Tabitha DeVaney would never be Tabitha Bartenbach, but
that was at least her decision. She looked down at her wedding dress, then
across the mostly empty bus to the other patrons. None seemed to notice, which
was just fine. A girl riding public transportation in the middle of the night
should merit attention, but perhaps - like her - they had enough on their mind.
They didn’t need to borrow anyone else’s drama.
Tabitha sighed. She fled with the envelope full of money some of her wedding guests had left. She felt a little guilty about that, but she had to get out while she could. She ran a hand through her smooth jet black hair, twirling it in her fingers as she thought.
Wylie Bartenbach. Wylie and Tabitha Bartenbach. Why did that scare her so? Why was she so frightened? Wylie wasn’t that bad of a catch. He was handsome, after all. If his accounting business continued to grow, he would be a good provider. There was just no excitement. No flair. Tabitha couldn’t stand the thought of spending her life bored stiff.
“Hey, going someplace special?” Someone said.
Tabitha turned and saw that across the aisle, an old homeless man was talking to her. He was in his fifties, had a scruffy grey beard, and was wearing multiple layers of grimy clothes. Hard wrinkles lined his eyes and cheeks and the folds within gave a hint at his actual skin color, betraying the otherwise dirty face. The man had plastic grocery bags filled with stuff on the seat next to him.
Tabitha turned to the bus driver, wishing she had sat closer to the front. The man smiled, revealing a jack-o-lantern arrangement of sparse teeth and blackened gums. A line of white spittle crossed his lips as if sewn together with a single line of thread. “Are ya, darling?” He asked.
Tabitha tried to smile, nodding politely. “Looks like you are, sweetie. And such a fine carriage to arrive at your festivities.” He laughed, causing him to cough.
Tabitha turned around, hoping to look out at the night surroundings. Instead, the interior bus lights made the window react like a mirror. She saw her face, complete with black trails of mascara running down her cheeks. She was a mess. She absently brushed the streaks away with the back of a gloved hand, leaving dark blotches on the otherwise glossy white gloves.
She began to cry again. “Jitters, huh? Well, I don’t blame you. What say we just ride this puppy all the way to Vegas and get hitched there?” The man joked.
Tabitha stood, walking to the front of the bus as it barreled along the road. Behind her, the homeless man said, “Wait, wait, darling. I was just kidding. Forgive an old man, won’t you?”
She made it to the front and asked, “Can you please let me out here?”
The driver glanced at her and frowned slightly, but shrugged. He pulled over to the next intersection and opened the accordion door with a slide of the lever. “Wait!” The homeless man objected as she walked down the steps and out to the street beyond.
Tabitha walked out onto the asphalt, her high heels clicking angrily on the road. She got off onto the shoulder to permit the bus to pass. As she walked, dust billowed underneath. She could feel it coating her bare toes through the holes in the shoes. Tears continued to run down her cheeks.
She was about fifteen yards down the road when she noticed the bus wasn’t moving. She turned quizzically and then noticed the homeless man was getting off too, his arms laden with plastic grocery bags. When he was clear of the steps, the diesel engine of the bus roared back into action. It puffed black smoke and drove off quickly down the road, eager to catch up on precious minutes of schedule the driver had just lost.
She tried to wave it back, but it was too late. The driver couldn’t see her in the darkness. Soon, the bus crested a hill and rode out of sight. “Hey, darling!” The man beckoned to her.
The homeless man walked towards her, and Tabitha felt her stomach plunge. She looked around frantically and the severity of the situation hit her. Farmlands stretched out endlessly all around, and not even a streetlight dotted the landscape. It was night and she was isolated. The man approached.
Tabitha took off her shoes and prepared to run. But where? “Hey, I just wanted to talk to you.” The man said, within eight yards of her now.
Tabitha threw a shoe at the man, who winced as it flew past him. “Hey, sweetie, that’s no way to treat someone who-”
Thunk. The second shoe hit him in the chest, bouncing off but halting his speech. He looked down at it. Tabitha took the opportunity to run.
