Reporters develop a sixth sense for detecting trouble. That’s part of what kept me chasing this story across three states, but when you’re slipping a crumpled $20 into the palm of a morgue tech at 2 a.m., you start questioning the choices that brought you to that point.
The tech was more than willing to oblige and led me down the dim corridor, commenting over his shoulder that “touching costs extra.” He glanced back at me with a wide grin. “You don’t really seem the type, though.”
“What gave me away?” I asked through gritted teeth. I fought back my gag reflex as I tried not to think about his usual clientele.
“Well, for one, you’re a chick,” he said and guffawed. His voice rang off the chrome and the avocado-green tiles. I doubted this place had seen any updates since the 1970s. “Also, this ain’t the kind most people would pay to see.” He stopped before a body drawer, pulled the door open, and rolled the tray out between us.
Even if I hadn’t known what was inside, the odd way the plastic lay would have given me a big clue. When the tech unzipped the bag, my brain did its usual dance, struggling to create a cohesive whole out of the parts. There was a foot attached to something resembling a leg, but the skin at what had been the mid-thigh hung in limp shreds, tangled with stringy muscle. The deep gouge at the center of the chest left it splayed open. Someone had wedged the arms along either side of the torso, a fruitless attempt to fit the jagged pieces back together.
The heavy, metallic scent of blood filled my nostrils. It mixed with the disinfectant and turned my stomach, but I swallowed the bile and looked at the girl’s face. She couldn’t be more than six years old. The white-blonde curls framing her face glowed like a halo under the fluorescent lights. If not for her clouded eyes staring blankly from her slack face, she would have been just another child from some forgettable small town. I wondered if she’d seen who killed her and hoped, more than believed, her end had been quick.
“She’s a messy one, alright,” the tech said, his voice pulling me away from my ruminations. Without prompting, he continued. “She got in some trouble at school. Nothing big, but I guess everything seems big at that age. Ran away from home.” He started zipping up the bag as he spoke. “I doubt she got more than a mile from home before she was ready to go back home and face the music.” He sighed and rested one hand on the edge of the body tray. “It was a couple hours till the parents realized she was gone. I was in the search party. Most everyone was. It’s a small town, you know. We had to stop for the night, and in the morning, they found her — the sheriff and her father.” He shook his head. “No one deserves to die like this, least of all a kid.”
He rolled the child back into cold storage and gave me an appraising look as if he were deciding something in his head. After a moment, he said, “She’s not the only one, you know.”
“You mean there’s been another murder? Here?” I tried not to sound too eager. I hadn’t heard any rumors about a second attack in this area, but after three years as a freelance reporter in Philly, I had honed the art of inviting confidences. It’s really quite easy once you realize that people like sharing secrets. If you gave them an ear and room to speak, most will run with it. This guy was no different.
He glanced around the room — empty except for us and the gleaming exam tables — and leaned forward and dropped his voice, a sure sign we had entered into a conspiratorial partnership. “Two counties over. Cops haven’t linked them. You know how they are.” He raised his eyebrows in exaggerated disapproval. “Territorial. But I went to school with half the techs in southern Ohio, and we talk.”
A short negotiation ensued, and ended when I handed him ten more dollars from my dwindling cash supply and left with the pertinent details and the name of another tech who, he assured me, would be just as helpful as himself.
Hopefully, not as irreverent, I thought. But I suppose gallows humor is a necessary skill in his profession.
I climbed into my battered Camry and flew down the dark road on my way to the next one-horse town that had woken up to the corpse of a mutilated child.
Two attacks in three days.
Reaching over to the passenger seat, I rested my hand on the solid shape of my 9mm Smith & Wesson where it lay, hidden under my coat. It acted as a touchstone, calming and focusing my mind. I was closing in, and with any luck, I would break this story open before the killer struck again.
I rolled into town on fumes. The clock on my dash had crapped out somewhere south of Pittsburgh, but I guessed I had a couple hours till dawn. I pulled into a derelict gas station — the only thing open this time of the morning. The young man behind the counter ignored me as I got coffee and a dubious-looking sandwich. While he rang up my purchases with the casual disinterest that only a teenage, retail worker could muster, I eyed the display of cigarettes behind him. Sense memory kicked in, and I could almost smell the sweet menthol smoke, hear my sister’s laugh as we snuck behind the garage to share the single cigarette we’d stolen from mom’s purse. Then the cashier was telling me I owed $4.25.
