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The Hunting Tree

BY

IKE HAMILL

WWW.IKEHAMILL.COM


Special Thanks:

Terry Baldwin

Marydale Abernathy

Cynthia Hamill

Erin Cunningham



Cover design by BelleDesign [BelleDesign.org]

Published by Ike Hamill at Smashwords

Copyright © 2012-2017 by Ike Hamill. All rights reserved.

This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events have been fabricated only to entertain. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the consent of Ike Hamill.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Contents

Book One - Stage of Possibilities

Chapter One - Crooked Tree

Chapter Two - Davey

Chapter Three - Mike

Chapter Four - Davey

Chapter Five - Mike

Chapter Six - Crooked Tree

Chapter Seven - Davey

Chapter Eight - Mike

Chapter Nine - Crooked Tree

Chapter Ten - Davey

Chapter Eleven - Mike

Chapter Twelve - Crooked Tree

Chapter Thirteen - Davey

Chapter Fourteen - Mike

Book Two - Stage of Hunger

Chapter Fifteen - Crooked Tree

Chapter Sixteen - Davey

Chapter Seventeen - Mike

Chapter Eighteen - Crooked Tree

Chapter Nineteen - Davey

Chapter Twenty - Mike

Chapter Twenty One - Crooked Tree

Chapter Twenty Two - Davey

Chapter Twenty Three - Mike

Chapter Twenty Four - Crooked Tree

Chapter Twenty Five - Davey

Chapter Twenty Six - Mike

Chapter Twenty Seven - Crooked Tree

Chapter Twenty Eight - Davey

Chapter Twenty Nine - Mike

Chapter Thirty - Davey

Book Three - Stage of the Hunt

Chapter Thirty One - Mike

Chapter Thirty Two - Ken Stuart

Chapter Thirty Three - Davey

Chapter Thirty Four - Mike

Chapter Thirty Five - Davey

Chapter Thirty Six - Mike

Chapter Thirty Seven - Davey

Chapter Thirty Eight - Mike

Chapter Thirty Nine - Davey

Chapter Forty - Mike

Chapter Forty One - Crooked Tree

Chapter Forty Two - Davey Epilogue

About The Hunting Tree

First Look - Blood Ghost

More by Ike

- Stage of Possibilities -

CHAPTER ONE

Crooked Tree - 3141 B.C.


He stood in back between his brother and his father, but he really wanted to be nearer to the edge of the cliff. On the journey he’d caught a glimpse of the spectacular view through the trees. From up here they could probably see all the way to where the big rivers came together—the place they would meet with the other families at the end of summer. On his toes, he could at least spy the fuzzy, purple horizon. At sixteen, Crooked Tree already stood taller than any of his relatives. He was even taller than his brother, Running Deer, who was the strongest and most popular youngster of their whole group.

Crooked Tree flexed his legs. His muscles ached from travel. Their four-dozen family members had walked for days to arrive at this cliff on this warm spring day, but Crooked Tree had run most of it—back and forth between his father and Talking Bird. Talking Bird led the group and his father brought up the rear. The tall boy was their messenger, repeating each string of words verbatim.

Now at the front of the group on a black rock, at the very edge of the cliff, Talking Bird explained their duty: “Our people were once herded by the Snake. He kept us as his pets; he watched over us. When we turned sour he culled with a swift bite and a tight coil.”

They had left in a hurry four days before, collecting meager rations and water along the way. Talking Bird had surprised everyone with this trip and had only conferred with Big Bear, who was the natural leader of the clan. Such a trip wasn’t completely unprecedented. As they began their journey, several people remembered another spring day when Talking Bird had uprooted the group and sent them up the hillside just before a flood washed through and destroyed their home camp. The old man was wise and trusted. When his voice broke the still morning everyone straightened and listened.

Crooked Tree tried hard to focus on the old man’s words. Whenever Talking Bird would begin his low, slow cadence, it was all Crooked Tree could do to pay attention. His mind would wander and he’d always miss a crucial part of the message. He’d wait for his father to explain it later. The rest of the group seemed to sense something important. The extended family stood as still as the rocks that dotted the rough clearing. Even the children and babies knew that it was time to stay perfectly quiet.

“When the Man Who Created Himself opened this valley, he stood before the Snake and said ‘We will decide now,’” said Talking Bird.

Several heads nodded. At Crooked Tree’s right, Running Deer whooped, punctuating the story.

“But he really meant that he would decide who should come together to bring more children,” Talking Bird reminded the group. “It was much later that we bore that burden.”

“Now our mothers and fathers choose the wisest pairings,” said Talking Bird. This was met with more nods from the clan. “And we alone are left to decide when our blood has become poisoned. This is the dream I’ve had.”

Crooked Tree saw fewer nods at this last line, and many heads dropped. Mothers with young children hugged them close. His own mother wasn’t among those standing in the perfect spring sun. She had died just after Running Deer had weaned. Crooked Tree and his brother had been raised by many of the women standing in the group, and that had made it awkward for him to find any of their daughters attractive. They seemed like his sisters. At the next gathering he planned to find a young woman from another clan and follow her home. That would leave Running Deer able to step into his father’s role eventually without being blocked by him, the older son. He closed his eyes, thought of the approaching summer, and inhaled the beautiful wet edge of the air from the forest behind them.

“We have come to this moment,” said Talking Bird, “when Sun Bringer tells us through our dreams that dark spirits are in our blood, and in the blood of our children. We carry the mark, and it will always be.”

Talking Bird had to raise his voice to be heard over the wails of the women. “We may weep, but we have a duty, just as it would be our duty to fill this valley with our children if we ran strong.”

Crooked Tree snuck a glance at his father, Big Bear, to his left. His father’s face was a mask of grim resolve. He wanted to ask his father what was happening, but Talking Bird wasn’t done with his speech.

“So I ask you to follow me. I will lead the way. Step with me now,” ordered Talking Bird. With his eyes moving across the crowd, Talking Bird took a small half-step backward and then leaned way back until he was almost overbalanced over the cliff edge.

The women’s wails drew to a crescendo as the group began to move.

Before Talking Bird could fall backwards over the edge of the cliff, his extended family rushed forward and threw themselves over the edge. Some mothers clutched their children to their chest before jumping over the ledge. Others threw their babies, tossing them in high arcs past the tumbling bodies.

