4 Friends on a bike ride make a life changing discovery
|THE LUCKY ONES
Describing how your two best friends died was tough enough. Revealing how you’d abandoned the third…Sheriff Gail Simmons shook her head. How would she ever get the kid to explain that?
Around her, the search party broke up, leaping into their trucks and racing off along the thin trail leading to Overlook camp; the spot the kid claimed all the trouble occurred.
“Why don’t you hop in?” Simmons waved towards a blue Tahoe with ‘Sheriff’ stenciled in reflective letters along the side. “We can talk on the way.”
The kid, Ben Daily, was only twenty-four according to his ID. God, had she ever been that young? He looked up gravely, his stare drifting lazily to the Tahoe.
“Sure, why not?”
Why was she so eager to hear this kid’s story? As he slid in beside her, and she keyed the ignition, she knew. There was something about him that just didn’t click, a certain lethargy, an emotional vagueness which she couldn’t put her finger on and couldn’t be explained by shock or fatigue.
“I know this is tough, Ben, so just start at the beginning, and end at the end.”
The kid stared into the coffee grounds swirling at the bottom of his Styrofoam cup, his flat gray eyes lifting to gaze out the windshield.
“We’d just gotten coffee,” he said slowly. “and my friend, Allan, was blabbering about the same ridiculous crap he always did…”
“If civilization collapsed, and it was your last trip to the Brew House,” Allan was in the front seat. Caitlin and I were in the back, while Daren was driving. “What would you get? He asked.”
The morning was brimming with conversation as Daren piloted us off highway 9 and we crunched onto the gravel trails snaking through Thunderbird Falls State Park.
As I sipped at the tepid sweetness of my Caffe latte and pondered Allan’s question, Caitlin beat me to a reply.
“Iced green tea latte.” She held up her cup. “With a dash of honey.”
“Iced?” Allan’s lips twisted into a disgusted scowl. “Baby doll, iced doesn’t count.” He flipped his wrist dismissively. “Seriously, all that iced crap is just a perversion of real coffee.”
The broiling debate between iced and hot continued as we drove ever deeper into the park . Thankfully, Daren ended the conversation when he swung his Escalade onto a tucked away lot and threw it into park.
Allan’s suggestion that we train for the Thunderbird Falls Off Road Classic had been a great incentive to get the crew back together. We’d grown so close those last years of college that we all felt the pang of loss following graduation and the rush to find jobs and begin our lives.
“Are we sure we want the red trail?” Caitlin asked. “It seems awful far.”
After unloading our bikes, she’d peddled to a stop in front of the trailhead’s marquis. In faded script it announced:
THUNDERBIRD FALLS CROSSOVER
Red Trail: 45 Mi.
Blue Trail: 27 Mi.
Yellow Trail: 12 Mi.
“That’s right, Baby Doll,” Allan said. “The blood trail. He snugged on his helmet and grinned. ‘Cause if you ain’t bleedin’ by the time you’re done, ya ain’t doin’ it right.”
It was Caitlin’s first overnight ride, and her Giant mountain bike wasn’t equipped to haul gear. We’d made room in our panniers and bungied her sleeping bag to Daren’s handlebars, but she’d brought a ginormous fanny pack to haul what she could.
“Did you inherit that from a dead aunt?” Allan teased as Caitlin strapped on a pouch large enough to hold a puppy, “or did you pick it up on one of your Goodwill shopping sprees?”
Nudging up her sunglasses with a prominently displayed middle finger, she ignored Allan’s quip and peddled off down the trail, her bright yellow jersey soon lost between sprays of verdant branches and the towering trunks of trees.
“Allan,” I said with a chuckle, “you really are an evil queen.”
His freckled face was lit with a grin as he zipped after her. “Fhtt, fhtt,” he said in passing, raising a hand and catishly raking the air.
“I try an’ keep him in line.” Daren threw a leg over his seat and smiled, “but it’s a losin’ battle.”
For the next four hours, it was just like olden days, Darren set the pace with Allan close behind. Whenever Caitlin and I started to lag, Allan would reign in his mate while calling out encouragement to us sluggards pulling up the rear.
Huffing to the top of a rise, I came to a spot where the trees gave way to flat grassy meadows, their edges freckled with tall purple flowers and bright clumps of brown-eyed Susans. Hand in hand, Daren and Allan strolled across the clearing their bikes in a heap at the road’s edge.
