loose board or a hidden opening. She had given up and went back to Josh when she saw a square outline in the floor beneath where he was sitting.

Josh was moving his lips to what he was reading.  She knew from experience that this meant he had found something interesting.  She just hoped he had found something they could use against the Yenaldlooshi.  And she might have found a way out.

She nudged him with her foot, and he moved over. She brushed the dust away and exposed a heavy hinge. 

“Josh, look at this!”

For once he came quickly out of his reverie and scrambled to his feet.  “What’d you find?”

“It’s a trapdoor, I think,” she said, and began swiping at the dust with her hands. 

“There must be a handle here somewhere,” he said, and ran a finger around the edges of the door.  He looked up and sighed deeply.  “There’s no handle.  And the crack is too narrow to get my fingers in.”

“How about your pocket knife?”

He dug in his pants and pulled out the knife.  The blade was too thin, but there was also a nail file blade, and all he needed to do was get the darn thing started. He worked the nail file to the hilt into the crack and started to pry and lift.  Then he heard a snap, the nail file broke off in the crack.

“Damn!” he said loudly and threw the ruined remains of the knife on the floor. Beth picked it up.   

Josh looked at his wife, at her beautiful face smudged with dirt, the light of hope in her eyes being slowly extinguished, and a rage born of desperation grew until without thinking, he jumped into the air and came down in the center of the trapdoor with his whole weight.  The floor seemed to shudder with the impact.  He leapt into the air again, bending his knees this time, intending to drive his feet into the floor with all his might.  When he struck this time, the floor buckled under him and he disappeared through a black opening into the darkness below.  

“Oh my God!  Josh, are you alright!” she yelled into the dark hole. A moment later came the sound of laughter. 

“Watch that first step,” Josh yelled up, “it’s a doozy.”

“Oh Josh,” she said, “I thought you were hurt.  What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking. But I got it open.” 

“What do you see down there?” she asked.

“Nothing. It’s pitch black. I need a light.”  

Beth remembered Josh’s book.  “Just a minute,” she said, grabbed the book and moved back to the hole. “Can you see me up here?” 

“I can see you fine.” 

“I’ve got your book. Maybe you can use some of the pages to make a torch.”

“Wait a second honey.”

He didn’t smoke, but he collected matchbooks whenever they traveled.

“I found my matches.  Go ahead and drop it to me.”

Beth lay on the floor and reaching as far into the hole as she could stretch, she dropped the book. 

“Got it,” Josh said.

Two maps fell out of the book. Josh found them and rolled them tightly into a makeshift torch and lit one end with a match. The paper smoked badly, but by the firelight he could see that he was in what appeared to be a small cave or tunnel with smooth stone walls that narrowed as they stretched in one direction.

The opening he had fallen through was at least ten feet above him, and he was amazed he hadn’t been hurt.  He looked again at Beth and saw the anxious look on her face. Apparently she was thinking the same thing. 

“Looks like a way out,” he yelled up to her. 

“How do I get down?”  She was sitting on the edge of the jagged hole, her legs swinging out into space. 

Josh found a crack between two large rocks and propped the torch between them.  He then moved directly under Beth.  “I’ll catch you,” he said.

“Josh.  It’s too far.”

“Come on Beth.  It’s not that far. I promise to catch you.” Just then the coyote began snarling and clawing at the door with a renewed frenzy.  She could see the door bowing in the middle. She screamed and threw herself into space. She crashed down into Josh, sending them both sprawling onto the cavern floor.

“You said you’d catch me.”

“You didn’t give me any warning. Let’s get out of here.  Can you walk?” he asked and struggled to his feet.

“I don’t think anything’s broken,” she said, and let him pull her to her feet.  They hugged fiercely for a moment, then Josh retrieved the torch. 

“We’d better find a way out fast. This torch won’t last long.” He remembered seeing a deep arroyo when they were lost. He led her toward that and hoped he had his direction right. They began moving and soon the cavern narrowed causing them to go single file. In the torchlight Josh saw stains on the rock and a trail of it in the direction they were going.  The passage turned sharply and was wide enough to allow them to walk through together.  Josh stopped sharply.

“Look at this,” he said excitedly, and held the torch close to the sandstone wall.  They could make out figures that reminded him of the cave paintings they’d seen in the Museum back home.  Except the figures depicted in these paintings were fearsome, death-like characters.  One scene was the unmistakable violent and bloody rape of a woman by some type of man or creature with pointed ears and a jutting jaw or snout bristling with sharp teeth. The woman was laying in a pool of something, with gash’s all over her body. 

Another set of drawings showed a male and female figure on their knees, naked, cowering before the man-beast. Though the drawings were simple, the look of horror on the man and woman’s faces was clear.  

Josh moved the torch a little farther along the wall and there was another set of drawings.  This one depicted the man-beast standing over the dead couple, chests ripped open, and the creature was holding their hearts high over his head. A dark stream of what had to be blood was pouring into his snout-like mouth. 

Beth turned her face away.  “Oh, Josh, what is this place?”

“It must be the skinwalkers cave.” He knew that they weren’t going to just walk out of here, get in the JEEP and drive away.  He knew that the Yenaldlooshi was out there waiting for them.  Had in fact been driving them towards the place where he lay in wait.  Had wanted them to see all these things, experience all their fear and disgust.  Had created the trapdoor and let them believe they could escape. He was drawing his strength from their weakness. 

“We’re going to make it,” he said uncertainly and took her hand and led the way.

With every step it became warmer and the smell of the desert became stronger.  Soon the smell changed to something like rotten meat and Josh could hear a crackling noise.

“What is that?” Beth asked, trying not to retch.

“I don’t think we want to know.”

“Look.  There’s a light up ahead,” Beth said. Josh lowered the torch.  She was right. 

