The blood the message was written in had not been Megan's. As soon as I saw it, I scanned the rest of the room. Megan hadn't been taken easily, but there was no other blood. No spatter from a sudden puncture, no dripping trails or smears, either on the walls or floor like the new interior design over at the house across the cul-de-sac. Just over there.
I wrestled with the idea that she had lived that close to me for so long and I had never known that she was a monster.
She didn't become a monster until you gave it to her, mama said.
I think you're a carrier. Pastor Ford's voice joined mama's in a chorus of opinion I didn't need at the moment - a kind of baptist peanut gallery.
But were they right? That was the question. Mrs. Henley had been fine until we talked in my driveway, then had almost immediately, from the looks of the house and the time it would take to get into that condition, fallen under the influence of something malevolent. And there were the others. I had to go after Megan, but while I did, what would be happening to Jarrett and his aunt, or Dudley? With anyone checking in on them for that matter? Logic told me in no uncertain terms that even if I did come away from Shoeshine Drop still breathing, there would be more death and horror to stomach in Waterman.
My only option was to turn to dispatch. There would be - should be - a couple of deputies watching the Drop already, so that would be my back up when I got there. I could only hope that they were enough to handle Mrs. Henley because she would be getting there before I did. I would reach out to them first and let them know trouble was on its way, then I'd send Clark and a partner to check in on Jarreth. I'd send another two to Dudley's. That would effectively deplete my force, but I figured if three armed personnel were ineffective against an old lady with a supernatural virus, there probably wasn't much an army of us would be able to do and tonight would probably go down as a tragic and fatal massacre.
I hope you're not kidding yourself, Marty. There is absolutely nothing positive that will come out of this, no matter how you look at it. No matter which side wins.
Mama was wrong about that. If I only saved Megan and her baby, that was enough. I didn't care if it required my life to make that happen, but Megan's survival would be a good thing. The world was a better place with her in it.
I jumped in my cruiser and peeled backward out of the driveway, backing over a political sign somebody had stuck in my yard without asking. I had left it there because my name would be on one of those signs soon enough and and I supported the candidate. I punched the cruiser and squeezed out of the cul-de-sac with my siren bleating, frightening away the serene Rockwellian perfection of the day.
Before I could start barking orders to dispatch, the radio crackled to life.
"All units, we have a possible 10-94 on Priddis Mill Road in the vicinity of the lookout area."
10-94 was the code for suicide. Clark returned the alert.
"Dispatch, this is Clark. I'm close to there. En route now."
"10-4, Clark. You're looking for a teenage boy. Name: Jarreth Holcomb. Proceed with caution. Mother reports unstable, violent behavior."
"10-4, dispatch," Clark came back. "Any report of a weapon?"
He won't need one, I thought.
"Dispatch, this is Sheriff Reese."
"Nice of you to join us, sir." I thought it was a weird thing for her to say, but then I remembered turning off my coms again while I was trying to be stealthy in Mrs. Henley's house. "I've been handling a situation tied to this one. Clark, who's on duty up there right now?"
"Matt and Ella."
Crap! I thought. Matt had seen his share of the stink the world had to offer, but Ella was a rookie. She'd been on office duty until now. This was the last thing I thought she'd be ready for. I tried to reach them over the radio, but there was silence from my two at the Drop.
"Clark, get out there as quick as you can, but remain in your vehicle until I get there, unless you don't have a choice. I have reason to believe there may be others involved. Be careful and keep your eyes and ears open. I repeat - do not get out of your car unless you are forced to make a strategic decision."
Jarreth' s gone. Took the train and already got, well ... dropped off, Mrs. Henley's voice rang inside my head. If I was going to get a leg up, I would have to ignore the beast. Oh, don't be mad, Marty. I was hungry.
"Dispatch, advise all other units to remain in Waterman and be ready for incoming distress calls. Also advise emergency medical and fire to be on the ready."
I decided there would be no one sent to check in on certain civilians. Waterman would be better served to have them ready for anything. I also considered reporting the mess at Mrs. Henley's house, but what was the use? Manpower would have to go out immediately to that situation and that would tie important hands. I listened to the radio as I flew toward Shoeshine Drop, trying to shake the visuals from my head that naturally ushered me along. I tried to focus on Megan's face - the ill-timed, clumsy kiss that was my first introduction to her perfectly soft lips. I probably formed something of a false, overly beautiful version of her to hold on to. I always do that when I think of her, making her out as more angelic than a human being can be. It's an imagery driven more my my heart than my head.
After dispatch finished doling out the orders I'd given, the radio fell silent and all that was left to hear was the road under tires. It was an eerily lonely sound that seemed to add a period to the day. No, actually, it was more like a dash because there was more to come. Lots more.
The light was getting low by then. It gets darker sooner in the higher elevations because the sun gets to hide behind the mountains long before it can at the distant tree lines of the plains. There was still light to be had, but it was taking on a glow I didn't care for. A dusky, ominous orange. I thought on most occasions, I would bask in that kind of light, enjoying the way the air seemed to be stained with gold fleck. Not that day. The glow felt heavy and acrid. Like stains of rust from an ancient, yet still burning furnace.
The mountains were in front of me, looming like the secret places of the gods. They, too, lost their allure. I love the mountains. I can ride up and around the sleepy, winding roads and get taken into sanguine meditation, even on a gloomy day. But like the color of the air, that peacefulness traded places with foreboding. The shadowy crevices that lie within the trees on either side of the road would hold mysteries with teeth and as I drove toward where the land began to steeply rise, the fog I expected quickly started to settle in.
