He sat there like something summoned by hasty orisons wept in the near darkness of the backwoods. The brute half reclined before a fireplace that he fished at with his bare fingers for an ember to light his pipe and kicked away a gutted bowl of acorn gruel.
He made not a move unbacked by the chinking of the countless rings and ornamental chains that hung off his neck and biceps on ropes of braided human hair and he polished a heavy-bore revolver with a grimy rag until it turned back images of himself in the glaring firelight. On the rough wooden floorboards aside his mismatched boots slept an oaken club with all manner of curious stains. The side of his mouth on which he clenched his pipe sagged at the point a knife had found him but failed to finish the job.
Furtive in the creeping fireglow another man, thin with worry, bent himself in a chair at a dining room table among the wet and cowering eyes of three children. A single seat on the far side of the setting stood prominent and empty.
“You can take the house and everything in it,” the father said to silence. “Just get us south.”
The brute’s calloused hand sheathed the pistol into a shoulder holster sheared from a leg of old denim and plucked the pipe from his teeth.
“Ye just let me take freely from the ones gonna hunt yer,” he gravelled, spewing smoke. “I don’t have need for nothin else.”
The youth swung himself over and over the climbing frame bars in the hope that if he inverted the world enough, something would change.
He watched the river upended. Across the stream padding over the decade-moulded pebbles to the vast floodplain cut by a storm years past. Mud and silt half submerged a pair of goals on a pitch that once had been. With a finger he traced the spot where the diamond plates lay buried like headstones after an avalanche.
Righting himself, he wondered what it would be like to see a child again. A pushchair rotated in the current.
They called it a rescue mission but I saw none. It returned a train of human misery. Their feet churning ankle high slush on the peeling tarmac. Headed by satchel-burdened horses they traipsed a line through our town. The ranger at the head a man who wanted to see no more.
Behind, the purposely blinded clutched the rope he towed, or the shoulder of the man in front. Some with requisitioned garments for blindfolds while others bore hollow darkened stares.
Those who had clothes had parts stuck to them by moist black patches. On the naked you could see for what purpose they were kept. Raw strips on their calves and thighs. Some hobbled by slices taken from their buttocks. Some wept while others said nothing. Finally came the wagons and carts drawn by the militia, carrying all those who could no longer walk. Women who held their stomachs with furrowed brows. And stretchered shapes cut short at knee and elbow. They most of all had no sound to make.
I observed with a low feeling in my stomach that there were no children. I watched fully clothed and healthy. Like a stranger witnessing my own funeral.
There had been a time when he didn’t feel afraid of his phone. He searched the crowds at intersections with eyes that had not greeted sleep in days. Faces loomed and then drowned again. His heart heaved knowing that somewhere, she was watching.
He had to rebuild his life in the height of her shadow. Every motion still carries her spirit. The idle fear that she will be around the next corner follows him all the way to the witch’s office.
The sorceress apologised in drifts of incense.
“I cannot help with hauntings by the living,” she lilted. “That is a mortal curse.”
“What do you do with the heads then?” the crone spoke through the gaps in her teeth. Mister Tratchten handed her order over the counter in a plastic bag. It still moved against the clear film.
“Madam?” he said, taken aback. The woman tapped her cane on the glass case in front of her. Pointed to the array of suction-cup studded tentacles, bright red and curly under tube lighting.
“They’re not fit to eat,” he asserted with a hand on the counter.
“The hell they aren’t,” she frowned, “I’ll give you the case of scotch the lodger left behind.”
“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Briggs,” Trachten said firmer now, “other customers are waiting.” He gestured with a knife across the terracotta tiles to the shadows queued outside the dust-streaked window.
Once business was done, Trachten extinguished the lights to the shop floor and went upstairs, gathering the metal bucket on his way. He pinched the petite yellow key to the guest room door out his pocket and unlocked it. The entity therein could not be returned, but it would not die either. He had elected to make the best of it.
All remaining students of Trinity Faith School waited without coats on the grassless sports field. The children, so nearly not children, stood in a dozen silent rows with their hands red with cold by their sides. Uniformed police made sweeps up and down the human lanes, sometimes stopping to grab arms and pore over hands.
“Is this how you imagined your job turning out?” The chief watched atop a makeshift platform drawn together from shipping palettes.
“Can’t say I did,” the officer beside answered, ashen faced. “If we find all the culprits who consecrated the buried altar here,” he rubbed one of his darkened eyes, “we can prevent further sacrifices.”
An officer on the ground dragged a boy still in his early teens out of rank by the hair. He fought not at all, his shirt sleeve up over his elbow exposing all manner of telltale scabs and deep maroon grooves. As they marched him out to the podium in front of the other children, a smile crept across his youthful face.
“Such a waste,” the chief sighed. She looked down to the darkly stained chopping block by her feet, and handed the axe to her subordinate for a fourth time. “Try to do this one cleanly.”
She took them first in the back of motorcars. Enough to give them a taste of something they would follow her home for.
“Unusual to meet anyone with something to run a car on,” the youngish man thought out loud, tracing a hand over the line of the open window. Air rushed against his face and brought thoughts of road trips with his parents from some long buried summer.
“Well, when you got something to trade,” she winked. The car shuddered to a stop to the front of a grand farmhouse, windows and all, stretched out on a clearing before a cedar forest. The fields were fallow and her palm slipped below his belt.
She led him by the hand through the garden of desiccated snakeplant and honeysuckle, their feet rustling through tinder-ready leaves. His eyes moved across the expansive barbecue. The steel drum modified for the cooking of larger beasts like whole turkeys and hogs. But all he saw was the way her waist swayed as she ascended the steps to the house, and the outline of her underwear over her buttocks
She worries that one might notice before she gets them inside. The interior carried the scent of a cooling roast.
Our house did not have a cellar door until a few days ago. My brother and I take turns watching it.
We tried alternating days and nights but that just ruined our body clocks. Now we just stick to our shift. Him the evening, myself the morning. We’ve taken to many things to keep our eyes open for the whole stint. Coffee. Cigarettes. Knives heated over a gas burner.
If we begin to drift even for a moment, there is the unmistakable sound of something being unlocked. Kenneth thinks it explains why every search for our parents comes back empty.
The lad turned over the plyboard sign to see “free range produce” in peeling paint. The vending machine’s hut still had the lights on. Within, a wall of metal boxes stood as high as himself. He tapped on the reinforced glass of each cell and gave their stubby handles a tug but none came loose. All held a shiny punnet of brown-shelled eggs.
With coins fished out of drains he filled the slot until an unseen mechanism sighed and gave way. He stood rigid under the stall’s humming lamps and listened for any telltale sounds coming out the wasted countryside.
Once he got them back to the chattel house that passed for home, he cracked a shell. Bubbled clusters fit for frogs spilled themselves and sizzled in the firelight. The sight disgusted him yet the smell found him reaching for a spoon.
A fortnight later he cradled his swollen belly with a single hand. Waiting outside the vending kiosk, he spied the growing headlamps of a truck.
Only near the base of the forested drumlin have I stood and waited, while others tramped by on some forced march. I halted for hours among the muddy leaves, beneath the canopy of stark twigs and empty clothes.
Further up into the mist and undergrowth the chosen vanished only to emerge again, more tired than before. Some moved at only a walk when I knew they should be running. Others with fever in their faces and eyes and limbs as they tried to be the first to reach the edge of the wood. To their rear the trees shook, but there was no wind.