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Chapter 24: A Little Man Stands in the Forest

I used to like order. I’d always insist on having my ducks in a row before I did anything of any importance. But do you know what happens when you spend all your time carefully setting up ducks? One day you die, and all you have to show for your life is a nice straight line of stupid ducks.

My ducks are scrambling, and I’m left shooing them away, unsure of how much I even like order anymore. It’s more satisfying to watch the dominoes fall than to set them up, because chaos is attention-grabbing. It’s exciting. It gets the blood pumping.

You know what I hate, though? Waiting. Everyone hates waiting because it feels like a waste of everything. No ducks are being set up; no dominoes are falling. Waiting feels akin to serving a sentence in purgatory – limbo – Siberia – an endless corrosion of time and energy, and if you ever leave that prison, part of your soul is lost in the process.

We had to wait until nightfall before Butch would even crack the truck door. We’d parked along the shoulder of a small road cutting through a valley in southern Colorado. A vast expanse of darkened forest was spread in front of us, painting the mountainsides with a deep hunter green. How Butch knew to park here, I have no idea. There were no road signs or guard rails, and we hadn’t seen another vehicle in hours.

As soon as we parked, Butch leaned back, nodded to me, and passed out while we waited for the sun to finish setting. Apparently, the man we’re about to meet doesn’t appreciate visitors during the day, which just adds another layer of bewildering mystery to him.

While Butcher sleeps off his exhaustion from only getting cat naps between Wichita Falls and our destination, I’m wasting away, reading and staring at his relaxed eyes and jaw. Like his sleeping face, everything the man does looks so natural and unencumbered. Unlike myself, decisions come easily to him – just a simple yes, no, or nod in a particular direction. He’s sharp and quick-witted, easily talking his way out of speeding tickets and any line of questioning involving myself. I, on the other hand, can’t talk my way out of a wet paper bag, and even if I could, it would take me days. If we ever get stopped, I’m suddenly his childhood friend, a lost hitchhiker, or we’re on our way to pick up my truck. My story changes at his whim, and he somehow keeps it all straight; I sure as hell can’t.

When we stop to refuel or are seated in a diner, and someone asks where we’re going, he tells them Vegas, Phoenix, or Albuquerque. He shoots the shit with cops and not a single person has asked what the hell he’s doing with a pile of unprocessed logs in a region of the US with no expansive forests or lumber mills. People just trust him, which is a concept I cannot wrap my head around. I didn’t trust the bastard from day one. The guy looked like a snake to me, and his voice made him sound like a Bond villain or some rogue agent in a shitty cop drama. Of course, your first impression of a person is moot when they catch you dragging a body into the woods. I guess I did trust him at that point, but only because I needed him to save my ass and I had no other choice.

The drive from Louisiana had been as pleasant as one could expect considering the morbid circumstances. We stopped for food, and Butcher attempted to ease my pain-ravaged mind with genial conversations and anecdotes. Over lunch, he shared a bit about his parents – a wealthy couple with a decent surname, though he never told me what it was – and I found out that he had a little sister. I never had siblings, but I wonder if growing up with one wouldn’t have changed the course of my life entirely. There’s a camaraderie between siblings that you probably can’t get from anyone else. Butcher’s sister sounded like a sweet little girl, the kind of kid that steals all the attention with her warm smile, funny jokes, and unrelenting charm, but apparently she didn’t survive the war – a fact that brought such a rush of pain to our table, that I had to get up and use the bathroom just so I didn’t have to look into his eyes. By the time I came back, he’d already paid, and we haven’t spoken of her since.

It wasn’t until we started talking about our pasts that I realized how much it affected me knowing my father was still alive in Louisiana. Since laying my last familial tie to rest, I no longer feel that clawing guilt over his unending suffering. I do feel adrift, though, both my buoy and my net having been severed; but I can’t feel any more adrift than Butcher must, also having no living family, and now surviving alone on the other side of the world.

While reading in the truck I must have nodded off, because I jolt awake when Butcher flicks on his dome light and I catch him sliding a gun down the back of his jeans. Where the hell did he get a gun? How is everyone hiding these goddamn pistols right under my nose?

I sit up when he pushes my feet aside to fish his knife out of my box. Watching him hastily arm himself has me nervously clearing my throat, waiting for an explanation.

