Chapter 1: Scars

      Adrienne tore open the driver’s side door and leapt inside. Sweat shone like beads of silver on her mocha skin. The black curls of her hair, her jeans, and her thick camping shirt were wet with the blood of dear friends. She’d only recently crossed the threshold into adulthood and now she was in a flight for her life. Peter joined her on the passenger side. Pale, lanky, equally blood-spattered, he barely had breath to cry, “Go, go, go,” as Adrienne jammed the key into the ignition.

      The engine whirred pathetically, then died. “Come on, you piece of shit,” Adrienne hissed as she twisted the key again, but the car made no response.

      “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Peter wailed.

      Adrienne took a deep breath and turned to face her lover. “We’re gonna have to keep running,” she said. Peter moaned. His limbs were exhausted and he was nearly apoplectic with terror. Adrienne gripped his shaking hands tightly in her own, met his gaze, and forced a façade of calmness so as to embolden him. “Ready?” she asked. He swallowed, and nodded. “One...”

      Before she reached “two,” the passenger window burst and a thick hand tore Peter screaming out of his seat. His hands ripped away from Adrienne’s. She reached for his legs as they vanished kicking out the window. Adrienne threw open her door and sprang from the vehicle.

      The car sat just off a long dirt road, surrounded on either side by a dense Cypress forest. Thin shafts of moonlight knifed their way through slits in the cover of trees. Adrienne circled the car, giving it a wide berth. She scanned the darkness for any signs of life, passing in front of the vehicle, onto the passenger side, and toward the rear.

      She nearly screamed as she caught sight of a form on the other side of the trunk, then exhaled with relief as she recognized her boyfriend. “Jesus, Peter,” she began. But Peter’s eyes were vacant and blood dribbled from his mouth. Adrienne took a step back. "No, not him," she prayed, "please, God, not Peter."

      Like a gangly doll, Peter’s body was thrown aside, revealing a hulking figure. Its clothes were dark, mossy tatters. Its face was covered by a stone mask that mocked a human visage, blending it with that of an animal in the style of some forgotten pagan tradition. Behind the mask burned a pair of hideous eyes; the sclerae were red, the thick, wild veins a putrid green. In its right hand, the figure tightly gripped a unique weapon, a cross between a sickle and a sword. From the hilt, the blade ran straight for about two feet, then made a wide curve, like a question mark. Dark droplets fell from the razor’s edge.

      Adrienne had heard the legends, cringed at the stories as a child, then learned to laugh at them as she grew into adolescence. But there he was. Johnny the Reaper. The terror of Cypress Hills, Georgia. Unspeaking, unfeeling, unrelenting.

      The silent hulk took his first step to round the car, and Adrienne sprinted into the woods. Trees whisked past her. Her feet caught on stones and roots, but she kept her balance. The pursuit by grisly Death evoked in her an Olympian agility.

      The trees opened into a clearing and Adrienne skidded to a halt on the bank of a great black swamp. She threw a glance back over her shoulder and saw no one.

      A group of stunted trees clustered together on the edge of the water. Adrienne searched this area for a place to hide. She caught something out of the corner of her eye. A long, bulbous shape padded along the wet ground and lunged toward her. She drew her leg back with a yelp just as the jaws of a massive alligator snapped shut. Adrienne backed into the nest of trees as the hungry reptile slithered after her, its scaly tail swaggering. Looking up, Adrienne caught sight of a gnarled branch and leapt for it. Her fingers brushed the wet bark, and she landed again on her feet. The gator dove for her with unexpected speed. She jumped again, this time grabbing the branch, and with several grunts managed to climb into the safety of the tree.

      Adrienne had just settled between the branches when she heard heavy feet pounding the forest floor. Johnny stomped into the clearing. He scanned the swamp, head turning slowly on his neck like a rotating security camera, taking in the whole of his surroundings. Johnny crept to the edge of the embankment, passing directly under Adrienne. The girl held her breath, praying that he wouldn’t think to look up. To her horror, the alligator had pawed its way up against the side of her tree, its snout pointed straight up at her. She waved her hand fervently, as though either the gator could understand the gesture to go away or would have heeded it.

