On a brisk December night, Adam Cartwright made two unfortunate mistakes. The first was deciding to commit grand theft auto rather than get drunk quietly at home. His clumsy hand made him a piss-poor carjacker. Instead of shoving the coat hanger down the tight space between the window and the car door, he missed and scraped it down the door. A long white scratch trailed behind the wire’s end.
“Damn it!” he cursed.
“Man, can you hurry?” Michael asked behind him. His Texas accent drew the A’s long and the R’s strong.
Adam was a recent parolee looking to make some quick cash. His friend, Michael, had managed to stay on the right side of the law, though his emaciated form and scarred arms seemed to attribute that more to luck than to civic responsibility. He was just out for the thrill of doing, “something, anything in this podunk town” as he had told Adam just an hour before. Now Michael was actually starting to worry about getting caught and it was pissing Adam off.
The small sleepy town of Bethel, Mississippi sat just about an hour away from the Gulf. The only activity to be detected at this early hour was from a few 24-hour gas stations/liquor stores. Michael and Adam found themselves outside one such establishment in the nearly abandoned business district. The station’s sign cast an unnatural blue glow on the two men and the black Bronco. The vehicle looked somewhat worse for wear, but Adam knew the 1970’s wiring made carjacking easier than a newer model.
It was quiet on the street save for a brisk wind and a dog rooting in the trash. Adam maneuvered the hanger carefully in search of a certain catch. The .38 tucked into his jeans stood out in profile as the wind plastered his T-shirt against his back. Ever so quietly, he heard the click he had been waiting for.
“Ha-ha! It’s an art really,” he said as he turned around to Michael. To Adam’s surprise, he found a girl.
“Yeah, one you suck at,” she said.
The girl looked to be in her early twenties and was as alien a sight as he could have imagined. Her bright blue dress whipped about her. Blonde hair flew about a lightly freckled pale face. In her hand, she held a bright red apple which she rubbed on her dress. Stooping forward she pulled a large hunting knife from her boot. Michael’s unconscious body was inches away from her hand. She straightened and cut into her apple with the blade. The metal glinted. She smiled as she brought the knife with an apple slice up to her mouth.
Around the bite, she managed a garbled, “Hi! I’m Lucy.”
“Listen. Is this your car? I don’t want any trouble,” Adam said as his hand rose to the gun tucked in his pants.
Lucy chewed thoughtfully and then said, “Well, I suggest you apologize then.”
“Yeah, definitely, I’m sorry.”
Adam’s hand slowly pulled the gun out of its place. Unfortunately for Adam, this was his second mistake: bringing a gun to a fist fight.
“Not to her,” a voice said from behind him.
Adam turned on his toe but he didn’t have time to pull his gun around as a tall brunette’s boot came in contact with the side of his face. The woman stood peering down at Adam from atop the Bronco’s hood. Her curly hair whipped around a scowling face.
“To me, idiot,” she finished.
“OoO! That was ominous, Beau,” Lucy said and took another bite of her apple.
“Lu, it’s not if you point it out. Mood killer,” Beau said, shaking her head.
“You always,” Beau interrupted.
Lucy smiled around chipmunk cheeks packed with food.
Beau jumped down, gave Lucy a look, and kicked the gun from Adam’s grasp. She stooped over him. Adam’s head rolled from side to side in disorientation. She flipped her head to toss back the curls from her eyes. Adam thought dimly of how green her eyes were. Beau raised her arm and pointed at the Bronco’s door.
“You scratched my car!” she said, as she brought her fist down into a solid strike against his temple.
The world as Adam knew it faded to mainly that of shapes and lights that focused in and out with a searing pain. Occasionally, the women’s voices floated through.
“You really gave him the business.”
“I hit him left-handed. That’s like a pat on the back.”
“Remind me to never get a right-hand punch in the face from you. Oh wait! I have and it was a like a teeny, tiny baby boy cat pawing at a butterfly!”
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Did I mention that the baby boy cat in this scenario was also drunk and half asleep?”