Digging through my pockets to pull out change and a few bills, I said, “Also, can you put ten dollars on Pump 1.” Cigarettes were a luxury I couldn’t afford right now.
Sighing as if I had just asked him to shift the earth five inches to the left, he jammed the money into the drawer and handed me my change. He settled back on a stool and reached for a magazine, but I wasn’t done yet.
“Where can I find city hall?” I asked.
He lifted glassy eyes and gave me a blank look that might have been comical if I wasn’t exhausted. After a long moment, he gave me a set of directions so convoluted that I wasn’t sure if they would get me to city hall or to the lost city of Atlantis. I muttered a sarcastic “thanks” over my shoulder and I walked back to my car.
I started the pump and took a couple sips of the coffee before dumping it on the ground. Even by gas station standards, it was some of the worst I’d ever had. Two bites into the sandwich, I chucked it in a nearby trash can, deciding I’d rather go hungry than risk contracting E. coli.
There’s four bucks I’ll never see again.
I was replacing the pump nozzle when I noticed the pay phone at the far end of the station. I dreaded hearing what was on my answering machine, but I hadn’t checked my messages in nearly a week. Steeling myself for what I would find, I jogged over to it.
“You have two new messages and one saved message,” said the electronic recording.
The first one started up, muffled and full of static, but I recognized Roger’s voice: “Joan, haven’t heard from you lately. How’s the story coming?” He paused and sighed. “Look, we set a tentative deadline, but that was three days ago. You haven’t given me a choice on this. I’m giving the by-line to Andrew. Call me back.”
I leaned against the side of the building. Somewhere along the back roads and defunct mining towns of West Virginia, the deadline had passed and I hadn’t even noticed. I could have submitted what I had at the time, and Roger would have run the story as it was, but I couldn’t let it go to press without answers. After a beep, the next message started.
“Joanie, it’s mom. Please, at least let me know that you’re still alive?” Her voice cracked. “I know you said you need some time away, but I just… I can’t lose you, too.” I heard her start crying as she hung up. Squeezing my eyes shut, I willed back tears and held my breath. I knew what was coming. Over the past two months, I’d heard the last message more times than I could count. I didn’t want to listen again, but something wouldn’t let me put down the receiver.
“I can’t do this anymore,” my sister’s voice drifted from the phone, low and dull. “I just can’t. He’s gone. Gone forever… and I shouldn’t be here when he is gone.” The phone went silent. I counted the seconds — six, seven, eight, nine, and then the beep signaled it was over.
Tears slid down my cheeks as I hung up. I don’t even know how much vodka I’d had that night. Passed out on the kitchen floor, I’d missed her call — and the chance to save her. I hadn’t touched a drop since that night, but despite the pain that stabbed my heart every time I heard the message, I couldn’t bring myself to delete it. It was the only note she’d left us.
I walked back to my car, wiping my eyes on the sleeve of my hoodie. I drew in a shaky breath, turned the key, and left the payphone and its ghosts behind me. I had work to do.
If there had been more than three stop lights in this town, I might have driven in circles for an hour trying to follow the cashier’s directions. As it was, I didn’t need them. Half a mile down the road, I spotted a large sign that read “City Hall” outside of a red-brick building of the imposing, mid-century style that was favored all across the Midwest. If ever anything in the world screamed “wholesome, small-town America”, it was places like this.
I squinted at the small lettering further down the sign, barely discernible in the light of a dim streetlamp. Apparently, the building housed not just city hall and the morgue, but also the police office, rotary club, and a weekly bingo night. The windows stared darkly down at me as I pulled into the parking lot. It appeared wholly deserted until my headlights illuminated a dark vehicle tucked against a row of trees at the very back.
