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4. The Girl in the Car 

Benjamin had peered inside every car and truck parked behind the church while Gilman stood by with his armload of blankets, breathing heavily, winded by the climb. Benjamin ended up standing beside Macey Walker’s old Bronco, staring in through the passenger side window. Nobody had left their keys in the ignition as far as he could tell in the dim light cast by the high single bulb sconced on the back wall of the church. Benjamin knew where the keys were. Couldn’t think about that just now. Had to stay focused. Had to stay sane.

      “Hey, Turnkey,” he said. “You know how to hotwire a car?”

      “Are you kidding?” Gilman chuckled. “I’m not the one under house arrest. You’re the criminal, Weller. You’re the thief.”

      Benjamin winced at the gibe, and he grunted his acknowledgment of the knifing sensation in his shoulder. It’d taken on a physical stabbing sort of throb when they’d rounded the final turn of the driveway, when the church had loomed into view against the tree line. He figured it had something to do with the brisk walk up the drive, his elevated pulse. It was as if someone were slowly shoving a blade tip into the wound, and then, just as slowly, pulling it back out. Might also have something to do with the awkward position of his arm, his wrists shackled behind him as they were. He stepped up next to Gilman, who seemed somewhat refreshed and ready to move on.

      “Suck my dick, Turnkey,” Benjamin said, responding to the man’s verbal indictment as best he could given his exhaustion. Gilman was finding this entire undertaking far too amusing for Benjamin’s tastes. Glaring at the big man’s smirking face, he wondered, once again, why out of all the people in Bingly it had to be Gilman Turnkey by his side tonight.

      “Which way?” Gilman asked.

      Behind the church were a few derelict logging roads left to reforest since the industry had packed its bags and left, leaving Bingly to rot in its fumes. During the clear-cutting years, the main attack had been centered on Deerborn Mountain, which backed Hog Hill about two miles distant. The trees, Douglas firs and red alder, had managed to repopulate the mountain, a miniature forest compared to the original. Hog Hill had not escaped unscathed; in fact, it’d been nearly swept clean, raped, defiled. The logging roads that had ribboned the hill had left deep scars. The poplars would not reseed in the dirt tracts, and so the roads had remained. These days, hunters used the roads, along with searchers of free firewood and the occasional day hiker. One of these roads broke out from the poplars and the blackberry bushes to the rear of the church. The road was in ruin, what with the deep potholes and, higher up, some minor landfalls. It led to the crown of Hog Hill, where Benjamin had crashed the car.

      Benjamin nodded toward this logging road, and they trudged off in silence. After they’d left the church behind them and trekked up the road’s switchbacks a few hundred yards, Gilman broke the silence.

      “Back when I was a kid,” he said, panting, “we called the top of this hill Curly.”

      Benjamin wasn’t listening. He was concentrating on his Don’t Be a Pussy mantra, his shoulder throbbing. His lips had dried up crisp and were tender, and it felt like his throat had done the same.

      “Top of the hill’s all bald,” Gilman explained. “Like Curly. You know...The Three Stooges?”

      Benjamin rounded on the big man, halting their progress for the moment. “Do you really think I care about your ‘when I was a kid’ bullshit?” He kept this to a harsh whisper as best he could. The trees had crowded in around him. These dark sentries lined the narrow dirt forest road, and they were absolutely freaking him out. “Let’s just keep moving, eh? Asshole.”

      “I’m not the one who stopped.”

      “You’ll take off the handcuffs now?” Benjamin wasn’t too hopeful.

      “House arrest, remember? You’re guilty till proven otherwise.”

      They finished the journey in silence. The poplars thinned a bit, and Benjamin knew this was an indicator that the crown was just up ahead. Over the slight rise, a beam of light sliced through the darkness: a headlight, angled up, like a beacon in a stormy sea. He found the strength to jog the last twenty feet, his heart thudding, his throat cinched up against the dog collar due to the sluggishness of Gilman. The moonlight illuminated the hilltop in sepia, and the wreck gleamed. Benjamin slowed his feet and stumbled to a standstill, a sour feeling flooding his gut as he realized what a god-awful mess he’d made.

      Gilman was not standing still. He’d dropped the leash and was running at the wrecked car, wrestling with his armload of blankets and medical supplies. He was yelling for Nancy.

      The ruined car’s taillights and one headlight fought back the creeping fog. Benjamin wondered how much time he’d wasted going to get help and then trudging back up to the top of the hill. It couldn’t be near sunup, could it? The moisture in the soil, whatever was left of it after a week’s worth of record temperatures, was being pulled up into the early morning air. But the fog was not thick enough to hide the fact that the wrecked car was Nancy’s bruise-colored, bondo-spattered ’69 Ford Mustang Mach 1.

