Basin - A Short Story

Desiree' Toupes
Created 5 years ago
The thirsty murk ran icy fingers over Old’s scarred hide as he swam, holding his breath for miles. It’s been a month since he’d eaten—one month exactly. Jutting logs and bald cypress bordered the serpentine bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin. Dusk had arrived unnoticed. A bitter January storm covered the sky above the swampland. Morning, noon and evening had melted into a pale and persistent grey. Old swam. His sinewy, lecherous form sliced through the current without a minnow’s ripple. With upturned obsidian eyes he ascended for air; the cooler waters above cascading down his body as ribbons of frigid silk, until finally his head had breached. The swamp was in a state of perpetual unrest. Lightning raked across the sky and bleached raindrops as they roared in endless applause. Usually an acrid stench shrouded the basin, but the fiendish winds of an untimely tropical depression pushed all that stale air east. Milky, transparent membranes slowly passed over wishing well eyes, wiping them slick. Old stared downriver and processed the world without words—without language. The bulk of a bridge loomed there in the distance, hiding in the storm like a spectral leviathan. His head slipped silently back underwater. Along the river’s edge, a blind alligator was hissing at the sound of another’s presence. A year had passed since Old first encountered this reptile; it was bigger then, a titan, not the unseeing, malnourished fright it was today. Clawed ditches had been gouged where its eyes used to be and half of its jaw was missing. Now, not only could the creature not close its mouth properly, it could hardly keep it from dragging through the mud. In a week’s time its carcass will become home to a family of water moccasins. Bulging stumps riddled the mire like wooden stalagmites thwarting any attempts of linier navigation. Continuous thunder shook the sky above, jouncing the rain off soaked branches. The droning hum of collective engines began to rival the roar of the storm; the bridge was close. Endless rows of water-stained pillars hoisted the roadway over the swamp, shadowing the Atchafalaya for eighteen dark miles. From underneath, the pillars resembled a cloister, a sort of colonnade that continued well beyond the span of one’s sight. Weaving bipedally through the swamp, Old’s pale frame sheened in a strobe of lighting. His clawed feet slurped in the suction of thick muck leaving behind footprints only few had ever seen, and even fewer spoke of. He was in the trees now, breaking branches as he hurtled through the air. He leapt from a cypress like a lemur, sending half of the soaked tree crashing to the ground. Wind whipped at his face as he fell into the damp darkness beneath the bridge. At the last possible moment, a scaled hand shot out and violently scraped across a massive upright, flaking shards of grey into the basin. For the next hour, Old adorned the bridge as motionless architecture. Back up I-10, at a gas station that caters to truckers and other big-rig drivers, the last of the black garbage bags made a squishy thud as it hit the floor of a truck’s cab. A pile of wet bags spread out behind drivers seat covering most of the floor. The narrow bed in the back of the sleeper cab remained untouched, its linens still tight and tucked. After drying his hands on his jeans, Daniel Maldonado jumped behind the wheel of his crimson eighteen-wheeler and slammed the door shut. He shook the rain out of his dark hair then leaned back against the headrest. He was eager to continue his journey home, but more eager to rid himself of his generous bag collection. A slick black toolbox rested, open-faced, in the passenger seat. Dull scalpels and liston knives shimmered from inside. A rusty metacarpal saw was being repositioned, turned over and upside down until, at last, the steel box could be snapped shut. Storm won’t be letting up any time soon, he thought, staring out to where the road met the sky. He breathed in deeply then closed his eyes. That boy had been so young, so . . . beautiful. He blinked the remorse from his eyes and stretched his hands on the wheel. Put it out of your head, he told himself, he’ll be gone soon enough. After pulling the seatbelt across his bony chest, Daniel hesitated before pushing it home. His attention drifted to a picture of his wife and son taped crookedly on the inside of his sun visor next to a small vanity mirror. His wife, Monica, was glaring through long, oil-slick bangs while Jacob scowled like a true nine-year-old outlaw. The black and white photograph had the word “WANTED” printed beneath their faces. The duo had taken the picture in a fifty-cent photo booth. “Wanted”, Daniel thought. The irony pulled an impish grin across his face. His smile faded when he noticed his expression in the little mirror. Lanky black hair draped down his forehead, barely hiding his charcoal eyes. Not a popular haircut for a guy in his forties, he thought. Dramatic shadows swathed his sunken face, the face of a truck driver, one who preferred a still, sedentary existence. You look guilty, he thought. But just before feeling too shameful he distracted his mind with the prospect of “home”. His family, quite surprisingly, proved successful in drawing him away from his more unpleasant desires. What he was capable of doing to other’s children seemed unthinkable when it came to his son, Jacob. Occasionally Daniel pondered the reasoning of this and determined the answer was simply “love”. He loved his son. He loved his wife. He’d sooner kill himself than make them suffer. The pressurized air brakes made a strained hiss as they released the eighteen-wheeler. Black clouds gushed from its twin smokestacks as the rig grumbled forward toward the onramp of Interstate-10. The first time Daniel surrendered to his urges was in 1991, at a restaurant off of I-10. It was half past noon and the restaurant was unusually empty. Daniel was eating in a booth near the restrooms when he noticed an old white family van pull up outside. Paint had flaked off the doors like a spreading cancer, leaving amebic rust continents all over. A squatty, obese woman with brown curly hair and thick glasses was yelling something as she labored to get out of the driver’s seat. She was wearing a large white shirt and khaki shorts that squeezed the meat in her pale legs like sausage. Daniel noticed how thin her skin appeared in the mid-day sun. Cyan veins crawled over her calves and cheeks like blueprints under tracing paper. Two bald teenage boys climbed out from the passenger side, screaming and laughing like trailer park hyenas. Each was plagued with mountainous acne and cavernous scars. The older one screamed something back to what could only be their mother before slapping the younger one across the back of his head. Finally, the last passenger jumped out and slid the weathered passenger door shut. Daniel stirred as he felt a tightening in his abdomen. She couldn’t have been older than six. As the family made their way into the restaurant, Daniel conjured scenarios inspired from the illegal VHS tapes he had stashed away in the cab of his truck. Neither the irate mother nor her screaming sons noticed Daniel staring, motionless from his booth. With the restaurant presumed empty, they continued fighting at their usual volume. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf began playing over the restaurant’s speakers. “No! You’re not gitin’ a shake Ashton,” said the potato shaped woman in a truly uneducated Southern drawl. They were all staring upward at the yellow fluorescent menu as though it possessed the answers to all of life’s questions. “Bullshit,” the taller one exclaimed. “Haf of dis’ is comin’ from money I made. I ain’t work no two doubles to eat like a damn slave.” “Well then how the fuck you think we gonna git home, Ashton? We gotta git gas after this!” “Fuck!” the boys expelled in unison. “Jus’ get me two chicken sandwiches. I don’ fuckin’ care,” Ashton said as he turned to find a seat. “What bout’ you Joel?” said the woman. “And before you say shit, it best be only a dollar.” “I don’ wont dis’ shit! I told you, I want tacos!” “You ungrateful fuckin kids! I’m fuckin done!” she said, throwing her hands up. “Next week I’m takin’ you back to you daddy’s! Let him deal wit you!” “Can I have a toy?” asked the girl. Her voice was surprisingly delicate by comparison. “No, but you can have some of my fries Sweetie,” said the woman, changing her tone most inhumanly. “Can I have sweet an’ sour sauce then?” “Only if it’s free, Sweetie.” “Y’all hurry up an’ order so I can go get a taco!” yelled Joel. “WE AIN’T FUCKING GETTING NO TACOS! NOW TELL ME WHA-CHU WANT!” Looking up, she realized the manager on duty was now the one serving them. After placing their order, the family sat on the other side of the restaurant, outside of Daniel’s view. A mixture of disappointment and relief churned in his belly. What would I have done? Daniel thought despairingly. There were too many variables to account for, variables that would have surely ended with him in prison. He’d crumpled his hamburger wrapper and stood to leave when the little girl rounded the corner and stared directly at him. Then she lowered her head and walked quickly toward the restroom door, making sure not to look at Daniel as she passed. What happened next took only seconds. Daniel exited the building while sweeping his eyes over the parking lot. He unlocked and entered his truck in one fluid motion. He went to the back and grabbed a large black duffle-bag he’d kept under the bed, then swiped a dusty washcloth off the dash before leaving. After closing the cab door, he passed his eyes over the vacant parking lot again. He jogged back to the restaurant and fumbling through the bag. His hands were shaking as if trying to rebel against what they were told. He removed a plastic water bottle with the label pealed off and a tiny “c” written in marker on the bottle cap. After unscrewing the cap he opened the restaurant door and spilled chloroform onto the dirty washcloth. He turned sharp and entered the woman’s restroom. There, in the buzzing white florescence, he regained composure. Am I really about to do this? I didn’t even look over the restaurant before walking in. He lowered his head, filled his lungs through his nose and exhaled through his teeth. His eyes were shut so completely his entire face wrinkled. “No,” he whispered and reached for the door. Then a toilet flushed. Then Daniel made a choice. Instinct, he determined, was his only real weapon. Daniel knew when to strike. And he knew when not to. If he’d tried, he couldn’t explain it. It was as if he could feel the weight of watching eyes on him, feel their presence, and know for certain when they looked away. While deep in the throws of paranoia, he relied on the notion that his instinct was preternatural; that he could never be caught. His gut simply wouldn’t let him. And they’ll never find the bags. The reptiles would take care of the big pieces, and the fish finish the smaller ones. There’s a lot of hungry out there in the swamp; never any time for leftovers. The thought billowed like dry ice, cooling his brain down the spine and relaxing his fingers on the wheel. He was partly right. He packaged hands separately after destroying the fingertips with the cigarette lighter from his truck; two bags for the humerus bones; two for the forearms; two for the femurs; two for tibias/fibulas; two for the feet (the toe prints were also destroyed); one for the pelvis and torso. After removing the eyes and teeth, Daniel filled the final bag with what remained of the head. In the end, he regarded his victims as portions. He believed that by making the bodies more “bite-sized,” they would be more hastily consumed. Fortunately for Daniel, missing persons didn’t receive the same attention as murdered ones. So far, in four years, not a single one of Daniel’s bags had been discovered. On an evening not too far back, at a Wal-Mart in Shreveport, Daniel recognized nine familiar faces hanging like trophies behind the glass of a display case near the entrance. He moved from face to face with his hands in his pockets, spending a moment with each one, conjuring up every unique memory. What he felt wasn’t quite remorse, but it wasn’t pride either. A claw-grab game filled with plush elephants and superheroes sang into life next to him. His attention then turned to the lone girl operating the claw. There were no leads, no glory-seeking rookie police officers hot on his trail, there wasn’t even a case file linking the abductions. There was nothing but missing children. Daniel tossed the first bag far out of the passenger window. A violent ruffle of plastic was all that was heard as it cleared the guardrail to be absorbed in the wet black. From below, the scent was caught long before the fluttering bag touched water. Old released himself from the pillar and splashed into the drink. His body moved like a wave, flicking mechanically as he weaved between the bridge’s concrete legs. In a burst of speed, he broke downward for the riverbed. Sinking long, sharp digits into the soft silt, Old propelled himself forward like a mad dog. The slowed, water-heavy movements of his powerful limbs kicked up rolling clouds of murky silt and left deep voids in the layered sediment. The bag was gently drifting downward like a sinking black flame. He could see it now. As he watched it, a starving pain gashed holes in his abdomen, sending him into wild frenzy. His talon hands slashed at the waters ahead; his body fulgurating through in a sightless burst. The bag crushed against his chest as he drifted forward in unstoppable momentum. He curled his long toes in the powdery riverbed, slowing him to a weightless stop, and then opened his gift. A tiny forearm. Bubbles escaped from Old’s mouth and danced up the sharp corners of his face. He was overjoyed. He had finally seen the vehicle that tosses the bags. The riverbed then exploded into a cloud of slow falling silt, and Old was gone. Daniel pushed a tape cassette into the player and rolled the volume dial up. Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” began to play, burying all other sound beneath its rising melody. He loved this damn song. Its lyrics were simple and Joel’s background singers repeated almost every line of them, making it real easy for anyone to sing along. But there was also a certain spiritual quality about “The River of Dreams” that appealed to Daniel, made him steer his thoughts inward. He could never put a finger on it. He had just always felt that, somehow, the song was about him. With windows down, he poured his music out into the open air, a cigarette bouncing on his lips. The sky above had become a miasma of smoldering violet, burning both bright and cool. Clean, post-rain vapor spiraled about the cab as he reached behind his seat for another black bag, his rig passing beneath a towering green sign that stated in white reflective letters: “Whiskey Bay Next Right”. Was there something on that sign? A tremendous weight slammed down on the roof of the trailer, jolting the cigarette from Daniel’s mouth and sending his toolbox clattering to the floor. His entire cab reeled from the impact as if his truck had just been rammed from the side. The sound of tearing metal scraping above shrunk him down into his shoulders and buried ice in his chest. He slapped the knob, stopping the music, then reached down for the cigarette and tossed it to the wind. The screeching metal above tapered, then stopped entirely. Daniel began franticly rolling up his windows, trying to quiet the inside completely. His teeth set on edge. “What the fuck was that?” Did somebody just jump onto my truck? His eyes looked over the ceiling then into the mirrors outside. No sound. Nothing but coffin quiet. Old was splayed out on the wet roof of the shaking trailer like a giant ‘X’, his face pressing down firmly, vibrating. His long, deadly fingers wrenched so deeply into that cold metal, it was as though he had become one with the rattling behemoth. Road mist tossed up from the truck’s many tires left spirals of coiling vapor behind the speeding rig. Old’s pale gray hide caught what little violet was becoming of the sky and he began to loosen. His body was trying its best to adapt to a fifty-five mile-per-hour environment. Slowly, he dislodged his grip and released a hand from the crushed metal. He then reared up, and slammed it back down into the middle of the trailer’s roof. Metal whined as Old’s hand closed like a killer’s conscience, balling the roof in his stony palm. He lifted his face and stared straight into the roaring wind. His eyes appeared lifeless, covered in white. Cautiously, he pulled himself forward, bending his knees, until finally, both of his feet were under him. He looked like a wingless gargoyle perched atop that moving truck. Beads of water rolled across the sharp peaks and deep-set chasms of his face. His long, thin lips contorted into a smile that was more childlike than murderous—more jovial than deranged. But Old’s expression melted into alarm as he watched a black cloud pour out of the smokestacks ahead as Daniel shifted gears. Hot, acrid fumes immediately shot into his lungs. His hands tightened on the roof and he began to retch. Milky red poured down his chin before instantly being wiped away with the wind. Old began to shake uncontrollably. Muscle tremors fluttered over his hide like dynamite under a limestone quarry. He pulled back his lips and let go of his grip. Standing on his feet, his face twisting with hundreds of years of ferocious delirium—he crouched then leapt. Powerful reverberations shook the entire truck as claws plunged into the trailer’s roof. Old clutched a smokestack in a fearsome grip, ignoring the fiery pain that shot up his arm. Like a scythe, he swung a hand across the chrome tube, severing it completely. A howling metallic reverb cracked against the passing sky. What the fuck is going on! Daniel’s body was frozen behind the wheel, all color drained from his face. Each sound seemed more dreadful than the last. He thought briefly about pulling his rig onto the shoulder and taking a look, but that would be dangerous. He would be calling unwanted attention to himself. There were so many damn cops on this bridge it would just be a matter of time before one of them stopped to see what the problem was. The last thing Daniel needed was a curious police officer sniffing around his cab. He glanced back behind his seat. Still so many bags. He looked back to the road and noticed a bright tumbling something sailing through the air. Now what the hell is that? He watched as the shiny cylinder hit concrete in a gush of sparks before somersaulting upward into the space in front of his truck—he was too captivated to slow down. He was going to hit it. At the last possible moment, Daniel raised his arms to cover his face as the cylinder cracked against the windshield. Glass splinters and dust filled his cab. In a blur of motion, the smokestack whipped around the side of his truck and disappeared behind. “THE FUCK WAS THAT! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!” Daniel was squeezing the steering wheel so tightly his white knuckles cracked from the pressure. There is no way that that could have been— A siren came to life behind his truck, and with it all sound and hope Daniel had had for the evening fell silent. A strange noise escaped his throat. Blue and red lights were oscillating in his rearview mirror—a gumball machine; that’s what truckers called those cop lights. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” He pressed a trembling foot on the break pedal and slightly turned the wheel to the right, pulling the crimson eighteen-wheeler onto the shoulder of the bridge. “What the fuck?” had become his whispered mantra. The air breaks sounded off after Daniel’s rig came to a halt. He hovered a shaking hand over a crop of illuminated buttons and knobs that stretched over the dash. He pulled one, bringing the emergency lights tick-tocking to life. He was rocking in his seat, biting the inside of his lip and staring wide-eyed at the cracked glass spider web that was now his windshield. Calm down, he thought. Was I speeding? It doesn’t matter—just don’t let the bear in here! They can’t find the bags! I don’t think I was speeding. Wait! My CB radio! The radio came to life with a static pop and hiss. He turned the volume to max and began dialing through frequencies. “. . . Just passed up some alligator around mile marker one sixty-seven. Come back.” “Copy that, Breaker. I’m seein’ some of that tire from back here. It’s all over the goddamn place. Musta’ been a helluva blowout . . .” Fuck! What was the other one cops use? Goddamnit! If I had my CB on I might have had a warning. He continued dialing through frequencies. “(Woman’s Voice) -teen wheeler. I’m gonna talk to the driver, see what’s up. Let’s just hope he’s not another crazy meth-head . . . Over.” “(Male Voice) Alright Borque. You take it easy out there. Radio back if you need an assist. Over and out.” The station went silent. Daniel killed the CB then turned around and began repositioning the bags so that they wouldn’t be noticed. He turned back and stared through the cracked windshield. That was one of his stacks, he thought as he turned the ignition key, silencing the grumbling diesel. He sat for a moment staring straight ahead. What had happened only minutes ago now seemed light years away, and a brand new flavor of panic was cooking inside Daniel. A floodlight ignited, throwing piercing white into Daniel’s mirrors and a bright path now connected the police car to the rig. He could see in his rearview the silhouetted driver open the door and step out. “Okay,” he said to himself. “Just calm down . . .” He gently closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He looked up at his reflection in the visor mirror. “What the fuck is on my roof?” A tall woman wearing the traditional navy blue police uniform stopped next to Daniel’s door; clouds of warm breath puffed around her face. She was bundled in a heavy brown coat with a gold Louisiana State Trooper badge embroidered on the shoulder. Of course it’s a State Trooper, Daniel thought sardonically. Her curly blonde hair was pulled back tight with a scrunchie. If it weren’t for the freckle clusters that dusted her white cheeks she might have appeared more her age. Daniel caught himself staring at her mid-section. She was pregnant. After a moment she gestured to