Grit and dried sweat girded my brow like a sandpaper crown and my butt was so sore from the cinderblock I called a seat, that I waddled as I made my way over to join them.
The view spread out before us made it all worthwhile.
Spread below us like a vast green sea, the carpet of trees undulated across the rolling Oklahoma hills. Here and there, they broke like verdant waves upon outcrops of stone as they raised their rocky heads to bask in the sun’s glory.
“Wow, I can see why you guys come out here,” Caitlin said.
Daren slung an arm across her shoulder, as Allan did the same with me. Once again, we were the four musketeers. All the months of separation washed away in the sweat, and effort, and beauty of the day.
“Is this where we’re camping?” Caitlin asked.
Darren shook his head. “Nope, we’ve got another three miles yet.”
Despite myself, I groaned.
“Don’t worry,” Allan said with a chuckle. “It’s …all… down…hill….”
His eyes lifted from mine as they tracked something in the sky. When I turned to follow his gaze, I spotted the bright spark stitching its way across the sky. It sped out of the east in a line so firm and bright, I raised a hand and squinted against the brilliance. A low grumble like the sound of engines crackled the air as it streaked overhead and vanished above the trees. The last thing I saw was a great yellow flash followed by a crack of bone-deep thunder.
“That was sooo cool,” Caitlin said, shoving her phone in her pocket. “Can you believe it?” She crushed Darin into a hug then danced away. “An asteroid…wow! I can’t wait to post this vid online.” She froze and turned on us with her wide dark eyes. “Do you think it landed nearby? I’ve heard those things can be worth millions.”
With a final glance at the white trail etched across the heavens, Darren strolled back to his bike. “That thing landed miles from here.” He slid on his sunglasses and turned towards the trees. “Besides, even if it did land close, the woods are so thick, you’d never find it.”
Allan had been right about the campsite. It was almost all downhill. And it was perfect. Near the bottom of a tree-lined valley, we turned off the red trail and onto an unmarked section of road. A hundred yards further, it dead-ended onto a wide grassy clearing with a line of fat green cedars on one side and a sharp drop off to the gravelly Cimarron riverbed on the other.
As Allan and I set up camp beside an old firepit, the scorched stone circle soon set in order and the fire crackling, Daren and Caitlin set about preparing our meal. With my work done and the humid air laced with the aroma of seared onions, and broiling steak, I excused myself from the preparations and strolled into the woods.
“Where ya goin?” Darren asked.
“Nature calls,” I announced.
In a vibration of wings, a cardinal landed on the branch overhead. He was joined by a sparrow. Then curiously, a blue jay swirled up beside them and the odd trio snuggled like blackbirds on a wire.
It was then I noticed the shattered tree branch dangling above them. Its limb was thick as my thigh; the leaves green and lush though I could see they’d begun to wither.
That was just the beginning of the destruction.
Forty-feet up and extending to where dusk’s purple shadows merged with the forest mirk, the limbs and branches had been shredded.
I zipped up and strolled back to camp. “Hey guys,” I hiked a thumb over my shoulder. “You gotta see this.”
“Really, Dear,” Allan said with a grin. “I’m sure I’ve seen better.”
At Caitlin’s laugh, my lips tightened. “No, really. You guys gotta come.”
With our flashlights probing the deepening gloom, we stared at the destruction.
“It’s gotta be the asteroid,” Darren said.
“Could be a tornado,” Allan suggested. “It’s that time of year.”
Caitlin scrambled atop a fallen log and lifter her phone; her head tilted skyward as she videoed the scene.
“The path’s too thin to be a twister,” she said at last. “I agree with Darren. It’s gotta be the asteroid.”
I stepped to the dangling limb and gave it a tug.
“Be careful.” Was all Allan managed to get out before the whole branch came crashing down.
Lights bobbed in frantic agitation as we scattered, the thick bough smacking the earth only a foot from where I stood.
“That was stupid,” Caitlin said before punching me in the arm.
The spot where the branch had been sheared away was blackened as if exposed to some great heat. Only a strip of the tree’s thick bark had held it in place.
I reached down to touch it and jerked my hand away.
“It’s still hot.” I looked at my fingers where bits of ash clung to the skin.
Darren’s brows arched in surprise. “Impossible. It’s been what? An hour or two since the asteroid came through.”
“Maybe it’s radioactive,” Caitlin offered.
I reached out for her; the ash spread across my palm. “Argg, radioactive!”
She jumped away with a shriek.
“That’s not funny, Ben.”
