Hometown Excerpt #7 – Lazy Days

Hometown-title This is going to be the last excerpt from Hometown I’m going to be able to share here.  Any more, and I violate my terms of service with KDP Select (it doesn’t count as selling it exclusively through them if I’m giving it all away, after all), so I’m afraid you really will have to get the rest at Amazon.  And as always, while you’re there, check out the rest of my work.  You’ll like it if you like this.  I promise.

*

In this passage, we get our first real look at Belford’s underclass.  Granted, everyone we met at the field party was a member of that underclass, but that was, well, a party.  This is where we see how two girls from the trailer park have to deal with the way their surroundings and the people around them try to grind them down.

Sadly, Vicki and Val’s travails are neither made up nor exaggerated.  They’re based on the girls I discussed in this post: “In their world, this was the natural order of things. As girls, they were legal prey, especially if they lived in the trailer park and wore too much makeup and tight clothes, and had zero social status.”

That’s the time and place Vicki and Val live in.  But they’re tough and brave anyway.  I think that’s why I love them.

*

 Lazy Days

“Hey, Val!” Vicki shouted, hammering on the door of the beige trailer. “Get your fat ass up off that couch and let me in!” The door flew open almost immediately, revealing her best friend in the whole world since Kindergarten, Valerie Robard.

Physically, Valerie Robard was as different from her friend as it was possible to be. She was short, coming to Vicki’s shoulder, and her chubbiness and round face contrasted against Vicki’s faerie-slenderness. Her eyes were muddy brown, and her hair, which reached to the middle of her back, would have been as well, if it hadn’t still been showing the fading effects of a clumsy attempt to give herself blond highlights. She wore black shorts and a T-shirt, both of which were really too tight for her. The shorts were simply old, but Val was in the habit of wearing tight shirts. They showed off her large breasts, which she considered to be her primary asset. Of course, she wasn’t trying to show off for Vicki in any way. She was just used to wearing tight shirts. Today’s showed an open, shapely pair of female legs, in between which was the caption: Sex Lessons – First Time Free.

“Morning, Cow,” Vicki grinned.

“Come on in, Bitch.” Val replied.

*

Vicki sighed in relief as she entered the cool dimness of the Robard trailer. The ancient air conditioner was rattling and whirring, clearly in the process of choking to death, but it was worth it for even a bit of relief from the baking heat.

The trailer was overstuffed with secondhand furniture, pieces chosen from among their fellows at the Goodwill because they had the fewest number of cigarette burns. Val’s older brother’s socks and T-shirt were flung over the back of a couch, and the dishes (which were Val’s responsibility to clean) were stacked high in the sink. The smell of cigarette smoke saturated every inch of carpet, furniture…even the Seventies-era faux-wood paneling on the walls.

Vicki loved it. She spent as much time here as she could. It was her sanctuary.

“So how are you doing, slut?” she asked.

“I’m doin’ good. How’re you, whore?” Val replied.

“Fine. Tramp.”

“Pig.”

“Harlot.”

“Cunt.”

“Trollop.”

“Uh…slut.”

Vicki grinned in triumph. “No repeats. Strumpet.”

“God damn it, Vick!” Val cursed. “You reading Shakespeare again?”

Vicki’s grin just became mysterious as well as smug, and Valerie shook her head in exasperation. “Sit your overused ass down,” she said. “You want anything? I was just eating breakfast.”

“Is it still called breakfast at one?” Vicki asked as she pulled a chair out from the kitchen table, spun it around and sat down astride it.

Valerie shrugged. “You want something, or not?”

“Nah, that’s okay. I ate already. Got a cigarette?”

“Sure.” Valerie picked an open pack of cigarettes up from the table and held it out. Vicki took one, then took her lighter out of her pocket while Valerie sat back down at the table and tried to finish her bowl of Apple Jacks before they became so soggy that they started to fall apart – a hopeless task.

Vicki blew out a long jet of smoke as she watched Valerie with well-concealed envy. Wish I really had eaten breakfast. Thank God for these things, or I’d never get by.

Valerie finished her bowl of cereal, then sat back in her chair, letting her spoon drop into the discolored milk with a plunk. “So…Vick…Whussup? You said you had something too freaky to tell me over the phone.”

“That’s right.” Vicki leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know Mandy Woodlawn?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, her uncle is a cop. And he called her last night, and told her—you know Lila Benson?”

Val shrugged. “I had gym class with her for a couple years back in middle school, see her around playing hackey sack at lunch time, but I never got to know her very well. Why?”

