No Magic For Luke Peters
By Matthew H. Jones
Chapter One: The Dark Man, The Old Man And A Boot
Luke Peter slept fitfully in his bed because a dark man stood atop a telephone pole while a cold wind blew. He had a corncob pipe clamped between his teeth and blue smoke made a halo around his head. The Dark Man’s yellow eyes narrowed while he stood atop his tall perch, his mind working away at the boy’s heart. A dog bayed anxiously on the street below and the Dark Man hissed between his teeth. Luke’s long limbs tangled in his bed sheets and comforter while his heart throbbed into an irregular beat. The Dark Man meant to kill the boy. He meant to stop Luke’s heart and sometime in the morning or possibly in the afternoon, he’d be found, bathed in sweat and ice cold. The medical examiner would scratch ‘Congestive Heart Failure’ even though Luke was a sixteen year old in the prime of life. He’d be buried in the suit he had once worn to his mother’s funeral while his father fought back tears. The Dark Man nearly would have done it if it wasn’t for a worn, rawhide laced, cracked leather boot. The old boot sailed, end over end, and nearly struck the Dark Man in the thigh. That had been enough to cause the Dark Man to recalculate his murder attempt. He was an unknown element. He was the shadow lurking at the fringes of his prey’s mind. The fact that someone knew of him and knew enough to try and stop him from conducting his errands was distressing. The Dark Man dispelled like smoke from a snuffed out candle. Luke’s heart rate slowed in his chest and his sleep became less fitful.
Having your heart clenched and compressed by a psychic hand isn’t good for your health, even if it doesn’t kill you. Luke’s body understood this fact even if Luke, himself, did not. The golden sunlight spilling in past his drawn curtains was like daggers driven into his eyes. He slapped his hands up to his face to block out the light and the sudden movement caused his stomach to protest. He could taste acrid bile seeping at the back of his throat. He swallowed it back and found himself swallowing it again and again. His eyes were watering from the pain of the light, but also because his sinuses were flared up, making him want to breathe out his mouth. This confluence of events was leading to one of two logical conclusions: either he vomited up last night’s Pizza Hut on the carpet in his bedroom or he navigated his way to the bathroom and upchucked there. Rolling on his side and letting loose onto his carpet seemed reasonable, but Luke figured that he wouldn’t think so after the deed was done.
He picked his body up like a very old man might get out of bed and he found that his legs had become mutinous overnight. They tingled and ached and he found that they were ignoring half the commands he gave them. The action of gingerly lifting himself up from his mattress had turned his stomach into a roiling sea and it was crashing up his throat. He couldn’t waste time on getting his legs under some semblance of control. He made his way, on his hands and knees, to the small, dingy bathroom at the end of the hall. Luke and his father hadn’t lived in a mansion by any means, but Luke might have sworn that he had traversed the entire length of Buckingham Palace on his way to the bathroom.
Inside the bathroom, Luke purged in big, heaping gasps and it had actually made him feel better. His brow was sweaty, pasting his brown hair to his forehead and his eyes had a watery film.
“No more. No more.” Luke whispered into the small bathroom. There was a small, high-hung window filtering in cool blue sunlight. Luke frowned and cooled his feverish face against the cool porcelain toilet and there, he glimpsed up toward the sink and spied his mother’s ceramic figurines. Neither him nor his father had the heart to box up any of her things. They remained untouched, collecting dust and grime. There was the smiling, little farm boy with a frayed straw hat cocked back behind his ears and a water-stain and soap scum halo blossoming beneath him. There was a one-legged gnome with a sagging belly, a pointed, red hat and an open wheel barrel where his mother had put her wedding and engagement rings when she washed her hands. She had been buried with those rings on her fingers. He closed his eyes, but the memories had slipped through, regardless. It was torture thinking about it, but the sight of his mother in her coffin reefed with a bouquet of red and white roses was like a sore on the inside of his mouth. He couldn’t stop tonguing at it. Suddenly, Luke didn’t want to be in the bathroom.
He forced his legs to obey him, forced them to take his weight and then wobbled out of the bathroom. His legs managed to buck his will while on the stairs, but he was able to seat himself before his knees could buckle on their own. Downstairs in the kitchen, the tap was running and there was the clatter of dishes. Luke could smell dark-brewed coffee mixed with the smell of a fried egg with minced onions. His stomach churned faintly at the smell, but he had no want for the bathroom. He just clapped his hand against his stomach and massaged it softly.
“Easy. Easy.” He whispered to it, sounding a little like a horse trainer without meaning to.
At this point, in a normal father/son relationship, Luke would ask his father to stay home from school and his father would give Luke a suspicious stare, put a hand to Luke’s forehead and then consent to him staying home. In a normal father/son relationship, there might even be a promise from the father to check on Luke. Luke and his father didn’t have that kind of relationship. It wasn’t that Luke disliked his father, he actually loved his father. He just didn’t trust him. What Luke didn’t realized and probably might have if he ever made it into a college psychology course, is that his situation with his father was so textbook that first year Psychology students might refer to Luke by name. In that psychology class, Luke would learn about a term called Deflection.
Of course, he wasn’t angry with his father. That wouldn’t make sense. His father had no way of stopping the cancer cells from spreading through his mother’s body. His father was mortal. True, seeing a parent’s fallibility can be a scary thing for a child, but Luke understood that his father wasn’t Superman. He had caught his father sobbing at the kitchen table while gripping a ceramic bird that Luke’s mother had painted. Luke had cried, silently in his room and it hadn’t occurred to him that his father might cry, as well. Luke understood that it’d be unfair to be angry with his father for being human, but seeing his father cry with his hands around his mother’s blue and white ceramic sparrow had knocked something loose in Luke. He loved his father, but he was waiting for his father to fail. He thought of his father as being a cement dam with giant fissures running through the foundation. Luke was sure of it. His father could break at any moment. He would not put pressure on such a crumbling structure and if that meant that he and his father had become strangers in the same house, then so be it.
Instead of speaking with his father, he kept silent in the darkened stairwell lined with four year old photographs of his mother and waited for his father to leave for work. The rattling tap cut off and there were the sounds of movement towards the back door, leading out toward the driveway. Luke heard the creak of his father’s heavy boots on the wooden back steps. When he heard his father’s old Chevy putter into life, he began rubbing feeling into his legs. Luke hardly ever skipped school and never abused the system that allowed him to do it. When his homeroom teacher listed him under absent, an automated phone call was sent to his house around noon. The answering machine picked it up, but Luke’s father had never really grasped how the answering machine worked. Messages normally remained on the machine for days, to be erased at Luke’s leisure. His father typically got home a few hours after Luke, so there was no reason for Luke’s father to ever be suspicious of his quiet son being up in his bedroom.
Once his legs had awoken, he started for his bedroom but there was a repeated clanging, someone bashing the side of a metal trashcan. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. There was the heavy ring of the trashcan and then a smaller sound of glass bottles resettling at the bottom. Someone was right outside the house, just a little ways away from the cracked blacktop driveway and the creaking wooden steps. Luke’s first thought was the neighbor boy, Jimmy. Jimmy, a three-foot tall, snot-nosed sadist with dreams of pro-boarding, had declared war on Luke after Luke drove over his skateboard during a driving lesson. Jimmy’s war mainly consisted the occasional egging, leaving graffiti on the side of their house and generally being disruptive. Luke wouldn’t have put it pass the punk to be playing a drum solo on their trashcans. He liked the idea of scaring the little brat, but his stomach hadn’t settled enough for him to charge out, screaming his head off like an ax-wielding psychopath. The next logical solution was turning the garden hose on him. It wasn’t exactly cold enough for him to get pneumonia, but a guy could hope.
Outside, he turned the rusted spigot and bent the green garden hose, cutting the flow of water so as to release the current at the perfect moment. He crept around the house, dragging the hose behind him. He’d left from the front door, snaked around the side, through the crabby, dehydrated lawn and picked up the hose. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. The sound rang through the cool, morning air. The trashcans were on the other side of a wooden fence with rotten knotholes dotted through the ancient Gofer wood. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. Luke stole across the length of the driveway, getting to the wooden fence as fast as his tender stomach would allow. His plan was to sling the garden hose over the unpainted, picket fence, letting loose the cold water laced with its reddish rust and drenching Jimmy while Luke laughed. That had been the plan and if it was Jimmy, the neighborhood terrorist, it would have worked. Instead, the hose was suddenly snatched from Luke’s hands and Luke was snatched up by the collar. The water from the garden hose sprayed out onto the cracked blacktop of the driveway. A shaggy German Shepherd went to the flow and lapped at the current while Luke stared eye to eye with an old man with old, gray eyes the dusty color of abandoned iron. His face was lined with hundreds of thousands of little grooves and pockmarks. In the old man’s hand, there was a polished wooden cane stained a deep crimson color.
“You’ll have to wake up a lot earlier than that to catch me with my pants around my ankles, Pecker-wood. Still, it’s a fair try for such a green child.” He said and his voice was cold and dark. It was gravelly like a machine fallen into ill-repair.
Luke gripped the old man and attempted to free himself from his surprisingly strong grasp. The old man gave a wary sneer and then released Luke, shoving him away in the process. Luke’s foot hooked behind the other and he fell backward onto his behind. The jostling piqued his stomach’s ire, but his pride was the only thing severely injured. The old man stepped forward, looking down at Luke and the dog had moved to the old man’s side, water dripping from his muzzle.
“Up now, boy. Ain’t much time before they come, trying to kill you again.”
Chapter Two: Blood on a Baseball Bat
Bobby Bland had a tumor in his brain. It was a tiny, pink knot pressing up against his optic nerve. He didn’t know he had a tumor, even though he suffered from terrible migraines. Bobby and Luke had a number of things in common. First and foremost, neither boy spoke much to their old men. While Luke didn’t quite trust his father’s emotional stability, Bobby feared his father, although he’d never confess to such. Bobby trusted completely that his father was mentally and emotionally unstable and he often played with the lovely thought that his gray-haired, chain-smoking papa wasn’t going to be around forever. His father would die and Bobby would dance a merry jig on the old man’s grave. If asked, Bobby would never admit that he wanted to kill his father, but anyone who could have watched Bobby and his father would have thought it a foregone conclusion.
Bobby’s old man gave him a closed fisted blow to the ribs for slamming the bathroom door and the first thing Bobby did at school was pay that violence forward. It wouldn’t be difficult to make the connection that Bobby wished the squealing, busted nosed freshman under his fist was actually his father. Bobby probably wouldn’t have made it to college. Not because he was stupid, to the contrary, he was actually quite intelligent. Bobby wouldn’t have made it to college, partially because of the tumor growing in his skull and partially because boys like Bobby became men like Bobby’s father. If Bobby got past the tumor growing in his head, he’d probably beat his father bloody one night. He’d be arrested and arrested again. Men like Bobby’s father had a strange duality. They felt powerless, so they charged about like wrecking balls, showing their power.
Bobby’s father struck Bobby because he couldn’t strike the barrel-bellied foreman at his roofing job and Bobby hit those weaker than him because he couldn’t punch his father. Although he wouldn’t admit it to himself or anyone else that he wanted to kill his father, he would get his wish. While Luke Peter’s sleep became less fitful and his heart rate slowed, the Dark Man visited Bobby Bland in his room. The Dark Man didn’t allow himself to be seen, however. The Dark Man was a whisper in Bobby’s ear while he sat in a desk chair in his small, cluttered room holding frozen peas to the side of his jaw. His father had backhanded Bobby for showing up an hour late for curfew. Bobby had been out at the baseball diamond, working on his batting underneath flickering floodlights. Bobby stood outside his crumbling red brick apartment building, knowing his immediate future, not because of any precognition but because he’d seen it before. He took his hit and Bobby had wanted to hit him back. He had gone so far as to close his fist tight, cracking his knuckles in the process. He didn’t, though. His father stepped away to go collapse into his easy chair and Bobby fished the peas out of the freezer.
