Wednesday, August 21, 2013


On the edge of the isolated town of Rome, young Bucky Homber discovers a mummified bog-man. As terrible events increasingly unfold, so too does the bog-man’s waxy, date-like body. Meanwhile, Mindy Crow, searching for her missing sister, learns that as the bog-man comes to life, so goes the fall of Rome...



WHEN THE SWOLLEN RIVER that flooded the grove eventually receded, something dark had risen in the bog. It appeared half-revealed on the surface of the brackish water glinting in what morning light filtered through the clustered old-growth. Bucky Homber, leaning over as far as he dared, tapped it with a stick.           

Being seventeen (two years younger than his brother, Boyer—the youngest in the dwindling three-member clan—Ma Homber having never revealed her age to her children) and having been told his whole life how he was not quite all there, Bucky felt an affinity with things that hid. To him it looked right away like a hooded little man barely sticking up out of the bog, as though he had dropped something very important and was trying to find it. But when Bucky struck the bobbing body hard, both exposed skin and woven fabric smacked and thudded under the stick as though against cured leather.            

The hooded man was entirely one color, Bucky noticed, skin and clothes alike the deep muddy brown of the redwood bog. The bog itself was a jagged gash irregularly rent across the forest floor at the base of a dark hill, and in the ragged aperture still water sat, some pockets of which Bucky could dunk a fifteen-foot bark strip in without touching bottom, then let it go and never see it again. It was odd to find a bog in a redwood grove, but the grove itself was an anomaly, existing as it did in a part of the county that may as well have been plunked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Anyone driving the highway from Bargerville to Carata would midway see the sign for Rome somewhere deep to the east and that would be that. No one ever went there. Nor did anyone ever know anyone who did.             

For a long time Bucky just stared. Then he ran through the forest all the way to the fort and came back with a skid. It was his fort now, and his skid. Boyer didn’t go down there anymore, ever since Pa Homber got crushed when the combine flipped. The fort was the safest place Bucky had.           

He looked down at the gnarled lump bungee-corded to the plywood. With its brown color and shiny wrinkles, the corpse looked to Bucky like a giant date. The waxy face misshapen by time, body frozen in the fetal position. It took a bit of a beating bouncing on the board off branches in back of Bucky pulling with a rope while he trudged, but when he got it in the fort he dried it off as best he could, daubing it with an old blanket, then he lay the body on the blanket in a little sunny patch streaming through a gap in the scraps of log forming a wall in a small cluster of redwoods. This was something Boyer didn’t have. Something over which Ma would have not one bit to say.
A door slammed in the distance. Ma was up early on a Saturday morning. They still had two horses, and those needed tending.             

Bucky looked back at the bog-man. A swath of light fell across the lids, closed as if resting in repose.             
Bucky waved goodbye. 

The bog-man did not reply.  

A groovy bus with custom tie-dye-looking paint bumper-to-bumper outside, and thick Pumpkin Harvest color shag carpet floor-to-ceiling inside, rolled on down the road, leaking mellow tendrils of smoke from the windows, Ivan Maxim at the helm. Elaborate flyers for gigs featuring Maxim and the Arrows blanketed every available square inch not covered by carpet. The Arrows, Rhiannon, Ike and Maev, were digging the boss view on the way out to Rome, each happy to not be behind the wheel of the Mardi Bus, which had a hard time on the hills, screamed in every gear, and topped-out at fifty-four.             

There had been some talk of late of changing the band’s name. Ike liked Atmosfear. He explained the spelling.
“We sing folk-rock,” Maev had said. “Why would we call ourselves Atmosfear?”          

“It would be ironic.”            

“No, it would be stupid.” For a six-month period they had been together.            

“Well it can’t be any worse than Maxim and the Arrows. How about Wockita Wockita?” 
Rhiannon announced she had to pee. All agreed it was the thing to do. Morning coffee had kicked in.            
Pulling over and fanning out was nothing new. The four knew the drill. The pullout Ivan chose (barely big enough for the bus) smelled of the various varieties of pine in profusion, and the air rang with the chatter of morning birds.    
Maev was the first to return to the bus, then Ike. Maev had her arms folded across herself for warmth, in spite of the morning light which bathed the rolling land in an ethereal glow. The pine-pungent air was thin and cold. Ike had his hands in his pockets. Two months earlier he and Maev would have been snuggling on the bus. Now instinctively they shuffled around outside to avoid being alone together. In comfort. Where they might have to talk. Ivan and Rhiannon, however, had been together longer and still held hands everywhere.             
It would not have been beyond possibility for the two to have stripped and gone running through the woods. This time though they were walking hand-in-hand when they saw an old man moving slowly through a grassy field toward them. In his hands he held a thin black metal detector which he moved over the ground before him like a blind man with a cane in an odd garden, and when he came their way he patted a satchel slung over a bony shoulder and with a glum unchanging expression announced as he passed, “You never know what’s right underneath the surface.”    
Both could see something was simmering when they got back to the bus. They’d left Ike and Maev alone too long. Now everyone’s face was long, too. Ivan and Rhiannon resented having to feel guilty about meandering back, Maev and Ike separately resented having to wait and the fact that the other two resented having to feel guilty. 
“Well,” Ivan said, picking up a head of steam as the road sloped down before the next hill, “we’re not far from town. I think we could all do with a bite to eat.”        
“Thank you for solving all our problems,” Rhiannon said. “I think we all really needed for you to patronize us.” 
Ivan shot a glance, both hands on the wheel, engine screaming comfortably at fifty. 


The Mardi Bus limped into town and parked outside Mein Hair.    
“So this is Rome,” Ike said. “Where are we going to eat?”   
Ivan pointed. “There’s a diner across the street.”    
Both the sign outside and the one in the window proclaimed “Flap” Jack’s!, but on the menu inside it was spelled Flap Jacks, without the punctuation.
“They changed the punctuation,” said Maev, much to Ike’s annoyance. He didn’t like the weird looks they were getting already from the late breakfast crowd and the lull of the dull roar, without Maev calling unwanted attention. After a quiet moment of being settled in a booth, the regulars resumed. Like insects at night, Ivan thought.  
Ike leaned over—boys on one side of the table, girls on the other—and whispered directly in Ivan’s ear, “There’s a cop over there.”     
Ivan looked. Sure enough, there was. “It’s all right,” he said. “They have to eat, too.”      
Maev set up the white pegs of a novelty IQ-tester from among the condiments, filling the triangular pattern with a peg for every hole but one, and started removing pegs by jumping them. Rhiannon used the edge of her spoon to knock off something stuck to the knife at her setting. The waitress, who was still talking with the cop, took notice of this and called out, “Scratchin’ up the silverware may be what you learned at home, honey, but we don’t do that here.”     
To look at her, one would have thought the waitress—blonde, probably the town head cheerleader at some time—had smoothly resumed an animated and pressing conversation. But the four at the table could clearly hear. “You’d think they’d have the common basic decency to respect other people’s property.” The slowly nodding cop twisted on his stool to get a better look, heavy equipment creaking. The waitress grabbed another set of silverware and went over, setting down the new utensils and taking the knife and spoon out of Rhiannon’s hand. She put them in her apron without inspecting and with an air of magnanimity.  
“What’ll it be, honey?” she said. 
“I’m sorry, did you just yank my silverware out of my hand? There was something on the knife that should have been washed off and I was trying to clean it off myself.”    
“Honey, you always clean with a spoon?”       
The handful of regulars, whose soft clinking late-breakfast noises had swiftly diminished, snorted with pleasure at the waitress’s retort.     
“Excuse me, am I a customer here?” 
Suddenly the cop appeared, looming over everyone. “What seems to be the problem here?”    
For no particular reason, Rhiannon had picked up the new set of utensils and these she now held in her upraised hand. The waitress looked at them. Then the cop looked at them. Then Rhiannon.    
“Put that knife down, ma’am.”   
“What? I’m not—”     
The cop’s voice filled the otherwise silent room: “NOW!”       
Rhiannon put the utensils on the table, resisting the urge to slam. “We’re leaving now,” she said in a low, calm voice to her friends. The waitress stepped aside to make room for them all to slide out and said, “Damn right you are!” But the cop wasn’t budging.        
“That your bus out there?” He pointed.
“Yes,” Ivan said.     
“I ought to cite you for disturbing the public peace. The way that thing looks, it’s liable to give people seizures. I get dizzy just looking at it.” He took in the assortment of tie-dye clothing items the four were wearing, among similar aspects of their wardrobe the cop found equally unappealing, and evinced with a grimace his disdain. “Did you do that paint job yourself, sir? Very few people advertise the psychedelic lifestyle who aren’t on drugs. Did you know that, sir?”            