I took the left fork when I came to it - the one that leads up the mountain. The one on the right heads back in the direction of the interstate and life the way it ought to be. In that direction, it was a numb, but rather blissful existence of alarm clocks, heavy traffic, and nine to five. There were demons there too, of course, but most times they disguised themselves in the skins of the every day. If they possessed old ladies and rent bodies asunder, there were better people than me to deal with it. I looked longingly at the road to the right and wondered if that was a place for me, assuming we made it out of Shoeshine Drop. Megan and I could make a life there and probably a decent one. We could raise her pebble in a culture with plenty of choices and no shortage of adventures. But looking down that road did me nor Megan any good because right then the only direction I could go was up. That was the next page in our book. The road to the left. Up the mountain. Shoeshine Drop.
As hard as I tried to clear my head of thoughts that included the demon, I couldn't do it. I knew to be always watchful of my enemy and so I decided from that point on I would think of it as Tom. Mrs. Henley didn't deserve what had happened to her and she wasn't responsible for this. She wasn't Mrs. Henley any more at all; she was a mere shell. Plus, I imagined a demon might find the name 'Tom' a bit underwhelming. There's nothing wring with the name on the surface, but everything I remember from the Bible about demons or the devil brought to mind more gothic tones. Impressive and poetic names like Lucifer and Legion. Names that give pause to those who hear them. Names are important to the likes of Tom and so Tom it would be. I refused to label the thing with no prouder a moniker than that.
The fog rolled and thickened like a greeting. In the quiet of a morning, it was another thing I usually found comfort in, but up on the mountain, wrapping everything in suffocating shroud of blur, it felt more like a jack in the box. Around every corner lay the possibility of a surprise. Each revolution of my tires was a turn of the bar.
This fog was worse yet. This was Tom's fog. Wet and sticky and full of poison. When it maundered in, it did so with the solitary purpose of putting you out of sorts, a tool that set you on Tom's terms and gave him the home field advantage.
He knew I was coming and he was waiting for me; he'd written a taunting message in blood to draw me in and took Megan to make sure I didn't change me mind. A tissue ... A tissue ... we all FALL DOWN! Tom had thrown down the gauntlet again in the brief vision and had asked through a gruesome version of Mrs. Henley how fast I could run.
I had a feeling it wanted me to witness whatever it was planning first hand. My ride on his train had shown me how tonight ends, or at least how he wanted me to think it would and I knew by the vision that Megan would be alive when I got there. My only hope was that I could somehow make it end differently. And what if Tom got there and my deputies engaged him? Would that change anything?
All of these things and more jostled in my mind for positions of importance and started to panic. My breath became rapid and shallow. My heart pounded worse than it had yet. There was too much to think about - to prepare for - and there was no time. The beat of my heart was almost audible again, like the rhythmic cadence of a tribal ritual. It was hypnotic and I found myself slipping in and out of my thoughts on a deep level - out of my thoughts and into another kind of fog that wanted to pull me completely in. I fought against it for as long as I could because I knew what awaited me in that other place. The train.
There was a part of me that actually wanted to let it take me - to show me what came next. But Tom's train didn't work that way. Tom was the thing in charge he enjoyed taking you over the steep hills and through the the dark tunnels, but you never got the option of choosing your stops. You were the passenger, going exactly where Tom wanted to take you.
I had to try and drive on and I had to keep my wits about me. That became my mantra. To push on and keep in control, but what happened next was the opposite of that.
Without so much as a warning, a thick sheet of white gray misted around the cruiser and stole what vision I had. I screeched to a stop, deciding not to even try and pull over to the side because there was no seeing the rock mountain wall on my right anyway and I would have likely made a big mistake and drove directly into it. It was dangerous and even now I struggle with whether or not I should have done it, but if anyone else was coming behind me or toward me in the opposing lane, trying to drive in cover that thick, I guessed they deserved to smash into me.
I got out of the cruiser and paid careful attention to my footing and direction at first, but recognizing that now I would almost without question be too late to save Megan, even if the fog lifted enough for me to run. The Drop was another two miles ahead and with me now having to test every step for solid purchase all hope seemed to be lost. I'm not a man who gives up, though, so I would press on, no matter what I found when I got there.
Hopelessness consumed me, gnawing on me like a hungry dog works a bone. I tries to think of positive things that would help me keep up the pace. I couldn't see where I was, but my path was forward and that was a good thing, Megan was strong and that was another.
Weak. She's weak, Marty Marty Late for the Party.
Mrs. Henley's voice was dry and crackley like the dead trying to speak after a hundred years. I ignored it as best as I could. I thought of all the mythological stuff from my youth, including the fact that vampires were not supposed to be able to get to you in your house unless you invited them in. I thought maybe denying Tom access to my mind would keep him out, but it was a fool's hope and quashed by a sickening green cackle.
I'm here, boy. Or there. Just over there, if you like. There's no locking me out because I'm in control. This is my train. Always has been and always will be.
Rude rude rude. Isn't that right, Meg?
There was an unearthly sound. Part growl and part something there's no comparison to, except maybe in the darkest corners of hell. Then Megan screamed, high and shrill, like she was staring down the very jaws of death. I thought she might have been and I began to run, no longer concerned about the ground beneath me - whether it was paved road, the gravel of the shoulder, or even grass and dirt. If I fell down the mountain or conked myself dead on the cliff wall, it didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was Megan. She was inches from being taken from me and if I didn't get there as fast as I could ... there was just no slowing down.
Where do you think you're going, Marty? Don't you know where you are? You're already on my train. Isn't that what you call it? The train? The Tom train. Stupid boy, that's not even my real name.