As smart as Bobby was, he couldn’t think his way around a lesson he had learned early on. Everything leads back to pain. Talking back led back to pain. Running away led back to pain. Allowing bruises to show, so that busy-body teachers go around asking questions, that definitely led back to pain. His father was mostly good about giving him body blows, bruises he could hide with shirts. Striking him in the face had been a mistake on the old man’s part because the frozen peas could only do so much. Still, Bobby nursed his tender jaw. Little beads of water licked along the length of his cheek where tiny, pale blonde patches of stubble had begun to creep their way to the surface. He hadn’t realized that he had completely tuned out the music from his iPod. Had his father walked in at that moment, he might have accused Bobby of being stoned. Bobby’s eyes were glazed over and a cold sweat worked its way through his short, dark blonde hair and down his temples.
Bobby. Bobby. Bobby. The Dark Man whispered. While Bobby’s eyes were glazed over, his mind was working like an over-clocked engine. Bobby saw such things. He saw a dark, swaying forest with large purple leafs laced with thin, red veins and dripping with clouded rain water. There were things in the darkness with large red eyes and yawning mouths full of needle-sharp fangs. Their eyes were glaring up to Bobby, narrowed and cold.
These are my children. They are the eaters, the killers, the takers. They are the darkness burning into your world, Bobby. They wish to claim you, Bobby. Come and see. Come and see. Come and see. The Dark Man whispered. The frozen peas spilled from Bobby’s fingers and bounced off his desktop, settling on the carpeted floor. His fingers tingled and shook as his eyes flickered into life like little blue light bulbs. He had been holding his breath while the Dark Man whispered to him. He hadn’t known exactly why, but he thought that the Dark Man might have a poisonous quality to him like breathing in Mustard gas. The wind came back to him in coughing bursts. Bobby pounded his chest while his eyes stole to a scuffed, metal baseball bat leaning up against the corner amongst a clutter of dirty laundry.
Come and see, Bobby. The Dark Man whispered and Bobby knew that the baseball bat was his key to come and see. There were flashes of blood bursting across Bobby’s mind as he stepped across his bedroom. The bat had a smooth rubber grip and it felt natural in Bobby’s hand. It had a solid heft to it and Bobby rested it against his shoulder, moving out from his bedroom and down the long, narrow hallway leading to the living room lit by the flickering television. Bobby moved slowly and as silent as a whisper.
Come and see, Bobby. Bobby’s old man was leaning back in his easy chair with a six pack of beer between his legs. There had been a two-can deduction from the pack and there was another pack of empties resting at the easy chair’s side. Bobby’s father lifted one of the beers to his lips, took a long swallow and then replaced the can between his legs.
Come and see, Bobby. Bobby was behind him, the television’s glow splaying up against his face and glinting off the metal of the baseball bat. His father was watching a re-broadcast of an old boxing match. Bobby hadn’t recognized either fighter. One of the men had streaks of gray hair running through his black crew cut and a thin layer of fat on his chest. The other man was younger, a blond man in his twenties. Bobby’s father picked up his beer and brought it to his lips, drew on it and brought it back between his legs. Bobby drew a hollow breath and his father heard it, craning his head around to see his pale faced, broad shouldered son with a metal baseball bat resting against his shoulder like he might have been waiting to go to baseball practice. Bobby’s father must have been that person viewing their father/son relationship because he just set his face in a wary grimace and put down his beer. Bobby saw in his father’s eyes that his father had expected this day to come, eventually.
Come and see, Bobby. Bobby and his father communicated more with that one bitter glimpse than they had ever in all of Bobby’s life. Why would he raise a hand to someone who might come for him in the future? When you thought like Bobby’s father and when you thought the way Bobby would ultimately think, it made perfect sense. Bobby and his father were like the scorpion in that parable about the frog by the river. Bobby’s father struck Bobby because that was his nature, he was that kind of man. Never mind if his nature sent him drowning along with the son he struck so often. The baseball bat descended and Bobby’s father died without saying a word. The darkened room was filled with the sound of wet cracks and the ring of the metal baseball bat..
Later on, with his father’s hulking body wrapped in an old, hand-stitched quilt and then stuffed into a hall closet, Bobby sat in his father’s easy chair, sipping on one of his father’s beers while the television flickered a blue-gray glow across his face. The beer had been tepid and biting on his tongue, but Bobby hadn’t minded. It slowed his mind down enough for him to understand everything that was happening. It was important that he understood, because he would be alone for the most part. The Dark Man did not want his hands to be seen in these doings. His eyes were dull and glossy as the Dark Man showed him such things. The Dark Man whispered in Bobby’s ear. The Dark Man told him about Luke, who Bobby had a vague foreknowledge of. The two of them had passed each other in the halls of his high school and probably had taken a few of the same classes. He told Bobby about the bothersome old man who he would have to kill first. The Dark Man had promised him he would see and Bobby had.
Chapter Three: Luke, Meet Bobby. Bobby, Meet Luke
The old man had started towards the wooden back steps of his house while Luke was still seated on the crabby grass that was his side lawn. The garden hose continued to spread water across the blacktop driveway. The German Shepherd followed suit, bounding at his master’s side with his shaggy, black and brown tail swishing behind him. Luke put his legs underneath him and started after the old man, landing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. Luke had been raised to respect his elders, so the hand wasn’t firm and it wasn’t harsh. It was tentative and coaxing.
“Sir. You can’t…” That was as far as Luke got before the old man’s cane shot into his stomach, forcing all his air out all at once and causing him to double over in pain.
“Damn it. I barely touched you. All you brats are too damn soft nowadays.” The old man said, laying a hand on the brass doorknob and turning it. He swung the door open and pulled Luke along by the collar, spilling him onto the kitchen floor. The German Shepherd came in next, his overgrown nails clacking the dusty-gray tiled linoleum. Lastly, the old man slammed the door, moved around Luke and pulled up a chair at the kitchen table.
“Who are you?” Luke asked breathlessly. He was going to vomit again. He could taste the bile at the back of his throat.
“Christ, boy.” The old man said, picking himself up out of the chair and snatching Luke by the arm. Luke’s feet scrabbled for purchase as the old man dragged him toward the kitchen sink. Luke found it and held himself up as he released into the metal basin. He spat out a slimy string and turned the tap on, washing the bile down the drain.
“Who are you?” Luke asked again, adding some force behind his words.
“I’m the man that saved your life last night.” The old man said.
“I don’t think so. I was in bed last night.” Luke said, turning to face the old man.
“Your legs turned to jelly? Your chest hurt? Your head feel like someone’s been stomping on it? Your heart pumps blood to the rest of your body. If someone monkeys with it, it causes all sorts of havoc with the rest of your body. The man who did it to you was looking to kill you. I chucked a boot at him.”
“You saved me with a boot? Do you have some medication that you’re supposed to be taking?” Luke said.
“Cute. How about I make you swallow your teeth, Pecker-wood. You have two choices here: Believe me and live. Don’t and die.” The old man said, his voice sounding closer to a growl than human speech. What was odd, was that Luke wanted to believe that the old man had saved him last night with nothing but a boot. He couldn’t remember his dream, but he knew that he’d been dreaming. As hard as he tried, all he could summon was two yellow eyes like twin moons behind a film of smoke.
“Who are you?” Luke said for a third time. He found that he didn’t want to say he didn’t believe, because part of him knew that those yellow eyes were real and something had made them go away.
“They call me Perkins. Dale Perkins, but Perkins is fine. That, there, is Cesar.” Perkins said, pointing to the German Shepherd, who had found a corner in the kitchen and curled up with his head resting on his paws.
“I’m Luke.” Luke said. “Why are you saying that someone wants me dead? What did I do?”
“It’s not what you did. It’s who you are.” Perkins said, returning to the drawn out kitchen chair. The chair creaked and shifted underneath his weight.
“Who am I?” Luke asked.
“Unlucky. Somebody pointed a finger at you and decided that you’re just unlucky.” The old man said, stretching his legs out underneath the table.
“Who did?” Luke asked.
“That, nobody knows. Not really. One day somebody wakes up on fire, or wakes up with horns, or wakes up covered in fur with monkey feet. The ‘how’ is a mystery and it really don’t matter. What matters is that you woke up changed and people want you dead because of it.” Perkins said.
“Who?” Luke asked.
“Who knows and who cares. It ain’t my concern who wants you dead, just that they do. You listen to me, it won’t be your concern neither.” Perkins said, scratching his fingers through his iron gray stubble.
“If it isn’t your concern, why would you have saved me? Why not let me die?” Luke asked. There was a question itching in the back of his mind, why was he taking this seriously. He was a young man and Perkins was an old one. It would take two seconds to dial 911 and he was strong enough to fend off an old man if he objected. Instead, Luke stayed where he was.
“Because I’m such a nice guy. Or maybe, you’ll end up doing a bit of damage after one of them snaps your neck.” Perkins said.
“Damage?” Luke asked.
“None of your business.” Perkins said, a gravelly growl piquing in his voice.
“It’s about me. How’s it not my business?” Luke asked.
“Because I’m the one calling the shots. I’m the one keeping you alive. I decide what you know.” Perkins said. A sneer was stretching across his face, his lips peeling back to show his off-white teeth.
“I haven’t decided that you are keeping me alive. The most I’ve seen you do is knock me in the stomach and enter my house without my permission.” Luke said, sounding surprisingly calm. Luke and Perkins peered at one another from across the kitchen.
“ I don’t know, but I think that something happened last night.” Luke said, breaking his gaze with the old man. There was a crisp knock at the front door, an affable sound like a delivery man calling. Luke, Perkins and Cesar all turned their heads toward the sound almost all at once.
“Don’t answer that.” Perkins said, leaning forward and gripping his cane tightly.
“People trying to kill me? I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not going to answer the door.” Luke said. Perkins stole a glance behind Luke and gestured toward something.
“Take that up. Just in case.” Perkins said, suggesting that Luke pick up a freshly washed frying pan, the one that Luke’s father had used to make his breakfast. There was another amiable knock at the front door, sounding slightly more urgent. Luke suddenly distrusted that knock at the door and he snatched up the frying pan. There was something off about the knock, but Luke couldn’t quite place it. It sounded like someone from Federal Express, but it was too low to the ground, like a knock from someone standing at about three feet.
“Why not just call the police?” Luke said, moving toward a tan, hard plastic phone mounted on the wall. To the left of the phone, there was a white message with the legend ‘Numbers to Remember” scrawled across the top. The first number was for Dr. Anton Burns, the family physician. Beneath that, there was the number to the Lowell Police Department.
“You try that, Pecker-wood.” Perkins said, eyeing the back window.
Luke didn’t feel that perceived emergency would be taken seriously by a 911 operator, but he also believed that something was happening and he had to get a cop car in front of his house. The amiable sounded at the front door, except it had lost some of the friendship it had promised. There was a note of irritation in the sound. Luke picked up the receiver and dialed the number for the police. He put the receiver to his ear and heard the collision of two hard objects, one dry and the other wet. For a moment, Luke believed that it was coming from beyond the phone. That maybe, it was bashing in the dog’s skull. Luke even turned to look at the two. It wasn’t that. He began to realize that it was coming over the phone line. The sound of a metal baseball bat caving in a human skull. There was an initial blow and then a weepy, dazed groan. There was a crack and a ring as the metal bat vibrated from the jolting impact.
Beyond that sound, which could only be murder, the irritated knocking at the front door seemed unimportant. Perkins came and took the phone from Luke’s hand. He put the phone to his own ear and then grimaced at the sound. He put the phone back on the hook.
“We can go out the back. If he’s in the front, we leave from the back without him knowing.” Luke said. His voice felt shaky in his throat, but the words came out clear enough.
“That mean that you’re taking this seriously now?”
“That means something’s happening that I don’t like.”
“That’s a start. Look out that window. What do you see?” Perkins said, pointing a finger toward the window looking out onto the driveway. Luke stole a glance, but he didn’t see anything worth noticing. There was the garden hose that he hadn’t turned off yet. There was the barest patch of the house’s side yard. In the distance, there were Red Maples and Eastern Hemlock regaining their leaves from the winter’s frost. There was nothing worth reporting.
“There’s nothing.” Luke said.
“Look closer. You’ll see footprints.” Perkins said. Luke did see footprints, but he had assumed that they belonged to Perkins.
“Your footprints.” Luke said, suddenly unsure of himself.
“If my feet got wet, yours would have too. We were eye to eye, cheek to cheek. There’s a man in the back as well as the front. You seem like a smart boy. Why would one man be loud while the other one stays silent?” Perkins asked.
