Rusty sat down on the edge of the back deck and placed his half-full coffee cup near his hip. Sliding the guitar about and settling it on his thigh he began to amble his way through some chord progressions, the same that came so naturally to him last night when he all but conjured that new song for Carri and Dawn.
High in the black walnut tree, the Razor Baby took hold of the branch just over its bulbous head for balance and began to make its way for the trunk. From the yard to the far side of the little house it heard the music rise, rush and ripple over its skin like fire. The creature froze in place and nearly shrieked in agony. It gripped the branch until it snapped.
On the east side of the state, the tired old Itasca motorhome had come to rest before a faded and bedraggled International House of Pancakes just off I-26. Former Coroner Ron sat hunched in a booth across from Castro and Paulus, a stack of empty plates filling the table between. The point of separation between Castro’s neck and shoulders was now little more than an angry red ring and Paulus demonstrated he’d been returned full use of his arm by the quantity of food he was able to shovel into his uncharacteristically silent gob.
The breakneck pace of speeding back across the United States was taking its toll on Former Coroner Ron. He was weary, and the greasy steak and eggs sitting like a lead brick in his gut brought on an agitated grogginess no amount of coffee could overtake.
“We shouldn’t have stopped,” muttered Former Coroner Ron into the white mug.
“Our larders are all but bare,” said Castro around a mouthful of Belgian Waffle. “Besides, there is no guarantee the Thelema Child is in any shape to attack again…”
“What do your senses tell you, Doctor?” Paulus interrupted.
“They tell me I’m bone tired and that we have not time to waste. I can’t cope with the deaths of any more people.”
“There, you see? You feel no sense of encroaching doom or anxiety. We have time,” Paulus smiled.
“I felt no sense of encroaching doom or anxiety before,” Goltry shot back.
“No. But since visiting the red plain, you have a connection to those you met there, the little girl and the creature,” said Castro.
“You’re linked,” said Paulus.
“Give me a break…”
“The blood on the blade,” Paulus countered. Former Coroner Ron paused, recalling the momentary flash of white that coincided with his instant awareness of the Thelema Child’s traveling plans.
“Give it a try, Doctor,” said Castro. “Close your eyes and focus on the creature we’ve been hunting. You’ve seen it and you’ve grappled with it. You know your quarry. You know what it felt like to have that thing at your mercy. You practically own the foul thing,” said Castro.
“Now close your eyes and focus on it,” said Paulus.
Begrudgingly, Former Coroner Ron closed his eyes and in so doing wanted nothing more than to lean over in the worn vinyl bench and drift off forever. Instead he let his chin drop to his chest and did his ever best to screen out the ambient restaurant noise. Breathing deeply, he pushed away extraneous thoughts of dead girls and ghosts and forced himself to imagine he had the ability to see through the veil of his sealed eyelids.
Within a millisecond he saw, through a frame of deep green leaves, the little bungalow from above and heard the distant jangling strum of a guitar. A tingling sensation began to trickle up his arms like a torrent of angry ants. A second later he felt something hot—burning hot, acid hot streak up his forearms. Crying out in shock, Former Coroner Ron’s eyes flew open as he threw up his arms expecting to see flames streaking the length of his shirtsleeves, but there was nothing.
“I think we need our check,” said Paulus.
Rusty stopped his strumming, certain he heard someone approaching him from behind. He turned to look over his shoulder, half expecting to see Dawn or Carri slipping out the back door but there was no one. The sky was now bright with morning light. All was so very calm, not a jay’s cry nor a crow’s call, and it occurred to Rusty that was a bit odd.
Twisting about, Rusty looked over the roof of his little house to the noble old walnut tree where it stood overlooking the street beyond. The crown of the tree was full of thick and leafy green branches. A breeze drifted through, rocking the uppermost bows. Rusty saw a cluster of limbs part, shedding blades of light into cave-like reaches within.
There was something about that dark space nearest the trunk that made Rusty’s heart give a little flutter. He continued to stare. Was it a trick of the light, or did he see something moving against the shrouded boll of the old tree?
In the second it took Rusty to stand and turn about, the breeze had moved on, leaving the treetop still and placid. He squinted and took a step nearer the house when the back door flew open.
