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Dakota stared lazily out the back seat window; the constant scrolling of pine trees put her in a half sleep stupor. Unlike her mother, Dakota never became car sick, which helped her deal with the six-hour drive through the Colorado Mountains.
The rental truck carrying all of their belongings was a full day ahead of them, and had probably already arrived at the family’s new estate.
Her father, a former real estate agent from Arizona, was considering the move away from his home town of Phoenix ever since Dakota had been born. He found their new property through professional connections; the asking price dropped considerably with the failing economy, and her father jumped at the opportunity. The brochure and web-ad really presented the house (a small mansion) amazingly, and Dakota would have been more excited if she didn’t have to give up all of her school and neighborhood friends. Where they were moving, there wasn’t even a neighborhood.
The house, according to the brochure, was built in 1947 for the poet Robert Banes and his secret male lover. The estate sat on three acres (one acre grass, two acres woodland) and was located about ten minutes away from the nearest town of Monte Sombra. It was three stories, not including a basement, with a giant wrought iron spiral staircase in the atrium that led all the way to the attic bedroom, which Dakota had already claimed in her mind. Her mind ran wild with all of the adventurous possibilities of living in such a bedroom.
The previous owner had been a metal-smith artist, designing statues for city parks all over the United States. He died without an heir, leaving the property and surrounding gardens filled with all his creations: lawn ornaments, patio furniture, garden gates, and fountains. Her father, a man of practicality, wanted to get rid of all the works of art, in an effort to enhance a more post-modern professional appearance; he intended on turning the former workshop into a home office. Luckily, Dakota’s mother, Mrs. Catherine Blake, had sided with her on the protest, and the art pieces stayed.
Dakota loved one aspect of the new house more than any of the rest, and that was the graveyard. The property line ran adjacent to the town’s original graveyard from the 1800’s. As far as she could tell from the website’s virtual tour, the only way to access the abandoned graveyard was a small footpath that ran from the base of the driveway into the woods. A plot of land filled with dead people wasn’t as appealing to her as everything above ground. She loved the cracked marble angels, the vines, iron fence posts, and the blanket of leaves. Rather than getting the creeps from standing above a bunch of dead people, Dakota found beauty in the peace of rest. Fond of games, she would try and find as many gravestones as she could that shared her name, or she would try and find the oldest marked grave.
October 6th, 2010– I’m dying. I can’t believe it. I was so careful my entire life; so sheltered. God, I can’t believe it.
Help! Help! Anybody out there? Can anybody hear me?
Can’t keep screaming like this- work up too much blood. Circulate too fast.
My legs hurts. Is it broken? I’m too afraid to check. No, it’s bruising already; maybe I should try walking.
Augh, feels like my brain is being stabbed through my ear. Makes it hard to balance. I can feel the bite, right on the cheek, it’s puffy and sticky. I wish I had a mirror; I want to see where the bastard bit me.
It’s this stupid nature walk. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. Whose idea was this again? Sherry’s? Typical. She always wanted to marry someone more burlesque. By morning, she’ll be a widow. Thirty year old widow.
All those climbing lessons were a complete waste of time. I practiced hand grips, toe stands, belaying, Swiss Harness tying, but what they don’t teach you: while climbing out in nature, a giant snake will bite your face before you’re twenty feet off the ground.
It’s really sticky- the bite. That means it’s poisoned, right? I read about this somewhere, poison being proteins in saliva in which your body has severe allergic reactions. The sticky ooze is white blood cells secreted from the wound; it’s the body’s natural fighting mechanism.
Is that all poisons? The Komodo Dragon is poisonous because of high concentrations of mouth bacteria.
Does it matter? I hiked over twenty miles to get to this rock face. I’m at least a mile off the path, maybe more. If I stay, I will die. If I try to hike back, the increased circulation will spread the poison more quickly, and I’ll die.
Might as well stay put for the night.
October 7th, 2010-– I couldn’t rest all last night. I can’t sleep on my back, and every time I drifted into sleep, my body would roll over, and I would wake up screaming.
God, if you can hear me, I’m in a lot of pain. I could use some help. Some cross country back packers, maybe. A park ranger. Maybe a snake bite kit that someone dropped in the bushes behind me? No. Okay, I’ll wait. Not sure what I’d do with a snake bite kit, I don’t really know how to use one. It’s just that, I know you want me to marry Sherry, and I will, I promise, but I just have to-
DAMN IT! Stupid tree branch. Ah, that was painful. I think I’m going to be sick.
What the hell kind of snake was that? I could have sworn rattlesnakes were the only poisonous snakes around here, and rattlesnakes aren’t black. They shouldn’t be this high up anyway, I mean that’s snow right there, in the shadow of the-
Snow! Maybe it will ease the pain. It’s worth a shot.
Helps a little, I guess. Smarts touching it though, and this snow is so dirty. Hope the bite doesn’t get infected. Do snake bites get infected, or are they already considered infected?
I doubt it matters.
I think I’ll just lay in this snow for a little while. My joints ache, my muscles are stiff. I feel warm, really warm. Why am I shivering? I am warm, look. The snow is melting all around me; right there, it’s formed a stream. I’m soaking wet. Is that the snow? Or sweat?
I should follow it. Follow the stream.
That’s not a good idea.
What? Why not?
Are you sure you know where you are going?
Yes I’m sure. The path runs along the bottom of the mountain. As long as I head down, I will eventually hit it.
The most frightening thing happened to me, not even ten minutes ago. I’m afraid the poison is settling in. I heard a voice, and we began talking. It seemed normal at the time. Not sure why.
Maybe it’s fever. People hallucinate during fevers. I was feeling warm, then hot, like I was on fire. I said it out loud, just like I’m talking now, and I heard a voice say Not yet.
Suddenly, I really was on fire. I was burning and screaming and thrashing, rolling around on the ground. I could feel my skin burn. I could see the flames. I could smell the smoke, and I could hear my flesh sizzling like bacon. I ran down the hill and threw myself into the river. The water boiled around me, and it was freezing, but still I writhed in agony from the fire. The water did nothing to help.
I heard the voice, as I twisted in the darkness. The voice was laughing.
I must have lost consciousness, because I woke up on the river bank absolutely drenched and shivering. My body was tender, and hurt as if I had just been pulled out of a furnace, but I couldn’t see any burns.