My hand still tingled as I wiped away the ash, though it seemed finer than that, almost a powder.
“Welp,” Darren said, “there’s nothing to be done ‘til mornin’” Hands on hips, he studied the woods, then looked at each of us in turn. “If everyone’s game, maybe we’ll see if we can’t find this thing.”
“What if it is radioactive?” Caitlin asked.
“Not likely,” Darren said. “But you’re probably right about one thing. It may be worth some money.”
“Hey, Sheriff,” the radio crackled over the Tahoe’s speakers, interrupting Ben’s tale. “We found the camp. Their stuff’s here, but there’s no sign of the girl.”
Simmons pulled the mic from the dash and keyed up. “Go ahead and start searchin’,” she said. “We’re only ten minutes behind you.”
She re-seated the mic and smiled. “Go on, Ben. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
The kid stared at her for a long while then his chest heaved in a great gasp, his breath as dark and moldy as a basement.
“You ever think about breathing?” Ben asked.
Simmons’ lips tightened. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“That night, I kept waking up gasping,” his story continued. “It was as if I’d forgotten how to breathe.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t get to sleep. Every time I’d start to doze, my chest felt tight. Like that sensation when my asthma kicks in. The weird thing was, as soon as I took a breath, the sensation disappeared.
Then it was my stomach. Whether it was the ride, or dinner, or the Snickers smores we had for dessert, my stomach was doing backflips not long after we turned in. Around midnight, I found myself back in the woods spewing everything I’d eaten onto the leafy forest floor.
Wiping a wrist across my lips and feeling slightly better now that my stomach was empty, I steadied myself on a tree before gulping down the last of my bottle’s tepid water.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?”
A Darren contoured shadow emerged from the darkness, his eyes glinting in the fire’s dying glow.
“Something I ate,” I said. “What about you?”
He stepped up beside me and shrugged. “I’ve never been a good sleeper.” He tilted his head and studied the star-flecked heavens. “It nice this time of night. Quiet.”
For a long while, neither of us spoke; the breeze nothing more than a gentle whisper through the leaves. A coyote howled and Darren lifted a finger.
“Watch this,” he said.
As the animal’s mournful wail tapered into silence, he waved to his left. As if on cue, an owl hooted out its haunting melody. Darren spun and pointed behind us as a chorus of frogs filled the air with song. They trilled noisily, then as suddenly as if a curtain dropped, the show ended, and stillness settled in.
“That’s the fourth time they’ve done that,” he said.
He pinched at his lower lip in thought. “That.”
“You mean coyote’s howling, and owls hooting?” I shrugged. “So what?”
He shook his head. “No, I mean exactly like that. As if it was choreographed. First the coyote, then the owl, and finishing up with the frogs. Exactly the same.”
My head ached and my joints felt stiff as ice “I don’t feel so good,” I said. “I think I’ll turn in.”
“All right, pal.” He patted me on the back. “I’ll see ya in the mornin’.”
I awoke to Allan’s tight, high-pitched cries and the sun probing glare through the yellow nylon of my tent.
“Darren! Darren Bilks. Goddamnit, where are you?”
Caitlin poked her head inside my tent, her close-cropped hair jutting up like stiff black straw.
“Get up. We can’t find Darren.”
My head was full of cobwebs, my muscles stiff.
“What’s going on?” I stumbled into the moist heat of a foggy summer dawn.
“We can’t find Darren,” Allan said from the camp’s edge. “Have you seen him?”
So hard to think.
I pressed my head between my palms.
“Yeah, last night.” Dredging up the memory was like pulling a bucket from a well. “I wasn’t feeling so hot, so I came out for some air.”
I stepped to the wood’s edge and peered into the mist.
“We were right here,” I said. “Darren couldn’t sleep either.” I looked at Allan and shrugged.
“That was the last time I saw him.”
“Did he say anything?” Allan stepped closer; the woods silent as a tomb.
“No, just that he couldn’t sleep.”
I’ve never considered myself gay, never been attracted to men, yet an overwhelming hunger to hold him, to touch him drew me near.
“Don’t worry,” I said, taking his hand. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
With a startled jerk, he pulled away and wiped his hand on his thigh.
“I heard something,” Caitlin yelled from the trail. “I think it’s Darren.”
Our urgent shouts were soon answered by Daren’s muffled reply. He stumbled from the undergrowth, his face stitched with fine red scratches, his hairy chest and the scratched pinkness of one nipple revealed by a triangular tear in his orange tee.