Daniel to roll down his window. He snapped back to reality and hurriedly complied. He was acting like a clumsy adolescent dredging through the panic of being pulled over for the first time. “License and registration, please.” she said, in a voice that was not entirely Southern. Daniel hitched himself up at an angle and removed his wallet from his back pocket. His sweaty hands fumbled as he removed his license and a few other cards by accident. He reached over and retrieved his registration from inside a neatly organized glove box. He smiled and handed the items down to the officer. She removed a flashlight from inside her coat and looked over the identification, shining light from one then to the other. “Well, Daniel,” she said, clicking off the light, “I’m Officer Borque. How you doin’ tonight?” “Doing just fine officer . . . especially now the rain’s stopped.” Daniel was doing his best to sound charming. He was reminding himself to smile, but not to smile too much. “How far along are you, if you mind me asking? It don’t seem right they’d ask a pregnant woman to roll on this bridge.” “Four and a half months. We were actually on our way home when . . . do you know why I pulled you over?” She looked up toward the roof of his cab. “No ma’am, I don’t. Was I speeding?” “No, you weren’t,” she said slowly, hesitant to look back to his face. “I was behind you when something came off your truck and damn-near put a hole in my hood.” She nodded toward her cruiser. “That’s why I parked behind you. I wanted you to have some light while you checked it out.” Daniel’s mind was too occupied to notice this irregularity. When a big-rig is pulled over the police always park in front instead of behind. This is so the officer can see what the driver is doing in their rearview mirrors. Daniel opened the door and climbed down. “Oh—well, damn. I sincerely apologize for that, ma’am. Suppose I should have a look then.” He was more than pleased to keep her attention outside the truck. But the moment his foot touched the roadway, terror coiled up his spine and the night air got just a little bit colder. They walked toward the rear of the cab where the truck couples with the semi-trailer. Dim, red and orange emergency lights pulsed on and off at their feet. She clicked on the flashlight and slowly began passing it up from the tires. Daniel put his hands in his pockets and took a deep, cold breath into his lungs. He stared up at the smokestacks, trying not to look worried, but it was difficult. He’d never experienced anything like this. “Think that could be it?” she asked, aiming the flashlight at the severed smokestack. The metal along the rim was frayed and the pipe itself was two feet shorter than its counterpart. “Do those things have a tendency to break off?” she asked, knowing full well they don’t. She was trying to get Daniel talking. Something was shaking this guy up. He was starting to make her nervous. “No, ma’am,” Daniel suspired, “they sure don’t.” Just behind them, a car sped by in the fast lane trailing a windy cloud of rolling mist behind it. The smell of worn tires fluttered for a moment in the brisk air. They both turned their heads and stared at the speeding car’s shrinking taillights. Had she been in her cruiser, she most definitely would have gone after that bastard. “Well now,” Daniel said raising his eyebrows, “Would you do me a favor and keep your light up there for me, ma’am?” He breathed into his hands and rubbed them together. The chrome handle above his head was a wet ice sickle. After navigating over the slick coupling and brake line hoses, Daniel could now see the mangled pipe up close. Waves of invisible heat radiated off the frayed metal. It appeared to have been separated with one blow—one razor-sharp blow. I won’t tell her. If I told her she’d think I’m drunk or high. She’d search my truck and I’d go to jail. No. I have to keep her out here. Then, Daniel had a paralyzing thought. What if it’s still on the truck? He jerked his head around so quickly his neck popped. “What is it? You hear something?” She shined the flashlight toward the roof of the trailer. “No.” The word barely steamed out of his throat as Daniel looked at the wasteland that had become the trailer’s roof. A dark horizon composed of jagged canyons and pried metal stretched out before him. In some places, he could see straight through to the inside of the trailer. His mind began retreating; it was too much to accept. He looked down closer to his face and discovered something even more disturbing: five long gouges, parallel and close together Claw marks. “Oh, God,” he heard himself say. “Is everything alright?” Officer Borque called. “You see more damage up there?” Daniel was startled at the sound of her voice. “No . . . no . . . I’m just amazed how bad these exhaust fumes stained my roof,” he said, laughing feebly as he began climbing down. “So what do you think happened?” Some BIG, fucking thing jumped on my truck! That’s what I think happened! “Well . . . I guess an owl or something must have hit it,” he offered. “Who knows? Could’ve been a branch?” “An owl? You’re saying an owl did that?” “What I’m sayin’ is, I’m calling a repair shop first thing tomorr— ” A deafening scrape erupted from beneath the trailer like a railroad spike being driven across an oil drum. Both he and Officer Borque began walking backwards, never taking their eyes off the sound’s direction. The tearing metal wrenched louder in final exclamation, then stopped altogether. “What the fuck was that?” Officer Borque whispered as she unfastened the strap on her firearm. “I—I don’t . . .” Daniel was frozen. His mind was assembling a creature—something massive. “Stay back,” Officer Borque commanded quietly then slowly began creeping toward the rear of the trailer. She gestured to Daniel to keep watch underneath, pointing two fingers at her eyes then at the bottom of the trailer. She clicked on her flashlight and drew the .327 magnum revolver from its holster. That noise—what the hell could that have been? Her mouth was a tight line. Her pool blue eyes were wide open. Daniel’s face was slack and pale. The trailer’s rooftop kept flickering behind his eyes. He bent down stiff and stared under the rig. A sedan rubbernecked behind them, its headlights casting long, sweeping shadows under the trailer. Daniel felt vulnerable, more vulnerable than he had ever felt in his entire life; like he was about to be mauled from behind. Then he had a sobering thought. I need her. The harsh realization shred through his brain; each word broken glass. He glanced over at her gun. “Do you see anything?” she mouthed, slowly exaggerating her lips. Daniel shook his head. Borque gestured toward the rear of the trailer with her gun and began to creep cautiously in that direction. Her footsteps were barely audible as she edged, heel-to-toe toward the rear doors of the trailer. Just before rounding the corner, she raised the heavy magnum and clicked the hammer back. Daniel stared frozen as she disappeared beyond his view; her boots were now all he could see. He quickly looked over and under the rest of the trailer. Officer Borque was mid-step behind the doors. “Borque, what’s your twenty? Over,” the static voice blasted from the walkie on her hip. “Shit! Shit!” her hands fumbling with the gun. She stuffed the flashlight in her coat pocket and removed the walkie. “The bridge,” she responded finally. “I’m still on the bridge. Over.” Daniel could hear her breathing between her words. She sounded like she’d just run a mile. “Do you