“Help them,” Big Bear said to his sons.

Bringing up the rear, Big Bear, Crooked Tree, and Running Deer herded the group to their death and waited for stragglers or cowards to bolt away from the edge. Their family was strong and proud and took their duty seriously. In the end, the father and two sons reached the cliff and found no stragglers. Their family lay dead in a bloody heap, hundreds of feet below the black rock where Talking Bird had delivered his final address.

“We are strong,” Big Bear told his sons, “this is a proud day.”

Crooked Tree and Running Deer watched their father gather his legs and leap; their father folded his arms back to his sides and smiled.

“Let’s go, brother,” said Running Deer.

He still hadn’t figured the whole thing out, but his heart told him that he belonged with the rest of his family, and he should follow them.

They jumped together, feet first, and fell at the same pace. Just over the edge their eyes locked and Running Deer whooped for the last time in his young life.

CHAPTER TWO

Davey — Two Years Ago…


“Just a quick one?” Davey begged. He sat up in his bed while his father, Christopher, waited to tuck him in.

“Not tonight, bud,” said Christopher.

“But I’ve been seven for a month, and you said you couldn’t tell me the old stories until I was seven,” said Davey.

“No fair,” Susan interjected from the doorway. “I was seven three years ago, and I’ve never heard those bedtime stories.”

“I told you,” explained Christopher, “that they’re not to be told to kids one at a time.”

“So tell us now,” said Susan. She came into Davey’s room and climbed over the frame at the end of his bed. She propped a pillow against the wall and made herself comfortable.

“This just isn’t a good night for it,” said Christopher. He was thinking about Melanie. She was still downstairs, muttering at the TV with a full glass of wine. Up until three glasses she was fine, but her anger always came out with the fourth. This wasn’t a night he wanted to be caught telling old ghost stories to the kids.

Susan stretched out her legs and pushed her blond hair behind her ears. Davey stared at Christopher with unwavering intensity.

Christopher wasn’t a pushover, but he knew when he was beat. He reached behind him and pulled Davey’s little chair from under the desk. It was a tiny room, just big enough for the single bed, a bureau, and a cramped desk. Christopher had to maneuver around the chair just to spin it. When his foot caught on the edge of the bed he nearly flipped over backwards.

When he’d finally put his legs to the side and found the seat, he agreed—“Okay, but just a short one.”

The kids nodded.

“Which one do you want to hear? There’s the one where the twins slept too long side-by-side and their hair grew together,” said Christopher.

“Scarier,” said Davey.

“I don’t know,” said Christopher, “that one’s pretty scary. What about the Stages of the Night?”

“Yeah,” said Susan.

“Yeah,” repeated Davey. He flopped back down, pulling his covers up to his big grin.

“Okay,” said Christopher. He snuck one more look over his shoulder to make sure his wife wasn’t within earshot and then started his story—“A long time ago, in the middle of winter, a little family was snowed in for the night. They lived in a little cabin in the woods and they had a good fire going, so it was nice and cozy inside. The dad put his kids to bed early, so they could get up at dawn and help him dig out once the snow quit drifting. The kids, a girl and a boy, had never known their mother—she died at childbirth.”

“What were their names?” asked Susan.

“What do you want to call them?” Christopher asked her.

“Susan and Davey!” his son interjected.

“No, let’s give them make-believe names,” said Christopher.

“Liam and Ava,” said Susan.

“Really?” asked Christopher.

Susan nodded.

Christopher continued—“So the dad, we’ll call him John, he put the twins to bed, but he had to go back out into the night. He had a night job watching over the town granary.”

“What’s a granary?” asked Davey.

His sister tsked and rolled her eyes—“It’s where they kept the grain, retard,” she said.

“Don’t use that word,” said Christopher automatically.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. Susan rearranged her nightgown and tried to seem nonchalant.

“So yes, John watched over the community supplies of food and livestock,” said Christopher. “He felt bad leaving his kids alone all night when he worked. They were only about your age, Davey, but they were good kids and didn’t make any trouble when Dad had to work at night. At least until that night: the snowy night, when Liam found out firsthand about the Stages.”

Christopher saw Susan’s right hand move up to her mouth and then away. She knew she wasn’t supposed to suck her thumb, but it was a deep-rooted habit. Davey still had his big smile. Nothing seemed to scare Davey; he was happiest amongst the spooky and ghoulish.

Christopher continued—“That night, when the whole world was covered with a thick blanket of snow, and the blowing flakes spattered against the side of their cabin like sand, that was the night that Liam decided to see the Stages for himself. He wanted to know if the old stories his uncles told were really true. The uncles always warned the kids to be asleep before the Stages started, or else they’d be sorry.”

“What are the Stages?” asked Davey.

Susan let out an exasperated sigh, but Christopher continued on, incorporating Davey’s interruption—“The Stages are like the chapters the night moves through after everyone is supposed to be asleep. The first stage is the Stage of Possibilities. You see, daylight keeps everything orderly; makes everything obey the laws of nature. Gravity, physics, life, death—these are all concepts of daylight,” he glanced back and forth between their blue eyes. “If you stay up too late all those rules disappear, and the shapes and shadows of the night are free to turn into hungry monsters. The old black rock near the pond will shift and become an angry dog with huge fangs, dripping with blood. Liam thought he would be okay because everything was cold and frozen outside. He just wanted to see what would happen, so he kept one eye open and watched the firelight play against the walls while his sister fell asleep.”

Susan had pulled her legs up close to her body. Davey’s eyelids looked heavy.

“For a long time, Liam didn’t think anything would happen. But then he finally saw,” said Christopher. “Next to the fire, their Dad kept a pail for hauling away the ashes. That pail cast a big shadow on the wall next to the door. Where the handle attached, a hole let a little light through, and it gave the big shadow an eye, to watch over the room. As Liam peeked between his thick fur covers, the head of the shadow turned to look at him, even though the pail never moved. Liam held himself perfectly still as the shadow slinked off to the left and out of sight. He didn’t want to turn his head to follow it. He thought if he turned his head and revealed he was awake, the thing would certainly come after him. You see, Liam had stayed awake until everything was possible. There were no more rules to keep that shadow from turning into a monster.”