At the mouth of the tunnel they could see a bonfire burning, sparks of flaming coal popping and rising in the air.  They were in the arroyo. The sides were steep, and it went on forever like a gash in the dry ground.  Near the fire was a bent and twisted old cactus.  There was something familiar about the cactus.

Beth said, “That looks like the cactus that we saw outside of the Trading Post.”  And Josh knew it was the same cactus. It had moved. Had been moving. Herding them back to the Trading Post earlier. Waiting for them now.

Somewhere out of sight a lone coyote howled and was answered by another. Beth shuddered, remembering their recent brush with the beast.  Maybe leaving the Trading Post and being out in the open didn’t seem like such a good idea now.  A howl came from much closer. This one answered by others like an echo in a canyon.

“It’s found us,” Josh said. “Let’s go down to the fire. Coyotes are afraid of fire.”

Josh took her hand again and helped her the rest of the way down the steep side of the arroyo. As they slid in the soft dirt, the wailing of coyotes increased and came from all directions.  The wails sounded anxious, almost an anticipatory whining, like that of a dog seeing it’s master coming home. Josh felt fear form a lump in his throat.  He thought back to the disgusting paintings.  He would die before he let anything like that happen to Beth. 

 Beth’s legs barely supported her as they stumbled toward the fire. 

“I can’t go any further,” she said in a voice thick with emotion.  The ominous cries of the coyotes drew closer, echoing down the arroyo.  “Those awful paintings…” she began, then collapsed at the foot of the cactus, her sobs coming in waves of desolation and despair.  “Josh, help me,” she begged piteously.

He felt as if his heart was being wrenched from his chest.  He wasn’t a man any longer.  He was an animal that was being hunted, stalked.  He sat in the dirt next to his wife and pulled her weeping figure into his arms.

“I won’t let that happen,” he promised, though he knew that it wasn’t up to him any longer.  He pulled her face to his and kissed her tenderly.  Her lips were chapped and bleeding, and he remembered they hadn’t anything to drink since they had stopped here.  The Yenaldlooshi had made them think they were drinking bottled water, so maybe this was all an illusion, too. 

Josh looked at the cactus and remembered something he had seen on the Discovery Channel.  A man had gotten water from a cactus and managed to live on it for several days.  He felt his pockets and panicked when he didn’t find the knife.  Then he remembered that Beth had picked it up. 

“Beth, do you still have the knife?”

“What?” she asked in a weak voice.  “Oh, the knife.  Yes, I have it.”

“I need the knife, Beth,” Josh said, hoping his voice sounded strong. 

She dug in a pocket and handed him the ruined little Swiss Army knife.  Josh pulled out the knife blade.  It was small but very sharp.  He moved toward the cactus and circled it, looking for a place that he could get the small knife in between the sharp spines. 

The coyotes seemed to go mad, the anxious whining turned to yipping and growling, and some of them had begun to fight. He looked up at the edge of the arroyo where dozens of pairs of green eyes glinted in the darkness, surrounding them, cutting off any avenue of retreat.

Josh took off his shirt and wrapped it tightly around his knife hand. He cut into the cactus and jumped back in surprise as thick red fluid oozed from the cut.  The coyotes were now whipped into a frenzy, their howls sounding like sexual moans. 

Josh looked at Beth to see if she too had seen the cactus bleed. She had.  He went back to her and they scanned the top of the arroyo. 

“Josh, we have to get out of here!” she said through cracked lips. 

“I know hon…”

“No. We have to get out of here now! I can’t stop seeing that cave drawing. I have to go.”

Josh held his wife firmly to keep her from fleeing aimlessly.  She was pulling away, screaming obscenities, and imbued with the strength that comes with fight or flight. 

Josh was stronger but she was desperate. She grabbed the knife from Josh’s hand and struck him across the arm with the open blade. 

Josh looked in disbelief as rose petal patterns of red formed around the deep gash on his arm.  And Beth, seeing what she had done, threw the knife down and fell to her knees.   Josh knelt beside his wife and held her head to his chest. 

“Oh God, Josh.  I’m so, so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry for him, Missy BB,” came a voice from the cactus. Beth and Josh jumped to their feet.

The cactus was transforming into the old man. It had uprooted itself from the dirt on spiny limbs that were quickly turning into skinny bowed legs. It lumbered toward Beth and Josh. The creature kept backing them toward the fire, his movements as graceful and predatory as the coyote’s.  The smell of urine assailed their senses.

The cactus arms shriveled, the spines replaced with fine hair, the arms became fleshy. Where Josh had cut the cactus he saw a gash and blood that healed before his eyes. Josh saw a bleeding cut on the old man’s arm that healed before his eyes. Before he could become a man the arms turned sinewy and the bib overalls turned to filthy black fur. The hands began to stretch and grow great claws.  His nose and upper lip began to flatten and then protrude until his jaws were like those of the huge coyote that had trapped them in the Trading Post. With each step closer, he became more coyote than man, larger than a man, until at last he stood before them as man-animal, half coyote and half man. 

Beth watched this transformation in horror.  Her mind began to slip, to lose the slender thread of sanity that remained.  She felt her legs giving up on their own.  And her heart felt as if it were made of clay, refusing to pump life-giving blood.  She was totally helpless, and no one on earth could help her.

But just as she felt herself sinking down onto the earth beside the huge fire, she felt a presence that she hadn’t felt for many years.  A presence that used to be as much a part of her, as her own being.  Even in her state of fear, her heart started again, and she looked around. Twins shared a connection that went beyond science. It wasn’t wishful thinking. Bonnie was here.  Close by.  And though her sane mind knew that was impossible, that Bonnie had died from that car crash many years ago, the other part of her was just as sure Bonnie was near. She had seen her sisters ghost many times soon after the accident and was always afraid of it. And then it had departed. But she was here, and Beth felt at peace. Unafraid.

Josh felt his stop backing away from the creature and he knew he had to do something, but what?