need an assist? There’s another cruiser coming your way. Over.” said the fuzzy voice. “I don’t think that’s gonna be necessary, just a run-in with the wildlife. Over.” She was beginning to catch her breath. Daniel closed his eyes and exhaled. Wildlife, he thought with a grin. Then abruptly changed expression. What if she flushes the wildlife my way? I’m completely unarmed. Then he remembered his knives. He rushed to the cab and jumped inside. He found his toolbox resting on the floor. Without thinking, he grabbed the liston knife. It was his favorite, not for its length or its favorable weight, but because he once read it was Jack the Ripper’s weapon of choice. After quietly closing the door, he slid the long blade into his jeans behind his back. Cold steely confidence radiated from it as he returned to his original position. He quickly looked under the trailer. Nothing unusual. Then he stopped. The air had become too thick to swallow. He didn’t see Officer Borque’s feet. No, he thought. No, no, no, she’s there. He looked again. She wasn’t near the mud flaps. She wasn’t on the opposite side. Maybe she went back to her car? He took a step into the road to look beyond the trailer, but the floodlight on Borque’s cruiser was blinding. He needed to be closer to see if she was in there. He slid the blade out of his jeans and began to walk toward the light. Borque’s magnum exploded from inside the trailer. A gaping hole appeared just behind Daniel’s head. The sound surged like a geyser and flooded against his eardrums, bathing them in tinnitus. He crouched feebly and covered his ringing ears. Am I shot?! Did I really just get shot in the head?! He didn’t hear the blade hit the road. He didn’t hear anything. Two low frequency explosions shook the walls of Daniel’s head like an underground bunker. He watched as two more holes materialized in the trailer wall. A mini-van barreled behind him followed by a gust of soundless wind. Daniel gnashed his teeth and pressed his hands hard against his swollen ears. His face contorted as he tried to subdue the high frequency fallout within his brain. Then, the tiny voice of someone buried deep under rubble tip-toed into his ears. It was the voice of a woman. “HELP ME! GOD, HELP ME! NO! PLEASE—” A monstrous crash rang out from inside the trailer. Daniel watched in scalding horror as the white metal frame lurched on its hydraulics. The entire truck jolted and shuddered as if it were a cardboard box filled with something rabid. Daniel stumbled backward into the center of the road and lost his footing on a wet reflector. His ankle twisted hard and wrong beneath him. Bright pain fired up his leg as he fell to the cold road with stinging hands. Daniel opened his eyes to see a pair of roaring bulbs barreling toward him, swallowing the world in light. Daniel stared deep into those star dipped wrecking balls, and for some reason, he imagined his son on his bike rolling over acorns on the sidewalk. At the last moment, Daniel shut his eyes tight and tucked his body into himself but the headlights were still visible through his lids, darkness becoming a blazing red. A saw-toothed horn raked across the bridge and the road beneath his hands began to tremble. Then all died black and quiet. A rush of heat-leaden wind blanketed Daniel. His still fetal body began to shiver. So, eternity smells like hot exhaust and tire smoke, he thought. Hesitantly, Daniel opened his eyes and quickly looked around, astonished to still be breathing. Fading taillights disappeared over a highpoint on the bridge, the driver still mashing his horn. A pair of black, sticky tire marks curved just around Daniel’s hand. He sat up and stared at the now motionless eighteen-wheeler. His face distorted with frightened revulsion. Then he remembered he was still in the road. He scrambled toward the trailer then stopped abruptly. A tiny sound turned his attention to the mangled rear doors of the trailer. They gently squeaked open, pushed from the wind. It’s somewhere out here, he realized. Daniel scrambled to his feet, wincing from now vibrant pain in his ankle, and hobbled to the cab. He slammed the door, locked it, then reached over and checked the passenger door. He was safe. He collapsed back against the headrest and closed his eyes, trying to regain some composure. He dragged a hand down his mouth and rubbed the bristles on his chin. In his rearview mirror, the red and blue lights were still oscillating atop Borque’s cruiser. She’s dead, he thought. There’s a dead cop in my truck. He balled his hands, digging his nails into his palms. But I can’t go outside! He looked in the rearview mirrors once more. And more cops are coming . . . I have to let them know it wasn’t me! They’ll shoot me on site! Daniel relaxed and sank back into his seat. He thought about the crumpled pile of black bags propped against his narrow bed. Maybe I deserve to be shot . . . He clicked on the CB radio. Its screen glowed dull orange, like a nightlight in his cab. It was still dialed in to the police radio frequency. Daniel held the microphone to his mouth and suddenly broke into quiet laughter. “I actually want to talk to the police,” he said shaking his head. His eyes moved to the splintered windshield. All humor melted from his face. “Hello? Hello, is there anyone there? Over.” He paused. “This is Daniel Maldonado. I’m a truck driver. Uh, Officer Borque just pulled me over . . . over.” Immediately a male voice responded. “This is Officer Benoit. Where is Officer Borque? I’ve been trying her radio. Over.” The man spoke in a hurried tone, and slightly accusing. Daniel paused. “I’m talkin’ from inside the cab of my rig right now. We were attacked by, uh, some . . . big animal. It must have jumped on my truck. I don’t know. Officer Borque shot at it I think . . . over.” “Is she alright? Over.” Another pause. “I don’t know. I was knocked down outside. She, uh . . . well, she shot at it from inside my trailer. Over.” “You don’t know!? Well, what the hell was she doin’ inside your trailer? Over.” The voice had become obviously agitated. “It must have got in there somehow and she must’ve went in after it . . . Over.” A pause. “Do you feel it’s safe to look in your truck, Mr. Maldonado? Over.” Daniel knew this was coming. He couldn’t tell if he was sounding more like a coward or a murderer. “No,” he licked his lips, “Over.” Coward. “You do know she’s pregnant? . . . Well, did you see it? Do you even know what it is? Over.” Daniel rubbed his eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger. “No. But, uh . . . it’s big. It shook the whole damn truck.” “Alright Mr. Maldonado, just stay where you are. A unit should be there in five minutes. Let me know if you see anything else . . . or happen to muster the courage to check on Officer Borque. Over.” Daniel stopped listening after “five minutes”. He sprang from the driver seat and rushed to the bags. One by one, he tossed them up onto the floor of the passenger seat. There were thirteen left. Daniel pressed his face against the passenger window and peered outside. It was much darker on this side of the truck, barely any light from passing cars; there was only the dim outline of the guardrail then the blackness of the Atchafalaya beyond. He looked up to the sky. The moon was buried under miles of high passing cirrus. He checked his mirrors once more. I’m good. Just have to be quick, the rail’s only two steps away at best. I can do this . . . I don’t really have a choice. Daniel moved his hand to the tiny lock on the door lock