      Why hadn’t Benjamin warned Gilman? The big man was going to burst a vein the way he was carrying on, shouting for his wife as he ran at the twisted wreck. The crack-webbed windshield revealed nothing, just moon sheen. Could have been anybody inside, broken and bleeding. The shaker hood with its centered intake duct was nearly cleaved up the middle, a white barked tree seemingly sprouting from the 351 Clevland engine block like some sort of mad experiment, some bionic-organic mutation. How the hell had that sickly runt of a tree taken the impact of the crash? It was certainly new growth, just like all the trees in the area. Stupid damn tree, Benjamin cursed to himself. The car had been drawn to it. The mystical workings of magnetism were beyond Benjamin, but he felt certain science was to blame for the accident. Either that or magicks of some sort. Same thing, pretty much.

      Steam from the busted radiator was shooting up and wrapping around the white tree trunk. As Benjamin watched, the steam faltered, died down, dried up. The cab of the car was intact for the most part and unaltered by the crash, except for a slight buckling in the roof, like a wrinkle in a bedsheet. The rear of the car had decided to keep going when the rest of the car had stopped, and it had snuck in under the roof a foot or so. The rear window was dust.

      Gilman was calling to his wife. He’d slowed to a walk thirty or so steps away from the wreck. Benjamin stumbled forward, saying, “Turnkey, no, that’s...” He picked up his pace, adding some volume to his pleading call. “Turnkey. That’s not Nancy in there, man.” He took bounding strides to catch Gilman, wanting to grab the big man, wrestle him to the ground before he reached the passenger door, stop him before he tried to yank that door open. But he couldn’t do that, now could he? Not with his goddamn wrists handcuffed as they were. He had to make Gilman understand that his wife was not in the car. Benjamin also wanted to stop Gilman from calling out his wife’s name. If Brenda was still alive, as he wanted to believe—no, he did believe, he did believe, he did believe—he knew that hearing Nancy’s name shouted over and over was going to piss her off to no end.

      Closer to the wreck now, Benjamin could see the mess of chestnut hair splayed against the inside of the cracked windshield—in his head he saw her arms folded on the dash, her head resting there, the picnic blanket from behind the seat wrapped around her shoulders, her left knee shattered and trapped between the under dash and the crumpled gear box—and he knew she was sitting there waiting for him to bring back help, and she’d be so relieved now that he’d arrived.

      Gilman was parting the low fog as he walked toward the wreck. Benjamin could see movement beneath the surface of the ground cover, as if something, or many things, had been startled to activity by the arrival and onrush of Gilman Turnkey. Benjamin saw one of the fog creatures pounce at Gilman’s ankle, and then the fog lazily swallowed it up, hiding it from view once more. Benjamin skidded to a standstill, dread emoting his plea into a command: “Stop, Gilman.”

      Gilman’s steps faltered, and he froze. He still had hold of the paper sack, and he held the two blankets by their tails, dragging their dew-gathering weight behind him. He also had hold of the flashlight, which was uselessly pointed at the sky. He gazed around him, his burdened hands lifting out to his sides as if he were treading water, pirouetting in the sea of fog. He looked down at his submerged feet, his lips mumbling something or other. Then, as he came round, his eyes snapped up to Benjamin’s.

      “What the hell, Weller?” he said. A sudden stillness in the clearing made his voice boom and reverberate in the damp air. A slight breeze drifted across the hilltop, and it swept the ghostly groundcover away. At Gilman’s feet, spread out in all directions, was a motley horde of kittens, their coats slick with the morning moisture. A few kittens were rubbing their ribs against Gilman’s ankles.

      “Turnkey,” Benjamin said, tiptoeing forward, a couple dozen feet distant from the man. “Turnkey, man, hey.” He stepped to the edge of the bustling mass of glistening fur. “Don’t. Let. Them. Scream.”

      Gilman’s arms lowered, a held breath escaping his lungs, and Benjamin saw him start to giggle as he looked to his left, to his right, behind, and it was clear that he could not advance or retreat without breaking kitten spines with each step, which Benjamin figured might be a good idea. Gilman lifted his head and looked at Benjamin helplessly, smiling, and said, “You see this, kid? Can’t be happening.” He aimed the flashlight into the fur and caught phosphorescent glints from the eyes, and hints of soft pink kitten lips. A rumbling, low-register rasp rose up around him. “They’re purring,” he said, unaware, Benjamin knew, that he was in serious trouble. One of the kittens put its paw on Gilman’s shin and looked up at him, mewing. Gilman turned and, keeping his feet low to the ground, took tiny steps toward the wrecked car. Once again, he called to Nancy.