“I’m not a thief,” he explains, but I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, so he continues, “I am, however, opportunistic. Yes, it’s your father’s gun.”

So he is a thief – dirty liar. But, honestly, why am I not surprised? “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the gun. I just want to know why we need an arsenal to pick up your order.”

“He’s eccentric,” he says, but I already knew that. “He likes familiarity. He’ll take issue with me bringing someone new. I’ll vouch for you, but you’ll have to do exactly what I tell you – no arguments.”

This is completely easing my nerves – no worries at all. “Butch, what the hell are you talking about?”

He stops me with a raised hand and shakes his head. “You can’t call me Butcher. In fact, don’t speak at all. If you refer to me as anything, he calls me Nigel.”

What the hell kind of name is that? Are we sharing personal shit now? I’m not willing to travel down that I’ll show you mine, you show me yours path right now. I’m just starting to like our nicknames; I feel safer with the anonymity. “Is that your name then, Butch? Nigel?”

“It’s the name he picked, four years ago. I didn’t question it then, and you will not question it now,” he orders. Seems a little suspect, but this is my first dealing with an underground meat man, so I guess I’ll have to submit to the professionals on the matter.

While we’ve been talking, he’s donned a new shirt – a deep red button up identical to the gray shirt I inadvertently stole weeks ago. He reaches back and lifts the sleeper mattress, pulling his axe out of the compartment, and I eye the freshly sharpened blade. “You’re making him sound incredibly dangerous.”

“That’s a fair assessment.” He leans down to pull an odd leather belt from under his seat. He lays the axe against it and snaps a strap over the head and the handle. Then he throws the sling across his back like a quiver, making him look like the psychopathic love child of Robin Hood and Paul Bunyan. “The man’s flighty and sets traps, so you step where I step, and you don’t stray.”

So, is the axe a meat cleaver then, or are we planning to hack our way up the mountain? Either way, this is rapidly developing into a situation I don't want any part of. I’m a terrible shot, and my switchblade is neither a six-inch Buck knife nor a sharpened axe. “Maybe I should stay in the truck.”

Naturally, he dismisses my sanity, opting to follow his own negligent logic instead. “No. You need to meet him. It’ll make everything easier if he speaks to you. He’ll trust you.”

“I don’t trust me, Butch,” I snap, and he glares at me because I screwed up his name. “Nigel … and I don’t trust you, either. This is a terrible idea.”

“You’ll do fine,” he says, grabbing two flashlights from the dash. He yanks open his door and drops out of the cab into the abyss surrounding the truck.

Mr. Confidence I am not. I understand that Nigel relies on luck, but this is beyond the scope of just luck. This is asinine and risky, and I don’t have the brashness that he has to just storm this guy’s cannibal castle, guns a’blazing.

I hear a sharp rap on my window, followed by a muffled order to get out of the truck.

I don’t want to, though: my pulse is racing, and I feel sick. I need an excuse to stay in the relative safety of this cannibal’s hideout. Settling on one, I pull my gun from the glovebox and tap it against the window. “No bullets,” I shout.

“Bring it anyway,” says the muffled voice. “Everything’ll be fine, Hop. Trust me.”

Trust him. That’s remarkably easy for him to say when he's well-armed and fully aware of what lies on that mountainside. But now I'm trapped. I want to trust him, I do, and since he has yet to steer me wrong, I pop open my door and drop out to find Nigel waiting for me at the darkened tree line, holding out the handle of a lit flashlight which I reluctantly snatch from his hand.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark,” he snickers.

“I have an unloaded gun and a three-inch knife on my person, and I’m about to be accosted by a cannibal butcher. It’s not the darkness that I’m worried about.”

He pulls out my father’s gun and dangles it in front of my face like an asshole. “Do you want the pistol? It’s an heirloom now. Seems deadly enough at point blank.”

“Keep it,” I snarl.

He snickers and slips the gun back under his belt, and then draws the axe sling over his head, dropping the heavy strap across my left shoulder as an alternative.

“Maybe you’re an axe man,” he chuckles. He tugs my bandaged right hand behind my hip to finger a small snap that covers the axe head, which he unfastens with my thumb. “Unhook the head first,” he says, and then my arm’s hoisted over my left shoulder to touch the soft leather strap that holds the axe handle against my back. “Undo the haft and pull.”

