We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
Riddles are keyholes; Their first words are the key.
-The Cattlemen’s Cipher
THE first day of summer break, and I’d promised Sasha we’d share the afternoon at Lake Lowell.
“No Swimming After May, No Fishing Past June,” Sasha moans as she reads the worn weathered sign nailed to the dock post. “Seriously?”
“Sorry kiddo, them’s the rules.” I say and paw at her braid.
“Dad! Stop, it took me an hour to get this right.” She slaps my hand away. “Now Im going to be stuck watching Turd Burgler for nothing.”
“Hey, your brother’s name is Mikey,” I wag my finger, “And relax, your Dad’s not a cheapskate. How about I pay you this time. Say ten bucks?”
“I’m going to stream the child abuse you’re exposing me to.” Sasha mumbles as she pulls out her cell phone.
“Okay! Twenty,” I check my wallet for cash, “Okay Twenty-three fifty. That’s all I got.”
“Deal!” She instantly smiles, and I slip her the cash as we climb back into the family station wagon. As I turn the ignition, a park ranger pulls beside us in a faded red jeep and waves. I roll down the window, and he smiles as he squats beside our car.
“Howdy folks,” Our tiny forms are reflected in his silver-rimmed sunglasses, “You didn’t pull any fish outta here today did you?”
“No, no. We saw the sign.” I smile nervously, “Though I’m a bit curious why the season is so short.”
“You must be new to Star.” the Ranger replies; concern sweeps across his face before an easy smile replaces it. “The algae bloom in the summer gets pretty toxic, as do the trout and anything else swimming at the bottom - eat one and you’ll find yourself in the county E.R. come morning.”
“Sounds like you have a cyanobacteria problem,” I nod.
“Bacteria, it’s probably what’s causing those algae blooms - real shame too, the lake is beautiful. You may want to try chytrids - there a type of aquatic fungi that will break up the algae fairly quickly.”
He tilts his head a bit, and that smile seems to weaken.
“Sorry, I’m a horticulturist - Scott Jenkins.” I nod at my disinterested daughter, her face fully immersed in social media, “This is Sasha, my daughter.”
“Well, Mr. Jenkins,” the Ranger stands again, giving me a perfect view of his Colt .45 pistol, sitting loosely in its holster. “I will sure pass that along to my superiors. When’d you folks move to the area?”
“Just last December. Bought the old Sherwood Ranch, just past the Lazy-J cattle lot off Highway Ten.”
“Hell,” the Ranger’s demeanor softens, “You should’ve told me you were raising cattle. Randy Sherwood’s stock are sorely missed.”
“No,” I shake my head, “No, I’m no rancher. I’m turning the place into a nursery, actually. I cultivate roses, perennials, that sort of thing.”
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to see them grow in this soil. Cattle’s a better bet - always has been in this neck of the woods.”
“Well, we’re going to give it our best shot.” I say and check my watch, hoping he takes the hint. “Thanks for the tip though.”
“As long as your crop isn’t delivered in dime bags, you’re free to grow what you want I guess.” The Ranger turns, “But remember, as far as the lake goes, stay clear till November. That’s when it sleeps.”
Odd choice of words. I want to correct him, inform him that algae don’t go fully dormant in the winter, but it’s not worth my time, and the last thing I want is to annoy the locals. We’re new, and we need to try and fit in. At least that’s what I’ve told my wife, Lorelai, and the kids. As I wave and pull the car away, I look in the rearview to see the Ranger speaking into his walkie, reciting my plate number to whoever’s listening.
DEEP below the horizon topsoil, I find a fetid root system as black and leathery as rotten skin. The fact it sprouts greasy tendrils up and not down and chokes my Bukavu hybrid roses within days baffles me.
“You okay?” Lorelai asks as she wraps her arms around my waist.
But I barely notice as I peer into my grounded planter boxes, stunned my prize plants are fairing so badly. “He wasn’t kidding.”
“That ranger you mentioned?” Lorelai peers over my shoulder as she watches my hands struggle to rip the black roots from the ground. “Yeah, seems odd. But I guess he’d know. Why don’t you grab some weed killer from that Reggie’s shop in town? That stuff looks nasty.”