“Beth,” he said, tugging on his wife’s arm as she sat the ground.  “I think I know how to stop him.  But I need you to distract him somehow.”

But Beth was unresponsive.  She seemed to be in a trance, maybe under the spell of the Yenaldlooshi already.  Josh looked around for a real weapon. The knife was no good.  There was nothing nearby except the fire. 

The Yenaldlooshi moved forward again, opened his great jaws, teeth bristling sharp, and loosed a wail that should have immobilized any living thing with fear.  But Josh wasn’t afraid anymore.  He was in the zone. He had a plan.  And if you have a plan, you still have a chance.  Josh reached for one of the small logs from the fire.  His plan was to fight with it, but a voice coming from behind the Yenaldlooshi stopped him from hurling the flaming timber.  

The voice said, “You can’t hurt us you smelly old fart.” 

The skinwalker turned in confusion to see another Beth standing close. It turned its head back and there in front of him was Beth on the ground beside her pathetic husband. 

“Don’t turn your back on me,” the voice demanded angrily, and a blow landed on the coyotes head. 

The Yenaldlooshi howled in rage.  No one had ever struck him before.  No one had dared.  But there she was, smiling, holding fist sized rocks that littered the ground here. 

“Come and get me, jerk,” the second Beth said, and backed slowly away. 

A soul rending shriek pierced the night as the Yenaldlooshi turned his total attention on this fool that would dare to taunt him.  He was as old as the earth itself.  He had taken millions of souls, and eaten as many living, pumping hearts.  He would have this one’s as well. 

Josh stared in amazement.  One minute he thought the skinwalker was going to attack them, and the next it turned away as if it were being attacked.  When the skinwalker turned its back and began to walk away Josh swung the burning log with all his might at the coyote’s back.  The blow itself did little damage, but the fire spread quickly and burst into flames that spewed yellow and orange droplets of fire onto the surrounding earth. 

A primal scream escaped from deep inside the coyote and its head transformed into the old man’s. In the old man’s cracked voice it yelled “No-ooo!” It staggered a few steps forward, and changed rapidly between coyote, cactus, old man and finally coyote. It bared its teeth at Josh and charged forward.  

Josh picked up another flaming stick and swung it back and forth holding the coyote back.  Seeing the coyote has a weakness he lost his fear, rushed forward and hit the man-beast. Red and green pus oozed from the places the blows landed and the Yenaldlooshi howled and screamed and thrashed around, engulfed in flames.

The other coyotes formed a line across the top of the arroyo and they now began working their way down the arroyo walls, stealthily approaching, then rushing and encircling the Yenaldlooshi, snarling and snapping at the burning creature.  

The Yenaldlooshi glared at Josh and Beth with unearthly eyes, as his flaming body was ripped and chewed by the growing pack of animals.  Through all this a voice chanted in a tongue so ancient that it predated any known language.  And as Josh watched, unable to tear his eyes away from the grisly scene, the Yenaldlooshi smiled and lay still.

Josh pulled Beth along the arroyo floor, away from the burning screams, away from the coyotes. 

“Snap out of it, Beth,” he yelled, “we have to go!  Now!”

She looked up at Josh with tears in her eyes.  “I saw her, Josh.  I saw my sister. It was Bonnie.”

“We have to go, honey,” he said, and half dragged, half guided her up a slope.  They ran until the sounds, both animal and Yenaldlooshi, were far in the distance.  They stopped and breathed in the cool night air, as they looked back along their path, back to where the fire had been. It was dark and there was no sign of a fire anymore. Outside of a welcome cool breeze, nothing was moving. 

Beth turned to Josh and put her hands on his face, patting him, assuring herself that they were really here; that they had gotten away. 

“Is it really over?” she asked softly, not daring to take her eyes from her husband lest he disappear in a puff of smoke. 

Josh pointed over her shoulder. 

Beth turned to look and not ten yards away was the Jeep.  How they had managed to find their vehicle in their panic wasn’t a question she would worry about today.  But there was one thing she had to know.

“How did you know the fire would stop him?”

Josh reached around and pulled the book from the waistband of his jeans.  Beth giggled almost hysterically at the idea that he had held onto that book with all that was going on.  Josh guessed what she was thinking and smiled.

“The book said that sometimes skinwalkers hide their vital organs in plants,” he explained.  “And to kill them, you have to destroy the plant. When he turned from cactus to coyote I just knew.”  He scratched the back of his neck as he always did when he was pondering something.  “But I couldn’t have even tried it if we hadn’t gotten lucky and the Yenaldlooshi was distracted by something.”

“That wasn’t luck,” Beth said and looked back toward the arroyo one last time. Her sister stood there, smiling. They didn’t need to speak. The love of sisters although unspoken, was something she’d cherish forever.

EPILOGUE

Their Jeep was just as it was when they’d first pulled into the Trading Post.  The gas tank showed a little over a quarter tank of gas. The engine started on the first try.  The Trading Post and the gas pump were gone.  There was not a shred of evidence the Trading Post had ever existed. 

Josh shifted into drive and slowly pulled away through a narrow dirt path that had reappeared and led them to State Highway 666.  

“No one will ever believe us,” she said.

“D’ya say something, hon?”  He was already writing the book in his mind. 

“Never mind honey but do me one favor.”

“Un-huh.” Maybe he would get a Netflix contract. Jack Nicholson could play the old man. 

“Stop at the next city. No more out of the way places.  Alright?”

“D’ya say something hon?” Ben Affleck should play his part.  Jennifer Lopez could be Beth. Maybe he’d get to meet Jennifer Lopez.  Cool!

As the Jeep pulled onto State Highway 666 and sped towards the little town of Sanostee, New Mexico, a lone coyote stood at the edge of an arroyo watching them. The sun had just started its lazy trip into the morning sky, the mountains in the background shimmered with hues of pink and blue.  The coyote licked the sticky brown fluid from it’s snout and whimpered.  There wasn’t a trace of the Yenaldlooshi left.  The pack had eaten every morsel and lapped up every drop of sticky fluid. 