I can’t open my left eye anymore. My swollen cheek has closed it shut.
I’m getting closer.
What? I heard that! Where are you?
I have been creeping in your veins.
I don’t understand.
Your heart pumps faster. It’s so close now, I can taste it.
No. No! Get out! This can’t be happening.
Clawing at your face won’t do you any good, though the pain brings me pleasure. I’m in too deep. I am yours, and soon you will be my child.
I don’t understand.
Don’t worry. You will. I promise, you will.
October 8th, 2010– I feel like death itself. I want to die. Why am I not dead already? It’s been days, the poison is slowly crawling through my veins. I haven’t slept, haven’t eaten. I’m so tired, but I’m still awake.
Please let me die. I need rest.
October 9th, 2010– I spent the entire yesterday writhing in agony. It’s torture to speak, but I’ve been alone for three days, and I’m slowly going insane.
I feel numb, icy almost, but I’m sweating like mad. My chest is cramped, a vice squeezing my lungs, my ribs, my heart.
I’m getting closer.
Closer to what? Who are you?
Your veins are cold. I am your slow, painful death. A wicked soul, slowly crawling through your blood. I am the spiders that crawl down your throat while you sleep. You are my child, my creation, and soon we be complete.
Poison. You’re inside of me.
Not inside, but a part of you.
No, no, no, no, please God, no…
A part of me was inside you before you were born. I lay waiting; waiting to be awakened.
By a snake.
No, THE snake! You remember, surely, the Bible stories, the garden, the original poison.
That’s impossible. You’re in my head. It’s all just in my head.
Very good. You must be so relieved.
No, no, no!
October 10th, 2010– I can’t even talk now. Just whispering inside my head. The voice can hear those thoughts, and right now it is laughing. It hasn’t stopped laughing. My tongue is swollen to the size of a lobster, and my mouth is so dry that is shares the same texture.
The voice hasn’t left me alone, and I can’t block it out.
Just let go, Johnathon, what’s the point? You must let me in, for us to be complete. Do you want to live?
No. Not anymore.
Of course not! Do you know why? This home you call a body is just a useless pile of shit. You haven’t held a job more than a year your entire life. You’ve never been married, and you’re already thirty-two.
You’ve been dating Sherry for seven years, and you still aren’t engaged. You’re afraid she’s cheating on you. Of course she is, idiot, who wouldn’t? You know why she’s been hanging around recently? Her college fling just dumped her for some girl ten years younger. She’s been rejecting you, all while being rejected herself. The worst part is you don’t even find her attractive-
Yes I do.
No you don’t!
You settled! She knows it, and hates you for it– wait, what was that? Did you just try to move? Ha, pathetic. If you could only see yourself now, absolutely pathetic. You can’t even roll over to piss.
I guess it doesn’t matter now.
You should be so lucky. Imagine dragging this useless existence out for another forty years. You should be glad that I’m taking you away from your Hell.
I stopped praying, except for death.
Poison’s cold claws have scratched out my blood. My entire body is one gigantic bruise. Even lying on my back in the soft grass feels like laying on a million daggers, but now I lack the strength to move.
You will become my child. My protégé.
Leave me alone, and let me die in peace.
Far too late for that.
What do you want with me?
My whole body tenses, and the pain almost causes me to black out, but I can’t help it. The voice is screaming. I can’t think, it’s getting louder and louder.
Bright light. I’m finally dying! Thank you God, thank you for this!
Why is it so painful? I can feel wind, and something louder than the screaming thumps in my ears. Voices, I can’t hear. The screams are so loud.
I force my eyes open, but everything is blurry. Bright lights in the night, and shadows moving quickly. They are moving my body. I am screaming, but it makes no sound; my throat is too dry.
I have the feeling of floating, but I know I’m not dead. More voices, but I can’t hear. It’s help! They’re trying to save me. No, don’t, go away. I need this, I need to die! What are you doing?! Stop! I was so close to death. It was like sweet water that cools and soothes.
Don’t take this from me.
Whatever you do, don’t save my life! Just leave me alone, leave me to the darkness.
There’s a pain in my arm. A needle. I’m falling asleep, but I don’t want to dream. I don’t want to wake up. Please, just leave me…
The entire trailer rocked as Thomas walked the fifteen feet from his bedroom to the front door. At 250 pounds, he made up a good percentage of the overall weight of his home, #47, deep in the heart of Shadow Grove Trailer Park.
Outside, he heard a string of profanities from the ex-love of his life. Trish had been a real beauty in High School; the two of them had been Prom King and Queen. The happiest he had ever been was the day he married her, up until the next happiest he had ever been the day he left her. Age refused to treat her well, and the junk she shot up didn’t help. At her worst, Tom found track marks in her arms, legs, between toes, under her tongue- even the nether regions weren’t off limits. Her face wrinkled, her blonde hair thinned, and she became so skinny that he was sure their six year old daughter could pick her up.
She blamed him when he lost his job at the department. She called him fat, useless, abusive, and a mess of other garbage that strung the divorce proceedings into a five year custody battle. They almost lost their daughter to the state, but in the end, Trish received custody of their daughter, Jean; he was lucky if he got weekends- they were according to her discretion. Frankly he would have preferred his daughter go into foster care. At least then her chances of being in a safe environment were significantly higher; at least she would be safe from them.
By the time Tom opened the door, Trish was halfway back to her car. His daughter stood at the bottom of his metal pull-out steps, wearing a white dress with printed pink flowers petals, and holding a Dora the Explorer backpack by one arm strap. In her other hand was Beanie, her favorite doll.
She was crying.
“Trish?” He called after her, “Hold on, will ya? What’s this all about?”
She ignored him, getting into her topless Cadillac (his cherry red Cadillac convertible, a wedding gift from his father, that he had to give up in the divorce), and took off down the row of trailers, knocking over a garbage can as she made a sharp curve onto the main road.
Turning back to his daughter, Tom asked her what had happened. Jean just continued to cry, so Tom picked her up and carried her inside. Immediately he noticed her bottom was wet. Whatever happened, it really stressed out her daughter; she hadn’t wet herself since she was three.