“Lucy! Pay attention to what you’re doing. I want to make sure that they’re terrified.”
“Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem.”
And then Adam slipped into an uneasy sleep.
After some time, he slowly and painfully regained consciousness. Adam was hopelessly confused. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. Bit by bit, the world came into focus and he began to recognize the abandoned rubber band factory in Bethel’s business district. He was only a few blocks away from that 24-hour gas station. There was something he had to do outside of that gas station.
Suddenly, the memories came flooding back. The Bronco, Michael, the scratch, the girl, the apple. And he remembered all too well the boot to the face. Now, Adam began to seriously assess his situation.
A single light mounted high above his head shined brightly in his face and made a wide halo around him. The wind whistled through the vacant windows and, in the distance, he could make out a dog rooting through a trash pile. The rest of the plant was dim with moonlight streaming in from the high broken windows near the ceiling. He tried to bring a hand up to his throbbing head but something pinned both his arms to his side. He peered down to find his hands and waist bound with wire to a large metal column. His clothes felt damp and, as he examined himself, he realized he was covered in blood. The sight of the dark blood drying in some places to a crusty brown set him into a panic.
He let out a strangled, “Hey!”
“Adam?” Michael’s voice came out frenzied behind him, “I’m covered in blood, man! You hurt?”
“Michael? What the hell?”
“Can you help me? I’m tied up to this column thing.”
Adam had the sinking realization that both of them were tied to the same iron pillar.
Someone cleared their throat nearby. The pairs’ heads turned in unison to the sound. Lucy stood atop a steel walkway several feet above the men. In her hands, she held a rifle with a telescopic sight. She knelt down, balancing the rifle on her knee. She seemed to think of something quite funny as her lips pulled back into broad smile and her eyes scrunched up. She steadied her smile for a moment as she brought a finger to her mouth.
“Shh,” she sounded.
Adam and Michael looked back with terror.
“Listen ma’am,” Adam started, “I’m really sorry, but no harm done. Just let me go and I’ll never do it again.”
“Yeah,” Mike chimed in, “we’re sorry. Can you please let us go?”
She stood up and shook her head. Readjusting her rifle in a ready position, she brought her hand up again motioning for them to be quiet. She slowly walked backwards out of the reach of the light.
“You crazy bitch!” Adam yelled, “Let us go!”
“Oh, nice one, Adam! Piss off the psychopath with a gun whose car you decided to steal.”
Adam did not fail to notice the blame Michael directed at him.
“Who was bored and wanted to do something? You jackass!”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on getting murdered!”
“I’m sorry, Mike. I didn’t know that you couldn’t take a girl in a street fight!”
“What? You got jumped, too. Looks like-”
Adam started talking over Michael, “Shut up! Quiet. Shut it! Listen! Damn it!”
The factory seemed eerily silent as the pair quieted. Softly they heard the heavy breathing of some type of animal. The dog that had been rooting in the garbage had slowly approached the pair stopping just out of the mounted light’s reach.
From a distance, the dog had appeared to have been a small mutt, but now they realized that it was colossal. Its head was lowered to the ground tracking some scent as it walked into the light. On all fours, it stood at nearly five feet tall. The beast looked like an overgrown mix between a porcupine and dog. Though a comical mix to be sure, there was no humor to see the long quills on its back shoot up in razor sharp points as it shivered. The long, dirty claws clanked loudly against the concrete floor. It threw its head in the air, sniffing, its eyes bright and clouded with cataracts. Suddenly, the beast rushed the men tied to the pillar. In the gloom behind the charging animal, though unnoticed by the beast or screaming men, Beau rushed swiftly behind the animal pouring out what looked like a dark grey powder as she ran.
The animal ran stopping a foot away from the squealing men as though it had run straight into a brick wall. The sudden stop had pushed it off kilter. The quills on its back hit the ground with a sound like metal hitting concrete. For the breath of a moment, the dingy white underbelly of the creature was exposed. Quickly the beast regained balance, its nose to the ground. Faster than it had stood back up it was rearing back with its eyes wide in fear. A retching sound came from the back of its throat.
