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4. The Girl
in the Car
Benjamin had peered inside
every car and truck parked behind the church while Gilman stood by with
his armload of blankets, breathing heavily, winded by the climb. Benjamin
ended up standing beside Macey Walker’s old Bronco, staring in through
the passenger side window. Nobody had left their keys in the ignition
as far as he could tell in the dim light cast by the high single bulb
sconced on the back wall of the church. Benjamin knew where the keys
were. Couldn’t think about that just now. Had to stay focused. Had
to stay sane.
Turnkey,” he said. “You know how to hotwire a car?”
you kidding?” Gilman chuckled. “I’m not the one under house arrest.
You’re the criminal, Weller. You’re the thief.”
winced at the gibe, and he grunted his acknowledgment of the knifing
sensation in his shoulder. It’d taken on a physical stabbing sort
of throb when they’d rounded the final turn of the driveway, when
the church had loomed into view against the tree line. He figured it
had something to do with the brisk walk up the drive, his elevated pulse.
It was as if someone were slowly shoving a blade tip into the wound,
and then, just as slowly, pulling it back out. Might also have something
to do with the awkward position of his arm, his wrists shackled behind
him as they were. He stepped up next to Gilman, who seemed somewhat
refreshed and ready to move on.
my dick, Turnkey,” Benjamin said, responding to the man’s verbal
indictment as best he could given his exhaustion. Gilman was finding
this entire undertaking far too amusing for Benjamin’s tastes. Glaring
at the big man’s smirking face, he wondered, once again, why out of
all the people in Bingly it had to be Gilman Turnkey by his side tonight.
way?” Gilman asked.
the church were a few derelict logging roads left to reforest since
the industry had packed its bags and left, leaving Bingly to rot in
its fumes. During the clear-cutting years, the main attack had been
centered on Deerborn Mountain, which backed Hog Hill about two miles
distant. The trees, Douglas firs and red alder, had managed to repopulate
the mountain, a miniature forest compared to the original. Hog Hill
had not escaped unscathed; in fact, it’d been nearly swept clean,
raped, defiled. The logging roads that had ribboned the hill had left
deep scars. The poplars would not reseed in the dirt tracts, and so
the roads had remained. These days, hunters used the roads, along with
searchers of free firewood and the occasional day hiker. One of these
roads broke out from the poplars and the blackberry bushes to the rear
of the church. The road was in ruin, what with the deep potholes and,
higher up, some minor landfalls. It led to the crown of Hog Hill, where
Benjamin had crashed the car.
nodded toward this logging road, and they trudged off in silence. After
they’d left the church behind them and trekked up the road’s switchbacks
a few hundred yards, Gilman broke the silence.
when I was a kid,” he said, panting, “we called the top of this
wasn’t listening. He was concentrating on his Don’t Be a Pussy mantra,
his shoulder throbbing. His lips had dried up crisp and were tender,
and it felt like his throat had done the same.
of the hill’s all bald,” Gilman explained. “Like Curly. You know...The
rounded on the big man, halting their progress for the moment. “Do
you really think I care about your ‘when I was a kid’ bullshit?”
He kept this to a harsh whisper as best he could. The trees had crowded
in around him. These dark sentries lined the narrow dirt forest road,
and they were absolutely freaking him out. “Let’s just keep moving,
not the one who stopped.”
take off the handcuffs now?” Benjamin wasn’t too hopeful.
arrest, remember? You’re guilty till proven otherwise.”
finished the journey in silence. The poplars thinned a bit, and Benjamin
knew this was an indicator that the crown was just up ahead. Over the
slight rise, a beam of light sliced through the darkness: a headlight,
angled up, like a beacon in a stormy sea. He found the strength to jog
the last twenty feet, his heart thudding, his throat cinched up against
the dog collar due to the sluggishness of Gilman. The moonlight illuminated
the hilltop in sepia, and the wreck gleamed. Benjamin slowed his feet
and stumbled to a standstill, a sour feeling flooding his gut as he
realized what a god-awful mess he’d made.
was not standing still. He’d dropped the leash and was running at
the wrecked car, wrestling with his armload of blankets and medical
supplies. He was yelling for Nancy.
ruined car’s taillights and one headlight fought back the creeping
fog. Benjamin wondered how much time he’d wasted going to get help
and then trudging back up to the top of the hill. It couldn’t be near
sunup, could it? The moisture in the soil, whatever was left of it after
a week’s worth of record temperatures, was being pulled up into the
early morning air. But the fog was not thick enough to hide the fact
that the wrecked car was Nancy’s bruise-colored, bondo-spattered ’69
Ford Mustang Mach 1.
hadn’t Benjamin warned Gilman? The big man was going to burst a vein
the way he was carrying on, shouting for his wife as he ran at the twisted
wreck. The crack-webbed windshield revealed nothing, just moon sheen.
