Carri was in her bedroom getting dressed for work at the cannery. It was the early part of the summer, so they were canning green beans. She worked on “the line”; a long conveyor belt the beans rode into the factory after being dumped into hoppers positioned outside the squat buildings. The filthy green product rolled up and into great vats of hot water where they were rinsed and sifted, flowing past her in a never ending slippery green stream.
For over eight hours a day Carri stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other workers clad in hair net and hard hat, ears stopped up with foam plugs, eyes unfocused and distant. It was arduous work, picking and sifting through the beans to remove pieces of debris, sticks, rocks and weedy clumps. Carri had worked this job every summer since she started school to become a teacher.
Dawn knew her Mommy hated the job and hated the dirt and the odor that daily soaked into her skin. It smelled anything but green and fresh. The odor of a massive heap of fresh cut green beans hints of something old and rancid and cloying. There were times Carri thought sure that smell would make her vomit. She’d breathe deep and tell herself it was temporary and in another year she’d start assistant teaching and then be well on her way to having her own class of students. Students Dawnie’s age.
This summer had been a little better than the last. This summer Carri had the Day Shift and could work from 7AM to 3PM and be home in the evenings with Dawn. Dawn spent her days mostly at Carmalita’s house with her family, playing in the backyard or riding bikes up and down the quiet street. Sometimes they went to the park a few blocks away where the city sponsored daily Parks and Recreation activities. Dawn and ‘Lita didn’t always attend. There were usually too many kids taking up all the arts and crafts tables and the merry-go-round was frequently packed with rowdy little boys more intent on screaming “Geronimo!” and jumping off the spinning disc like they were parachuting out of a bomber.
What really mattered was being able to spend the whole day with ‘Lita. They could have fun doing just about anything together whether it be riding bikes or coloring or Barbies.
When the monster appeared in her living room Dawn didn’t hear it at first. She was sitting, cross-legged in front of the old RCA 24” color television set. When her mother wasn’t looking she’d scoot herself as close to the monstrosity of glass and molded wood paneling as she possibly could. The sounds of cartoon springs and boings masked the shuffling approach of the creature with the great, clawed hands.
Carri stood in front of the dresser mirror and tugged her gray sweatshirt down about her hips. Reaching behind her head she pulled her long black hair free allowing it to cascade down her back. Her hair was still damp from the shower and she wanted to let it dangle loose just a little longer before constraining it in a hairnet for the next eight long hours.
She looked herself over in the mirror. Young, smart, pretty and independent—that’s the way friends, neighbors and her college advisor described her. To many she was a study in success: she was a single mother, a full-time student on financial aid and working the summer months. Carri was proud of herself. She’d come a long way since Bart left.
They’d met when Carri was waiting tables at a pub just outside of town called the White Horse. It was a dive, but a dive with a certain quantity of obnoxious character. Standing over the pub entrance on a reinforced shelf was a full-scale model of a rearing white stallion. Though made of fiberglass, it’s detailing was impeccable save for it’s most obvious feature. Patrons viewed it each time they entered the establishment. They couldn’t help but glance up, catching it just above eye-level—the horse’s great penis. The craftsmen who made the mold were clearly ordered to censor the horse’s sex parts but not allowed to omit the offensive detail altogether. What they wound up with was an oddly geometrical form resembling something like a malformed igloo.
The igloo horse parts became mythic beyond the Willamette Valley, stretching to the Oregon coast and the foothills of the Cascades. The White Horse was frequently busy and tips were good.
Bart was a drifter. He’d come to town to work as a seasonal hand on one of the larger farms outside of town. He said he was thinking about going to school. Get a degree is history, maybe? They dated for about a month. He was gentle, but distant—tall and a little gangly in his 501s and scuffed work boots.
When Carri told him she was pregnant he fell silent. “Let me think about all this a little, okay?” he said. She nodded and then took him to bed.
The next morning when she woke up, his pick-up was gone, as were his worn jeans and scuffed work boots. She made some calls, but no one knew what had become of the man. Gone like a startled crow, she thought.
Carri’s had always been a solitary existence. Her parents had died when she was a teenager. She had no real roots before moving to the Little Gray Town to start classes at the college. She had no immediate relatives save for a great aunt in the Southwest. She was alone. Alone, but for for the little life growing inside her. The question only lingered for a moment; she would keep the baby.
She waited tables and poured beers at the White Horse until a week before Dawnie was born. Then she went on food stamps and took government assistance. School would still happen, it would just take a little longer now that the baby was in the picture. They’d be a team. She had a plan and it was a good one.