"I don't care who you are." I continued to run as hard as I could. Toward where, I didn't know. I just knew it was forward and that was better than standing still.
Tom was a tool. A seed to grow from into a tree of my own making. And how long my branches reach now, thanks to you!
I didn't intend to carry on a conversation with the demon, but I was compelled to stop. It wasn't lying. For all I knew, I was back inside my idling cruiser with my eyes bugging out of my head. Who knew what a body looked like in the present when they were taking the train in spirit? I wasn't in the mood for a pow wow, but I was starting to think I didn't have a choice.
What did he mean, 'Thanks to me'?
Think, Marty. Think.
The voice was sounding less like Mrs. Henley and more like what I imagined a fallen angel cursed to eternal damnation might sound.
You heard that fat slob at the church. He spits laughable fallacy all over the faces of his congregants every time he opens his mouth. But you know what they say about blind squirrels.
"That was just a theory."
No, he was right just this once. You are a carrier. I'm riding you and you're riding me. We have a delicious symbiotic relationship, don't you think? A partnership. I was angry at first when I realized I couldn't pull your strings like I did with the old woman. Oh, believe me, I tried, but HE wouldn't let me in. Called you His and said I couldn't have you. Same thing with that sack of a man, Dudley.
That meant Dudley wasn't under Tom's influence after all, just deeply depressed.
I can hang on to you though, Marty, and I'm glad of that. I've got a wider reach now and I'm freer than I've ever been. Free to feed. And I can jump on and off the Marty train as I please.
"Have you taken Megan?"
Not yet, but I will just before I feed on her too. Her and the morsel inside of her.
That's when I started to pray and I did it out loud. "Oh, God, I need You! I promise - I promise to seek You again. Megan doesn't deserve this. If I'm Yours, then take me. Give me over to this thing in her stead, whatever that means for me. I'm willing. But give her the chance to come to You. Save her now and save her then. Please, God!"
A pointless exercise, looking to Him. Isn't it obvious He's given up on you? I can see it all ... mama beating her head against the wall to get you up and at 'em so you could go sing and worship like the rest of the stupid sheep. You used every excuse in the book not to have to go, but she made you anyway and there you sat, prim and proper and all cleaned up, sitting stock still in the pew. All you cared about while the preacher vomited out his lies was what kind of trail you were gonna beat out in the woods behind the house once you finally got home. Later it would be the preacher's daughter you thought about and stole glances of during the service. And later yet, it was how much stuff from the dinner table you could cram into your mouth before the football game started. It didn't matter how old you got, the last thing you cared about was Him and as soon as you could get away with it - when precious mama had left you to be with Him - you asked for the check and got out of there. And good for you, Marty my boy, good for you! Who needs that kind of baggage? So why would He listen to you now? Why would He care? I can't have you completely because of some stupid promise He made a long time ago, but I can still have my way with you.
I started to run again, blindly forward toward nothing.
Run, Marty! Wear yourself out!
I ran as fast as I could into the blanket of swirling fog, leaving a blanket of it behind me. It was like I was on a celestial treadmill.
Run, Marty! The thing laughed again - the cackle now sounded more wet than dry, rising from a throat that was watery with hunger.
I thought about the promises mama told me were made, the stories of hope and assurance that dripped from the preacher's tongue like sweet honey and settled over me. I had heard it. I behaved that was in church - thought those things - the same way every child does. There had been no malice in it. Once upon a time, I had believed and it had been real. I remember the day I walked up to the alter when I decided to give my life to Him, mama bawling with pride and even daddy sitting beside her, tight lipped - trying his best to hold back his own tears. I remember the preacher taking me aside after the service was over, into a room just off the sanctuary and asking me some questions about the profession of faith I had just made. He wanted to make sure I meant it too, not because he doubted, but because he wanted to make sure I didn't. I was somewhere around twelve years old and I was serious. It never really left me, but I'd forgotten over time. Had let the influences around me take over in importance and the voice of my savior slowly began to get lost in all the other noise. A person doesn't take into consideration the gravity of such things as death and salvation until it's washing back over you in a wave of tribulation and all of a sudden you start to remember the lessons you never even knew you were learning.
I will never leave you, nor forsake you. Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden. Come as one of these. He was speaking of children there, and innocent faith. God understood children. He also faced death even for those who had forgotten Him and those who had yet to come to Him. And by the way, he won. That's the God I knew and that's the God who the demon Tom was powerless against.
I stopped running again and planted my feet firmly. "You know what, Tom - you're annoying me."
Don't call me that. My name is not Tom. It's —
I wouldn't let him say it.I didn't want to hear it and I wasn't going to allow him the pleasure of hearing it himself. "No, I've given you a new name. You're Tom now. Poor old powerless Tom."
My instincts told me that I was treading dangerous waters by poking a figurative stick at him. He was still a spiritual being and I didn't fully understand him, but the resurgence of my faith and my disorientation had given me a reckless confidence. I cold feel his rage as took away a portion of his control.
MY NAME IS —
"He will never leave me, nor forsake me, Tom."
"'Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden', He says. What do you think about that?" The fog began to dance and twist in chaotic patterns as Tom lost more and more control, drunk with anger.
RETARD! IDIOT! MEAT SACK!
"Here's another one ... nothing can pluck me from His hand," I shouted into the manic fog as Tom's voice tried and failed to scream above mine - curses and foul names and accusations so childish they would have been a better fit on a school yard.
MORON! WORTHLESS PIECE OF —
"Keep it up, Tom. Doesn't matter what happens tonight - you still lose. That's something I remember loud and clear. You. Lose. You and everyone like you."
Not true! My father says so!