“Distraction. He wants us at the front door, so we’d have our backs turned to the back door. What if we just leave out the front. Rush past the guy up front.”
“Monkey with their plans. I like it, but the man up front could have a gun. I don’t know about you, but I could never outrun a bullet.” Perkins said.
“Then what?” Luke asked.
“We go straight for the man in the back. Get the drop on him before he can on us. But first, you go up to your room. Get something on other than bed clothes. Pack a bag as well. I’m giving you thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.” Perkins continued as Luke hurried up the stairs, scrambled into a pair of blue jeans and threw his feet into some sneakers. He pulled his bed shirt off and failed to notice a bead of blood at the exact location that Perkins had struck him. He dumped his school books out of his Army-green book bag and began stuffing in clothes.
“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. Ten.” Perkins called. It came to Luke that he was unquestioningly packing away his things to leave to places-unknown with a man he had just met. Why? The only explanation he could come up with was that it felt right. He needed to be gone from this house filled with his dead mother and his crumbling father.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Time’s up, Pecker-wood.” Luke came down the stairs with his book bag slung over his shoulder and the frying pan clasped in his hand.
“I’m ready.” He said, looking down the stairwell to Perkins and Cesar.
“Well, I’m delighted. If we could get going?” Perkins growled, moving back into the kitchen.
Perkins stood at one side of the doorframe while Luke stood at the other. Cesar stood between the two of them, wagging his tail and waiting for the door to swing open. Perkins gripped the handle and pulled it open on the morning light. No explosions or screaming. No gunfire or screech of metal on metal. Luke could hear a sparrow chirping in the distance, but that was all. Perkins stepped out ahead of Luke with Cesar trailing along at his side. Luke followed after, closing the door to the house behind him. He was considering whether or not he should lock the door when a young man stepped into view. He had short, blonde hair, blue, bloodshot eyes and a pair of broad, muscular shoulders attached to muscular arms. Luke had taken in all of this, but the young man’s most striking feature was the scuffed, metal baseball bat in his right hand. Luke’s eyes locked onto that, remembering the phone call.
Perkins had seen him in time, raising his crimson cane up to repel a strike from the young man. It was lucky he did, because the strike would have cut straight through Perkins’ middle, blunt instrument or not. There was another strike, sending long, echoing clacks up into the air. Luke was thinking that the cane would snap at some point and the young man wasn’t holding back. One strike and Perkins would be gone. Cesar must have had the same idea as Luke because he launched himself up through the air like a furry bullet. The addition of Cesar had distracted the young man long enough for Perkins to take the offensive, cracking him across the face with the length of the cane. The young man was on one knee, a red mark stretching across his face and droplets of blood dribbling from his mouth. His arm was bleeding from where Cesar had batten down on him. Perkins had his cane raised up in the air, ready to kill the young man. The cane came down and the young man struck out with the bat, swept Perkins off his feet. Next, he bashed Cesar across the side, there was a loud snap that had to be a rib breaking. Cesar howled out in pain.
As soon as Perkins smacked down onto the ground, he had rolled onto his knees, but by that time, the young man was on his feet, readying his bat to give the same treatment the young man would have gotten a few seconds before. Before he was able to, Luke came with the frying pan. It seemed that the young man hadn’t considered Luke a threat until the moment the frying pan was ripping through the air. Crack. Luke brought the frying pan across the young man’s face and he went sailing to the ground. The baseball bat flew from the young man’s hands and onto the blacktop driveway. Impossibly, the young man was rising from the ground, his face soaked in a stream of blood. The young man’s progress was slow, making Luke wonder if he’d given the young man a concussion.
“Come on.” Luke said to Perkins, pulling on the old man’s arm. With Perkins on his feet, Luke turned his attention to Cesar who was panting and whining. Luke gingerly put his hands underneath the dog and lifted him up.
“Give him here.” Perkins said, taking the dog from Luke. The two stole down the street with the dog whining in Perkins’s arms. Luke took a single look back, placing the young man’s face from his memory. There had been a fight, not with baseball bats and frying pans, just with fists. It couldn’t really be called a fight. It was a beating. Bobby Bland beating a younger boy in a marching band uniform. He had looked crazy then, but nothing like he did now.
Chapter Four: Look At Your Boy Now
There were too many voices swimming around in Bobby Bland’s head. He’d been bashed in the face, both with a wooden cane and a metal frying pan, but neither pain had been as concerning as the lack of vision in his left eye. Bobby didn’t think the vision loss would be permanent or at least he hoped so. He could make out little, white snakes of light rising and sinking into a sea of black. The white snakes grew dull and harder to make out. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. The entire left side of his face throbbed. His throat felt like it was swelling shut, trying to choke him alive. He thought there were tiny, hard-shelled things crawling beneath his skin and that the ground, beneath him, was rolling like a washing machine set on its agitation cycle.
The Dark Man demanded that he stand, that he pursue the two that had injured him and Bobby was trying, but his body was too heavy. He thought that the hard-shelled things were connected to hooks cemented into the ground. They dug into his skin whenever Bobby tried to pick himself up. He’d get to his knees, a Herculean effort, and then he’d come crashing back down to the dry, cold grass, his muscles protesting and misfiring. It was a small, vague thought like a tiny bird flitting through the forest. He might be dying. He could have some severe internal bleeding from the cane strike or the frying pan smashing into his skull. Brain bleeds and skull fractures had to be bad, right? There was another fear. The Dark Man might not let him die. That might imply that Bobby wanted death. In reality, Bobby actually just wanted an end to pain.
That want was illusive because there were voices like little bees stinging away at his mind. There was the Dark Man who was like a blaring horn in his head, cracking and shattering his skull. Then there was his father. His father was dead. Bobby knew that, but his father was also somewhere close, looming with a pair of closed fists. After his father, there was his mother who wasn’t dead, just long gone. Somewhere in Arizona? Alabama? Arkansas? Probably not Alaska? He couldn’t remember where she was. His mom was a whisper, begging him to stop, to lay down, and to give in to the urge to sleep. There was a fourth voice that was outside his head, but it also hummed like a phantom passing through the foggy, purpled-leafed forest inside his mind.
“Dude…are you okay?” The voice asked over the shuttering pulse pounding away in his head. The things ferreting beneath his skin were slowing, but he couldn’t see any bulges underneath his skin. They weren’t real. Telling himself that they weren’t real helped. The weights slid from his back and the vision in his left eye was clearing. Pinpoints of scummy, red light bled in through the darkness. The pain in his head hadn’t let up and neither had the voices.
Up, Bobby. Get up, Bobby. Now, Bobby. The Dark Man said. Each time he said Bobby’s name, it was accompanied by a bolt of pain. The Dark Man was trying to drive him like a stubborn mule.
“Dude…you’re bleeding a lot.” The phantom voice said to him, somewhere above his head.
Bobby. Baby, stay down. You’re hurt, You could die. Lay down. His mother told him.
That’s right, boy. Stay down. Take a knee like you always have. Your mother left me with you and I can’t stand the sight of you. I tried my best to make you hard, but you’re soft. Stay down, boy. Bobby just heard the voice, but he saw the image that would have accompanied it. He saw his father; sitting in his easy chair, clutching a cold, sweating Coors. His voice wafted over the tuned down sound of a football announcer rattling off statistics. The lights were off in the living room while his father told him how weak he was. Bobby’s hands landed on either side of him and Bobby found his feet.
“Dude… No. No. You probably shouldn’t get up. You’re hurt, man.” Bobby was looking down at a skinny, green eyed boy and it took him a small while to place him. Concentrating on who the boy was, detracted from his balance, but he caught the memory and his balance at roughly the same time. He was a little, black-haired skater boy Bobby had sent to pound on the front door of the Peters house. The boy had been happy to help, flashing Bobby a dark smile before disappearing around the side of the house.
The boy doesn’t matter. The Dark Man whispered in Bobby’s ear.
“Yeah.” Bobby said into the morning air. Bobby was noticing more and more that his face was sopping wet and his lips tasted coppery when he ran his tongue along them.
“What were you trying to do, man?” The skater boy asked, looking up to Bobby with his wide green eyes. Bobby ignored the boy, moving past him and gathering up his baseball bat. The ground was still swaying beneath his feet and Bobby adopted a drunken sailor’s stagger.
Lay down, Bobby. You’ll hurt yourself. Bobby’s mother cooed in his ear, but Bobby shook the sound away like it was an annoying mosquito. Where was she now? His mother was on the other side of the country. She’d left Bobby with his father. How much could she have really cared? Bobby stumbled into the lonesome street, preventing himself from crashing into the middle of the road by catching hold of the tall, knotted gofer wood fence.
“Where are you now?” Bobby said to no one in particular. It had originally been intended for his mother, but he wasn’t thinking of her when he said it. That thought and every other thought was slippery like slimy fish take from the polluted Merrimack. His father had a truck, a rusted out fishing truck. Ultimately, that truck was repossessed, but Bobby’s father had taken him fishing one summer afternoon. Bobby thought of it as fishing, but in reality it was Bobby’s father getting drunk in close proximity to fishing poles. Bobby had looked down into the cloudy brown water and could actually see the shiny scales on fish that his father was making no attempt to catch. Why was he thinking about that now? He was making a connection between his father’s repossessed fishing truck and a rusted Ford pickup parked far down the street. There was an old man and a young man. Both of them were climbing into the cab of the Ford. The young man had a frying pan and was climbing into the driver’s seat. The old man sparked his memory. The old man had a crimson colored cane. Luke and the Old man. The old man’s name didn’t really matter. Neither did Luke’s name. Bobby was supposed to kill them both. He didn’t know exactly why. Bobby started running.
Somehow, running was easier for Bobby, charging down the uneven, cracked street with the metal bat clenched in his hand. Running, for Bobby, meant falling without ever hitting the ground. He just had to make sure one of his feet was under him. Even still, he would need to steady himself with his hands from time to time. The skater boy was yelling after him, but Bobby barreled forward. Jimmy, the neighborhood terrorist, looked down the street at the bleeding, abused Bobby Bland as he disappeared across the corner.
Possibly, the Dark Man was propping him up, but it was as likely that Bobby had his father’s imagined words burning in the back of his brain. His vision hadn’t fully come back and he could have been struck by a car and killed without ever knowing exactly why he died. The way he was running , he could have missed Luke and Perkins all together, but he hadn’t. The two of them were climbing into a rusted Ford pickup truck with a back bumper secured on with long strips of black duct tape. The German Shepherd had already been loaded into the backseat of the pickup’s cab. The pickup puttered away as Bobby charged forth. He kept running, surging after the flashing tail lights. He managed to bash in the truck’s left tail light before it disappeared over the horizon.
Sweat pearled down the length of Bobby’s back only to chill in the cool morning air. There was something fundamentally horrible about losing these two men he’d been set to kill. He hadn’t been completely aware of them prior to that day, but his stomach soured at the sight of the truck’s tail lights speeding away. He wanted them dead, but he couldn’t ask himself why he wanted that.
“What do I do now?” Bobby said shakily.
What we do is wait, Bobby. The night shall fall and bare its teeth. The Dark Man told him in a low whisper. Bobby nodded, balling his fists and trying to hold back the roving pain that carved its way through his skull.
Bobby hadn’t understood a few key factors and those factors were some significant similarities between the young Luke Peters and the young Bobby Bland. Neither teenager understood the world they were thrown into. Neither teenager understood the men who thrusted them into that world. Neither teenager questioned why they hadn’t run away from two very strange and harsh men. Bobby failed to question the attempted murders of an old man he’d never met and a young man he’d only vaguely knew from the crowded hallways of their high school. He hadn’t questioned it because of the pain racing through his skull and the purple leafed forest. Bobby had a reason, but what’s Luke’s problem?
Chapter Five: Luke Makes A Call
Lowell rolled by in washed-out grays and creeping, litter strewn lawns. The houses were marked with swoops of graffiti and narrow alleyways that Luke subconsciously kept an eye on. Luke’s hands shook mildly on the stirring wheel and he worked a fine layer of sweat into the cracked leather that encircled the wheel. His wrist hurt, but he didn’t want to say anything to the old man riding next to him. The day hadn’t been exactly normal, but it had gotten a whole lot more weird since Luke had met Perkins. Now, he was driving down back roads in the old man’s truck; keeping one eye out for the police who would stop him for having a smashed in tail light and keeping the other one open for the young man who Luke had to knock stupid with a frying pan.