      Johnny noticed the gator and cocked his head. The reptile slid off the side of the tree onto its feet and snapped hungrily at the brawny mute. With a deft, almost casual swing of the arm, Johnny sliced the alligator’s head off. A hand flew to Adrienne’s mouth to stifle any potential noise as she watched dark liquid squirt from the wide stump of the animal’s neck. Adrienne clenched all her muscles, forcing her limbs to stop quaking.

      Below, Johnny turned away from the headless gator and started to move out from under Adrienne, back toward the forest. Sweat trickled down Adrienne’s temple.

      Then the brute spun back around and hacked into the tree with his blade. Adrienne couldn’t suppress the scream that erupted out of her.

      Johnny sliced again. Adrienne gripped the branches as the tree shivered and dipped toward the swamp, wood crackling. With a final mighty swing, Johnny severed the trunk. Like the fingers of a giant claw, the toppling branches pulled Adrienne down into the water, and everything was black.

      It was like plunging into ice. Adrienne thrashed within the grip of the branches, lost in frigid liquid space. She was going to drown, she thought. After another moment of fruitless struggle, Adrienne made herself stop. Slowly, she untangled herself from the branches and climbed under them, deliberately pinning herself down to keep from rising to the surface. She knew the demon on the embankment was waiting for her to reappear, the cold instrument of death gripped in his fist.

      Her lungs throbbed. Adrienne couldn’t hold her breath any longer. With what strength remained, she tore loose from the fallen tree and pulled herself along the bed of the swamp with great breast strokes, taking herself as far as she could before her head broke the water.

      Adrienne opened her mouth and purged her lungs as quietly as she could, then sucked in fresh air. She tried to look around, but the water stung her eyes and for a heart-stopping moment she was blind. Slowly, silently, she wiped her eyes and blinked them open. She was some thirty feet from where the tree had fallen. Johnny was splashing through the shallow water just beside it, searching the murk for his victim.

      The young woman crawled onto the bank. She froze as Johnny sharply turned his head, reacting to a noise. But he had turned away from Adrienne, and took a few steps toward the sound. As Adrienne rose slowly to her feet, she could distantly see the outline of another alligator as it slithered through the water, drawing Johnny’s attention. She backed toward the trees, intending to retreat back into the forest.

      Then Johnny began to turn away from the alligator. In a moment he’d be facing her--she’d be running for her life again, lost in the trees, not knowing where he might spring from. She was tired of running. A mad defiance welled up in her chest, and with a scream Adrienne charged the silent killer. He was surprised just long enough for her to throw herself against him, and the monster toppled backward onto the splintered tree trunk. There was a horrible splattering as it impaled Johnny, shards of crimson-slathered wood tearing from his stomach. The rest of the trunk became saturated with his blood, which seeped into the dark water.

      Adrienne breathed heavily, waiting to see if Johnny would move again. "No one," she insisted to herself, "could lose that much blood and still be alive."

      In answer to the thought, Johnny sprang back to life as if jolted by an electric current. He grabbed a branch from an adjacent tree and pulled himself off the jagged stump, bits of innards slopping to the ground as the hole that ran through his body became unplugged. Looking about her, Adrienne found a thick bough at her feet, and without thinking she seized it and began to wail on Johnny. The monster’s feet splashed backward into the swamp water. Adrienne was in a frenzy, screaming as she swung the branch repeatedly against the murderer’s head and shoulders.

      Johnny was up to his knees in water when with a swipe of his hand he knocked the bough from Adrienne’s grip. He raised his sickle, knees bent to lunge.

      Then he faltered as one leg was pulled out from under him. An alligator had sunk its myriad teeth into his thigh. As Adrienne watched, another gator leapt up from the water and tore into Johnny’s arm. The predators were swarming to the scent of the monster’s blood. Adrienne backed away as the reptiles overwhelmed him and he disappeared thrashing into the murk. The alligators tore off great clumps of flesh, flopping on top of one another in a dog pile that buried Johnny.

      Eventually, the alligators dispersed. Adrienne continued to stare as the water churned, rippled, and eventually settled.

      Still she stared at the black, glistening surface and waited.

      And waited.

      “When the police found me, I was still standing by the swamp, watching the water, waiting for him to come back out again. They dragged the swamp and said they found nothing. That the alligators must have swallowed up every last bit of him. Who am I to argue?”