"Your father is a liar, Tom. Always has been and you know this. He's the one who let you down in the first place. Led you to believe there was something better than what you had. You were cast out for it and in the end, you'll be destroyed. THAT'S the truth. Game Over."
Tom let forth an agonizing howl, one filled with hate and fear and the full knowledge that what I said was right. This creature was ancient and it knew the scriptures better than I did. The sound was deafening and I had to raise my hands to my ears and cover them. I closed my eyes and waited f or it to be over. What little I really knew about God had been enough to push the demon past the breaking point, which had been an amazing thing. Mightier than a double edged sword is the Word of God, but when doing battle against powers like these, the consequences can be damaging.
When the sound died away, I opened my eyes and the fog had thinned enough to show me I was standing by my cruiser and already parked at the Drop, my beams spotlighting the spray painted warning of the Danger Zone. How I had gotten there without careening off the side of the mountain was something I'd have to wonder from then on. Either Tom got me there for his purposes or God did for His. Regardless, I was there.
There was something else in the air, though, as I came to me senses and blinked the real world back into focus. Noises. Voices emanating from different sources and none of it good.
I took in the situation around me, willing the shimmy dizziness to clear faster than it wanted to, and I noticed some things. Mrs. Henley was nowhere to found. I had a feeling that she had become unnecessary now that Megan had been brought to the Drop and her role had shifted from a tool to Tom's bloodlust. It would have happened with a cry of confusion and a fall. Mrs. Henley had only been a pawn. It saddened me mostly, but if I'm being honest, there was a minuscule moment of gladness - that part of me that hadn't learned vengeance was His. There was nothing to seek out vengeance for concerning Mrs. Henley, though, and mulling it over later on, my conscience dealt me a full deck of regret for my thoughts. She'd been innocent in all of this. It was Tom that was to blame.
I was able to put my eyes on Megan. She was the first thing I'd looked for and the second thing I found. She was standing - shivering and terrified - at the very edge of Shoeshine Drop with her back to me. I don't believe she knew I was there at first. She was stiff, with her arms planted at her sides and I could tell by the rigidity of it that this posture was not voluntary. Her light yellow work blouse that would host a shiny name tag reading, Welcome to Clem's! My name is Megan and a colorful array of stains on the front, blew out behind her gently as the wind churned upward along the cliff side. She would be feeling the chill that rode that breeze from the Asginadisdi river below.
Clark's voice joined the fray of speakers in my head. Asginadisdi means cursed in Cherokee. He told me that right there at the Drop on the day Gail had jumped. And cursed was right. It had been right under our noses. I don't know who named the river - the Cherokee, I assume - but they knew something we didn't.
Megan sobbed and plead for her life the same way she did in my vision, but more than that, she plead for the life of the child she held inside of her. Her pebble. Tom had called it a morsel and the thought of that brought me rushing back to where I needed to be.
I could make out another of the voices now, one I had just called back to in a memory. Clark was hollering for me to come help and I ran to where he stood on the safe side of the Danger Zone.
"Are you crazy Clark? Why haven't you tried to pull her back!?" I lifted my leg to cross the rail, intending to do what my deputy had failed to do. At that point, I had forgotten all about my vision. Everything about the scene felt new to me and I was taken over by my natural compulsion to act. But as soon as my foot met the came even with the top of the rail, it met with an unnatural resistance. I couldn't cross over. There was an invisible barrier there, but not like a wall. It was as if once my leg got to a certain point, I simply did not have the capacity to move it further.
I thought I heard Tom again briefly and he was laughing.
"That's why I didn't —" Clark started, but I hushed him.
"Did you hear that?"
"Just her." He nodded toward Megan. "What do we do, boss? We can't get to her. I tried every way around."
Megan turned her head to the side, but only so. She was being forced to face forward - to look over the Drop - as if each new heightening of her fear brought with it more seasoning. "Marty, help me. Pleeeaaase," she managed to squeak out, but terror had taken most of her voice. Darkness had fallen and the moon was full. The fog was thin enough now that I could see shining highlights around the crest of her profile. Tears glistened on her cheeks like ice crystals under the blueish moonlight. "I don't want to die," she cried. Her body hitched as she sobbed. "I don't want my baby to die."
"I'm coming, Cutie, I promise. I've just got to figure out how to get to you. Is there anyone else with you? In your head?"
The question didn't make any sense to her and she screamed at me. "No! Help me!"
I took a deep breath, thinking as fast as I could and hoping what I came up with wouldn't make matters worse. "I'm trying to. Just stay put and move. I know it sounds crazy, but if you start to hear someone in your head - another voice urging you to jump or telling you how nice it would be at the bottom, don't listen. It's the ghost - the demon - and he's a liar. Don't listen to him."
"That's what happened to Mrs. Henley, isn't it?" Megan shivered, trying to appear strong.
"Yes. Can you tell me where she is now?"
"Gone," she cried and began to hitch again. "She ... she ... jumped over the edge."
"Well, you don't have to. I don't think he can make you. Understand?"
"Yes." I was proud that although scared, she still had her wits about her. She was strong, indeed. As if to say I had work to attend, she turned her head back forward to gaze over the cliff.
Was I wrong about him not being able to make her jump? The evidence said I certainly could be. In the video, Jody seemed to have no control. He didn't want to step off or to be there at all, but Tom had pulled him out. It doesn't seem like Jarreth or Mrs. Henley had any say in the matter, either. Regina had tried to help Jody, but now even she seemed to fear the demon, judging by her silence.
I turned to Clark. "Where is the unit that was supposed to be here on guard?"