“C’mon,” he said, patting her on the back, “let’s take a shower for Daddy.” His shower was a single stall, and he had to help her when she tried reaching the shower head or adjusting the water temp. He didn’t even have shampoo, just a bar of soap. By the time she stepped in the shower, she had stopped crying, but still wasn’t saying anything. While Jean was in the shower, Tom took his daughter’s soiled clothes and checked her backpack for clean ones. Inside, he found a single notebook with “Journal” written on the front in black magic marker, a paper folder with homework sticking out in all directions, a pack of pencils, two pairs of socks and a t-shirt with some cartoon princess character he didn’t recognize.
No pants, no skirts, no underwear. He had seen this before: his child’s silent treatment, the hastily packed night sac, the defensive and angry mannerisms of his ex-wife- she was using again, he just knew it.
Working quickly, he took his daughter’s panties to the kitchen sink, and scrubbed them thoroughly, using a drop of dish soap. He looped them over a hair-dryer (one of his girlfriends had left it there) and ran the device on high.
He took his daughter’s dress, pulled one of his sports jackets off a hanger, and hung the dress on a towel rack in the bathroom. By that time, his daughter had finished with her shower and was drying herself off with his giant Dallas Cowboys towel, one he was sure smelled god-awful.
“Just put the dress back on, honey, we’ll go into town a little later and I’ll buy some new clothes.”
She smiled, glad at the opportunity to get a new outfit, but still didn’t say anything.
Tom pushed everything off his table into a black trash bag: empty beer cans, bottle caps, unfinished crossword puzzles, a few men’s magazines, cigarette butts, pizza crusts, paper plates, and empty candy wrappers. Opening a box of sugary cereal marketed to kids with large cartoon characters, and Disney toy promotions, he poured Jean a bowl and set it on his sticky table. She pulled a bar-stool up to the table, climbed up to the seat, and sat down to start eating, while tracing the maze printed on the back of the cereal box with her finger.
Tom didn’t know where he was going to get the money to buy his daughter some decent clothes. He had twenty-eight dollars cash, and about negative two-hundred in his checking account. There was, of course, no savings account, and he had to wait almost an entire week for his next unemployment check to arrive. He was ten years short of earning his pension with the force.
He spotted a shelf next to his television (which was enormous, took up an entire wall, and cost about half as much as the trailer itself) that held his modest collection of video games. He grabbed a grocery bag, and pushed every game into it.
The Xbox had been a gift about five years back, and he played it quite a bit right after he was fired, but hardly at all anymore. Most days he spent wasting away in front of the television, or chipping away at a crime novel he had been writing for about twenty years.
Tom grabbed a stack of DVDs as well; anything he hadn’t watched in a year or more went into a grocery bag. He wandered back into his kitchen, which wasn’t really separated at all from the living room, and sat down next to his daughter to watch her eat.
Finishing her afternoon breakfast, Jean joined her dad in his pick-up truck and rode into town.
“Is Mommy sick?” she asked, as he was merging onto the highway. It was the first thing she said since being dropped off.
“Why do you ask, sweetheart?”
“I saw her taking medicine.”
“What kinda medicine?”
“Shots, like I got at Dr. Ray’s.”
“Did a doctor give ’em to her?”
“Naw, she gave ’em to ‘erself. She had to heat it up first. Doesn’t that hurt daddy?”
Tom was shocked, not because his wife was using again, but because she was shooting up right in front of their daughter. “Jeanie, honey, that’s not medicine. She is sick, but those shots are making her worse. You ever see her taking those shots again, I want you to leave, ya hear? Go over to Krissey’s house next door, you use her phone, an’ you call me. Remember my number?”
She nodded earnestly, ready to impress her father.
As he expected, Tom received about three cents to the dollar on his games for what he spent on them; about forty dollars for twenty-five games. He had better luck with the movies, though, because Ray the pawn shop owner was an old drinking buddy of his.
“C’mon Ray,” Tom pleaded, “I need this money for Jean. I wouldn’t lie to ya.”
“Y’got Jean with ya?”
“Yeah, she’s in the truck.”
“Dropped ‘er on my front steps, an took off.”
Ray nodded. He knew what that meant, and didn’t feel like it needed to be put into words. “Aw’right, I’ll give ya fi’ty for tha whole bunch. How’s ‘at?”
Tom climbed up into the truck, and considered where he might take his daughter. He wanted to spend all the money on the prettiest dress his daughter ever saw, but he wasn’t sure how long Jean would be staying with him. Forever, if he had any say in it. Tom decided on thrift, to make sure she got as many things as she might need. He knew a few that had pretty girls’ clothes, in decent condition.
He looked over at his daughter, sitting next to him. She was staring out the window, idly twirling a golden strand of hair with her delicate finger.
“Ya know, you remind me of your mother when we first met. ‘Cept yer much prettier.”
She blushed, and smiled (finally!), and clenched her doll to her chest. The doll, red haired with a plastic face and cotton dress, was named Beatrice on her tag, but Jean just called her “Beanie.”
He decided her would head toward-
Tom blinked. He had the sensation that he was lying on his back. The sun and sky were above him. He had blacked out. Why had he blacked out? Tom felt nothing but pain as he tried to move.
There was a ringing in his ears. At first he thought it was his daughter screaming- Jean! He jerked his head to the side, ignoring the sharp intense stabbing that ran down his spine. His daughter was still in the cab of his truck (he realized he was thrown from it during the accident). She was hanging upside-down, still strapped in by the seat belt; she wasn’t moving. His entire truck had rolled, supported on its top by the cab’s roll bar and the bed topper.
Glass was everywhere, glinting in the light like a bath of razors.
What had happened?
Tom heard car doors on the other side of where he was, and turned his head to investigate. Four Hispanics all carrying automatic pistols and sub machine guns were getting out of a new Hummer; Tom noticed some of his white paint, probably from his truck, scratched onto the Hummer’s push-bar.
One of the Latinos put a boot into Tom’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The other three started searching the toppled truck.
“Hello, Mr. Wheeler,” the man standing over Tom said with a sneer. The man had a thick Hispanic accent, but had the articulation of someone educated in the States. “How are you feeling? You’re bleeding pretty bad.”
“What do you want?” Tom whispered, hoarsely.
“Right to the point, I like it. Money, Mr. Wheeler. Your wife owes me fifteen, but you’re going to pay me twenty.”
“Grand? What makes you think I have that kind of money? Go talk to Trish.”