Looking in the mirror over her dresser, Carri contemplated applying a little makeup just as she did every morning before walking out the door to work and then thought better of it. There was no one to be found in the dingy corridors of Agri-Pak worth getting done up for and many whose attention she’d prefer to avoid.
Dawn didn’t so much hear as she as felt someone padding up behind her. It was about time for ‘Lita to be pushing through the front door. Since ‘Lita never knocked it was safe to bet her best friend would be sneaking up behind her. Yet, Dawn hadn’t heard the sound of the screen door slamming shut. Maybe she had the volume on the cartoon show turned up too loud. She didn’t think so though her Mommy always told her otherwise.
When Dawn swiveled about to look over her shoulder, there was an expectant smile on her face. Turning, her blue eyes met not the dark brown of her best friend but orbs of deep and cavernous black.
These were the last three things Dawn saw as a living, breathing little girl in 1986: obsidian black eyes, claws and red.
It happened too fast for Dawn to feel anything.
Sighing, Carri knew it was time to curb the animated yelps and bangs issuing from the TV set in the living room. Smiling, she shook her head. “Dawn’s probably sitting in front of that damn thing with about an inch’s distance between the screen and her nose,” Carri thought. Stepping to her left she leaned out the bedroom door and saw a nightmare hovering over her daughter.
It happened too fast for Carri to feel anything.
Contrary to its victims, the Razor Baby felt it all: its talons raking deep into the body of the little girl quickly followed by her mother, their heartbeats racing in tandem and then suddenly stopping. It felt the rich red running down its lengthy forearms and dribbling off the sharp knob of its crooked elbow. But most delicious of all, it felt their fear.
For the Razor Baby, fear was a visible, palatable thing. Through its eyes of bottomless black it watched the substance rise from the crumpled and splattered bodies like a heady pink smoke. A shudder of glee rattled through its stout frame. Taking lives made for a much sweeter quality of fear, far sweeter than gathering it secondhand after crouching in the shadows beyond a sacrificial altar or hovering at the heels of some towering being of great power.
Fear is more than an emotion, it’s a substance, it is quantifiable and when beings die in fear the stuff will rise in translucent, wraithlike rose-colored roils over the body, ripe and ready for harvest. Dancing like flaming fog or lunatic Northern Lights, it lingers over its former residence, jangling and anxious until it becomes one with the air…or it is consumed.
Cocking the rounded bulb of its skull like a bird, the Razor Baby eyed the smoky substance with delight. Raising its great, clawed arms, it stretched its talons wide like a Fiddler Crab preparing to spar. Dropping its mouth open the Razor Baby freed its thin, reed-like tongue black as gangrene, rough as a hasp. The tongue twisted and coiled and a runnel of saliva slid over its lower jaw. The Razor Baby inhaled the sweet effluvia like a connoisseur, and as the vibrant pink mist enters its open mouth, its eyes rolled back and a shudder of pure pleasure rattled through the cage of its bones.
Less than an hour later, Carmelita would come pushing through the front door of the little bungalow on West Clay Street and what she found there would leave deep and lasting scars on her heart and mind for the rest of her life.
When the Razor Baby caught sight of Former Corner Ron on the Red Plain it froze, its sudden break in forward momentum sending a heavy cascade of sand down the red slope. The creature was visibly panting; its head hung low and its eyes darted back and forth.
Former Coroner Ron, now painfully conscious of his naked state of being, frantically glanced about for something to use as a weapon. A stick, a rock—anything. The sands were clear of any debris, not even a ratty shrub or a lonely blade of grass.
The great owl took a moment to pause, too, its head swiveling about, its eyes bright. Dawn felt a chime of hope when she saw the man standing at the base of the tower. Once she neared him and saw that he was entirely without clothing, she felt her panic double.
Then she remembered she was an owl, and though her ability to fly was hindered, she had some mighty sharp claws and that man over there was pretty naked with his boy parts clearly exposed.
The Razor Baby took in the tableau. It was tired and sore and panting, but here before it was one of the owl women that had caused it such torment and there, there was the great fat man it wanted so badly to remove from the bigger equation. Both were without their kindred, both were weak and unprotected. Who to take first?
Former Coroner Ron’s heart beat against the interior wall of his barrel chest as though trying to escape. He thought once more of the little girl in Hibbing, how she clung to his leg, how soft and vulnerable she was, the tears streaming down her face, her dead uncle sprawled in the grass before them.