"Haven't seen them." His eyes were wide with the realization that something beyond what he knew about reality was playing out before them. He would have gotten than from the invisible barrier over the Danger Zone, but now I think he was starting to putt it all together.
It was then that I noticed that the far left edge of the guard rail was twisted and bent, as if something big had torn through it. There were tire tracks in the dirt leading to it and I had no doubt they belonged to the unit's cruiser. Hateful lines drawn on a map in dried blood.
I started to tremble and thought of my deputies, especially the new one - Ella - whose first real jaunt behind the badge had been a death sentence and I'd signed off on it. The toll mounted by the second it seemed, and I felt like I could find a way to take the blame for every single one of them. At least it was over for them now and they wouldn't be expected to endure a backlash of memories that were about to be made in this place; memories that would be the bullies in the schoolyards of our thoughts - those of us who got lucky enough to make it out.
There was no sense dwelling on it. There would be time for hugging necks and making epitaphs and crying over coffins. Now was the time for diffing our feet firmly into the ground. Tom would test us to our furthest limits, - I expected that - but I also knew that at least I had it in me. I thought Megan did, too. I couldn't speak for Clark.
I reached inside of myself and was able to point my hands on that thing they talked about in training. An unexplainable control that could be called upon in situations so dire that it was all you had left. They said I had to draw from that and let it be my strength. I remembered my promise to God and understood that He was where I was going to find that power.
My mind turned to the last time I was at the Drop, under Tom's influence, mesmerized by the swirling fog and the way the world seemed to turn into Van Gogh's Starry Night. The vision. The train. The unstoppable ride where I beholden to the whims of a conductor moved by pure evil. I'd wanted to be in control then, like a puzzle it was up to me to solve. I had been wrong about that and it was the very thing that had bound me to Tom's will.
I will never leave you, nor forsake you. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. The joy of the Lord is my strength.
All kinds of scripture flooded back to me from my childhood. They had stuck while I was thinking about the woods and football and the preachers daughter, only I hadn't realized it. They were precious items from the Bible mama held so tightly to that sometimes I thought she was crazy.
But thanks be to God, Who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ, mama's voice whispered in my ear, not as the mosquito, but with the power to inspire. Go to your knees, Marty. Be humble.
Then I heard my daddy, authoritative and wise. Do as your mother says. She knows the way.
I fell to my knees and through my submission, felt the power of God take over at Shoeshine Drop. I could hear Clark next to me asking what I was doing, asking if I was alright, but his voice was distant, further away than even mama's because I was committed to hearing from God then, and God only.
"Lord, I get it now. It took this to get my attention and I'm just glad You never gave up on me."
"Boss? You want to tell me what's going non right now?"
I ignored Clark.
"I can't change the past, but I can make another promise. I promise to give back to You whatever future You give me. You're number one from here on out, but God, my number two is standing over there at the edge, dangerously close to falling over it. She's scared and she's pregnant. I don't care about me, but I beg You to save these people. Megan doesn't deserve to die and neither does Clark."
"I don't know what to do, sir, but the wind is picking up and I don't like this one bit. Help me out here ..."
"I need you , Lord. Last time I was here, I was weak and I understand that ultimately this isn't my fight, but I'm here for the battle, only I can't do it without You, so I'm asking You to be my General. Tell me what to do. Guide us through it or take us with You if it's Your will. Just don't give that thing the win. In Jesus' name I pray —"
SHUT UP! Tom screamed, spitting anger in his demand, but there was something else ... fear. Leave Him out of this this. He had no business here. It's between us!
Lights cast a new glow on the clearing as a vehicle appeared and skidded to a stop, scraping gravel and dirt and sending up a plume of dust.I stood from where I knelt and gave a quick glance behind me toward Megan to make sure she was still there. She was, though unnervingly silent. Not even a whimper passed her lips. She only stared ahead over the abyss. Then I watched as former deputy Soseby stepped from his car with effort and hurried as best as he could to where Clark and I stood.
A sickening chuckle burned in my head. Hehehehehe.
"Did you hear that?" I asked Clark, who only shook his head. I was sure Tom's voice had penetrated into the here and now for all to enjoy, but it was eveidently still just a parcel I could receive. Clark's skin had lost its color and there was sweat on his forehead. "Stay with me, deputy. I'm gonna need you."
Soseby tugged at his belt and poked out his chest. "How can I help?" He asked and pulled a tiny handgun from his right front pants pocket.
"How did you know to come here?" I asked him, keeping an eye trained on the gun he held to his side in a shaky hand. I remembered that hand had barely been able to lift his cup of coffee to his lips and him spilling a good bit of it on the table, aggravating Rita. That same hand touching the trigger of a loaded gun didn't seem as harmless as that.
"Scanner," he said. "This'll be the last time I have to listen to the blame thing call for help out here, if I have anything to do with it. I won't have it no more, sheriff." His lips quivered to match his hand. "I shoulda done my job the first time, so you tell me what to do. Let me be the dep'ty I oughtta been."
"I want you to put that gun back in your pocket." He hesitated to do it, torn between a personal debt he thought he owed and his inclination to follow orders. But he did as he was told and stowed the pistol back in his pocket.
I turned back t o Megan and cursed myself for giving anything but her my attention. Light my path, I prayed silently.
I started back toward the Danger Zone and Clark tried to warn me. "You can't get past the rail, boss."