Adam and Michael looked down and for the first time noticed a ring of dark powder encircling them. The animal ran at full tilt back the way it came only to topple backwards as it had done before. Realizing the trap the animal began to panic. Its nose to the ground again, it kept a wide berth from the powder and circled frantically looking for an opening. As it passed behind the men, Beau stepped into the circle.
The beast released a rattle of a growl as it seemed to smell the woman for the first time. Its claws scraped the floor as it charged her.
Beau crouched low to the ground, making her nearly six foot frame less of a target. She pulled a silver contraption fastened to her back into her hands. The object looked like a mix between a bicycle tire pump and a sling-less slingshot. The beast skittered across the concrete towards her, its feet moving faster to make up for the lack of traction. Beau began to rapidly pump the machine in her hands, which resulted in a bright flash and a loud pop. A trail of smoke seeped from the silver mechanism.
Beau pursed her lips. She called out, “Lucy!”
“Try pulling the lever in a counter...” Lucy’s voice came from above, but there was no time.
The beast was nearly on top of her as she tossed the apparatus aside. Her hand delved deep into her pocket just as the animal reached her. Its graying muzzle clamped down onto her left arm, as she pulled her right hand out of her pocket and flicked her hand open. With a breath, black dust sprayed into the animal’s face. The beast skittered backward releasing Beau’s arm.
A shot rang out from the suspended walkway. The animal let out a yelp and ran. Lucy tracked the beast.
Beau held her bleeding arm to her chest.
“Beau?” Lucy shouted.
“It has to be alive!” Beau shouted. She pulled out a syringe from her belt with her uninjured arm. “I got it,” she said more to herself than to anyone else.
The beast trailed the boundaries of the circle back and forth desperately searching for a way out. Beau walked cautiously up to the animal. The crunch of her boots pricked the animal’s ears. It turned in her direction and bared its broken jagged teeth. Dark blood oozed from somewhere on its back where Lucy’s shot struck true. Suddenly the beast charged Beau, but with a deft movement she fell to her back and braced her knees to her chest as the animal pounced. With extreme effort she kicked the heavy beast backwards where it landed stunned on its back. Beau jumped on the beast where its vulnerable underbelly lacked any quills. Her syringe was quick as it struck home and plunged deep. And even faster the beast flung her off and staggered to its feet. It let out another rattle of a cry and took two unsteady steps before it knelt slowly to the ground.
Beau stood. Her white shirt was soaked from her and the animal’s blood. She limped to the sleeping animal. The breath came ragged from the beast and its quills shook with every effort. She carefully leaned forward and reached for the base of one of the long dangerous quills and pulled hard. She held up the six inch long quill to eye level and a trace of a smile flashed across her mouth.
In the lull of the moment, Lucy appeared out of the dark beside the two tied men.
“Hello,” she said.
The pair tied to the pillar began a unified high pitched shriek.
“Shut it,” Beau shouted.
“You alright?” Lucy asked as she picked up the malfunctioning apparatus.
Beau nodded and walked slowly over to the men. “So what have we learned about defacing other’s property?” She dragged her bloody knife across the thigh of Adam’s dark jeans.
“Ma’am, that was all him,” Mike cried out from behind the pillar.
“That’s it! You bitches are crazy as-” Adam stopped short as Beau brought her blade up to his navel and pressed the blade through his shirt. Adam cringed at the feel of metal against his bare skin.
Beau twisted the blade and dragged it through his T-shirt. She pulled back and yanked the bottom of the shirt so that a long piece of cloth came off in her hand.
“Please go on,” Beau said wincing as she wrapped the material tight around her bleeding forearm.
“Oh God! Don’t kill me! I promise I’ll never do it again!” Adam said.
“You know people really underestimate the importance of common courtesy,” Lucy said standing next to Beau. Her rifle and the apparatus softly clanked at her side.
