Barn Door to Hell - Chapter 3
“Regis, it’s Daisy. Over.”
Regis picked up the radio. “Go ahead.”
“We have a problem.”
His mind raced with possibilities. None of them were good. The road stretched in front of him like a black snake. The trees lined its sides like gray sentries, ushering his car across the winding blackness to an unknown fate. The coffee surged through him, making his blood vibrate like a war song.
“Lay it on me,” he said through gritted teeth.
“DJ and Carver are at where Cane and Patrick found the car, but well, Deputies Cane and Patrick aren’t there.” Regis took a stabilizing breath. Daisy continued, “Their car’s gone, and I can’t reach them on the radio.”
“For fuck’s sake,” he said before pressing the talk button again. “Okay, have DJ and Carver head back out on patrol, and put out a BOLO on Cane and Patrick.”
“Clear,” she said.
Regis didn’t like this one bit. Judith Cane and Roy Patrick were good cops. They weren’t the types of people to fuck off on the job, especially not at a potential crime scene. Judith could sometimes be a little rowdy after a few lagers, but on the clock, she was always reliable and hardworking. And Roy, sometimes Regis thought Roy didn’t have a fun bone in his body despite having several children. The guy was all business. No, for them to leave their posts, something had to be wrong. At least with the BOLO, he could have every unit in the county keeping an eye out for them.
As he pulled onto the gravel drive at the edge of Alvin West’s property, Regis felt the sort of numbness that only came when he was trying not to think about something. He tried not to think about coming here all those summers ago with Sharon. He tried not to think about all those times spent holding her hand while their feet dangled off the hayloft. He tried not to think about running through the surrounding woods in the rain the day she kissed him for the first time, his back pressed to the back of the barn, both of them soaked and laughing. Instead, he aimed to focus on the task at hand. It was easier said than done, but Carson had said something terrible happened here tonight and he was here to investigate.
And now with two officers unaccounted for, the last thing he could afford to do was let his mind wander to more innocent times.
After weaving through a maze of thick trees and grassy fields, he pulled to a stop behind a blue Ford Edge with Jersey plates. The cruiser carrying Phillip and Avery rolled to a stop beside him. Regis got out and the other deputies followed. He and Phillip left their vehicles running, the headlights splashing illumination over the blue SUV and the red barn that seemed to tower over it like a large predator. Its door was ajar, and the full moon hung overhead like a spectral spotlight.
“That’s new,” Phillip said pointing to the SUV.
“What do you mean?” Avery asked.
“I was one of the responding officers the day Alvin West was found dead,” Phillip said. “Pretty little thing at the station said she and Ashley had been driving a Camry, not a Ford Edge. If the Edge wasn’t here when I was here last, that means someone else has been here tonight, or somewhat recently.”
“And might even still be here,” Avery said.
“Now you’re getting it.”
“Stay alert, gents,” Regis said in a level tone. He rounded the SUV, shining his flashlight on its exterior and in the windows. Back at the rear, he pointed the light beam at the license plate and radioed the digits back to Daisy. “Let me know what you find.”
“What’s all that crap?” Avery asked.
“They’re lights,” Phillip said. “For cameras.”
One of the rigs lay on its side in front of the barn door. Regis remembered that Carson said she and Ashley had come out here to film. He took a few steps toward the barn.
The radio crackled and Daisy said, “Hey, Regis.”
He stopped moving. The air was cold but lively. It made him wish he’d just gone home tonight.
But that’s not your style, his mother said in his head. Wasn’t your father’s either. If that young lady had staggered out in front of his cruiser with a story like that, he’d have stayed out all night trying to figure things out too. But he was the sheriff. What’s your excuse?
He didn’t have an answer for that. “Go ahead,” he said into the radio.
“It’s a rental,” she said.
“The tag you had me look up. It’s registered to a car rental service.”
“Can you find out who it’s rented to?”
“Not at this hour.”
“Shit,” he said into the radio.
“You’re telling me.”
“Hey, come look at this,” Phillip said.
“Keep me posted on Cane and Patrick,” Regis said into the radio. Then, to Phillip, “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Looks like some devil shit,” Avery said.
He was standing behind Phillip, shining his light on the barn door’s edge. His eyes held something like the expression a kid might have as he asked one of his parents to check the closet for monsters. Regis didn’t think he himself had ever been so bewildered by something he encountered while in uniform, even as a rookie.
Regis looked to where Phillip was pointing his flashlight. Someone had carved a strange symbol on the door, only… Regis shined his own light at the adjacent edge of the wall. The other half of the symbol had been carved there too.
“It’s like opening the door breaks the seal,” Avery said.
“Is that your professional opinion, rookie?” Phillip asked.
Regis knelt down to examine the symbol more closely. “Assuming it is a seal, I’d say the rookie isn’t too far off. The question is—”
“What was it keeping inside?” Avery said. Regis and Phillip looked at him. He held up his hands and forced out a laugh. “I mean, hypothetically.”
Regis cast another look at the halved symbol. It was made mostly of severely drawn lines and several points. Between each point were etchings that easily could’ve been smaller renditions of the larger symbol, as if the artist had intended to give the illusion of an eternally repeating pattern.
“Yeah,” Regis exhaled. “Hypothetically.”
“You know what I don’t see?” Phillip said.
Regis stood and looked around. He even peeked into the crack between the door and the wall.