"Maybe I can," I said over my shoulder and lifted my right leg over to the other side without resistance. "You see Clark, I don't know what you believe about heaven and hell, but I've come to a realization." My confidence was mounting and my nerves were settling, but it wasn't under my own power. God had stepped in. I felt it happen when I was on my knees and nothing could have taken that assurance from me at that point. "I know what we're dealing with now, " I said while bringing my left foot over the rail. I was only about three steps from Megan, who remained staring straight ahead in a kind of trance. I could also feel the rage building in Tom. He - it - hadn't expect this from me. "I've been searching for a solution on how to win this battle, when the battle was already won a long time ago."
"What are you talking about, sir?" Clark tried again to cross the guard rail as I had, but his progress was denied. "How'd you do it? I still can't get over!"
"You're probably safest where you are, Clark." I reached out slowly and took Megan's right hand, locking our fingers tightly and refusing to take my eyes off of her. If she were going to fall now, either I would be given the strength to hold keep her from it or I would go with her. One way or the other, we were going to be together. "Do you believe in God?" I called back to Clark.
"Of course I do!"
"What's your take on Jesus?"
"Is now the time for a Sunday School lesson?"
"More than you know. What's your take on Jesus?"
SHUT UP! JUST SHUT THE HELL UP! Tom's rage in my head felt like blue hot coals and I flinched. Megan flinched a little as well and it made me wonder how much of Tom she had in her own head.
"I don't know," Clark relented. "Nice guy, I guess. We got Christmas, thanks to him."
It was just as I feared. Clark needed to leave, but I would give it one more shot. "What all the Son of God stuff? The cross? The rising from the dead? Him being god in the flesh? Do you believe that or not?"
"I don't know, boss, but that's not important right now!"
"It matters," I muttered under my breath.
Soseby stepped up to the rail. "Sheriff, tell us what to do!" He stood next to Clark and I noticed him - but Clark didn't - sneak his leg effortlessly over the rail, then bring it back.
"Stay put. I've got this," I told him, then pulled as close as I dared to Megan.
I wished God would speak to me like Tom did - a great echoing voice in my head that left no room for interpretation, for faith. That would have been a lot easier, but faith doesn't come cheap, and with real faith comes the reward of power. The faith of a child was best - unquestioning, complete submission.
"Megan, I need you to come with me now." I pulled lightly, but she didn't budge, nor even acknowledge me. "Please. I love you. You and the baby, but Cutie, I need you to come with me if I'm to take care of you. I started to weep as I begged her to respond. "Please!"
Step away. It resonated like a drum inside of me.
I could sense the brakes of the Tom train pulling to a stop at this moment from my vision. I wondered if some past version of me was out there in the mist over the Drop, riding the train for the first time as the scene played on over and over again in a cyclic version of a horror show. I knew what would happen next. The dramatic climax was nigh and it seemed that all my hopes of a different conclusion were lost. The writer rarely writes a second ending, I suppose. Megan would step from the edge and if I couldn't hold her back, it would all be over. We would all go. Me, Megan, Pebble. And Tom would get his fill of the carrion that was left.
"Please," I whispered once more. "I love you."
Megan woke from her trance and looked to me at last. Fear and longing dripped from her face and I tried to pull her toward me again. "Come on back."
"I can't," she repeated weakly with sorrow and an understanding that this was the end. In her eyes, she communicated her love. We had been a flash of lightning in a storm when you compared us to the rest of the world. There and gone with what would be our memory as the only thing left like the hazy, fading aura that stays for just a few seconds after the strike. She smiled behind her terror, wanting only that I should see her strength and it told me she blamed me for nothing. That I had tried my best. That I had done all I could.
"I'm sorry," I said and squeezed her hand tighter. She would not go without me alongside her. She tried to shake me away, but I wouldn't let go and that's not what she wanted. I was slain in my soul that my final act toward her might be a denial, but I shook my head.
She turned and wailed out over the cliff, into the darkness, into where she knew only evil could abide. She begged for her life, to be let go, but it was useless and before I could stop her, Megan stepped off the edge of the cliff at Shoehine Drop.
I couldn't hold on to her and as we disconnected, I screamed. "NOOOO!" I closed my eyes and fell to my knees again, asking only one question of God. "Why!?"
I slammed my face and then my fists to the ground, wretchedly heartbroken and hearing the maddening, maniacal laugh of the demon as the soundtrack to my pain and getting louder by the second. It drowned out all other noise around me, even the cries of Clark and Soseby were gone and all I could hear was the haunting, crazed echo of the demon's laugh.
Then the laughter stopped. It was abrupt and startling and then silent. The wind gathered faster and kicked up dust in the clearing. And on the wind were lifted two words that were fingers of ice along my spine and made the hairs stand on my neck.
I remembered the night of my vision and wondering where Regina had been. Why she'd chosen to hide during Megan's big scene.
The last thirty seconds replayed in my mind. Tom's laugh. Megan stepping off the cliff. My screams and those of Clark and Soseby. Out of all that, one thing stood out.
I never heard Megan scream.
I will be with you always. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. Ask and ye shall receive.
My eyes flew open to the spot where Megan had been standing and she wasn't there. No, not there, but not gone. She was floating above the Drop, suspended on indivisible strings.
I had to blink away the impossibility of it. My fear was that Tom had taken her, but then I heard the voice again - the voice that had given the place its name. ShhoooeeeShiiiiiinneee.
The voice came from Megan and I understood. Regina was there after all. Regina was with her, fighting through her.
"Thank You, God! Megan? What is she telling you to do? Listen to Regina. Listen for her voice!"
"Shoeshine." Megan said.
"Yes, yes ... shoeshine! Regina, if you can hear me, tell her what comes next."
"Shhhoooeee Shiiinnnnee ..."
From behind me, Soseby said, "Oh my God."