“Thank God,” Allan’s voice cracked in a sob, “Where have you been?”
As he dove into Darren’s arms, their embrace had me wishing I could join them.
Allan wiped an arm across his eyes and stepped away. “Where the hell have you been?” He crossed his arms and scowled. “You know I was scared sick.”
“I got lost,” Darren said. His eyes brightened, and he pointed towards the woods. “But you gotta see this. It’s incredible.”
“See what?” Caitlin chimed.
“How’d you get lost?” Allan said, their questions mingling in the air.
“Hang on,” Darren laughed. “First things first.” His eyes met mine. “Can I get a drink? I’m parched.”
Darren drained one bottle and half of a second before explaining how he’d followed the destruction into the woods after I’d gone to bed.”
“I was on my way back when the flashlight died,” he said. “I’ve been wandering around ever since.”
“Did you find your stupid asteroid?” Allan sneered; arms still tight across his chest.
“Yeah, an’ you’re not gonna believe it.”
It took twenty-minutes scrambling over piles of deadfall and bulldozing through stands of Greenbriar as tough and thick as barbed wire before Darren announced our arrival.
Then there it was.
In the midst of an ancient toppled oak, the loamy aroma of fresh soil and crushed leaves filled the air. The ground had been tossed up like a great mole nosing for the surface, the crater’s depths cast in shadow until we stepped to its rim.
At the bottom of the ten-foot pit, a pitted black stone the size of a microwave lay sheered neatly in half. At the rock’s smooth center lay a softball sized dimple.
Darren slid down the rim and hovered over the stone.
“It’s hard to see in the daylight, “he said, “but I wanted you guys to see this.”
Hands on knees, I leaned over the rim as Daren reached out for something almost invisible above the indention in the stone. He tapped at the glassy surface; the crystalline ping was sharp and clear as a bell.
At Darren’s encouragement, we joined him in the crater where it was easier to make out the shattered orb embedded within. Only glassy edges protruded from the stone as if it too had been shattered when the rock split.
“Where’s the other half?” Caitlin asked.
“Who knows,” Darren said. He turned and looked back into the woods. “Probably broke off when the stone split.”
He leaned down, his nose only inches from the shattered glass.
“What do you think this is?”
“Could it be natural?” Allan asked. “Like those hollow rocks they sell at the fair.” He looked to Caitlin and me for support. “You know, the ones full of crystals.”
“Geodes?” I suggested.
“Yeah, geodes. Maybe this is a space geode.”
“I think it held something,” Caitlin said. “Like an egg.”
“Aliens?” Allan scoffed. “Doubtful.”
“I think this thing will come out?” Darren shuffled to the stone’s far side.
“Be careful,” Allan said as Darren tweezed the glass between his fingers and lifted it from its mold.
Half a crystalline orb, perfectly uniform except where part of it was missing, rested in Darren’s palm. It was virtually invisible except where it shimmered in prismatic luster from the sun’s probing rays.
“What do you suppose it is?” Caitlin asked. Phone poised, she moved around the crater, recording from every angle.
With one finger, Darren nudged the half-sphere over. As its glinting edge met his palm, it sliced through his flesh as if it weren’t even there. One moment, Darren’s hand was whole. The next, three of his fingers and half his palm dropped to the earth with a soft thud. The orb landed beside it and shattered with a piercing crack.
Even Darren’s wound seemed surprised by the sudden turn of events. Blue-gray sinews and gleaming white bone were exposed like the image of an anatomy drawing.
Then there was blood.
And cries of pain.
Darren stumbled back and dropped heavily onto his rump.
I grabbed his hand and applied pressure as Allan stripped of his shirt and pressed it to the wound.
“We’ve got to get him back,” Allan said.
Darren sat motionless, eyes wide, mouth agape.
“And for god’s sake, someone dial 911.”
I fumbled for my phone realizing I’d left it at camp.
As Allan and I helped Darren scramble from the pit, Caitlin tapped frantically at her phone’s keys.
“It’s this damn valley,” she said joining us at the rim. “I’ve got no signal.”
The trip back took appreciatively longer as we helped Darren stalk woodenly through the trees. He paused for long moments, his face pale from vomiting, his legs unsteady. When we finally arrived at camp, we set him down on a log and readied our bikes.