“Any bodies,” he said.
“Why would she lie?” Avery asked.
“I’m not saying she did,” Regis said.
“But that was one nutty story she told us,” Phillip finished.
Regis looked back and forth between his comrades. The night air, though nearly oppressive with the sounds of animal and insect life, felt largely undisturbed. Of course, Regis had been a cop long enough to know that nature seldom stopped in the face of a crime, even a multiple murder.
“So, what do we think happened out here?” he asked.
There was a pause as the men in uniform looked from each other to the barn. The unease between them was palpable. Regis was half-tempted to attribute it to the barn itself, but that was crazy talk. A structure couldn’t be evil. Even if such a thing was possible, this place held only good memories for Regis, so how could it be a bad place now?
“Cover me,” he said before he turned and opened the door the rest of the way.
“So, what do you think happened?” DJ asked.
“I don’t know what to think,” Carver said. “I just hope they’re okay.”
The two deputies were making their way back to the Bypass from Big Hill Road. Carver was a little spooked, but he wasn’t about to admit it. He liked Judith quite a bit. She always had something to say about a movie she watched or a book she was reading or what underground metal bands Carver should check out. It was always refreshing to chat with her because she almost never talked about police work unless she was actively doing police work. He wished he could turn that part of his brain off like that. He even watched cop shows when he got home. It drove his wife Bernadette up a wall.
“Isn’t that like taking your work home with you?” she always asked.
And it was, but also? It sort of wasn’t. Being a small-town deputy was worlds apart from Law and Order: SVU. Cases on that show and programs like it were a lot more frequent than the reality he faced day-to-day, and a lot more exciting. More than that, though, the appeal was that each crime on your typical procedural had a resolution at the end of the hour. Real life was a lot more open-ended. The way each episode resolved itself helped him unwind, but he admired Judith’s way too.
Roy, on the other hand, had the personality of a brick wall in mid-January, but Carver didn’t wish him any harm. As fellow deputies, they were all essentially family, especially in this somewhat quiet region of the county.
“You know what I think?” DJ said.
Carver held back a sigh. DJ was called such because he had a side business he ran on his off nights, providing entertainment for events like weddings and high school reunions. Working in party environments as an off-duty deputy made for some potential conflicts of interest, but he found that telling those throwing the party that he was with the Sheriff Department helped prevent these events from getting out of hand. However, this side hustle also helped inform his sometimes-colorful sense of humor.
“What?” Carver asked, steeling himself for something potentially offensive.
“I bet the Terminator’s programming malfunctioned and he put a bullet in his partner.”
“What the hell is wrong with you, man? Jesus.”
It made for a frightening visual: Roy somehow forcing Judith to her knees and executing her somewhere on the vast grounds of Henshaw State Park where she would never be found, except by buzzards and maggots.
DJ gently slapped Carver across the chest. “Relax. I doubt that’s what happened.”
“Well, now that you put that awful image in my head, that’s all I can think of.”
“So, think of something else.”
Carver glared as DJ turned off the Bypass and onto the narrow, poorly paved Cedar Hollow Road. Houses lay several yards from the pavement, opposite vast oceans of grass or dense walls of trees. As the car bumped along, Carver noted that some had lights on, but most were dark.
DJ grinned. “Well, when I want to think about something to put me in a good mood—”
“I’m not sure I want you to finish that sentence.”
“—I try to picture—”
“—your Mom’s saggy, veiny tits.”
“What. Is. Wrong with you?”
DJ slammed on the brakes, bringing the cruiser to an abrupt, screeching halt. His brow was creased, and his jaw was clenched.
Carver thought shit was about to get bad. Maybe he had offended DJ, and now they were about to fight about it. He couldn’t imagine what such a scenario would look like. Besides, he and DJ had gone back and forth like this before without any flaring tempers or flying fists. So why did DJ look so serious now? He was even trembling.
“Hey, man,” Carver said. “It’s nothing. I know you’re just having a little fun.”
DJ wordlessly pointed ahead. Carver looked.
Roy Patrick was standing in the center of the road. He was always so buttoned up, but now his uniform shirt was untucked and filthy with mud. He was missing a boot and his sock was saturated with a dark liquid. Something yellow and stringy was stuffed in his mouth. His eyes stared dead ahead; it was a lifeless stare, even for Roy.
“Yeah… I’m gonna call this in,” Carver said.
“You do that,” DJ said. But he was already getting out of the cruiser to check on their fellow deputy.
“Hey Daisy. It’s Carver.”
“Go for Daisy,” she said. She sounded tired.
“We… uh…” As DJ approached, a dark red liquid spewed down Roy’s chin. “We found Roy.”
“Carver?” Daisy said. “What’s wrong? You sound…off.”
Roy grabbed DJ by the throat.
Carver got out of the car and pointed his sidearm at Roy. No time to ask for assistance.
“Roy, let him go.”
Roy didn’t even acknowledge him as he squeezed and lifted DJ into the air. DJ thrashed around, trying to knock himself free from Roy’s grasp.
Carver hated pointing his gun at a fellow deputy. It made his hands shake, but he did his best to maintain his aim. Outside, he had a better look at Roy’s mouth. The substance stuffed between his lips looked like straw. The liquid oozing around it could only be blood.
“Let him go, Roy! Let him go or I’ll shoot!”