“Yeah I want a sample first.” I mutter after ripping a bit free and holding it up to the sun. It shrinks and curls in my hand like a salted snail. “This stuff doesn’t look right.”
“You’ll figure it out,” she squeezes me and withdraws to deal with the racket Mikey is making with a kitchen pot and a spoon, “You always do.”
The town of Star is wholly unremarkable, save for the prairie grass and farm fields that surround it like a sea of gold and green. During the day you’ll find a slice of home-grown Americana in every window of the red brick storefronts and park gazebos shading the summer tourists as they pass. But at night the lights blink out early, like crickets sensing the approach of heavy feet.
Reggie’s Feed & Garden is little more than a barn with some new white paint and floral displays. It’s kitschy and filled with cheap shiplap signs, low-quality gardening gear, a plethora of pots, and vintage milk bottles to rival any HGTV show; somewhere we’d probably love to shop at back in L.A. The clerk, Jimmy Justus, is of no help whatsoever.
“Yeah, I guess the high-yield stuff in that brown sprayer is your best bet,” Jimmy says without looking up from his phone. His name tag purports he’s there to serve, but I have my doubts. “Supposed to work on weeds I think.”
“The 2 - 4D? Yeah, that’s a herbicide, but I’ve already tried that. It doesn’t.” I insist. “I mean look at this thing.” I hold the withered black root in my fingers. “Does this look like a normal weed?”
“Sorry man,” Jimmy gives me a bored shrug, “I’m not a flower expert.”
“This isn’t a flower. It’s totally invasive.” I grit my teeth and smile. For the first time, I catch his eyes and see one is a silvery blue, one is brown—a striking feature on an otherwise ordinary kid.
“Hold on,” Jimmy sighs, holds his phone up, and snaps a shot of it. “Let me see what the app says.” He scans his screen. “Weird. It says unknown.”
“It’s Uncommon Plantain Root,” Jimmy’s corpulent manager calls out as he emerges from the stock room carrying weathered wall decor with Bible verses and inspirational messages. He sets them down with a sigh and pushes the sliding glasses up his nose. Sweat drips from his forehead, and he smiles, revealing a wide gap at his front teeth. “Jimmy, did you tell the customer about our two-for-one 50% off summer clearance sale?”
Jimmy rolls his eyes and dryly repeats, “Did you know we have a two-for-one 50% off summer clearance sale going on?”
“Oh, uh, no.” I smile at Jimmy. We’ve all had one of these jobs at some point.
“Well, now you do,” Jimmy says. “And yeah, the app doesn’t know what to make of it. You may want to try the library. Probably a book or two on that kind of thing. It looks weird as hell to me.”
“Jimmy!” his manager snaps, “Language.” He looks up at me with a wry smile. “Jimmy’s new to the job” He leans in and whispers, “part of our local juvenile rehab program, but with this pandemic, beggars can’t be choosers, am I right?”
“So an uncommon plantain, huh?” I know the man’s wrong, but I want to hear his thoughts.
“Oh yeah. Don’t ask me why they’re called uncommon,” the manager continues, “they’ve grown here as long as I can remember, and right now they have a beautiful red bloom. A lot of folks just let them be. You might wanna do the same. They’ll keep the flies out of your garden. I guess they got a bit of flytrap in em’.”
“Well if they’re invasive I’ll have to cull them,” I say and watch a familiar concern wash across his face. “I run a nursery.”
He pushes his glasses up his nose again and studies me, “Yeah, well. Good luck with that. You’d be better served with cattle. We could always use more meat in the market.” He pulls a sign from the stack that reads, Sometimes The Old Ways Are Best.
“Sage advice, Mr. Jenkins. Sure you don’t want one? 50% off” He smiles. I tell him no thanks and head for the door with a disquieted feeling brewing in my stomach.
It only occurs to me as I pull away from the parking lot I never gave him my name.
“ONE bird.” Mikey reads aloud from his favorite primer and points at the image of a bluejay. “Two birds. Three birds. Floor!”
“Four, sweetie.” Lorelai says as she holds him in her lap, “But very, very good!”