“What are we going to do with Darren’s fingers?” Caitlin asked. She unzipped her fanny pack and produced a bloodied rag. She unfolded it to reveal Darren’s fingers and half his palm. There was no tear to the flesh, no jagged cuts. A surgeon’s blade couldn’t have cleaved it any smoother.
“The ice,” Darren mumbled.
We stared at him in surprise.
“He’s in shock,” I said. “We don’t have ice.”
Darren rose unsteadily and gestured to his pack.
“The first-aid kits … I gave you … for Christmas,” he said. “They got chemical ice-packs in ‘em.”
“I’ve got mine.” Caitlin pulled a spongy white square from her pack.
With a little foraging, Allan produced two more from his and Darren’s packs. I could picture mine at the bottom of my closet still in its bright paper wrapping.
“If we pack his fingers in these,” Caitlin said. “They can sew ‘em on when we get back.” She wrapped the fingers in a bundle and handed them to Darren.
“I don’t think I can ride,” he said.
Caitlin swung a leg over her bike, her face set.
“I’m gonna go on ahead,” she said. “I’m sure I can get a cell signal once we’re out of this valley.”
A feeling pressed in on me like a vise.
I didn’t want her to leave.
“We should stick together,” I told her.
“We’ll be a lot better off with help,” she said.
When she looked to Allan, he nodded.
“Just hurry,” he said.
“Don’t go,” was all I got out before she shoved off and peddled down the trail.
She’d barely gone a dozen yards when a deer bolted from the tree line and sprang into the air. The animal’s attempt to hurdle over her met with sudden and noisy disaster. Caitlin gave a pained cry as they collide and both she and the deer went sprawling into the brush beside the trail.
Allan and I rushed to her side as the deer scrambled to its feet and fled from sight.
“What the hell?” Caitlin pushed to an elbow. “Was that a deer?”
Allan reached her first, my stiff joints forcing me to hobble.
“Yeah, it was,” Allan said as he stared after the beast. His gaze dropped to Caitlin as he offered her a hand. “Are you hurt?”
As she rose, she gave a sharp hiss of pain and leaned heavily on her left foot.
“Sit down,” Allan ordered. “Let me take a look.”
Though Caitlin’s knees were bloodied and scraped, it was her ankle which caused us concern. Already, it had begun to swell, a bright red spot forming just below the jutting protrusion of her ankle.
“You’re not going anywhere on that.” A grin, unbidden, plucked the corner of my lips.
“You think this is funny?” Caitlin spat.
“It’s the stress,” Allan said as he removed her shoe and elevated her leg. “Emotions get jumbled in high-stress situations.”
Though his explanation made sense, I couldn’t help the sense of joy that keeping her here evoked. It was almost as if I’d willed that deer to collide with her.
Caitlin’s cell buzzed in her pocket. When she checked the screen, she fell onto her back laughing
“What is it?” Allan asked.
She held out the screen so we could see the text history with her roommate:
We R headed out. C U Monday.
Where U guys going?
Riding the Red Trail @ Thunderbird … FUN!
Safe camping 😊
Kim! Call 911. Darren’s fingers cut off! Emergency!!!!
I called. They R on the way. R U Ok?
I took the phone and examined the texts.
“The best thing to do is stay right here.” I passed her the phone. “And be ready when they come.”
I looked to Allan whose face had gone suddenly pale. Without warning, he dashed into the woods and vomited. With my help, he lumbered back, face flushed, and beaded with sweat.
“You okay?” Caitlin asked.
He passed a hand across his brow. “Yeah, fine.” He nodded towards Caitlin. “Let’s get her back to camp.”
With an arm around slung across our shoulders, we made our way back and seated her beside Darren as he sat hunched at the edge of the cliff.
“Maybe we should try the other phones,” Allan suggested. “We could send our GPS coordinates so they can find us quicker.”
I told them my phone was dead. Darren had forgotten his in the SUV. Allan was unable to get any bars and threw it into his pack.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Caitlin got through. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.”
It was quiet.
No wind or bird song disturbed the silence though they flitted like dark angels in the branches overhead. The only sound was an occasional sharp crack, like a peanut shell breaking or the sound of someone chewing ice.
“Where’s that coming from?” Allan rose unsteadily to his feet. “Darren. Are you all right?”
The big man hadn’t moved. He sat with his back to us, hunched near the ravine. Another grinding crunch drew me to my feet as well. When we stepped over to check on him, the source of the sound became clear.
Darren turned; his lips smudged with blood as he considered us with bright guilty eyes.