Roy pulled his nightstick with his free hand. DJ kicked, too panicked to reach for his own weapon.
Roy rammed the long end of the nightstick into DJ’s belly. The weapon poked through shirt and skin, coming out the lower back dripping with gore.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Carver screamed and he squeezed off several shots, not even sure what he was shooting at because that thing could not be Roy Patrick.
At least not anymore.
Regis stepped into the barn and hay crunched beneath his booted foot. Phillip and Avery followed. The inside of the barn looked largely undisturbed. Immediately visible were several hills of hay and some scattered old tools. The darkness of the hour made the place more shadowed, full of dark corners Regis could only see fully when he shined his flashlight.
“I don’t like how quiet it is,” Avery said.
“Let me guess,” Phillip said. “You’re gonna say it’s ‘too quiet.’”
“Well, now that you mention it, yeah! Yeah, I am.”
“You know, for not buying that girl’s story, you’re acting mighty spooked since we got here.”
“Keep it down, fellas,” Regis said. He shined his light under the loft, saw nothing amiss, and then remembered a piece of Carson’s story and pointed the light up to the rafters. “Hm.”
“What’s that mean?” Phillip asked. “Hm?”
“The rope,” Regis said, gesturing to shortened end tied to the rafters. “Looks like it’s been ripped off.”
“So, where’s the rest of it?”
“Beats me,” Regis said. “And it beats me what could’ve happened out here.”
“No victim, no crime,” Phillip muttered.
“I’m not ready to give up that easily. We may need to get forensics out here. And a team to search the grounds when we have daylight working in our favor.”
“We should check the loft,” Avery said in a shaky voice.
“Mighty brave of you to volunteer yourself, rookie,” Phillip said. “Go on ahead.”
“Actually, Phillip, why don’t you show him how it’s done,” Regis said. “Lead by example.”
“Last I checked, you backed out of the sheriff’s race, which means you aren’t the boss of me.”
Regis pressed his lips together so tightly that it burned. His opting not to run for sheriff was still a sore subject. Due to his father becoming a drunk after retiring from the position, Regis simply didn’t have the bandwidth to run a campaign, let alone hold that position if elected because family came first.
He turned and glared at Phillip, ready to give the veteran an earful.
“I can do it,” Avery said. “You’re right. There’s no reason to be spooked. That…” He paused, choosing his words wisely. “Carson’s story can’t be true. Maybe something happened and made her think it happened like she said, but that’s impossible. And the symbol on the door, that’s just graffiti. Nothing to be afraid of.”
He began to climb the ladder. Regis and Phillip watched, keeping their lights pointed up and occasionally casting mean looks each other’s way. The rungs creaked under Avery’s weight, but he breathed easy. Regis thought maybe he’d misjudged the kid. He was moving carefully and calmly, nothing to show that he expected to see a corpse up there. Maybe that was naiveté, but maybe not. They all knew they were at a potential crime scene.
As Avery continued to climb, Regis thought again about Carson’s story. Pieces of it like the rope and the lighting rigs checked out, but so far, none of the more outlandish aspects proved true. He didn’t expect they would, but he would like to see something tangible to show him some crime had been committed and she hadn’t wasted his and the other deputies’ time. She was so scared, and sure, it could’ve been a mental illness thing, but his gut told him that wasn’t the case.
His radio crackled and Daisy’s voice came through, too garbled to understand. The sudden burst of static jolted Avery and nearly made him lose his footing. He wobbled and wrapped his arms around the nearest rung. So much for the rookie staying levelheaded.
“Can you repeat that, Daisy? We got a bad connection.”
She tried again, but the signal came through scrambled. Regis looked at Phillip to see if he’d gotten any of that. Phillip wore a smug expression when he shook his head.
Up on the ladder, Avery was still clinging to one of the rungs.
“You need me to go up there instead?” Regis asked.
Avery shook his head a little too rapidly.
“Okay, well, I’m going to go outside and see if I can get a better connection. And Phillip? Don’t give him a hard time.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Sheriff.”
He said it in a way that was meant to get under Regis’ skin, but Regis didn’t take the bait. He headed for the door while Avery resumed climbing to the loft.
“Regis, are you there?” Daisy said and groaned when he didn’t immediately answer.
Upon first meeting the woman, Carson couldn’t imagine her getting this flustered. Sure, it could happen to anyone, but Daisy had a down-home sweetness about her that reminded Carson of a kindly old schoolteacher or librarian. Now, Daisy’s brow was pinched with a frustrated determination as the radio squawked static at her.
Carson was curled up on one of the chairs in the waiting area. It was the opposite of comfortable, even with her sweater bunched up and creating a barrier between her back and the chair’s arm. She just wanted to sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen until she got in her bed and maybe not even then. Being in this chair with her knees hugged to her chest reminded her of the time she and Ashley had driven down to Fort Lauderdale after graduating high school. They’d taken turns driving Ashley’s late-1990s Jeep, never stopping except to pee or eat. Ashley had slept like a baby in the passenger seat, but not Carson.
“Regis, we’ve got a problem. Over.”
Another hiss of static. A seething breath from Daisy.
Thinking of Ashley and their trip to Florida made Carson want to scream. That poor girl. Her poor parents. Her brothers. God, this was so fucked up.
“Daisy, are you there? It’s Regis.”