“Mandy’s uncle, the cop, told her that they found Lila’s body last night.”

“Holy shit,” Val breathed. “Lila’s dead? Aw, man…what the hell happened? Nobody tells me anything.”

Vicki took another drag, tapped out the ash and made herself comfortable to tell the tale. “Looks like she and Jeremy Zerschmitt went up to Black Lake to go parking,“ she began.

Val shuddered. “Yecch.”

Vicki cocked an eyebrow at her. “What?”

“Jeremy Zerschmitt is a dick.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He’s always calling me fat, and he’s always snapping my bra,” Val growled. “One time he actually snuck up and honked my boobs right in the middle of the hallway.”

“Well, it looks like he’s not gonna be doing that anymore,” Vicki replied. “Anyway, it looks like some psycho caught them with their pants down and damn near tore Lila apart.”

Val’s jaw dropped, and her cigarette grew a long ash as it hung, forgotten, above the ashtray. “Oh, my God,” she gasped. Then her brows knitted. “But how do they know it wasn’t Jeremy who did it?”

“ ‘Cause he’s a little pussy,” Vicki answered. “The killer was real strong. They’re expecting to find him at the bottom of the lake any time now.”

Val leaned forward eagerly. “Do they have any idea who it is, then?”

Vicki shook her head. “None. And they’re scared about it. They’ve already closed off Black Lake, and they’ve got signs up all over town telling people they shouldn’t be out after nightfall and to stay in groups. I hear they’re even talking about a curfew.”

Val scowled. “That would suck,” she complained, tapping the long ash out into the ashtray.

“I know,” Vicki agreed. “But I can’t say that I blame them—for once,” she added hastily when she saw the incredulous look on Val’s face. “They’re not used to shit like this. They’re used to bar fights and drunk drivers and hauling in Corey Latham for busting windows at the high school again, not finding themselves in the middle of friggin’ Friday the 13th.”

“Was it that bad?” Val asked, amazed at Vicki’s unheard-of demonstration of sympathy for authority.

“They say even Chief Cruz had trouble keeping his tacos down. They’re still looking for pieces of her.”

Val shuddered. “Damn,” she cursed softly. “I didn’t like Jeremy, but I wouldn’t have wished that on him.”

Vicki nodded in agreement. “The only person I would wish that on is Rodney.”

Val sighed and ground out her cigarette. She’d heard this opening before. Time for a new topic. She didn’t particularly mind letting the old one go. It had just occurred to her that she lived right on the edge of the woods, and she didn’t particularly want to think about that right now. “What’d he do this time?”

Vicki snuffed her own cigarette with a look of disgust, though Val couldn’t tell whether her friend’s disgust was directed at Rodney or herself. Maybe both. “Same damn thing as usual.”

Val couldn’t completely hide her disappointment. “Again?”

Vicki nodded, scowling.

“If you hate him so much, why do you keep hooking up with him?” Valerie asked.

“Well, this one wasn’t completely my fault,” Vicki defended herself. “I was lonely, I was horny, and I was drunk—“ She paused. “Come to think of it, Rodney was the one who made sure my cup was always full, especially after Bud wandered off. Anyway, one minute I’m jumping over the fire, next thing I know I’m in the back of Rodney’s car with my jeans around my ankles.” She shook her head, and the disgust on her face was clearly for herself this time. “Stupid. Still, at least he used a rubber, so I can just forget it ever happened.”

Val looked uneasy. “But remember that assembly, where they said if a girl’s really drunk, then it counts as…well…” She squirmed uncomfortably. She didn’t want to say it out loud.

“What, rape?” Vicki snorted. Val winced. “You know that’s bullshit. It’s just something that happens at parties.”

Val shrugged. “I guess you’re right.”

“I probably wouldn’t mind so much if he wasn’t such a minute man,” Vicki groused. “But as it is…fuck it.” She shook her head and waved it away like smoke. “I just want to forget about it.”

“Okay.”

Vicki grinned wanly. “It was still a pretty awesome party.” She chuckled. “Had a couple close calls—fifth time I jumped over the fire, I nearly fell in. Jake Riester did—good thing it was burning low and he had his boots on so he could run right over top of it. Still singed his jeans.” She sat there thoughtfully for a moment, then something occurred to her. “So why weren’t you there?”

“Got my period. You know how it knocks me flat on my ass for a day or so.”

“Oh. Yeah, if it was as bad as it usually is, then you wouldn’t have had much fun.”

“Worse. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been so happy to have my period get here.”

“I know what you’re talking about. That’s great news. You were what, more than a week late?”