“I’m sorry, Allan.” Tears cascaded his cheeks. “I wanted meat so badly.”
“In Darren’s grip was what remained of his own severed hand. He’d removed the ice wrap and gnawed away what little flesh there was on the fingers. The tiny bones at the end were gone.
“Darren, no!” Allan slapped away the grisly appendage and sent it cartwheeling through the air. It landed in the dust at Caitlin’s feet and she crabbed away with a shriek.
Allan clutched at his head, wavering on his feet.
“I don’t feel right.” He dropped to his knees. “I think… I’m going…to…” He slumped soundlessly onto his side.
“Help him,” Caitlin wailed.
I grabbed a water bottle and splashed it in Allan’s face. He sat up sputtering.
“I can feel it…the need to eat.” Allan raised an arm towards the trees. “Just like them.”
I followed his pointing finger to where three squirrels and a line of birds perched among the branches
“I know,” he said, almost a whisper. “I feel it.”
Allan stepped to Darren’s side and dragged him to his feet.
“I’m sorry, Allan,” Darren wept, “I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s not your fault.” Allan pressed up on his tip-toes and kissed Darren on the lips. “Don’t you worry, I won’t let it get us.”
He locked his arm with Darren’s and backed towards the cliff.
“Allan, no.” I held out my hand. “Just give it a little time,” I told him. “Everything will be fine.”
“What’s going on?” Caitlin cried. She scrambled to her feet and limped closer. “Allan. What are you doing?”
“It’s got Darren, Cat. I can’t let it have us both.” As he looked to me, his eyes narrowed. “You. Your part of it.”
With a handful of Darren’s shirt fisted in his hand, Allan leaned back pulling them both over the edge.
One second, they were there. Allan’s head tilted back; his eyes closed. Darren stared at us, the fire in his blue eyes smothered.
Then they were gone.
They landed in the river’s rocky shallows where the water was only inches deep. Allan lay still, his shattered body half on the gravel shore, his arms spread upon the water. A crimson cloud stained the shallows like an expanding halo.
Darren lay on his back; his lips formed into a startled ‘O’. He’d landed further out, but the added depth hadn’t saved him. One mangled leg jutted at an obscene angle, the other hidden beneath the water. As the current carried him downstream, his injured arm slapped weakly at the surface until the river turned and carried him from view.
I hadn’t even noticed Caitlin joining me the edge as she knelt beside me weeping.
“Such a waste.” I shook my head. “All they had to do was wait, and everything would have been fine.”
More animals gathered around the clearing. Rabbit and fox, bobcat and coyote. They sat masked in the shadows…waiting.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
She looked up with red-rimmed eyes. “Our best friends just committed suicide, Ben! How do hell do you think I’m feeling?”
“I mean, are you sick? Is your stomach bothering you?”
Her brows knit in confusion and she shook her head.
“That’s too bad, I was pulling for you.” I walked to my bike and swung into the seat. “But being a source of protean is important too.“
“What? Protean?” Her eyes narrowed “Where are you talking about, where are you going?”
Her eyes darted to the gathering animals then back to mine. “You said to wait.”
“No one’s coming, Caitlin. That’s not why we were waiting.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re looking for us on the red trail,” I said. “They won’t find us here.”
A pair of deer and some crows joined the gathering.
“I’m going to find people,” I told her and set off down the road.
Ben looked to Sheriff Simmons and smiled.
“It was only a little later that I spotted your flashing lights at the crossroads,” he said. “I was so happy; I gave each and every one of you a hug.” He met Simmons’ eye. “Starting with you, Sheriff.”
“I … remember,” Simmons said.
Arriving at camp, a deer and two raccoons scampered for cover as Simmons pulled into line behind two cruisers. When she slammed her door, a flight of birds clattered into the sky, crows, and jays, sparrows, and cardinals.
“Stay right here,” she told Ben.
Simmons spotted one of her deputy’s stumble from the woods and lean against a tree.
“Did you find the girl?” she asked.
The deputy glanced over, his face pale and beaded with sweat. “We’re not sure, Sherriff, there’s not much left.”
Simmons’ stomach churned as she leaned over and vomited.
“Don’t worry,” Ben said.
Her insides empty, Simmons straightened and looked to where Ben leaned against the Tahoe’s door.
As she watched, he took a bite from the grisly remains of a partially severed hand, his small white teeth sawing off a bite.
“You and me, Sheriff,” He waived the grisly morsel like a pointer, “we’re the lucky ones.”