The strap unsnaps, letting the handle fall into my palm, and I unholster it, bringing the weapon between our chests. While I’m looking at the two-and-a-half-foot axe with my flashlight, Nigel slides my grip up the wooden handle.

“Choke up a little after you draw it, and be mindful that it doesn’t get lodged in your calf when you swing. The bit’s not the only dangerous part, either; it’s sharp, but watch that it doesn’t rebound and crack your front teeth. I like that pretty little mouth of yours just the way it is.”

I nod and ignore the commentary as I palm the axe. It’s heavier than I was expecting. I’ve never used anything larger than a hatchet.

When he’s sufficiently satisfied with whatever he’s expecting me to do with it, I drop the axe in his waiting hand. He wrenches me around and straps it back in the sling, patting my shoulder when he’s done like I’m a goddamn horse.

Then he leans against my back, yanking me and the axe into his chest, his lips hovering just over my ear. “She’s my true love, Axeman. I shaped her ash handle myself. You will treat her like a lady. And if you lose her, I’ll take a bite right out of your ass.”

I sneer over my shoulder. “That a promise?”

At least he laughs and doesn’t bite me right here and now. The asshole’s more unpredictable than I am.

“Feel better equipped?” he asks.

“Not in the least.”

“Good enough for me.” He claps my back again, and off we trudge into wooded oblivion.

I miss the security found within the daylight and the meager glow of the truck. All we have to find our way up the mountain are the two yellow beams from our flashlights and what’s left of the moonlight being diffused through wispy clouds.

A thin fog is weaving through the trees, and I can’t understand how Nigel’s feet aren’t getting tangled in vines like mine are. He’s not even scanning the forest floor for hazards.  I keep stumbling and snagging my jeans on thorny bushes covered in little red berries; they keep catching my attention like beady little eyes when my light swings over the ground. Nigel’s beam, however, remains high, scanning tree trunks about twenty feet off the ground. When he locates a small yellow triangle, he stops short and I collide with his back.

His scoff doesn’t hide his amusement with my bumbling ass. “Now, you step where I step, Axe, you understand me?”

I grumble in reply, but he accepts my nervous confirmation, and we slowly begin our ascent.

The forest is dark and quiet – nothing but snapping twigs underfoot and rustling leaves overhead. The topography of this terrain and the location of our intended target are nothing but a mystery to me, and I’m growing more and more tense with each uncertain step. I could be walking into a trap – a man-eating lion’s den. What if the last two weeks were nothing but a ploy on Nigel’s part to march a willing piece of meat up this foggy path to its doom? What if I was being groomed to fatten myself on man flesh – to marble my own meat for the inevitable roast at the precipice of this very mountain? The air suddenly feels hot to me, suffocating and thick, but as my skin beads with sweat and the breeze picks up, I’m chilled to the bone again.

Why am I still following him? Colorado guy is probably just a ruse to get me into his slaughterhouse.

A low growl rumbles to my left, and I swing my light, briefly catching a pair of glowing eyes that dart away. What the hell is lurking in these woods? What the hell kind of creatures are prowling and following us up this godforsaken path?

My heart races, but I’m not terrified for myself. Garm wasn’t in the sleeper when I awoke to Nigel arming himself. If she’s out in these booby-trapped woods, she could be killed.

Nigel’s already meandering deeper into the forest when I scan the trees again. The eyes are gone, replaced with jutting rocks and a carpet of dead needles and leaves. There’s no movement except the occasional sway of thorny bushes as the breeze blows down the nearly invisible path.

“Garm,” I whisper, my voice shaking through the mist.

Nothing replies.

I scan the ground for lines, tripwires, netting or nooses, but find nothing, so I step between the trees. “Garm!” I whisper again.

A branch snaps and I stop.

The rustling leaves grow louder as they sway, dampening all other noises. I step farther off the path, my light searching for the dog, but she’s gone. There are no paw prints, no jingling collar, no sign of any creature in the underbrush.

I’m about to give up and return to the path when I hear a twig crack behind me and I turn, expecting Nigel’s temper to be flaring at my flagrant disobedience.