Val nodded, taking another cigarette.

“Scary, isn’t it?”

Val nodded vigorously, holding the unlit cigarette to her lips with one hand, her lighter in the other.

“I been there. So…” Vicki leaned across the table, grinning conspiratorially. “Would Phil have been worth it?”

Valerie rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Four minutes in the back seat? I don’t think so.” Then she grinned back, and leaned toward Vicki. “You know how he has real small hands and feet? Wears a size seven shoe?”

“Yeah?”

“You know what they say about hands and feet? Well, it’s true. He’s got maybe four inches. I didn’t feel a damn thing.” She scowled. ” I got used that night, Vick.”

“Yeah. Tell me about it. I been there, too.” Vicki reached for another cigarette, plucking one from the open package in the middle of the table.

“You know, I oughtta start charging you for all of those things you take from me.”

“But Val,” Vicki protested, putting on her most innocent face, “I’m just looking out for you. You know these things are bad for you, so I’m just taking the cancer that was meant for you.” She reached out and pinched Val’s cheek.

“You’re a true friend.” Val replied sourly, rubbing her face.

Vicki lit the cigarette and took a puff. “Besides, Bitch, if I charged you for all the smokes I’ve given you over the years, I think you’d come out owin’ me!

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So!” Vicki continued. “I never got around to asking – didn’t you have anything with you?”

“Funny thing is, I had it right in my back pocket. I just forgot about it.”

Vicki snorted derisively.

“Bastard probably wouldn’t’ve worn it anyway!” Val defended herself.

Vicki had to agree with that. She knew Phil. He was no more stubborn or self-centered than the other guys she knew in most ways, but he did have that one quirk. He took particular pride in his refusal to ever wear a condom. In his own words: “Ain’t no rubber gonna be havin’ the fun ‘stead’a me!”

“Yeah, guess you’re right.” She admitted.

” ‘Course, if I hadn’t been drunk, I would’ve just told him to fuck off if he wouldn’t, or maybe thought of something else to do.”

“Weren’t you the one who was just talking about – “

“Oh, I was going to bone him anyway,” Val said. “It’s just that he got away with shit that he wouldn’t have if I was thinking.”

Val was getting into her topic, and Vicki sat back allowing her to take over the conversation. It was Val’s turn to get the shit off her chest. “I haven’t been that scared in a long time, Vick. Why the hell did my period choose this time to be a week late? For a whole week I was sure…absolute, drop-dead sure that I was gonna end up like Cindy Brown.”

“What’s happening with them, anyway?” Vicki interrupted. “I haven’t seen her since she dropped out in April.”

“Their parents are making them get married,” Val answered. “Can you imagine how much that would suck? With Phil? It’s like God’s trying to tell me something. Do you think that’s it?”

Vicki stood up abruptly, laying her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. “I’ll be right back, okay? I just gotta get something from my car.” Before Val could reply, Vicki had darted out the door. She returned a moment later with a stuffed platypus in her hands.

“Oh, Vick! For me?”

“His name is Webber.” Vicki offered, holding the toy out.

Val took it and hugged it gleefully. “Oh, thank you!”

“I was kinda worried about you, too.” Vicki said with a shrug. “Besides, if you really were pregnant…well, every kid oughtta have a stuffed animal.”

*

Vicki stayed at Valerie’s house for the rest of the day. When they were done venting, they moved to the living room to watch Val’s new tape of Disney’s Aladdin. Vicki sang along with most of the songs, but her favorite didn’t even have its own name when she checked the soundtrack:

Riffraff

Street rat

I don’t buy that

If only they’d look closer

Would they see a poor boy?

Nosiree.

They’d find out

There’s so much more

To me.

Val sat beside her while she sang, silently envying her friend’s voice. It was a sweet and clear – if untutored – soprano. Considering how much she smoked, it was nothing short of a miracle that Vicki’s voice was undamaged, but it was. After that, they played cards, compared notes about various guys they knew, played with Rex, the Robard family dog, sunbathed – a foolish idea for Vicki, one that she would pay for that night with a bad sunburn, but she didn’t care – and just generally hung out. They even made S’mores over a campfire that they made in the fire pit that the Robards had behind their house for that very purpose.

*

It was late when Vicki finally left, and it was pretty dark. Clouds had covered the moon and stars, and it was foggy again.

Hm. Two nights in a row. Must be because it’s getting so cold at night…but then, why is it doing that, either?