Daisy sighed with relief at the sound of the deputy’s voice. She looked like she might cry. Carson waited to see how Daisy would deliver the troubling information. Apparently, one of the missing deputies had been found by the ones she called DJ and Carver, but now, she couldn’t get in touch with them either. Carson had no idea what was going on, but she was sure it had something to do with what happened out at Alvin West’s barn. With what happened to Ashley.
Something banged on the window beside Carson’s head.
She yelped and nearly jumped completely out of her seat. Daisy glared past her at the offending knocker.
“Is that a friend of yours?” she asked.
Carson spun to see Jennie Silva standing outside, waving and grinning like this was all some fun night out on the town.
“Yeah, that’s my ride. Sorry.”
“Well, have her come in a minute.”
“Daisy?” Regis asked on the radio.
“Hold on a minute,” she said. She reached over to buzz Jennie in.
As Jennie approached, another figure met her at the door.
When the smoke cleared on Cedar Hollow Road, the thing that looked like Roy Patrick was still standing. More alarmingly, he still had DJ impaled on his nightstick. Tufts of hay now sprung from the gunshot wounds on his neck, arms, and pelvis like he was no more than a scarecrow wearing the uniform of a sheriff’s deputy, and something that looked like waxy skin melted around them. His eyes had taken on a bizarre, golden glow, like they were filled with iridescent honey.
Carver kept squeezing the trigger, but his ammo was long spent, causing his weapon to make only a maddeningly impotent series of clicks.
Roy screamed around the hay stuffed in his mouth and lifted the impaled DJ into the air. He brought the nightstick down again and again. Each strike against the buckled pavement broke DJ’s body further. Roy must have slammed DJ down seven times, and he did it with a level of strength that couldn’t be possible for a man, no matter how roided up or how high on PCP. When DJ fell a final time, bones were poking through the skin of his arms and the fabric of his pants. Blood and hunks of brain leaked from his shattered skull.
“Mother of balls!” Carver screamed.
He hurled his spent pistol at Roy. It struck its target in the chest and fell with a useless clatter.
Roy stepped on DJ’s back before grabbing the hilt of the nightstick and giving it a yank as Carver spun on his heel and ran for the cruiser. The nightstick came free from DJ’s torso with a sickening squelch. As Carver continued to sprint, he heard the blunt object whistle through the air, gaining on him. He dived forward, landing on his stomach and scraping his hands. The nightstick sailed over him and plunked onto the pavement several feet ahead.
Carver pressed himself to his hands and knees. Behind him, Roy was approaching at a pace both brisk and deliberate. He was nearly upon Carver by the time Carver was standing. Carver turned and swung his right fist. It was instinctual, so he did it nearly forgetting it would be ineffective. A right cross would do little to someone who’d stood up to several 9mm rounds and was able to lift another man seven times with minimal effort.
The blow connected, burying Carver’s fist into Roy’s straw stuffed mouth. His hand stuck there, and he couldn’t pull it out, even with his fiercest attempt.
The golden glow in Roy’s eyes brightened, and Carver could swear the fucker was smiling. The straw around Carver’s hand and wrist constricted. Its ends pierced into his skin, causing a searing pain to ignite in his extremity. The agony of it far eclipsed what he felt from the minor scrapes he’d gotten in the fall to the pavement.
He cried out and tried again to pull himself free. He writhed and kicked. Screamed for someone to call for help as the flesh of his hand began to sizzle. In horror, he watched as the skin melted off the bone like fat from a rotisserie chicken. Blood mixed with the pale liquefied substance and drizzled the ground between him and Roy.
Carver gave a final heave. With a series of wet cracks, he freed himself, leaving his melting hand in Roy’s mouth. He stumbled through the white-hot pain and regained his balance only to find himself staring at the bloody stump at the end of his right forearm.
He blubbered at the ghastly sight and staggered to the vehicle while Roy stood and watched, drooling out the excess syrup from Carver’s ruined limb. Carver slid into the driver’s seat and slammed his foot on the gas pedal. Blinded by sheer panic and pain, he let the cruiser barrel forward, unconcerned with where it ended up, so long as it was far away from DJ’s broken body and the evil thing wearing Roy’s skin.
It had to be a zombie or some fucking demon shit. The Bible had both, and he believed the Bible, so either creature was totally probable. He just never expected to face one head on.
He prayed for his God to save him while flecks of goo from his mangled forearm spattered across the dashboard. The car bumped over pothole after pothole, rattling the interior and scraping the undercarriage. He thought he heard someone calling on the radio, but he was too busy screaming to fully make out what they were saying.
He sped toward a T-junction, the yellow and black sign getting closer and closer as he kept his foot pressed against the gas pedal but still not going fast enough to get away from the nightmare in his rearview.
He was going too fast to turn when he needed to. The cruiser crashed through the wooden fence separating the road from a heavily wooded and incredibly steep embankment. Carver bumped along, jostled by the downward momentum. Smaller trees and branches snapped when they met the vehicle’s grill, while larger limbs beat cracks across the windshield.
The descent ended when the fender met a boulder near the bottom of the embankment. The hood and front fender ripped down the middle, and the airbag burst into Carver’s face.
The smell of spilling fuel reoriented him in time for a spark to ignite. When the flames bubbled and charred his skin, he wondered if he’d already died and gone to Hell, but the notion only lasted for the few seconds before he died for real.