Christopher assessed his children. Davey was still grinning, but his eyelids drooped and swayed. Susan was curled up, hugging her knees to her chest. He lowered his tone, hoping to lull the kids the rest of the way to sleep—“When the monster moved, this was the second stage, the Stage of Hunger. This is where everything called to life by haunted imagination roams the earth. Liam was frozen with his fear. He wanted to call out and wake Ava, but he was too afraid. His heart pounded in his ears. It was so loud he thought for sure the shadow-monster would hear. The fire popped and Liam nearly screamed,” said Christopher.

Susan sucked in a startled breath. She forgot herself and took her thumb into her mouth.

“He strained his ears and tried to ignore the sounds of the fire. That’s when he heard it. A scraping noise, barely audible at first, was getting louder and louder. Liam shrunk down under his blankets, hoping to make himself disappear into his bed. Scrape, scrape, scrape. In her sleep, Ava groaned as if she sensed what was coming. Scrape, scrape, scrape. The sound got louder and louder until Liam didn’t think he could stand it any more. He wanted to run from their little cabin, out into the night, to get away from the sinister shadow-monster. And then…” Christopher trailed off. It looked like he would get away with it—both kids were sliding into their own dream-world, the troubling story already forgotten.

Christopher took a breath and prepared to rise from his seat.

“Then what?” asked Davey. Christopher was startled. He looked between Davey and Susan and found them both alert and ready for more.

“Oh,” he said. He lowered his voice again and got back into character—“And then, CRASH! The door banged open and their father, John, burst in from the cold night.”

“Knew it,” said Davey.

Christopher frowned.

“That’s it?” asked Susan. She shook her head. “That’s a crappy ending.”

“Oh really?” asked Christopher, raising his eyebrows. “But that’s not the ending, as far as I know. Oh well, I guess I must have it wrong. Ready for bed then?”

“No!” both kids yelled.

“Shhh!” he glanced back at the hallway. “But I thought this story was too predictable and crappy,” said Christopher.

“Come on—please tell us the rest?” begged Susan.

“Please?” asked Davey.

“Okay, I guess,” said Christopher. “There’s not that much more to tell, honestly.”

He waited a beat, until he captured their full attention.

“John came in to the cozy cabin slapping the snow from his clothes and warming himself by the glowing fire. Liam sat up straight and threw back his covers. He ran to his dad and hugged him around the waist. John lifted him from the ground and said ‘Liam, what are you doing up?’ Liam explained about how he had defied the Stages and stayed up, inadvertently awaking the shadow-monster. John comforted his son—‘It’s okay, Liam. What you saw was just a regular shadow. You thought it walked away, but it was just the fire dying down. Now that I’ve stoked it, the shadow comes right back, see?’”

The kids nodded along with Christopher.

He continued: “So Liam went back to his bed and watched his father get ready for his own rest. His body was warm and safe, but his thoughts were still troubled. This time he thought about the Stage of the Hunt, what his uncle called the ‘Hungry Feast.’ That stage was supposed to be particularly dangerous. All the hungry hunters prowling the dark would make even a peaceful man’s blood boil. Liam realized he hadn’t been paying attention, maybe he’d even drifted off—his father was missing.”

“What happened to him?” asked Davey—his voice a smiling whisper. Christopher shuddered a little at his son’s morbid curiosity.

“That’s the question that drove Liam from his bed. All he could think was that somehow the shadow-monster was somehow real. He imagined his father struggling for his life, and Liam pushed off his covers to go help. He couldn’t bear the thought that his dad would be killed by something that his curiosity had called to life.”

“Because he stayed up too late?” asked Davey.

“Exactly,” said Christopher. He noticed that Susan’s chin was resting on her chest—she had drifted off at last. He lowered his voice to a whisper and continued the story for Davey—“So Liam crept away from his bed, tiptoeing across the room to the passage that led to the summer room. When he was about to round the corner, Liam got his second big scare of the night. Right around the corner, as if waiting for him to approach, came…" Christopher paused, but Davey offered no guess, “his father.”

Christopher waited for Davey to be disappointed again, but Davey just watched. If Davey had been someone else’s son, Christopher would have called him creepy.

He continued—“Liam was glad to see his father alive and well, and was even more comforted at what his father said next—‘Liam, you’re just jumpy tonight. You can sleep in my bed until you settle down.’ Liam nodded and followed his dad to the big bed, farthest away from the fire. His dad hugged him tight under the heavy covers, and Liam knew nothing bad could happen to him in his father’s strong arms. At least that’s what he thought until he felt his father’s hot breath on the back of his head. That’s when Liam remembered why the Stage of the Hunt was so dangerous. It was one of the most feared Stages because it was contagious.”

Davey understood—Christopher could tell from his eyes.

“The next thing Liam did was the last thing he would ever do. He rolled over to look his father in the eyes. He looked his father in his glowing… red… eyes.”

“Cool,” Davey breathed. His eyes fell shut with the word. As if, now satisfied with a gruesome ending, Davey could finally sleep in peace. Christopher shook his head reflexively—dismissing the revulsion he would never admit feeling.

He leaned over—“Ready for bed?” Christopher whispered in Susan’s ear.

“Uhh-kay,” she yawned.

Christopher reached towards her and she put up her arms. He plucked her from Davey’s bed quietly, not moving the bed more than an eighth of an inch. Christopher was clumsy, except when it came to his kids. With his kids he was strong and graceful.

Christopher carried Susan to her room and slid her under thick covers. She had a better room than her brother, but it would still be cramped for a teenage girl, which she would soon become. Their inadequate house pushed at the back of Christopher’s thoughts, like a forgotten errand. Now that the kids were in school most of the day, he was supposed to go back to work. It had been nearly a decade since he’d decided to be a stay-at-home dad; the prospect of a job-search was daunting.

“Cold,” she mumbled.

He pulled up the covers, kissed her forehead, and tucked her in tight.

“Good night, sweetie,” he said.

“Night,” she replied. She turned her head and closed her eyes.

He backed out slowly and closed the door to just a crack.

Back in Davey’s room, his son had already kicked most of the covers off. Christopher rearranged Davey’s limbs and folded back the heaviest blankets. Davey was always radiating heat, but he was even hotter tonight, still getting over the tail of a fever. Christopher leaned in to kiss Davey’s forehead when he saw the mark.

