“I still don’t think it’s a dog,” drawled Rick. “Not a dog at all.”
I rolled my eyes, ready to make the same argument I’d been making for the last week. “But the wounds—”
“You think a dog’s the only thing what can take a bite out of a man?” Rick interrupted. “You think a man can’t take a bite out of another man?”
“Come off it,” I shot back. “I know what you’re thinking, and I’ll say it again: it wasn’t old Garringer that killed those boys. It was a dog. Coyote, probably.”
Rick sipped his drink pensively, but I knew he wasn’t done; I could hear the gears clanking in his skull. “You know,” he said at last, “they found that tribe in Africa, that tribe of—what’d they call ’em, canonballs?”
“Cannibals,” I corrected wearily.
“Yeah, cannibals, that’s what they was. They’d raid neighboring tribes, bring back the fat ones for supper. Oh yeah, a man’ll take a bite of another man if he’s hungry or mean enough.”
I gave up. There was no point arguing with Rick; he got an idea in his head and nothing in all the world could convince him he was wrong. Instead I just stared out the window at the stretch of darkness between the tavern and the rest of town. The blackness was formed by a dense spur of woodland spilling off the mountain. The road home passed straight through, plunging briefly into a deep hollow and crossing a sluggish little stream before coming out the other side. It was in there, where no one but the animals and the old hermit Garringer lived, that the killings happened.
The first was that Preston kid. He worked part time at the tavern, and one night he didn’t come home. They found him in the hollow, great chunks of flesh missing from his body. There was no question that it was a wild animal that did it—at least, no question as long as your name wasn’t Rick.
We started back for home, and as we entered the wooded stretch our debate continued. “It couldn’t have been old Garringer,” I insisted. “Garringer’s lived in the hollow longer than anyone can remember, and the killings have only been going on for a week.” I felt mighty proud of myself for that bit of deduction, but Rick chuckled grimly and shook his head.
“I already thought of that one,” he retorted. “Got it all figured out. You wanna know what would make a docile old man turn cannonball all asudden? I’ll tell ya: Cooner.”
My pace slowed. “No,” I decided carefully. “That can’t be it.”
“You don’t think revenge is enough to turn a man?”
“When I was seven,” I replied, “my dog Floppy was hit by a truck and killed. Now, I felt all kinds of angry, but I didn’ go biting the driver that did it.”
“You weren’t no crazy old hermit, neither,” muttered Rick.
We both were quiet for the next few minutes. Our boots kicked through the rotting leaves, crushing twigs and occasionally scraping against the gravel hidden beneath the autumn detritus. Rick suddenly spoke up, a ridiculous grin slapped across his face, “I bet Floppy was pretty floppy after that truck got through with him.”
I flashed him a baleful glare. “That’s not funny.”
“Course it is,” he shot back, and his booming laugh shook the branches over our heads. It echoed off the distant hills and worked its way back through the dense trees, a distorted shade of what it started out as.
“Shhh!” I hissed abruptly, holding up a hand for silence. “Do you hear that?”
Rick brought his laughter under control and listened. “What is that?”
“…Coyote,” I asserted.
Rick craned his neck in the direction of the sound. It was a wild, stuttering howl, high-pitched and screaming. “That ain’t no coyote.” The last traces of laughter vanished from his face, and his skin went pale before my very eyes. The sight gave me goose bumps, and what he said next made my neck prickle: “It’s human.”
We exchanged a quick glance, and all arguments over cannibalism and not-funny jokes were dropped as we ran toward the noise. Rick was already reaching for his gun—most guys who walked that road carried one these days. As we raced the sound began to fade; the howls gave way to moans, the moans died away to silence. Soon the audio trail was lost completely, and we came to a panting stop.
“It’s gone,” growled Rick.
I flashed my light about the woods, trying to chase away the shadows. There was the trunk of a huge oak tree…the scraggly branch of a thornbush…wait a second, there, behind the oak tree, something moved. “Rick, over here!”
We trotted to the spot where I had seen…what? It vanished too quickly for me to positively identify it. It might’ve been a tail, or it might’ve been a coat sleeve. Already my memory was distorting it.
A sick groan drew my attention back to Rick, who was shining his light down at his feet. “What is it?” I asked.
“I stepped in it,” Rick responded weakly, pointing at the ground in front of him.