      “Dumb goat,” Benjamin said. The cats surrounding Gilman began to jump over each other and growl with excitement as the big man moved through their subtle resistance and parted their gathered mass with each step like a plow breaking soil. Benjamin watched one brave kitten scramble atop the others. It jumped onto Gilman’s pant leg, claws extended, and began to climb. How long before it opened its jaws like the kitten in Nancy’s bedroom? How long before it called to the cruel, burrowing plants?

      Benjamin, unaware he’d been doing it, had been backing away from the scene as kittens attempted to surround him. They were toying with him, toying with Gilman, taking their time with the two men as if they were a pair of gimpy mice. Benjamin would not turn and run; he was decidedly against fleeing the scene, knowing damn well that he needed to be moving toward the car, not away from it. The kittens were going to take Gilman and scream him into vine world, where things tore and dug and ate. And they’d do the same to Brenda. Something had to be done. At all costs, the damsel had to be rescued.

      Benjamin saw a whirling light rise up over the hill. It emerged from the bushes and poplars across the clearing from him, and he felt sure this was some new monster come to peel flesh from bone. A trumpet-like call blurted from the light source, a battle cry of some sort, and a human form took shape, walked into the clearing, the whirling light haloing its head. It rounded the wreck at a good pace and advanced on Gilman. The light was being swung in a wide circle with an outstretched hand, and Benjamin could see that the light emanated from the tip of a long stick. And he could see that the person twirling the stick was the town drunk, which made no sense whatsoever—it couldn’t be Willy the Drunk. That’d be absolutely ridiculous. William’s lips puckered and the bleating wail came bursting out, an inhuman, mournful sound. Benjamin wrestled with the metal handcuffs for a moment, demanding his wrists be free. He didn’t know what distressed him more, his kidnapper and the stupid handcuffs, the cats and their imminent beacon-screams, or the drunk who by all things sensible should not be here on the hill.

      William was glancing about the top of Hog Hill, whirling the light stick above his head, trumpeting his inhuman wail, and steadily advancing on Gilman and the wrecked car. He was wearing his telltale flannel shirt, grubby and shiny with constant wear. His whiskered chin and cheeks and the tuft of short and bristly hair on his scalp were white with age. His boots were kicking at the kittens as he walked across the clearing, and he seemed a slow-motion Tasmanian devil—like the cartoon character Benjamin had watched on Saturday mornings a long time ago when life had been simpler—what with the radiating twirl of the light stick and the kitten fur bustling up and floating around him.

      William spotted Benjamin standing at the edge of the clearing. The tip of the stick slowed its rotation. He grabbed hold of it near the lighted, thicker end with both hands, and stuck the opposite, pointier end through the throat of a kitten, continuing to shove until the stick’s tip was stuck firmly in the gravelly hilltop. William leaned on his strange walking staff, twisted the head until the beaming glow went out, and stared from beneath his lowered, gritty brow at Benjamin.

      Gilman stood five feet from William. He was staring at the drunk, one foot frozen in midstep. Before his balance gave out, he lowered the foot, placing it gently and harmlessly amidst the kittens packed in around him.

      “Willy?” he said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

      William brought a finger to his lips and smiled at Gilman, a smile that said William knew he looked out of place in such a situation as this but, hey, who wouldn’t? Benjamin noted uneasily that every one of the kittens was motionless...and perhaps curious. Their ears were attentive and they were quiet. It was silent on the hill, or near silent, and Benjamin tried to focus his hearing on that certain unquiet thing, that growing rumble of… something. He could definitely hear something rising up, coming closer. It was a panting sound, gathering volume and seemingly coming from all directions, closing in on him from the dark undergrowth surrounding the clearing.

      He was feeling rather vulnerable.

      “Goddamn it, Turnkey,” he said. “Give me the handcuff key.”

      The first dog announced itself with a low growl and a leap, charging in from Benjamin’s right, racing at the kittens, grabbing the closest one in its teeth, and ripping it in two with three quick jerks of its head. This dog was dark haired, as far as Benjamin could tell under the silvering moonlight and the Mustang’s taillight glow. It was muscular, brutal yet graceful, reveling in its element, on the hunt. The dog’s name was Jonsey. It was another member of Dodd’s hunting pack, a sweet fella by anyone’s estimation, Benjamin knew, but at the moment he was all business as he advanced and leapt at the next kitten. The neighboring kittens began to scatter, running to the dark slopes of the hill. From these slopes, cutting off the kittens’ escape routes, dogs came charging, thinning the feline force and splattering blood on the bald crown of the hill.