The coyote gave an involuntary shudder, and pointing it’s long snout to the sky, it loosed a painful wail as a knurled hand emerged from its throat, flexing, reaching.  The coyote’s howl changed, sounding more like words now.  But not any words known to mankind. 

THE END

THE CHAIR by E. M. Duesel

Photo by Pixabay.com

It was mid-October and the leaves on the trees were turning their vibrant colors of yellow, orange and red.  Usually fall is regarded as the beginning of the end, but in Stacey McKinney’s eyes, it was the beginning of a most anticipated life.  She graduated from the local university last spring with a degree in Journalism and worked at the Dairy Mart over the summer while she sent out resumes.  Last week the position of junior reporter at the Country Star came knocking at her door and she got the job.  It was a good start, and the pay was enough for her to strike out on her own, over the protest of her parents.

       That fine Friday morning, she and her best friend, Maggie Turner, set out to explore secondhand shops and any leftover seasonal garage and yard sales.  The goal was to find furniture to fill Stacey’s new apartment.  They went from store to store and sale to sale finding nothing.  Ready to give up, they discovered one last shop which was bursting with odd pieces.  Its setting produced recollections of all things past that exuded character and seemed to trigger bizarre imprints upon shoppers.

       They went up one row and down another and were stopped in the furniture area by a curious recliner.  Its design appeared to be askew, but when Stacey sat in it, she was overwhelmed by comfort and security.  Even though the color was bright orange and in some places the upholstery was a little threadbare, the price was right.  The chair just seemed to call out to her.

       The girls approached the checkout counter with giggling enthusiasm.  The owner, who was as peculiar as the store asked, “Is this the first furniture purchase you’ve ever made?”

       “Yes, it is and it’s the first piece of furniture that will go into my first apartment.”  Stacey beamed with pride.

       “All things have a story.  It is a unique piece and will require respect and attention.”  The store owner eyed Stacey with skeptical curiosity.

       Maggie piped in, “What do you mean?  It’s a chair.”  The girls snickered.

       “Hmm … you should always be grateful for things in your life and value them for what benefits they still have left to give.  You never know when fortune will turn on you.”

       Wanting to escape the ominous conversation, Stacey said, “I will … it’s all good.”

       After the purchase was made, the tug of war began to get the chair into Maggie’s SUV.  The chair seemed to control the efforts of fitting it into the car.  If it didn’t like the way the girls pushed it, the reclining end flipped out.  If they were too forceful, one of them got a finger jammed.  The peculiar conversation with the store owner haunted them and it affected the way the girls perceived the chair.  With pinched fingers and bruised arms, they were at last able to get it into Stacey’s apartment.  It looked lovely by the window, and because it was her first piece of furniture, Stacey chose to decorate her new home around its wild orange color.

       The first weekend at her apartment Stacey breathed in newfound freedom.  There was no one to answer to; no curfews and drinking could happen without the monitoring of concerned parents.  So, a small housewarming was planned.  As it so happened, there was a new guy who bumped into Stacey at lunch the week before and he also was extended an invitation.

       People started to arrive including Stacey’s new friend, Braden Adams.  One at a time, guests sat in the chair to try it out as it had an aura that beckoned them, but none of them stayed in it very long as they preferred the pillows strewn on the floor.  However, Braden did stay in the chair.  He found it interesting. The gaudy color and its uncommon design mesmerized him.  Although he made friends with the chair, he did not fit in with Stacy’s group.  He disrespected her home by spilling his drink on the floor in a drunken stupor, he kicked the refrigerator door closed, and wiped his hands on the chair after eating some Cheetos.  He laughed when someone brought his boorish manners into question saying that the chair was so orange; no one would notice it anyway.

       As the night progressed the partygoers left one by one, leaving Braden behind alone with Stacey.  He got out of the chair and grabbed Stacey and kissed her.  Plopping back down in the chair he pulled her with him.  They reclined back and Braden got aggressive.  As if having a mind of its own, the recliner’s extension dropped down on Braden’s ankle trapping it in the space between the chair and the kick bar.  It wouldn’t loosen, but instead increased its grip.

       “Stacey, get me out of this damn chair!  Goddamn, it hurts.  I think my ankle is broken.”

       “I’m trying.  It won’t budge.  I’ll get help.”  Stacey ran out of her apartment to her neighbor’s.  They returned with a crowbar.  As soon as the crowbar touched the chair, the clutch released, and Braden’s ankle was free.  It was swollen double its normal size and Stacey and her neighbor had to take him to the emergency room.

       The next day, Maggie popped over to check on Stacey intending to help her clean up after last night’s party.  “Hey, how did it go with Braden?”

       Stacey, still tired from the overnight escapade to the hospital, described in detail the strange events that followed the party.  “Honestly, Mags, I could not get the chair to loosen the hold it had on Braden’s ankle.  It was like it wanted to hurt him.”

       “Please tell me you don’t like that jerk.  I say yay to the chair.  He is not a keeper.”

       Stacey laughed, “It’s true.  What a supreme assaholic.  He came on to me fast and furious, and when he got too familiar, the chair kind of … attacked him.”

       The girls laughed at what seemed to them a piece of dumb luck believing Braden got what he deserved.  It took all day to clean the apartment, and plans were made for the next party.  Halloween was closing in and because of her fascination with the macabre, and since it was her favorite holiday, Stacey wanted to host a gathering of ghouls.  They sat on the floor with their glasses of wine and lists of things to do.  An icy chill traveled passed them.

       “Whoa!  Did you feel that?”  Maggie’s face whitened.

       “Yeah … it’s probably nothing.  Just an apartment quirk I need to get used to.”