Ivan kept waiting for the punch line. His stomach was in knots. “I don’t know, Officer,” he managed. “I think we’d all just like to go. Are we free to do that? Have we broken some law?”    
The cop leaned down to Ivan, took a long moment and very audibly hissed, “Do I look like I’m gonna take your bullshit, boy?”   
The waitress put a hand to the cop’s arm. “Don’t do it, Donnie. He ain’t worth it.”    
Donnie straightened up and stepped back. Then he jerked his thumb toward the door.

All the way back to the bus they could feel the eyes of the Romans burning behind, and when they got inside it was with incredulity and sundry imprecations, but Ivan, being behind the wheel, did his best to stay cool and advised the others to do the same all the way to the edge of town, which was around a bend and out of view of the diner, and which also held a service station, where they gassed up with a sizable portion of the budget. But when they were leaving—Maev climbing on board last with a bag of service station groceries—Ivan saw the cop creeping slowly behind, and the cop followed them a mile out of town before, to Ivan’s great relief, finally turning off.


The campground they found was an unexpected benefit. Free from the engine scream and in the open air they all spilled over each other’s attempts to recount what had happened as they broke out brunch in the shade of the riverside willows. For about half an hour afterwards they threw the Frisbee over the level, clean terrain, then Maev and Rhiannon put on rainbow-colored socks which fit the toes like gloves and sat outside the bus threading beads for necklaces. Sometimes they sold some things at gigs. Somehow they managed to sell enough of the various crafts they made to barely get by to the next gig. Closer to the river, obscured from view by brush and trees, Ivan and Ike sat with guitars and practiced chords.

By dusk the Flap Jacks flap seemed a million miles away, but when they decided to head back into town for more provisions, there smoothly pulled up as they were leaving a cop car with, sure enough, Donnie from the diner inside.

The lights came on. Ivan saw in the side mirror as Officer Donnie pulled a u-turn and came behind the Mardi Bus. Ivan pulled over.

“Nobody say anything stupid,” he hissed, rolling down the tortured window with a stiff and jerky hand-crank. “I think this cop’s psychotic.”

Officer Donnie came for the open window with a face that looked pissed-off. “License and registration.” He said this clipped. In terms of tone, the verbal equivalent of a hand to the neck.

Holy shit, Ivan thought. Small town psychotic drunk cop. If it wasn’t for the big whiff (had Donnie inadvertently breathed out a suppressed burp?) that Ivan got, he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell, but now he could see the guy was actually just slightly reeling. Not blotto. Nowhere near incoherent. Just enough of a basic buzz to bring out the bully.

Ivan handed over the license and registration, wondering for a bit if he was going to even get them back, but when he did it was with two words no one on the bus, due to the slow gleam with which they were uttered, liked hearing: “Okay then.

The strip of pullout filled by the Mardi Bus dropped precipitously into a narrow gorge running along the road; to step on or off parked there was for all practical purposes impossible—at any rate asking a lot and almost certainly involving falling down into the channel. Officer Donnie seemed to realize this when he asked with naked perturbation for Ivan to step out of the vehicle. 

Ivan yanked open the bus door and took a peek. It was a little ways down.

“You know, Officer?” he tried to say as calmly as possible. “I really don’t think there’s enough room for me to get out right here. Come see for yourself. It’s pretty much straight down. And there are some big sharp-looking rocks down there. Maybe I should pull the bus forward?”

“What you need to do is shut your mouth, boy, and listen to me. I told you and your buddies here to get the hell out of my town this morning. Maybe you didn’t get the message. Here you are going back. How could you not get the message? I told you get out!”

He had been standing just barely in the road. Ivan was stunned how poorly Officer Donnie was able to pronounce the word “message” each time. Suddenly everyone on the bus saw Officer Donnie’s attention turn to the lights of the oncoming vehicle. The car was already taking the turn too tight, coming as it was from around a bend; whether the driver was intoxicated was never ascertained. The front right corner of the car hit the cop going perhaps fifty, slamming him into the front left side of the bus and leaving a wide red smear.
The sounds of everyone’s vocalizations hung in the air for a great many seconds after being uttered. Then there was the sound of the car driving away around a bend into the deepening night. Insect noises slowly resumed.

Ivan leaned out the window for a better look at what he already clearly saw. Donnie was dead. No doubt about it. His blood was on the bus blended with the swirling colors. What kind of a deal, Ivan immediately wondered, would they be liable to get back in town? They were innocent. They would call it in as soon as they could get to a phone. But they had to get rid of that blood. They had to get the hell out of there.
He told everybody so. The other three agreed. Seconds later they were pulling out, screaming engine calling too much attention. They made it around a corner. Then down a hill, and slowly up. Inching up with the last rays of light shining in their eyes, a car came down and passed them heading in the opposite direction. All at once Ivan realized when whoever was driving encountered Rome’s dead officer, that driver would be certain to remember seeing the big bright Hippie bus closest to the scene getting away. Ivan might have suggested to the others they ditch the bus then and there of their own volition, if smoke pouring out of the engine as they limped up to the top of the hill hadn’t preceded the bus’s utter demise. Luckily enough, when it conked-out Ivan was able to let it roll into a park-able place off the road. 

Scared out of their minds that someone would try to shoot first and ask questions later, the four left the bus with whatever essentials they could quickly gather and ran for their lives into the dark Roman woods.


That night, Bucky noticed the bog-man looked in pretty good shape. He had dried out considerably—had all day to do so, in fact. That was how long it took before Bucky could get away again. The flashlight he held trained on Bog-Man--this was the name the boy called the corpse--had fresh batteries inside. Even Bucky knew to make sure of that. With the light on the dead man’s waxy face, Bucky felt fine enough. Fascinated, even. But it occurred to him that if the flashlight somehow gave out, he would suddenly be plunged with Bog-Man into absolute black.