and pulled slowly. The door’s interworkings softly clicked. He looked again. Still nothing. “Okay . . .” he breathed. Gently, Daniel squeezed the chrome handle. The latch released and the door came free, but only an inch. He looked down at the crumpled bags. He imagined being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while officers counted and removed the severed limbs. He imagined the unforgiving face of his crying wife. He imagined never seeing his son again. He imagined the headlines. I would rather die than live with that shame. Defiantly, Daniel threw open the door and jumped out feeling like he forgot something. A buckshot of blinding pain made him remember his ankle. He nearly fell to the road. If it was bad before, it was terrible now. So stupid. So fucking stupid. After a moment he lifted his shaking foot and turned around to face the bags. His eyes were watering. The night was still. Daniel felt an invisible presence bearing down on him like deep-sea gravity; it was the feeling of being watched. He swiveled his head back and forth while he collected as many bags as possible. Finally, Daniel took a step back and slid the heavy bags out of his truck, black plastic crushed between his fingers. Then, at once, his straining face lost all color and the bags slumped to road at his feet. He stared stoically into the cab as the cogs of the world grew inert and eternity stretched upon every second. A plume of hot breath enveloped Daniel’s face and a guttural purr oozed into his ear like distant thunder. The air smelled like old pennies and something was dripping near his feet. Daniel jammed his eyes shut like a child resigning from reality. But he couldn’t escape. Not now. He was beginning to shake. Damp breath cascaded down his face and neck. Ever so slightly, Daniel turned his head away its source, careful not to move too abruptly. He partially opened his eyes and looked into a mirror mounted on the hood of his truck. He could see himself there in the foreground, slack-jawed and shivering. His skin was colorless, like his blood was hiding somewhere else far below. Then he saw it—a large, pale face floating over his shoulder in the half-light. Two massive inkblot eyes stared wide from their cavernous sockets. If there was a nose, it was indiscernible. But beneath the eyes, like a waning crescent, curved an impossible mouth. It didn’t look like an animal. If anything, it appeared to be a terribly disfigured man. Daniel closed his eyes again and slowly turned to face it directly. “Oh, dear God,” he quivered. He couldn’t move air in his lungs. There was none left. He was helpless in the vacuum of space. Its skin was pallid and looked as firm as alabaster. The corners of its blood soaked smile stretched up into its temples. Dark rivers ran down its long chin and fell in thick, black drops. The ice in Daniel’s stomach expanded and numbness climbed up, chilling his chest. He looked into its unblinking eyes and saw his own bent reflection trapped inside. Beyond its face, the wall of the trailer began to whine from the creature’s weight . . . “Daddy, why are those white?” Jacob asked, leading his father by the hand closer to the thick glass. Waves of emerald light passed through the water and crawled over the walls of the dark aquarium. “Well,” Daniel began, not knowing the answer, “they’re white because . . . because . . .” He stretched out his words and looked around for an animal information placard. There weren’t many people at the Audubon Zoo on a Monday morning. Daniel wanted to minimize distraction on a day spent with his wife and son. He’ll be a monster on his own time, he had told himself on the drive into New Orleans. “Ah, let’s see,” Daniel said quickly sliding his finger over the plastic lettering of the description, “The Albino Alligator is white because of a gene mutation that doesn’t let them produce melanin. And look,” Daniel pointed at the swimming reptile behind the glass, “they have pink eyes too.” Jacob looked perplexed. “Melanin is what gives skin its color,” Daniel clarified, “people with darker skin have a little more melanin.” Jacob’s eyes lit up. “There’s a boy at my school who says he’s albino. They’re like him?” “Yep. Oh wait, it says there are two types of white alligators. The others are called Leucistic Alligators. Leucistics have white pigment and blue eyes and are very rare. They’re stronger than the Albino ones, too.” The albino swam out of the water and climbed like a dinosaur onto the heated brown rocks of the habitat. Jacob stood on his toes, barely able to see over the water line. Daniel scooped his son up under his arms and hoisted him onto his shoulders. “You see now, buddy?” Daniel asked, smiling. “Man, he’s big.” A bright flash blazed behind them followed by mechanical whirring. Daniel turned to see Monica fanning a grey Polaroid. “Look at my monkeys,” she said grinning at the picture. “Monkeys! Can we go look at the monkeys now?” Jacob asked, climbing down. “Sorry buddy, I didn’t tell you but it says right here ‘ . . . since we ran out of food, the zoo was forced to feed the albino alligators monkeys’. Isn’t that something?” Daniel said smirking. “Yeah right, like I’m gonna’ believe you,” Jacob said, “You’re the worst liar ever.” “You are pretty bad,” Monica smiled, raising a brow. Daniel snickered. “Guess I’ll just have to practice.” The creature clung to the wall of the trailer like an insect, its slender limbs bent at the joints. The skin on its face was rough and channeled, completely devoid of emotion. Long, white breaths were it’s only indication of being very much alive. Daniel started as a bag slipped through his fingers and crumpled to the roadway. He nearly screamed. His mind spoke to him in a honeyed voice: You’re going to die, Daniel. Just try to accept it. The creature released its hold on the trailer and dropped to the roadway, twenty claws clacking against concrete. The truck reeled on its hydraulics, whimpering like an old cradle as it rocked back and forth. The rest of the bags fell from Daniel’s hands as he stumbled backward against the guardrail. He looked over the edge and briefly considered jumping into the high waters. No, he thought. If I jump they’ll find the bags. My family would . . . Daniel heard the sirens in the distance. He turned back to the bags. Unfortunately, the creature’s attention now shifted to them as well. It closed its eyes and lifted a small one to its face, savoring the aroma. It seemed like a religion, an act out of some ritual. It dragged a claw along the bottom of the bag slicing it open. A piece of broken concrete fell out and cracked in half against the bridge. The creature didn’t seem to take any notice. Why would it do that? Daniel’s mind reeled. Did it know about the stone? It shook the remaining contents from the bag. A severed blue hand tumbled out onto the roadway. Did it gasp? Did this thing just convey human emotion? Delicately, it pinched the hand between its thumb and forefinger and raised it to its face. The far corners of its mouth began to jump. It was pulling back its lips in stop-motion twitches. Daniel could see its slick, black gums slowly coming into view. A long, raspy hiss bubbled out from deep inside its throat. The smell was rotten. Daniel wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. He had to keep looking, had to see the creature’s teeth. But there weren’t any. Only dark pits where teeth should be, and that, for some reason, made him even more terrified. Wet pops and snaps issued from inside its face. Its