       “Okay … well … do you want to explain why the chair is rocking by itself?”

        Both girls crawled close to each other.  The chair was indeed rocking on its own.  It kept it up for about ten seconds and then stopped.  They looked at each other and rolled on the floor laughing at the thought of being so naive.  They chalked it up to the wine, the apartment’s air flow, and their active imaginations.

       Monday morning came around and Stacey was late for work.  She had misplaced her cell phone, and without her phone her job was impossible.  Frantic and hurried, her phone ringer went off near the chair.  When she got closer, she realized that it was tucked down into the side of the recliner.  This was curious as neither Maggie nor Stacey wanted to sit in it after what happened to Braden, so she had no idea how her phone ended up in the chair.  With that query lingering, Stacey left the apartment to go to work.

       On her way to an interview, her cell phone pinged.  Stacey checked the message.  It read, “Beware of BA.”

       She immediately texted Maggie.  “Did you just text me?”

       “No, why?”

       “Nothing.  Stop by later.”  Stacey was now feeling frightened.  There were no people who knew both Braden and her, so she was perplexed as to who sent the message and how they got her number.  She wanted her day to be over.  The unknown message unnerved her, and she needed to solve the mystery.

       Her workday seemed to drag on, so Stacey was glad to be home.  She opened the door to her apartment.  To her amazement, the chair was moved away from the window to the other side of the room.  Behind her running footsteps startled her.

       “Hey.  What’s going on?”  Maggie came right after work.

       “Things are getting very creepy.”  Stacey stepped aside to reveal the chair.

       “Oh, did you decide to move it?”

       “Uh … no.  I came home to it like this.  Then there is the text message I got.”

       “What text message?”  Maggie was confused.

        “Today.  I got a text message telling me to beware of BA.  Here let me show you.”  Stacey tried to find the message, but it was no longer in her phone.  “Okay, now I’m really freaked.”

       “BA.  You mean like Braden Adams?  Do you think he sent it to scare you?”

       “I don’t know.  But, if he did, how did he get to my phone to erase the message?  I haven’t seen or heard from him since the party.  Listen, can you spend the night with me?  I am really spooked.  I feel like I’m in the middle of a Halloween sequel.”

       Maggie laughed.  “Yeah.  Come with me to pick up some things for tomorrow.”

       Just the break from the scene at the apartment was enough to set things right again.  They were still at a loss as to how the chair got moved, but that was a puzzle for another day.  The friends got Chinese take-out and picked up another bottle of wine.  When they got back to the apartment, they ate and made further plans for the Halloween party.  Well mellowed, they went to bed and fell fast asleep.

        In the middle of the night, Stacey awoke to something moving around in her living room.  She shook Maggie.  “Mags wake up.  Someone is in the living room.”

        Sitting up in bed, the girls held their breath.  Visions of Braden armed with a butcher knife played with their minds.  They heard a low moaning and a rubbing noise; then a creaking like someone was rocking in the chair.  The creaking stopped, but the sound of footsteps made their way closer and closer to the bedroom door sending chills down their spines.  They stopped right outside the door.  The girls clung to their blankets and each other.  Hampered breathing could be heard from the other side as if whatever it was, was deciding whether to enter.  Afraid to move, Stacey and Maggie sat straight up in bed for what seemed like forever.  The door never opened, the footsteps stopped, and the breathing died out.

       Lying back in the bed, relieved but still frozen with fear, Stacey said, “Let’s go out and check to see what it is?”

       “You know what?  Let’s just count our blessings and wait until morning.”  Maggie was the practical one.

       “Maybe we should call the police?”

       “And report what.  We heard creaking in the living room?  No, let’s just wait it out until morning.”

       “No, no.  We need to see …” Stacey was altogether too eager to flirt with this unknown danger.

       “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?  I’m not going out there.”

       Over Maggie’s whispered protests, Stacey got out of bed and slowly tip-toed her way to the door.  Putting her ear next to it, she listened.  There was nothing.  She turned the doorknob to open it.

       “Stacey, don’t open it!”  Maggie couldn’t believe what Stacey was doing.

       There was a hard knock on the door, and it slammed shut sending Stacey careening back to her bed landing on Maggie.  They were beyond terrified, but Stacey loved the thrill.  As they clung to one another the door creaked slowly open.  A mist floated in and drifted in front of the bed where the girls held their breath in shock, and then it shifted towards the dresser mirror.  The reflection of an old woman appeared.  Stacey and Maggie screamed in terror and ran out of the room and out of the apartment.

       Still in their pajamas, they went to sit in Maggie’s car until morning, but they realized that her car was locked, and the keys were in her purse in the apartment.  It was freezing cold.  There was no other choice but to go back into the apartment to get the keys.

       “Alright, look.  We go together.  My purse is near the door, so it shouldn’t be so bad.”  Maggie tried to convince herself that everything was okay.

       “Yeah, okay.  We go together.”  Stacey agreed.

        When they got to the stoop to the front door, hanging from the doorknob were Maggie’s keys still on the lanyard where she kept them.  No purse, but the keys were there for the taking.  The night held no end of freakishness.  Whatever it was, it seemed to know their every movement and thought, and it just kicked them out.  It was Stacey and Maggie’s very own little nightmare, and Stacey was getting a weird form of delight from it.

       Morning found the two huddled together in the back of the SUV.  Still charged with trepidation, they worked up the nerve to go back into the apartment.  To their astonishment, the chair was once again moved next to the window.  It had a washcloth hanging over one arm and the mark left by Braden’s fingers from his Cheetos revelry was gone; rubbed away by the wash cloth which had the telltale signs of orange Cheetos powder on it.  Everything was like it had been the first time Stacey arranged her apartment around the chair.

       Because of her attraction to the paranormal, Stacey had heard of a local woman with extrasensory gifts.  She called her that afternoon and arranged for a meeting in the apartment for later in the evening.  Normally, Maggie would have balked at the idea of a psychic, but last night convinced her that something was amiss, and she was more than curious.