Oh my God. That's what had gotten Tom's attention, isn't it? Tom was silent for the moment, perhaps thunderstruck by this turn of events, and I decided to ding the sword in deeper. Had I taken the time to mull it over, I probably would have tried to get Regina to bring her back to safety and ran, but I didn't do that.
"Tom, it would seem you're in a bit of a pickle!" I yelled into the darkness. Out there he seemed less of a threat, out there and not wearing the skin of someone else.
I said don't call me Tom. My name is —
"Never mind that. Turns out I brought a friend to the fight. His name is Jesus."
Shut up! Stop saying that name!
"You don't like it when I say, 'Jesus'?" I motioned with my hands for Megan to start making her was back to the edge if she could, but she stayed where she was above the Drop, still entranced and saying Shoeshine over and over again. I realized that Tom was still part of why she was out there. The tug of war was happening again. "What's the big deal, Tom? What are you so afraid of?"
"He's only the Lords of Lords ..."
"King of Kings ..."
"What's the other one? Oh, that's right ... Immanuel. God with us!"
"Gonna have to ask you to leave us alone now, Tom. Let her go in the name of Jes—"
I felt a hand on my shoulder and it made me jump. I turned to see the face that belonged to the hand and it was my loyalty deputy. Clark was grinning unnaturally wide, with teeth that dripped with fresh red wine. Behind him, Soseby leaned over the guardrail, a huge, black, jagged hole in the side of his face. His left cheek had been ripped away and I could see his own teeth through the wound. What was left of his cheek dangled downward like the flap of a pocket. He struggled to get to his feet, but the pain and shock of it had taken what little strength he clung to. He gripped the rail and tried to pull himself up, but slipped and fell back, leaving bright red streaks on the metal.
I didn't have to wonder what had happened. Clark had been taken by Tom and I thought maybe if I hadn't pressed him so about his own believes, it wouldn't have been so easy for the demon to pinpoint his next ride. That was wrong, though. Tom could smell unbelief like boiling cabbage and he would have known from the start. He'd simply positioned his pawn and had waited to use him until the last second, knowing it would catch me by surprise.
"You didn't have to do that, Clark."
"The wrinkled old turd tried to stop me coming over the rail. Pulled his pitiful little popgun and everything."
"So you injured a defenseless old man."
"Knocked his popper away and ate his face."
"What now?" I asked. He was standing so close to me I could smell Soseby's blood on his breath.
"It's all out on the table, ain't it? You know what I am. I know what you are. Give her to me and I'll leave you be."
"That's not gonna happen."
"I'll go away from this place and you can be the big hero. Vanquished the evil and all it took was One. Little. Sacrifice."
"I said it's not gonna happen."
"Or I could shove us both right off this cliff and you and Clark'll be the only ones who die. I'm giving you an out, Marty Marty Faaaaar too late for the Party. I'm still in control, whether you like it or not."
"No, actually, you're not. He is and you'll dance to whatever tune He decides to play. That's the difference between us, Tom. I know I'm nothing without Him. You're too stupid or too far gone to understand that."
Clark's eyes took on the bright red glow that Mrs. Henley's had in my latest vision. It was a fire stoked by hate and truth. He'd made his choice eons ago,maybe even before the formation of the world and he knew his own time was getting short. "I told you to leave him out of it."
"His name is Jesus."
"I'm warning you!" Clark barked.
"Did I offend you? A lot of people are offended by His name. I guess that means there really is power in it."
"I'm giving you one last chance ..."
"I command you in the name of Jesus ..."
"AHHHHH!" The sound was deafening and everything stopped. The bugs in the trees, the birds, the frogs that sang in marshy places with bass tones. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath in anticipation.
Clark had taken a step back with each utterance and now rushed me in a last ditch effort to end me. With a high-pitched screech, like a frightened owl fleeing its perch or something you might hear in another dimension where branches reach out to ensnare and the ground swallows, Clark charged and gripped me by the throat with both hands. I managed to push him away before he tightened on me, creating a bit of separation and that's when I heard former deputy Soseby make a charge of his own. He'd somehow found a last bastion of strength and hurled his body toward Clark, intending to take both of them over the edge.
But Clark stepped aside just in time, much in the same way I imagine Soseby would have done when the real Tom had charged him a million years ago, and the old man finally found his peace in the Asginadisdi river.
Clark eyes me with ages worth of accumulated hatred and spat a stream of bile mixed with Soseby's blood from his mouth. "Time to feed," he said and I felt my body lifted. I was thrown like a discarded towel over the edge of the Drop, but I didn't fall. I stopped in mid air, floating between the edge and Megan, who had by then come to her senses.
"MARTY!" I head Megan cry as I flew outward and when I came to a stop, after looking unbelievingly at the river as it rushed its course way down below, I looked to her. He arms were outstretched, as if the power holding me aloft were emenating from them.
Again, rage erupted from Clark's body, which surely held no more of the man, and the demon drew back his hands to finish me. I closed my eyes, waiting for the fall, but just before he was able to make his move, a new sound pierced the night. A deafening pop. A gunshot. I recognized the signature sound from hours spent at the firing range. It was the firing of a .45 caliber service pistol.
Clark's hand froze behind him and his face did the same, a caricature of surprise. There was still fierce anger in his eyes, but the red glow died away. Half of the right side of his face was gone by way of the bullet's exit and he fell to the ground. Dead.
I stared at the scene for a few seconds, letting the reality of what had just happened mix with the reality that I and Megan were still floating hundreds of yards above the river, and when I traced a path to where the bullet had to have come from, I saw Ella. My blessed rookie. She stood with arms locked, exactly as she had been trained to do.
She lowered her arms, dropped her gun, and then ran toward us.