bottom jaw unhinged and dropped open. Black meat lined the inner walls of its gaping mouth. Daniel was gasping between breaths. He watched in horror as long, bone-white teeth climbed out from those pits in its gums like spider legs. The child’s hand was suddenly devoured in a blur of voracious movement. Daniel was catatonic. Run—run far and fast. It eats people. He was just about to turn to the guardrail when a thought flashed across his mind like a burning comet. It’s been eating the bodies . . . my bodies. The creature tore open another bag and succumbed to its quiet gluttony. That’s the reason no one’s found any of them. I’ve been feeding this thing the whole time. The masonry continued collapsing behind Daniel’s eyes when the sound of approaching sirens snapped him back to reality. He was wasting time. He had to get rid of these bags now. Hunched over, its back was a snow-clad mountain as it fed, immersed in its private banquet and oblivious to the world. Deadly hands twisted a limb in its mouth like corn as scores of teeth tore free red strips of meat. Daniel eased himself closer to the bags, careful not to make a sound. He imagined what being ripped in two might feel like. Then he imagined being labeled a murderous pedophile by the media, being outcast by his family . . . being executed in prison. His hands were busy all the while. He glanced down. His fingers had found a grip on every bag. Okay, he thought. I’m not dead . . . so far, so good. He took a painfully slow step back toward the guardrail. The creature’s dagger-mouth snapped shut. Its teeth vanished in an instant. Daniel froze, barely breathing. It was almost quiet, except for the sirens. They had become separate sounds now, so much closer and clearer. Daniel slid his foot further backward. His heel touched the guardrail. The creature’s head swiveled on its neck like a tank cannon, its gun barrel eyes locking coldly on Daniel. Daniel raised the bags. The cords on his neck stood out and his shoulders began to quake from the weight. Pale lids licked slowly over slick, black eyes. It cocked its head to the side. Daniel looked to his left, and then over to his right, making certain the bags would clear the railing and plunge down into the dark of the swamp. What happens after this won’t matter, his mind coolly whispered. You’ll either be dead, or you won’t. But your secret will be safe. He closed his eyes and opened his hands. The last thing Daniel heard was the sharp pull of air into Old’s mouth. It wasn’t quite a scream, it was more of a roar; shrill and towering—the voice of a living fossil. Scores of flying creatures took to the skies for miles in all directions, beating their wings in vicious silence, trying vainly to escape the terrible sound erupting from a single mouth. Ribbons of hot spit fluttered onto Daniel’s face, but he didn’t notice. He was collapsing. Warmness spread over his body like bath water as he crumpled, surrendering himself into the downy arms of unconsciousness. A black combat boot with laces tied up the ankle stepped out and onto the Basin Bridge. The officer ignited his vehicle’s mounted spot light and shone it over Borque’s empty cruiser, the blue and red still whirling on the roof. Aside from the lights, nothing was moving. A wintery gust careened against the officer’s back and forced open the left door of the trailer ahead. His floodlight rose to the trailer’s interior. It looked red and alive in there. “Officer Borque?” the young officer called. His voice was both forceful and unsure. He paused a moment, pumping bursts of steam from his mouth. His green eyes were fixed to the dim interior of the trailer. He couldn’t make out any details other than it appeared relatively empty. “Borque, you in there?” he called again twitching his lips, then finally resolved to make a cautious approach. “This is Officer Trahan. I’m your assist. Are you alright?” He removed a small flashlight and unfastened the snap on his firearm. The squeaking trailer door was all that responded. He quickened his pace and removed the .38 from its holster. Floodlights from both his and Borque’s cruisers shone on his back and cast his towering shadow over the inner walls of the trailer. Then he saw her—a still pile on the floor wearing a coat with an embroidered badge on the shoulder. He saw her navy blue pants. He saw her wet hair. He saw that none of it was where it was supposed to be. “Oh Lord, no,” he holstered his weapon and climbed inside, his boots slipping on the crimson that stretched all the way to the doors. “Borque! Borque!” He tore the walkie from his hip. “We have an officer down! I repeat, officer down! Get that ambulance here now!” The walkie hit the floor as he crouched next to her. He looked over her face and the still frozen terror locked in her eyes. He knew she was gone, and hoped to God she didn’t feel any of this. Then his eyes found her midsection and he remembered. She was pregnant. Suddenly aware of the palpable warmth inside the trailer, Officer Trehan realized he could taste her in the back of his mouth. He could taste all of it. He needed to get out of there. He turned too quickly and slipped, falling to his hands and knees. The floor was warm as he scrambled out the doors. Steam rose from the dark stains patching his arms and legs. His hands were dripping. A spasm clutched his stomach then traveled up into his throat. He hurried to the shoulder and leaned over the guardrail. Most of his supper splashed into to the swamp, some didn’t. After catching his breath and wiping his mouth on the only dry spot on his sleeve, Trahan noticed a crumpled figure lying in the shadow of the rig. The passenger door was open. “Hey!” he called. “Hey you! You the driver?” Trahan removed his weapon and began a cautious approach. Trahan saw no signs of “wildlife” as he had been told by dispatch. No, what happened on this bridge tonight was murder. There was no doubt in his mind. Animals don’t do that. The cuts were too clean. What happed to Borque could only have been done by some crazed lunatic; someone with a fetish for cutting up women. Trahan stopped a couple of yards from the shivering man. He was curled up, fetal, hands between his legs and knees pulled to his chest. There was a peculiar noise rising from his body; a hum and a gurgle mixed together. Maybe Borque had shot him during the attack? He hoped she did. “Roll onto your stomach and put your hands on your head.” Trahan’s words fell flat and cold. The man didn’t move. He just kept shivering. “Roll onto your stomach and put your hands on your head! I will not ask you aga—!” He noticed the black toolbox resting open on the floor of the cab. No tools—just knives. Trahan clicked the hammer back. A sudden weight dropped onto the middle of Daniel’s spine, jarring him awake and pinning him to the roadway. The thing on his back quickly found his wrists and began to wrench them together. Oh, God! It’s ripping my arms off! Violently, Daniel thrashed and twisted beneath his captor. “NO! NO! NO! PLEASE, NO!” over and over again. The touch of icy metal fastened quick around Daniel’s left wrist, and then the right one. The sensation was enough to lessen Daniel’s terror but his eyes were still wide and searching. His dread had not left him, it had only transformed. Daniel lifted his head from the freezing roadway and turned to the red face of a young man dressed as a police officer. The officer’s sharpened eyes met Daniel’s and held them for only a moment before twisting away in disgust. Daniel felt his wallet being