“We have. She doesn’t have it. She says you have it. Your wife can be-”
“She’s not my wife,” Tom interrupted, spitting blood off to the side. “We’ve been divorced for years.”
“Sounds like a personal problem. Here’s my card.” He fished a white business card out of his pocket, and placed it gently in Tom’s shirt pocket. “If you want your family to live, you will find me my money. You have five days.”
He walked back to the vehicle, shouting at the other members of his crew, “Vaminos, bring the girl.”
“No,” Tom shouted, trying to get to his feet. He never felt the blow of the pistol butt into the back of his skull.
One of Tom’s old police contacts, Clint, was slouched in a dark booth, pushed to the rear corner of the town’s dirtiest dive bar. Tom slid into the seat across from him, wincing as the rough leather pushed up against his fresh bruises. He flicked the card across the table, and Clint picked it up, squinting in the dim light.
It was blue, embossed with blue lettering:
H&R Welding Ȼo
There was something that looked like a scribble underneath the phone number. Tome knew it was a gang tag, but couldn’t read it.
Clint scribbled a name on the blank side of the card, and passed it back to Tom, who picked it up and studied it.
Clint shook his head. “More likely L.A. Chingasos. Or maybe Chingos, but Chingaso means to fight. The area code is in the tag, 213, which is common for turf gangs. Also, you see how the C’s have a line through them, even in the business name? Means they’re Blood affiliates, because Crips are their all time rivals, so they cross out all the C’s to show they have no relation.”
Tom thought this made sense. Trish was born in L.A. and took trips out there frequently to visit “family.” He couldn’t get a hold of Trish since the previous morning, when all of this started. He didn’t feel like going to the police; he made a lot of enemies at the station, and was sure a few would shoot him in the back, if given the chance.
“Tom,” Clint said, “I’ve heard about these guys. Don’t hate me for saying this, but if they’re coming to you for Trish’s money, then she’s already dead. And if what I heard is true, what they do to children, you may wish Jean was dead too.”
Tom’s fist lashed out, quick as lightning, and struck Clint square in the jaw. Clint swore, and fell to the bar floor. Tom stormed out, leaving his old contact rolling and moaning. Tom knew he didn’t deserve it, that Clint was just trying to warn him, but at that point he didn’t care.
Tom pulled up next to his cherry-red Cadillac that was still parked in his ex-wife’s driveway. He didn’t visit the old house often, and it was eerie knowing that he would never live there again. It’s possible no one would.
He went around to the back, and swiftly kicked open the door. Searching quickly, he found the car keys hanging on a peg by the front entrance.
Tom drove the Cadillac to Dave, an old friend of his that also happened to collect classic cars. Dave had been hassling him to sell the convertible for years before his divorce.
He knew the car could, and should have, sold for twenty-seven thousand, but since he needed payment in cash, and payment immediately, Tom had to settle for twenty-one.
It was good enough.
Though Trish held on the car, she was never actually legally entitled to it, so the license, registration, and title were all still in his name. The sale was processed smoothly.
“I have the money. Where do you want me to take it?”
That was fast, well done. I will send somebody to pick it up.
“I’ll hand over the money only if he brings my daughter.”
He will tell you where she is being held.
“That’s not good enough.”
Listen, Tom, I am a fair man. Twenty thousand is not a lot of money, especially for me. I am only collecting what is owed to me. It took five grand to track your ass down, so you get to pay me a little bit more. I don’t really know you Tom, or what you are capable of. If your daughter is brought to the exchange, I will have to send an army to make sure you cooperate…
“Whatever it takes.”
…but that is too much of an inconvenience. No, he will come with instructions. If you give us the money, you will see your daughter again.
Tom waited impatiently for the Chingaso to arrive. Tom bundled and stacked the cash neatly into a manilla envelope. It had been three days since his daughter was taken from him, and he hadn’t slept during any of those three days.
But he was fading fast. His head pounded, his temples flared, and his bruises ached. He just needed to sit, and close his eyes for a little-
The pounding on the thin aluminum door sent Tom’s heart into a pounding of its own. He was awake, alert, and vividly aware of his surroundings. Appearing calm, he stepped outside, and stood facing the lone gang member.
This Chingaso was thin, but muscular, and had a pencil-thin mustache above his lip. All his arms, exposed by the wife-beater he was wearing, were covered in Catholic-themed tattoos. Even though it was night, he was still wearing dark sunglasses.
They wordlessly exchanged envelopes. Tom opened his, and inside found a picture of Jean, his beautiful daughter, bound and gagged. She sat against a dark background, staring into the harsh flash of the camera. She was crying, but appeared unharmed. Inside the envelope, he also found a lock of his daughter’s golden hair, pinned together by a bobby, and his daughter’s doll “Beanie.” At the bottom was a folded internet print-out: a map with directions to a motel off the highway about fifteen miles away.
The kidnapper thumbed through the cash, flipped open his phone, and started talking in a rapid, rough Spanish. Tom picked up enough body language to tell he was talking to the boss. Or at least the leader of their small crew, so far from home.
The man continued talking, turning toward his black Lincoln SUV and staring off down the road. He kept a watchful eye on the windows of the trailers all around him. His conversation consisted of a lots of Sí‘s and head nods. When he was finished, the gangster flipped his cell shut with a snap.
“Well, amigo,” he said, turning slowly, “I think our business is-”
It was hard for him to process what came next. A sound like raw meat sliding across a steel table. The crunch of bones. A sharp twist in his spine. His legs giving way beneath him. Taste of blood. Darkness.
The Chingaso’s hand never made it to the pistol tucked in his belt before he collapsed face first; a hunting knife was stuck in his spine, through to the hilt.
Tom removed the knife, and watched the man’s body convulse in agony. He thrust the knife one more time into the man’s lower back, slicing open the kidney. Then Tom dragged the body, still twitching, albeit silently, underneath his trailer. He collected the gang member’s wallet, gun, cell phone, and key-chain.
There was an old Army-green canvas bag, one that belonged to Tom’s father, resting just inside the trailer door. Tom grabbed it, and placed it inside the SUV on the passenger seat. On top of the bag, he set both envelopes, one with cash, the other with directions.
Tom pulled the lock of his daughter’s golden hair out of his shirt pocket. He clipped the bobby pin to the back of his belt, tied the hair into a knot, and kissed it tenderly before returning it to his pocket.