I scan our property line and let my eyes jump from tree top to tree top. Each is verdant and healthy, save for one odd note. “Honey, have you noticed there are no birds anywhere? I mean it’s spring you’d think they’d be out in full force.”
Lorelai sets Mikey down and stands next to me to scan the horizon. “Yeah, it does seem a little quiet out there. I haven’t seen any squirrels lately either, come to think of it. Are they still hibernating?”
“Mom, Dad!” Sasha calls from the backyard and runs into the house, holding a red bloom in one hand and her nose in the other. A pungent rot fills the room, and Mikey cries as if he’s been stung by it.
“Oh God, honey take that outside.” Lorelai points to the door as she leans in to comfort him.
“It’s so gross!” Sasha nods and dropkicks it through the doorway to the back porch.
I follow her out and scoop it up in my hands. Red fluid leaks onto my fingers as I study the bud. It’s quite unlike any plant I’ve ever seen. Large leather petals with micro-fine hairs run across its crimson sunburst face, and when I touch its center, the leaves fold around my finger, and I feel a prick.
“Shit.” I drop the bud and see a drop of my blood form at the tip of my index. “Is there a thorn in there?” I tentatively pick it up again and see the smallest fragment of a fang disappear beneath its sepals. The stigma opens like an eyelid, and a tiny black pupil appears past the petals.
“It’s got teeth!” Sasha screams. “So cool!”
“No, hon. Not cool.” I tell her and look around. The buds have grown at the outskirts of the lawn line. Hungry red blooms are everywhere. “Do me a favor and don’t touch these. In fact, don’t even play near them.”
“Dad, they’re not going to eat me.” Sasha calmly states, “I’m way bigger than….”
“Don’t talk back Sasha, just do as I say.” I hold her gaze. “I mean it.”
“Fine, grouch.” Sasha mumbles and heads back inside.
I take the bud and head to my greenhouse. I lay the decapitated bloom next to the solitary rose I’ve grown and rummage through the stack of unpacked boxes I have yet to organize. I finally find my Encyclopedia of Horticulture and scan through the pages. The index leads me to invasive organisms and toxic flora.
“Uncommon Drosera fly traps have been found in the Amazon, some large enough to capture and digest small mammals and fowl,” I read aloud. “Well, that may explain the birds….” But the root system is all wrong. I pull a multi-tool from the same box and flip open the blade. I need another sample.
Striding out of the greenhouse to the closest patch of red blooms, I notice that they have opened as if expecting a meal. I kneel at one and yank it up. Carving my blade deep into the soil and ripping both bud and root free.
A soft hiss carries in the breeze, and now a hundred stemmed buds are closed and stirring as if they too felt the jab. I back away with their fallen brother in my hand and shake off the feeling they’re watching my every step.
When I return to my workbench, I find Sasha’s bud has engulfed my rose, and as I pry it off the flower, I see only a decimated stem remains.
“MUST be on the microfiche,” the senior librarian says as she reads her monitor screen. The Star Municipal Library is empty save for her and what looks to be Jimmy Justus, the store clerk, wearing earbuds while reading a graphic novel, “Arkham Nights” at a back table.
“You still have microfiche? Wow.” I smile, “That’s a blast from the past.”
“Sometimes, the old ways are best.” She replies and stirs from her seat with a grunt. She shuffles to a stack of boxes before returning with three large Kodak binders. She opens one of the flaps and showcases the microfiche rolls set into their fold. “Four are in each binder, the local paper only goes back to 1925 when the town was incorporated, so these three will do ya.”
“Star’s fairly new then?” The idea seems off. “The way the locals talk I’d expected it’d been around for at least a century.”
“I didn’t say people didn’t live here, things just got official in 25’. Especially when they filled the lake.” She pauses and looks around nervously, a slip of the tongue. “Uh, well, anyways there you go. Remember we close at five.”
“The lake’s man-made?” I ask, but she’s already engrossed in a game of Solitare on her computer.
“We close at five.” She repeats, ignoring my question.
As I sift through reel after reel of typeset stories and black and white photographs on the machine, I get the same sense of eyes watching, boring in the back of my skull. I turn to find Jimmy Justus reading over my shoulder.