I parked a few spots over, close to a metal door with the word “MORGUE” written in chipping, white paint. It looked awkward and bulky against the brick and wood-framed windows. No wonder they stuck it out of sight. I got out of my car and on impulse, stuck my gun in my purse. Crossing the lot, I gave the rusty, Ford Bronco a wide berth. My fist landed with a dull thud against the metal door. A couple minutes passed with no response, so I pulled the sleeve of my hoodie over my hand and pounded as hard as I dared. Wincing, I massaged my throbbing fingers and listened for any signs of life.
Signs of life in a morgue. Despite my exhaustion and heavy heart, a wry smile twisted my lips.
The door opened with a high-pitched grinding, and a 30ish man with thinning, brown hair stuck his head out. He raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down.
“You’re the journalist?” His odd falsetto matched the pitch of the hinges, but the incredulity in his voice made me square my shoulders and school my features into something resembling professionalism.
“Yes, I am.”
He glanced around the empty lot before waving me inside.
“Usually, no one comes in till 8, but can’t be too careful. This is one of the only decent-paying jobs in town. I can’t afford to lose it.” One of his hands tapped a staccato on his thigh, and he narrowed his eyes, his gaze dropping pointedly to my purse.
“I’ll be in-and-out in no time,” I said. I withdrew ten dollars and held it out to him. He stared at it, then shook his head.
“Better be more where that came from.”
I sighed and dug out another ten. In the end, it took thirty-five dollars to get him moving down the hall. He shoved the money into the pocket of his dingy lab coat and led me past a cluttered office and into what was clearly little more than a holding space till bodies could be collected by funeral homes or sent on to the coroner’s office in the nearest city. The tech wheeled a gurney out of the cold storage room. He reached for the zipper, looked at the bag, and then at me.
“It’s a bad one, you know,” he said, and a small shudder passed through him. “I’ve seen some bad shit before — motorcycle vs. truck, a couple burn victims, but this… Never seen anything like it. None of us have.”
“Not my first rodeo,” I said.
He opened the bag, keeping his gaze trained on the far wall.
The eyes of the boy stared up at me, and my breath caught in my throat. They had probably been brown before death left its filmy, gray sheen over them. He had an unkempt shock of sandy-blonde hair and a liberal sprinkle of freckles across both cheeks. He could have been Nate’s brother.
“Told you it was bad,” the tech said, probably mistaking the reason for my distress. I tore my gaze from the child’s face and examined the rest of the body. Like the others, his limbs lay at strange angles, severed from the torso and its gaping wound. I stepped back, giving the tech a quick nod. He flipped the plastic over the body, zipped it shut, and pushed the gurney back into the cold room. When he stepped out, I swear, he looked disappointed, as if he’d hoped I’d already left.
No such luck for you.
“Where was he found?” I asked as he set off towards the hall at a brisk trot.
“West,” he replied, puffing slightly. He was almost jogging now, and I hurried to catch up. “Down 26. There’s lots of forest that way. The body was there.”
“Was he somewhere he shouldn’t be? Getting into some trouble?”
The tech paused and studied me. “Yeah, he was. Snuck away from the family’s campsite with some of the s’more supplies. Still had a Hershey’s wrapper clutched in one hand when they brought him in here.” He crossed his arms, suspicion creeping into his voice as he asked, “How’d you know that?”
“I told you before — not my first rodeo. Any word of other attacks?”
We reached the door, and he shook his head. “Nothing ‘round here, anyway.” He held the door open just enough for me to slip through. It slammed behind me, the echo reverberating like a death knell in the pre-dawn air. Shivering, I hurried to start my car and sped through the quiet streets, glad to see this sad, little town shrink and disappear in my rear view mirror.
State Route 26 wound southwest through the countryside. I passed a few outlying houses before reaching a more heavily wooded area — just what this killer liked. Slowing to a crawl, I scanned for any clues of where the attack had happened. As I rounded a bend, I caught sight of a flutter of yellow against the dark trunks. There was no shoulder to speak of, but I pulled my car up against the nearest trees. The lowest branches screeched across the roof, setting my teeth on edge. Shaking off the clenching sensation in my stomach, I grabbed my gun and flashlight and jogged across the empty road.
I examined the scrap of police tape. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt to remove it, and I followed the torn bits Hansel-and-Gretel style for a few hundred feet until I stepped into a small clearing. Immediately, I knew I was in the right place.