“Rusty, don’t you have Froot Loops?” Dawn cried.
Swallowing the half of his heart that had just hit the roof of his mouth, Rusty felt a smile break over his lips. “No, I’m sorry. But I think there’s Golden Grahams.”
“Okay,” said Dawn. “I can eat those.” And they both stepped into the quiet morning warmth of the kitchen.
High in the top of the black walnut tree the Razor Baby surveyed the back of its long arms and watched the blisters recede back into its gray hide like bubbles following the returning tide.
Seating himself at the dining table across from Dawn, he watched bemusedly as the little girl upended the cereal box and poured out a stream of Golden Grahams into her bowl. The cascade of wafer-shaped cereal rose into a heap, overflowing the edges of the bowl. The situation went from mess to potential disaster area when Dawn snatched the nearby milk carton and began liberally splashing the bowl’s contents. It wasn’t until she reached for the sugar bowl that Rusty felt inclined to intercede.
“Yeah, honey, I think your Golden Grahams are plenty sweet enough,” he said gently and slid the sugar bowl out of her reach.
“Mommy always lets me put sugar on my cereal…” she protested.
“In moderation,” said Carri as she entered through the bedroom door, her hair damp from the shower. “Besides, you have plenty of cereal in that bowl. You finish that heap and we’ll see if you even need any more sugar.”
Rusty smiled and rose to fill a coffee cup for Carri. “You do like coffee, yeah?” he asked.
“Yes, I love coffee,” she said and smiled at him as he passed her the steaming cup. Lifting the cup to her nostrils, she inhaled deeply. Rusty swore he could see tendrils of steam happily winding their way up inside that delicate nose.
“Mommy, I want to go outside and play,” said Dawn around a mouthful of cereal.
“I think we all need to get outside,” Carri said, turning. “Finish your breakfast and we’ll wander down to the playground.” Carri gently leaned in to Rusty and let her lips pass across the corner of his mouth.
Former Coroner Ron perched on the edge of the padded RV bench and watched the Oregon high desert scrubland streak past the windscreen. Paulus had the old rattletrap traveling as fast as he dared, but it did little to stave off the steady pulse of adrenaline raging in Goltry’s gut. In an hour or so they’d be speeding down the Columbia River Gorge, taking I-84 straight into the shallow bowl of the Willamette Valley. It was home to Former Coroner Ron, but a home he hadn’t laid eyes on nor missed in the last ten years of his sojourn, not even once.
Truth be told, he could be speeding for Little Rock, Arkansas for all he cared, just as long as he would be given one more chance to wrap his thick fingers around the pale-gray throat of that monster once more.
Dawn wanted a trip to the park and Carri seconded the idea. Rusty rounded out the vote with a third concession and followed the impulse to sling his guitar across his back for good measure. Why, he did not know. It just felt right.
Now at a happy angle, the sun cast a light more bright and cheery than Rusty could last recall. As the three made their way to the center of the Little Gray Town, Dawn ducked out from under her mother’s draped arm and ran up the sidewalk giving Carri the opportunity to take Rusty’s hand in hers. The two slowed their pace and watched as the little girl scampered to the crosswalk.
Pausing at the corner, Dawn looked both ways for oncoming traffic and then bolted across Main Street and into the park. Nestled precisely at the center of the Little Gray Town, the city park was so small and sparsely landscaped, that Carri and Rusty could see the little girl rushing for the swing set from two blocks away. They were in no hurry to catch up to the little girl, nor particularly invested in matching her sugar-ignited energy. They were content to stroll, hand in hand, along the sun-dappled pavement.
Rusty had spent a greater part of his life in this little town, but now details sprang up he’d never noticed before. The bright-colored flowerpots tidily arranged along the walkway of the old ranch rambler to their right, how intricate were the cornices that wound over the entry of the old print shop on the corner and how the gaps in the sidewalk paving seemed perfectly caulked with a seam of rich, green moss.