Perkins kept quiet in the passenger seat, his head bowed and his hands splayed open in his lap. Luke had the thought that he was driving around with a crazy, old man but that crazy, old man had nearly been killed helping Luke. There was something going on and Luke thought his best chance of figuring it all out was that old man. Perkins was muttering softly to himself and occasionally he’d make a sudden jerk in one direction or the other. Periodically, he would breathe hard and hotly, sounding more like a wolf’s snarl. Luke didn’t know what Perkins was doing but it had something to do with the dog. Perkins would snarl and jerk in his seat and then Cesar would whine and yelp from the backseat. Beads of sweat rolled down Perkins’s temples and Luke thought he saw flashes of something from the corner of his eye.
Luke couldn’t have been sure, but he thought he might have seen the old man’s gun-metal gray eyes turn a fiery yellow. Luke thought he saw the old man’s hands hook into claws. He thought he saw the old man’s jaw jut out, showing little white fangs. Honestly, Luke didn’t know what he saw, but he didn’t quite believe Perkins was a crazy, old man. Cesar’s yelping grew softer in the backseat and after long, the German Shepherd fell asleep on the bench of the old Ford.
When Cesar’s breaths were long and deep, Perkins stopped his muttering, suddenly grasped his side and winced. His breathing grew irregular and he leaned forward, pressing his head up against the dashboard. Luke pulled to the side of the road and stared at the old man.
“Where do you want me to go?” Luke asked after allowing Perkins’s ragged breath to fill the cabin.
“You got a cell phone?” Perkins asked, sounding tired and raw. Luke did have one, which he had left hooked to its charger back at his house.
“No.” Luke said, turning his head back to the road.
“What type of teenager are you? Find a pay phone or a gas station or something. I got to make a call.” Perkins said.
“What did you just do?” Luke asked after another long pause.
“Something stupid. It’s sort of a specialty of mine. Just drive, damn it.” Perkins said and Luke pulled back onto the road.
Luke had experience driving a truck because he had learned on his father’s Chevy, but the Ford was still unwieldy. The wheel would buck and jerk in Luke’s grasp and it’d shutter and gasp like a wounded animal seizing before death. Even still, Luke kept it on the road, driving slow down the narrow car-lined streets. Luke had a convenience store in mind. The aptly named On the Run. There was a yellow and red pay phone out front. Typically, the receiver would be dangling from its chord rather than properly hung up. The average users of said phone commonly had a temper and on more than one occasion the pay phone had to be replaced due to someone ripping out the receiver or the entire works and spilling it all out into the parking lot. Luke pulled into the sparsely occupied parking lot of the On The Run and put the truck into park.
There was graffiti etched in permanent marker to the left of the pay phone and the entrance to the store and the likely artist stood to the far right of the door with one hand in his pocket and another holding a cigarette. He was a tall, thin, scarecrow-like man in his thirties or forties, but he wore tight blue jeans and a black hoodie with the hood drawn up over a Boston Red Sox cap. In short, he was dressed to look a few decades younger than he actually was. The man eyed the truck as it puttered to a stop.
“There’s a phone right there.” Luke said, pointing a finger out the window.
“Yeah and I’m going to need you to go over there and make a call. You might’ve gathered that I’m a little banged up.” Perkins said, sounding annoyed. Perkins opened up the truck’s glove compartment which housed random fast food napkins and pieces of paper. He rooted through the paper until he found a red-inked plastic pen. He then selected a crumpled, yellow napkin and jotted down a phone number.
“Take this. You’ll probably get a girl on the line. Her name’s Sadie. Tell her to tell Sheila that I’m coming and I’ve got somebody with me. Got it?” Perkins said, handing the napkin to Luke.
“Yeah. Tell Sadie to let Sheila know you’re coming and that I’m with you.” Luke said, popping the driver’s side door open.
“Good. You’re not as simple as you look. Hurry on, Pecker-wood.” Perkins said. Luke stepped across the parking lot, digging his hands into his pockets, searching for loose change. He’d failed to clean out his pockets more often than not and that proved fortunate. He found fourteen dollar bills and eighty-six cents in change. He deposited two quarters into the pay phone and stole a glance at the man standing to the far right of the door. He’d been staring at Luke, bouncing his heel off the storefront’s wall. Luke punched in the phone number and put the receiver to his ear.
The man in the hoodie flicked the cigarette out into the parking lot and then stepped toward Luke, shoving both his hands into his jean pockets. Luke could see the man had a pencil thin, blonde mustache and had greasy blonde hair creeping out from underneath his baseball cap.
“Yeah?” A girl’s voice said from the other side of the line. She sounded tired and raspy, but also young like she might have been his age or maybe a year younger.
“Sadie?” Luke asked.
“Uh…Yeah.” Sadie said.
“Excuse me, man. You got a dollar?” The man had asked Luke.
“No.” Luke said to the man.
“No what?” Sadie asked Luke.
“Nothing. Let Sheila know that Perkins is coming and I’m coming with him.” Luke said to Sadie.
“How about fifty cents?” The man asked Luke. The man had yellowed fingertips and he stank of nicotine.
“I don’t” Luke said, lying to the man.
“You don’t what? Who are you?” Sadie asked, sounding mildly amused.
“Nothing. I’m Luke. Can you tell her that we’re coming?” Luke asked Sadie.
“Yeah. How’s Perkins? How’s Cesar? I haven’t seen that old dog in so long.” Sadie asked.
“Uh…Perkins is…I think he’s hurt. Something happened, but it probably can wait until we get there.” Luke said to Sadie.
“A quarter. You got to have a quarter. I’m just trying to get some money together to get something to eat.” The man said to Luke. Luke decided to ignore the man in favor of the girl on the line.
“Sure. How long until you’re here?” Sadie asked.
“I don’t know. I’m just driving. Perkins will know. I should be going. We’ll get there soon.” Luke hung up the phone.
“Come on. A quarter? Got a quarter?” The man asked.
“I really don’t.” Luke lied, starting back towards the truck.
“I can tell you your future.” The man said.
“No, thank you.” Luke said.
“Luke, it’s something you’ll want to hear.” Luke stopped and turned. His morning was only getting weirder it seemed. This man knew his name.
“How do you know my name?” Luke asked.
“Got your attention.” The man said. He cracked a yellow toothed smile and took his hands out of his pockets, placing them on his narrow hips.
“How do you know my name?” Luke asked again.
“Calm. Calm. I have my ways. You wanna hear the future or not?” The man asked, beginning to rock on his heels.
“What are you talking about?” Luke asked.
“That Perkins, he told you that you’d cause more damage dead than alive. That sound weird?” The man asked.
“Luke, you’re smart. Think about who you’re with and what’s happening around you. You might just survive this.”
“What do you mean? Are you saying that Perkins is a danger to me?” Luke asked.
“That’s some thing for you to decide. The future is nothing, if not uncertain.” The man said.
“Then, why did you offer to tell it to me?” Luke asked.
“Well. The future could’ve been made more certain for somebody with a dollar. Too late now. Keep your eyes open, Luke.” The man smirked and cocked his head. With that, the man swaggered away, turning the corner of the On The Run.
“Luke. How’s your stomach feeling?” The man yelled as he disappeared around a corner and he was gone. Luke touched his stomach, remembering how Perkins had struck him there. Luke considered following him, but something told him that the man wouldn’t be around the corner when Luke turned it. The man would be gone like a puff of smoke. He started towards the truck, spying Perkins leaning his head up against the dashboard. Luke opened the driver’s side door and climbed inside.
“You talk to Sadie or Sheila?” Perkins asked.
“Yeah.” Luke said.
“What took you so long?” Perkins asked.
“You didn’t see the man?” Luke asked.
“What man?” Perkins asked.
“There was…” Luke started. Are you saying that Perkins is a danger to me? Suddenly, Luke wasn’t sure if he should say anything about the random, greasy man.
“There was a bum hassling me for change.” Luke said. Luke started up the truck and moved it back onto the street, rolling on toward the rising sun.
Chapter Six: No Such Thing As A Random Wolf
Perkins had Luke snake the old Ford through the heart of Lowell. Looming buildings with crumbling brick faces and smashed, boarded-up windows glared down at the two of them and Cesar. Litter and wispy weeds fluttered from side to side in the early spring wind. They past by rusted metal skeletons high over head and tall, chain-linked fences. All around, there was the fishy, earthy smell of the flowing river and the fainter smell of pollen. Luke and Perkins moved down streets partially paved by asphalt and by old cobblestones. The road was rocky as Luke guided the Ford down a narrow street before he stopped the truck at the end of a one-way street.
“This it?” Luke asked, looking up at a three-story house made from rain-softened wood. The house sat behind a rusted, sagging chain-link fence. Little, dead weeds snaked up from underneath the bare wood porch. The front door was hung ajar, leading up a dark, carpeted stairwell.
“Yeah.” Perkins said, looking out the window. He formed a grimace on his face and then popped the passenger side door open. Luke did the same, stepping out and moving to the other side to help Perkins. By the time he got around, Perkins was already out and standing, waving Luke away.
“Get the dog.” Perkins said, limping his way toward the dark wood building. Perkins swung open the front gate, causing it to clatter against the fence. Luke followed, with Cesar in his arms. The dog hadn’t protested as much as he had in Luke’s yard. Luke had a suspicion that the dog could have limped on his own. Perkins had somehow split the pain of a cracked rib with the dog. As ridiculous as it sounded, Luke had to keep an open mind. It was a very weird day. Luke followed Perkins up the carpeted steps, leading up toward a hallway bathed in dusty, cold sunlight. The hallway smelt of spices and festering meat.
The hallway continued up to the third floor, but Perkins stopped at a thin wooden door and knocked three times. A wide-eyed teenaged girl wearing a man’s flannel shirt and baggy, black jeans answered the door and peered at the both of them for a long moment. She had black, feathered hair draping a pair of clear blue eyes. She skirted past Perkins and darted right towards Luke or rather Cesar who was in Luke’s arms. She pressed her face into the dog’s fur as Cesar’s tail wagged. The dog was trying to better greet the girl, but Luke holding him made his attempts more difficult. Luke struggled to keep a hold on the dog and finally conceded, lowering the dog to the ground while the girl cooed and ran her fingers through the dog’s black and tan fur. Cesar must have overestimated the power of his enthusiasm to prop him up because after a few moments of sitting right side up, he elected to collapse on to his side and pepper her face with kisses from the ground.
“Luke. That’s Sadie.” Perkins said, pointing to the girl pampering the dog on the floor.
“What have you been doing? Why is Cesar hurt? Why are you hurt?” Sadie asked, looking up to Perkins and Luke.
“I’ll tell you if I can get my dog back. Let’s get this out of the damn hallway.” Perkins said, stepping through the door and leaving Luke to gather up the dog from Sadie’s cuddling. Luke took up Cesar and followed Sadie past the threshold. The apartment inside was mostly dark with the exception of an open window, filtering in indirect sunlight. Immediately across from the door, there was a saggy, tan couch where a young man with short black hair slept. He had lean muscles and a sharp jaw. He had a bare chest and Luke thought that Sadie was wearing his shirt. Sadie came over to the young man and slapped him on the stomach. He jerked awake, but didn’t cry out in surprise or pain.
“Get up. We need to put Cesar down.” Sadie said to the young man. He tilted his head in Luke’s direction.
“That’s Luke. Perkins brought him here.” Sadie said. With that, the young man climbed up off the couch, came over to Luke and scooped Cesar from his arms. He had a mildly miserable look on his face. He gave up his seat to the old dog all the same and elected to remain standing even though there was enough room for him to sit. Sadie had taken up a post at one side of Cesar and there was another clear, vacant spot. Luke turned his head, looking for Perkins. The old man had disappeared into a small kitchen illuminated by a flickering bulb. Luke spotted him peering into a room beyond the kitchen and then he turned a corner and was out of sight. Luke had just met him this morning, but Luke felt a hard pang, a need to follow him.