“Excuse me?” I start, but he holds his finger to his lips.
“Keep it down or Cruella over there will have a shit fit. Trust me I know.”
“You on your lunch break Jimmy?” I offer him a seat next to me. “Or did you quit Reggies?”
“I wish.” Jimmy smiles, “Trust me I’ve been stuck here for five years now, if there was anything else to do in this town I’d do it, but it’s dead as a doornail.”
“Yeah, I got that feeling,” I say as I turn back to the screen and flip a hundred more pages to a nineteen thirty-nine article on cattle stocks and futures.
“So what are you looking for? Some ancient weed-killing recipe?”
“I wish. Actually, I think what I’ve got, what the town is infested with, is some mutant variety of flytrap or something.”
“Mutants…nice.” Jimmy whistles, “That’d actually be really cool.”
“I’m just looking to see if there was any kind of factory pollutants, or toxic accident, maybe an EPA investigation…something like that.”
“Nah, man. This dump’s only ever been about cattle. People are nuts for their steaks. There’s a slaughterhouse over in Kuna but that just opened last year. The only freakish thing I’ve heard of is the old Low Well story.”
“Low Well?” The name rings a bell.
“Yeah, man. Lake Lowell used to be a shanty town called Low Well before they flooded it, a whole little community was wiped out in a night. Supposedly some folks didn’t want to leave so they just got washed up in the wake.”
“Well, that’s morbid,” I say and wonder how Star was able to keep that fact quiet. “You sure about that?”
“Check it out man,” Jimmy leans past me and spins the knob, shuttling the newspaper feed back another decade. With the expertise of a gamer, he twists and snaps the knob until the image falls onto a dated photo of a flooded valley with only the top arches of some homes peeking above the water line.
“You’ve researched this before.” I catch his bi-colored gaze, “Shows some initiative.”
“Tell that to my probation officer, ” Jimmy nods. “Besides, If you were sixteen and living here, you would too.”
“Well that’s uh..” I’m at a loss for words, “Cool Jimmy, but it doesn’t help me.”
Jimmy’s brown and silver-blue eyes light up, “You want to see something truly weird? Check out at the lake tonight. The cattlemen around here….”
“Gentlemen!” the librarian calls out, “Quiet please!”
“Just check it out.” Jimmy winks at me and gets up to head for the door.
Another hour of research on natural disasters or ecological issues in the area is fruitless. I head for home. As I drive down highway ten, I think of Jimmy’s words. They don’t give me much to go on. Even if people drowned decades ago, their remains would do little but feed the fish. Even their bones would be silt at this point, but it starts my mind wondering.
The red fluid from the flowers must have some trace of their beginning. As I drive past the Lazy-J Ranch, our closest neighbor, I watch a few sickly cows gobble down the blooms that have crept into their pen.
Their skeletal frames betray the odd rib and joint no healthy bovine should display, and I wonder why old hands in an industry would let them get that way.
“FEED is about the only thing these dumb hicks know to give them, and I don’t even think they’re giving them enough of that,” I tell my colleague, Jason, in L.A. I watch him laugh and shake his head on my computer monitor. “It’s like no one knows how to raise a crop or care for an animal out here.”
“Well look, Scott, I can’t speak to the cows, but that weed is something else.” Jason says, “The pistil fluid you sent me is filled to the brim with iron. If I didn’t know any better I’d think it was blood.”
“That many nutrients would kill a root.” I shake my head. It doesn’t quite add up, “Are you sure?”
“Does a cow fart in the wind? Yes, I’m sure.” Jason continues, “In fact, I’d say the roots act a lot more like arteries than anything else, if your little plants have teeth, you may be dealing with an entirely new species.”
“Wonderful. So how should I deal with it?” I ask, not wanting to hear the response I know he’ll give.
“Gotta report it, man, that’s all you can do. Or burn the little shits out of your yard.”
The solution seems drastic, but I’ve noticed the vines from the crimson buds have crept further into my property. No amount of pulling or poison seems to keep them at bay. The sun is setting when I end the video call with Jason and head for Star’s Chevron for some gas cans and fuel. If I make quick work of them and keep the flames under control, there shouldn’t be a problem.