Tracks left by local law enforcement crisscrossed the open space, clustering around where a dark splotch of dried blood marred the forest floor. Any marks left by the killer were long gone — lost in the jumble of boot prints. The lack of tracks at previous crime scenes, even those not contaminated by the searchers, was both intriguing and infuriating. I kept hoping that one of these times, whoever it was would mess up, leave some mark behind, and I hadn’t yet given up hope of finding that clue.
I crouched and began working my way around the clearing. Using a stick, I shifted trampled leaves and dug into the dirt, holding my flashlight so the beam fell on the ground before me. It was early in the day, but the sun beat down on the clearing and the effort of creeping along, meticulously searching every inch of earth soon had me sweating. I stood, stretching out my back, and removed my hoodie. The weight of the gun in its pocket pulled on my arm, and I set the jacket within easy reach on a section of packed dirt I had already examined. Then I continued my work.
Time crawled and so did I as I worked my way from the outskirts of the clearing to the bloody void at its center. As I dug my stick through the detritus packed into the ring of prints around the murder site, it caught on something.
I brushed aside some leaves. Whatever it was glinted in the beam of the flashlight and my heart began to pound. I wedged the stick underneath, levering it free. Even caked with dirt, I could see it was metal. A weapon left behind by the killer? A knife maybe? My hands trembled as retrieved my hoodie and used the sleeve to wipe it clean.
A jet black feather lay before me — the length of my forearm and nearly as wide.
“What the hell,” I said, picking it up and turning it over in my hands.
It was heavier than I expected. Whoever coined the phrase ‘light as a feather’ never encountered this one. I ran my finger along the edge and yelped in pain. Blood welled up from the cut on my thumb, and as I stared at it, a voice from the direction of the road echoed through the forest: “Hello! Anyone out there?”
I jumped up, dropping my flashlight, and squinted through the trees. I couldn’t see anyone, but quickly tucked my gun into the back of my jeans and threw on my hoodie, pulling it down to cover the weapon. Cautious of the sharp edges, I slipped the feather inside my sleeve. It settled cold and hard against my skin. I brushed the dirt from my hoodie and retrieved my flashlight, emerging from the forest to find a young man in a state trooper uniform peering into my car.
“Hi,” I called.
He spun around, losing his balance and catching himself against the trunk. “Sorry,” he said with a small laugh. “I didn’t see you there. Everything alright?”
“Oh, yeah. Just answering the call of nature, as they say.” I grinned at him, keeping my posture loose and my hands visible. I’d spent a year on the crime beat when I started in Philly and learned a lot about body language. The last thing I needed right now was an eager cop taking an interest in me.
The man’s smooth cheeks reddened, and he shifted his weight, resting one hand on his duty belt.
“Well, uh, if there’s nothing else you need, you should be on your way. Not safe to leave your car there.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, giving him a small nod, and climbed into the driver’s seat. The hard outline of my gun pressed into my lower back, and the feather pricked my skin, but I pulled onto the road with a wave to the trooper. Only when I reached a rest area a few miles away did I stop to stow the gun in the glove box and examine the feather.
Several drops of blood slid along its smooth surface, evidence that I had sustained further injury that adrenaline must have kept blocked from my conscious mind. I used a crumpled, fast food napkin to wipe off the feather, then set it on the passenger seat before taking off my hoodie to survey the damage.
A line of shallow cuts arced along the curve of my forearm, smeared with red. I reached into the back seat, rummaging through my rucksack for the first aid kit, and wrapped gauze over the wounds. I pulled my microcassette recorder out of the pack and made verbal notes of my observations at the morgue and in the forest as I followed Route 26. I paused at the discovery of the feather and glanced at it, before deciding against mentioning it. It seemed too surreal. I wasn’t sure if anyone would believe me. Besides, I couldn’t prove it was related to the attack.
The day dragged on in a familiar, frustrating pattern. I stopped at each cluster of buildings calling itself a town and questioned distrustful locals about missing children, unusual deaths, or suspicious people.
“Yeah, I’ve seen someone suspicious,” said the haggard woman behind the counter of a garish diner populated by truckers and a family of five in the back corner.