He dug in his pocket for a mildly-used tissue. Pushing Davey’s hair back, Christopher wiped the white smudge from his son’s neck. Christopher left the tissue in Davey’s trashcan and closed the door most of the way.

With the kids safely to bed, he turned his attention to his wife. She would be downstairs, either talking on the phone or watching television, a glass of wine clenched in her right hand. Some nights, maybe even most nights, she didn’t drink at all. They would stay up until the news, talking, making plans, and cleaning up the kitchen. Nights like these, where she would be on her fifth or sixth glass of wine when he tucked in the kids, had become a regular part of Christopher’s life. On those nights he had three children, and it was time for him to see the third to bed.

Christopher flipped on the light at the top of the stairs and put his hand on the railing. Even something he did dozens of times a day, something that any normal man of thirty-six years would completely take for granted, was affected by Christopher’s clumsiness. Ever since he was a little boy, as young as Davey was that night, Christopher had learned to always use a handrail when climbing or descending stairs. He started down.

A noise from the end of the long hall, from the door to the master bedroom, claimed his attention and he turned his head. He wondered if Melanie, his wife, had somehow managed to slip past him while he was tucking in their children.

* * * * *

Melanie woke on top of the covers, blinking away the light from the nightstand lamp. She rolled over and reached for the slender stem of her glass, but she wanted water, not more burgundy. Melanie glanced at the clock, suddenly confused and waking up quickly. It read two seventeen.

“Dad!” cried Davey, from the next room. “DAD!” he screamed.

She sat up. It felt like her body was two steps ahead of her brain and she settled back down on her elbows. Christopher would see to Davey. There was no need for both of them to get up if Davey was yelling for Chris.

Her eyes were half-closed again before her confusion came back even stronger.

“Dad?” Davey called.

Chris should have been there by now.

This time Melanie sat up and swung her legs off the side of the bed. She pushed to her feet and steadied herself on the bureau. She ran fingers through her hair as she consulted the mirror. She straightened her blouse and smoothed the front of her slacks. Her head began a slow drumbeat in time with her pulse. There would be a headache waiting for her in the morning if she didn’t get that glass of water. Davey’s room was two doors down.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked, as she pushed open Davey’s door. The hall light was on, so she didn’t open it all the way.

“I think I stayed up too long,” he cried.

“What? What do you mean?” she knelt next to his bed and smoothed his hair.

“I wanted to stay up until the Stage of Possibilities, just to see,” he said frantically.

“Shhhh,” she said, “don’t wake up your sister. Just tell me what happened.”

Davey started again, slower, as if explaining something very complicated—“I wanted to stay up to see the Stage of Possibilities, so I could see what it looked like,” he whispered.

“What does that mean, honey?” she asked, while she stroked his face. She reached over clicked on his lamp. The bulb came on slowly, with its slightly cold fluorescent light.

“Dad told us about how the night has stages. I just wanted to see the first stage, so I tried really hard to stay up. Even when the scary noises started, I just pinched myself on the arm, see?" He pulled his arm from under the covers. A string of welts ran from his wrist up to his elbow. One had a small spot of blood from his sharp nails.

“Oh, honey,” Melanie licked her thumb and wiped the blood from his arm. She cleaned her thumb on a tissue from the nightstand and then used the tissue to wipe a smudge from the side of Davey’s face.

“The scary noises stopped at one, zero, seven,” he pointed to the clock on his bookshelf. “And nothing happened for a long time. I almost went to sleep, but then, at two, zero, zero, I saw it.”

“Did Dad tell you scary stories before bed?” Melanie asked as she tightened her mouth.

“No,” Davey answered.

Melanie stowed her anger for later, and tried to recover a more appropriate, sympathetic look. “What did you see?”

“I saw the sideways-head thing over there,” he pointed at the corner where his dresser met the wall.

“What’s the sideways-head thing?” she asked.

“It looked normal until about here,” he indicated his chest, “but then, where the head should be, it was all sideways. And it made a sound—it sounded like this,” Davey made a low growling sound in the back of his throat. She was nodding sympathetically when he started the noise, but her head stopped moving on its own. That noise coming from her son was creepy. The hair stood up on the back of her neck.

“And it was over here?” she asked, crossing to the dresser.

Davey nodded vigorously.

“Honey, I think that was your imagination,” she said, looking around the dresser. “Or maybe you fell asleep and didn’t know it, and then had a bad dream.”

“But Mom…” he began.

Melanie cut him off, “Honey, there’s nothing over here, and if something had been here, I’m sure I’d see a sign of it.”

“But in the Stage of Possibilities…” he started.

“We’ll talk with your father about the Stage of Whatever in the morning, okay?” she asked.

“Can I just talk with Dad now? I just want to ask him something,” begged Davey.

“We don’t want to wake up Dad,” she said. “He had a long day, I’m sure.”

“Please?” asked Davey.

Melanie sighed—“Okay, I’ll go get him. You stay here,” she said. She left his light on and pulled his door shut.

Exiting Davey’s room, she noticed the light at the top of the stairs. Melanie moved quickly at first, but then slowed as she approached the stairs. She rounded the corner with her breath held, but then released as she relaxed.

What did I expect to see? she thought.

“That’s it!” Davey shrieked from right behind her. Melanie jumped and nearly slipped on the top stair. Her hand shot out and touched the wall, steadying her balance.

“Davey you scared the life out of me!” she said. “I thought I asked you to stay in bed.” She knelt down next to him.

“What’s going on?” Susan asked shuffling from her dark room, rubbing her eye with her knuckle.

“It’s okay, go back to bed, dear,” said Melanie.

“But Mom,” yelled Davey, “that’s it, that’s it. It’s right behind you—look!”

Melanie straightened up and rolled her eyes. “Okay, Davey, what?" She turned around and looked down the stairs where Davey pointed, but still didn’t see anything but stairs that descended down into their dark foyer.

Susan reached to the wall and flipped the switch for the lights at the bottom of the stairs.

That’s when Melanie’s inebriated, thirty-four-year-old eyes saw what Davey pointed at—the sideways-head thing.