Valerie lived in a trailer a little ways out in the woods from Belford. Vicki lived right on the edge of town. It was roughly a fifteen-minute drive between their houses, on a narrow, winding, ill-maintained back road through the woods. Usually, that didn’t bother Vicki a bit. Usually, she traveled that back road at approximately seventy miles per hour. Not tonight, though. Tonight, it was foggy enough to make the road a blank white wall no more than ten yards or so in front of her headlights. Trees were looming, massive shapes, turning the road into a dark corridor. Vicki drove well under the speed limit tonight.

Shit, I don’t like this. Can’t see signs and turns until you’re almost to ’em…if I didn’t know this road, I’d be having real trouble. She nervously checked her fuel gauge. Three-quarters full. Hate to break down tonight. That would really suck. Damn. What a night to be telling ghost stories.

That had been the last thing that she and Val had done before she had left: watch the flickering shadows that the fire pit cast into the woods and try to scare each other. It had started when Vicki had mentioned the story of “the Reaper,” and things had just gone from there. Two stories stuck with Vicki now. One she had told herself: the story of Old Man Harfield.

Supposedly, Luther Harfield had been a Baptist minister some time just before the turn of the century. One night, for no reason that anyone could discover, he had killed his entire family – his wife and four children – with an axe. He had been found the next day, sitting in a circle he had made with their bodies, just staring straight ahead. Horrified, the people of Belford – including much of his own congregation – had hauled him into the woods and lynched him.

Not long after, several campers were found hacked to bits with an axe. The murders continued for years, unsolved. There was no real pattern, but the killings happened more often around the time of year, and near the place, that Luther Harfield had been hanged. Finally, in the 1930’s, a hobo who had been camping in the woods stumbled into town, a babbling wreck. Three of his friends had been killed by a man with an axe. He described the man, and the description fit Harfield exactly. The killings slowed down after that, but campers still disappeared occasionally, and every so often, someone would spot a man wandering the woods, carrying an axe.

Vicki had scared Val good with that one. She knew that Val would make sure all the doors on the trailer were locked after that one. Probably lock her window, too, the heat be damned. Might not go into the woods for days, even in the daytime. Vicki snickered a little at that.

But then she thought of the story that Val had told. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t bother her at all, but after what had happened to Lila and Jeremy – shit, those stories were real! Besides, it was just the kind of night that made the imagination run wild. The fact that the story of the Roadster took place on the very road she was traveling made the whole matter that much worse.

It happened sometime in the Fifties, Val had said. The town thug at the time was a guy named Curtis Knowles. He’d fit the stereotype of the Greaser perfectly: greasy black hair, black leather jacket, customized car, switchblade, and all. One night, as he was driving home from a party in a clearing back in the woods that no longer existed, he had gone over the “Cop Drop” and died. The “Cop Drop” was a deceptively sharp turn in the road with a bank on one side that dropped twenty feet into a grove of trees. It had gotten its name because a police officer had, indeed, gone over that bank. He had survived. Curtis had not. The official line on his death had been that he was drunk and speeding, which he may have been, but it was whispered around Belford high school that one of the many people he had terrorized had been at the party and had cut his brake lines.

Soon after Curtis’s death, the number of accidents at the Cop Drop, always high, increased dramatically. A few survivors reported that they had been driven off the road by Curtis’s car – a huge black Fifties Ford with flames painted on its hood and sides. But there were very few survivors. Many were found in their cars at the bottom of the drop, their throats cut with a switchblade. Some people – even to this day – disappeared completely. They started off down the road, and somehow they just never made it to Belford. Others had been chased by Knowles’s roadster from the Cop Drop to within sight of Belford – at which point it just vanished.

Vicki thought about that and shivered. Wish I could go faster without killing myself. I wanna get home.

Vicki was nearing the Cop Drop when she looked into her rearview mirror and nearly jumped out of her skin. Then she settled back down, trying to bring her breathing back to normal, and trying to make her heart stop pounding. It’s just someone’s headlights! She scolded herself. That’s good news, you idiot! It means you’re not alone on this stupid road. You’re letting these stories get to you too much.

Then she looked at her rearview mirror, and she noticed two things that started her heart pounding again. The first was that the headlights were the wrong color. Rather than the usual bright, blinding yellow-white, they were a dead, blank gray.

The second was that they were much closer and approaching fast.

Oh, God.

The headlights disappeared below the rearview mirror’s field of vision, and a solid thump rattled Vicki’s car as the newcomer rammed her.

Vicki knew that, legally, she should not leave the scene of an accident. Common sense told her to stop and examine the damage. Common sense told her that what she thought was happening could not be. Something deeper than common sense told her to speed up.