As I pull away from the station, with fuel-laden cans in the trunk, I spot Jimmy stumbling off the side of the road, oversized headphones on his ears, struggling to detangle a circuit cord attached to a long metal shaft and box, what looks to be a home-made metal detector.
“Need a lift?” I offer as I roll down my car window and pull up next to him.
“What?” He pulls off the headphones, “Sorry the signal’s really strong here.”
“A lift?” I look over his handiwork, “Looking for pirate gold?”
“Cute.” Jimmy gives me a bored stare, “I did a little digging too.” He holds a familiar black withered root in his hand. “These things send off signals like you wouldn’t believe.”
“The iron, right?” I offer, and he nods. “And you’re reading it way out here?”
“Mr. Jenkins, I’ve been picking up readings all over town. But they seem to get stronger towards….”
He pauses as the Ranger’s red jeep comes into view. The officer’s stone face stares at us through the glass as he drives past. A caravan of three trucks towing cattle trailers follows him. They turn down Lake Lowell Road and disappear into the night.
“They’re at it again.” Jimmy sighs and looks at me, “You never went, did you?”
“The lake?” I shake my head. “I have enough problems to deal with Jimmy.”
“Your weeds are extensive and trackable.” Jimmy leans in and lowers his voice, “and it all points to…” he clucks his tongue at a sign that reads:
Lake Lowell - 2 miles. No Swimming After May, No Fishing Past June.
“Hop in,” I motion for him to join me, and he quickly opens the back passenger door and tosses his equipment in before running around my car to sit shotgun. “Look, roots don’t work that way. I’ll take you home.”
“No, take me to the lake,’ Jimmy shakes his head, “And I think you’re wrong. I don’t think they’re roots.”
We follow the road for two miles, and Jimmy quickly motions for us to take a dirt path just before the pavement dead-ends at the parking lot, where the cattle trailers are parked. He flicks off my headlights without a word, and I slow my speed as the tires crackle over the dust and pebbles of the path.
Jimmy points to a wall of wild Holly and Arborvitae, and we park. He motions for me to follow him into the moonlight, and like children spying on siblings, we peek through the brush to see a makeshift barge set afloat by plastic drums in the middle of the lake. Atop it stands two cattlemen, the Ranger, and three sickly cows. With a grunt, they shove the beasts into the water.
“He with eyes to see may unlock our words with the key,” the Ranger speaks solemnly. As the cattle struggle in the wash, their terrified lows are answered by the men’s chant:
After June, before September
When the summer solstice sets
Though we are few, we remember
Jimmy’s foot catches a black root, and he stumbles. “Shit!” He cries, and the chanting stops.
He covers his mouth and points at a dull bovine eye staring at us from the bud of a flower. A beam of light from the barge clicks on and scans over our heads. We duck.
“This town man,” Jimmy whispers, “This freaking town.”
I stare at the inhuman eye for a moment before it closes again within the bud’s leaves.“I’m going home, Jimmy,” I tell him and nod at the car, “You’re coming with me.”
As I quietly pull my station wagon away from the foliage, I spy the cattlemen driving their barge to shore with a small outboard motor attached to one side. The struggling cattle are gone, swallowed beneath the calm water line.
I find the paved road that runs beside the beach head, and for a moment, I see something breach the water’s surface--
As if it wants to give chase.
“ON my mother’s life man!” Jimmy holds up his hands as the Ranger shines a flickering flashlight in his eyes. “It was just a campfire that got out of control. ”
Burning the buds didn’t go as planned. Once the fuel was lit, it ripped across the crimson flowers like they were black powder. Even with a fire extinguisher in hand, I couldn’t control the blaze, and it engulfed our back acre, spreading a firey tongue towards the Lazy-J Ranch and engulfing its barn. Though our house was spared damage, the surrounding fields and flowers were destroyed. When the fire trucks finally doused it, Jimmy took the blame.
“You knew damn good and well what you were doing.” the Ranger jabs his finger into Jimmy’s chest.
“Look guys, the fire department put it out.” I nod and try to deescalate the situation. ” My insurance’s going to cover the rest.”