       On her way to another interview for the newspaper, Stacey was engrossed in her notes.  A man’s hand grabbed her arm and pulled her backward.  She spun around to be face to face with Braden Adams.

       “Braden, I thought you broke your ankle.”

       “Uh, no.  It’s pretty banged up, put I can still walk … or, you know, limp.”

       “Oh, well.  Glad to hear it.  I have to go; I have an interview.”

       He held onto her arm. “Umm … maybe we can get together sometime.”

       “Listen, I don’t think so.”  Braden was no longer attractive to Stacey.  She wondered how she never noticed it before, but he was pushy and had an arrogance that was not at all attractive.

        Still holding on to her, Braden threatened, “No, we’ll see each other again.  I know it.”

       “Let me go, Braden … now.”  Stacey lifted her high-heeled shoe aiming at his injured ankle, and he let go of her arm.

       “I won’t always have this limp, you know.  Just biding my time, Stace.  Someday you will look over your shoulder and I’ll be there.”

       “Don’t bet on it.”  That’s all Stacey needed right now.  She was still creeped out by the crazy stuff going on in her home.  Braden Adams was the least of her worries.

       Evening set in and Stacey and Maggie were ready.  For what, they weren’t sure, but something had to be explained.  Sierra Cummings was a well-known psychic in the area who had an interview with the newspaper and that’s how Stacey knew how to contact her.

       As they all met in front of the apartment, Sierra grew quiet.  “She’s beckoning me. There is definitely something going on.  Let’s go in.  She’s waiting.”

       Maggie and Stacey gave each other a stunned look and followed Sierra in.  Not missing a beat, Sierra sat down in the chair.  The girls were intrigued.  After a few minutes of silent meditation, she got up and cleansed the space with sage and lit white candles.  She said a prayer and then motioned to the girls.

       “Come sit with me ladies.  Hold hands.  Myra has a message for you.  Clear your minds of all that bothers you … take some deep breaths.”  A few more minutes passed, and Sierra began to speak.  “Myra Schultz was the owner of this chair.  She wants you to understand its importance and why she haunts it.  She became a widow in her middle age.  Her life spun out of control after her husband died because he was the breadwinner and she was a homemaker.  He didn’t have life insurance and he died too soon, leaving her with nothing.  They had no children, so she soon became homeless.  Not on the street, homeless, but she still had to live with various members of her family until she got on her feet.  She says that people don’t know what it’s like not having a space to call your own.  You are forced to rely on others for food, heat, electricity and even toilet paper.  It was a horrible experience for her, and she swore that when she got on her feet, the first thing she would buy for her home was a chair to call her own.  This chair became her space to be.  It was hers and hers alone.  She cared for it because it was a symbol of her personal freedom from a life of reliance on other people, and to her it was sacrosanct.  It was her place to feel comfort and secure when the world threatened her.  She needs for it to be respected.  If she can trust that you can do that, she will go into the light.”

       “I get that, but why did she scare us to death last night?”  Stacey was confused by this sweet spirit.

       “She cannot control her energy and she is very worried and wants to warn you about a young man that was here during a party you had.”  Sierra jerked into a trance and her voice aged and weakened.  “… he … is … bad … he is dangerous … he wants to hurt you … hurt you.  Don’t let him near you! He has raped … killed others … beware of him … he is coming for you. Follow the roses …”

       “Holy crap.”  Maggie shuttered, and her words broke the trance.

       “How then?  How can he be stopped?”  Stacey was concerned, especially after her encounter with Braden earlier.

       “Well, she’s gone now.”  Sierra was frustrated and wasn’t sure whether that Myra crossed over. But there was a more desperate situation going on here.

       “Sierra, Myra’s message is true.  Braden ambushed me this afternoon in front of the newspaper office.  I was on my way to an interview and he practically threatened me.”

       “You didn’t tell me that, Stacey.”  Maggie was surprised.

       “I didn’t have time.  Listen, I’m worried.  What could Myra have meant by follow the roses?” Stacey pleaded with Sierra.

       “I don’t know.  But she gave you that message, so she wants you to stay away from him, or… catch him and stop him.”

       The next day, Stacey researched any rapes or murders that involved a rose.  She discovered police reports that had been kept quiet which clearly described three rape/murders where a rose was left behind by the killer.  Her predicament was how to alert the police to Braden Adams without sounding ridiculous.  It didn’t seem likely that she could work with law enforcement.  Braden was out in the world lurking which petrified Stacey, mostly because he didn’t seem like the kind of predator that was ever discouraged.

       The Halloween party was the following Saturday.  Now that they thought they had rid it of its haunting, the apartment was a pleasure to live in the last few days, and Maggie and Stacey were excited for a good time.  The morning of the party came fast. The girls were out purchasing some dry ice for effect and other necessaries.  Their packages were heavy so they were distracted by how to carry everything into the apartment along with the hundred pounds of dry ice.  So, they didn’t see the dozen red roses left on Stacey’s kitchen table until all the items were unloaded.  The card read, See you soon.

       “How did he get in?”  Stacey’s heart pounded.

       “Stacey, I don’t know, but we should call the police.  This is too weird.”

       “No, no.  I can handle this jerk.”

       “You’re kidding, right?  Stacey …”

       “Just let me handle it.  I have Halloween on my side.”  Stacey laughed like the scary guy telling a horror story making Maggie chuckle and roll her eyes.

       Both girls supposed that Braden would show up at the party that night.  But, Stacey refused to divulge her plan, and Maggie’s skin crawled at Stacey’s present demeanor.  She didn’t believe Stacey had a plan at all but instead was spellbound by the idea of a murder and rapist attending the party.  It was as if she were someone else.  Stacey always loved the thrill of the unknown – like her willingness to get out of bed and confront the ghost on the other side of the door.  Her abnormal interest in all things creepy shook Maggie down to her core.