“Who’s that?” I asked, cringing inwardly at the enthusiasm in my voice. Exhaustion was making me sloppy.
“You,” she snapped. She stalked off to refill the coffee of the patrons at the counter and glared at the parents who were ignoring their rowdy children. The eldest, a girl of about 5, cackled as she threw fries at her younger brother. He screeched and swiped at her, knocking over a glass of milk. A baby wriggled in a high chair, waving bits of spaghetti as rivulets of red dripped down his pudgy arms. He was working his way from a low whine to a piercing scream, so I followed the flood of truckers vacating the restaurant before any full-blown tantrums began.
Settling into my car, I decided to catch a little sleep. The sun hovered over the trees as I leaned the seat back, tucked my hands into my hoodie, and closed my eyes.
The screams woke me. I was so groggy I couldn’t see straight. I almost fell out of the car, stumbling into a run towards the crowd at the entrance to the diner.
“She was here. She was right here,’’ a woman wailed— the mother of the unruly children. Her husband stood beside her, one arm thrown around her shoulder as he stared blankly at the ground. She swayed, clutching her son to her chest. A handful of her hair was tangled in his fist, but she didn’t seem to feel it. The waitress had lost her hard expression and was rocking the baby. The cool night air and surge of fear cleared my mind.
“What happened?” I said, raising my voice above the ambient rumble of the gathered people.
“My daughter. She ran outside. I only looked away for a second. Just a second. She wanted to follow her father, but I told her to stay inside. I turned around, and she was gone, and we… can’t… find… her,” she gasped out as harsh sobs shook her. Her knees buckled, and her husband struggled to support her.
“Did anyone see her?” I demanded of the crowd. “Did anyone see anything?”
Silence hung in the air for a long moment before a man with a scraggly beard and wearing a faded trucker hat said, “I don’t know exactly what I saw, but,” he glanced around, “there was something big moving towards the trees. Moving fast.” He pointed at a spot across the road from the diner. “Can’t say what it was. Too big to be the girl.”
A cold hand gripped my heart, and a roaring filled my ears as I turned and shoved people out of my way. I ran to my car, grabbed my gun and flashlight, and sprinted towards the tree line.
The glowing beam bounced ahead of me, and I held up one hand, pushing branches aside as I sped deeper and deeper into the trees. I heard distant shouts and the crashing passage of others behind me, but I didn’t wait for them to catch up and kept going as fast as I dared in the dark.
A scream brought me up short. A child’s scream, ahead and to my right. As the echo faded, I hared off in its direction. Another cry pierced the night, closer and trailing away into a thin wail. I corrected my trajectory and burst into a wide clearing.
All the air went out of my body.
A bird the size of a small car was hunched over a writhing figure. Moonlight glinted on long, serrated feathers as the large, corvid head lifted, showing a curved beak dripping with gore. Wide, intelligent eyes bored into me as though taking my measure. My legs were rooted to the spot, and the beam of my flashlight twitched as a tremor spread through my body.
The beak opened and the force of its shrill call knocked me to my knees. My fingers ached from clutching the grip of the gun, but I seemed to have lost control of my limbs. The creature thrust out its chest, spreading its wings to the full extent of their vast span. It took one menacing step towards me. My breathing grew ragged as my heart tried to beat its way through my ribs.
A weak moan rose from the figure on the ground. The sound caught my attention as well as the bird’s. It turned towards her, raising its cruel beak for an attack.
Something halfway between an expletive and a sob tore from my throat. I scrambled to my feet, gripped the gun with both hands, and fired at the creature. The clash of metal-on-metal filled my ears as I emptied the magazine. The bird gave another deafening cry and leapt into the air, the pulse of its wings throwing me backwards and sending leaves swirling around the clearing. It blotted out the moon and then disappeared into the inky sky.
I crawled to the girl. Her skin shone ominously pale in the moonlight. One small arm lay a few feet away, forever severed from her body, and blood pooled around the ragged wound at her shoulder. The smell turned my stomach, but I put my hand on her chest and felt shallow, rapid breathing.
