~Steven~

Steve really didn’t want to wake all the way up, because sometimes you know things aren’t going to be good when you open your eyes.
On the other hand, better to see the trouble coming than get hit by it. He shook his eyes into focus and looked around.
Didn’t make any sense. He shook his head again and squinted. The sky was the color of an old bruise; solid cloud-cover in dusty greys and purples hung overhead from one end of the sky to the other, but that wasn’t really the problem — in fifty years you can see some pretty odd weather, after all. The sky just make Sam think tornado warning.
No, the problem was that he was looking at the battered sky through the bars of a wooden cage. Worse, the cage was in the middle of some kind of camp. There was a fire burning a few feet away, cooking something that smelled like rotten corn silage, and there were about a dozen little buildings around him that looked like they were made out of sod.
The people walking around, even the two that were looking at him in the cage, were short little wiry bastards with dried mud caked all over their skin.
They didn’t look like right at all.

~The Road~

I’d been lying to myself when I said that nothing ever changed back at home; there were always fewer houses. Farming was a dying profession — a sucker’s game with all the odds against the players — every time I drove into familiar territory, the wide open plains seemed wider, flatter… having less and less to do with people.
The road was mostly straight at the moment, rolling over gradual hills in what could often be an infuriating exchange Passing and No Passing zones. It would start to wind soon. I knew this area, still able to recite the mileage between every major and minor landmark for a hundred miles in any given direction, even landmarks that didn’t exist anymore, such as the old country school house that had apparently been torn down since my last visit and whose absence nearly made me miss my turn onto Vayland Road.
After a few miles, the curves began.
The farmland my family owned was on the high side of the county, raised above the lower, eastern half by a ridge of hills that Vayland Road crept along the top of, curling around cuts that were somewhere between narrow valleys and broad ravines, filled with thickets and brush that by local wisdom wouldn’t even let a breeze through without a couple of good scratches. There were barbed-wire fences on both sides of the road, although in twenty years I don’t think I’d once seen any livestock on the other side of them.
I’d grown up riding in cars along this stretch of highway, then driving myself, then driving away. The blacktop led right past the farm’s driveway.
Mom was out on the front step before I got out of the car. No one else was there.

~ Churkk ~

Churkk scowled.
“I like night, Churkk. Don’ like day. Don’ like heat or light or pantin’ or th’ way groud puffs up dust atcha when ya run.”
Churkk’s scowl deepened. He liked the night as well, but it irritated him to agree with the creature skulking alongside him.
“Night is cool. Night is good. Wraps us up and lets us come out of the cracks and up to see things. What I think is the best is –”
“Jek.”
“Yeh?”
“Shut it.”
Jek did, looking suitably cowed. He still walked alongside, however, and Churkk swore even Jak’s feet slapped on the ground different than everyone else’s. Everything about Jek was annoying.
The light from a house poked through the trees at them and rather than turning to go around it, Churkk took them in closer without explaining. Slowly, they crept up to the corner of the building, then along a wall to the lit window.
Jek started to whisper a question, but stopped short when Churkk smacked him in the middle of his forehead without even looking back.
Inside, Churkk could see a people-room with things to sit on. The Woman sat on one, but didn’t see his long, mud-caked face at the window or the light glinting off his beady eyes, because she was crying — great, shaking sobs that shook her bent shoulders and moved her whole chair.
Churkk watched this for some time. Eventually, his companion forgotten, he smiled.

~ The Drive ~

I could hear the city around me as I headed for my car, but the sound was muted thing, something you could relax into while you did your business, not the raucous interuption it’s usually assumed to be by people who don’t know any better. For the last dozen years, it had become the sound that told me life was still going on around me. The sun was going down as I made it onto open highway out of town, the glow of it changing the black of the highway into the faded near-white yellow of an old cotton sundress. I spent an hour squinting into the indirect glare, another squinting through the dusk, and finally started to relax into the zen non-thought of night driving.
My mind wandered, carefully avoiding the tar-pit surrounding the reason for this drive. None of that made any sense, and it wasn’t going to make any more sense with eight hours of poking at a uselessly small pile of information. There were, at any rate, other things I could think about.
In one sense, I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I got home; it had been eighteen months since my last visit and a year had gone by before that. In another sense I knew exactly what to expect because nothing ever seemed to change in a place you’d lived for twenty years — not the things that you remembered as important at any rate.
The important things that I remembered didn’t involve words like “we can’t find your dad” and “everything’s so strange”. That was the thought that came back to check up on me after every few mile markers.