      Benjamin recognized Frasia Reynolds’s floppy-jowled bloodhound and George Adams’s dalmatian. He was amazed to see the Harleys’s Yorkshires, two short-legged terriers barely visible within the frenzied kitten mob. These two tiny dogs were tearing into flesh, dismantling the ranks of kittens, doing their part. Benjamin wasn’t sure, but there had to be more than a dozen dogs attacking the kittens, and the clearing atop Hog Hill was filled with grunts of effort, yaps of infuriation, and the underlying roar of animal growls, punctuated by the whipping heads of dogs on the hunt. There were also the ear-ripping death screams of the kittens, which Benjamin would not have minded so terribly, but he’d always considered himself a cat person. Was this giddiness he felt? No, just imbalance, displacement. And good God he was dizzy. He was going to pass out. He began to shake his head, the only offensive act he felt capable of just then.

      In the middle of the kitten massacre, William stood, a long-hilted sword in his grasp, casually slicing a few kittens in two. Where the hell had the drunk gotten the sword? Benjamin saw the empty husk of the walking stick, the lower half of it, in William’s other hand, and he realized the drunk’s walking stick was quite the complicated gadget, something he wouldn’t mind checking out. Later. After all the killing was over. However long that was going to take.

      In contrast to the drunk, Gilman, his hands occupied with the paper bag, the flashlight, and the blankets, was stepping one direction and then the other, trying to stay out of the way of the vicious dogs’ line of toothy attack while attempting to maintain his balance.

      Within half a minute, the battle was over, and the kittens that hadn’t been torn apart had scattered to dark hiding holes and high tree limbs down the hill. The dogs had chased after the runaways, leaving the top of the hill disturbed. Fluffs of fur floated about, clouds of dirt swirled; a new kind of groundcover had replaced the early morning fog.

      Silence now, except for the static-hiss of one lone survivor. Somehow, the kitten that had climbed Gilman’s pant leg earlier had held on during the entire skirmish, and it clung there, its tiny head twisted around and hissing at William. Just as Benjamin was about to point this out verbally, William sheathed his blade and twisted the two halves, locking the sword inside, making the walking stick whole again, and then he flipped the stick so he was holding the thin end with both hands. He brought the fat head back and, gauging the length of the staff and the short distance to the target perfectly, swung the head of the stick into the kitten’s head, a loud crack signaling the impact. As the kitten’s body kept its claw hold on Gilman’s pant leg, its head rocketed from the hilltop, and Benjamin thought, Bye-bye baseball. The kitten’s claws relaxed after a few seconds, and Gilman shook the dead, headless thing from his leg.

      Benjamin hadn’t moved for a few minutes, and he was finding it impossible to do so now. His legs didn’t have the gelatinous feel they’d had earlier; now they felt numb, as if they were someone else’s legs. His sight was blurry. Felt like the cuffs had nearly cut through his wrists.

      He had to get to the car, see if Brenda was okay. He’d fallen witness to the most absurd events, the impossibility of which made him want to scream, and he somehow had to pull himself back to reality, where his girlfriend was hurt and needed help, not the ultra reality he’d just been subjected to, where cats call on villainous plant life, and the local drunk is some sort of warrior. He worked at tamping down the anger over the breakup prior to the crash. That may have been imagined, he told himself. Might be it never happened. Benjamin was good at this sort of reasoning, this sort of selective memory. Like his belief in monsters, a belief that he knew was absurd and childish, he could believe that he was capable of rescuing Brenda, couldn’t he? Unless he passed out from all the spinning his dizzy head was doing.

      He could just make out Gilman, twenty or so feet away, shooting questions at William, who stood calmly, leaning on his walking stick. While he spoke, Gilman stepped to the wrecked car, staring intently at the slumped passenger leaning against the dash. Benjamin could tell by his composed movements that Gilman knew it wasn’t Nancy slouched there—wrong hair color, smaller frame, different perfume. The girl in the car was a bit less experienced in life’s crazy game show than Nancy Turnkey. Benjamin knew that the girl sitting in the wrecked car had the skin of an angel, and, at times, smiled like one, although when her smile went all slanted, watch out, man. He knew the girl sitting inside the wrecked car most certainly had not deserved this outcome, that in no way did the sum of her actions justify this result. She wasn’t supposed to be a victim. This girl had not even graduated from eleventh grade yet; she was still a goddamned junior in goddamned high school, for Christ’s sake!