Ripping off my hoodie, I tried to stem the blood flow. It soaked through the fabric in seconds and oozed between my fingers. The painful ringing in my ears muffled my voice as I screamed for help, and I felt more than heard the pounding approach of the others.
Someone scooped up the child and ran. I reached towards her, an innate, protective instinct telling me not to let go. Strong hands dragged me to my feet. I smelled stale coffee and menthol cigarettes as a man put his face close to mine and shook my shoulders. It looked like he was shouting, but I could only stare uncomprehendingly as spittle flew from his mouth and landed on my cheek. Finally, he gave up and dragged me by the arm back through the trees.
We stumbled into the parking lot of the diner, and my eyes were dazzled by the brilliance of the flashing lights from several police cruisers and an ambulance. My legs burned from exertion, and as the adrenaline ran out of my system, I trembled so violently that I couldn’t stand. I sank to the ground and wrapped my arms around my knees, clutching them to my chest. I felt too wrecked to even cry. The man crouched beside me and patted my shoulder in an awkward, disjointed rhythm.
Two figures broke off from the crowd and headed towards us. As they approached, they resolved into a pair of police officers who stopped before me and appeared to be asking questions. I stared dumbly back at them, pointed at my ear, and said, “I can’t hear anything right now.”
I must have yelled because the men winced. They conferred together, and one held out a hand to help me up. I followed them to a cruiser, and before I could process what was happening, we were on the road, leaving the rest area behind us as we flew along in the wake of the ambulance. I stared out of the window, watching the trees for glittering feathers until we reached a small city, and the car slowed, letting the ambulance pull away.
We turned into the well-lit parking lot of a large police station. The squarish, cement building was a sharp contrast to the quaint, local stations I’d visited lately, and it reminded me of home. The officers escorted me to an interrogation room, brought me a cup of coffee, and then I was left alone.
I rested my aching head against the cool metal table, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths to stave off the rising panic in my chest. Silently, I recited the alphabet and counted to one hundred. I asked myself easy questions: What year was it? Who was president? My answers seemed right, but I suppose if I were crazy, any answer would seem right. I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew, someone was speaking to me.
I sat up, confused, seeing the officers brought the events of the night crashing back. Then I realized I could hear again, though a low ringing still persisted in my ears. There was no clock in the room, and I wondered how much time had passed. Before I could ask, one of the men sitting across the table started speaking.
“I’m Officer Williams. This is Officer Smith. We need to get a statement from you about what happened tonight.”
I nodded and reached for the coffee. It had gone cold. I frowned at the cup and set it down. One of the men, Smith, I think, asked, “Can I get you a fresh cup?”
“Uh, yeah, just black. Thanks.”
He returned in a couple minutes, coffee in hand, and set it in front of me. Steam rose from the swirling liquid. I inhaled the scent as I took a sip. Smith pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“Mind if I smoke?”
“No. Can I have one?”
He shook out the pack so I could pull one free and leaned across the table to light it. The first drag calmed my frayed nerves more than I cared to admit.
Williams placed a cassette player between us and pressed a button. “Do you consent to this interview being recorded?”
He leaned forward. “We need you to answer verbally.”
“Oh, shit, sorry. Yes, I consent.”
“Thank you. Now, you’re not under arrest, and no charges have been filed against you. We are holding you as a person of interest, though. Do you understand this?”
“Please state your name.”
“Joan Sulser,” I said and out of habit, spelled my last name because everyone always got it wrong.
“Thank you, Ms. Sulser. Can you tell us what happened tonight?”
“You can just call me Joan,” I said. I took a sip of coffee, trying to gather my thoughts, and began to recount my story.
The officers let me talk, only interrupting to ask for clarification or additional information. Smith scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad while Williams asked the questions.
“You said you’ve been following these murders. Where else have you seen attacks like this one?”
“The first that I know of was in Philly.” My voice caught, and I swallowed hard. I rattled off the names of the towns I’d visited on my trek from Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, and into Ohio. “Like I said, those are the ones I confirmed, anyway.”
“I saw the bodies,” I said, borrowing Smith’s lighter for another cigarette. “They’re all kids, about five or six years old. Limbs torn off and a large wound in the chest. Hard to miss the pattern once you know there is one.” My hand shook, and I took a long pull on the cigarette.