Could have been anybody inside, broken and bleeding. The shaker hood
with its centered intake duct was nearly cleaved up the middle, a white
barked tree seemingly sprouting from the 351 Clevland engine block like
some sort of mad experiment, some bionic-organic mutation. How the hell
had that sickly runt of a tree taken the impact of the crash? It was
certainly new growth, just like all the trees in the area. Stupid damn
tree, Benjamin cursed to himself. The car had been drawn to it. The
mystical workings of magnetism were beyond Benjamin, but he felt certain
science was to blame for the accident. Either that or magicks of some
sort. Same thing, pretty much.
from the busted radiator was shooting up and wrapping around the white
tree trunk. As Benjamin watched, the steam faltered, died down, dried
up. The cab of the car was intact for the most part and unaltered by
the crash, except for a slight buckling in the roof, like a wrinkle
in a bedsheet. The rear of the car had decided to keep going when the
rest of the car had stopped, and it had snuck in under the roof a foot
or so. The rear window was dust.
was calling to his wife. He’d slowed to a walk thirty or so steps
away from the wreck. Benjamin stumbled forward, saying, “Turnkey,
no, that’s...” He picked up his pace, adding some volume to his
pleading call. “Turnkey. That’s not Nancy in there, man.” He took
bounding strides to catch Gilman, wanting to grab the big man, wrestle
him to the ground before he reached the passenger door, stop him before
he tried to yank that door open. But he couldn’t do that, now could
he? Not with his goddamn wrists handcuffed as they were. He had to make
Gilman understand that his wife was not in the car. Benjamin also wanted
to stop Gilman from calling out his wife’s name. If Brenda was still
alive, as he wanted to believe—no, he did believe, he did believe,
he did believe—he knew that hearing Nancy’s name shouted over and
over was going to piss her off to no end.
to the wreck now, Benjamin could see the mess of chestnut hair splayed
against the inside of the cracked windshield—in his head he saw her
arms folded on the dash, her head resting there, the picnic blanket
from behind the seat wrapped around her shoulders, her left knee shattered
and trapped between the under dash and the crumpled gear box—and he
knew she was sitting there waiting for him to bring back help, and she’d
be so relieved now that he’d arrived.
was parting the low fog as he walked toward the wreck. Benjamin could
see movement beneath the surface of the ground cover, as if something,
or many things, had been startled to activity by the arrival and onrush
of Gilman Turnkey. Benjamin saw one of the fog creatures pounce at Gilman’s
ankle, and then the fog lazily swallowed it up, hiding it from view
once more. Benjamin skidded to a standstill, dread emoting his plea
into a command: “Stop, Gilman.”
steps faltered, and he froze. He still had hold of the paper sack, and
he held the two blankets by their tails, dragging their dew-gathering
weight behind him. He also had hold of the flashlight, which was uselessly
pointed at the sky. He gazed around him, his burdened hands lifting
out to his sides as if he were treading water, pirouetting in the sea
of fog. He looked down at his submerged feet, his lips mumbling something
or other. Then, as he came round, his eyes snapped up to Benjamin’s.
the hell, Weller?” he said. A sudden stillness in the clearing made
his voice boom and reverberate in the damp air. A slight breeze drifted
across the hilltop, and it swept the ghostly groundcover away. At Gilman’s
feet, spread out in all directions, was a motley horde of kittens, their
coats slick with the morning moisture. A few kittens were rubbing their
ribs against Gilman’s ankles.
Benjamin said, tiptoeing forward, a couple dozen feet distant from the
man. “Turnkey, man, hey.” He stepped to the edge of the bustling
mass of glistening fur. “Don’t. Let. Them. Scream.”
arms lowered, a held breath escaping his lungs, and Benjamin saw him
start to giggle as he looked to his left, to his right, behind, and
it was clear that he could not advance or retreat without breaking kitten
spines with each step, which Benjamin figured might be a good idea.