Fingers of moonbeam crept through the cracks as the waxing moon rose over the trees. Bucky slowly covered the front of the flashlight with the palm of his free hand, which became a red ring through his skin in the dark fort. Just for a moment. Long enough to see Bog-Man’s sleeping face glowing in the moonlight.
The face shone more than a regular one would. The way a rock in the river gets worn smooth. The way Pa’s old baseball glove used to look, all folded and oiled. One slim ray of light lay dimly on a resting lid. Bucky imagined it suddenly opening. And the eye staring. If he removed his hand quickly from the front of the flashlight, he couldn’t help also imagining the Bog-Man springing up startled.

A branch snapped nearby. Not his imagination at all. He was glad that he hadn’t taken his hand from the flashlight, allowing himself to be seen, giving himself away. Who was it? Boyer? It had to be Boyer, but he never came down to the fort anymore. Quietly, Bucky slid the button on the flashlight off and peered through cracks from where he squatted on his haunches in the direction of the sound.

There it went again. Another crunch. Definitely the right direction. Whoever was there wasn’t carrying a light.
Someone was coming toward the opening of the fort. Bucky felt a presence. Flicking on the flashlight he saw it—the face of a deer, mere feet away, its great live brown eye startled. In an instant it was gone, a series of bounding crashes diminishing through the brush.

Bucky sat back down with the flashlight off. As his eyes readjusted to the dark, and his pounding heart slowed, the face of the bog-man in the dim moonlit glow almost seemed pleased.  


Gene Crooner used to listen to his patients. For the better part of twenty years he was Egeria’s eminent psychologist. But listening intently to other people’s problems took an eventual toll. Gene took night classes for two and half years before getting his coroner’s license and moving out to Rome. Now Coroner Crooner practiced his singing, and his patients were the ones that did all the listening. 

Yes, life was good. Pushing sixty with Roman women half his age coming on to him went just fine with Gene. Largely this was attributable to the glamour that went with his profession as seen on TV. So going down to a population of thirteen thousand did have its perks. His first year in Rome he saw a woman he’d dated come in on the slab. Car accident.

This one reminded him of a former fencing instructor of his. The bastard came on to that glamorous redhead Anita whom Gene had been dating. That party at Pam and Tony’s Whale Harbor house. The prick.
Recollections of Patients Past kept cropping up. One young man in his Egeria practice had insisted he and a college friend (with whom he lost touch and was unable to track down) had once been chased all night by some sort of hairless Bigfoot-type creature. Another claimed to be a man from a parallel universe who couldn’t get back to his proper world.

“We’re all in our own worlds,” Gene had soothed without moving a muscle, without crinkling the chair and breaking the moment. “Talk about yours.”

Coroner Crooner recorded his conclusions regarding the man on the slab’s death—cardiac arrest—checked the time—7:50—and figured with just the last body in the corner to go, he might just go home to clean up, then head on down to the bar.

The last one was a woman. Choked to death on a six-inch strip of steak.

He pulled back the sheet and examined the body. This one was a beauty. He checked the tag, but never heard of. A good little Roman woman, too. One that got away. 

Got a fresh wax job, he saw. Probably that very day. Professionally, he couldn’t help suspecting as he snapped on a fresh pair of gloves, a significant source of pathology behind a woman with a wax job choking to death on six inches of steak. How did that look going in on a fork? She smelled dolled-up. Only two hours old. Somebody had taken her out to an early dinner. 

Coroner Crooner didn’t bother recording that her nipples were exceptionally large and hard. Sometimes he liked to get down right next to the table, with a good-looking woman on it all huge, and gaze with awe and wonder at the towering mountain of breast, where way down deep in the slopes of the mighty volcano nipple all the teeny tiny itty bitty titty micro-bacteria thrived in their weird alien world mindless of the Motherbody much too great for them to know and itself simply part of endlessly interconnecting links.

Just when he thought he had it all wrapped up and was mentally halfway out the door, in they wheeled another one. He recognized Officer Donnie.

When he got home that night, too late to do anything but sleep, he was so dead tired he clean forgot the hot little Hippie chick finally took him up on his maid-work offer, said she didn’t know very much about waxing floors. Two steps into the kitchen and zing, down he went with a fractured skull.

Coroner Crooner lay on the floor with his head slowly leaking for a good twenty minutes before he died. Blunt force trauma. That very evening he’d remarked what an unusually unlucky day it was.


The dilapidated old house appeared suddenly around a bend in the weed-choked road, twisted, cracked and peeling like the rotting head of a giant leper. The gang of winded Hippies crept warily up the crumbling steps onto the wide covered sweep of porch. Now the wind was picking up and an old porch chair began to swing. Somewhere up high a shutter bumped. Ike made a howling sound and Maev groaned. Ivan tested the weathered boards nailed over the door. Old, very old. All the front windows were boarded. “Strange,” Rhiannon muttered, “that a house like this should be off here by itself.”

Indeed, the whole overgrown road wound directly up to the grounds and stopped. It had once been the home of a Victorian-era land baron. 

The four had no particular plan for the moment but to rest from running and recover from the horror of what they experienced as best they could to carry on. Nobody seemed to feel like talking. Maev wandered off around the side of the house. Rhiannon followed. Ike started to as well, then went around the other side of the house instead. Giving up without a fight on trying to keep everybody together, Ivan busied himself trying to find a way inside.

*          *          *

Maev came to a crumbling, weed-thick well. The whole way over, she thought she heard Rhiannon walking right behind, but now she turned around at the well and didn’t see Rhiannon at all. That was all right. Maev Crow was never one to require the company of others to feel at home and at ease. At twenty-four Maev was the youngest of the bunch, but in some ways probably had more life experience than even Ivan at twenty-eight. All her life, Maev had simply had it harder.

With perhaps fifteen minutes left of light before night fell, no bottom to the well could be seen. The rock comprising the low circular wall looked particularly old. Older even than the house, and that thing looked ancient. Lacking the traditional shingled awning and hand-cranked bucket, what marked the well was simply a wall of rock slabs set without mortar. The irregular opening at the top, slightly tapered, looked like an incomplete dome.

Maev picked up a chipped chunk from a slab and held it over the middle of the well.

Don’t drop it.

The tiny voice came from down inside. The small scared voice of a little girl.

“Put the rock back,” the voice came again from deep within the well. “You’re scaring me.”

Maev put back the rock. “Oh my god,” she said, utterly stunned. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?” She waited for an answer as she leaned on the crumbling rock and peered into the well, wondering for a moment if she even heard all she thought she just heard.

Then: “I’m not hurt. I’m fine.”

“I have some friends here,” Maev called down into the dark. “We’ll get you out.”

Again, a long pause.

“Oh,” came the voice. “I know where they are. Climb down and get me.”

Now the silence was on Maev’s part.

“Have you seen my body?” The little girl’s voice in the well sounded distressed. “I need to find my body.”
With this last the voice became strangely guttural and urgent. Maev felt her stomach drop and her weakening knees begin to tremble. Her throat was dry. Caught in indecision whether to run or yell or what, she froze. The guttural sound in the well grew deeper and louder as it rose.

Down the left side of the house ran the trail Ike took to a dead flower garden. At the center stood a fountain with one large root twisting up from the broken stone walk and wrapping around the fountain with innumerable branching tendrils. 

Ike could not believe it. Someone with a guitar was already down there. Cross-legged on the fountain—dry and cracked from long disuse—sat a black man, twenty-five-ish, who could have passed as a dead-ringer for Ike’s all-time favorite god, Jimi Hendrix.