Phillip Lee watched Regis disappear into the darkness outside the barn door for a spell before turning his attention to Avery. His trainee had just reached the top of the hay loft and turned around to give Phillip a double thumbs-up and a dorky grin. How this goofy idiot ever managed to make it through Academy was beyond Phillip’s region of understanding. Back when he signed up, men were men. They knew when it was time to take things seriously and when it was time to fuck off.
He also didn’t understand where Blazing Saddles Jr. out there got off telling him what to do. Phillip had almost three decades of seniority on Regis Jones. He’d even watched Abram Jones come and go as sheriff of Tucker County, and he had it on good authority that the former Sheriff Blazing Saddles was now no more than the town drunk. Fucking shameful.
Of course, Phillip wouldn’t mind taking orders from Regis if the kid had been elected Sheriff. He was glad Regis hadn’t been, though. Sheriff O’Malley was much better suited to the position. Goddamn did it suck he was on vacation this week.
Avery walked further onto the loft, disappearing from sight. The planks groaned with every step the young deputy took.
“Let me know what you find up there, okay?” Phillip said.
“You got it.”
“And don’t touch anything.”
Maybe I should be up there instead, Phillip thought. After all, it was like his old man used to say about wanting something done right. But Phillip didn’t need to be climbing any creaky old ladders at his age. Some thought he shouldn’t be working at all, including his daughters. The ones that still spoke to him made it very clear that they thought it was time for him to retire, but they just didn’t understand. Work, namely police work, was all he knew how to do. And there was no way in hell he was about to take up gardening or puzzles. Retirement meant death. Or, at the very least, it meant a life like the one Abram Jones now lived. Counting on his kid to pick up groceries. Only leaving the house to get blitzed.
A sharp sound, like something slicing through the air, made Phillip perk up. He took two steps back to try getting a better look at what was happening up on the loft. Even shining his light into the shadows, the loft was too recessed for him to see shit.
“Hey, Rookie?” he said. “What’s going on up there?”
No answer. He could still hear Avery’s footsteps, but they sounded different now. Slower and sloppier.
Avery Joel stepped from the shadows, shuffling toward the precarious edge of the loft. He had a drunken man’s gait, and…
“Oh. My. God.”
The young deputy’s mouth was spread wide open. Lodged between his lips was the rusty blade of a scythe. Its point protruded from the back of his head, and blood drizzled from the hole. He made a wet gagging sound, like someone choking on a handful of wet noodles. The handle of the scythe pointed to the rafters, a wooden pole standing tall to claim Avery as its victim.
Behind Phillip, the barn door latched shut.
“Oh, shit! Shit!”
Phillip ran for the door and tried to open it. The latch wouldn’t give. He cast a terrified glance over his shoulder as Avery plummeted from the loft with the scythe still crammed into his mouth. It was a strangely peaceful fall, soundless and without wasted motion. When Avery hit the barn floor with a heavy thud, Phillip tried the door again. This time he rammed his shoulder into it as he fiddled with the latch.
The door still wouldn’t open, so he did what every self-respecting American male did when frightened and threatened: he pulled his 9mm and aimed it at the loft.
“You got about three seconds to identify yourself, asshole. It’ll be a fast count too. We don’t take kindly to cop killers around here, motherfucker.”
There was no response. If he hadn’t just watched Avery die, Phillip wouldn’t have thought anyone was up there. When the hay around Avery’s twitching, bleeding body began to ripple, he didn’t know what to think.
“Can you hear me now?” Regis asked on the radio.
He released the talk button and waited for a response. When none came, he sighed and took a few more steps away from the barn. Even though he could still feel the buzz of caffeine in his veins, his body wanted nothing more than to lie down. Every step felt heavy, and he could feel a headache coming on. He’d had just about enough of tonight. While he was glad to do his best to protect and serve his community, he found himself wishing he’d never run into Carson on his way home. Add to that the fact that he couldn’t get ahold of Daisy or anyone else, and this night was shaping up to be a huge pain in the ass. He should’ve just gone home and let someone else deal with it.
But you’re here now. It’s yours to deal with.
“Thanks, Mom,” he murmured. “I’m well-aware.”
He held down the button to try hailing Daisy again, but the sound of Phillip screaming from inside the barn cut him off.
“Regis, get me out of here!” Phillip hollered. “There’s … something in the hay.”
Regis had a passing notion that Phillip might be fucking with him. On any other night, he wouldn’t put it past the bastard, but now, there was something in the elder deputy’s voice that suggested this was anything but a prank. Phillip Lee sounded scared out of his wits.
“Regis, please!” He banged on the barn door.
Regis approached to find the door now shut. Perplexed because he hadn’t heard it close, he gave the handle a firm pull, but it wouldn’t open. The chain containing the padlock lay at his feet—recently fallen, judging by the lack of rust. The door could only be latched from inside.
“Is it locked on your side?” Regis asked.
He barely heard himself over Phillip ramming his shoulder against the opposite side.
“Oh, fucking fuck-weasels!” Phillip spat.
“Phil? What’s happening in there, buddy?”
“It’s alive,” he said. “The hay is alive.”
Regis didn’t know what to make of that. Sure, Carson’s story suggested something similar, but that just couldn’t be. He chewed his lip while he thought up a solution.
“Regis! I’m … so fucking sorry. I’ve been an asshole.” He was nearly blubbering now. He sounded like a child protesting bedtime.