“Come. Sit.” Sadie said to Luke. She had her feet up on the couch underneath Cesar’s resting head. She was playing with his ears. Luke looked to the young man that Sadie had ousted for Cesar. The young man looked back and then moved past Luke, heading into the kitchen and then into the room where Perkins had peered into.
“Come and sit.” Sadie said again. Luke sat on the other side of Cesar and Cesar stretched out his back paws, pressing them up against his outer thigh. Cesar made a happy, little groan and Sadie cooed at the sound.
“Who was he?” Luke asked, tilting his head in the direction the young man had went in. He was older than the both of them, but not old enough that Luke could have ruled out romantic entanglement.
“Drew. He can’t talk. He was born without a voice.” Sadie said, working her thin fingers through Cesar’s fur and Cesar drove his back paws into Luke’s outer thigh.
“Oh.” Luke said. “Is he your brother or…”
“No…I mean, sort of. In a way, you can say that.” It didn’t really make much sense to Luke, but he didn’t pursue it any further.
“Sheila’s going to help you, isn’t she?” Sadie said to Cesar, scratching a spot in between his ears. She kissed him on that spot and he licked her under her chin and on her cheeks.
“Is Sheila your mom?” Luke asked and instantly felt stupid. She called Sheila by her first name. Children seldom did that with their parents. Possibly, Sheila was an older sister or just a mother-hen style friend.
“No. Sheila is…” Sadie started. There was nothing stopping her from finishing the sentence except for her inability to define what Sheila was to her. Sadie smiled and then looked away.
“Sheila takes care of things.” Sadie finally said.
“How do you know Perkins?” Luke asked.
“Perkins is…He’s my…He was… my father.” Sadie said. The smile had evaporated from her face. Luke wanted to know why Perkins wasn’t her father anymore, but didn’t think he should ask.
“I should be in school right now.” Luke said because he didn’t know what to say. The smile reappeared on Sadie’s face and she bit her bottom lip.
“You go to school?” She asked.
“You don’t?” Luke asked.
“Home-schooled. Sheila teaches me and the twins.” Sadie said.
“The twins?” Luke asked.
“Coral and Murphy. They’re somewhere around here. Probably feeding the dogs.” Sadie said.
“Cool.” Luke said. The two of them were silent for a long while with Cesar groaning happily as Sadie scratched the flat plain of his head or rubbed the fur on his meaty shoulder. Luke kept thinking that Sadie would end up hurting the dog, but the dog kept on loving it and loving her.
Cesar fell asleep and fell asleep hard, snoring loudly and kicking his back paw against Luke’s outer thigh. He had closed his eyes to better relish Sadie rubbing a spot behind his ear and then suddenly, he was out like a light and had his tongue slightly sticking out from his mouth. A bead of drool escaped his mouth and rolled onto the bare flesh of Sadie’s foot. Somehow, Sadie found it funny and Luke found it funny because Sadie found it funny. The two of them laughed, rocking back and forward and waking the sleeping dog in the process. Cesar gave another groan, sounding more indignant than happy. Sadie found this more funny and laughed harder. Luke’s eyes stole to Sadie’s lips. He realized that he was looking at her lips; thin, glossy, pink curves that parted slightly. Luke thought about her tongue and then looked away.
Sadie massaged behind Cesar’s ear and Cesar seemed to forgive her for waking him. He closed his eyes and fell under again, snoring and kicking like he had before. She kept massaging that spot behind Cesar’s ear and Luke felt the need to say something, but he didn’t.
“ Do you know what’s going on?” Sadie asked.
“With what?” Luke asked.
“With you? With Perkins?” Sadie asked.
“No. Somebody came with a baseball bat. That’s how Perkins and Cesar got hurt. Somebody else might have attempted to kill me last night. Perkins showed up and helped me. I’m really just taking things as they come. It’s the best I can do.”
“Do you know where he’s taking you?” Sadie asked.
“No. I’m guessing not here.” Luke said.
“No. Not here. Think of this as a safe house for a little while. Perkins is taking you back with him to the Exiles. You’re going to be in neutral space.” Sadie said.
“He said that I’d cause more damage if he had let them kill me. He wouldn’t say what that meant.” Luke said.
“That’s Exile business. I wouldn’t know about that.” Sadie said.
“Who are the Exiles?” Luke asked.
“The people who made sure you didn’t die.” Perkins said from over Luke’s shoulder. Luke jumped at Perkins’s dark, harsh voice. Perkins had managed to sour further in the short time since the two of them had parted. His wrinkled, pock-marked face had formed new creases and his eyes had grown dark.
“Bring my dog.” Perkins said. Luke pushed himself up out of the sunken-in couch and lifted the groggy, half-asleep Cesar into his arms. Sadie thinned her lips and frowned. Luke noticed her lips again, but it scared him now that Perkins was so near.
Luke followed Perkins through the small kitchen and past it. Luke stole a glance through the doorway that Perkins had looked through not long before. The door to the room was only slightly ajar, but Luke could see a man stretched out, sleeping on a twin-sized bed. His bare feet spilled off the end of it and his toenails were sharp, yellowed and ragged. His chest was bare and peppered with curly, black hair. His face was clean, but he had a thick, black beard covering the lower half of his face and long black hair covering the top. Beneath the beard and the hair, the man looked almost exactly the same as Perkins. Luke passed the door and didn’t ask who the man was. Perkins turned a corner and passed another room. This one was empty but for a tall, wooden dresser, a floor scattered with clothing and bunk beds with a red, metal frame.
There was one more room with a closed door before Perkins had stopped. Perkins stood in an open doorway. The room beyond was lit by cool sunlight filtering in from a window. Luke could see a Queen sized bed bathed in purple silk over Perkins’s shoulder. There was a warm smell of lavender wafting past Perkins as he led them inside. Sitting on the bed, there was a mocha skinned woman with long, slender legs. She was swaddled in a thick cloak made from thick, gray and brown fur. She was a bald woman, but the most striking feature was the size of her. She was nearly seven-feet tall and Luke could see that a lot of it was lined with lean muscles.
“Put the dog on the bed.” Perkins said and Luke deposited Cesar down on the purple silk sheets. The woman looked from Cesar to Luke and curved her lips into a cool, narrowed smile. She had big, brown, almond-shaped eyes and Luke realized, too late, that his jaw had gone unhinged. He closed his mouth and his face reddened.
“Hello, Luke. You have encountered the Random.” The woman said. Luke wasn’t sure if what she had said made sense.
“What?” Luke said.
“What?” Perkins said, adopting a slight edge in his voice. Luke was looking to the woman, but Perkins had turned to see Luke.
“Very recently, you have spoken with an agent of the Random. I know their smell. We are not enemies. There’s no such thing as a random wolf, so neither are we friends.” The woman said coolly.
“What did he say to you?” Perkins asked, nearly growling.
“Nothing. He just told me to keep my eyes open. He asked me if I knew what was happening. I don’t, but I think I should.” Luke said, realizing that he was dangerously close to squaring off with Perkins.
“It is unimportant.” The woman said and her voice was clear and piercing.
“To you.” Perkins said, but his voice was calm.
“Need I remind you, you’ve kept your own secrets. My concern lays with you allowing this boy that attacked you to live. The Exiles have made you soft, Dale.” The woman said. Perkins’ jaw tensed and a frown etched onto his face.
“Luke, as you may have assumed, I am Sheila of The Wolves.” The woman said, nodding her head. He had only assumed that she was Sheila, not that she was ‘Of the Wolves.’ She extended her hands off from under her cloak and towards Cesar. Her fingernails were black, sharpened tips and for a moment, Luke thought she might have sliced him open. Instead, she caressed his fur and Cesar stretched out across the purple sheets.
“Who are the Exiles?” Luke asked. Sheila had some sort of authority over Perkins, but she didn’t have that over Luke. What was important to Luke was that he’d been thrown into something and was kept in the dark about it. Sheila flicked an eye over to Luke and he stepped back a step.
“There is a war and there are those who choose not to fight. They are the Exiles.”
“Why was I singled out?” Luke asked.
“No one knows why. We hardly know who we’re fighting until we’re killing them.” Sheila said, running her long nailed fingers through Cesar’s fur. She flicked her eyes to Luke and smiled thinly.
“Who tried to kill me?” Luke asked.
“The war is largely between two sides. Neither side works in the light, but we assume that one is less evil because the other actively and recklessly slaughters people such as yourself. There is an invisible war, but their bullets and bombshells are all too real. There is a man. His name and his purpose is shielded from me. He is a dark man, so we call him the Dark Man.” Sheila said. Luke looked from the statuesque woman to the sprawled out German Shepherd. They were faint, but Luke could see silvery tendrils like very fine, glowing hairs snaking from Sheila’s fingertips into the dog’s fur.
“What…” Luke began, his voice petered off into nothing. More of those faint, slightly opaque hairs appeared in the air, swaying softly as if pulled by a lackluster wind. They were working through the air from Sheila and towards Perkins. Something in the tendrils clung to something inside Perkins and soon there was a silvery, glowing vine linking Perkins and Sheila. The vine pulsed with a faint golden glow and then it was gone as if it was never there.
“That brings me to the matter of note. You’ve come here for aid. I give it. You may stay under my protection.” Sheila said.
“That’s a comfort. Thank you, Sheila. I’ll make a call out to the Ranch. See if I can’t secure some safe passage.” Perkins said. The iron gray hair on Perkins’s head had darkened a shade and some of them more prominent grooves and wrinkles on his face had faded away.
Chapter Seven: Runaway
The cool, gray morning bled away into a blue afternoon with a faint lick of warmth in the air. Perkins had made contact with whomever he had to speak with and whatever benefits Sheila had given him were well-hidden when he came back with the news that Luke and Perkins would need to spend the day in Sheila’s apartment. His eyes grew dark and he stepped out for a cigarette. Cesar padded along at his side, showing absolutely none of the injuries he had suffered earlier that morning.
That had left Luke to his own devices. That amounted to following Sadie out onto the back porch to watch a boy and a girl bound about a fenced-in backyard along with a six-pack of dogs. The girl, Coral, was taller than the boy by about half a foot and had silk, black hair cropped into a short, pixie cut. The boy, Murphy, had a shaved head and a tan birthmark covered part of his cheek. The dogs and the twins were in the midst of a game of Keep-Away with a scuffed, deflating volleyball, except the dogs were the ones doing the keeping. One of the twins would snatch the ball away and then one of the dogs would snatch it back, bounding away with the half-full ball flapping in its mouth.
Luke had a question on his lips, but he didn’t want to ask it. Not knowing how to ask the question was only part of the problem. The other part was that he didn’t want to hear the answer. Are you really human? He kept thinking of the silvery tendrils moving through the air and the flashes of Perkins’s yellow eyes in the truck. Then there were the twins bounding about before him. They ran hunched over like they wanted to be on all fours. Their mouths hung open and Luke thought he saw flashes of fang.
Sheila of the Wolves. She had said it like it was supposed to have made sense.
“What is Sheila, exactly?” Luke finally asked. Sadie’s lips curled back into a thin smile. Her lips parted to show the white tips of two canines.
“Sheila is…something else. You saw her heal Cesar?” Sadie asked.
“Yeah.” Luke said.
“Sheila’s not like other people. She’s not even like us. I’m not even sure if there’s a word for what she is. You know how the solar system works?” Sadie asked.
“Planets revolving around the sun?” Luke said.
“Yeah. That’s Sheila. We’re all falling through the darkness towards her. There are others like her. Perkins is bringing you to one of them. Lorelei, I think her name is.” Sadie said.
“You said that Sheila isn’t even like us. What does that mean? What are we supposed to be?” Luke asked.
“Guardians. Odd-Folk. People with Magic.” Sadie said.
“I don’t have any magic.” Luke said.
“None that you know of.” Sadie said, smiling wider. She shoved him on the shoulder and Luke gave her a smile.
Nightfall fell like a brick and the sky turned a starless, bruised purple. The purple bled to black as heavy rain clouds rolled in. There was an electric taste in the air like sucking on a copper penny. There was a low, repeating crackle passing through the air. Thunder was bubbling from above, but the lightening remained illusive. The game of Keep-Away ended with the dogs lording their deflated volleyball over the twins. The ball was soon forgotten as the twins, Luke and Sadie sat around the kitchen table with glasses of iced tea set before them.
