Chapter 5: Morning
Alexander muttered a string of unrepeatable phrases at the retreating taillights of the police car. He should’ve counted himself lucky; all he got was a speeding ticket and a stern lecture. If the cop had bothered to examine Alexander more closely, he might’ve noticed the foreboding arsenal hidden under his coat. At one point the officer had cast a suspicious glance at the long bag strapped to Alexander’s back, but—thank God—no questions were asked.
Gray was bleeding into the sky, soon to be followed by gold, and Alexander reminded himself that if anything was going to happen in the valley, it would’ve happened already—would’ve happened long before the police car’s lights started flashing in his rear view mirror. At this point I’m just going to assess the damage. Prove to myself that this is the right place. In a way, he realized, it would almost be a good thing if the driver of that car met a bad end in Hallowdale. Alexander had staked out that mansion on a hunch—a strong one, to be sure, but he had no definite proof. Finding a body would be all the evidence he needed.
That’s cold, he scolded, but he wasn’t too hard on himself. If anyone had earned the right to coldness, he had.
Alexander veered off the highway and began zigzagging through shrinking back ways. He finally came to a point where the road branched in two directions. One would lead him back to the highway, the other to a dead end and a trailer. Alexander never bothered to find out if anyone lived in that trailer, so close to the cursed valley. Would she have let anyone survive so near her domain?
Alexander took neither path. Instead, he gunned his motorcycle onto a dirt trail barely visible amidst the weeds. Bits of cracked pavement showed that this had once been a proper road, but most of it had been ground away by nature.
A few minutes down this track, Alexander slowed his vehicle to soften the noise. A half hour later, he killed the bike entirely and began walking. He didn’t know how good her hearing was, or if she was even aware of the world during the day, but he didn’t want to risk it. If she got suspicious and fled, who knew how long it would take to track her down again.
Then again, she might not run. Alexander’s throat constricted at the thought.
Not driving had its advantages. On foot, Alexander could cut across the forest, avoiding the illogical curves that made for a forty-five minute thrill ride. He finally arrived at his camp from the other night, and his heart jolted.
The village lay beneath him, lit by the awakening sun, the mansion rising at the northern end. There, parked by the mansion’s front porch, was the car.
Alexander dropped his motorcycle and hastily threw some debris to hide it before sprinting down the hill. A handful of farmers looked up from their work when he came tearing through their fields, but paid him no more heed than one might a dying housefly as it flew drunkenly through the room. He passed a few more people in the village, but they were even more inattentive than the farmers. They stood pointlessly in the street or slumped on their porch swings like corpses. Some walked, but they seemed to have no destination. Everyone was just passing the time, like they were waiting for something.
Alexander reached the mansion’s hill and ran up it. It had been too dark during the night, and the headlights had blinded him, but he was almost certain it was the same car. How many cars came to Hallowdale, after all?
He didn’t stop running until he reached the front step. There he realized what he was doing. This wasn’t a place he wanted to enter. That’s why he’d brought his rifle, wasn’t it? So he could eliminate her without ever putting himself within her reach? But I have to find out what happened. No use. He couldn’t make his feet move.
Turned out he didn’t have to.
“John, is there someone outside?” Anna’s voice drifted from an unseen corner of the mansion. John didn’t remember when she’d woken up; he’d been too dazed by lack of sleep and something else he couldn’t quite remember. Anna always obsessed over her appearance. The trait was at odds with her otherwise carefree spirit. Even if her makeup got just a tiny bit smudged, she’d immediately retreat out of sight until it was fixed. In fact, John couldn’t recall having ever seen her without makeup, and he doubted that would change. She’d made it clear that she had no intention of ever looking less than perfect. This morning seemed no exception.
John staggered to one of the broken windows and looked out. Anna was right; a man stood there, staring at the front door. He had a messy appearance, with hair uncut and face unshaven, and his coat looked like he’d been rolling in the mud. “Yeah,” John called back to his wife, “there is.”
“Tell him to go away. It’s too early for visitors.”
John sighed at the thought of a confrontation first thing in the morning, but he obeyed Anna’s wishes and opened the door.
The man outside nearly jumped. His entire body tensed, and his hands flew inside his coat. John thought he saw glints of metal.
“You,” the man croaked. “You’re alive?”
“Barely,” John replied. “What do—”
“What happened?” the man pounced.
John squinted and glared at the visitor. The deep-set eyes were wide and exhausted-looking. “Nothing,” John said slowly. “I just didn’t sleep well, is all. Now what do you want?”
The stranger looked at his feet, muttering to himself, then, “Nothing? You didn’t…see anything? You’re not hurt?”
“No. Look, if you’re worried about our well-being, thanks, but we’ve had a stressful—”
“My wife and I. We’re supposed to be on our honeymoon, but we got lost.”
The man fidgeted on the lawn, his gaze dancing between the grass at his feet and the decayed siding of the mansion. At last he said, “You’re sure nothing happened last night? Nothing at all?”
“Is there something I should be aware of?” asked John.
The man shook his head. “I just thought—never mind. Sorry to bother you.” And with that he turned and staggered down the hill.
John returned inside to find Anna ready for the day. “Who was it?” she asked.
“Oh. Well, the supply truck comes tomorrow. What are we doing today?”
John shrugged. “Not much to do here.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. We can explore the village, hike through the woods. But first we need to find some breakfast.”
John scowled. He hadn’t thought about that. His experience so far hadn’t made him eager to interact with Hallowdale’s population more than was absolutely necessary. They seemed like they wanted to be good people; everyone he’d met had made some offer to help, but it didn’t feel like hospitality. More like they were just going through the motions. Regardless, he said, “I’ll head down and see if I can buy some food off someone.” He was grateful he’d decided to bring some cash. If this village had a store that took plastic, he’d eat his shoe.