Jean woke from the accident while being carried by a large stranger past the motionless body of her father. She was scared that he might be dead, but as she got closer, she could hear him breathing in a half snore, half wheeze.
She screamed and pounded her fists into the stranger’s back, but it did no good. He didn’t even seem to notice.
The little girl was thrown roughly into the back of a large black vehicle. She squished up against someone that was in the back with her. Turning in the cramped space between the seat and the doors, Jean saw her mom, dressed in the exact same clothes she had seen her in this morning.
Jean put a hand to her mother’s chest, but couldn’t feel the familiar rise and fall. Her mom’s face was dull blue, and her eyes stared open wide.
The six-year-old girl, now very scared and very alone, pulled her knees up to her chin, and squeezed herself in the corner as tight as she could.
“Daddy will save me,” she whispered. “Daddy will save me. Daddy will save me. Daddy will save me.”
Tom studied the two gangsters standing in front of the motel room, smoking and laughing, through a night scope that he used for hunting. The cigarette cherries lit up in the green lens like lighthouses. The window behind them was flashing, most likely a television being watched in a dark room.
Two presented a problem. The only silent weapon he brought was a compact bow, and he wouldn’t be able to use the night-vision while aiming. Even if he had some sort of a head harness to strap it to his face, his depth perception would be off enough to where he wouldn’t feel confident hitting one target, let alone two. The same problem existed if he tried shooting them by aiming into silhouettes; one could easily slip away into the darkness as he tried to notch the second arrow. If he used his 30.06 hunting rifle, with the scope mounted, he could kill them both easily, but would risk the chances of a third gang member inside with his daughter. He wouldn’t be able to reach her in time.
Sneaking up on them, especially in the darkness of the far side of the motel, and taking them out silently seemed the easiest solution. Tom was confident he could do this; despite his heavy-set frame, he had plenty of experience creeping up on deer in the forest. Hunting was almost second nature to him anymore.
Out of habit, Tom pulled some grass at his feet and released it in the wind. He was disappointed that it blew away from his legs, which meant he was upwind. Then he almost laughed, realizing that humans didn’t exactly smell like other animals.
Humans were a different kind of prey.
Two Latinos, covered in tattoos and smoking cigarettes, were talking and laughing in front of a motel room. One shushed the other suddenly, telling him that he heard the crunch of gravel. They became silent, staring into the darkness.
Instantly they were bathed in the harsh brightness of headlights. They blinked, and tried covering their eyes to get a good look at the driver. A large figure stepped in front of the car, but still they couldn’t see who it was.
One of the gang members took a step forward, but heard a soft twang and the rushing of wind near his ear. He turned back to his partner, with a questioning expression on his face, and saw the shaft of an arrow that had pierced clean through his partner’s throat. The Chingaso whipped around to face his assailant, only to catch an arrow right above his cheekbone.
A third man wandered out into the night, curiously but lazily investigating the source of the commotion. When he saw the two dead men on the ground, he shouted, and pulled a pistol out from the back of his belt. Even before the man stepped out of the room, Tom had been in motion, and he slammed full force into the other kidnapper, putting his shoulder into the man’s lungs. His pistol fired, the bullet driving harmlessly into the parking lot asphalt.
With the wind knocked out of him, the gang member was little match for Tom, who kicked the gun away and stuck his own magnum down the Chingaso’s throat. He didn’t feel unlike Dirty Harry as he painted the doorstep with the man’s brain.
Tom ran into the room, lit only by a television and the headlights through the slits of the window blinds. The room seemingly empty, he quickly checked the corners, but not quick enough to see a swift motion out of the corner of his-
Tom sat in an old padded steel chair, not unlike the stackable chairs he sat in at Church, when he was younger. The room was an old warehouse, with cardboard boxes everywhere, and the fragrant smell of mold.
Tom was handcuffed from behind. His fly was open, with his genitals pulled away from his pants. Off to the side was a tool cart, with hammers and saws. Pliers. Screwdrivers. Razor blade box-cutters. Cables with large alligator clips, looped around a car battery.
Standing in front of him were three armed 213 Chingasos. In the middle was Miguel, the leader of this group of dogs he had been hunting all night. He assumed that what stood before him was all that was left, at least of their crew. Three collectors left.
He recognized the other two. One large and bulky Latino dressed in oversized white Ecko jeans, he remembered as the one that hit him over the head. This past time, not the one before. It was a habit he was hoping he could break.
“Thomas Wheeler,” sneered Miguel. He was grinning because his assailant had been caught, but was clearly pissed and shaken that this fat man handcuffed to the chair had killed over half his crew. “I told you I was a fair man. You were so close to getting your daughter back.”
“She wasn’t in the room. You were planning on killing me once I got there.”
“Not true. If I wanted you dead, I would have had Stephen do it. Remember him? Stabbed in the back, and dragged under your own home. And I thought I was scary. You know he was only seventeen-”
“And already a killer. I know about your initiations.”
“Do you? Then you must also know about our prostitution rings? Even in this country, six-year-olds are a hard sell, but give it a couple years…”
Tom roared and stood up with his chair, slamming it back down to the ground. The steel on concrete reverberated harshly around the walls, and the startled gangsters raised their weapons at him. His breathing was loud and harsh, his stare that of a predator’s. Even Miguel looked uncertain for a moment, but soon started laughing.
As the alpha dog laughed, Tom smiled thin and cruelly. Miguel paused. “You seem pretty happy for a man who is about to die.”
“When my thumbs are knuckle deep in your eye sockets, and you’re begging me for death, I will remember that laugh.”
Miguel turned away, pretending to shrug it off. “You know what to do. When you are finished with him, take a picture, so I can show the world that I keep my promises.”
He left the room, and the other two walked slowly toward Tom, who was still seated calmly, and smiling.
Tom knew that these two were foolish enough to torture him before they killed him, which meant he had plenty of time. Already Tom’s hands found his daughter’s bobby pin and using it to fish around inside the lock on his cuffs.
Tom had been a cop for God’s sake; he knew all the tricks. All he needed, before they smashed his kneecaps, shocked his testicles, and pulled out his toenails, was to give the bobby pin a little twist…
First and foremost, I would like to thank Preston Stallings. It was this man that turned me onto the band called He Is Legend, from which every one of these stories are inspired.