But it’s not Nigel behind me.

It’s not Garm.

What’s standing between me and the relative safety of the man now climbing the mountain alone is a figure. It’s obscured by the darkness and unmoving – a figure shaped like the shadow of a man.

Chills chase up my spine as a low, reverberating growl drifts from the being. I stumble back and reach for my knife, drawing it as my flashlight glances off its face – black hair, red skin, wet eyes.

My shirt sticks to my back and sweat drips down my sides. I stop moving and hold my breath. It does nothing, and I sense it beginning to back away – until my knife handle glints in the moonlight.

Its heavy breath shudders at my potential hostility – thick huffs like it’s a bull about to charge. I shouldn’t have drawn a weapon. I should have stayed in the truck. I should not be out here alone. I should have listened to Nigel. But I didn’t, and now I’m staring at a beast whose glassy eyes are locked on mine, waiting for me to give it a reason to attack.

And then I feel it – the tiny metal switch on my knife handle. My thumb gently circles it, but I want to pull it back. I want to pocket my knife. I want to slowly raise my hands, but I don’t. Instead, my thumb stops and I squeeze the handle, the blade sharply snapping open, and another poor choice has been made.  

The beast lunges and I spin around, bolting over rocks and scrambling through the greenbriar.

Feet pound the ground behind me as I weave. It’s gaining on me, and I need to find the truck, but I’m turned around and can’t see. Gravity throws me down the side of the mountain as I skid through mud, narrowly missing trees. I’m not fast enough, and when I glance over my shoulder, my light catches a bloody chest moments before I’m tackled to the rocks.

My sweaty palm is wrenched open, my knife ripped from my fingers. A stinging burn slashes across my cheek and I grab its arm, twisting it away and throwing my body against his. We roll and slide down the muddy mountainside, and my knife is lost to the forest.

He’s clawing at my face and hair like a rabid animal, and his skin is wet and slick. We skid to a stop and his foot catches me in the gut as I’m hurled off his body.

I roll across the dirt and start scrambling away, but I’m yanked back, my throat is crushed by a thick strap. He has the axe sling twisted around my neck, and his knee is buried in my back. He’s growling words I can’t decipher through the pounding in my ears, and I claw at the strap that’s suffocating me; I can’t hear – I can’t think – I can’t breathe.

When I feel his hot breath on my cheek, I throw back my head and crack him in the nose. He stumbles back and I rip the sling over my head and drop it, charging toward an opening in the trees.

All I focus on is the barely visible sky as I skid over rocks and tumble downhill. When I burst into a small clearing, I dive behind a fallen log, burrowing as far under it as I can, and I wait.

What the fuck was that?! Bloody faces and wild eyes flash through my head. My arms and legs have been pummeled by the rocks, and are covered in cuts and bruises. Blood pours from my face, and I press my shaking hand against my cheek, the gauze wrapped around my palm saturating with blood.

Sharp stones and twigs rattle and snap as I shake, and I hold my heaving breath, trying not to make a sound. Other than my own throbbing pulse, I hear nothing above or behind me. From the corner of my eye, I see a beam of light shining at the base of a tree, and my heart stops. Is it Nigel? The beast? Some other creature prowling these woods?

No. The unmoving light is the flashlight I dropped when I hid. It could draw the beast straight to me, so I scramble out, swipe it into my chest, and clamber back into my hole.

The world is so much more terrifying in pitch blackness. Maybe I am scared of the dark, especially when it’s this murky and damp. This is the place where monsters lurk – wolf men howl to blood moons here; perverted muggers lure you into the debauched darkness; shadows wait to attack the vulnerable; and crazy fucking lunatics stab you in the goddamn face.

A torrent of pain floods my cheeks when I think about the gash under my palm. I don’t dare move my hand for fear that I’ll bleed out right here under this pulpy log. When I try to swallow back the lump in my burning throat, I can’t – I’m forced to drool bloody spit into a pool under my face.

This is why I run. This is why I hide. I am haunted by these devils in red cloaks. They chase me from the light. They corner me. They lock me away and watch me flounder as I struggle to survive. Time unfolds so slowly when I hide. How many hours have passed since I buried myself here? It’s been days, week, years, with no sign of life except for the hungry bats still stalking mosquitos in the branches over my head.