Four steps from the bottom, with an outstretched arm clawing a tread, a perfectly normal body lay. But the body was topped with an abomination. The neck skin was split—torn and stretched. The man’s face was pointed down and away, his chin resting on his back. All Davey and his mother could see from the top of the stairs was the back of the Christopher’s head.

Susan crossed the hall and came up next to her brother and mom to see what the light had revealed.

Susan was the first to scream—“Dad! Oh Dad!” she cried as she pounded the stairs to her father.

“Oh, fuck,” said Melanie.

CHAPTER THREE

Mike — Present Day


“Bathroom?” Mike asked, his body halfway into the cramped gas station. It was a stretch, but he was desperate. He couldn’t imagine finding a public restroom somehow jammed into this small space—packed-in shelves filled with snacks.

“Nuh-uh,” the squat cashier said between clicks and pops of gum. “Try the Tim Hor’uns. They open.”

“Pardon?” he asked.

“Roun’ the cahnuh,” she waved. “Tim Hor’uns.”

“Thanks,” he was halfway back to the van before he mentally inserted the missing “T” and came up with Tim Horton’s, a chain of coffee shops. Sure enough, around the corner from the tiny gas outpost, they found a Tim Horton’s lighting up the darkness.

“You could call this a one-horse town, but I bet they have tons of horses, and cows, and chickens.” Mike chuckled.

“What’s that?” Gary asked. When Gary drove he dropped into a deep trance.

“They should call it a one-bathroom town instead of a one-horse town,” Mike amended, his chuckle now forced.

“Is this it?” Gary asked, pulling into the parking lot.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Mike.

Mike jumped out as Gary was still bringing the huge van to a stop. He rounded the front, walking a stiff-legged shuffle to contain his discomfort.

“Stay with the van,” he said when Gary’s door swung open.

“I want to get something,” said Gary.

“I’ve got thirty-thousand dollars of equipment in there—please stay with the van,” said Mike. His temper was fueled by his urgency to use the restroom.

“Okay,” said Gary. “Get me a doughnut.”

Mike tugged at the restaurant’s door, but his hand snapped back empty. He reached and grabbed the other handle, which pulled easily. He hustled in and found a friendly door on his right. Ten minutes later, after a loud and malodorous session which he attributed to that evening’s Greek salad, Mike exited the men’s room.

A young man and older woman stood behind the counter, staring at Mike.

He approached the counter trying to look casual, but he read unmasked disgust in their eyes.

“Could I get a dozen glazed?” he asked.

“All we got is cherry,” said the young man.

“Pardon?” he asked.

“Cherry.”

“Okay,” Mike considered, “could I get a dozen cherry?”

“All we got is six.”

“Great. Six cherry and a diet then,” said Mike, reaching for his wallet.

* * * * *

Outside, Mike found the van abandoned and the driver’s door open.

“Gary? Gary?”

Gary poked his head around the corner of the building with a cigarette in his mouth.

“Didn’t I just ask you to stay with the van?” Mike asked his approaching assistant.

“You don’t want me to smoke in there. I went over here,” he waved.

“Can’t you close the door and lock it when you leave?”

“I was listening to the radio,” said Gary.

Mike held out the bag of doughnuts in one hand and rubbed his temples with the other. “Whatever,” he said, “let’s get going.”

“I’m on it,” said Gary, jumping back in the driver’s seat with his bag of doughnuts.

* * * * *

When they finally got back to the gravel lot, they found that their site had changed. Another car waited in the lot, and a group of teenagers were down next to the river.

Gary flipped on the night-vision scope. It emitted a high-pitched tone as it powered-on.

“Looks like kids drinking,” said Gary. “Want me to go run them off?”

“No, no,” said Mike. “That might even be better. Sometimes human activity actually fuels the entities.”

“Cool,” said Gary.

They sat in silence while Gary observed the teens.

A knock on the passenger’s window startled the men. Mike spilled his soda.

“Jesus,” he whispered. He rolled down his window a few inches—“You scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry, Dr. Mike,” she said, smiling. “Am I early?”

“Nope, you’re right on time,” he said, recapping his drink. The girl outside the window backed away as he pushed open the van door. “We’re about to get set up. You can help me in back.”

“This is so exciting,” she said.

“Do you have a sweater or something?” Mike asked. “It might get cold out here.”

“I’m fine,” she waved, “I’m from around here; I don’t get cold easily.”

He led the young woman around to the rear of the van and motioned for her to stand aside as he pulled open the back doors.

“Wow, look at all that stuff,” she said.

Mike lowered a built-in stepladder to the ground and smiled at her enthusiasm.

Gary appeared from the left side. “Hey, I’m Gary.”

“Hi,” she said, taking Gary’s hand. “I’m Katie Brown, from Bowdoin. The college, not the town.” She pointed south.

“We’re going to be studying that area of rocks, just past that sign,” said Mike, stepping between them.

“I know that place,” said Katie. “Sometimes kids go down there to get drunk. Mostly high-school kids though.”

“Exactly,” said Mike.

“Have you ever seen anything down there Katie?” asked Gary.

“Nope,” said Katie. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t drink.”

“Good for you,” said Gary softly, tilting his head.

“Anyway,” said Mike. “We’ll set up the narrow transmitter from here, and then we’ll get multiple angles with the thermals and infrared.”

“Which is the new one?” asked Katie. “The narrow one? Is that it?”

“Yes,” said Mike. “The main thing we’re testing here tonight is my new narrowband amplifying transmitter.”

“You invented it?” asked Katie.

“Yes,” said Mike. He turned to the van and started pulling equipment. “Gary, can you get this on the roof and aim it at the bottom part of the dam?”

“No problem.” Gary made a show of hauling the tripod up the ladder on the side of the van.

Mike handed the end of a cord up to Gary and swiveled a rack of equipment so it faced out the back of the van. He reset knobs and powered up the equipment as Gary mounted and pointed the antenna.

“So what’s it do, exactly?” asked Katie.

Mike ignored her for the moment—“Hey, Gary, what’s your compass direction?”

“One ninety-seven.”

“You can think of it like a power supply for paranormal activity,” Mike explained as he began his calibration process. “Gary and I measured specific types and frequencies of energy that were being drawn, or tapped into, by paranormal activity. You ready, Gary?”