Keeping itself translucent in the morning light, the Razor Baby cast no shadow as it tailed the couple. Leaping from tree to tree, from rooftop to rooftop, it finally lit on the stone verge of the old print shop roof and watched as the owl woman and her companion strolled to the street corner. The print shop over which the Razor Baby perched hadn’t actually produced for over a decade and of late had become a little coffee shop catering primarily to the lunch crowd. Its proprietors had yet to open its doors for the day.
The Razor Baby watched as the young man and the owl woman, hands clasped tightly together, briskly trotted across the street and into the park. Looking over the crown of a small dogwood, the Razor Baby could see the smaller of the two owl women swinging back and forth by a chain-link pendulum. She was laughing, and it was a sound that made the killer’s round, black eyes nearly bulge from their sockets.
Releasing his grip on Carri’s hand Rusty paused to watch as she ran to her daughter on the swing set. Standing in the shade of a tree, Rusty felt a slow chill slide up his spine and took a moment to look about, scanning the branches, shrubs and even the entry to the cinderblock restrooms for some gray-skinned creature with ape-like arms and machetes for fingers. He saw nothing.
He turned back and watched as Carri placed her hands at the small of her daughter’s back and pushed her forward, leaning back to watch as the little girl arced high into the air, tethered to the earth by a mere length of chain. “Now go under!” Dawn squealed.
Rusty took a seat under a poplar and swung his guitar about. Noodling through a progression of chords, Rusty watched as Carri took up a seat on the vacant swing beside her daughter and commenced to pump her legs back and forth, back and forth. Plucking his way through a delicate series of trills, Rusty meandered through a tune, underscoring the swing set dance of the owl women.
Crouched on the roof of the two-story building across the street, albeit the tallest the Little Gray Town had to offer, the Razor Baby hissed as blisters rose once more upon its hide.
Just over a hundred miles to the east, Former Coroner Ron glanced to his right at the vast expanse of meandering blue of the Columbia River and wondered what it would be like to park himself in the bow of a rubber raft and drift, just drift all the way down to the sea.
Returning his gaze to the roadway ahead, Former Coroner Ron could see just beyond the bend in the highway to the hazy spires of Portland beyond. It was noon, the sky was blue and dappled with clouds but he could feel a darkness at his elbow. A darkness he wanted to squeeze until it was shot through with daylight.
Once Dawn grew bored with the swing it was time to race for the merry-go-round. This particular piece of playground equipment was undoubtedly one of the park’s oldest features. Indeed, it was the very same merry-go-round Dawn and ‘Lita spun around on until they were sick to their stomachs over a decade ago. This was a realization that did not occur to Dawn, but surfaced in her mother’s mind as the two squealed with delight, while her young lover spun the thing madly, their hands tightly gripping the merry-go-round’s shiny inner metal ring, a thing polished by two generations of sweaty children’s hands so it gleamed like hematite.
Lunchtime quietly snuck up on the three and before long their stomachs were growling in near-unison. To his disdain, Rusty also noted the park was filling with little kids and teens assigned to babysitting duty. Rusty was inclined to vacate and take Carri and Dawn on a little walking tour of the town, catch them up after ten years of limbo, maybe walk them down to the old diner on the highway for a greasy burger and a pile of fries. Looking about at the rambunctious kids clambering into the jungle gym and over the lonely swing sets changed his mind. Tiny though it was, the Little Gray Town was starting to feel crowded.
No, a grilled cheese sandwich seared with a dab of butter in his own skillet sounded like a much sweeter deal.
With his guitar once more slung against his back, Rusty wrapped his hand in Carri’s and was about to lift it and apply a kiss to her folded fingers when he felt a tug on his right arm.
“Hurry up,” Dawn squealed, “I’m hungry and I have to pee!”
And the Razor Baby, a translucent shadow of itself, hovered on the flat rooftop of the old print shop and watched the little family meander back to their little bungalow.
Passing below the old print shop eaves, Carri paused in mid-step, turning her head to look up at the top corner of the block-like building. She blinked and her deep chestnut eyes became gold as two coins, centered by black pools. She blinked again and her eyes were human once more. Releasing the shadow of a smile Carri, watched the as air near the roof corner flickered like a heat mirage.
She turned back and kissed Rusty behind his ear, her smile never waning.