Williams leaned his forearms on the table. “How exactly did you get access to the bodies?”
“Ummm,” I paused, thinking of my most recent visit and the guy’s concern about his job. “You know, journalistic ethics being what they are, I can’t really divulge my sources, but I guarantee if you call the local authorities, they will confirm the deaths.”
The men exchanged a glance, and then Williams said, “What about the attacker? You said you didn’t get a good look, but you fired off eight rounds at someone.”
Something, I thought.
“What exactly did you see, Ms. Sulser?”
The rational side of my brain immediately informed me that a story about a giant bird with metal feathers that carried off children would earn me, at best, a 48-hour psych hold.
Discretion is the better part of valor, right?
“Well, it was dark. All I really saw was a shape bending over the girl. She was crying and… I just started firing. I wasn’t thinking. It was all instinct.” I stubbed out the cigarette and folded my arms across my chest. “Honestly, I don’t think I even hit anything. Everything happened so fast. Then I just ran to the girl and tried to stop the bleeding.”
I wondered if they could hear the terror behind my words.
Smith scratched out a few more notes as Williams asked, “Anything else you want to add?”
I shook my head, then remembered the tape and said, “No.”
Williams stopped the recording. I sat back and rubbed my eyes. Exhaustion had caught up with me hours ago, amplified now by the oppressive weight of the night’s events. I felt desperate for a shower, a drink, and sleep — in no particular order.
“We’ll need to confirm what you’ve told us,” Williams said as he and Smith stood and moved towards the door.
“Wait! The little girl, is she alive?”
Williams nodded. “Still in surgery, last we heard.”
I let out a long breath. I felt like I had been holding it for hours. “So, can I go?”
Williams shook his head. “Not just yet. Give us time to make some calls.”
As I waited, my whole body began to ache. I was considering putting my head down and trying for more sleep when Smith came in and led me back through the station.
“We’ve confirmed three of the cases you reported,” he said. “Had to get some people out of bed to do it. We’d like you to remain in town for a few days.”
“I can do that. Just point me towards the nearest motel.” Then I remembered my car was still out at the diner.
“We can do you one better. There’s a Motel 6 down the road. We’ll drop you off.” When we stepped outside, Williams was waiting with a cruiser. At the motel, he gave me his card and said they would check in tomorrow.
The woman behind the desk put down her magazine when I came in, and in exchange for a third of what I had in my wallet, she gave me a room key on a large plastic fob. I started for the stairs, then turned back. She was already flipping pages but looked up when I spoke.
“I was wondering if you could do something for me.” I pulled out a few more bills. “I don’t have a car here, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know where to go.”
She leaned forward and said in a low voice, “What are you looking for, hun?”
“Nothing illegal. Just a couple packs of cigarettes, menthols, preferably, and a bottle of vodka, if you can get one this time of night.” I looked at the clock behind the desk, registering with surprise that it was almost 1 a.m.
The woman took the cash. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks. Oh, and I’ll need a lighter, too.”
“Here,” she reached below the counter and tossed me a small Zippo. “Someone left that in a room last week. All yours.”
I hurried through the dark to my room, turned the dead bolt, flipped on the lights, and leaned against the door. The banal normalcy of the shabby bedspread and mass-produced artwork felt so at odds with what I had experienced that I might as well have walked into a parallel world. Looking down, I noticed the dried blood flaking off my clothes. My arms were blotched with the tell-tale, rusty stains, and the gauze bandage was deep crimson. My legs went out from under me, and I slid onto the floor, sobbing.
A knock on the door made me jump. I wiped tears and snot from my face with my soiled shirt and checked the peephole. When I opened the door, the front desk woman held out a paper bag.
“Ciggies and vodka. Just what the doctor ordered,” she said, grinning.
I held the comforting weight of the bag against my chest. “Thanks,” I replied and tried to muster up a smile.
“There’s a little change,” She said, starting to dig in her pocket.
I waved a hand at her. “Keep it. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome, hun. Let me know if you want… you know, anything else.” She winked and trotted back towards the lobby.