He Is Legend is a heavy-metal band that started up in North Carolina, releasing their first EP, “91025” in June 2004. A good part of their lyrics are heavily monster or fairy-tale themed, whether tongue-in-cheek like “Everyone I Know Has Fangs,” or strictly metaphorical, as shown in “Lair of the Dungeon Witch.”
While listening to these songs, stories took a life of their own, outside of the lyrical content. I imagined a Frankenstein story while listening to “Electronic Throat,” a zombie apocalypse with “Cape Fear” and a guardian story with “China White III.”
Eventually, the stories floating around my head while listening to such imaginative music was too much for me to bare, and I had to write them down. The stories ranged from creepy, to violent, to suspenseful; I figured Halloween-themed October was the perfect time to share them with you, dear fans.
One story, every Sunday, all month long.
Every story is based off of, and named after, songs from the album Suck Out The Poison by He Is Legend. In no particular order, you will read:
Goldie’s Torn Locks- A trailer-trash deadbeat dad finds a new spirit when called to rescue his daughter from psychotic drug dealers
(((Louds- A blind man finds that he can see through the “eyes” of a mirror in his home, but this does little to prevent his steep decent into madness.
Suck Out The Poison- The last oral entries of a man, dying alone in the woods.
Attack of the Dungeon Witch- A knight is sent to slay the seductive Witch of Wyr, destroyer of homes and torturer of men.
China White II- A young girl stumbles upon a deranged gardener that is convinced the flowers are speaking to him, and they want bodies in order to feed.
If you wish to follow me through these Tales of Terror, I encourage you to listen to the songs (YouTube has them all), read the lyrics, and form stories of your own. Post these stories (or little summaries) in the comments section, so we can all share in the celebration.
Wait patiently for explanations in the night. We cannot be the only ghosts to float this high.
“…and Lord, God, above all I pray that Justice be done, that your will be served.”
It was my hesitation in the words that served as my first warning sign. Every other prayer in our circle was different. Please don’t let Jim go to jail. Please let the innocent go free. They were all for him. I worded my prayer very carefully. In so many words, I prayed for Karma. If the man was innocent, let him go free. If he was guilty, let him perish.
The following people and events may or may not have changed names, dates or locations. This is incredibly considerate, considering…
Considering the events. Because they happened, and they are as much my story as anybody else involved. Why do I have to censor my own story. Nobody censored it for me when I experienced it.
No, I will do it, because I still love those many who were involved in this story. Their relationships may be hurt based on who reads this, and I wouldn’t want that. There would be no gain. This is my therapy, not my occupation. I don’t need to bring others pain to gain self satisfaction.
Despite what some may tell you.
We drove to Carrollton in a very impressive convoy. Jim, his wife Vanessa, their friends Bonnie and Clyde, and even their children, all asked for us to be there. If Jim could show the judge what a stand up member of society he really was (look at all these Christian College students coming to support me), maybe he could earn some sympathy. It’s all really sadistic when I think about it.
The students consisted of Ebony and Robert…
I went to college in Missouri. That much is true. That much is innocent. I went to a Christian College. That was what I wanted; positive influences to heal a self scarred youth. Self scarred because I can blame no one but myself for how I chose to live my youth. This isn’t the moment for pity. Not just yet…
The people I met at this college were unbelievable. There was so much energy, so much positive emotion toward the glory of God. I could actually feel my soul healing. I made more friends in a month than in my entire life. I honestly didn’t know what to do with them all.
It was while attending a college soccer game (a rare task for yours truly do to an absolute absence of school spirit) that I met them… a collection of girls that would lead to my downfall. One of my downfalls, at least. But that’s another story, for another time.
One was an overenthusiastic mocha colored girl, named Ebony. She is wonderful, and married to a strapping young gentleman from Alaska named Robert. They have a child now, and I wish them all the love and happiness in the world. This much is true.
Ebony introduced me to Christie, a warm smiled photogenic girl wearing a baggy t-shirt, who was crazy enthusiastic that a tall, grumpy looking man with a shaved head was such a huge fan of hugs. That was me. I was tall, scary looking with a recently Bic’ed head, and enjoyed hugs. Christie became a huge part of my life then, and even now is my eternal soul twin, or some other cheesy cliche. If there is anyone who can even remotely understand me, it’s her. She’s been married almost a year now, and I wish them all the love and happiness in the world.
Jen and Ted…
Christie introduced me to Jen, a short girl wearing jeans, a shirt with horses, and cowboy boots. She was dating another fine gentleman named Ted. He has and always will have a trimmed “pastor’s beard,” the mustache-short goatee combo. He too dressed like he rode a horse to school. For him, dressing nice meant wearing a bolo tie, which he did for his first sermon (he was a pastoral major) of which I attended. Jen is now married to a Rodney, and Ted, as of the last time we spoke, was close to engaged to a different Jen, and I wish them all the love and happiness in the world.
The fourth girl I met was roommates with a friend of mine. Though she was at the soccer game, she gave me the cold shoulder the whole time, and I didn’t actually meet her until the following weekend. Her name was Sarah. She had dark red hair, frizzy and curly, with very light freckles. She was the most beautiful girl to ever give me the time of day. It just took her a few days to do so.
Kevin was a tall and well built, and well chiseled, friend of mine. His story is this, he loves God, is on a foreign mission trip as I write this, but is one of the crudest individuals I know. I don’t remember how we met, but I remember we parted ways shortly after he joked about something inappropriate involving my mother. I’m sure whatever you can imagine he said is only almost as bad as what was spoken in actuality. He always made me laugh, but it won’t be a bad thing if we never speak again. Some friends are like that.
My friend Tyler was there as well. My Judas, although I am no Jesus, nor was his betrayal as significant. I confessed to him a sin of mine, and he told the exact people that I wanted this to be kept from. He did it knowing it would hurt me, because he was mad at me for my sin. He was envious as well, that it was my sin, and not his. He discovered something that could have died of old age, but decided to drown it in boiling water, making sure it’s end was quick and painful. It breaks my heart the things that he did, but that is another story for another time.
Jen had a proposition for me. Her parents had a house not an hour and a half away, and it was tradition to gather students and visit for the weekend. They always had something to do, like ride horses, BBQ, or play Xbox with her older brother. To do this, to go to a complete stranger’s house, was was very much out of my comfort bubble. I didn’t do such things.