      Marilyn watched from the first row of folding chairs as Adrienne concluded her story. Adrienne stood on a stage that had been erected in the hotel conference room, looking out over mostly empty chairs. The five years since her encounter weighed heavily on Adrienne’s face, especially under her eyes. Marilyn didn’t notice. She burst out in applause. “Very good, Adrienne. Very engaging. People are going to love it.”

      Adrienne fidgeted, not sure how to receive the ovation. Her fingers unconsciously caressed the long scars running up her wrists. Marilyn didn’t notice this either. She’d already turned her attention to another woman who paced at the back of the room, behind the rows of chairs. “Ashley, would you care to go next?”

      Ashley didn’t seem to hear her, her eyes on the floor as she strode back and forth. Thirty-eight years old going on sixty, Ashley was frighteningly skinny, almost emaciated, and her skin was ghostly pale. Strands of her brown hair sprang erratically from a haphazard ponytail. She had a Zippo in one hand which she absentmindedly snapped open and shut. “Ashley?” Marilyn repeated.

      Ashley jumped to attention. Her free hand flew instinctively to her mouth, which she covered whenever she spoke. “What?” she asked.

      “Your turn, dear.”

      Ashley’s eyes, which seemed to always be fully open in bewilderment, flitted between Marilyn and Adrienne, and she mumbled behind her hand. “Um, I’m not...I don’t really feel like, right now....” She stopped as from overhead, through the ceiling, there came a series of guttural cries which were hard to identify as those of agony or ecstasy. The three women stared for a moment at the ceiling. “Does anyone else hear that?” Ashley asked genuinely, as if used to hearing things that other people didn’t.

      With pursed lips and a tight smile, Marilyn rose from her chair. “Excuse me a moment,” she said, and scurried out of the room into the hotel’s quaint, wood planked lobby. She passed the hotel manager who was busily unfolding a cardboard display along one of the cinnamon brown walls. On it was a blowup of a book cover: The Final Women – by Marilyn Hansen it screamed. Beneath the title was a proud Marilyn in a white pant suit, arms crossed, golden hair molded to perfection; behind her were the silhouettes of several other women. The real Marilyn smiled at the manager, who stopped his work to give her a thumbs-up. He was portly, with a thick black beard, and wore a t-shirt with “CHICK POWER” emblazoned on the chest.

      Marilyn continued down the hallway to the stairs, legs powering ahead in a practiced, confident stride that barely betrayed any movement of the hips. At forty-two, Marilyn was like a flesh-colored Darth Vader; from her silicone lips to her gigantic fake tits, virtually nothing human remained of her. Her wing-like eyelashes slashed the air as she blinked. Her posture was so perfect that her upper body seemed like the rigid smokestack atop a train while her legs chugged mechanically beneath. Her spine wavered not an inch as she mounted the stairs and headed for the floor above.

      She followed the sound of violent passion and heavy metal to one of the doors on the second floor. This was Neve’s room. Neve, Marilyn reflected, had been difficult since she had arrived. At first, Marilyn had found the black-dyed hair, the nose and lip piercings, and the collage of non-family friendly tattoos to be off-putting. But she quickly convinced herself that they added character to the lineup. What was harder to deal with was Neve’s seemingly total indifference to the purpose of the gathering. She’d gone out drinking almost the second her luggage was set down, and returned with a female companion that she whisked off to her room, where the entire hotel could hear them inflict untold punishment on one another. Marilyn had wondered if this companion might become an issue, but by the next day she was gone, only to be replaced by a new one. Whether this was the same partner Neve now had inside the room or not, Marilyn did not know.

      Behind the door, between the grunts and the groans, and over the protests of the mattress springs, Marilyn could hear Neve’s husky voice mutter, “Come on. Hurt me.” This was followed by a slap, and then, “Harder.” Marilyn hesitated at the door as she heard what sounded like an exchange of blows from within, and then an angry command: “Come on, bitch! Hurt me!” Whatever action followed, it elicited a cry from Neve that sounded both pained and pleased.

      Marilyn knocked politely. “Neve?” she called, like a grandmother calling a child down for cookies. She knocked again. “Neve, dear. Are you coming down?”

      “Fuck off!” was the reply she got. That was alright. There was plenty of time. No rush, no rush. Marilyn pattered her way back down the stairs and into the conference room. She flashed a very expensively crafted smile at the other two women.

      “Why don’t we take a little break?” she suggested.