As she disappeared from view, a chill ran along my spine and the hairs on my arms stood up. I scanned the parking lot. Across from the motel, I made out a row of apartment buildings, the line of their roofs lost against the night sky. Something shifted on a peak to the right, and my stomach clenched. There was a flash of metal in the moonlight and then the apparition disappeared.
I slammed and locked the door, dropping the bag in my haste. My stomach lurched again. I ran to the bathroom and puked but only bile came up. As I rinsed my mouth, I caught sight of my reflection. The dark circles under my eyes stood out starkly against my waxy skin. I peeled off the crusty gauze and stood in the shower for a long time, letting the hot water carry away the blood and dirt and what few tears I had left.
Wrapped in a towel, I retrieved the bag, grateful cheap vodka comes in a plastic bottle, and settled onto the lumpy mattress. I poured myself a generous glass. ‘Liquid courage’ my mom had always called it. I shuddered. I could use some courage tonight.
The thought of mom sent a wave of guilt through me, and her message echoed in my head: “I can’t lose you too.” Picking up the phone on the bedside table, I dialed home. It didn’t surprise me that no one answered, considering how late it was. I’d rather leave a message, anyway. I wouldn’t know how to begin explaining tonight to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, something about being alive, which was the truth, and fine, which was a lie.
After I hung up, I flipped on the TV. I watched women with bad facelifts and too much makeup hawk flashy, costume jewelry and downed the first glass of vodka. Somewhere between drinking the fifth glass and pouring the sixth, I fell asleep. Even then, I only dozed, waking in a cold sweat out of dreams where feathers like saw blades sliced my skin, and when I ran, I fell into pits filled with dismembered limbs. Eventually, I gave up on sleep and settled for local news programs, chain smoking, and more vodka.
It was three days before the girl was alert enough to talk. I had broken out my emergency credit card to cover the motel bill, and the front desk woman — Trisha was her name — had pointed me towards a cheap restaurant and a cheaper bar. The latter became my daily haunt, though I was always back behind the locked door of my room before dark.
I was settling in for the night when Williams arrived. I sat on the bed while he told me the girl’s story lined up with mine.
“As much as can be expected, anyway. She keeps saying a monster carried her into the sky. Doctors think the trauma did a number on her memory. Poor kid. Nothing they could do about the arm, but besides that, she’s expected to make a full recovery. You saved her life. Everyone agrees on that.”
My face flushed, and I shook my head. “I was just in the right place at the right time,” I said, wondering for the thousandth time today how different my life would be if I had been in the right place and time to save Nate. If he were the one in the hospital with me, mom, and Hannah beside him. I took a drag on my cigarette to cover the emotions threatening to break free.
“Well, you’re a hero in our books, Ms. Sulser. You’re certainly a hero to that little girl,” Williams said. When I didn’t respond, he cleared his throat and continued. “You’re free to leave town. I can drop you at your car right now, if you’re ready.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m ready.”
Trisha was coming on shift when I checked out. She gave me a hug and told me to take care.
“I’ll try,” I said.
“And cut back on those things.” She pointed at the ever-present pack of cigarettes in my hand. “They’ll kill you, ya know.”
I gave her half a smile and left. All things considered, dying of lung cancer seemed like not-too-bad of a way to go out, not when there were monstrous, child-killing birds in the world.
Back out at the diner, Williams handed me an evidence bag containing my gun and waved as he pulled away. The waitress, wispy hair falling out of its messy bun, hurried outside.
“Come have dinner before you get on the road. It’s on the house, on account of what you did for that little girl.”
I accepted, gratefully. As broke as I was, this would probably be my last real meal for the foreseeable future.
An hour later, I sat in my car unsure where to go next. I’d come here to find a killer, to give myself and my family some peace. But this wasn’t a story I could take home. Where the gravel parking lot met the blacktop, I paused, looking left and then right. A flash of reflected light caught my eye where the road disappeared around a clump of trees. The creature rose into the air and banked to the west. I twisted the wheel and hit the gas hard, speeding into the night and watching the sky for dark wings.
Jess Lake grew up in four countries on two continents and due to a strange series of events, ended up settling in Dayton, Ohio where she lives with her partner and her cat.