So I went. I had a car, which helped a lot, because half the people wouldn’t have been able to go if I didn’t own a vehicle, and that includes myself. We planned on leaving right after lunch on Friday, because Fridays were half days for the entire college. This much is true. Plans change, and we ended up leaving a little later, putting us up there after dark. That is when I met HIM for the first time.
Jen’s father: Jim H. He was a slightly portly fellow, with a buzzed head, a peppered pastor’s beard (which was fitting because he was a pastor), and a kind smile. We shook hands, and I liked him instantly. Shortly after I met his wife, Vanessa. I became quite fond of her because she was young, her being slightly younger than forty whilst having children in college. In this way, she reminded me of my own mother, and in doing so became a sort of second mom.
We stayed the whole weekend, and did such things as riding horses with Bonnie and Clyde (friends of the family that owned a large enough property as to keep Jim and Vanessa’s horses), throwing burgers on the BBQ, and playing Fight Night Round Four with her older brother.
It was the perfect getaway. We had study sessions, homemade food, I slept out under the stars on a cot. I learned how to ride horses, and raced Sarah (whom was a semi-pro). Sarah and I eventually became more than friends. She was there with me that day, innocent to the evil that conspired around her.
The courthouse in Carrollton is pretty easy to find, if you ever decide to go. It sits right in the middle of the park, right in the middle of town. If you romanticize a small Midwestern town’s courthouse, you will imagine about what one would find in Carrollton. Much of the rafters, pillars, and railings were carved of not so recently polished wood, and almost everything in the building groaned when touched, walked upon, or sat upon. We sat and watched the proceedings in Southern Baptist pews.
Before I knew sat on the uncomfortable wooden bench, I knew next to nothing about the case, and I knew a lot less about the man. I sat down on the uncomfortable wooden bench (with Sarah, my then girlfriend in hand) thinking that I was sitting in defense of a man who was wrongfully accused by a spoiled brat; by an attention whore. He had been there for her in her time of need, then at the coaxing of her friends, she turned back at him with false accusations of inappropriate behavior. The situation escalated, and now he was in court.
The court sentence had almost no proceedings, so I learned very little. That day was his defense, and his sentencing. His defense consisted of character witnesses, and a time line of “I have been a pastor at X church for X amount of years and have befriended X amount of students (waving behind him at us) who have come out to show their support.” That we had. Some old evidence was brought up again. Evidence of certain 900 number phone calls, certain confessions he had written while under the duress of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also his plea of guilty.
The girl, the prosecutor, the victim: I can’t tell you her name even if I wanted to. I only remember it was something generic, like Kelly, or Jennifer, Stacy, or Susan. I’m legally obligated to remain quiet about any details regarding her identity. She was fourteen when she was raped by the man sitting a few pews down. She was not present that day, but was replaced by her lawyer (a very poor-spoken state appointed attorney), a social worker, and her entire extended family. I felt bad for them, and felt bad that they though all of us on this side of the courtroom were horrible people. Maybe they didn’t feel that way, though. Maybe they felt the same as I.
The truth started to unfold before our eyes. It was so obvious, at the time, but remember, we were there with a different understanding of the situation. Sarah and I asked Bonnie why the guilty plea, if he was being falsely accused.
“According to the law, when he hugged her, it is considered Sexual Misconduct, so he is pleading the lowest form of guilty that he can.” The web of lies was so thick I wonder now if she actually believed it. Of course I had no idea that she was having sex with Jim, or that Clyde knew about it, and would turn to the bottle instead of facing the situation. She was the first character witness, describing her own shady past, and explaining how false the accusations were, how riddled with inaccuracies the news stories were. Her witnessing, though done with good intentions, probably hindered more than helped. It was uneven, unstructured, and she ended up breaking down crying.
She second character witness, Amy, was shady at best. She was a 19 year old former student of the College, and, upon grievances with her parents, moved in with Jim and Vanessa. In her testimony, she bended the truth while remaining plausible, and kept a confident smile the entire time. Of course I didn’t know that she was having sex with him. Maybe at the time, I don’t know, but certainly within the few years that followed.
His sentence came down to prison time, or four years of no tolerance parole.
He achieved parole, most likely due to me. And the others around me, that were deceived into supporting a monster.
Back at the College I was speaking with Ted about the whole case. He was furious. His girlfriend, Jim’s daughter, had no idea about the things her father had done. She knew about as much as we knew. But her love for her father could never be broken. Even now, I’m worried that these words will jeopardize our friendship. It’s a part of her past I’m sure she wishes to forget.
“How do you think it went?” Ted asked me that night.
“Good. I’m glad he didn’t do jail time. Don’t you think?”
“Yes…” he answered hesitantly. The next part he chose he words carefully. “I believe he got what was best for him, because I don’t think jail will change him.”
It was at this point that my vision of him was a man that had made a few mistakes, being in a position in the community where he couldn’t make those kind of mistakes, and was deeply regretful of all his actions.
Ted continued, “Have you looked at the evidence against him?”
“I’ve only known him a month. Almost everything about this I learned tonight.”
“The confession he wrote while under supposed PTSD is disgusting. I’m very open minded, and I found it shocking.”
“I haven’t read it. In fact, I don’t know a whole lot about this case.”
“Did you read the newspaper article? The one that got him fired from the his last church?”
“It’s online. All you need to do is Google his name.”
I did. And I read.
My prayers went unanswered. Maybe a more spiritual man was needed to pray a louder prayer, to be heard amongst the others, wicked prayers prayed with pure hearts and good intentions. True Justice was not to be found that day.
Perhaps he has asked God for forgiveness. And perhaps God has given it to him. And if God can forgive, I guess so can I.
That is the end of the story, but I have some follow up notes. I Googled his name again, and came up with a few more recent articles. His mug shot was posted right under the large title Voice to Stop Baptist Predators. Apparently he was the poster child for a pedophile in the church. Jim’s no nonsense parole is a lot more flexible that the judge made it out to be. I could fill pages with how often he broke his parole almost immediately after sentencing. Once he attempted to but a house that was too close to an Elementary school. Another time his daughter in law and Amy went though his computer to double check he didn’t have any pornography, a task his parole officer was supposed to do on a regular basis. It was so full of porn that it took them all morning to erase it. They did not tell me everything they found, but told me he was without limits in sexual desires. It was like reading a book in the old testament about entire cities being burned to the ground. They had to purge the straight, the gay, the preteen, the elderly, and the little nude boys made to look like Harry Potter (the one example they chose to share with me). He was not to have unsupervised access to the internet, but of course he had direct access to the internet, and used it most hours of the day. He spent increasingly longer periods alone with Amy. Amy confessed to me the lies she told in in court that day, and it was then that I knew they were sleeping together (confirmed by another source later). Jim would miss lie detector tests, fail the ones he went to, not inform businesses or churches of his registered sex offender status, and move without mentioning it to his parole officer.