Ike took this in as he made a slow arc among the mossy marble benches and stopped directly before the fountain man, who smiled a mellow smile as he lightly plucked at the guitar. “Hey man,” he articulated with distinctive modulation sounding very similar to Jimi, “I was wondering, like, do you suppose you may have seen my body?” He couldn’t suppress a low chuckle. “I know that must sound pretty far out you know, blah-blah woof-woof, but you see, the thing is, I really do need to find it. I’ve been having this like, really tremendous out-of-body experience, can you dig it?”

Ike nodded. Then finally spoke. “No, I haven’t. Seen your body. Unless it’s the one you have right now.”

The fountain man let loose with a sweet little riff that Ike never would have thought possible from an acoustic guitar. “Temporary, brother. Only temporary.”

“Any body ever tell you—”

“…that I look like…?”

“Yeah! I mean, well yeah, and you even sound—”

“Maybe I am.”

“But how? You died.”

The fountain man seemed to be enjoying a private joke. “You go on and believe what you want. Because that’s the thing, isn’t it?” He looked up to the sky. Played a little riff. “It’s all the same dream. Listen man, I’m going back up to the house. And you’re welcome to join us.”

“My band mates are up there. We knocked. We just got here a little bit ago.”

“Fantastic. You’ve got your friends. And I’ve got mine.” The fountain man hopped down. “I didn’t hear you drive up. We don’t get many visitors out here in our little Shang Ra La.”

“We came in on foot.” Ike didn’t know why he hesitated to reveal that the bus had broken down. “We don’t mean to intrude—we didn’t even know this house was here.”

A pause and a chuckle. As they trudged up the slope, the dark shape of the house seemed to rise from out of the ground. “It’s abandoned,” said the fountain man. “My friends and I have been crashing here a long time. I really wasn’t kidding. No one ever comes out here, anymore.”

Ike looked around, but didn’t see the others. The fountain man told Ike he was welcome inside as he led him around to a side door. Some steps were barely visible descending in the dark. “Right on,” said Ike. “Thanks, man.”

He followed the fountain man down inside.


Rhiannon called for Maev to wait up. She thought she saw her go around some bushes, but when she got there all she saw was, a little ways off, what looked like an old well, and so turned the other direction where the trail skirted along the trees covering the hillside. When she came to an old tree house, just catching a glimpse of Maev ducking up inside, she perched on a tire swing dangling below with one foot in the tire and the other held back to help her land upright in case the rope should snap. But it didn’t, and she launched in with the return to a topic they had discussed stringing the beads, somewhat sincerely but also to try to help show that she had problems with Ivan, too, and so Maev calling it quits with Ike wasn’t automatically some wildly abnormal decision she should beat herself up over regretting.

“There’s a world of difference between loving someone for who they are, and loving the idea of someone’s role. ‘Well, of course he or she is my such and such, and so I love him or her with all my heart,’ can just be another way of saying, ‘I’m still not dealing with my own neuroses, my own burdens, so I’ll be taking that out on whoever is nearest and dearest—oh, by the way, that’s you.’ Which is also a really good reason to make the people you love for who they are have to stay at arm’s length—idealized, don’t you think? Because that’s another role we need to use. So I guess actually there isn’t a world of difference between loving someone for who they are and loving the idea of someone’s role. I don’t know. Fuck it. It all kind of doesn’t matter too much right now, anyway. I mean, we’ve got to get to a phone. I’d hate for someone driving to hit that crazy cop’s body. And maybe even have another accident. I didn’t make any of that happen. Why do I feel responsible?”

In the trees it was already almost dark. If Maev was going to be melodramatic about whatever, and have to be coaxed to come on down and head back—to the front porch, at least—then, Rhiannon realized, it had better be done soon. Hopping off the swing, she made for the remaining ladder rungs still nailed to the tree.
“All right then,” she said, trying to suppress the here-we-go-again tone, “I’m coming up.”

*          *          *

Deep in the well, a low growl rose. Instinct prompted Maev to grab hold again of the rock she’d had. It was sharp on one end, good for stabbing. Then she saw as it appeared at the crumbling edge, a stealthy shadow slipping over the side with no disruption to the stone. The bipedal form of roughly hominid shape stood about her height, straightening from a crouch, but lacked a face, lacked hair, lacked clothes, was itself the uniform absence of light.

“Get back!” she screamed several times, crying out also for help. Then she remembered the rock in her hand, and cocking it back, readied to whip it in, but guessing then in the thing’s posture a fear on its part for the rock’s loss, she tossed it as far from the well as she could, hoping it would run off and try to retrieve it. Instead the thing let loose with a high and hideous whoop, and tore after Maev as she ran toward the house screaming.


Down the dark steps Ike went, almost immediately losing sight of the Jimi Hendrix look-alike, and shuffling steps he heard before him faded. 

“Hey,” he called out. “Hey, a little light.”

Sighting a slim crack indicating a door, he moved slowly toward it and found a furnished room lit with a lamp. Some bookshelves, a desk, a table. It looked nice—tasteful, and no evidence of messy junk build-up. On the other side of this room was a door, and to this Ike crossed, noticing the room had no windows, and that one lamp was not nearly enough to adequately light it. But when he opened the door, he saw another room similar to the one he was just in, and no sign of anyone. This room, too, had a door on the other side. Ike walked swiftly over and opened the door. No one inside there, either. Just one lamp on, and one door on the other side. He went ahead and checked the next door. Again, the same.

This time he crossed back to the door he had already come through, deciding to retrace his steps out. Nor had he shut that door behind him. But shut it was, and when he opened it he thought, “This isn’t the same room I just came through.”

Ike started to panic. He thought he might actually totally lose it. The room did look different from all the others though, he noticed. Indian relics buried the walls. Drums, rattles, baskets, masks. Beaded necklaces. He took a look at one necklace stretched out and hanging by two nails. Beautiful colors. What the beads were made of, Ike couldn’t tell. 

He turned around, and on doing so suddenly saw the horrifying grimace of an elderly Indian man standing two feet away from him in a feather headdress and with a creased face painted red and black. But the curious part was the eyes. The old man had none. Just two great empty sockets. In the old man’s hand was a large bright upraised knife. 

Ike’s shriek shot up from his toes.

From the old cracked mouth, a sound like laughter drifted. 

*          *          *

Hands on rungs, Rhiannon was about to ascend. Then she heard an odd thing. A little ways off, perhaps halfway back to the house, Maev screamed. It was definitely a scream and definitely Maev. In which case, then whose

(the legs up the tree)

were those?

She noticed now. How could she not have noticed before? Those weren’t rainbow toe socks in Birkenstocks. Those were long striped socks in dark bulky shoes.

Looking back over her shoulder as she moved away toward the house, Rhiannon watched a dark body flop from the tree house down to the ground, get up teetering, a shapeless and ungainly mass of shadow, and watched as it took form. Eyes like a chameleon’s independently rolled into play. One spun and locked on her, then the other.

Rhiannon ran.
*          *          *

The upper- and lower-story windows around the right hand side of the house being boarded up as much as everything in the front, Ivan didn’t expect to find the open door at the back. Rhiannon and Maev must have gone in, he assumed. But like a spider from a hole, just as Ivan approached the door, out popped a cop.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “This is private property.”