I count each breath until I get to three hundred – four hundred – five – and I finally stop and listen for the sounds of wild beasts or savage men, devils waiting in the wings; but I hear no thumping boots, no scraping claws, or howling from the obscurity surrounding me.

The creature must have found more enticing prey elsewhere, but it will double back for me eventually. It knows I'm wounded so I have to move. I crawl from under the log and peer back toward where I think I came from. Nothing followed me, but I also see no path. I’m now lost in these unfamiliar woods, a madman lurking somewhere, and potential traps hidden in plain sight – that is, if I could see anything.  

Far up the hill, I do spot something – a light peeking from between the trees; it’s Nigel’s flashlight. With adrenaline still coursing through my body, I can make it up there in a matter of minutes. I hold my breath, clutch my cheek, and take a tentative step – but I stop.

I lost the axe; I lost the sling too. I did exactly what he told me not to do: I strayed from the path, and in the process, I lost his true love. I don’t know Nigel any better than I know a stranger, but he entrusted me with someone of great value to him, and I, like an irresponsible jackass, let it fall from my hand like trash, and that is unacceptable. He will destroy me if I don’t find it.

I click on my light and scan the ground, working my way back through the fog. I keep that glowing light up the mountain on my left side as I wander, stopping every few seconds to listen for footsteps or growling.

Miraculously, I find the sling – bloodied from my sliced cheek, but in one piece. The axe, however, is gone, as is my knife, and with the unloaded gun at my back, I’m weaponless and now hopelessly lost until dawn.

With no alternative left, I don the empty sling, click off my light, and creep silently through the woods toward the floating yellow globe up the hill. Weaving through trees, I finally step into a rocky clearing, immediately crouching to the ground. The light isn’t a flashlight; it’s a window. A small, log hunting cabin is tucked up here at the edge of a gully. I smell a cool, earthy mix of ozone and mud: the walls of the gully must embank a river. As I focus and clear my head, I can hear it coursing down the mountain.

If this was the proposed target, Butch has to be in there by now. I could wait out here until he emerges, but that leaves me vulnerable to whatever brute attacked me. Was it the lunatic we intended to meet? Was the creature a prisoner here? Or was he just an unlucky camper sporting a fresh raccoon bite?

The house is quiet, so I take my chances and scurry across the yard. Halfway to the house, my boot cracks into something metallic, and a snap! echoes through the forest as I’m thrown to the ground. I scan the trees, hoping to God the noise didn’t draw anything out of the woods. When nothing attacks, I take a moment to calm my nerves, but a dull ache in my ankle builds and crests, and I hiss in pain. I set something off and now I can’t move my leg. I turn on my light and point it at my feet.

The heel of my boot is wedged between the iron teeth of a goddamn bear trap. My ankle’s twisted, but no skin seems broken. I have to get out of the middle of the yard, though – I start to crawl toward the house when the anchored chain tightens, cutting short my escape. I could’ve lost my whole goddamn foot, and now I’m tethered to the ground.

I fish through my pocket, but I lost my fucking knife. Instead, I work my trembling fingers under the laces, yanking them open, and pull my foot out before scrambling toward the cabin.

I wasn’t given instructions on what to do in this scenario. Hindsight, I should’ve followed closer to Nigel. I regret my decision to step away, but I can’t worry about that now. That crazy psycho is still out here and I need to decide: do I enter this potential trap to look for Nigel, or take my chances with the bloody bastard still skulking in the woods?

The cabin is far more inviting than a fog-obscured forest, so I hobble around the house and crawl across the small porch to the wooden front door. It's been left cracked open which is never a good sign. Is something about to rush out, or has something godawful already escaped? When I stand, I come face to face with a warning posted on the door: Trespassers will be shot on sight  – a comforting thought. I hope to God he’s a merciful crackshot.

I can’t stay out here with the madman, and the house seems empty, so I throw caution to the wind and grip the brass knob, slowly drawing open the door.  

A trail of mud and leaves covers the floor of the tiny entryway, which leads through a second doorway and into the glowing room I’d followed up the mountain. I limp into the room, lit by a blazing fireplace, but stop before my remaining mud-caked boot can draw any attention.