Regis’s heart went out to the bastard, past transgressions aside. He pulled his firearm and took a step back to aim.
“Phillip. I need you to stop talking like that, and I need you to get away from the door if you can.”
“O-okay,” he sputtered.
“Let me know when you’re clear.”
“I’m … oh, Jesus! I’m clear. I’m clear!”
Regis fired several shots into the door, all around the latch area. When he finished shooting, there were five smoking holes in the door. At this range, they were considerable, and they leaked a liquid the color of garbage bags. Under the pounding reverberations from the reports, there was another sound, a furious peal that reminded him of a siren but strangely organic, like the scream of a dying whale pierced by harpoons.
“Phillip?” he said, though he had the bizarre notion that the cry was coming from the barn itself. The dark fluid continued to leak from the holes, in time with the pulsing of the red-painted planks that made him think his notion wasn’t so far-fetched after all. “Phillip!”
The door burst open, nearly smacking Regis in the face, but he stumbled backwards in the nick of time. Phillip stood front and center, as surprised by the opening of the door as Regis. His face was twisted and pale, unbelieving and utterly terrified by the events of the past few moments.
Behind him, Regis saw the cause for the other deputy’s fear. The hay did indeed appear to be alive. It had risen like an amorphous hill, undulating with massive gasps of husky breath and, beneath that, the glow of something yellow and bright. The tangled strands at its base held the broken form of Avery Joel. He wore a blood-ringed smile on his boyish features and his eyes held no life. Some of the strands had bundled together into thick, writhing tentacles.
Phillip barreled toward Regis like a twenty-year-old track star and not an older, overweight officer. But his urgent strides weren’t fast enough.
One of the straw tendrils lashed from the base of the hill and found its target. The strands of hay pierced through the seat of Phillip’s pants, ripping first through fabric and then through flesh. Phillip lifted off the ground as the limb tunneled between his glutes and into his bowels.
Regis continued to back away but couldn’t bring himself to turn and run. He tried to strategize a way to get Phillip down, to help somehow, even as the limb went deeper through Phillip’s insides.
Part of Regis simply didn’t believe his eyes. The stress of the job, coupled with caring for his alcoholic father, must have caught up with him, causing his mind to snap. Though he was aware enough to know this was no dream, he thought perhaps that he was no longer seeing things the way they were. His damaged psyche had distorted his senses, making him see monsters after hearing Carson’s bizarre story. It occurred to him that this creature stank. In addition to the decayed plant matter, rust, and feces he usually associated with an unkept barn, the creature also radiated something charred and rancid.
Phillip spat blood as he tried to scream. He held out his twitching arms and hung cruciform in midair. Places on his abdomen bulged as the offending intruder continued working its way through him.
Regis wanted to shoot, but he couldn’t make up his mind what to shoot at. He also didn’t believe his bullets would do anything to harm this entity. If his rounds shot into the barn door had done anything, they had only angered it.
In the churning madness in the barn, Avery’s corpse sank deeper into the hay, limbs breaking further and one eye popping from his head. Regis was nearly hypnotized as he watched it dangle from a blood-slicked optic nerve.
The loud crack of Phillip’s breastbone drew Regis’ attention back to the dying deputy. Something tumorous protruded from between Phillip’s pectorals, warping the bulletproof vest and stretching the fabric of his shirt until the buttons popped off. More blood waterfalled down his chin, not just coming from his mouth, but now his nose as well.
This was no hallucination. It was too fucking real, and despite the sleep deprivation and stress, Regis couldn’t be this far gone. He began to back up, giving up all hope that he could save Phillip.
Something whistled through the air, and he dropped to his butt. The landing was painful and sent a whoosh of air from his lungs. As he hit the ground, he saw some projectile sail overhead. Whatever it was struck the grill of the Ford Edge and stayed there. He shimmied backwards, struggling to his feet as the tendril snaked its way up Phillip’s gullet with a sickening sound like shredding sheets.
Phillip vomited out the straw limb. For a moment of indeterminate time, it jutted out like a grotesquely oversized tongue. Phillip’s eyes rolled to the whites, and his arms fell limp to his sides. The tongue split into smaller twists of hay that bent back like fingers to cage Phillip’s head.
The tendril retracted, taking Phillip with it.
Regis found his feet and bolted for his cruiser. He passed the Edge, spotting a pitchfork stuck in its grill. Even though he knew that very well could’ve been him it impaled, he took no moment for gratitude. He solely focused on evasion.
He reached his vehicle and quickly closed himself inside. He set his weapon on the passenger seat and grabbed for the radio as he reversed.
“Daisy, are you there? I’m in deep shit out here.”
He cut the wheel and accelerated up the gravel drive, back toward the road. In the rearview mirror, the glow inside the barn had turned fiery orange. The straw tentacles thrashed at the air outside the wide-open door.
The radio crackled, then Daisy said, “We’re in deep shit over here too!”
The lady in the deputy uniform smashed Jennie Silva’s pretty face into the glass door of the sheriff's office until it was no longer pretty. Jennie went limp and began to slide down the glass. Fractures now split the pane, and each crack sliced a new gill in Jennie’s cheek. By the time she reached her knees, Jennie had left a snail trail of blood that went nearly toward the bottom of the door.
The uniformed woman kicked the glass, splintering it the rest of the way. Shards plinked and clattered to the floor as she stepped through the new opening. Jennie fell forward, impaling her chest on the jagged edges of the pane. She reached out a bloody hand toward Carson and Daisy.