Gilman lifted his head and looked at Benjamin helplessly, smiling, and
said, “You see this, kid? Can’t be happening.” He aimed the flashlight
into the fur and caught phosphorescent glints from the eyes, and hints
of soft pink kitten lips. A rumbling, low-register rasp rose up around
him. “They’re purring,” he said, unaware, Benjamin knew, that
he was in serious trouble. One of the kittens put its paw on Gilman’s
shin and looked up at him, mewing. Gilman turned and, keeping his feet
low to the ground, took tiny steps toward the wrecked car. Once again,
he called to Nancy.
goat,” Benjamin said. The cats surrounding Gilman began to jump over
each other and growl with excitement as the big man moved through their
subtle resistance and parted their gathered mass with each step like
a plow breaking soil. Benjamin watched one brave kitten scramble atop
the others. It jumped onto Gilman’s pant leg, claws extended, and
began to climb. How long before it opened its jaws like the kitten in
Nancy’s bedroom? How long before it called to the cruel, burrowing
unaware he’d been doing it, had been backing away from the scene as
kittens attempted to surround him. They were toying with him, toying
with Gilman, taking their time with the two men as if they were a pair
of gimpy mice. Benjamin would not turn and run; he was decidedly against
fleeing the scene, knowing damn well that he needed to be moving toward
the car, not away from it. The kittens were going to take Gilman and
scream him into vine world, where things tore and dug and ate. And they’d
do the same to Brenda. Something had to be done. At all costs, the damsel
had to be rescued.
saw a whirling light rise up over the hill. It emerged from the bushes
and poplars across the clearing from him, and he felt sure this was
some new monster come to peel flesh from bone. A trumpet-like call blurted
from the light source, a battle cry of some sort, and a human form took
shape, walked into the clearing, the whirling light haloing its head.
It rounded the wreck at a good pace and advanced on Gilman. The light
was being swung in a wide circle with an outstretched hand, and Benjamin
could see that the light emanated from the tip of a long stick. And
he could see that the person twirling the stick was the town drunk,
which made no sense whatsoever—it couldn’t be Willy the Drunk. That’d
be absolutely ridiculous. William’s lips puckered and the bleating
wail came bursting out, an inhuman, mournful sound. Benjamin wrestled
with the metal handcuffs for a moment, demanding his wrists be free.
He didn’t know what distressed him more, his kidnapper and the stupid
handcuffs, the cats and their imminent beacon-screams, or the drunk
who by all things sensible should not be here on the hill.
was glancing about the top of Hog Hill, whirling the light stick above
his head, trumpeting his inhuman wail, and steadily advancing on Gilman
and the wrecked car. He was wearing his telltale flannel shirt, grubby
and shiny with constant wear. His whiskered chin and cheeks and the
tuft of short and bristly hair on his scalp were white with age. His
boots were kicking at the kittens as he walked across the clearing,
and he seemed a slow-motion Tasmanian devil—like the cartoon character
Benjamin had watched on Saturday mornings a long time ago when life
had been simpler—what with the radiating twirl of the light stick
and the kitten fur bustling up and floating around him.
spotted Benjamin standing at the edge of the clearing. The tip of the
stick slowed its rotation. He grabbed hold of it near the lighted, thicker
end with both hands, and stuck the opposite, pointier end through the
throat of a kitten, continuing to shove until the stick’s tip was
stuck firmly in the gravelly hilltop. William leaned on his strange
walking staff, twisted the head until the beaming glow went out, and
stared from beneath his lowered, gritty brow at Benjamin.
stood five feet from William. He was staring at the drunk, one foot
frozen in midstep. Before his balance gave out, he lowered the foot,
placing it gently and harmlessly amidst the kittens packed in around
he said. “What the hell are you doing here?”
brought a finger to his lips and smiled at Gilman, a smile that said
William knew he looked out of place in such a situation as this but,
hey, who wouldn’t? Benjamin noted uneasily that every one of the kittens
was motionless...and perhaps curious. Their ears were attentive and
they were quiet. It was silent on the hill, or near silent, and Benjamin
tried to focus his hearing on that certain unquiet thing, that growing
rumble of… something. He could definitely hear something rising up,
coming closer. It was a panting sound, gathering volume and seemingly
coming from all directions, closing in on him from the dark undergrowth
surrounding the clearing.
was feeling rather vulnerable.
it, Turnkey,” he said. “Give me the handcuff key.”