Her foot began to press the pedal to the floor. The hum of her engine began to increase in pitch and volume. She dared a look in her mirror, and she felt an instant of relief as she saw the two gray circles fall a little bit back. Then the other car’s engine roared, sending it lurching forward to slam into Vicki again. The jolt was harder this time, and Vicki was flung hard into her seatbelt, which slapped her right back into the cushions.

Hot fear rushed through Vicki’s body, flushing her face. Her mouth, dry from her gasping breath, filled with the sour taste of fear. Her pulse pounded at her temples and throbbed in her ears, half-drowning the screaming engines. Her foot pressed harder, and the sound of her engine grew to a roar. The needle of her speedometer pressed toward seventy.

A yellow blur flashed past her on the right. She hadn’t had time to read it, but she knew what it said. It was a sign that recommended a speed of 30 mph for the approaching turn.

Oh, shit. Oh, fuck. The Cop Drop. Oh, please, God.

She started to let up on the gas, hoping to actually try what they’d told her to do in Driver’s Ed when she was entering a turn too fast: let up on the gas going into the turn, then use it again on the way through, hoping that it’ll pull you through.

As she started to slow, her pursuer rammed her in the back again. Vicki’s body whipcracked. She wasn’t going to be allowed to do that.

Desperate, Vicki tried to get into the other lane, so she could take the turn on the inside, away from the Cop Drop itself.

Her pursuer wasn’t going to allow that, either. Vicki saw a dark shape coming up on her left, cutting her off. The shape was black and shiny and massive compared to her 1984 Ford Taurus. It was also an old shape. Then she saw a streak of red starting just after those wrong-colored headlights.

The Roadster. This can’t be happening.

The Roadster began to press toward her. Its front end bumped her rear.

I’m gonna die. Oh Jesus God I’m gonna die.

Suddenly, yellow-white light blazed in front of her. For the briefest of instants, Vicki thought that that light meant she was dead. Then she realized what it – they – were.

Headlights.

Coming the other way.

Vicki screamed. The newcomer was going to crash into the Roadster, the whole mass would crash into her…

The lights passed her by.

Nothing.

The lane beside her was empty.

Vicki took advantage of that, pulling into it, using her Driver’s Ed technique as well as she could. She strained with all of her strength, trying to physically force her car onto a safe path.

Vicki flew around the corner and started to skid. The rear end of her car started to swing back out toward the Cop Drop.

Another of Vicki’s Driver’s Ed lessons came back to her: Turn into the skid.

She straightened her car and she didn’t even pause before she took off down the road as fast as she dared, which was much faster than it had been before.

Only after she had righted her car did Vicki realize: They didn’t crash. He wasn’t in that lane.

She looked in her rearview mirror, expecting to see those gray headlights closing on her once more, but there was nothing. Just the darkness and the mist.

*

The lights were still on when Vicki got home. She could see the blue, flickering light of the TV through the windows. Her mother was still up. Ordinarily, that was bad news. Tonight, Vicki didn’t care. Actually, for the first time in a very long time, Vicki was happy that she was going to see her mother. Not that she could actually tell her what had happened. That was a sure shortcut to the Nuthouse. No, Brenda Powers would not be much comfort that way. Still, it was good to not be alone in the house.

Vicki had driven the whole way home in a kind of blank, unfeeling haze. It was only when she turned the key in the ignition and allowed the engine to die that it all hit her: I could be dead. I could’ve been killed by something that’s not even supposed to be real. She opened her door and tried to stand up, but her trembling legs were too weak to hold her. She dropped back into the driver’s seat with a thump. She caught the steering wheel with a hand to steady herself, and found that the places where she had held the wheel were slick with cold sweat. She looked at her hands. They were trembling violently. She tried to stop them, tried to hold her arms rigid and still, but the trembling only increased as her muscles tightened. Finally, she gave up and buried her face in her hands. But she didn’t cry. Victoria Powers just did not cry. She was too strong for that. She didn’t dare to let her armor slip that much, even when she was alone. It was weakness. It was the same emotionally as it was physically: it’s when you get naked that they fuck you.

After a few minutes, the trembling eased. Vicki tried to stand again, and this time she succeeded. She made her wobbly way toward the front door, gaining strength with each step, forcing herself to take a slow, dignified pace, resisting the urge to simply sprint to the front door to escape the darkness.