“Yup,” Gary called down from the roof.

“First,” Mike said to Katie, “we’re going to calibrate the baseline." He pointed to a display which showed a jagged horizontal line. “Gary’s going to do a slow spin of that antenna to find the natural hotspots." They watched the display closely as noise moved quickly across the line. A giant spike tracked across the line from right to left.

“What’s that?” asked Katie?

“Probably just the sun,” said Mike. “Too big to be anything local. What’s your bearing Gary?”

“I’m in the two-forties,” said Gary.

“Yeah, see, that’s about west,” said Mike. “We always get a big hit roughly west. It’s probably some lingering effects of the sunset." They waited for almost a minute before their next spike. This one rose only a fraction of the previous reading.

“You’re back at south?” Mike asked Gary.

“Yup,” he replied.

“So that’s the thing we’re here to measure tonight. You can see that it’s pretty small right now, but we’ll be able to jack it up when we turn on the emitter,” Mike informed Katie.

Gary jumped down from the ladder and landed beside Mike and Katie. “Ready for cameras?” he asked.

“Yes. You want to show Katie the ropes while I finish the calibration and tuning?” asked Mike.

“I’d be glad to,” said Gary. “If you could grab a reel of those cables, Miss Katie?”

“Just Katie,” she replied.

Mike smiled at his dials.

* * * * *

Thirty minutes later, all the equipment and cables had been properly deployed. The three researchers gathered inside the van to monitor the displays.

“If you could just slide in a little and shut that door, Katie?” asked Mike. “We like to make sure that people driving by don’t get curious when we turn on the video equipment.”

“Oh, sure,” she said.

Their control center showed them the river at the base of the dam, the rocks, and a group of drunk teens passing a bottle around their small circle.

“As you can see from this meter,” Mike said, continuing his tutorial, “there’s some activity down there, but we don’t see any visual, infrared, or thermal evidence. Those kids don’t seem too impressed either. But, if we use our amplifier, we should be able to find a resonant frequency for the entity to tap into.”

“And does that make it visible?” asked Katie.

“Well, we don’t know yet,” said Gary.

“Really?” Katie asked.

“It’s true,” said Mike. “We’ve detected this energy drop several times, and we surmise that the activity is limited by the amount of energy in the area, but this is the first time we’ll attempt to amplify it.”

“That’s cool,” she said, “so this is groundbreaking.”

“We certainly hope so,” said Mike. “Let’s start small. Give it an amp Gary.”

“Roger that,” said Gary. He made an adjustment. “Okay, we’re there.”

“Nothing yet,” said Mike. “No change from the ambient levels at all. We might need to cross a threshold to see results. Try ramping up to five over thirty seconds.”

“Will do,” said Gary.

He held out his watch and slowly turned the large dial. After ten seconds the three looked up to the roof as the humming sound grew in intensity. When the dial read three, a set of headphones hanging from a hook began to rattle. Mike pulled them down and sat the headphones on shelf, but they resumed rattling when he let go.

“Keep going?” asked Gary.

“Yeah,” said Mike, studying his meter. “I think it’s about to start absorbing.”

“So that thing is supposed to go down?” asked Katie.

“No, this display is inverted, but if we see a spike it would represent the energy decreasing. The theory being…” he trailed off. “Wait a second. Hold it there, Gary.”

“Okay, but we’re pulling some serious power. We’ll only have a couple minutes of output,” said Gary.

“I think that might just be enough,” said Mike. He tapped the display and Gary and Katie looked over his shoulder. “See this?”

“Looks like it’s gathering or something,” said Gary.

“Exactly,” said Mike, transfixed by the jagged green line.

“Dr. Mike?” asked Katie. “Dr. Mike?” she said louder.

“What?” asked Mike. He snapped around. Katie pointed at the video display which showed the output of one of the infrared cameras. The picture showed green teens, drinking on green rocks, next to a green river. At the center of the image a green blob slid slowly uphill towards the teens. “What is that?” she whispered.

“Off, Gary, turn it off,” said Mike.

Gary fumbled for the big dial and spun it with both hands until the knob clicked off. Mike turned back to his readout, horrified. “It’s still drawing,” he informed them. “It’s drawing more than ever.”

“I think they see it,” said Katie, drawing their attention back to the video displays.

On the screen, the teens had dropped their bottle and their circle had flattened, with all five members scrambling backwards, away from the water’s edge. One boy, in the direct path of the creeping entity, seemed paralyzed.

“Why doesn’t he run?” cried Katie. “We should go help him.”

“This is amazing,” said Gary. “We’ve never caught anything this good.”

“But what’s going to happen to that kid?” Katie scanned the various displays, distressed.

“They can’t hurt you,” said Gary. “They’re like psychic movies.”

“We’ve never seen anything this powerful, Gary. She might have a point,” said Mike.

Before they had a chance to act on any decisions, the blob leapt towards the drunk teen, gaining definition as it moved closer. Even through the crude night-vision, the researchers could discern a gaunt woman with shoulder-length hair and tattered clothes resolving from the green blob.

“It’s a woman,” said Katie.

“A girl,” corrected Mike.

When the girl from the river reached the closest teen, the spell on the other four seemed to break. She clamped down a thin hand on the boy’s leg as the others ran, fleeing up the rocks. The boy in the white t-shirt remained motionless, until the girl from the river backed up, pulling him by the leg. He made no attempt to escape her grip.

“Go, go, go,” said Mike. “Let’s get down there, now!” he shouted.

Gary fumbled for the door, trying to open it without taking his eyes from the monitor.

“Go!” yelled Mike, pushing Katie into Gary’s shoulder.

Gary looked down and threw open the door. The three researchers spilled into the gravel parking lot. Mike was the first away, running down through the scrub and vaulting the chain-link fence. His eyes had barely adjusted to the night when he arrived at the rocks, and he nearly plunged over a small ledge. Mike turned left at the last instant and ran along the edge of the drop, waving his colleagues to follow.

He arrived at the clearing just as the boy’s legs slipped into the roiling river. Mike threw himself to the ground and grabbed the boy’s shirt.

“Hey, kid, hey!” he yelled, but the boy’s gaze remained on the turbulent water.