“My friends and I were out hiking and it got late and looked like it was going to rain and we just now found this house is all. No one’s gone inside. Sorry to have looked. We’ll just be on our way.”

“Now you hold it. We’re looking for a body. We’ve received a report that an officer was run down back on the road. There’s a bus back down at the bottom of this hill. Is that yours?”

Ivan hesitated.

The burly cop, bursting at the seams, the skin of whose neck spilled over his collar, his spiky crew cut a warning, blazing laser eyes twin pinpoints beaming over gleaming Roman cop armor, produced a series of photographs through which he flipped, staring at Ivan, as with great authority he professionally inquired, “Sir, when you mentioned your friends, were you referring to any of these people?”

One shot showed Maev running, then Maev caught by something—something awful

Another shot showed Ike stuck in some sort of dungeon—another of Ike screaming—

Another of Rhiannon—

“Who are you?”

“Yep.” The cop dropped the pictures and grabbed Ivan’s arm. “I knew it. All right,” he said, pulling Ivan into the house with bone-crushing strength, “that’s it, you’re coming with me.”

That was Sunday.


People in Rome claim theirs is the oldest town in Humbaba—that Rome was there before there was even officially a county—and that it started with two miners who called their camp Rome.

Following the death of the first many years later, his journal revealed he had murdered his partner with a shovel when they hit a small silver strike. After that, the name just stuck. The murderer, Zeke, ripped a few people off, stole some watches, a very nice silver dining set, and basically by hook and by crook really started building Rome into something. He had a couple of pigs, an old still he stole, and old Zeke—folks called him Stumpy on account he lost a leg to gangrene after he got caught in a rock slide up Mt. Cloude (what the old-timers used to say the Indians called some damn thing or other) and unknown to some, he kept in his hollow wooden leg a three-foot gopher snake he won at cards and called Lucky. But old Zeke, who always did whatever his gopher snake said, oh, he could play himself a mean harmonica, so Becky Lou Tate started charging folks to hear it at night around the Roman campfire, pigs and stolen silver shining in the moonlight, and after that the rest was history.

None of this crossed anyone’s mind early Monday morning, when Gary Waxman, an avid gun-lover and God-fearing man who feared his wife wanted a divorce, went rushing through Rome Elementary looking for his fourth-grade boy, whom he found in class listening to the teacher read probably the most beautiful story ever, To Kill a Mockingbird. Waxman walked quickly and quietly from the back of the class to the teacher's desk—as one sometimes sees in the course of the occasional family emergency—pulled out a pistol, shot his son in the head, killing him on the spot, took out the teacher, and a few more kids, and then cried, but just couldn’t bring himself to do himself in, so it was the security guard who shot him where he lay curled beneath the shelf with the hamster cage on top, which busily ran in its wheel while Waxman bled to death from two shots, one through the chest, the other through the neck.

And it had seemed like an inordinately unlucky day at the time, too.


On Tuesday the bog-man was looking great. It was the damnedest thing. Bucky couldn’t figure it out. Ma always said Bucky was filling out. That was true to some extent. Bucky could do twenty pull-ups now, and throw hay almost as good as Boyer. But that was nothing compared to the bog-man. He didn’t look anything near so vacuum-sealed like he did before, all scrunched-up tight in the fetal position. Now just a few days later, he was pretty much all stretched out. Truth was, the way the bog-man looked reminded Bucky of Pa, the way Pa used to look lying on the couch passed out, all twisted, bent and unmoving. The bog-man didn’t seem to Bucky to be swelling up with gases. (Memories of Pa, passed out and farting ten seconds at a stretch.) He looked more like one of those big Thanksgiving balloons, slowly unfolding while filling up with helium before rising high in the air on TV.

That got Bucky thinking about Marcia. Ma thought he better set his sights on Laurie, sixteen, and the younger of the two. Even getting on Bucky over the chores took less out of Ma than harping on him and Boyer to get off their “worthless lazy goddam asses and get a match-up with one of them neighbor girls.” It was like a mantra with her: “Once you get the match-up, then you got the land. The land, boy, the land. That widow-man”—by this she meant Marcia and Laurie’s dad, Glen—“never did have no business grabbin’ up that property, neither. There’s been a Homber on that land three goddam generations, an’ I’m aimin’ on a fourth. That land’s ours by rights. And it’ll be ours by the goddam laws once one of you lazy good for nothin’s gets one of them spoiled little bitches up to the goddam altar!”

Boyer once asked, “But how, Ma?”

“You fuckin’ knock her up, stupid! The goddam land, boy! Get that goddam land! And after that”—here her eyes had rolled—“something bad will happen to that widow-man. Go to the elder girl, boy. Ply her with drink.”

“Pry, Ma.”

“Shut up!”

Bucky knew Ma just wanted what was best. He did not know that she’d had her boys in her forties. A blessed miracle she and Pa thought was past being something to worry about. Now hard days in a long life of backbreaking work were taking their toll on Ma’s body, on everything. She wouldn’t be around forever and she wasn’t getting any younger. But if she could just see her boys taken care of, keeping the family name on the family property, she could rest easy when the time came for her to go. 

She just didn’t understand how it was Marcia who was right for Bucky, not for Boyer.


That morning at breakfast: “Them fuckin’ tree-huggers! Fuck them fuckin’ fuckers! Kill ‘em all is what I say, Ma! Right? Let the Good Lord God sort ‘em out!” That was when he pawed through the Sugar Smacks but couldn’t find the toy in the box and blamed Bucky. “You son of a fuckin’ bitch!

Bucky always thought that insulted Ma. Ma didn’t seem to. He couldn’t believe how many times Pa said it. Usually around him, because Pa thought Bucky wasn’t all there anyway.

Theses were the kinds of thoughts his mind pored over doing chores. Throwing hay, stopping up holes along the fence where the dogs dug, scooping the glop out of the gutters—that was most of the afternoon. That and tending the animals. The Hombers had a long stretch of field pocketed with badger dens. It was funny how the wild animals acted more curious sometimes than the pets they kept. A badger had its head poked up out of a hole in the Swiss cheese field and stared at Bucky once a good long time. Big sucker, too. Not skittish. And he liked the hawks he saw, and the eagles, but mostly the ravens. There were other animals in the hills up behind the house, and all around everywhere else besides, and Bucky had his favorites but all of them were to him magical and mysterious and more.

Ma was asleep. Probably Boyer, too. Crickets and toads chirped and croaked. In the light of the full moon the bog-man’s lolling neck (it hadn’t done that before) revealed a curious glint. Bucky leaned forward, crouching over the body. The bog-man’s face—clear-featured now, not hardly pinched or bent at all—seemed to seek the moonlight, like a flower facing the sun. There was something around his neck, under the cloth of the hood. Some kind of thing like a big bracelet. He turned his flashlight on it.

“Gold,” he thought. With a bit of effort he managed to remove it. Using a corner of the old blanket he wiped down the heavy ornament until it warmly gleamed. Bucky gripped the thick gold knobs on either end of the twisted braids of gold curved into a crescent and managed to barely bend the ornament to fit around his neck.

Bucky turned off the flashlight and sat down opposite the bog-man again. The crickets and toads chirped and croaked. There seemed to be so many more of them now. And so much louder, too.