      Adrienne, who had remained awkwardly on the stage, now stepped down onto the floor. “When is Jamie getting here?” she asked Marilyn.

      Marilyn’s smile grew into a rictus. “Don’t you worry. I’m sure she’s on her way right now.”

      Jamie jerked awake in her bed, drenched in sweat. Her heart thumped audibly in her chest. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her nose, and released a long, slow breath through her mouth. This was her morning ritual. She peeled away the sweat-dampened blanket and swung her feet over the side of the bed.

      The room around her, like the rest of the house, was like a museum; stainless, orderly, and cold. Jamie stared at the white walls as her breathing normalized and her heart relaxed.

      There was a chime from the phone lying on the dresser. Jamie glanced at it. The name “Marilyn” flashed across the glowing screen. Jamie shut her eyes. She did not want to talk to Marilyn. The phone chimed again. She absolutely did not want to talk to Marilyn. The phone persisted. Under no condition was she going to talk to Marilyn. It sang a fourth time.

      Jamie snatched up the phone and tapped the screen, then brought it to her ear. “No, Marilyn.”

      “Jamie Castle. Is that any way to answer the phone?” Jamie could hear Marilyn’s cosmetically enhanced smile in her voice, and it grated on her.

      “I’m not having this conversation again.”

      “Come on,” Marilyn prodded, “you and Olivia can be here in a few hours. We’ll have dinner at the Gator Grill.”

      “I’m not setting foot in Cypress Knolls for the rest of my life.” Jamie slid off the bed and started toward the bathroom.

      “You’re going to disappoint a lot of people,” Marilyn protested. “You were the first, after all. There are a lot of people coming just to see you.”

      “Hire an actor,” Jamie told her as she stepped in front of the bathroom mirror. The woman on the other side of the glass was lean and fit, with a pointed, chiseled face. Nearing the end of her forties, Jamie was in remarkable shape. Only two factors betrayed her age. One was the greying of her once chestnut hair. The other was her expression; a specific furrowing of the brow and cutting gaze that spoke of a total exhaustion with the world.

      “But you have to bring Olivia!” continued Marilyn. “She’s a crowd favorite. The National Psychic’s Club is going to be here.”

      “The last thing Olivia needs is to be inundated by people who want to hear all about the worst night of her life.”

      “But that’s the point of us all getting together. To support each other.”

      “To support your book sales, you mean,” Jamie spat.

      “What a horrible thing to say to a friend,” whined Marilyn.

      Jamie’s minimal patience had waned. “You’re not my friend, Marilyn. You’re an egocentric narcissist with a massive inferiority complex suffering from Insufferable Bitch Syndrome.”

      “You made that last one up,” Marilyn responded, still with a smile in her voice.

      “Goodbye, Marilyn.” Jamie hung up and threw down the phone. Looking again into the mirror, she eyed the faded scar that ran down her right arm from shoulder to elbow. At the end of the same arm, Jamie’s hand was shaking. It did this whenever Jamie was agitated, which meant that it was shaking virtually all the time.

      A clatter from somewhere in the house had Jamie on sudden alert. She knew every sound that the house made, and anything unpredicted or unfamiliar was cause for alarm. Her muscles tensed, and she crept like a commando from her bathroom to her nightstand, where she retrieved a 9mm pistol from the top drawer. She held it low and steady as she slid down the hallway from her bedroom, probing for anything out of place. Disorder stood out readily to Jamie in her immaculate home; "like bodies," she couldn’t help but think whenever something was out of place. "Like lifeless bodies flopped on the floor..."

      There was a faint scraping noise from the kitchen. Jamie followed it, led by her firearm, ready to annihilate any intruder. The room appeared empty. Glancing down, Jamie saw a small overturned bowl on the floor just beyond the kitchen table, surround by kibble.

      Jamie rounded the table, and suddenly let the gun drop to her side. “Tabby!” she cried. Her ancient, ailing cat had collapsed near the bowl, apparently flipping it over in the process. The mangy creature was gray around the muzzle and in patches throughout her faded orange coat, and her eyes were clouded. Her paws batted feebly at the air, inadvertently knocking the bowl another inch away. Jamie scooped the cat into her arms. Tabby was barely able to utter a meow. “It’s okay,” Jamie whispered. “I’ve got you, girl.” Cat in arm, Jamie rushed for her car keys.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: The Long Shadow