Brenda Powers was sprawled on the couch watching a rerun of Roseanne drinking Scotch when Vicki entered the trailer. She looked very much like her daughter. Her hair and eyes were the same color. Her hips were wider and her breasts were larger, but motherhood tends to have that effect on a woman. Her skin was just as pale as Vicki’s, but the freckles that they shared were covered up by a thick layer of makeup. Their faces were very similar as well, but Brenda’s showed the signs of a life that had been lived too hard. Her eyes may have once burned with the same manic light as Vicki’s. Now they were cold, dull cinders. The skin of her face was lined and leathered and without hope. Her face’s haggardness made it look older than it was. After all, Brenda Powers was only thirty-five.

Vicki herself was just shy of eighteen.

“Hey, Ma. How ya doing?” Vicki said, trying to sound as friendly and innocuous as possible as she crossed to her bedroom.

At first, Brenda just grunted. Then she seemed to notice that her daughter was actually home.

“Where the fuck have you been?” She demanded.

“Out at Val’s,” Vicki answered, resisting the urge to simply snap “Out”. Maybe comfort was too much to hope for – she’d have to take what comfort she could from Larry Bear when she got to her room – but she didn’t want a fight. Not tonight.

“Don’t you fuckin lie to me,” Brenda snarled.

“I’m not lying. Didn’t you see the note I left on the fridge?”

“No, I did not see the note you left on the fridge,” Brenda said with ponderous, drunken pugnacity. “Wouldn’t matter if I did. You can lie just as easy on paper as you can to my face. Easier – I can’t see your eyes while you do it.”

Vicki was rapidly getting tired of this, but she made one last attempt at peace: “Come on, Ma, why would I lie?”

“Because you’re out fuckin’ around with some boy.”

And that was enough for Vicki. “Exactly,” she said. “I don’t give a shit if you know when I do that, so – “

Then the half-full glass of Scotch was flying at her head. Vicki had been more or less expecting it – after a certain point, you knew when Brenda was looking for a fight – and her reaction time was much faster than her mother’s, so the glass shattered harmlessly against her bedroom door.

“Mouth off to me and I’ll fucking glass you,” Brenda snarled. “Maybe a couple scars on your face will keep you from getting knocked up. Now answer the fuckin phone.”

Just like that. Without missing a beat. Threat over, tension released. As Vicki came down from High Alert, she realized that the phone was indeed ringing.

Still jittery and shaking from two near misses, Vicki headed for the kitchen without her usual gesture of defiance.

Made suspicious by this uncharacteristic behavior, Brenda glared at her daughter until she was sure that she was being obeyed. Then she turned back to her show and started drinking her Scotch straight from the bottle.

*

“Hello.”

“Hey, Bitch. Howya doin’?”

Great, Vicki thought. Just what I fuckin’ needed, just when I fuckin’ needed it.

“I told you that I’m not your bitch, Rodney.”

“Sure acted like it the other night,” Rodney sneered.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Vicki retorted. “If I hadn’t been so drunk, I wouldn’t have done something so stupid.”

Normally, that would have stung him. He would have replied with a snarl. Not tonight. He had a better answer. “Hey, who popped your cherry, sweetheart? If that doesn’t make you my bitch, what does?” The tone was light. He asked the question as if it was a joke. She knew it was not.

“That was a long time ago, Rodney.” Vicki answered in a cold voice. “Goodbye.”

“Wait! Wait!” Rodney protested. “Don’t hang up yet! That’s not why I called!”

“Talk fast, Rodney. I’m not in the mood for any of your bullshit tonight.”

“Don’t get lippy with me, bitch.” Rodney growled.

“Just spit it out.” Vicki said tiredly, leaning against the wall, putting a hand over her eyes.

“That’s your job – though I like it better when you swallow.” Rodney replied with manic glee.

“Rodney, I’m gonna hang up.”

“Jesus, take it easy. I just wanted to know if you’d heard anything from Bud.”

“Why, can’t you find him?”

“No.”

Vicki went cold. “What?”

“You deaf, bitch? I can’t find him. I called his house and all his usual hangouts today, but he wasn’t anywhere.”

Something’s wrong. Vicki’s intuition was speaking to her again. Something is very, very wrong about that. “So why did you call me? He’s your friend.”

“Oh, come on. I know he was one of the many, many guys you couldn’t take your eyes off of back when we were together –“

Vicki sighed and rolled her eyes. “Rodney, please – “

“ – So I figured you might have him over there.”

“Well, I don’t.” The chill returned. “What if something happened to him?”

“What, like the Reaper?” Rodney laughed. “You know that’s bullshit. I don’t care what the pigs say. They’re only good for hassling us. They aren’t worth shit when it comes to the real deal. Not with that spic in charge.”