At Rome High Coliseum on Wednesday night a section of spectator-loaded bleachers at the football field collapsed during a game, injuring twelve and killing one, an elderly woman visiting from out of town. Later that evening, a drunk driver ran into a crowd standing outside the bowling alley.

Scuff marks on the dirt floor of the fort next to the old blanket had to have occurred sometime between late Wednesday night and mid-morning Thursday. (Had an in-fort camera been in place, one could mark the scuffing beginning at 1:17 a.m., and taking place slowly over one minute and twenty-three seconds; sped up, the scuffing would have looked like dancing.) The heels of the bog-man’s feet, in particular, bore evidence of the motion.

Unknown to Bucky, at 1:17 a.m. an overnight tour bus consisting of twenty-two persons, primarily elderly gamblers, crashed on the winding road through a guardrail and went over a three hundred foot cliff. It had taken one minute and twenty-three seconds for everyone on the bus to die.

All over Rome, bad luck abounded. And as the misfortune of Rome’s citizens increased, the body of the bog-man looked increasingly…well-preserved.

Animals, Bucky surmised on finding the scuff marks. Badgers, perhaps, had tugged at the legs. That was it. It had to be.

Bucky was wearing the torc. An old encyclopedia in the house had a picture of one very similar to his own. He was thinking a great deal on which animals might be culprits, if not badgers, and as he considered the various possible sources of the scuffing he noticed too that there were no marks on the floor of any animal at all. Nor any sign of tooth or claw marks on the legs.

Then he realized. Of course. As with wet leather left drying in the sun, the tendons under the preserved skin were contracting on both the fronts and backs of the legs, thereby accounting for the motion. In fact, this would account for all of the corpse’s various contortions.

Although…why didn’t that happen to bodies in museums?

Then he realized, again. Something in the preservative oils of the redwood bog.

Bucky looked up. He had been sitting with closed eyes, cross-legged, hands on his knees, face tilted down as he dreamed, resting very comfortably. Now when he opened his eyes, adjusted as they were to the darkness, even without turning the flashlight on he clearly beheld a badger, rather large, standing upright in the doorway of the fort, flanked by several more of its kind milling about on all fours, to which the one in the doorway now dropped and booked away as Bucky moved toward the opening and saw beyond foxes in the moonlight, numerous raccoons, skunks, deer, ravens massing in the trees. What would happen if a badger felt threatened and bit, causing the foxes to rush in and bite, and the ravens to swoop down and peck, and all of the others to join in and extinguish the irresistible source of the summons, all were thoughts which never remotely entered Bucky’s mind.

The power of animal magnetism coursed through his being. In a flash he stripped, ready to run through the woods flanked by an entourage of galloping beasts. Pants, shorts, shirt, and socks he quickly folded and set down with his shoes on a spare corner of the old blanket. There was a moment of starting off, and subsequent swift return as he put the socks and shoes back on, and with nothing but those on his feet and the torc on his neck he almost made off again, but grabbed the flashlight as well, then ran, and the animals kept pace through the thick woods in the dark, as was Bucky’s wish.


Friday night Ma Homber, ever intent on securing a matchup, tried teaching Boyer “the courtin’ ways.”

“Boyer! You get on over here and learn how to set your sights on that Marcia hussy!”

“Aww, Ma! Everything’s all just Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”

“Come on now, Dumpycakes, do this fer yer ma.”

“I done told you, Ma, you can’t call me Dumpycakes no more. And not Smidgeum, neither. I’m a man now, Ma.”

“You keep runnin’ that mouth off—”

“I am a man, Ma.”

“Well then act like one and go take care of business. Go on. Let’s just see you do it. No? Well, then, if yer majesty’s through puttin’ up such a goddam fuss, I’ll go back to teachin’ you the courtin’ ways so when the time comes you might just have your head out your ass. Now, I’ll be you and you be that hussy.”


“And don’t be such a sour puss about it, neither.”

“Okay, Ma.”

Here Bucky clomped down the stairs from his room. All his life, the trophy heads on the walls had bothered him.

“There’s Spam cheese toast on the stove,” said Ma. “You have to turn the broiler on, and be sure to turn it off when you’re done.”

“Hey, Ma, why ain’t Bucky got to do all this?”

“We been through, now shut yer yap. He’s too young. Let him watch, I don’t care. Maybe he’ll learn something.”

“Let’s just eat dinner.”

“Oh for shit sake, fuck it! I’m goin’ to bed!”

“Aww, don’t be like that, Ma. Come on, let’s try again.”

“Go to hell.”

“Come on, I’ll be Marcia, you be me. Like before.”

“Go to hell you son of a bitch.”

In the kitchen the Spam was on the toast. A little too thick-sliced, to Bucky’s taste, and it was like Russian roulette wondering which plate had the slices of the last slab of Spam poorly held in old cling wrap that Ma wanted used up before cracking open a fresh can. Bucky placed his bet and chose a plate, transferring the Spam bread to an old cookie sheet with dark stuff peeling off it, turned on the broiler and set the sheet inside. He flicked on the oven light and hunkered down to look through the smudged window. 

So far no one noticed the torc worn under his hooded sweatshirt, and he didn’t need to wonder how long he could get away with wearing the same item of clothing day after day in the Homber home. Everybody did it. One time, Ma said she figured Boyer hadn’t washed his shorts for three months. He went a whole season on an inside-out rotation basis.

Spam fat bits popped. The toast was starting to burn. Bucky pulled out the cookie sheet, sprinkled a layer of grated cheddar carefully over each slice and put it back in. He watched the cheese bubble for maybe a minute, then pulled it out, turned off the broiler, put the Spam cheese toast steaming on a plate and sat down at the table.

Night had fallen. Bucky took a bite and saw a raven sitting on the sill outside a window. It was odd to see a raven at night. Bucky wondered what it was doing. A voice came to him. Bucky looked into the next room.
Ma hadn’t heard it. She was stomping off to bed. Boyer hadn’t heard it. He stood around acting like he needed to pee.

It was the raven. The raven was the one who talked. Bucky chewed his Spam cheese toast while the raven gave him the news that a stranger was walking toward the house.


The front door opened up before Ivan Maxim reached the first porch step. A dim porch light came on. Boyer stood in the door. “This here’s private property, mister.”

Ivan looked up from the bare dirt that used to be a gravel drive. His line of sight pointed toward Boyer, but the look on Ivan’s face didn’t register a thing. Boyer could see that the man before him looked much the worse for wear. He took him to be at least ten years older than himself.

Standing at the bottom of the steps like a starving drunk, Ivan managed to remember what it was he needed to say. His voice came out barely a whisper.

“Help,” he said.
*          *          *

Twenty minutes later they were bouncing along in Boyer’s truck. Ivan hadn’t balked at the Spam cheese toast a bit, and drank about a gallon of water, in the process of this gradually managing to make clear to Boyer that his three friends were stuck in an old abandoned house not too far away, that he himself had somehow gotten out and woke up outside after sleeping he had no idea how long. Now charged up with food, time, and the company of others, agitation from Ivan as they drove with the purpose of returning to the house began to clearly mount. The gnawing worry he felt for his friends combined with fear for his own life. Bracing himself with one hand on the dash, suddenly Ivan pointed excitedly ahead with the other.

“That’s them!”

Boyer slowed down for the three zombie-like figures shuffling in the headlights, heedless of the hi-beam’s glare. “Fuckin’ shit,” Boyer hissed, “they look worse than you.”