Drew joined them with sleep crust still in his eyes and he did coin tricks with Murphy. He produced a dirty Kennedy half-dollar, flicked it up in the air as if to play heads or tails and then snatched it into his fist. He opened his hand and the coin was gone. Drew gave the coin to Murphy, plucking it out from behind the boy’s ear and then dropping it into his outstretched hands. Murphy attempted to replicate the trick and nearly had it except Luke caught him passing the coin from his right to his left hand. Drew took the coin back and rolled it on his knuckles. He slipped it between his fingers, made a fist, open it and the coin was gone. He slapped his palm against the table and the coin reappeared on the wooden tabletop. Murphy attempted the same, but only managed to drop the coin a couple times.
Coral and Sadie had abandoned the table for the refrigerator, rooting through the shelves. They produced dripping, pink flank steaks on a large glass plate. The kitchen was filled with the smell of cooking red meat as Murphy and Drew passed the coin between the two of them. Cesar came along with Perkins following, his hands stuck in his pockets. Cesar’s eyes were wide and wanting and Sadie smiled at the dog. Perkins poured himself a glass of the iced tea and sat across from Luke, sipping it in silence. Sheila came in, moving smoothly and silently and then all the lights went out.
All the lights in the apartment snapped off with an audible click, delving everyone into near-complete darkness. The only light source was the blue, natural gas flames from the stove top. Even the streetlights from beyond the kitchen window had jerked off. There was a snick-snick of a lighter’s striking wheel being struck than Perkins’s face was illuminated by a dancing yellow flame.
“This is how it begins.” Perkins said and as if on cue, all the windows burst inward. The kitchen window turned into thousands of tiny, sharp darts spitting at the seven of them. Drew jumped up out of his seat and threw protective arms around Murphy, knocking the boy to the ground in the process. Perkins hooked an arm around Sadie’s waist and threw her to the ground, covering her body with his own. Luke was the closest to Coral and took her up in a protective hug as broken glass pelted his shoulders and cut at the flesh on the back of his neck.
Luke hissed in a breath as blood and glass trickled down the collar of his shirt. Luke released the girl from his arms and turned to the window where the night sat, peering back at him. There were lights puttering along on straight trajectories like far away fire flies. The lights were out all around them, but nowhere else. Luke kept his distance from the window, but still attempted to peer down to the street. He could only make out the top of the sagging metal fence.
“What is…” Coral had started, but her trembling voice was violently overwhelmed by the booming roar of some large animal. Luke felt his bones rattle beneath his skin and the floor tremble beneath his feet. The roar petered away and was replaced with Coral and Murphy screaming. Perkins came around behind Coral and clapped a hand over her mouth and Drew did the same for Murphy.
“What’s going on?” Sadie asked.
“Company for me and Luke. Sheila, I didn’t want to bring this to your door.” Perkins said.
“But here it is and now I will show your pursuers pain and sorrow. That they would come to my doorstep. They should have lay low until my shadow passed.” Sheila said. Luke turned to her, thinking how ridiculous she sounded, like she had snatched those words from some bad sword-and-sorcery epic. He could see her eyes in the darkness, two yellow embers burning brighter than Perkins’s lighter. She was also taller. Before, the crown of her head nearly kissed the overhead light fixture. Now, she was hunched over and her shoulder blades were pressing up against the ceiling. The sight of her furnace eyes and the five foot addition to her height had made her words sound less ridiculous.
Sheila’s eyes were the brightest in that darkness, but Luke saw yellow slits burning on Drew’s face, on Sadie’s face and on Perkins’s. There was a sudden heat in the room radiating from Sheila and the rest of them.
“Dale, you will leave with Luke and no one will pursue you. Your Exiles are near.” Sheila said and then her impossibly long body passed by Luke through the shattered kitchen window like a water jet, spilling herself out into the street below.
Windows blew inward in random room throughout the house, but something heavy rolling across the room followed the sharp rush of glass. There was something padding along in the twins’ bedroom with its red metal bunk bed. There was another thing growling in the room where Perkins’s double slept. Perkins’s face went ashen for a fleeting moment like the skin and muscle on his face suddenly went transparent. This was the first time Luke saw Perkins afraid and it was only a sparse glimpse. Perkins turned and rushed towards the sound with his crimson cane in hand and Cesar at his side. Drew moved down the hall on the German Shepherd’s heels. There were more roars and howls and Sadie snatched up the twins in her arms.
The front door burst into splinters and there was a black thing made of fur and teeth. The thing was like a mutated, top-heavy bear with hot, red eyes. The thing snorted and drew in a rippling breath. There was howling and crashing at Luke’s, Sadie’s and the twins’ backs. He could hear Perkins shouting and Cesar barking. They were fighting with the thing inside the other room. Before them, there was a beast stalking forward with its head hung low. The black thing opened its mouth and suddenly lightening struck, sending a blue flash into the kitchen. Luke’s eyes stole to the frying pan, still sitting on its blue flame. The steaks had burned to the metal and the pan smoked.
“Backdoor. Backyard.” Luke said, his mouth growing dryer and dryer. He snatched up the frying pan, much like the one he had used against Bobby Bland. Grease dripped from the frying pan, falling to the floor and smoking.
“Yeah.” Sadie said, backing away while pulling the twins along with her. Luke followed, backing away. The thing hadn’t been paying much attention to Sadie and the twins. Its red eyes were locked on Luke and lumbered at a quicker pass as Luke back off. Soon, Sadie and the twins began to run, snatching open a thin, wooden door that led to the back stairwell. Luke couldn’t run; if he ran, he would have to turn away from the thing following him. He had the smoking pan in between him and the thing. Luke had no idea if the heat of the pan or him frantically striking the thing would deter it. The thing lunged and Luke found out.
The thing was a heavy wall of muscle slamming into his chest. The first strike with the smoking frying pan was absolutely accidental. The pan fell down on the crown of the thing’s head, making a sizzling sound as Luke fell beneath the thing. The pan descended after Luke and thwacked into his own shoulder. It didn’t scream in pain, but neither did it power forward. Luke scrambled backward and out from under the hulking thing, putting distance between the two. The thing shook its head and came forward again. The second strike was intentional and Luke tried to drive the pan through the thing’s head with the swing. The beast’s skull warped as it jerked away from the blow. Luke got to his feet and forgot his fear of putting his back to the thing. Luke rushed down the back stairs, pounding his way down to the ground below. There was a noise at his heels and Luke ran harder.
He flew off the bottom landing and out into the backyard. He nearly would have rushed past Sadie, but a hand snatched him by the shoulder he had just burned and thwacked. The sudden rush of pain and fear overrode his ability to use logic. The thing didn’t have hands. If it were to snatch up, it would be with its mouthful of fangs. Luke swung on the grabber and the frying pan was snatched from his hands and thrown to the ground. Next, a hard hand swept across his face, causing his ears to ring. It was Perkins with Cesar at his side and behind him, there was Drew, propping up the unconscious Perkins Double. They had come down the stairs right behind Luke. Both Perkins and Drew had opened wounds on their faces and hands.
“Have a little goddamn backbone, Pecker-wood.” Perkins said. Perkins pushed him forward and then did the same with Sadie, Coral and Murphy. There was a cracking noise that quickly became a loud crashing. Perkins must have closed the door behind him and the thing must have taken the door off its hinges.
“Give him to the boy.” Perkins said to Drew, referring to Perkins’s slumbering double. Drew passed the body over to Luke. The man was very limp and hardly warm at all.
“Sadie, you help him. Get to the truck. Bring it around back. Drive through the goddamn fence. I doubt that Sheila will mind.” Perkins said.
The thing thundered down the stairs, roaring and splintering steps as he went. Perkins extended a hand and shoved Luke away from the door. Luke took the hint and began dragging the double along. Sadie took up the double’s legs and the two of them, along with the twins, stole around the side of the house. Luke spied fangs before he turned the corner. The beast appeared, sank its fangs into Drew and then Drew disappeared into the darkness. Sadie hadn’t seen Drew fly into the darkness, but she must have heard him somehow because her face went pale.
“Keep going.” Luke said and Sadie did.
Luke’s first glimpse of the Dark Man was one of the most accurate. Sheila was a towering whirlwind of wolf’s fur and clawed fingers. She’d grown another couple feet and her eyes were flaming cauldrons, licking fire up her forehead. There was a shadow snaking its way around her, suddenly forming spikes and blades and lunging them into her flesh. She was bleeding bad, but she was slashing into the shadow, tearing it like paper.
Godzilla. That was Luke’s closest reference to what he saw.
Luke and Sadie spilled the double into the back of Perkins’s truck as the ground shook and Sheila howled. The twins jumped into the backseat, Sadie got into the front passenger and Luke got into the driver’s seat.
He clicked on the old Ford’s headlights, flooding light onto the street before them and onto Bobby. His eyes were shrunken down to pinpoints and his left was an irritated, vein-ridden pink. Both of his eyes were aimed at nothing in particular, swimming slowly in his skull. His head teetering closer and closer to lolling off of his shoulders. The side of his face was scabbed over with reddish brown blood. His chest was heaving and his teeth were bared. He had a scuffed, metal baseball bat clutched in his hands.
Chapter Eight: Two Boys Trying to Stay Afloat
Luke cranked the gear shift into reverse and pressed down on the gas. He ripped out from the parking spot and out on to the road. Bobby charged forward into the path of the truck. Luke had already put the truck into first gear and the truck was in motion. Bobby was suddenly on the hood of the truck, digging his fingers in between where the hood and the windshield met. He hung on one handed and swung the baseball bat with the other. The young man on the hood was at Luke’s mercy as long as the truck remained in motion. Bobby was trying to smash in the windshield, but he didn’t have enough leverage to co any damage. The metal bat clinked against the glass of the windshield as Luke pressed on the gas.
Bobby pulled up closer to the windshield and began to pound the handle of the bat against the glass, forming little, jagged spider webs. There was an issue Luke hadn’t considered. Luke couldn’t quite see around the person pounding on the windshield. The truck’s wheels tagged the lip of the sidewalk, causing the truck to rattle and rock. Coral, in the backseat, squeaked aloud as Murphy and Perkins’s double slid onto her. Luke overcorrected the path of the truck and ended up hopping the curb on the other side of the street.
Bobby’s feet slipped off the side of the hood. His hand was still hooked in between the hood and windshield. Luke could see fresh, red blood on the young man’s hand. He had cut himself on some stray piece of metal. His hand could be slick. Luke thought that the young man might lose his grip. Luke sped up, moving the truck back onto the street. Instead of slipping beyond the horizon of the windshield, Bobby climbed back on to the hood and he was screaming. He howled with his mouth wide open. His teeth were stained with blood. Bobby brought the bat down on the windshield and it finally shattered.
Windshields are typically wrapped in plastic to guard against slicing up the human cargo inside. A trade-off for this line of protection is that the windshield might spider-web out, making it impossible for a driver in a moving vehicle to effectively pilot the vehicle. Were Luke not being attacked by Bobby, the obvious situation would be to stop the truck. Luke could hear Bobby thumping on the shattered windshield and he could hear him screaming. Luke panicked and his foot pressed down on the gas pedal without him realizing it. The truck lurched forward until it smashed into something and then Bobby, Luke, Sadie, the twins, Perkins’ double and the entire truck fell through open air. Luke might have guessed that he had struck a partition between the road and the Merrimack River if he hadn’t been so terrified.
Water gushed into the truck’s cab and the driver’s side and passenger’s side airbags punched out from the dashboard panel. The airbag hit Luke hard and wouldn’t deflate. His face was wet and Luke realized that it wasn’t the river water. He had broken his nose in the crash. There was screaming in his ears and someone else was screaming his name. Luke struck the airbag and kept striking it until it stopped pressing against his chest. Luke tried the door handle. His side wouldn’t open.
“Sadie.” Luke said, his words sounding wet and sluggish. “Sadie, my door won’t open.”