       Their costumes were fun.  Maggie dressed like a killer clown and Stacey was a dark fortune teller with long grisly nails and a big wart on her chin.  Everything was set up and ready to go.  Maggie watched as Stacey set up prank after prank all meant to terrify the living guts out of people.  Chilling screams were triggered when someone walked by certain figures that were motion activated, an automatic hand reached out and grabbed at people.  There was a bowl of fake worms and eyeballs floated in a jar.  Stacey’s infatuation with the macabre was intensifying, and it all kick started in response to Braden’s threats.

       The living room had drinks, and food, and music.  A werewolf, followed by a zombie came through the door, and party goers filed in dressed in everything from funny characters to frightening ones.  Maggie and Stacey scrutinized everyone, keeping a lookout for Braden.  He could have been any of them.

       Stacey’s bedroom was turned into a fortune telling den complete with Ouija board and tarot cards and Stacey reading palms.  As the night progressed, a group of guests asked her to conduct a séance with the spirit board.  Gathering around it, vampires, witches, clowns, and werewolves rubbed shoulders.  A Freddy hung back in the corner of the room decked out with a fedora and sharp cutlery.  Uneasy with this guy, Maggie and Stacey caught each other’s eye.

       An icy chill seeped into the area around the spirit board.  A little surprised, they all just went with it, and to Stacey it added to the intrigue.  The Ouija board spelled out, “beware of B A.”  Maggie looked around for a familiar entity.  Everything got eerie.  Freddy shifted uncomfortably in his corner.  Working wildly around the board, it spelled “… I w-a-r-n-e-d y-o-u … h-e i-s h-e-r-e …” The hodgepodge of ghouls was now stimulated by the intensity in the room.

       One asked, “Who is here?”

       The board spelled out “… rapist …”

       A chorus of “ugh” and “yikes” and “damn, this is creepy” were heard from around the table.  It caused such an uproar that when Maggie and Stacey looked for Freddy, he had left without detection.  He was nowhere to be seen.

       The pointer moved aggressively around the board in a circular motion throwing some hands off, while others clung to keep the spirit focused on her message.  “… he … will … be … back …”

       Stacey asked, “Who will be back?”

       “… B … A …”

       The commotion in Stacey’s bedroom attracted others from the living room.  It was jam-packed with interested guests.  So fixed on what was happening with the spirit board, no one saw the face of Freddy look through the bedroom window from outside.  No one except Myra, that is.

       “… he … is … here …”  The pointer continued and then dropped off the edge of the board pointing to the window.

       So hair-raising was this exchange with Myra on the spirit board that the energy in the room was electric.  They could have levitated something if they had tried.  Slight whimpers of, “God, this is creepy” to “I think I want to go home” were heard around the room.

       “Where is he?  Is he in this room?” Maggie wanted answers.

       “… outside …”  A rush of guests ran outside to look around.  There was no one there.  They agreed laughing that the spirit board was just a great hoax, and they abandoned it for the rest of the party.  Meanwhile, Maggie and Stacey stayed close to one another.

       As the party wound down, guests left one at a time, but Gemma, the last to leave and one who had a little too much to drink needed a ride home.  “Stace, you need to come with me.  You cannot stay here by yourself.”  Maggie was concerned about Myra’s warning.

       “I would, but what if he sneaks back in the apartment while we are gone?  Come on, it’s just a few blocks away.  Take Gemma home and come right back.  I should be okay.” Reluctantly, Maggie agreed and she guided a puking Gemma outside and left Stacey alone.

       The apartment looked like a cyclone hit, so Stacey locked the door, and she began the cleanup.  She moved some leftovers into the kitchen and wrapped them up for the refrigerator.  As she walked into the living room to retrieve more leftovers, a chill swept past her and the chair began to rock.  Then a hard knock sounded from the bedroom.  Stacey titillated by fear and adrenaline, walked into the bedroom.  Once there, the door slammed shut and Braden emerged from the shadows.

       “Braden, how did you get back into the apartment?”  Her fear was heightened.

       “When everyone came back in from trying to find me outside, I came back with them.  No one knew that I was the one your ghostly friend was hinting at.  I must admit, you had me going, too.  I mean, how did you know?”

       “She really is here.  That wasn’t me manipulating the board … and she is here right now.”  Stacey looked around for Myra.  “This would be a good time to show up, Myra.”

       Braden’s hand came from behind his back.  He dropped a rose on the bed next to Stacey, and then revealed the knife he had concealed in his other hand.  “Here, my love.  Something romantic before the fun.”  He grabbed her holding the knife to her throat and tearing open her top.

       A force came from behind and pulled Braden to the floor.  “What the hell!  How did you do that?”

       Stacey seized the opening and kicked Braden in his sore ankle.  As he struggled to get up, he was shoved down again by the unknown force.  He screamed at Stacey, “What is that?”

       “Her name is Myra, and you shouldn’t have messed with her chair.”

       Braden, whose ankle was pretty well battered, dragged himself to the door.  It slammed shut.  Stacey walked over to him and kicked him again.  “You know I always knew that some guys only think with their lower body parts.  Don’t you know how unattractive that makes you?”  Preparing to give him another swift kick, this time somewhere a little dearer to him, Maggie was heard pounding on the front door.  The bedroom door automatically opened to let Stacey through and then slammed shut again.

       Opening the front door, Stacey yelled, “He’s here … in the bedroom …”

       “Are you kidding?”  Questions filled Maggie’s head.

       “No, we need to call the police.  Myra has him locked in.”

       While Stacey was calling the police a confused Maggie’s face puckered, “What?”

       The police arrived and Stacey filed a police report for the assault.  She told them what she had found out in her research and gave them the rose and the knife for evidence.  Braden was carried out of the apartment in handcuffs by two police officers.