Vayland Rd.

[a recap of the first bit]
I remember a time when I was very young, riding in a car with green, leathery seats that got very hot when the sun shone on them in the summer. The car was green as well, although a different shade, and it seems to the me of my memories that most of the cars back then were that color. It was a popular trend I suppose, or maybe my child’s perception was skewed.
At any rate, there were several undisputed facts; the car was green, the seats were green, it was summer, the sun was hot, and the seats were hotter. We had the windows open to let the air in and my mother was driving us to town on an errand.
The road was a winding black hardtop that looked down into sharp ravines between the hills — drops that seemed (to me) to go down and down farther than anything in the whole world. I would look down and out from the tiny back windows of the two door and think about what it would be like to go sailing off the road and into the ravines, tumbling over and over and finally exploding at the bottom, like on TV. (We lived a long way from town and when it was only you and a younger sister for a playmate and no one else for five miles, you learned to entertain yourself.)
So, with the sun beating down and my boredom rising, if I saw a goblin shambling along the bottom of a ravine with an old and rusted sword across his back like the yoke of a wagon, I didn’t bother mentioning it to my mother. Even at that age, I assumed I’d imagined it.
I believed that for the next 28 years.

~ The Call ~
My cell phone rang, the screen showing Out of Area instead of a number. I answered with an abrupt “this is Sean”, which usually clears up wrong-numbers in a hurry.
“Hey bud, how’re you doing?” My mother was only person in the world that called me ‘bud’, among other things, a lukewarm leftover from my pre-teen years that she tended to drag out when she was feeling down.
“Hey, I’m good. What’s up? Something wrong?”
“Oh, you know…” Her voice wavered a little bit almost immediately and I knew it was going to be bad. “It’s been a little crazy here for the last couple of days.”
“What’s going on?” I didn’t try to keep the frown out of my voice; it wouldn’t make her feel any better if I did.
“Well, we can’t seem to track down your dad.”
I glanced around me to see if I was standing in the shadow of a building. “I lost you on that for a second. You can’t seem to track down Dad’s what?”
“No, we can’t find him.” I could hear her set something metal down on something solid. She was wandering around her kitchen, fiddling with things. “It’s been two days.”
My frown had deepened. “You… I don’t understand what you’re telling me. Is he traveling?”
“No, he’s been home for a couple weeks.”
“Did … what happened? Did you get in a fight or something?” It sounded surreal even while I was saying it.
No, of course not.” She, the happily-married, properly-raised, Midwestern wife, sounded vaguely insulted by the idea. “I went to bed a few nights ago and your dad stayed up watching TV. When I got up the next morning he wasn’t in the house. I thought he’d gotten up and gone out to get some work done before it got hot.” Before the sun came up, more likely, I thought. “But he wasn’t out in the machine shed.” Her voice started to crack around the edges. “I know it’s a long ways, but can you come home? Everything’s just so strange.”
I couldn’t seem to hear her clearly; my ears were ringing and everything around me seemed have had the color washed out of it. So strange? What does that mean, Mom? I shook my head and tried to think. It remained quiet on the other end of the line.
“I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I made sure not to hesitate in my reply.
“Where should we pick you up?”
“I’m driving out.”
“Oh honey, you can’t.”
“It’s the only way I can.”
“But it’s such a long ways.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it is.” I checked my watch “I’ll call later. Be careful.” I finished, and ended the conversation wondering why I’d said it.
Several hours later, filling a single suitcase and leaving messages with various people about an unspecified family emergency, I still didn’t know.