"No," I stopped her. "Stay there. This isn't over yet. Don't cross that barrier."
She's one of the filthy ones too, Marty. I tried, but He won't let me have her, either. It's just us up here now. What would you call it? A stalemate? It's just you, Megan, me, and that whore Tom should have killed when he had the chance.
"So what?" I asked. I was tired to my bones and ready for it to be over. I didn't have much left in me and I was starting to feel the tickle of surrender. I would try to fight a while longer, but I was only a man. "You think you and Regina will just tug at each end of us until one of you gets too tired to hold on?"
If we must.
Then like a flood, the answer came to me. Tom or demon was not the writer of this play. He'd been a character as much as we were. We were part of God's opus and another piece of scripture lit in me, thanks to mama's relentless quoting of it. God would that none should perish and All who call upon His name shall be saved. I was overwhelmed by a certainty, one I am convinced came from God.
"Hey Tom ..." I hollered and I heard him growl. "Pay attention." I looked at Megan. "Can you hear me and understand?"
"Yes," she said.
"Ask Regina if she can do the same."
There was a pause. Megan closed her eyes, then opened them. "She can."
What are you doing?
Ignoring Tom, I asked the most important question either friend or ghost could ever answer.
"Regina ... did you ask Christ to save you the night you fell? Did you ask it while you were falling?"
That's enough! Tom's voice seemed weaker.
"God had a plan, Regina. Thank you for being a part of it. Is Christ you King?"
"Yes!" Regina shouted through Megan.
I said enough!
"Megan, I need you to look deep. Think about your child and take a good look around you.We're floating in the air, Megan, and the only thing that's kept us alive so far is hope. You remember our talk in the car, when I told you I was confident there was a God?"
She nodded her head.
"I believe Jesus really is the Son. And I'm asking you now if you'lll put your trust in Him."
Megan began to nod her head head vigorously and tears fell from her eyes.
"Do you believe? Do you truly believe it?"
"Yes! I believe! Jesus, please save me!"
Tom started to wail with the pain of a thousand spears as the name of Christ was glorified through Megan's acceptance and everything mama taught me - everything that filled me and left with me through the doors of the church as child, every truth I denied because it was more convenient to live my life my way instead of seeking truth - pierced to his dead marrow and he finally knew defeat.
"Then in the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to let us go and begone from this place!"
At that, the wind began to blow in gales and whistled through the cavern below and the clearing atop Shoeshine Drop. I watched Ella, who had been the audience for the play's climax, nearly lose her footing and had to catch herself with hood of Soseby's car.
Tom let out one final tormented scream and the sound trailed off, fading into echoes and carried away on the current of the river.
The wind eased and I felt myself being pushed to the safety of solid ground. The three of us - Myself, Megan, and Pebble - gently found purchase well beyond the cliff's edge and ran to each other. After we held each other for a good, long while, I pushed a hand's width away.
"I'll apologize later, but I'm going to kiss you now."
I'd not gotten the words from my mouth before Megan pulled me to her and our bodies joined at the lips - passionate, deep, thankful. It might have been the most unbound joy I'd taken in giving glory to God.
"People are gonna talk about us," I said softly once we separated.
"Let 'em talk." Our lips met once more for a short one, then we held each other and looked out over Shoeshine Drop. There was a deep darkness, but now it only offered peace. It was the way places like that were supposed to make you feel.
"You think she's gone?" I asked, pretty sure I knew the answer.
"She's gone," Megan said.
"How do you know?"
"She told me."
"She said 'Thank you', and then she was gone."
"For good, you think?"
Megan nodded. "Some things you just know. We were cousins, after all. The St. Claires have a bond."
"I suppose you do," I said and walked her and her pebble to my cruiser. "How are you feeling?"
"Strangely enough, I don't feel sick anymore. Maybe we've discovered a sure fire cure for the flu."
I laughed. "I don't think anybody would want to tackle the treatment. You up for coffee?"
I called out to Ella, who was still standing by Soseby's car, trying to make sense of what had happened. "Come on and get in with us. We'll call it in, but you need to go home."
"I have a lot of questions, sir," she said blankly.
"I know you do. I'll answer them in private, but first, we rest. Okay?"
"Okay," she said and ducked into the back seat.
There would be a lot of explaining to do and I reckoned some of the details might get lost in a dummy folder in the back of the filing cabinet.
I took Megan home to rest and to be looked after by Gina and Carol while I came back to the scene and did the sheriff thing.
Clark would be autopsied and they'd deduce that Ella's had been the gun that shot him. Hopefully, there'd be enough of Soseby left at the bottom to put two and two together and show that Clark had been his attacker. He'd have Soseby's blood in his mouth anyway, so it ought to tidy up nice.
I went home after a stop by Mrs. Henley's house. Jim Taylor had done me a solid and handled the cleanup there for me, even though it wasn't his jurisdiction. He made me go home and told me if he needed anything he knew I was just over there. Him saying that brought back a shiver, which he noticed.
"You might be takin' the flu on top of all of this - it's goin' around," he said, walking me to my car personally. "I'll come get you if I need you."
I laid on the couch to sleep, pulling the blanket Megan had used around me. I didn't care if her flu germs were on it. All I wanted was to have her as close as possible.
As I lay there, facing the bookshelf across the way that held mostly crime novels, I locked in on one book that seemed out of place.
I pushed aside the blanket and stood up to walk over, pulling the book from the shelf.
For the first real time in my life, it felt right in my hands and as I lay back down, I hugged my old bible to my chest. Mama would have smiled at that and it turns out that was all I needed to finally find some rest.