A man on a stool faces the fire at the far end of the room. He has dark, cropped hair and the makings of a scruffy black beard. He’s barefoot and shirtless, blood and dirt streaked across his body. He hunches over something in his lap, and I can hear a heavy metallic scrape every few seconds as his shoulder wrenches toward the ground. Then I see the smooth ash handle. He’s honing Nigel’s true love.

He doesn’t hear me, and he hasn’t turned, so I crouch and untie the laces of my other boot, slipping it off to muffle my footsteps.

A small wooden table and two chairs have been shoved against the wall opposite me and a ratty rug lines the floor. The log walls are covered in poorly-skinned and mounted animals. Bear heads with no glass eyes or proper sculpting yawn in pain. A row of mallards with broken feathers and missing bills cast long, twisted shadows across the walls. In the corner lies a pile of rabbit skins – some still bloody, some just a rotting clump of fur.

Along the front wall, and under a window half obscured by the log pile on the porch, is a low cabinet, its top lined with dull blades. I scoop up a knife as I creep toward him, palming it in my sweaty hand. He’s mumbling some low chaotic murmur of twisted syllables. I’m only an arm’s length away when he then stops honing the axe and falls silent.

His eyes tip up to stare into the fire as he waits. It’s too late to run now: he heard me.

We both freeze, my pulse pounding in my ears as his head barely tilts.

He twists around, throwing a punch, but I lunge at his back and my arm hooks his neck, hauling him off the stool. The bastard bites my arm and snarls like an ugly dog, clawing at the knife and trying to stab my face again. I yank the blade from his fingers and gouge it deep into his lower back as he flails. His shriek echoes through the room until I tighten my arm around his neck and stifle the racket. He tears and bites at my arm, but his pawing hands weaken as he loses consciousness, and he and I both drop to the floor.

Why the hell do I keep battling these cretins with no help from Nigel? He’s probably halfway up the fucking mountain by now, or back sitting in the goddamn truck with Garm.

I catch my breath and stare at the madman’s body, crumpled on the floor in front of the fire. The knife is sticking out of his kidney like a damn birthday candle. He’s bleeding out and I have to get the hell out of this rat’s nest. I creep around the body and pull the bloody sling over my head; I can’t leave without the axe, so I holster it, throw it back over my shoulder, and stumble out the door.

I practically fall from the porch step, clutching my boot and my bleeding face, and I notice a path into the woods. It could be the path that leads to the truck; but when I stop briefly to reassess my options, my gun is yanked from my jeans and held to the back of my head.

“Who the fuck are you?!” howls a deep, raspy voice. I guess he wasn’t dead yet.

I raise my hands and attempt to steady my voice. “I’m with Nigel. He’ll vouch for me.”

“The fuck he will!” he coughs.

I know the gun’s unloaded, and there’s no way in hell he can’t feel how light it is. He’s tapping the muzzle against the back of my head when a body dives out from the woods and the gun rips away.

Nigel braces his forearm against the guy’s chest, pinning him to the dirt. “You need to calm down,” he orders; but the guy has no interest in listening.

When Nigel draws the pistol from his back and presses it to the guy’s forehead, the thrashing finally stops.

They just hold that position, huffing against each other’s faces with my father’s gun indenting the guy’s head, until Nigel slowly slides his knees off his legs.

“Stay on the ground,” he hisses, and when the man seems complacent, though clearly pissed, Nigel rolls off him and stands, letting the gun hang at his side. The guy coughs and hisses but stays on his back like a good dog.

“You don’t pull this shit in my house – not on my land,” he snaps. “We had a deal.”

Nigel dismissively holds up his hand and shakes his head. I’m surprised this bastard’s temper and lip hasn’t won him a bullet in the leg by now. “Introductions first,” he says, pointing to me. “This is Axeman.”

The guy’s not interested in knowing anything about me and lays there grumbling, his face reddening and his lip curling into an indignant sneer. Nigel shakes his head at the bastard and scoffs, his eyes finally flicking up to meet mine. The color drains from his face and he begins to speak, but the guy on the ground snarls and spits on my jeans.

“Fuck your Axeman,” he snaps. “He’s as good as dead now.”