Former Coroner Ron never used his fists for anything other than grasping and clenching. As a young man, high school football coaches pestered him at least once a quarter to join the team, the wrestling coach only at the start of each fall. He always turned them down. Physical activities like sports bored him. He’d rather be reading, studying—fortifying his brain. But he knew, intellectually, that fists were also used for violence and the body itself, with proper training could be used as a weapon.
He also instinctively knew that acting on violent or emotional impulse was never a good idea. At this very moment, he didn’t care. The image of wet tear stains left on his pant leg by that little girl in Hibbing, MN overpowered all else.
Former Coroner Ron let out a scream and charged for the Razor Baby. The creature gave a startled jump, losing its precarious footing on the slope. Pounding after the bunch-backed beast, throwing up great plumes of crimson sand with each footfall, Former Corner Ron took no heed of the Razor Baby’s sharp talons. He wanted to get his hands around that stump of a neck and twist with every ounce of strength he had. Just one grab, that’s all he wanted—the creature could cut him to pieces a second later if it so desired but that one moment of spent rage on its diseased hide would be worth it. One grab, just one grab was all he asked.
The great fat man moved incredibly fast for a thing made of so much blubber–a bulk that was nearly three times that of the Razor Baby. Upon their first meeting in the Boyette backyard, the Razor Baby saw Goltry as little more than a gelded circus bear. Now here he came thundering down on the Razor Baby like a great hairless grizzly—foaming and toothless with no thought of self.
The Razor Baby could make a quick mess of the fat man once he’d regained his footing.
The Razor Baby would discover in seconds that Former Coroner Ron had one weapon on his side the Razor Baby did not.
When Goltry pounded near enough to the Razor Baby for his bloodshot eyes to meet the other’s obsidian orbs the creature felt a sudden burst of genuine fear. Impulsively the Razor Baby threw up its talons, the motion forcing it to slip further down the sandy slope. It struggled to right itself and only succeeded in dislodging even greater rifts of sand from beneath its feet. Twisting sideways, it struggled for purchase on the sifting sands and in that second the great naked man was upon it.
To his momentary delight and amazement, Former Corner Ron not only got close enough to thrust his left hand beyond the Thelema Child’s claws, he also got his one wish–taking firm hold of the creature’s neck, he clamped his fingers tight as a vice and squeezed.
Violent impulse took over as Former Coroner Ron applied volley after volley of fisted blows into the creature’s abdomen. A gust of chilly, foul-smelling air exploded from the creature’s gaping mouth and it began to shriek.
The Razor Baby was stunned. It couldn’t think; it could barely see, its pain was so great.
With its great claws made for slicing and slashing, the Razor Baby had no defense against the fat man—he was too close to cut. And with the fat man’s naked and hairy bulk pressed upon it and his stranglehold about its neck the Razor Baby was all but paralyzed.
The Razor Baby wedged its stubby feet against the man’s heaving belly and pushed. The fat man’s mass was too great to move. The Razor Baby’s only hope was to twist free and blink away. Alas, blinking away while locked in the big man’s death grip would only make Goltry an unwilling passenger.
Squirming like a hare in a noose, the Razor Baby twisted free a clawed hand, and bending its oblong wrist at a painful angle, made a stab at Former Coroner Ron’s side.
Thanks to the awkward angle and the Thelema Child’s waning strength, the jab was a shallow one but the pain bright enough to draw a shriek of surprise from Former Coroner Ron’s lips. Grabbing the offending limb, Former Coroner Ron hoisted the beast up from the sand and shook it. The Razor Baby’s head bobbled on its shallow neck like that of a rag doll.
Though the effort was gallant, it was more exertion than Former Coroner Ron had experienced in years. He was panting heavily and his skin felt prickly and clammy. Silvered sparks appeared before his eyes and he hovered on the verge of consciousness.
As part of his basic police training to become a Forensic Specialist, Former Coroner Ron was taught a handful of basic offensive and suppressive moves, one being the Full Nelson Hold.
The Full Nelson, when executed with moderation, is an ideal hold for subduing an assailant. When applied with enough force, it can prove fatal.
His vision growing black at the corners, Former Coroner Ron twisted the limp creature into the air and spun it face down onto the red sand. Dropping on top of the creature’s maggot-gray back with all of his weight, Former Coroner Ron thrust his thick arms up through the creature’s armpits and felt a shriek of glee as he laced his fingers about the base of the creature’s bulbous skull, pushed its head forward and down. To his great satisfaction, Former Coroner Ron could hear a crack of sinew.