Boyer, Bucky, and Ivan helped Rhiannon, Ike, and Maev into the bed of the pickup where they jostled on the journey back to the Homber house, where Ma stood at the door set to intervene, especially when she saw Boyer trying to help some wacked-out woman, but Boyer was not to be swayed, and all the same helped Rhiannon down. 

“They seen some hard times, Ma,” he said. “They ain’t got nothin’ but the clothes on their backs.”

“Can any of ‘em work?”

“Not now they can’t, Ma.”

“Well, there’s Spam cheese toast needs getting’ rid. I’m goin’ to goddam bed.”
*          *          *

Late that night when the huddling house had seemed to ease itself to sleep, Bucky crept outside, unaware of Boyer watching. The cold night air held the quiet feeling of nearing early morning. Bucky heard some noises as he approached the fort and figured it was deer. He turned around to check and the flashlight caught his brother.

Boyer didn’t say anything at first, only turned on his own light and shined it at the fort. He looked back at Bucky with suspicion, curious. “What the hell you got in there?” he said. Not waiting for an answer, Boyer ducked down and headed in. But at that moment somebody else came staggering out, stumbled into Boyer, and with quavering hands latched onto his neck.

Bucky watched the bog-man choke his brother. As Boyer lost his breath, the bog-man’s respiration grew.
Snapping out of horrid fascination, Bucky moved forward and tried to strike the bog-man, but the clenching fingers let go of Boyer and grabbed for Bucky instead. Boyer fell gasping on the ground. In the flurry of limbs that ensued, Bucky felt what seemed like his head being ripped off. Then the torc was torn from Bucky’s neck. The bog-man turned away, and the boys limped off with their lives.

They made through the woods without any light but had hardly reached home, slamming the door, when howling sounds throughout the mountains grew. Peeking through the dingy curtains, Bucky saw a figure appear. At the bottom of the hill, the bog-man stood staring at the house.

The four Homber house guests showed up downstairs. Ma came into the room with a shotgun. “Keep them lights off,” she hissed. Motioning Bucky away from the window, she lifted the latch and swung both sides of it open. She wouldn’t go giving no warning shot, either. But the second the window opened, into the house leaped the surreal form of a large mountain lion. With nightmarish grace it swiped the gun from Ma’s grip. Like magic in the setting moonlight, dark liquid appeared on the bare skin of Ma’s arms. Then in slipped a second lion, followed swiftly by a third. 

Wolves howled outside. The air grew wild with things that swooped and flapped and flitted, and even the oozing denizens of the soil rose flicking from the ground and glistened. A shining black raven fluttered to the open sill where dingy curtains waved, watching for a spell, then lit on the bog-man’s meaty rag-clad shoulder an inch from the golden torc. Into the bog-man’s ear, now clearly discernible, the raven delivered the news.

“They are all dead.”



The hills of Rome held in mid-November a stale chill and ominous air. Kent Traver and Tray Quinlon took advantage of the isolation pervading the secluded region by whipping throwing stars at trees. They made them in Metal Shop, surreptitiously crafted Freshman year. One whole year ago. Now the stars stuck in the trees all the way home. Redwoods made the best targets, due to sheer size, plus the spongy bark facilitated removal. 

Kent and Tray talked about everything. Like how Tray’s dad, who worked at a gas station, suspected Tray’s mom of cheating. Kent’s dad, a single-father, was an unemployed welder who sometimes knocked Kent around. The night before, for instance.

“He came at me like this.” Kent demonstrated with his right arm extended. “So I put my left up to block him, and got him on the chin.” Demonstration. “It was kind of an accident, really. But once I did that, I had to keep going. Man, he was mad. Surprised, too.” Kent punctuated this observation by chucking one of his stars at a redwood. It cut through the air with a soft whirr and stuck in the tree a trifle high. That one he would have to knock out with a branch.

“Well, what happened?” said Tray, star-hand cocked back, waving at the wrist like an agitated cobra.

“We sort of tussled for a second. He was so mad he was shaking. Like that bumblebee I sat on in the grass that time. Like he was mad, but dazed and wounded, too.”

“I can’t imagine hitting my dad.” 

“That’s ‘cause you have it easy.”

“I don’t have it so easy.” 

“Easier than me.”

“Well, he’s down at the station a lot.”

“My dad would be working all the time if it wasn’t for the economy.” 

Tray whipped his star too hard and they watched as it sailed wild, whirring past the tree. He marked the spot where he thought it landed and they headed over for retrieval. Kent knocked his own down with a stick, but ten minutes of searching for Tray’s star and kicking up a ton of duff produced nothing. Bitterly reluctant, Tray gave up. Kent wrapped his own star in a strip of leather he kept that used to be a wristband and put it in the back pocket of his jeans where he sometimes kept his wallet. Having wandered further and further away in the hunt, they cut sideways down a slope to a flat area below that used to be for camping, now long overgrown with dead yellow grass and millions of burrs that caught on their laces and socks. 

An abandoned bus was nearby, painted with faded tie-dye colors and patterns. Grass had grown around the tires, low, but not flat. All of the windows looked intact and the door was shut. Spanish moss draping from the branches of a nearby tree contributed to an atmosphere of general dilapidation. 

“Looks like it’s been here a long time,” said Kent, keeping his voice low just in case there might be someone inside. “When was the last time we came down this way?”

“I don’t know. Back in September, I guess.” 

Softly, they approached. When they saw the cobwebs on the door, they knew no one else was around. A metal hinge down the center of the door shone orange with rust. Kent gave a push with his foot. The door squeaked and folded open, releasing a dusty rain of rust. The bus creaked and rocked on tortured shocks as the boys stepped aboard. 

Disrupting the dank air within felt strangely dangerous, like entering some Pharaoh’s untouched tomb.

“What the fuck is that?” said Kent. “Carpet on the ceiling?”

Tray peered in a box left on a seat and saw a mess of necklaces, mostly made with beads. “Looks like somebody left in a hurry.”

Kent went down a little further and saw some bigger boxes. Lifting the lid of the one closest to him he saw a sizable stack of tie-dye shirts.

“There’s old food in this box,” said Tray, taking inventory.

“Shirts and musical instruments back here. What kind of food?”

“Bunch of unopened stuff. Trail mix, bottled water. Hey, a couple Hershey bars.”

“Let’s see.”

Tray held up a Hershey. They looked brand new from the store.

“I say we go for it,” said Kent. “Nobody’s been here a long time and if anybody wants to come back, they should be glad we didn’t break everything.” 

Tray tossed Kent a chocolate bar and a bottle of Arbora water. In less than a year when they would be old enough to get their driver’s licenses, Rome’s insular confines promised to spring wide, and if either wished, the hour-plus drive northwest to Egeria and the sister-city college town of Carata would hold with greater numbers the preferable allure. But for now throwing stars made in Metal Shop still counted as legit, and if a candy bar and a drink apiece fell from the sky, that was a magic find.

The candy bars were still good. Tray felt better about the loss of his star. “What’s in those boxes?” he said, indicating the ones that Kent had looked in.

“Tie-dye t-shirts. Want one?”

“I don’t really wear those. What kind of musical instruments?”

“A couple of guitars, I think. Want one?”

Tray wadded up his Hershey wrapper and chucked it back into the box. Kent saw that and flicked his on the floor.