“I can’t open mine either.” Sadie said. Luke turned around, looking to the twins. They were the ones that were screaming. Tears were in their eyes as the truck swayed and lolled into the river water. Perkins’s double was flopped out in the foot well. Luke couldn’t see his face, but he could see blood welling beneath him. He needed to get them out of the truck. There was his Army green book bag and the frying pan. He could smash open a window with that. Luke reached over his seat and tried the rear driver’s seat door. The movement caused the truck to jerk and groan in the water. He had a fleeting mental image of a lumberjack trying to stay on a floating log. The rear door wouldn’t open and he couldn’t reach the other. Sadie had gotten his idea even if Murphy, who was sitting behind Sadie, hadn’t. She climbed up as the truck tipped its nose down. The heavy engine block was dragging them all into the murky water.
“It won’t open.” Sadie said. Water sprayed in through cracks in the windshield, leaking water onto Luke’s jeans. Luke turned his head away from his window and swung the frying pan into and through the driver’s side window. Water trickled in through the opened window. Luke broke the remaining snags of glass from the window and then climbed out the window into the icy water.
“Sadie, come on.” Luke said. She came, latching onto the side of the truck as an anchor. Next was Coral, clinging onto Sadie with one hand while holding the other close to her body. She had a pained look on her face and at the time, Luke thought that a little girl with a broken arm was the worst thing that could have possibly happened. Murphy was struggling with Perkins’ limp, bleeding double. The water was higher now and Murphy was trying to keep the possibly dead man’s head above water.
“Come on!” Luke called. “I’ll get him. Get out of the truck!”
Then the truck flipped. All the water was welling on the passenger’s side and the truck bucked Luke off its side along with the two girls. It also snatched Murphy and Perkins’ double away in the process. All of a sudden, Luke was alone and reeling. Luke dove down under the brown, gushing water. The Merrimack was pulling him away from the truck and he had to swim hard against the current to get to the boy. He had too much to think about. Where was Sadie and Coral? Where was Perkins? How did he even get here? The question Luke should have been asking was, where was Bobby?
Luke fought the entire river. Every gallon of that murky, fishy brown river was keeping Luke from Murphy, Sadie and Coral. He couldn’t see any of them and he couldn’t summon enough spare air to call their names. All he could do was try and save Sadie and the twins. He had to guess that Perkins’s double, in spite of Murphy’s efforts, couldn’t be saved. That limp, bleeding body would just get the rest of them kill, if the rest weren’t dead already.
The river rushed past Luke, pulling him southward and away from the sinking truck. His entire body was sore and shivering and the thought of allowing himself to sink beneath the waves was both unpleasant and very possible. Foul water gushed into his mouth and Luke choked on it, but still he kicked and clawed his way forward, closer and closer to the still visible rear wheels of Perkins’ old Ford. There had to still be an air bubble. Murphy would still be able to breathe.
The river seemed to flow faster, the closer Luke got to the truck. The tips of his fingers touched the river-slicked wheel of the truck and the river wrenched him away. He clawed his way back and gained a brief handhold before the river snatched him up again. The third time, his hand locked onto the rim of the rear passenger tire. The river was still tearing at him as he descended down into the water.
The deeper he dove, clinging to random handholds on the truck, the stronger the current became, as if the river knew he was trying to steal the boy away. Luke pulled himself inside the truck’s cabin with the river tugging at his back. The truck was upside down in the water and at first, Luke could only see the Perkins double and Murphy’s feet. Luke wanted to get out of the truck and get out of it in a hurry. The initial idea to snatch the boy by the ankle and swim hard for the surface was immediately tempting, but after a thought, he figured that would cause Murphy and ultimately get the boy killed.
Luke surfaced up into the dwindling pocket of air where Murphy waited, clutching onto the limp, waterlogged double. The double was somehow still breathing, blood dribbled freely from his scalp and his hand was locked up, wedged between the wall and a red metal toolbox underneath the driver’s side seat. It was still fixed securely in place in spite of Murphy’s panicked efforts. Murphy was crying and pulling on the arm, fixated on that rather than the third person taking up the sparse air.
“Get out of here!” Luke said. He pulled on Murphy’s shoulder and spun the boy around. Murphy’s eyes were black pools with tiny flecks of red. His face was covered in a thin layer of black and gray fur. Luke shot backward, slamming into the opposite side of the truck.
“I can’t get him loose.” Murphy said, his black eyes wide and terrified. He was a boy. Luke could see fur, fangs and a little wet nose, but Murphy was a little boy. Luke didn’t have time to think of him as anything else.
“I’ll get him. Go. Get to the surface. Hold onto the truck.” Luke moved closer to the double, catching the body as it sagged from Murphy’s arms. Murphy disappeared underneath the brown water and out the broken driver’s side window.
Luke wasn’t very much more equipped to save the double than Murphy. He had this mysterious man with Perkins’s face locked up against his body and Luke was beginning not to care. Luke was so confused and scared without Perkins, but he was so tired and was literally and figuratively in the dark. There was a lingering thought of just leaving the double, swimming up and helping Murphy. He batted that thought away and it surfaced again and again. Luke drove his forearm into the toolbox again and again, trying to unlock it from under the seat. The water rose up beneath his chin. He wouldn’t die down there. He drove his elbow hard into the toolbox, sending a rattling ache up through his bone. The toolbox shifted loose and the double’s arm came free. The next thing Luke knew, he was being wrenched underneath the water .
There was someone on top of him. There was a thick chord of muscle wrapped around Luke’s neck, compressing the blood flow to his brain. Luke launched his feet down, striking the roof of the old Ford. Luke drove the person on his back up into the side of the seat and the foot well. The strong forearm released from around Luke’s neck and Luke dove for the broken window. Out of air, light-headed and more tired than he had ever been, Luke shot out of the truck and was swept away by the river.
Luke wasn’t trying to guide himself to the sides of the river; he just wanted oxygen. In the long journey up into the fresh air, Luke’s lungs screamed and swelled. Luke kicked and clawed up through stray twigs, leaves, pebbles, plastic bags and gallons and gallons of brown water. He burst up through the surface and took a single, screaming, desperate breath before Luke’s ankle was clutched and Luke was wrenched down beneath the waves. Luke’s attacker climbed up, pulling Luke down in the process. Luke kicked and punched at the attacker. Luke planted a firm foot into his attacker’s chest and kicked free from him. Luke got back up above the waves and gasped wildly, his eyes bulging and agape.
He couldn’t stop to breathe. Somebody was trying to kill him. Luke swam hard, trying to guide himself away from whoever was after him. He needed to find Murphy. He needed to get out of the river. Luke could see his target. There was a small branch of sickly, spidery-limbed trees jutting out of the water. He thought that he could squirrel up one of those waterlogged trees. He just had to aim himself toward it. Staying surfaced was difficult enough and then there was the attacker. It was ridiculous to think that it was the bleeding Bobby Bland. The crash would have killed him. Luke was thinking that it’d be more likely that Bobby was pinned under the truck underneath the waves.
The trees sped toward Luke and he splashed toward them, swallowing water all the way. Luke didn’t catch the slimy tree trunk as much as he slammed his middle into it. He locked on to the tree and realized how ridiculous it was to think that he could climb it. The trees and limbs were spindly, slick and dead. The bark peeled off in his hands. Staying above the waves would have to be enough. The base of the trees was a small muddy island beneath three feet of rushing water. Luke’s feet sank into the mud and he lost a sneaker trying to keep his balance. Moonlight poured down over the river and there was a figure splashing toward him. Bobby. Impossibly, it was Bobby swimming toward him. Luke gripped a low hanging branch, not sure what he was going to do with it. He couldn’t fight anymore. Bobby should have been dead. He should have been too exhausted to still be chasing him. Luke pulled on the branch and wrenched it free. Bobby hooked a hand onto a tree and Luke backed away as far as he dared. He had a soaking wet tree limb in his hands, feeling like it weighed a hundred pounds.
Bobby found his foothold and huffed on the other side of the island. Luke wasn’t going to attack if he didn’t. He was just concerned with breathing and not being swept away by the rushing river.
“Luke!” Bobby called from his side of the muddy island. “Your dad says ‘hello.”’
Chapter Nine: Don’t Take It Away
Bobby kept his eyes closed. He wasn’t sleeping; it was just that the piercing light of that late afternoon was driving into his skull like fish hooks. Luke and the old man were gone and the Dark Man was silent. Bobby felt empty and cold. His head hurt and the only good thing that he could claim was that his parents weren’t chattering in his head anymore. He had his baseball bat resting across his knees as he sat on the back step of Luke Peters’ house. The Dark Man had told him to wait and that was what he was doing and not just for further orders from that eerie, invisible man that had almost completely confirmed that he’d gone insane. No, Bobby was waiting to pass out from the concussion he had received. He waited to hear police sirens for killing his father. He wasn’t exactly sure about that. His father might be dead. He had accepted that he had wanted it for a long while. Maybe that was only a hallucination. There was blood on his baseball bat. That had to have come from somewhere. Bobby was waiting to see the purple leafed, red-veined forest with its yellow eyed beasts hiding in the shadows. That was the end of the world. That was the silence. The end of pain. The end of fear.
Bobby stayed still for a long while as sun etched its way across the sky. He didn’t pass out and his parents didn’t reemerge. His mother had wanted him to stop, to lay down. His father, or maybe the Dark Man, had wanted him to keep going, had shamed him. That’s right, boy. Take a knee. Bobby’s head was swimming, but that disdainful voice steadied him. It didn’t make him think anymore clearly. He couldn’t hardly think at all with the pulsing in his head, but he could act more clearly. His body could work, even if his head couldn’t.
Bobby hadn’t realized that he was also waiting for Luke’s father. He must have been waiting because his head perked up and he opened his eyes at the rattling sound of an old Chevy pulling into the blacktop driveway. A big, pale-faced man wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved, gray work shirt stepped from the truck and paused, staring at Bobby for a long while. Bobby wasn’t exactly sure why until he remembered that the side of his face was stained red with blood. There was also the baseball bat. There was also the fact that he was a strange, young man sitting on the back steps of someone else’s house. Then, there was the combination of all the blood, the baseball bat and the fact that he was a strange, young man.
“You okay, son?” Luke’s dad asked, stepping closer. Luke’s old man had thick chords of muscle on his forearms and broad, meaty chest. Bobby was curious how concerned Luke’s father was with him.
“No.” Bobby said. Bobby really wasn’t. He was so tired of pain.
“You need to call somebody?” He said.
“I don’t have anybody.” Bobby said.
“We can start with an ambulance.” He said, his eyes tracing the blood splatter across Bobby’s face. His eyes moved to Bobby’s ears. Luke’s dad then patted Bobby on the shoulder and moved pass him, into the house. He reappeared with a wet checker-pattern washcloth and a cordless phone. He handed over the cloth to Bobby while dialing on the keypad of the phone. The cloth was cool against Bobby’s throbbing head. The baseball bat rolled from his knees and clanked against the cement walkway as Bobby leaned back on the back steps. He breathed in deep while listening to Luke’s father’s baritone.
Bobby was allowing this to happen. His part of the story would end here. He’d be carted away and they’d know about this father. Somehow they would know and they’d put handcuffs on him. In the meantime, they’d inject him with lovely, reality-obliterating drugs. He would never see the purple-leafed forest. He wouldn’t find the magic or the end of pain. He would fail the Dark Man and that would be fine. That’s right, boy. Take a knee. His father was a wary whisper in the back of Bobby’s bruised brain.
Bobby had one true, crystal-clear moment of terror in his life. As a child, Bobby had been afraid from time to time, but it was only the light-and-shadow fears of a young child in the dark seeing a chair being transmogrified into a demon. The one moment of true fear Bobby had experience came behind the high school one afternoon.
Baseball was an escape hatch. Bobby could play with the idea that he could still escape his father and his father’s home and Lowell, in general, as long as he had baseball. He wasn’t the fastest on his baseball team and he wasn’t the hardest hitter. What Bobby had was that he was consistent. He wasn’t one of the boys who needed to be corralled into practice, who needed to be motivated to work. The likelihood that he would ever make it to the Major League was wildly remote. He knew it, but he could allow himself to believe that he could work his way there. Then he was caught in a stupid fight.