That was an incredibly rude thing to say. He doesn’t know me. I’ve done nothing to him that wasn’t justified. My eyes drift down his filthy, mud- and blood-soaked body. He’s a goddamn pig that should feel lucky he’s escaped the slaughterhouse.

Staring at the piece of shit has my blood boiling through my veins, pounding in my head. Then I hear two faint clicks like something popping behind me.

Just twice. Just two almost inaudible snaps.

Click.

Click.

Is it a hammer clicking? It can’t be. My gun’s been thrown to the ground by the porch.

Is it a lumbering animal, crashing through the underbrush? No, the woods are as silent as the night sky.

My hand feels heavy and overworked now, like I’m hauling a heavy bucket over my head. My shoulder strains under the weight, and then a voice in my mind orders me to choke up, and I do. Everything immediately feels easier – more balanced, more freeing. The world is in order, aligning itself for this moment in time – little ducks, all in a row.

A voice outside my mind briefly pleads for me to stop, but I have no time for that voice, not now – not in this place where the world and the stars have aligned. I’ve already decided my fate, and I’ve already choked up; why would I stop now when I can bring balance to the world?

It’s taking an eye for an eye.

It’s that infamous retributive justice I keep hearing so much about.

A better man would have at least learned the monster’s name. A better man would have heard that name and seen humanity in the beast’s eyes. He would have realized that this creature was one of God’s many gifts – a little man in the woods wearing a crimson cloak with a patch of black hair on his head. But I am not a better man. I am a man who sees both the forest and the trees. I am a man who knows that felling a few dead ones keeps the earth nice and healthy for the rest. In a smooth, unencumbered motion, like I’m drawing a rainbow just over my head, my arm curves up and back down, landing its mark, right on that soft, delicate throat that couldn’t seem to catch its breath.

Another fine, deep red wine empties onto the earth, soaking and seeping into its damp, thirsty tongue. It’s a tasty vintage that feels far more satisfying to my palate than the last, and I smile down at the man who’s bubbling and writhing, but silent now – no more threats escaping those savage, pallid lips.

The warm spray across my face slowly drips those pretty pennies across my lips again, and a fleeting recollection from weeks ago makes my eyes drift up the body of the man now ogling me. With fresh copper dancing on my tongue, I wonder if this blood-thirsty cannibal wants to kiss me again. Even if I had my knife, I don’t think I’d pull it on him now. He can have me.

My partner seems perturbed, however; much more so than I would’ve expected – much more so than after I brought light to my foul-mouthed shadow. I thought he liked this. I thought this made him proud.

“He won’t attack again,” I hear myself mumble, blinking through the thick, wet fog enveloping us. “And I didn’t catch his name.”

“Learning his name now would be pointless,” he huffs, and I have to agree. He was a nameless animal locked in a cage – a creature trapped in his own darkness. I would have helped him bandage his bloody wounds or pick his rusty lock. We could have talked like men, shared our names, and behaved like civilized people. But that bastard bit me, so I had to put him down.

A burning sting races across my face, and an ache worms up my leg, reminding me just how bad this last hour on God’s earth has been. My knees buckle and I fall onto them, gasping when I realize I’ve been holding my breath. My ears hum and the world is a blinding white. Am I falling back down the mountain, or am I racing toward the heavens?

It doesn’t take as long to plunge back into my body this time, and when I can hear my own breath heaving from my mouth, I feel two hands gripping either side of my bruised neck. His face comes into focus just as the ringing fades.

He’s studying my twitching pupils, his own eyes engulfed in impassioned flames that lap at the edges of his blood-filled wells. What is this fervid look staring back at me? Is it unrelenting rage, or a new form of bitter disgust toward my hasty and reckless decision?

Though unwelcoming, I want to crawl into his eyes anyway. I want to dive to the bottom of those filling pools and wait there as I heal, swimming and biding my time until I’ve formulated an answer as to why I didn’t listen to him in the first place. Why didn’t I stay on the path with him? Why did I wander this snare-filled forest on my own? Why didn’t I stop even when I heard him beg me to? If I had to wager a guess – and I am not a betting man – I’d say that blinding heat emanating from Nigel’s eyes might just be the look of a man about to bury his freshly-honed true love right in my back.

Notes:

Chapter gifted to flatfootmonster for no reason.

My chapter 24 notes.