I nearly threw up when I saw it. I probably would’ve recognized the guy’s face if I could’ve seen it, but it had been ripped clean off, gnawed to a bloody pulp. That was the worst of the damage, but there were great, crescent-shaped gouges throughout the rest of the body as well.
“Who do you suppose it is?” Rick asked with a tremor in his voice.
I shook my head. Something in my stomach was blowing bubbles—big bubbles that released showers of gritty mud when they popped—as I looked at the boot-shaped dent where Rick had inadvertently stumbled over the corpse. “You still think it’s old Garringer?” I asked cynically.
“I know it is.” He raised his flashlight to reveal a winding path branching off into the depths of the hollow. It was the road to Garringer’s cabin.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” I snapped.
“No? I bet if we pay old Garringer a visit right now, he’ll have blood in his beard.” Rick started down the path, and I tried to stop him.
“Whoa, you’re not—”
“Of course I am!” Rick interrupted. “I’m gonna drag that cannonball out of his sorry excuse for a house and bring him to justice. Just you wait and see. As soon as that crazy’s behind bars, the killings’ll stop; I guarantee it.”
Before I could say anything more, he was gone, loping down the road with his gun held ready. I couldn’t let him go alone, so I chased after him. “Wait up a minute,” I called. “Suppose you are right. Remember when they found the Wilmet guy, Anthony?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Come on,” I pressed, “you remember Anthony Wilmet! The guy was huge, and it wasn’t baby fat. Suppose you’re right and Garringer is the one who did them all in. You’re just going to lay hands on a crazy who killed a strong guy like Anthony Wilmet?”
“Bet Anthony didn’t have this, though,” Rick replied, brandishing his gun. “Besides, you got my back, don’t ya?”
Garringer’s cabin loomed out of the trees in front of us. By this point the road—if you could even call it that anymore—had become so overgrown it was a wonder the old hermit could get his rusted pickup in and out for groceries. Rick went right up to the door and banged the handle of his gun on the woodwork. “Open up, Garringer. Me and a friend’d like a word with you.”
“Hey,” I hissed, tuggin on Rick’s arm as he waited for an answer. “Look at this.” I pointed at the weathered boards beneath our feet. A line of dark spots, brown in the glow from our flashlights, led across the porch and ended at the door.
“Convinced yet?” snarled Rick. “The old crazy couldn’t even bother to clean up his trail. That’s what cannonballism’ll do to you. Turn your brain inside-out.” There’d been no sound from inside the house, so Rick knocked again, harder. “You got five seconds to open this door, Garringer, or I’ll knock it down.”
I still couldn’t believe it, even as I stared at the morbid stains by my feet. Did Cooner’s death really make the old man snap? Was he chewing up the townfolk out of revenge? I shivered as pin pricks danced up my arms. I’d been one of the men who showed up that afternoon, accompanied by a band of others from town. “Cooner’s gotta go,” the leader of our little hunting party said when Garringer met us on the porch. “Little Ruthie’s in the hospital. Might have rabies.” Garringer protested, but we were firm. Two of us held him back while a few more went inside to fetch the dog. It was a nasty creature, mostly skin and bones, but with savage bundles of muscle in all the right places so you knew it could mess you up bad if you weren’t careful. How anyone could love a pet like that was beyond me.
It was Ruthie’s father who pulled the trigger and ended Cooner’s life. Old Garringer was distraught, but we all agreed it was for the best. Couldn’t have a monster like that running loose, not with children around.
“That’s it, I warned him.” Rick’s resigned sigh broke me from my reverie. He took a step back and planted one booted foot against the door. It held fast at first, but a few more kicks splintered the rustic lock. “All righty, Garringer, we know…”
Rick stumbled to a halt and I nearly ran into him. It was pitch black in Garringer’s one-room cabin, but our flashlights picked out the continuing trail of blood and followed it across the cluttered floor. Clothes, furniture, cookware—it seemed the old hermit’s home was hit by a whirlwind. The blood trail meandered through the mess and terminated next to a dirty mattress. The blankets were tousled and knotted around an irregular shape. We both stood motionless for a second as we processed the scene, then Rick stepped forward, much of the confidence gone from his stride. He reached out and pulled back the sheet.
“Well,” I admitted nauseously, “he does have blood in his beard.”
“And even some meat in his mouth,” agreed Rick, his face turning green, “but I think it’s his own.” He dropped the corner of the blanket, blessedly hiding what was left of the old man’s face.