      But the girl in the car was indeed dead. Benjamin could see this fact in the way Gilman set the flashlight and the blankets on the roof of the ruined car, by the way he reached in through the busted window and tenderly pushed her from the dashboard so she was leaning against the seat, by the way he set down the paper bag full of medical supplies and left it in the gravel, by the way he stood slump-shouldered beside Nancy’s totaled Mustang.

      Benjamin felt tears gush out of his eyes and rush down his filthy cheeks, but they felt like someone else’s tears, just like his legs. It wasn’t until he opened his mouth and moaned, his mind uncontrollably flashing snapshots of Brenda, that he felt himself drowning in sorrow, his own sorrow, not someone else’s. He went to his knees on the plush carpet of dead kittens. He wanted to go to the ground, curl up fetal, but it was far too slick with blood, out-of-bounds, way too repulsive even in the grief-stricken state he found himself. He was bombarded with thoughts and visions of Brenda, and he could somehow taste the things that should have been but weren’t, like the sweet endearments he’d left unsaid, the salty touches he’d retracted. He could smell the walks in the rain he’d neglected to ask her to take. All these things he’d carelessly not done were flooding into him, making him choke.

      For a moment, it was pure, unsullied mourning for the dead, and then it wilted into grief for the jilted living. He felt and heard himself bawl for his sudden lack of Brenda, and he quivered in fear at the images, with all sorts of facets and outcomes, of him standing before her parents and telling them their daughter had died in a car accident for which he was responsible. He’d just began to contemplate leaving town to avoid the miasma of bullshit that was no doubt flying his way when he heard footsteps crunch on the bloody gravel before him, felt a hand on his shoulder, and he knew it was Brenda, miraculously not dead.

      But blinking away the curtain of tears that blinded him, he saw the town drunk standing in front of him, concern on his whiskered face. Benjamin shook his head, grunting with the effort that it took to shut down the sobbing fit, swallowing tears painfully past the lump in his throat. He wanted to stand up, but he was just too exhausted.

      “Benjamin,” William said, the hand resting on Benjamin’s shoulder giving a heartening squeeze. It was Benjamin’s good shoulder; otherwise, he’d have gone down in the cat guts, screaming bloody murder. “Benjamin, can you walk?”

      The question was alien to Benjamin. Could he walk? Of course he could walk. He’d been able to walk nearly his entire life.

      “We’ve got to get you down to Star Hobbs place,” William continued. “She’ll patch you up good as new.”

      Benjamin peeked around William to see Gilman standing beside the busted out passenger window. Seemed he hadn’t moved a muscle. It scared Benjamin to see Gilman standing there like that.

      “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” William said. “Now, are you going to stand up? Or are you going to make an old man pick you up.”

      Benjamin looked to the ground, scanned the dead kittens, then looked up at William and said, “All these cats, Willy.” He didn’t like how frail his voice sounded. “How’d all these cats get here?”

      “Couldn’t tell you.” William bent down and hauled Benjamin to his feet, careful to leave the ripped shoulder untouched. A few grunts and wheezes from the drunk, but other than that, he accomplished the lift easy enough. Pretty good for an old guy, by Benjamin’s estimation.

      William was saying something, and then he wasn’t, and time must have somehow fast-forwarded, skipping valuable seconds, riches unspent. Benjamin was not where he’d just been; he’d been transported a few yards across the clearing, a greater distance from Gilman and the wrecked Mustang. His wrists were free, and he held them up in front of his face and saw bloody bracelets. Maybe he’d passed out. This loss of time made him frantic, and he realized he was more than likely going to pass out for a longer period and, by the time he’d come to, they’d have separated him from Brenda. And, goddamn it, that could not happen. Can’t just walk away. He told himself to turn around pronto and face what he’d done, face it and tell Brenda he was sorry. So fucking sorry.

      “Turnkey,” Benjamin shouted, exerting more effort than he’d thought he’d have to. “Turnkey.” He’d fully intended on saying more, but William kept leading him away. Away? Why was the drunk doing this? It was difficult to crane his head around and keep Gilman in his ebbing frame of sight—fading at the edges, growing smaller and smaller. He tried then, but he could not ask the question. The vile thing wouldn’t leave his throat.

      His last glimpse of the scene, before William guided him down the slope, was of the big man standing beside the passenger window, slump-shouldered, witness to what Benjamin knew damn well he himself should be witnessing: the horrible absence of life sitting in the passenger seat of Nancy Turnkey’s wrecked Mustang.