Gary arrived as the boy’s shirt tore away and Mike shifted his grip to under the boy’s arm. Gary grabbed his other arm and they both pulled against the single boney arm dragging the boy into the river.

In the starlight, the river’s surface was black. Their tug-of-war was a standoff. Mike strained against the shore, trying to keep his grip while pushing with his legs to drag the boy back. His jaw dropped when he saw another thin arm appear from the water, moving towards his own foot. Just before it reached his shoe, the world lit up from a bright flash behind them.

Gary and Mike jolted back with the flash. They pulled a few inches away from the river and the hand near Mike’s foot had disappeared. Mike looked back to see Katie pointing a camera.

“Do it again, make it flash again,” grunted Mike.

Katie obeyed and they jerked back again, gaining more ground.

“Fast as you can,” said Gary.

Each time Katie took a picture and the flash lit the river, they pulled more of the boy from the water. Within a dozen pictures they had dragged him safely back.

“What are you doing?” The boy snapped from his trance. “Shit, I’m all wet. Get off!” He shook his arm away from Gary.

“Look, kid,” said Mike.

“Get away,” said the boy in the white t-shirt. Before Mike could explain further, the boy was off—running up the rocks to the bridge.

“Did you get anything?” Gary looked over Katie’s shoulder at the camera’s display.

“Not really,” said Katie. “The flash only goes so far.”

“Let’s get back up to the van and check the readings,” said Mike.

They backed slowly up the rocks, not willing to take their eyes off the water’s edge until they had made it back to the chain-link fence. Katie paused to take a picture of the sign mounted on the fence.

“Danger,” she read. “No kidding. What was that thing?”

“I’ll tell you when we get back in the van,” said Mike.

Safely back among his instruments, Mike told her the story: “She’s the reason we came here. Her name was supposedly Marcia Taylor, but we haven’t been able to turn up any records to corroborate. She was seventeen or eighteen; at a graduation party on the Brunswick side of the river, like twenty-five or thirty years ago. She turned down the host’s advances, and he kicked her out. She had to walk home and cross the old railroad bridge alone, but she never made it across.”

“Why didn’t she take the footbridge? It has railings,” said Katie.

“That part we do know. The footbridge was closed for almost six years because neither town would pay for the repairs. Supposedly they both contributed after Marcia’s death.”

“So she fell off and drowned?” asked Katie.

“Yeah, but there’s a little more. The story says that she was an excellent swimmer, and even made it alive over the dam. She managed to get all the way over to that shore, where those kids were. Like tonight, more drunk teens had gathered by those rocks. They saw her crawl out of the water, but instead of helping her, they ran. They didn’t want to tell anyone because then they would have been caught drinking. When the dam operators opened the gates that night, she was still unconscious on the shore and she drowned.”

“Oh, man,” said Katie. “So now she seeks revenge?”

“No. Well yes, I guess so,” said Mike. “Until tonight nothing has really happened, as far as we know. A couple of kids have said they saw something, but dragging people away is unprecedented.”

“Maybe it was your machine,” said Katie, excited.

“Maybe,” said Gary.

Mike turned back to his instruments.

CHAPTER FOUR

Davey


Melanie reached for a sugar packet and then put it back down. The tea had lemon; it didn’t need any sweetener. Something about socializing while sober still made her nervous. She still didn’t know how to act.

“Has it been two years now? Well good for you,” Sherry congratulated Melanie.

“Yeah, thanks. I stopped drinking just after Christopher,” Melanie admitted.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I never made the connection,” said Sherry. She reached across the small table and touched Melanie’s hand.

“It’s okay,” said Melanie. “I mean it’s as okay as it will ever be, I think.”

“You’re so strong,” said Sherry. “And you’re doing such a great job with the kids.”

“Oh,” Melanie laughed and wiped the corner of her eye, “I don’t know about that.”

“Sure you are,” stated Sherry. “Considering everything?”

“Susan is just so difficult,” said Melanie. “Everything is a fight with her. School, friends, how she dresses, when did twelve-year-olds get so mature?”

“It’s just different now,” said Sherry.

“I’m worried about Davey, too,” said Melanie.

“Why, what’s going on with Davey? He seems so healthy and happy.”

“He is. Most of the time,” said Melanie. “He’s really good at sports, he plays soccer, and baseball, and hockey if I can still afford it next year. He’s got a million little girlfriends too. He’s one of the most eligible third-graders,” she said, smiling.

“So what’s wrong?” Sherry prodded.

“You remember how clumsy Christopher could be?” asked Melanie.

“How could I forget? You remember that party at the Peterson’s?”

“Oh, I did forget about that,” laughed Melanie. “I think I was probably half drunk.”

“You were all drunk. I had shrimp in my hair, one in my bra, and…” Sherry paused to catch her breath between laughs, “I shit you not, I found one down the crack of my ass when I got home.”

“Oh my god,” Melanie was breathless from laughing. “Christopher was such a klutz at parties." Melanie dabbed her eyes with her napkin. “I told him one time that that was why I drank so much when we were out.” Her laughter slowed as her memories cascaded. “I miss him so much.”

“It gets easier,” Sherry squeezed Melanie’s forearm. “I promise.”

“Davey reminds me of him,” whispered Melanie. “When he’s concentrating in something, like sports, he’s just so agile and graceful. Then you see him trying to carry his dinner plate to the table and he looks like he has Parkinson’s or something. Dr. Innes says he’s fine, but I worry.”

“Does he have vision problems, or headaches, or anything?” asked Sherry.

“No,” Melanie said, considering, “not that he admits to, at least. The doctor asked him that, I’m sure.”

“Well you remember Julie’s son? Did you know the Kims?” Sherry asked, but didn’t wait for a response. “They took their son in because he had double vision, and he had cancer." She lowered her voice by the end, not wanting to broadcast such a powerful word.

“That’s horrible,” said Melanie. “No, I didn’t know them. How did they find out?”

“The optometrist sent them to a specialist. I can get his name for you. Better safe, you know?”

“Please do,” said Melanie.

* * * * *

“Well, Mr. Hunter,” the doctor said, kneeling in front of Davey. “I heard that you did extraordinarily well in our little torture chamber.”

“I guess,” said Davey. He glanced down at the video game clutched in his hands, knowing he was forbidden to play it until he was back in the waiting room.