“Let me introduce you to a World of Hurt, you vicious bastard,” Former Coroner Ron muttered through gritted teeth.
Owl Dawn warily eyed the big man who had come to her rescue. As he toppled on top of the creature and began pounding on it, Dawn became more and more aware of the pain in her chest. Breathing was hard as her panic began to give way to shock. She felt dizzy. The red sands and the fight several feet away became blurry and distant like she was watching it all from the end of a tunnel.
She looked down and discovered her scaly yellow claws were now little pink feet. She held up her wings and now saw the backs of little girl hands. She put a hand upon the three diagonal cuts upon her chest. The wounds stung and she could feel the warm trickle of blood as it slid down and over her thighs.
It was too much. She slumped onto the sand.
Former Coroner Ron caught a movement to his left, the place on the sands where he’d last seen the great gray owl. Looking over, what he saw caused him to halt the pressure he’d been so gleefully applying to the back of the Thelema Child’s neck.
Sitting on the red slope was a little girl, her chest and legs streaked in blood and her blue eyes vacant and glassy as she slid into shock. The shock was mutual. The little girl’s was a face Former Coroner Ron knew well. He’d stared at black and white morgue shots of that face for over a decade. Then the realization: the giant owl was actually a little girl. It was the little girl who’d died alongside her mother and, in one great flash of blue, took him from the world he knew.
Slumping in the sand, the little girl’s eyes met those of Former Coroner Ron and in a blinking she was gone. Former Coroner Ron gaped at the little depression she left in the crimson sands, his hold about the Razor Baby the last thing on his mind.
The Razor Baby was in a World of Hurt. The blade cuts in its palms, the deep bruises rising across its chest and abdomen and now the agonizing pressure being applied by the fat man to the back of its neck. It was too much. It wondered if this is the way one dies? All pain, all helplessness—constrained and entangled. There were a thousand other ways it would rather die.
It did not like the taste of its own rising fear. It was bitter and cold and to endure much more would undoubtedly cause the Razor Baby to retch.
As soon as that last thought passed across its mind, it felt the fat man hesitate. Its assailant was clearly distracted by the bird that was now a girl. The man’s body froze and the Razor Baby felt the other’s great sweaty hold loosen a fraction. The Razor Baby culled what strength it could and began to thrash. Twisting itself free, it wheeled about on the fat man, the turning motion taking away the last ounce of strength the child-killer had. Panting, the Razor Baby lifted a single defiant saber claw at Former Coroner Ron and was gone.
Once again Former Coroner Ron was left to contemplate a freshly vacated depression in the sand. Exhausted beyond description, he dropped to his knees and rested his palms upon his thighs. Former Coroner Ron inhaled deeply as a wave of nausea crested in his gut. He exhaled through sweaty lips and took in another breath. Laying a hand to his side, he ran his fingers over the fresh wound left by the Razor Baby and lifted his bloody palm to his face.
Without warning, the light shifted from ambient starlight to claustrophobic gloom, and Former Coroner Ron found himself rocking back and forth on the bench of the old Itasca, his hand still suspended before his face, his fingers still smothered in his own blood.
“Welcome back, Doctor,” said Paulus from his passenger seat in the prow of the motorhome. “We can only assume you did little resting.”
“None,” muttered Goltry, turning his bloody fingers over before his eyes.
“Yes,” said Castro, “the Red Plain will do that to you. Tell us what you saw.”
“I don’t know. It was like a dream,” Goltry said, standing on shaky knees and pitching toward the motor home kitchenette. He reeled off several yards of paper towels from the roll dispenser mounted below the cupboards and wadded them into a makeshift compress. “What was that place?” he winced.
“It’s a place of stories,” came Castro’s raspy reply. “All stories. It is the place where new stories are born and old ones go to rest.”
Former Coroner Ron chewed on the notion for a moment. “Is it the mind of God?”
From the front of the rattling motor home came great peals of raucous laughter. Castro laughed so hard he nearly pitched his forehead into the steering wheel and Goltry felt the Itasca careen back and forth from fogline to center and back. An angry car horn screamed at them from the oncoming lane.
“The mind of God?” Castro gasped, “No, Doctor, we—all of us, owl women and former pathologists, alike ARE the Mind of God.”
And the laughter of the gods continued for several miles down the road.