She ran down the highway, dress flying wildly as she sprinted. Her arms flailed back and forth and she ran. The homeless man yelled behind her, but he was in no shape to catch her. Tabitha was less than half in age and a runner, to boot. She had strength and stamina on her team. She would get away.
Still standing on the roadside, the man looked down at the envelope full of cash he had grabbed from the seat after the girl left. He shook his head. “I just wanted to tell you that you left this.” He muttered to himself.
Tabitha didn’t get winded for quite a while. Her running turned from fleeing the immediate danger to simply running overall. All her life, she ran away from things. She had never finished college. She never made any good friends. She hadn’t fixed the relationship with her father. She never kept a job more than a few months. And now, she ran from the altar. She ran until her lungs felt like they would burst. Then she bent over and grabbed her knees, wheezing and breathing laboriously.
It was dark. Tabitha looked behind her, but she couldn’t see far enough to tell if the man had tried to keep up. She held her breath to listen. Crickets, but no other sounds. Not even the incessant freeway noise she was so accustomed to hearing. She was alone.
Had she been hasty? Had she made a mistake leaving Wylie at the altar? Why was she so afraid? Tabitha considered her choices.
Above her, the clouds congregated into a formidable mass. Lightning flashed in the horizon, heralding the coming of a storm. Tabitha counted how long until she heard thunder, a trick she had learned from her father many years ago. Six seconds.
Her father, who had always expected the best from Tabitha. So much so that every time she had ran away from something, her father tried to hold her accountable. She didn’t like it. It was easier not to have someone telling her what to do.
Down the road where she was facing was a dim yellow glow. She squinted, trying to bring whatever it was into focus. It was too far off, but it was definitely a light. Tabitha walked towards it.
The light grew in size and definition after a few minutes. Tabitha could see that it was the porch lamp of some farmhouse. She knew they would have a phone. Perhaps she would call Wylie and have him come get her, she thought.
Tabitha approached the farmhouse when she noticed a large man in overalls and a trucker’s cap standing outside. His huge back was to her and he hadn’t noticed her approach. He was probably accustomed to this isolation, she realized. “Hello!” Tabitha yelled out to him.
The farmer turned and Tabitha saw it. He had a huge axe he wielded in a threatening fashion. Tabitha instinctually ducked down. Although wearing a white gown, it was a moonless overcast night and very dark. She knew he could not see her. She had the advantage as he was standing within the glow of the porch light. He scanned the gloom earnestly before dismissing what he had heard as his own imagination. The man turned back around, raising the axe high above his head.
Another flash of lightning and thunder was only four second behind now. The man brought the axe down with a violent blow to whatever was in front of him. Tabitha craned her neck to see, but could not make out what was at his feet. She didn’t want to know.
The lightning would betray her, Tabitha realized. All the man had to do was to face the opposite direction when a flash came, and it would reveal her location as plain as the nose on her face. Her white gown would make a wonderful surface to reflect the lightning.
She had to run. Tabitha cautiously stood and tip-toed across the street. She made her way into the field to her right on the opposite side of the road from the farmhouse.
The grass was already wet from dew, and her bare feet grew cold. The man raised the axe again, swinging it down on something. Oh, how Tabitha didn’t want to know what.
Once she had retreated enough, she dared turn her back to the man and jog through the field. A barb wire fence halted her progress. She cursed silently in her head. More lightning. Three seconds now.
Tabitha ran the perimeter of the fence, looking for a way across. There was none. A sag in the wire was her best chance. Tabitha hiked up her dress as much as possible preparing to climb over the fence. Her garter slid, and Tabitha took it off. She used it to tie back her hair. She slung a leg over.
The tooling of her gown caught a barb in the fence. She flipped her other leg over and heard the tear. She couldn’t afford to cry, she realized. The man with the axe would hear her.
The field on the other side of the wire was less grassy than where she had come. It was also looser soil and her feet gave way into the softer surface. She turned back to the farmhouse just as a flash of lightning came, immediately accompanied by thunder.