Vicki wanted to tell him that that was no kind of way to talk, but he didn’t give her a chance to fit the words in.

“No, I bet Jeremy did it. Lila got a little bitchy, and he had to smack her down hard. I can relate.”

An entirely different chill ran up Vicki’s spine. Once again, she was reminded of just how big a mistake screwing Rodney was. “You really think so?”

“Of course I do. That ‘psycho killer running loose’ shit doesn’t happen in the real world. Jesus, Vick, you’re letting the campfire stories get to you.”

“Yeah…yeah, I guess you’re right. Well, I haven’t seen him. I’ll call if I do. Bye.”

Rodney barely had time to say “Bye” before Vicki hung up the phone and made a beeline for the door.

Letting the campfire stories get to her, Rodney had said. Am I? I could swear that I got attacked and almost killed by a campfire story on the way here. Am I going crazy? Am I going out of my fucking mind?

There was only one way to be sure.

She turned on the outdoor floodlight and went outside. Her stomach was a tight knot of fear. She didn’t want to go back out into the darkness and fog, but she had to know.

What if I am going crazy? What’ll happen to me? What…

She reached her car, and went to the back left corner. She crouched beside it, searching. It took only a moment, and then she bolted back inside. For the second time that night, she felt like crying, but this time it was in joyous relief.

She had found what she was looking for.

A dent and bits of black paint from the Roadster.

*

In the shadows across the road, hidden by the mist, someone watched Vicki examining her car. When she finished, she threw dignity to the winds this time and ran inside. Perhaps this time she figured that the danger had been very real, and thus she was allowed to run from it.

Or maybe she sensed that she was watched.

You promised that she wouldn’t be hurt.

She was not.

She’s no good to me if she’s broken.

She will not be.

The deal is off if anything happens to her.

Do not threaten me, child. She was not harmed, merely frightened. When she has been frightened enough and everyone else has failed her – and everyone else will – then she will come to you. You will be her hero, and she will belong to you. Is that not what you want?

Yes…I – I guess so. I guess that’s alright.

Good. I told you, child. I keep all of my promises.

 

Valerie

Valerie Robard had not been sleeping well. Her dreams had been haunted by nightmares of herself being chased by a shadowy, axe-wielding figure with gray-glowing eyes. Suddenly, her sleep was shattered by a loud noise.

Valerie shot upright in bed. Her heart pounded and her breath came in short, panting gasps. She looked wildly around the room, half-expecting to see someone or something come lunging out of a shadow, expecting to see those gray eyes at her window. She clutched Webber tightly in the crook of one arm, and used the other to clutch the sheets tightly to her chest for a hopeless kind of shield. The sheets were sweat-soaked, and only partially because she was frightened. As Vicki had predicted, Valerie had indeed closed and locked her bedroom’s windows

Rex was barking. Ordinarily, she would simply have cursed the day that they had ever bought the loud mutt that her father had so creatively named, yelled at him to shut up, and gone back to sleep. Not tonight. Tonight she was far too keyed up.

“Dad?” she whispered into the darkness, clutching Webber desperately. “Daddy?” she repeated, a little bit louder. She wanted to shout, to call him to her. She desperately wanted someone big and strong there to protect her. But she knew that was an absolutely terrible idea. If Rex’s barking hadn’t managed to awaken her father yet, then he was either exhausted or drunk, and in either case he would be very displeased if someone woke him up.

What am I thinking of? I’m being stupid. What am I, a little kid, scared over a little ghost story?

Angry with herself, Valerie got out of bed. She set Webber down, and then turned on her light. She pulled on a pair of shoes and headed out into the kitchen, where she knew a flashlight was kept. All the way, she was chiding herself: Stupid, Fraidy-cat, fat-assed cow! Hear a little ghost story, have a little bad dream, and you’re ready to call for Daddy, just like a little kid. No wonder rich-bitches like VanDyne can walk all over you…

She unlocked the back door of the trailer and leaned out. If Val had been honest with herself, she would have admitted that she wanted to stay as close to the safety of the trailer as possible, able to escape easily. She was not honest. Instead, she tried to make herself believe several rationalizations about not wanting to go out on the dew-wet grass, about wanting to get back to bed, and other such things. Nevertheless, she swept the beam of her flashlight rapidly around the yard in a wide arc, trying to reveal anything that might be hidden in the darkness of the yard.

The only thing the light revealed was a Doberman pinscher chained to a weathered red doghouse with the name “Rex” painted above the door. Rex was straining toward the woods, barking himself hoarse.