first dog announced itself with a low growl and a leap, charging in
from Benjamin’s right, racing at the kittens, grabbing the closest
one in its teeth, and ripping it in two with three quick jerks of its
head. This dog was dark haired, as far as Benjamin could tell under
the silvering moonlight and the Mustang’s taillight glow. It was muscular,
brutal yet graceful, reveling in its element, on the hunt. The dog’s
name was Jonsey. It was another member of Dodd’s hunting pack, a sweet
fella by anyone’s estimation, Benjamin knew, but at the moment he
was all business as he advanced and leapt at the next kitten. The neighboring
kittens began to scatter, running to the dark slopes of the hill. From
these slopes, cutting off the kittens’ escape routes, dogs came charging,
thinning the feline force and splattering blood on the bald crown of
recognized Frasia Reynolds’s floppy-jowled bloodhound and George Adams’s
dalmatian. He was amazed to see the Harleys’s Yorkshires, two short-legged
terriers barely visible within the frenzied kitten mob. These two tiny
dogs were tearing into flesh, dismantling the ranks of kittens, doing
their part. Benjamin wasn’t sure, but there had to be more than a
dozen dogs attacking the kittens, and the clearing atop Hog Hill was
filled with grunts of effort, yaps of infuriation, and the underlying
roar of animal growls, punctuated by the whipping heads of dogs on the
hunt. There were also the ear-ripping death screams of the kittens,
which Benjamin would not have minded so terribly, but he’d always
considered himself a cat person. Was this giddiness he felt? No, just
imbalance, displacement. And good God he was dizzy. He was going to
pass out. He began to shake his head, the only offensive act he felt
capable of just then.
the middle of the kitten massacre, William stood, a long-hilted sword
in his grasp, casually slicing a few kittens in two. Where the hell
had the drunk gotten the sword? Benjamin saw the empty husk of the walking
stick, the lower half of it, in William’s other hand, and he realized
the drunk’s walking stick was quite the complicated gadget, something
he wouldn’t mind checking out. Later. After all the killing was over.
However long that was going to take.
contrast to the drunk, Gilman, his hands occupied with the paper bag,
the flashlight, and the blankets, was stepping one direction and then
the other, trying to stay out of the way of the vicious dogs’ line
of toothy attack while attempting to maintain his balance.
half a minute, the battle was over, and the kittens that hadn’t been
torn apart had scattered to dark hiding holes and high tree limbs down
the hill. The dogs had chased after the runaways, leaving the top of
the hill disturbed. Fluffs of fur floated about, clouds of dirt swirled;
a new kind of groundcover had replaced the early morning fog.
now, except for the static-hiss of one lone survivor. Somehow, the kitten
that had climbed Gilman’s pant leg earlier had held on during the
entire skirmish, and it clung there, its tiny head twisted around and
hissing at William. Just as Benjamin was about to point this out verbally,
William sheathed his blade and twisted the two halves, locking the sword
inside, making the walking stick whole again, and then he flipped the
stick so he was holding the thin end with both hands. He brought the
fat head back and, gauging the length of the staff and the short distance
to the target perfectly, swung the head of the stick into the kitten’s
head, a loud crack signaling the impact. As the kitten’s body kept
its claw hold on Gilman’s pant leg, its head rocketed from the hilltop,
and Benjamin thought, Bye-bye baseball. The kitten’s claws relaxed
after a few seconds, and Gilman shook the dead, headless thing from
hadn’t moved for a few minutes, and he was finding it impossible to
do so now. His legs didn’t have the gelatinous feel they’d had earlier;
now they felt numb, as if they were someone else’s legs. His sight
was blurry. Felt like the cuffs had nearly cut through his wrists.
had to get to the car, see if Brenda was okay. He’d fallen witness
to the most absurd events, the impossibility of which made him want
to scream, and he somehow had to pull himself back to reality, where
his girlfriend was hurt and needed help, not the ultra reality he’d
just been subjected to, where cats call on villainous plant life, and
the local drunk is some sort of warrior. He worked at tamping down the
anger over the breakup prior to the crash. That may have been imagined,
he told himself. Might be it never happened. Benjamin was good at this
sort of reasoning, this sort of selective memory. Like his belief in
monsters, a belief that he knew was absurd and childish, he could believe
that he was capable of rescuing Brenda, couldn’t he? Unless he passed
out from all the spinning his dizzy head was doing.
could just make out Gilman, twenty or so feet away, shooting questions
at William, who stood calmly, leaning on his walking stick. While he
spoke, Gilman stepped to the wrecked car, staring intently at the slumped
passenger leaning against the dash. Benjamin could tell by his composed
movements that Gilman knew it wasn’t Nancy slouched there—wrong
hair color, smaller frame, different perfume. The girl in the car was
a bit less experienced in life’s crazy game show than Nancy Turnkey.