In the flash of light, she saw the man had turned around and was facing her. He had the hatchet poised menacingly. Tabitha screamed in fright, turned and fled.
Without waiting to see his pursuit, Tabitha imagined him running behind her with axe poised for attack. He would surely have to silence the unexpected witness to his crimes, she thought. He could not allow her to live after what she had seen. Tabitha ran.
The farmer turned back to his pile of wood. He sent the axe flying downwards, finding a familiar place in the stump. He bent over and picked up several logs for a fire to keep his house warm during the impending thunderstorm. “Could have sworn I heard something.” He said, shivering in the cold windy air.
Tabitha tore through the fields as quickly as she could. She feared she would turn an ankle and fall like she had seen girls do in a thousand horror movies. Then, the axe-wielding maniac would be upon her chopping wildly through flesh and bone. She could not slow down for fear of the same, though. Tabitha ran.
She ran until she came upon a more seemingly impenetrable chain link fence, with razor wire at the top. A construction sight, she thought. It would make a fantastic hiding place from the murderer. But how could she get in? Tabitha wondered.
Tabitha noticed the ground was soft and got an idea. She dug with her hands, scooping out mounds of dirt and grass. Thinking ahead, she pushed the mounds on the inside of the fence. When it appeared that her body could fit through the hole she dug, she wriggled through the fresh earth and underneath the fence. With some effort, she was in.
Tabitha hid her escape from the killer as best as possible. She pushed the dirt back into the hole and even tried to make the grass look like it had grown naturally. The job would not pass close scrutiny, but it would most likely evade casual inspection.
Her hands were filthy with dirt, so Tabitha tore off the long gloves and dropped them in the bushes where the maniac would not see them. She looked at her wedding gown, also streaked with grass and dirt and torn in many places. She found that she didn’t have any more tears to cry, and simply continued with her escape route.
Whatever distance she had put between her and the killer had to have closed while she dug the hole and scurried underneath. She was hoping the barrier would dissuade the axe-wielding murderer. Maybe he would even think that she had run another direction. But, she feared, he would assume she was inside the fence.
Her initial impression that the location was a construction site was incorrect, unless of course it was an upcoming construction site. No work had been done. There was a few broken down cars, which eluded to the fact that this must have been old farmland that had been sold for other purposes. The old cars appeared to have been rusting apart for decades. Tabitha thought that they might make an acceptable hiding spot, so she headed for them.
Thunder and lightning crashed again, and the downpour started. Tabitha’s long, dark hair quickly became saturated. The ground turned to mud, and Tabitha heard a sloshing sucking noise as she pulled out her feet. The noise was loud and she worried it would be heard.
Soon, she made it to the three or four cars clumped together in a makeshift auto graveyard. She chose one that looked the least dilapidated, in fact still had glass windows, and opened the door with a rusty creak. She crawled inside the passenger front side of the four door sedan.
The roof was still intact, and the interior provided a nice reprieve from the thunderstorm. Rain obscured her view outside, but Tabitha still scanned for the man with the axe. She couldn’t see him, but she couldn’t trust that she would be able to even if he were ten feet away. She sighed.
Tabitha leaned back, lying down on the large bench seat. It smelled in the car. Something terrible, she soon noticed. The seats in particular had a terrible odor about them.
Tabitha sat up, not wanting that odor in her face. It was repulsive and she feared she would have to leave. But what if the killer was waiting outside?
Tabitha placed her face to the glass, risking a glance. Nothing. She could not see a thing. She rolled the window down a bit and peered out through the opening. Still nothing, but it was dark and raining. She had the same cover the killer had, though. She had that in her favor. If she could not see a thing, neither could he. She could just wait it out until he relented. If he gave up, that is.
Tabitha rolled up the window and then looked out through the back window. She rested her chin on the seat, breathing deeply through her mouth so as to lessen the impact of the smell. Then, she looked down at the back seat.
Lying down across the bench was a corpse. It was decayed and rotten to the point where there were no longer eyes, but empty chasms of death. The mouth was open in a silent scream. Loose clumps of hair surrounded the skull where it had fallen out, perhaps months ago. The clothes were in such tatters that Tabitha could not even tell if the body had been that of a man or woman.