       The girls sat down on the floor of the living room and stared as the chair rocked back and forth.  When it stopped, they heard soft footsteps go into the bedroom.  The girls trailed after them. They saw Myra’s reflection in the dresser mirror.  She smiled, blew a kiss and faded away.

       After that night, both friends believed in the paranormal, but held a deep respect and gratitude for life’s gifts and they never forgot Myra and the help she gave them to avoid a murderer’s dark intentions.  The chair stayed with Stacey for a very long time under her careful protection.

The End

Soulthief by D. James Benton

Photo by Pixabay.com

“Come, my friends, and sit by the fire. Warm yourselves and I will tell you a story, a tale of darkness that will chill your blood…”

“The night is like an endless cave wherein hides strange things. A mere shadow in the day becomes a terror in the moonlight, solid as stone and able to kill the strongest of men. Even now, shadowy arms are reaching from the very depths of hell, grasping, straining, and hoping to devour one of us. Evil things sail upon these dark rivers and ply their mischief among the living. Only the campfire stands between them and us; so tend it well.”

“Such fiends are bound by day, yet free by night to feast upon the living. Return they must from whence they came, before the first ray of sunlight announces the coming dawn. Most, that is, except for one…a formless, ravenous hunger that dwelt here before the trees—even before the soil. It preceded every living thing, including death… waiting, aching for a soul, for it had not its own.”

Shauna paused for dramatic effect, making eye contact with each girl in turn. Nothing delighted her more than scaring the willies out of first-time campers. She had been doing this every summer for seven years and was a master. Of all her ghost stories, this was the very best and she saved it for the last night. So what if the kids couldn’t sleep. Their parents would gather them up in the morning. Shauna spread her hands and continued…

“The feasting started long ago in this very meadow. Peter, the oldest of three brothers, set off to seek his fortune—you know how that’s supposed to go. Too bad he rested beneath that now-great oak. Then it was only a sapling. In the morning travelers found Peter’s body. His eyes were open, staring into the distance. His heart was beating—thump, thump, thump—but his soul was gone. They buried him right here where we’re sitting.” Six first-time campers trembled and drew closer to the little fire.

“The second brother, James, went forth next to seek his fortune. Instead of winning the hand of some delicate princess, the young fool was rewarded with cold fingers about his throat and soon joined Peter in the ground beneath us. A woodsman was kind enough to bury James, but failed to close his eyes. Who knows? Perhaps the soul may someday return to the body, long cold in the dirt. Even that would be a better fate than stolen forever by the Soul Thief.” Jasmine whimpered and kicked several twigs back into the fire, hoping it would burn a little brighter.

“The third and last brother, John, was luckier than the other two. He died an insignificant soldier in a long-forgotten war. At least his soul went to heaven, though his body rotted in a ditch that he had dug with bare hands only the day before. So many nameless soldiers died on that distant battlefield that the gluttonous vultures shunned the harvest of human flesh.”

The first-time campers were all shaking, though the night was warm.
Shauna was most pleased with what was her best performance yet. As Shauna drew in a long breath, preparing to deliver the terrifying climax, Jasmine’s quavering voice broke the silence. “Where’s Stephanie?”

Fear quickly spread, as each girl counted… one, two, three, four, five
campers. Where is the sixth?

“She was just here,” Logan said. “She was sitting right next to me.”

“No, she was sitting next to me,” Riley insisted.

“The Soul Thief took her!” Alicia began to weep.

“We’re all going to die,” Jasmine whimpered pitifully. Even Shauna was alarmed by this development.

“Die of what?” Stephanie asked, stepping out of the darkness and into the dim light of the campfire.

“You got away!” Logan exclaimed. “How did you escape the Soul Thief?”

“I didn’t escape anything. I just had to pee,” Stephanie explained.

First one girl laughed, then another. Shauna was disappointed the tension had dissipated and wondered if she could regain it and continue the story. Eventually, the nervous laughter died out and the night was once more quiet. Shauna drew the campers in with her arms and prepared to deliver the climax with every fiber of her talent.

“With all three sons now dead and no hope in the world, the widow
breathed her last and released her immortal soul into the hands of god. The only daughter, Aurora, named for the dawn by her poor father upon his deathbed, was now alone in the world. When she had placed the last rock upon the new mound beside the one that marked the father’s resting place, Aurora set off to town in hopes of finding safety and a new life. Instead, she found only death, for her path led straight through this very meadow. Unaware, Aurora stood on this spot—one foot upon the grave of each brother.”

Stephanie let out a blood-curdling shriek. The campers jumped to their feet and for an instant Shauna tasted victory. But Stephanie wasn’t looking at Shauna or the fire. Stephanie was looking behind them toward the old oak, where a dark form laid stretched upon the grass. Shauna fumbled for the only flashlight, dropping it twice before switching on the beam. Logan’s lifeless eyes stared up at the night sky. The Soul Thief had claimed another. Six girls shook in terror—Shauna as much as any other. Alicia cautiously touched Logan’s face, but there was no response. Alicia quickly withdrew her hand and whispered, “She’s cold as stone.”

“And we’re next,” Stephanie muttered.

Shauna spoke through trembling lips—barely audible. “Stay here with Logan’s body while I go for help.” Shauna padded away, slowly at first, then running hysterically into the darkness, tears streaming down her face, calling,”Help us! Come quickly! Logan is dead!”

When Shauna’s panicked dash and cries faded into the night, another girl—unseen before this moment—leapt from behind the great oak tree and fell upon Logan. The two girls rolled around on the grass laughing convulsively. The other campers’ initial shock quickly gave way to curiosity. When Logan and the new girl regained some measure of composure, Logan spoke. “This is my older sister, Cassie. We’ve been planning and rehearsing this payback for three years. I think Shauna wet herself!”

The End