removed. For a moment Daniel wondered why he was being arrested. He got rid of all the bags, didn’t he? Maybe I missed one . . . Then he remembered that there was a dead policewoman in the back of his truck. Oh, yeah. That’s right . . . I AM fucked. The officer removed Daniel’s license and looked it over. After a moment, the officer’s lips began moving rapidly but there was no sound. Daniel was rolled onto his side and propped against the guardrail. The young officer stared down at Daniel, obviously waiting for something. Is he waiting for me to say something? A few clouds of breath were swept away with the wind before officer Trehan crouched down and fixed his eyes coldly on Daniel. He began to speak, but with no sound. Daniel studied the officer’s lips intently as word after word fired silently from his mouth. “Wait—, ” Daniel interrupted finally, but upon doing so he realized that the word he had just spoken possessed no sound as well; nothing more than a lingering vibration caught in his throat. It was then Daniel realized he couldn’t hear a thing. Not a single thing. He could feel the tremors of the bridge beneath him, he could see the taillights of passing vehicles, but he did not hear a single nuance of blessed sound. The cold drops of a returning rain burned like match heads on his eyelids and Daniel began to panic. “What?” he shouted at an abnormally high volume. “I can’t hear—,” Daniel’s face froze as the guillotine of memory severed his line of thought—the memory of an endless, tar-black mouth. Officer Trehan stopped reciting the Miranda Rights and observed Daniel for a moment in complete disbelief. How could he be deaf and still operate a CB radio? Thought Trehan. Who the hell does this guy think he’s fooling? He watched as Daniel opened his mouth as wide as he could, stretching his jaws apart, the way people do when they’re trying to make their ears pop. It was when Daniel turned his head to look back at the police cars that Trehan noticed something dark running down his face. Trehan grabbed Daniel by his chin and held his head still so that he could look closer. “What? What is it?” Daniel blurted. A thin trail of dried blood ran from his ear canal to nearly the bottom of his jaw. Trehan turned Daniel’s head to inspect the other ear only to find a similar trail of brown, flakey blood. “Maybe you can’t hear,” Trehan murmured wiping his hands on his coat, “but you’re damn sure going to answer some questions.” Trehan then turned and shouted toward the rear of the trailer. The ground came alive with vibration as three globes of yellow light rounded the side. The searing glares from the flashlights made Daniel’s eyes water. Backup had finally arrived, and these officers appeared to be much older than Trehan. Each had a hand near their firearm, and an “eager to kill” look in their eyes. These men wanted blood. Daniel watched as Trehan told his story through mute gestures, periodically tossing light into Daniel’s face whenever he was referenced. To Daniel it looked like a conversation between mimes. He quickly gave up trying to read their lips. Daniel’s gaze drifted to a puddle that had formed on ground beneath the trailer. Thick, sticky drops fell into a pool of black-red. That ain’t oil, he thought. He wondered what they were going to do with him. Sure, there was no evidence of a murdered child, but there was also no evidence of a child-eating creature (save the claw marks decorating his rig). He knew that if he started raving about some giant white monster they would assume he killed the cop on the basis of insanity. He determined it would be best to stay quiet . . . and quiet shouldn’t be too hard. More than anything, he wanted this night to be over. Two troopers moved to either side of Daniel and hoisted him to his feet. The pain in his ankle didn’t bother him anymore; neither did the handcuffs pinching into his skin. Maybe his brain had given up on processing pain. Slowly they hobbled Daniel back toward the rear of his truck. There was an officer standing there breathing though his mouth and flashing pictures of the inside of the trailer. Road flares burned bright red-orange down the shoulder of the bridge, sending dense plumes of glowing smoke up to be absorbed into the biting wind. Further back, Daniel could see a police car parked in the middle of the bridge and a wooden barricade just behind that. He imagined the sound of distant car horns rising from the long string of motionless travelers. Diamond specks of misty rain fluttered like dust before the headlights of Trehan’s cruiser. The door was opened and Daniel ducked into the backseat. Once he pulled his legs inside the door was slammed soundlessly, encapsulating Daniel in a womb of wailing silence. He felt entirely absorbed by the empty darkness inside the police car. The smell of gun-oil hung thick in the air. A steel wire partition divided the interior in half, separating the rear seats from the front. Fastened to the opposite side of the partition hung a wooden stock pump-action shotgun. Daniel could see through the windshield Trehan and another officer climbing into the cab of his truck. A ghost of a smile crawled across his face. “I hope they don’t confiscate my Billy Joel,” he said to no one. The silent police car erupted with laughter. Daniel laughed until tears were rolling down his hot cheeks, then he laughed even harder, hopping up and down in his seat like a lunatic. Almost seamlessly his laughter broke into hitching breaths that then gave way to inconsolable sobbing. He cried until his lungs were shivering. After a moment, the car gradually grew quiet again. Daniel let his dizzy head fall back onto the firm cushion of the headrest, closed his swollen eyes then began to sing. “In the middle of the night . . . I go walkin’ in my sleep . . . ” His quivering voice continued singing at a whisper, and although he couldn’t hear a single word from his lips, he heard every note in his head. Outside the windows of the police car, in the misty rain and unblinking headlights, an officer’s scream twisted in the night air as his body tore in half at the waist, spilling steam and crimson over the Basin Bridge. Old’s long fingers drove deep into a second Trooper’s face, sliding him backwards on twitching heels. The camera still clutched in the dead man’s hand fired over and over, freezing Old’s untraceable movement in bursts of bright light. Words turned into screams. Screams turned into wet snaps. Wet snaps turned into silence. “I must be searching for something . . . something safe that I lost . . .” A string of thunder-clap gunshots rang out across the basin. Trehan’s screaming face was silent in the flare of muzzle blasts from his revolver. He was leaning out of the driver-side of Daniel’s cab firing one-handed at the back of some thing that could not have been. The gunshots sent deep vibrations into Daniel’s chest snapping his eyes open. A scorching bullet tore into the back of Old’s shoulder nearly knocking him to the road. Blood ran free and bright red down a long, paper-white arm. Slowly, Old turned to face the origin of the pain. His long, sideways lips pealed open as a low rumble bubbled from somewhere deep inside his chest. The revolver continued clicking a full revolution before Trehan stopped pulling the trigger. Adrenaline that had poured into his once willing limbs was now begging him to flee, but he found he couldn’t move; he was mortified—hypnotized by a mouth brimming with rows of charcoal teeth t

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