“Help,” she gurgled. “Please.”
Almost as an afterthought, the uniformed woman turned around and lifted her booted foot.
“Judith, don’t!” Daisy yelled.
The boot came down and Jennie’s head burst like an overripe cantaloupe, spilling its contents across the linoleum. Hunks of brain matter glistened in the crimson liquid like meat in an exotic stew. The boot came back up, dripping bloody hunks of fat and gore. A hairy flap of scalp clung to its treads.
Carson gagged and something acidic burned her esophagus. She put her hand to her mouth and swallowed her gorge. She didn’t have time to puke.
Judith faced them and took a step forward, scraping the filth from her boot. Carson could see now that bundles of hay were stuffed in Judith’s shirt at the cuffs and chest. Smaller strands of hay dangled from her cheeks and throat, wriggling like parasites sucking at her pores. Yellow fire filled her eyes, reminding Carson of two burning candles. She opened her bloody mouth and emitted a sound so high and screeching that Carson and Daisy both needed to cover their ears.
When she finished screaming, Judith grinned with muddy teeth. Her eyes had dimmed, but the faint light still flickered in the recesses of her pupils. She reached for the nightstick on her belt. Someone gripped Carson’s wrist.
Carson simultaneously tried to jerk free and face whoever held her. Even seeing it was Daisy brought no relief. Carson kept looking back at the smashed skull of Jennie and the uniformed woman who’d done the smashing.
“We need to go,” Daisy said in a harsh whisper.
It was then that Regis finally got through, telling Daisy he was in deep shit out by the barn. Daisy snatched the radio and pressed the talk button.
“We’re in deep shit over here too!”
With that, she tossed the radio down and forced Carson to follow her away from the front desk. Behind them, Regis radioed that he was on his way. Judith lurched after them with a deliberate, frightening confidence, as if she knew catching them was inevitable. She held the nightstick in a bloody fist at her side.
They ran toward the hall leading to the emergency exit, holding hands like a couple of scared kids navigating a funhouse on Halloween night. They were nearly across the lobby when something smacked Carson on the side of the head, dropping her to the floor and slipping her out of Daisy’s grip. The blow made her woozy and filled her mouth with a metallic taste. She blinked and through blurred vision saw Judith continue to approach, sans nightstick.
Carson struggled to sit up. Daisy was gone, running the opposite way. Leaving her.
“Where are you going?” she tried to yell but could only blubber.
Judith was only five feet from her now. The deputy’s hands now made claws instead of fists. Dirt and straw clung to the fingernails as if she’d recently dug a hole with her bare hands. The nail on her right ring finger had been mostly snapped off and now hung by a sliver. The yellow glow in her eyes brightened to liquid fire filling even the whites.
Carson staggered to her feet as Judith fell upon her. She tried to scream. The hand with the hangnail took her by the throat, silencing her cry to a meager wet croak.
Daisy was nowhere to be found. The old bitch had left her to die.
Judith lifted Carson and put her back to the wall. Carson tried to pry the fingers from her neck. She kicked and squirmed, but the seemingly possessed woman held fast. As Judith squeezed, Carson’s vision darkened and swam. Her fight began to drain from her limbs.
Dying. I’m dying.
She thought of her poor mother. Of all the things she still hoped to accomplish. Of experiences yet untapped.
But these were only flashes. Soon, terror and pain overtook all her cognitions. She felt the intense, blind panic known to animals in the talons or jaws of a predator. Even weakened, a second surge of resistance set her limbs into a thrashing frenzy.
Judith reared back her free hand, still making a claw as if she aimed to tear off Carson’s face, including the front of her skull.
“Nooooo,” Carson managed to squeal with the dregs of her breath.
Then, she was released. As she fell, she inhaled. A concussion followed her descent. She seemed to fall farther than she remembered the floor being, as if the ground had given way, spilling her into some black abyss.
The smell of a spent shotgun shell brought her back.
She lay in a crumpled mess against the wall. She looked one way and saw Judith lying on her side with half her face reduced to a red and black, smoldering hole. She looked the opposite way and saw Daisy pointing a smoking shotgun at the fallen Judith with hands that trembled.
“Ohmygodohmygod!” She scrambled to her feet and nearly collapsed.
“Take it easy,” Daisy said. And the older woman was beside her now, shotgun lowered, helping Carson to stand. “No one gets up from that.”
Carson looked again at Judith’s body to confirm this was true. She nodded through tears and doubled her efforts to stand. Laughter burst from her lips, and she threw her arms around Daisy’s neck in a show of hysterical gratitude.
“Okay, okay,” Daisy said, patting Carson on the back. “I’m gonna get on that radio and call for help. We can get backup from the other substations here and at the barn. EMS can come take … Judith … away.”
Carson let Daisy go and looked again at the fallen form at the entrance to the hallway. “Why did one of your deputies try to kill us?”
“I have a feeling that’s not Judith Cane anymore,” Daisy said as she ushered Carson back to the front desk.
“God, my head hurts,” Carson said, putting her fingers to where the nightstick grazed her. “I feel like I got hit by a fucking truck.”
“We’ll have EMS look at you too if you’d like.”
Carson rubbed the sensitive area. “How much is that gonna cost me?”
“They can send me the bill.”