Day in the Sun

Just something that’s been tickling the back of my brain for awhile.
I remember a time when I was very young, riding in a car with green, leathery seats that got very hot when the sun shone on them in the summer. The car was green as well, although a different shade, and it seems to the me of my memories that most of the cars back then were that color. It was a popular trend I suppose, or maybe my child’s perception was skewed.
At any rate, there were several undisputed facts; the car was green, the seats were green, it was summer, the sun was hot, and the seats were hotter. We had the windows open to let the air in and my mother was driving us to town on an errand.
The road was a winding black hardtop that looked down into sharp ravines between the hills — drops that seemed to go down and down farther than anything in the whole world as far as I was concerned. I would crawl up and look down and out from the tiny back windows of the two door and think about what it would be like to go sailing off the road and into the ravines, tumbling over and over and finally exploding at the bottom, just like on TV. (We lived a long way from town and when it was only you and a younger sister for a playmate and no one else for five miles, you learned to entertain yourself.)
So that day, with the sun beating down and my boredom rising, when I saw a goblin shambling along the bottom of a ravine with an old and rusted sword across his back like the yoke of a wagon, I didn’t bother mentioning it to my mother. Even at that age, I assumed I’d imagined it.
I believed that for the next 28 years.

At this moment, I can’t even remember your name.

A few days after you left, there was a bad storm. It happened in the middle of the night the way all the really bad storms do. I watched it through the double-wide windows that functioned as the head of my bed at the time.
You had been there to see me the weekend before and I was thinking about you. The visit had started out pretty well and you’d had a look in your eyes that said you intended good things. Very good things.
Of course it didn’t work that way.
I don’t know if there’s a way to explain: the lights were out, the room was dim, and when you walked into the bedroom you just looked so much like her. I was so surprised that I said exactly what I was thinking before I realized how it would sound, and that set the tone for the rest of your visit.
So a few days later I lay in bed watching the water run down the window and let lightning burn afterimages on my retina. The pillow you’d slept on didn’t smell like your perfume. The sheets didn’t smell like your skin. There was no romantically symbolic indication that you’d ever been in my house. I suppose that was fitting.
The next morning the neighborhood was littered with leaves and branch bits. I watched people sweep the walks or rake their lawns as I got ready for work.
I hadn’t called you.
I wasn’t going to.
I had admitted to myself that I didn’t know what to say. I think that was the first time I’d felt comfortable in three years.

Exactly how it happened.

While I was home for Christmas, I drove around the old home town to see who I could run into.
Unlike all my previous visits, most everyone was there, either down at Turtle Creek Saloon or the Hi-Lite. I wasn’t sure what my reception was going to be like, but it turned out well: a lot of people had been reading my website and were really in to what I was doing. South Dakota doesn’t have much, really, in the way of celebrity — after Tom Dascle and Mt. Rushmore, they’re pretty much out of ammunition, so that night, among my old High School buddies, I basked in a rockstar-like glory. People drove me around town, and told me about parties that were going on in the next few days and that I should definately come.
When I got back to my folk’s house, I confided to my mom that it was already the best visit home that I’d ever had, and I hadn’t even gone hunting yet.
Of course, I’d forgotten to get a license, so I had to take care of that the next day.
I drove back into town in my pickup to buy a pheasant license and backed into a space in front of the pizzeria/movie rental shop/Sears outlet that also sold the permits I needed. (Yeah, in South Dakota, you can’t really specialize.)
When I came back outside, my pickup was partially blocked in by this other car. I tried pulling out but I kept tapping bumpers, no matter how much I hauled the wheel over to the left, so finally I just put it back in park and waited.
That was when I noticed the cops on the other side of the street. There were at least five, all out in front of the Clothes Garden (retail chains don’t really like South Dakota, btw). They were all heavily armed and peering in the windows of the store. I couldn’t really see what was going on, so I pulled my gun out of it’s case in the passenger seat and used the scope like a telescope to watch the action. It probably wasn’t a good idea to point a gun at a cluster of cops this way, but no one was looking my way.
All but two of the cops crept inside and started weaving through the circular racks of clothes, pistols out and crouched. I watched, and realized that I could see where the guy they were after was hiding. The problem was, I didn’t have any way of warning them, so I kept watching.
The cops in the store were clueless. They walked right by the guy about 5 times, until he finally got cocky and made his move, slipping past the deputies in the store and out a side entrance that led back to the front sidewalk.
He came out right behind the sheriff, who was a nice guy I’d known a long time. I only had one choice, so I squeezed the trigger and dropped the guy. The cops didn’t know what was going on, and by the time they’d gotten a clue, I’d pulled out of my space across the street and was driving calmly in the opposite direction. The only thought I had about the whole thing was that I’d have a really good story to tell at the party I’d been invited to that night, and that my sights were adjusted a little high and to the left.
~
It was a pretty wild dream.