Her eyes grew wide as the information was processed in her mind. This was not her imagination. There was a dead body in the car with her. The source of the terrible smell. Someone had killed a person and dumped it in the car who knows how long ago.
Tabitha placed the palm of her left hand in her mouth and bit down hard. She feared if she didn’t, she would begin screaming. If the killer heard her, surely he would know she had discovered his handiwork.
She couldn’t stay in the car another minute, though. She had to flee. Tabitha had to get out of there.
Carefully opening the door, she made her way back out into the storm. The ground was running with muddy water, the earth saturated and spilling forth the overflow. She placed her feet in it and they sank.
Tabitha worried she would be stuck in the mud making easy work for the murderer. She pulled her feet back out of the filth and walked along the running boards of the sedan. Another car was within jumping distance and she flung herself towards the rear bumper of a truck.
Tabitha made it, grasping onto the tailgate for support. She glanced in the back of the truck. Cinderblocks held down three of the four corners of a large plastic tarp. One end had come loose in the wind. It flapped around and revealed its morbid secret underneath. Two more corpses in differing states of decay lay underneath the haphazardly lain shroud.
This time, Tabitha did scream. She ran through the mud, falling several times before resigning to crawling as means of escape. Mud caked her face, body, legs and arms. She trudged forward in the grime.
A small wooden area was revealed in another peal of lightning and thunder. Tabitha headed for it, screaming and panting. She no longer worried about the axe murderer hearing her. Her mind just knew she had to flee, but there was no rational thought process left at this point. She just had to run.
The woods were a small copse of trees in the middle of the field. The strangeness of this didn’t dawn on Tabitha, but she saw it as shelter. Once inside the tree line, she knew a different story.
More bodies. Corpses half way buried. Some tied to trees as if lynched. Others just left out in the open. They were everywhere. Tabitha screamed.
Something in her mind gave way. Tabitha just ran, out into the storm, blindly. She fled, but without reason or purpose whatsoever. She tripped and fell, flailing to get up and find purchase in the muddy ground. Tabitha ran.
In the morning, they found her. Officer Daniel Pickary was called down from the city by the medical examiner, Anson Scott, himself. It had been a busy weekend for Officer Pickary. He had just investigated the strange death of four boys and disappearance of a body from a funeral home on Friday and now on Sunday there was this.
Dr. Scott was at the scene. Officer Pickary pulled up in his squad car and got out. It was at the facility, he noted.
“Dr. Scott. Good to see you. How is she doing?” Officer Pickary asked.
Dr. Scott shook his head, lips frowning under his thick grey moustache. “Not so good, I’m afraid. I can’t get her to react at all. I have her covered with a blanket, but she won’t quit shivering.”
Dr. Scott pointed to his car. Officer Pickary walked over and looked in. A young woman in her twenties sat on the seat under a thick brown rug of a blanket. She would not make eye contact, but stared blindly into nothingness. Her eyes were wild and her lips quivered with unformed, soundless words.
“Miss? Miss, can you talk to me? We want to try and help.” Officer Pickary said.
No response. Officer Pickary walked back up to the gate of the facility next to Dr. Scott. “She was inside?” Officer Pickary asked.
“Yes.” Dr. Scott said.
Officer Pickary noticed the large warning signs attached to the fence. They all read “Forensic Body Farm - State Anthropology Research Center. Absolutely no admittance.”
“I suppose in the dark, she didn’t see those signs, huh?” Officer Pickary said.
“Hard to miss, but I suppose it is possible. Maybe she didn’t understand that the research facility is so we can study how dead bodies decompose for the sake of solving crimes on scene.” Dr. Scott surmised.
“I can’t even fathom what she might have imagined in there last night.” Officer Pickary said.
In the medical examiner’s car, Tabitha ran her hand through her long hair which had turned pure white overnight. She twirled a strand between her fingers. In her mind, she ran. She ran, and ran, and ran...