Carson smiled at her, even though she was sure that wasn’t how medical billing worked. Daisy started to smile back, but then, her eyes went wide. The expression made Carson’s heart plummet. Even though every instinct told her not to, she looked behind her.
Judith had sat up. She looked their way with her now ruined face. It was still smoking, still bleeding, but she just grinned like this was all in fun. Strands of hay writhed within the gaping wound like emaciated maggots.
“Oh, God!” Carson shrieked.
Daisy pushed her aside and picked the shotgun back up. Judith stood as Daisy racked another shell. Daisy leveled the weapon at Judith’s chest. Before Daisy could fire, the deputy went low for a tackle. She attempted to readjust her aim, but Judith scooped the backs of both of Daisy’s legs, dropping her hard on her back. Judith snatched the shotgun from the fallen woman.
Without thinking, Carson snatched the nearby computer keyboard, yanking it out of its USB port and holding it like a Louisville Slugger. She charged and swung. Judith caught her by the elbow with one hand and hurled her across the room. Carson tumbled several feet, only stopping when she collided with the wall.
She tried to get up again, but this time, she was too banged up. Pain and exhaustion weighed her down. She tried to catch her breath and refocus her vision.
Judith jabbed the shotgun into Daisy’s chest like a stake into the heart of a vampire. The breastbone crunched from the impact. Blood fountained from around the entry point. Daisy’s arms flailed, but these were the final impulses of life, futile efforts to hold on as her lifeforce drained.
Judith stood and took a minute to examine her handiwork. She cocked her head to the side as if viewing the thrashing form from another angle would tell her Daisy’s death was inevitable. As she looked on, her own wound fused together with the help of the straw, transforming the ghastly hole into a twisted scar. Seemingly satisfied with her handiwork, she refocused on Carson.
Carson shimmied to her feet, using the wall for support. Judith resumed her deliberate pursuit; she was inevitability incarnate.
Carson ran again toward the hallway leading to the emergency exit, now alone and considerably more wounded. She entered the hall, Judith only a few paces behind. She thought she heard another set of footsteps too. This one slightly farther away and lighter, but unquestionably distinct. Help or another one of these monsters?
Carson didn’t bother to look back. Not until something heavy crashed into the wall behind her, followed by a low-pitched report. She spun to see Judith now pinned to that wall by a long, shiny bolt.
The Judith thing screamed, a far different cry than the one she bellowed after crushing Jennie’s head. This time, she sounded as if she was in pain.
Another bolt pierced her torso. Another thumping report.
Judith was utterly incapacitated. Shrieking now as if her skin was burning. Even the hay lodged in her flesh and uniform collectively squirmed like worms in a hot pan.
A woman wielding a massive gun stepped toward the impaled monstrosity. She lowered the gun to let it hang from a sling across her back. Then, she pulled a sort of machete from a sheath at her side. Its blade seemed to be made of the same shiny material of the bolts that kept Judith pinned.
The woman sliced, removing Judith’s head in a single, easy motion. The severed head plunked to the ground between Judith’s feet. Judith’s arms and legs were still twitching, albeit slower now, but the mystery woman wasn’t done. She flipped her grip on the machete and drove it longways down the stump of Judith’s neck. With the blade fully immersed, she depressed a protrusion at the end of its hilt and stepped away.
Carson next witnessed something inexplicable, even after a night full of inexplicable sights. The thing previously known as Judith Cane began to melt from the inside. It started first with dark red liquid drenching her pants from the seat and crotch to her thighs. The liquid spread past her knees and down her shins to the cuffs. It spilled over her boots, not just blood but blackened deflated organs and runny yellow fat. It puddled on the floor, surrounding and soaking into the severed head, which then also proceeded to melt. The skin on her arms dripped off her bones, spattering the floor with a series of oily hisses. The joints dissolved, collapsing the skeleton like a rotting tree in a strong wind. The bones melted last, falling apart like sandcastles, exposing dark rivers of marrow that swirled through the gory porridge until only the machete and saturated clothing remained intact.
Once sure there was no chance of the Judith creature reviving itself, Carson ran to the woman. She stopped short, not wanting to invade her heavily armed savior’s personal space.
“Thank you,” she whimpered. “Thank you.”
The woman faced Carson but didn’t speak. She had a scary vacancy in her dark eyes that made Carson want to resume her sprint to the emergency exit, but she was too tired, too hurt, to do anymore escaping.
The woman bent to pick up the machete, wiped its contents on her pants, and slid the blade back into its sheath. She faced Carson again, frowning, but still not speaking.
“Who are you?” Carson asked.
“Jesus Christ,” someone said from the ruined doorway.
Carson and the woman looked toward the newcomer. It was Regis, and he looked like he’d been through a similar stage of hell. Sweat covered his face in a slick sheen and his shirt was untucked. He had his gun out, ready to shoot anything that might be a threat. When he spotted Daisy’s fallen form, he holstered his weapon and ran to her side.
“Oh, God,” he said, half-sobbing. He checked her pulse at her neck and wrist, then grimaced. “Fuck. I’m so sorry.”
He looked up at Carson and the woman who’d saved her. His jaw fell open as if someone had surprised him with a slap on the face. Carson looked from him to her savior.
“Do you two know each other?” she dared to ask.
The woman still didn’t speak, but Regis breathed one word, a name. He said, “Sharon?”