Valerie nervously swept the flashlight’s beam over the yard again, concentrating on the several large pine trees, which were large enough to hide a man behind. But then it occurred to her that Rex was paying no attention to them. If there had been someone hidden behind one of the trees, he would have been barking at it. Instead, he was barking at the woods.

Hesitantly, Val stepped off the back steps. “Ukgggh.” She made a face of disgust as her shoes, soaking through almost instantly, squelched in the wet grass. She slowly made her way over to Rex’s side, sweeping her flashlight across the woods. It didn’t help. The woods were swamped with the same mist that had wet the grass, and that still hung low over her lawn. Trees turned into huge, looming gray shapes, darkness against darkness, a few feet back. Then there was nothing else.

“Hey, Rex.” Val said as she reached the dog’s side. “What’cha got, huh? What’re you seeing…or…smelling, or whatever, out there, huh? Is there a cat out there in the woods that I can’t see?” Please, God, let that be it.

She passed the flashlight’s beam over the woods again, and this time she stopped with a gasp of horror. The eyes! Just like in my dream! The eyes! Her mind degenerated into incoherence. The eyes were too low, it couldn’t be a man…unless he was crouching, or even lying down, they were so low…no, maybe it was a wolf, getting ready to pounce…maybe…

Valerie was an instant away from bolting for the trailer when the eyes’ owner came out into the light. It was a puppy.

“Coydog.” Val gasped with her breath of relief. Coydogs were a half-coyote, half wild-dog crossbreed that inhabited the area around Belford. The flashlight must have been shining on its eyes. Ordinarily, coydogs were afraid of people. This one simply stood there, looking right at her, its pointed ears confidently up. “Get out of here.” Val commanded. It simply looked up at her. “Go on!” She ordered again, raising her voice. She bent and picked up a rock. It simply continued to watch her. “Get outta here!” She yelled it this time. When it still didn’t move, she flung the rock. She missed, and the rock bounced harmlessly off a tree nearly four feet above the little creature’s head, but that seemed to be enough for it. It turned and ran back into the woods.

“There, it’s gone. Happy?”

Apparently, Rex wasn’t. He kept barking.

“It’s gone, you big galoot! Will you shut up? We humans need to sleep!”

Rex kept barking. She swatted him in the side with her free hand. “I said shut up!” Startled, Rex obeyed

“Good.” Val turned and went back into the trailer. She took the first few steps calmly, but then the story of Old Man Harfield came back to her, and she sprinted the rest of the way back.

*

After Valerie went in, Rex still stood, staring at the woods, growling. Without the light cutting through, the yard was inundated with mist. Any human’s vision would have been useless, even with the bright moonlight, but Rex’s nose told him other tales. Less than a minute after Val had gone into the trailer, the coydog pup returned to the edge of the woods. Rex knew that the little creature was an enemy. He remembered from the days when his ancestors had guarded sleeping humans at their cook fires, protecting them from their own wild kin. But there was something more to this puppy that was wandering the forest without its mother. Something terribly wrong. He had to warn the pack of two-legged smooth-skins.

He started to bark again, but the puppy darted its eyes at him. Rex stopped barking and started to choke.

*

Inside, Val rolled her eyes and growled in aggravation when Rex started to bark again. She turned back toward the door, but Rex abruptly stopped. “Stupid dog.” She muttered, and headed back toward her room.

*

Outside, Rex died. The next day, the vet would tell a tearful Valerie and her father that he could find no cause of death. He would ask to keep the body so he could check for diseases and poisons.

The little coydog pup, its eyes glowing a blank, dead gray, nodded as if pronouncing this good, then turned back into the forest.

 

Belford

Across the town, the majority of the sleeping population jolted awake at the instant of Rex’s death. Except for those who had to tend the small children who had woken up screaming and crying and calling for their parents, most took a few deep breaths, reassured themselves that it was just a dream, then rolled over and went back to sleep. Most would forget by the morning.

Much of what happened that fall in Belford would later be pieced together. But since most forgot and no one discussed it the next day, the fact that this was the true start of it all would be lost. Lila Benson and Jeremy Zerschmitt’s death had been merely the sparkplug. With that dream, the engine was truly starting to run.

But no one would ever know that. Because no one talked about it the next day, and so no one knew that they had all had the same dream, but all anyone could remember were gray-glowing eyes and the sound of machinery.

*

And that’s all.  For the rest of the story of the terrible Fall of 1994 in Belford, check out Hometown at Amazon.  And seriously, while you’re there, check out the rest of the back catalog.  You’ll be glad you did.

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