“Why don’t you go sit with the lovely ladies of reception while Mom and I talk a bit?” prompted the doctor.

“Okay,” said Davey. He slid down from the bench and headed for the door. Melanie stopped him to fix his collar, put his tag back inside his shirt, and smooth his hair. She wiped a gray smudge from the back of his neck and patted him on the back.

“I’ll be right out, okay?” asked Melanie.

“Okay,” Davey said. He pulled the door handle and tripped on his own feet, slamming the door shut before he could squeeze through. Davey took a resigned breath before re-opening the door and exiting the examination room.

When Davey had clicked the door shut behind himself, Dr. Chisholm turned to Melanie and smiled. His face bore the lines of a million smiles, but his grey hair and grey teeth were stained yellow. Melanie found the doctor creepy in a way she couldn’t quite pin down; she pegged him for a closet smoker.

His smile disappeared as he began reviewing Davey’s case. “I wanted to speak with you one-on-one, instead of ganging up on you with the radiologist, Ms. Hunter. Those guys are notorious hedgers.”

“Okay,” she said. She inhaled and waited for bad news.

“Oh, he’s fine,” he flashed another yellowing smile, “you’ve got that near-panic look I was trying to avoid.”

“Oh,” she said without committing.

“CT scans were all perfectly clean. Nothing to indicate the need for an MRI—no tumors or growths,” the doctor explained.

“Good,” she nodded her head.

“Yes, very good. But there are some interesting things about Davey,” he continued.

“Yes?” She tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but her mind wanted to return to his “clean” comment, she wanted to be sure he meant that Davey didn’t have cancer.

“We might want to play around with some genetic testing. These would be diagnostic tests simply used to rule out any genetic or chromosomal conditions.”

“Wait, can I just ask you something?” asked Melanie.

“Yes, of course.”

Melanie summoned her nerve. “So, he doesn’t have cancer, or a brain tumor?”

“No,” he stated decisively. “To the best of our ability to screen such things non-invasively, he doesn’t. Nor does anything about his behavior suggest to me that we should be looking harder.”

“Oh good,” said Melanie. She finally exhaled.

“But he does have some interesting traits that I think warrant further investigation,” said Dr. Chisholm.

“Such as?" Melanie’s inquisitive, analytic nature began to surface.

“Well, there’s the situational clumsiness—as you mentioned,” he ticked off one finger. “He has extraordinary eyesight, hearing, short-term memory, intelligence, and concentration,” said the doctor.

“You got all that from the past half-hour?” asked Melanie.

“Well, some,” said the doctor. “I tested his hearing and eyesight, just to verify the results from the neurologist. I asked Davey to read this page of numbers and words when we began today’s examination, and you were here at the end when he was able to recall ninety percent of this list,” he held up the page.

“Is that unusual?” asked Melanie.

“My key only goes up to the ninety-eighth percentile,” said Dr. Chisholm. “So, yes, that would make Davey about the most unusual boy I’ve examined.”

“Hmmm,” Melanie pursed her lips, not sure what to do with this information. She always knew Davey to be bright, but nothing from his school had ever indicated any superiority.

“The notes from the radiologist were very interesting, too,” said the doctor. He flipped open Davey’s chart to the appropriate page and handed Melanie the document.

He pointed to one passage and then read it aloud for her—“When prompted to ‘sit tight,’ Davey sat ABSOLUTELY motionless. We had never seen anything like it—he looked like a statue. We read from his chart that he has exhibited clumsiness and uncoordinated motor control. This is hard for us to believe based on our experience.”

“I called this operator,” the doctor tapped the page. “These notes are not what I expect to find in a professional communication. I didn’t understand what he meant until I told Davey the same thing earlier. He has the ability to turn his body to stone—you wouldn’t know something was alive in there. That’s what I mean about his extraordinary concentration.”

Melanie squirmed in her seat, she was ready to get home and forget about how extraordinary her son had become. “So, you said something about more tests?” she prompted.

“There’s one more thing,” said Dr. Chisholm. “Davey’s extremely developed for a boy his age.”

“Pardon?”

“We call it ‘precocious puberty,’” explained the doctor. “The absolute earliest we expect to see any signs of puberty in a boy is about nine. Any earlier and we’re looking for the cause. Now, personally, I’ve seen boys growing up in a house without a father can sometimes begin a little earlier. Davey is unusually early.”

“He’s just about to turn nine—he’s just a boy,” argued Melanie.

“Not for long,” said the doctor. “I think we just need to do some more tests to see if we can pin down the cause, but I’d say he started puberty months ago, at least. We’ve ruled out brain tumor, but I’d like to get him one more CT scan to look for any testicular tumors. I’ve already got the blood and urine samples, but I’ll send those out for hormone tests as well.”

“What does this mean? What do I do?” asked Melanie.

“I’d like to try to figure out the cause before we start to suggest a course of action. If there’s an underlying cause, we’ll treat that and hope the puberty slows. If there’s not, then we may decide he needs hormone therapy to counteract the environmental or genetic influences.”

“Genetic?”

“In about five percent of cases in boys it comes from the father or maternal grandfather,” explained Dr. Chisholm. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. I’ll get all these tests and you can schedule a follow-up with reception.”

“Okay,” said Melanie, rising tentatively.

“We’ll figure this all out, Ms. Hunter. Please remember, we haven’t found anything really wrong with Davey. If anything, he seems to be an outstanding specimen.”

Dr. Chisholm smiled again; Melanie felt a chill.

CHAPTER FIVE

Mike


They sat in a booth at a steakhouse. Mike and Gary took up one side and Katie had the other to herself. Gary kept reaching out to touch the dusty oar affixed to the wall. Each time he did, he wiped his fingers clean again on his napkin.

“I’m just saying: I don’t know why we’re not going back to the river again,” said Gary.

“We’ve been trying that for weeks, and we’ve seen nothing since that first night,” said Mike. He gripped his temples and then smoothed his hair back.

“But that was the best evidence we’ve ever collected,” said Gary. “I think we have to keep plugging away at that until we can reproduce those results. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“You know I haven’t,” admitted Mike. “But how long are we going to beat that dead horse before we allow ourselves to branch out?”


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