“What kind? Electric?”

“No. Regular, I think.”

Vaulting himself casually with his hands at the tops of the seats, Tray went back to check it out. He grabbed a guitar from a case and started to strum—no finesse there—it was the equivalent of sitting in front of a piano and randomly jabbing the keys, but what the hey—when he noticed Kent’s face went funny. Like, funny in a weird way. He knew something was wrong because the blood had drained from his friend’s face. Kent Traver looked downright scared. And he never looked like that.

Guessing that whoever’s bus it was had come back, Tray stopped strumming and in the blink of an eye put the guitar back in the case. Suddenly Kent rushed for the front of the bus. There was a sound outside of something running quickly through the tall dead grass that turned into a deep-chested growl which met the doors of the bus as Kent swung shut the handle and held it against the clawing paws and intense eyes of a wolf outside snapping like mad with bared teeth.

“Fuckin’ shit!” The fear in Kent’s voice was shrill and real. “Tray! Help! Fuckin’ shit! It’s a wolf, Tray! Help! Help!”

Kent kept his weight on the fragile handle keeping the rusty buckling door shut. Insistent ticking sounds like the tip of a madman’s knife tapping outside a window hit the slim glass of the door as the wolf’s thick paws frantically clawed. At first all Tray could do was look. Then on an inspiration, he grabbed the nearest box and tossed it down between the bottom step and the door. By itself, it wasn’t enough. He headed back for more. Boxes, blankets, guitar cases, everything he could find. It wasn’t pretty but it held. Through the narrow panes of the mud-marked door, both boys watched as another pair of eyes appeared. And yet with so much stuff jammed down in the steps, the door could not fold inward. Gingerly, Kent let go of the handle. The boys watched the wolves. Another one showed up.

“Hit the horn,” said Tray. Kent did, but nothing happened. Not so much as a toot.

“It doesn’t work.”

“I don’t think there’s any other way for them to get in,” Tray said, eyeing the windows, none of which were broken, and all of which were either mostly up or fully shut. 

“Or for us to get out. We’re stuck in here until they leave, and even then, so what? I’m not getting out with wolves running around.”

At that moment Tray stepped into a box on the floor. It had been under one of the seats, the only box in reach he hadn’t chucked down the steps plugging the door. When he pulled out his foot and looked inside, Tray saw the broken hive.

The hive was the size of a man’s head, from the busted mess of which a mass of black hornets rose like an evil thought. Kent rushed to the front of the bus and dropped the window, already partially open, behind the driver’s seat. Slipping through, he tried to climb up to the roof with the aid of the outside mirror and a thin lip of metal running the length of the bus like a tiny gutter. Inside, Tray was screaming. Kent scrambled nimbly to the top, using the arm of the mirror to push himself up with his foot as one of the wolves came running around from the other side. Kent turned around to see Tray’s face peeking desperately below with black shapes waddling on it. The hornets were going for his eyes. The fingertips of one hand gripped the metal lip while with his other he madly brushed at his face pinched in a defensive wince. Kent dropped flat to the sloped surface of the cracked and peeling roof, grabbed Tray’s swiping hand, and pulled him up as the wolves jumped at Tray’s retreating feet, jaws audibly snapping below.

At the time the boys did not realize how strange it was that the hornets quickly dissipated. They didn’t feel then that they had gotten off light, due to the swelling welts on Tray’s face and largely because the wolves now noticed something new. The front of the bus was not flat. It was the old kind, with a snub nose. One after another, the wolves tried jumping up, and fell back on finding the surface too slippery for purchase. But they were getting close. Once on top of that, they could easily reach the roof.

A tree branch caked with Spanish moss dangled tantalizingly close. Kent’s first thought was to break off part and use it as a club. He could see himself slipping over the side if he tried. Then he remembered his throwing star. Producing it from his pocket, he crept in a crouch to the front of the bus and peered at the edge over the nose. The wolves were watching him below. Kent took careful aim at the one making the most progress jumping, but as soon as it left his hand he knew it was no good. Not once did the wolves take their black-lined eyes off of him, either. Didn’t even blink, or seem to notice when the pointy piece of metal sailed high and got lost forever somewhere in the tall dead grass beyond. 

The target wolf leaped up, front paws clawing on the peeling hood, hind legs scrambling. Unconsciously Kent connected the image with a poster Tray’s mom had on a wall behind their dryer of a cat looking like it was trying to do a pull up and the words Hang In There. The end of a mossy limb hung only a couple of feet from Kent’s reach. What had seemed too far away at first now looked possible. Somewhere deep down, Kent knew he’d have to go first, that Tray wouldn’t try unless he saw Kent could do it, just like jumping off the bridge into Canteen River for the first time the summer before. Knees bent, elbows back, Kent launched himself as if in slow motion, watching as his hands grabbed the branch, which dipped nightmarishly low on receiving his hundred and fifty-seven pounds, and he watched as his feet rose up, legs wrapping around the branch, body tucked up close, and watched himself scoot hand-over-over, foot-over-foot, closer to the trunk, hugging the bough as tightly as possible and calling out for Tray to jump just as the wolf gained purchase, claws ticking on the hood, and rushed at Tray with bared teeth and a snarl to curdle the blood. But Tray could hardly see, his face had been so badly stung, and the mossy limb still lightly bobbed. This affected his leap, so that he grabbed the branch more toward the end than he wanted. The branch dipped down low. Even with the branch higher than the bus, his legs hung low enough for the wolves on the ground to easily reach. 

Now the others came rushing around. One sprang at Tray’s dangling legs as his feet kicked up out of reach. Red-faced, Tray hung at arm’s length looking like Gene Hackman at the end of “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Kent shouting for Tray to hang on. The words Get your fucking feet up now coming out without his knowledge.

From somewhere deep in the aged branch, about midway down its mossy length, there came a torturous sound . . . .

The wolves stopped springing. The branch was definitely cracking. At a rustling in the grass Kent craned his neck and saw that someone was approaching. 

Then the branch snapped. 

The wolves rushed in—but mysteriously stopped. All four pairs of black-lined eyes turned toward the man with long hair standing nearby. 

He looked mid-twenties, dressed in open shirt, jeans and sandals, with a thick piece of gold jewelry around his neck. 

“Isn’t that just like life?” he said in a soft voice that strangely carried, “there you are, out on a limb, up the tree of life, then suddenly down on the ground with the wolves. The question for me is, should I be bothered to do anything about it, or do I stand idly by and watch?”

Still on the ground by the branch where he landed, Tray trembled and grimaced in shock and pain. A large silvery wolf panted in arm’s reach. 

“I think sometimes it’s best”—here the long-haired man crossed his left foot over his right and descended, accordion-like, to a cross-legged seated position—“to simply sit and listen.”

All four of the wolves ambled over and lay down before him. Unconcerned now about the boys, they quietly panted with good-natured grins.

Kent kept an eye on them as he took a chance and eased his legs from around the branch, ready to scramble back up into safety. But the wolves remained unconcerned even as he dropped down and quietly asked Tray if he thought he could walk. A nod affirmed. Kent helped Tray to his feet. Together they hobbled away, without bothering to look for the throwing stars. The mysterious stranger seemed not to notice. Still sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed, he softly sang a Grateful Dead song, “Dire Wolf.”

“Don’t murder me, plee-eease don’t murder me….”



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