It was all a rush of rage and blood. His fists descended down, knocking teeth loose, shattering a nose and all the while, Bobby was screaming. The coach, Mr. Lawson, had caught his fist in midair and snatched him up off of this meaningless kid who had accidentally ran into Bobby. Bobby still didn’t know his name. The coach had slammed him up against the hard concrete wall of the high school and told him that he could take it all away. Baseball was hope. Baseball was the future and the coach was threatening to take it all away.
This fleeting moment behind the high school, if handled differently, could have drastically altered Bobby’s interaction with Luke’s father. The coach had shoved Bobby away from him and went to the kid who’d been balling on the ground and he told the kid to shut up. He snatched the boy up by the collar, got him on his feet and told him to go home. The kid scurried off and that was the end of it. Bobby kept playing baseball. The kid never said anything; the coach never said anything.
Bobby wasn’t sure that he even wanted the thing that he was protecting, but he snatched up his baseball bat and entered the kitchen where Luke’s father was bringing the phone up to his ear. It was one quick crack to the skull and the big man went down. This couldn’t be when it stopped. That’s right, boy. Take a knee. He wasn’t going to. He couldn’t stop. He did feel bad about striking the man. Bobby hung up the phone and took Luke’s father by the ankles and pulled him, inch by inch out of the kitchen.
Chapter Ten: Waterlogged
The waterlogged branch in Luke’s hands was a pointless thing. It slipped from his hands, disappearing beneath the swirling, brown water. He moved against the current, turning wide, clumsy steps. His feet sank into the mire and on the other end, Bobby waited, huffing in the moonlight. Luke wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Your dad says ‘Hello’. Why hadn’t he been thinking about his father in all this? They knew where he lived. They were there when he left. There was a snaking pain in his stomach like a razor sharp pinpoint.
“He’s dead.” Bobby shouted across the rushing river. Bobby had his fists balled and his jaw locked. Luke splashed toward him and crashed into him, hooking him around the waist and driving him underneath the water. Bobby went down swinging, swatting like a feral cat. Luke brought his fist down on Bobby and Bobby swatted blindly up at Luke. Luke pressed a hand on Bobby’s neck while driving his other fist into his face. Brown water splashed and rushed around Luke, streaking his face and stinging his eyes. The river was enveloping him as the mud underneath was enveloping Bobby. Nothing mattered anymore. He had lost Perkins. He had lost his father. He had lost Sadie to the river. He had lost Coral to the river, Murphy to the river, the double to the river. He was likely to lose himself to the river. He had seen it on the news.
Man found floating in the river.
Suspect drowns after fleeing into the river.
Lowell Police Officer drowns in the Merrimack.
He was going to lose, but he wasn’t going to lose this. This one small thing. Killing Bobby, this boy that he didn’t know and didn’t want to know. For the second time, Luke asked himself ‘How did I get here?’ He was supposed to have gone to school. He would have been finishing up his homework on any other day. He was shivering in cold water, trying to drown another boy and thinking of it as a small thing. It didn’t quite feel like a small thing though. Bobby was clawing and thrashing, locking a hand onto Luke’s throat and pulling him under. Even when his life was in danger of ending, Bobby was still trying to kill Luke. Neither boy knew why they had been pitted against one another.
The two were clawing at one another like two starving rats locked in a cage when the water began to ripple into dirty halos. A bright spotlight like cold lightening washed down onto Luke and Bobby. A loud siren screeched over the waves, cutting into Luke’s rage and it kept stinging at Luke’s ears. He looked up into the black sky with his hand up over his eyes. A helicopter puttered up in the air, swaying slightly like a firefly. Luke stumbled away, allowing Bobby to rise from the waves.
A whine came across the current, displacing more waves, splashing around Luke’s waist and there were more spotlights. Boats like white, sculpted arrows in the water zoomed toward the two of them. Bobby stood up shakily, vomiting up water and stumbling out deeper into the river. Blood weeded out from Bobby’s nose. It looked like it might have been broken and his eye was bruised an infected purple. The boats pulled up before the river could envelop him. Men in black wet suits snatched him up out of the water while others in another boat snatched up Luke. There wasn’t much conversation in Luke’s boat. They threw Luke down onto the floor of the boat, his hands were wrenched behind his back and a plastic loop was snitched tightly around his wrists, cutting his wet, trembling flesh. The floor was wet and dirty, but Luke was even more so. He pressed his head against the wet, rattling metal as the boat zoomed off down the river.
A man was yelling at him, trying to get Luke to answer questions but Luke didn’t feel like speaking. He was ashamed, broken and wrecked. He thought, moments ago, that he wanted to kill the young man that had been following the Dark Man, the young man that had caused the truck to crash and sink, the young man that had cause Luke to lose everyone. He wanted to kill him like a dog might want to catch a car. He had no idea what he would have done if he had actually gotten what he wanted.
Luke’s boat docked on the river bank and Luke was snatched up by the shoulders. Luke didn’t have any need to walk because two men held him up and dragged him across a short beach littered with crabgrass and fast food wrappers while a third man shouted question after question. They were all moving toward a row of squad cars, police vans and random people bustling about here and there. Behind that there were the swirling red sirens of ambulances.
Luke was pulled passed the police cars and toward the ambulances. They were lined up along the side of a straight-shot highway. The men lifted Luke up into an open, waiting ambulance and the plastic cuff linking Luke’s wrists was cut. He was shoved onto an empty, clean, white bed at the back of the ambulance and his right wrist was bound to that bed with a pair of handcuffs.
The world became still for a small while and Luke leaned his head back onto the thin, white pad clad in plastic paper. Luke shivered, dripped and ached. His stomach hurt from knocking into a wispy, water-soaked tree with the force of a river at his back. It was more than that, though. It was localized and throbbing. Luke lifted up his soaked-to-hell, river water-stained shirt and peered down to a purple silver dollar sized welt. He had been stabbed by something. Possibly, Luke nicked himself getting out of the truck or while splashing around in the river, but the circular wound in the center of the welt was a perfect circle. There should have been some sort of tearing if it was just an accidental puncture. He remembered the red welts he got when it was time to get his flu shots. It looked like that.
A vaguely familiar blonde man stepped up into the back of the ambulance. He was a tall man with a pencil-thin mustache and greasy hair. He didn’t have his Red Sox cap or his dirty, black hoodie. He wore a lime-green pair of hospital scrubs and a pair of polished white sneakers. He slipped over to Luke’s side and unhooked a breathing mask from a rig installed on the ambulance’s side. He cinched the mask around Luke’s mouth and nose. He spun a valve and tinny, dusty oxygen filled Luke’s lungs.
“The irony. Being caught by the police trying to kill the boy trying to kill you.” The man chuckled softly, plucking a pen-light from his shirt pocket. “How’s that stomach?” The man asked, leaning over Luke and staring into his eyes with the pen-light in his hand.
“What happened to me?” Luke asked, lowering his shirt.
“You’re a smart enough kid. Maybe it was those dark dogs back at Sheila’s place. Maybe it really was the boy you were splashing around with, Bobby Bland. Maybe it was an accident. You don’t remember being stabbed during any of that, do you?” He said, clicking off the pen-light.
“I don’t remember being stabbed at all.” Luke said, rubbing the welt underneath his shirt.
“Do you remember being hit there?” The man asked, swatting Luke’s hand away. “It’ll never heal if you keep picking at it.”
“You mean Perkins?” Luke asked.
“Exactly. Why would he stab you, do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve been acting real weird, Luke. You’ve been following a man you’ve only met this morning. Running from someone trying to kill you and you’ve only made one feeble attempt at contacting the police. Isn’t that psychotic?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Luke asked. Luke attempted to justify anything that occurred in the past twelve hours, but he couldn’t quite do it. His hand tugged against the handcuff and the handcuff clanked against the metal bed railing. The man with greasy blonde hair opened up a small drawer and fished out a seringe sealed in a plastic bag.
“Drugs do many things. Drugs to wake you up. Drugs to perk you up. Drugs to make you sleepy and drugs to make you obey.” He waggled the bagged seringe in the Luke’s face.
“Perkins drugged me?” The man opened up the plastic bag and took out the seringe.
“Yeah.” The man said, letting his jaw hang at the end of the word.
“Why would he do that?” Luke asked.
“To make you obey.” The man said, sounding like the answer was terribly obvious. “The question to ask, the most important question is, why was your obedience needed?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know what they call you? Them Exiles? Them Dark men? Them distant holy rollers? Mean as teenage girls, they are.” The man said, plunging the needle into his own forearm. “The Lamb. They call you The Lamb as in Lamb to the Slaughter. They’re all looking to kill you, Luke.” He leaned back, pressing down on the plunger. “Oh, I completely missed your arm, Luke.” The man said. A smile curled on his face.
“Why are they trying to kill me?” Luke asked.
“You’ll find that out soon enough.” His eyes were slowly rolling up into the back of his head.
“I’ll find that out now.”
“Look at you, pretending like you got a choice in the matter.” The man said, pointing to the handcuff.
“If I can’t trust them, then why can I trust you? Seeing that you’re withholding information.” Luke asked. It was the next pressing question. Luke looked at this lanky, greasy man with a needle dangling from his arm. He hoped that this possible drug addict wasn’t his only ally in all of this.
“A very good question.” He said, saying every word slowly. “You can’t. You shouldn’t. You walked into the forest, little lamb. You’d been ensnared by a wolf at the start. Who knows what I am.” The man said.
“I still don’t know who you are.” Luke asked.
“Sheila told you my profession: Agent of the Random. My name is Sam. Does that mere knowledge tell you who I am? Can you trust me now?” The man asked.
“Not really. I don’t have much of a choice in the matter, do I?” Luke said, clanking the handcuff against the metal railing.
“That and the bare foot.” Sam said, flicking an eye to Luke’s left foot. His sneaker had been sucked off in the river.
“I could run with a bare foot.”
“True. You won’t have to, though. I’ve nudged this life-line enough for now. I’ll leave you my left sneaker and this.” Sam opened his palm to reveal a small key. “I don’t need to tell you to not draw attention to yourself.” Sam deposited the key on Luke’s chest and began to untie his left sneaker.
“You haven’t told me why I should trust you.” Luke said.
“Yeah, I did. You can’t. You shouldn’t. From what I told you, I serve something chaotic and vicious. It was a random thing that Murphy, that little wolf boy was swept away by the river. It was random that he’s still alive. It was random that he’s alone and scared down the river way. The other two and that Perkins husk, they’re alive too. Maybe I’m lying. Maybe you’ll be shot dead the moment you leave this van; a cop sees you and tries to stop you from escaping. Don’t trust anyone, Luke.”
Sam plucked the white sneaker off his foot and rested it on the bed. He then sauntered off, stepping out from the ambulance. Sam turned a corner and was gone. Luke was, again, left alone with the police car’s blue lights swirling through the night. Luke knew that the key would fit the lock and Luke doubted that the police would shoot him dead. If Sam wanted him dead, he had the opportunity. Luke, alone and handcuffed.
Luke put the key in the handcuff and twisted it, unlocking him from the bed. He slipped the oxygen mask off his face. Luke took the shoe and slipped it on his foot. Luke had a thought and one that he wasn’t informed enough to think too deeply on. Could he already be dead? Not literally dead, but he had been splashing around in a river in very early Spring. The water was cold and he was soaked to the bone.
What logical reason would he want to escape? There was the comment about Sadie, Coral and Murphy being alive. Murphy, alone and afraid. Sam had told him exactly what he wanted to hear and at the same time reminded him that Luke couldn’t trust him. He needed medical treatment. Luke probably was harboring a nasty case of pneumonia and he’d probably die on the street while seeking Sadie and the others. Luke slipped the shoe off his foot and tossed it off the back of the ambulance. He was about to handcuff himself back to the bed, but thought about his father.
Of everyone he was supposed to trust, why would he trust Bobby? His father could just be hurt, bleeding out on the living room floor. Don’t trust anyone. Luke subconsciously, and possibly consciously, didn’t trust his father, but he knew his father didn’t want to kill him. Home was the one place you could go when you couldn’t go anywhere else. Luke slid off the bed and out the back of the ambulance. He couldn’t find the sneaker that Sam had left him and he didn’t really have time to find it. Sam had somehow slowed down time and Luke could see it speeding back up. There were precious few moments where no one was looking at him and Luke slunk away before they were spent.