“We should get out of here,” I recommended. “Get back to town and report the bodies.”
Rick nodded and turned gratefully away from the hermit’s corpse. Together we made our way to the door, and as our flashlight beams swept across the opening, something black sped across the porch outside.
“What was that?” gasped Rick, siezing my arm in a painful grip.
“Animal,” I breathed.
“Ain’t no animal I ever saw. Didn’t make no noise when it ran by.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a hollow thumping tore through the air, a mad, racing rhythm punctuated by the harsh tick of something hard scratching against wood. I knew the sound instantly; Floppy used to make that sound when he’d go tearing along the hardwood floor in my parents’ house.
“Let’s go,” I urged once the noise was gone. Rick was close behind me. We cast our lights back and forth when we reached the door, searching the porch for any sign of what we’d seen or heard, but there was nothing. I tried to keep my pace even as we made our way back up the road, but Rick kept kicking my heels, and before I knew it we were running. The woods were full of sound: the ruckus of our hurried footfalls, the wind in the leaves overhead, the crackle of breaking twigs behind and to either side.
“I still don’t think it was a dog,” Rick wheezed.
My frustration with Rick’s stubbornness boiled over, and I shouted back at him, “Well, what do you think it was, then, a chipmunk?” I shot him an angry look over my shoulder, and in that moment I failed to see the tree root rising from the road. I went down hard, my face buried in a stinking pile of damp leaves, and Rick followed suit, stumbling over me with a cry of surprise. My flashlight went rolling off into the forest, throwing its golden beam wildly through the foliage before coming to rest about five feet away. Rick kept hold of his, and I found myself staring directly into its blinding glare.
“Get that thing out of my face,” I groaned, shoving his arm aside so I could see. “You shouldn’t have been following me so close—”
Rick’s expression froze the words on my tongue. His cheeks were covered in mud from his spill, and his eyes bugged out of his head like golf balls. He wasn’t looking at me, but rather something behind me.
Before I could react, he had his gun out, and I rolled out of the way just before he pulled the trigger. “Watch it!” I screamed, although I could barely hear my own voice for the explosion rattling around inside my head.
Rick leapt to his feet, his weapon still held out in front of him, and I turned to see what he was aiming at: nothing.
“Are you crazy!” I screamed, punching him in the arm as hard as I could. “You almost blew my head off!”
Rick’s hand was shaking violently, and I noticed his chin was quivering. “It was right there,” he whimpered. “I saw it, I saw it!”
“Saw what?” I demanded.
But instead of answering he began spinning around, pointing his gun every which way as though responding to noises I couldn’t hear. “Run,” he snarled. “Don’t look back, just run.” He gave me a rough shove and I obeyed. Rick’s mind was crumbling, and I didn’t want to be caught in the dark woods when it gave way completely and he began scattering bullets.
The trees began to thin out, and the moon worked its way through the canopy to illuminate our path. Ahead, I could see the lights of the town growing closer. Rick’s footsteps pounded to my left and a little behind, his raspy whisper chanting, “Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look AAUGH—”
I spun just in time to see Rick’s hand vanish into the bushes by the side of the road. “Rick!” I shouted, drawing my gun and sprinting to the place where he disappeared. Without thinking, I thrust my hand into the underbrush, and immediately withdrew it with a cry of disgust; my fingers came back warm and wet.
A violent din erupted from the bushes. The leaves thrashed back and forth, something thumped heavily against the dirt, and Rick’s voice rose above it all, high and shrill and unbearable. All reason left me, like a hatch fell open and dumped it all right there. I never commanded my legs to move, but they did, pumping up and down without feeling. I was there that afternoon, I joined the hunt, mine was a face it would recognize…
The freezing night air was sucked in and squeezed out of my lungs by the same machine-like force that propelled my feet. Clouds of it billowed in front of my eyes. Behind me I could hear, as surely as the drum beat of my heart, a heavy panting. I could hear the leaves and gravel in my wake being torn up by something hard and sharp, and in the back of my mind I felt a rising howl.
At last I burst out of the trees, and the road was paved and lined with streetlamps. Still I kept running, obedient to Rick’s final mandate: “don’t look back.” Not until I passed the first several rows of houses did I slow and risk a backward glance.
I could see the shadow of the hollow rising, spreading, scratching against the moonlit sky. For a second I thought I saw two pricks of crimson, but those were gone so quickly they might have only been my imagination.