Benjamin knew that the girl sitting in the wrecked car had the skin
of an angel, and, at times, smiled like one, although when her smile
went all slanted, watch out, man. He knew the girl sitting inside the
wrecked car most certainly had not deserved this outcome, that in no
way did the sum of her actions justify this result. She wasn’t supposed
to be a victim. This girl had not even graduated from eleventh grade
yet; she was still a goddamned junior in goddamned high school, for
the girl in the car was indeed dead. Benjamin could see this fact in
the way Gilman set the flashlight and the blankets on the roof of the
ruined car, by the way he reached in through the busted window and tenderly
pushed her from the dashboard so she was leaning against the seat, by
the way he set down the paper bag full of medical supplies and left
it in the gravel, by the way he stood slump-shouldered beside Nancy’s
felt tears gush out of his eyes and rush down his filthy cheeks, but
they felt like someone else’s tears, just like his legs. It wasn’t
until he opened his mouth and moaned, his mind uncontrollably flashing
snapshots of Brenda, that he felt himself drowning in sorrow, his own
sorrow, not someone else’s. He went to his knees on the plush carpet
of dead kittens. He wanted to go to the ground, curl up fetal, but it
was far too slick with blood, out-of-bounds, way too repulsive even
in the grief-stricken state he found himself. He was bombarded with
thoughts and visions of Brenda, and he could somehow taste the things
that should have been but weren’t, like the sweet endearments he’d
left unsaid, the salty touches he’d retracted. He could smell the
walks in the rain he’d neglected to ask her to take. All these things
he’d carelessly not done were flooding into him, making him choke.
a moment, it was pure, unsullied mourning for the dead, and then it
wilted into grief for the jilted living. He felt and heard himself bawl
for his sudden lack of Brenda, and he quivered in fear at the images,
with all sorts of facets and outcomes, of him standing before her parents
and telling them their daughter had died in a car accident for which
he was responsible. He’d just began to contemplate leaving town to
avoid the miasma of bullshit that was no doubt flying his way when he
heard footsteps crunch on the bloody gravel before him, felt a hand
on his shoulder, and he knew it was Brenda, miraculously not dead.
blinking away the curtain of tears that blinded him, he saw the town
drunk standing in front of him, concern on his whiskered face. Benjamin
shook his head, grunting with the effort that it took to shut down the
sobbing fit, swallowing tears painfully past the lump in his throat.
He wanted to stand up, but he was just too exhausted.
William said, the hand resting on Benjamin’s shoulder giving a heartening
squeeze. It was Benjamin’s good shoulder; otherwise, he’d have gone
down in the cat guts, screaming bloody murder. “Benjamin, can you
question was alien to Benjamin. Could he walk? Of course he could walk.
He’d been able to walk nearly his entire life.
got to get you down to Star Hobbs place,” William continued. “She’ll
patch you up good as new.”
peeked around William to see Gilman standing beside the busted out passenger
window. Seemed he hadn’t moved a muscle. It scared Benjamin to see
Gilman standing there like that.
lost a lot of blood,” William said. “Now, are you going to stand
up? Or are you going to make an old man pick you up.”
looked to the ground, scanned the dead kittens, then looked up at William
and said, “All these cats, Willy.” He didn’t like how frail his
voice sounded. “How’d all these cats get here?”
tell you.” William bent down and hauled Benjamin to his feet, careful
to leave the ripped shoulder untouched. A few grunts and wheezes from
the drunk, but other than that, he accomplished the lift easy enough.
Pretty good for an old guy, by Benjamin’s estimation.
was saying something, and then he wasn’t, and time must have somehow
fast-forwarded, skipping valuable seconds, riches unspent. Benjamin
was not where he’d just been; he’d been transported a few yards
across the clearing, a greater distance from Gilman and the wrecked
Mustang. His wrists were free, and he held them up in front of his face
and saw bloody bracelets. Maybe he’d passed out. This loss of time
made him frantic, and he realized he was more than likely going to pass
out for a longer period and, by the time he’d come to, they’d have
separated him from Brenda. And, goddamn it, that could not happen. Can’t
just walk away. He told himself to turn around pronto and face what
he’d done, face it and tell Brenda he was sorry. So fucking sorry.
Benjamin shouted, exerting more effort than he’d thought he’d have
to. “Turnkey.” He’d fully intended on saying more, but William
kept leading him away. Away? Why was the drunk doing this? It was difficult
to crane his head around and keep Gilman in his ebbing frame of sight—fading
at the edges, growing smaller and smaller. He tried then, but he could
not ask the question. The vile thing wouldn’t leave his throat.
last glimpse of the scene, before William guided him down the slope,
was of the big man standing beside the passenger window, slump-shouldered,
witness to what Benjamin knew damn well he himself should be witnessing:
the horrible absence of life sitting in the passenger seat of Nancy
Turnkey’s wrecked Mustang.