“You call Millicent?” Beau asked.
Lucy nodded. “She is so not going to be happy we shot it.”
Beau winced as she adjusted her arm and walked towards the exit. “You say ‘we’ when it was most definitely you.”
“That hermit should be happy we didn’t kill it. Did you see what it did to me, Lu?”
“Aren’t you going to untie us?” Mike shouted.
“Bye!” Lucy called cheerfully.
6 months before Dreamland
Bel’s eyes glanced between the death at his feet and the empty road ahead. He scanned the highway in its twisting distance, not a car in two hours. He could wait though. He was excellent at waiting.
The night was cold and starless. The bare pine trees framed the dark forest beyond like massive prison bars for some dark and woeful land. Bel stood at the edge, a warden, unmoving as a statue. The wind whipped hair around his wind-roughened face marred by strange symbols. An odd kind of whining came from the small heap at his feet and Bel revived. With uncanny quickness, his remote gaze warmed and his eyes softened.
The beagle grunted. Her spotted coat was matted with dried blood. She tried futilely to drag her back legs, and another cry shot through the night, surprisingly human-like. Sometime, hours ago, a vehicle had broken her back between rubber and asphalt. Bel had been making his way along the highway, when he paused to scrape off a red scrap from his shoe and found her. Somehow Buddy, the name her collar indicated, had dragged her way to the shoulder.
Only a faint heartbeat came from the dog, her chest rose slowly in a labored breath. Bel stuck out his boot and she let out another yelp. He widened his eyes, stooped low, his hand extending. Buddy mewled painfully again, her eyes shot open revealing pupils so dilated that her eyes looked wholly black. Nearby, an owl, perched on a high limb, watched with glassy interest. Bel stepped back and let the dog calm down, her heart to slow, and her cries to fade away before he started again. Unfortunately, from either shock or blood loss, Buddy lost consciousness. A look of disappointment flit across Bel’s face and then was gone.
Bel crossed his arms and propped his mouth on his palm in concentration. Blood dripped from the dog’s opened mouth. It barely made a sound as it fell the short distance to frozen ground. Drip, drip. Just barely the dog’s side moved and Bel held his breath. His eyes dilated in the darkness as he carefully watched the fur. Buddy remained still. The trees creaked in a shuddering breeze which released a rain of small ice crystals. Still Bel did not move. He could no longer hear her heartbeat. All he could hear was the drip, drip of the dark and quickly thickening blood. Then, with as much marvel as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Buddy’s side distended in a deep breath. Bel smiled. It was always much harder to kill a thing then people realized.
He moved to the dog again, but headlights and a screech of tires drew his attention back to the road. In a thunderous crash of sound, a small white sedan veered from the road and collided solidly into an unmoving tree. The man peered down at Buddy and shrugged. He prayed, as well he could, that the dog had a while yet. Carefully, he stepped over Buddy as he made his way to the car.
Bel approached the car in delicate steps. Shards of glass, metal, and wood riddled the forest floor. The metal hood of the car had crumbled around a thick evergreen as though it was white aluminum foil. The engine’s metal ticked lightly as it cooled and a small whine came from somewhere deep down in the machinery. He peered into the cab only to find it empty. A large, jagged hole had been punched through the driver’s side windshield. Bel peered into the forest in front of the crashed car. In the close distance, he could make out a crumpled form. The headlights of the car clicked off and the body was left in shadow. Bel walked over to the person. He hooked his boot under its shoulder and turned it over.
In the dim light, Bel could make out a woman who looked to be in her late fifties. A small trickle of blood slid down the creases of her forehead and off the side of her face. Drip, drip. Her grey and brunette hair started to darken from the steady flow. The ankle of her right leg twisted back at an unnatural angle to her calf and her left shoulder stuck out oddly suggesting a possible dislocation. A moan escaped her lips. Bel bent down low as she slowly opened her eyes. A smile that spread as slow and unassuming as a blush came across Bel’s face as her eyes focused on him.