Like I said, pages. And he never changed. Nothing was more frustrating than slowly learning how sick he truly was, and watching him not change.
I remember a conversation I had with Sarah.
“You going to Jim and Vanessa’s this weekend.”
“No, I really can’t.”
“Do you care if I go?”
“Sarah, I don’t think you should spend any time alone with Jim right now.”
“Why not?” God I loved her; she was so innocent that the evils of the world had a slow time trying to get at her. I didn’t have the heart to break hers, so I lied, sort of.
“Because of his parole. It wouldn’t be the best situation for either of you if a bunch of girls came over to stay with him.”
“Oh, your right, I didn’t even think about that.”
It wasn’t until a month later, lying next to her on a couch, watching movie credits roll, that I told her the awful truths about Jim. She was in tears by the end. She felt betrayed, and foolish. Everything seemed so obvious once a different lens was taken to the courthouse, the lens that showed Jim guilty.
I have had many relationships end poorly, but none has made me more jaded to love or more closed off to affection than my relationship with Jim.
The sun had been up for two and a half hours, yet it was already insanely hot. North Carolina always had a history of humidity, but it was ridiculous in the Spring. I slammed a four ounce bottle of water like it was a shot of whiskey at a bar. I reached into my over sized cargo pocket, and did the same with three more. I was still thirsty, but I had no more water. I looked at my watch.
My companions and I had been working for five hours on what had been respectfully called “Baggage Detail.” It was our job to assist with the transportation of the baggage of a deploying unit. The job started at the unit’s company area, at 3:00 A.M., where all the families were gathered to say goodbye. We would make a sort of assembly line from the piles of baggage to the back of an LMTV, which is less silly than calling it a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle. The ruck sacks and duffel bags weighed on average 120 pounds.
We spent the rest of the morning unloading the baggage from the LMTVs onto a large flatbed baggage carrier. This was in the parking lot of the airstrip, an airstrip named the Green Ramp. Our duties were supposed to have ended there. We were tired, and we just wanted to enjoy our Saturday, like the rest of our peers. But all of us knew that because we were still waiting, and because of the characteristic laziness of many Air Force personnel, we would have to stay and load the baggage from the carriers onto the birds as well.
We didn’t finish until 1:00 in the afternoon, and even then, the bus’ battery died, leaving us stranded for another hour. But the story isn’t about the work we did. It’s not even about me at all.
This story is about a story; one that was told in the in-between times.
It was too hot to just sit on the bus, so we stood in it’s shade, swapping stories, smoking cigarettes, and sipping on Full Throttles.
The gear of a soldier is never “as is,” per se. Let me explain, when you are given an E-tool (a small shovel that folds into itself), you don’t just put it in it’s pouch, you must tie a lanyard to it, to the pouch, and to the ruck sack. You are taught to do this with everything: magazine pouches, optical scopes, night vision, water canteens. The reason behind this is that while moving through the woods, or jumping out of planes, items can become detached, and lost. Equipment becomes snagged on other equipment.
While on deployment, there was a boy who was attempting to get into the back of a truck. Out of laziness, forgetfulness, or stupidity, he had forgotten to tape down the pull pin on his grenade. It snagged on a piece of the truck, and was pulled out.
Now the anatomy of a grenade is this. There is an explosive chemical called a filler inside in a steel ball called a body, with the primer attached to a four second fuse. The fuse only ignites if the little Butterfly clip is released. The Butterfly clip is only released if the pin is pulled, and the clip is released. Though pulling the pin does not ensure detonation, the trigger device for the fuse is extremely sensitive. While holding the clip in place, something as subtle as shifting your fingers, called “Milking”, could ignite the fuse, if the safety pin is pulled. At grenade ranges, if the range instructor sees you milking your grenade, he will repeated bash your hand onto the edge of the concrete bunker, until you drop the grenade on the other side of the wall. Then he will shove you into the dirt and wait for the fireworks.
The point is this. If you are vice gripping a grenade, and you pull the pin, it’s not the end of the world. You reinsert the pin, or you throw the grenade. If it is on your person, in your loose grenade pouch, designed for easy removal in combat situations, detonation is almost guaranteed. You then have four second to take a breath, and say a prayer.
The end of your world.
The squad leader, who was helping his soldiers into the back of the transport vehicle, saw what happened, and without hesitation, put a boot the chest of the soldier, and kicked him out the back. He screamed for everyone to take cover, which they attempted as best they could in the small space. There was a boom, a red mist, and then nothing. The soldier was dead.
So it goes.
Everyone nodded, and the stories continued. They had heard or seen worse. Even I had heard or seen worse. Yet out of all the stories I’ve ever heard, this one is forever etched in my mind.
I made the comment to my friends that it must have been a hard decision to make. They were all quick to retort that it was the only decision to make. I tried to explain that the types of decisions weren’t mutually exclusive. It was in vain. They had already moved on to different stories, with more tragedy, and more lives lost.
I hated my tendency for empathy, especially in the Army. I could feel the boot in my own chest. The few seconds of my life where I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to die. The idea of such helplessness is overwhelming. I am in such control over every aspect of my life that such a thought ties my stomach in knots. My heart will refuse to beat, just once, to remind me that I’m still alive. That I no longer have to worry about such things.
I was talking with a close friend of mine, Adam, about the event. He agreed that it was a hard decision, and he agrees that it was the only decision, but he said as a leader he would have felt a tremendous amount of guilt. Only there was nothing to with that guilt. He couldn’t be mad at himself for saving so many lives, he could only be mad at the victim. A victim of his own stupidity. Carelessness.
In his words, “I would be, like, f*** you for making me feel like s*** for killing you.” The thought may be strange, but there’s not much more you can do, so I said I suppose so.