“You burned nearly fifteen head of cattle!” the Ranger yells and grabs my shirt, “You have any idea what that will cost us?”
“I’m sorry, It was horrific, truly.” I start, “I promise I already spoke with my adjuster and you will get compensation.”
“You two just don’t have a clue, do you?” the Ranger shakes his head and pulls out a pair of cuffs, “But, boy, you’re going to learn.”
I spend the next hour in a holding cell next to Jimmy, who’s buried his face in his hands. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he shrugs it off.
“I’m sorry Jimmy,” I offer, “I’ll have Lorelai bail you out too. I can talk with your folks.”
“It won’t matter. I have a record, this is just the excuse they need to lock me up or worse. I’m outta here after tonight.” Jimmy draws his knees to his chest. “Seriously, fuck this place.”
I scan the cell’s yellowed walls. Random graffiti scratched in pen adorn their surfaces.
Jess Gives Head
Let’s Go, Brandon
Screw Star P.D.
My eyes pause on a message hastily scribbled near the floor.
Let it sleep
“You didn’t burn those cows man, they were already gone.” Jimmy’s eyes clench, holding back tears, “This town loves to drown its secrets.”
“Maybe,” I respond, “But why would they drown cows?”
“You didn’t see it did you?” Jimmy’s face goes pale. “Something pulled them under the water, some thing ate them.”
Hushed voices echo as they approach, and Jimmy quiets. The sheriff unlocks the cell and beckons to him. “Your parents bailed you out. Come on.”
“No.” Jimmy shakes his head. “They wouldn’t do that.”
“I said come on!” the sheriff growls and grabs Jimmy by the arm. He’s pushed forward and out the door before my ranger friend walks back into view.
“I want to have a word with you, Mr. Jenkins,” He says calmly and swings open the cell door. I stand, but he nods for me to sit again.
“This is as good a place as any. We don’t get many overnight guests in Star. We like it that way.”
“Look, if you’re thinking Jimmy burnt the ranch maliciously….” I begin, but he shakes his head.
“Let’s cut the bullshit shall we?” He sighs and pulls a toothpick from his shirt pocket, letting it run between his fingers before placing it perfectly between his lips. “I know you started the fire, and I know you and Jimmy were out at the lake.”
“Star has an invasive flora problem.” I try, “And it’s stemming from the lake. I mean toxic-level dangerous to your wildlife, maybe even your citizens.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it.” The Ranger gives me that same old easy smile, “It’s always active in the summer, won’t sleep till November really, that why we have those signs everywhere. Course with all the damage you’ve done it’s wide awake and hungrier than hell.”
“You…you know?” I inch away from him.
“I belong to, well you might call it a fraternity, that sorta keeps an eye on things around here.” The Ranger looks around the cell for a moment, “Kinda like a neighborhood watch.”
I shake my head, trying to wake from this nightmare.
“See, we watch it,” he continues, “And we make sure it stays asleep. Sometimes it puts its feelers out, and we allow for a certain amount of loss. Hell, the flowers are actually kinda nice - as long as you don’t get too close. Used to be a few heads of cattle could satiate it, along with the odd squirrel or bird….”
“What are you protecting?” I ask.
“But the damn pandemic closed down three of our ranches, three!” He sighs without pausing, “Lazy J’s stock got sick to boot. I don’t know how we’ll keep it pacified this year. Of course, our forefathers had their ways back in the day and never seemed to have a problem. Well, til the department of Public Works flooded them out.”
He dusts off his pants, “It really doesn’t like you.”
“How long has that thing been there?” I watch him closely. “Jimmy’s not going home is he?”
The Ranger smiles, “Sometimes the old ways are best.”
He offers his hand, but I shake my head, “no,” and wonder how far I could get if I knocked him down and ran. He seems to know my mind and settles his hand on the pistol at his side.
“I think it’s time you all moved on. The Cattlemen’s Association will give you more than a fair price for your property. Got the paperwork all drawn up out front.”
FLESH for flesh. The old ways are best—a scribble of a tag sprawled across the back of the lake sign reads. A chill hits my spine as I drive past it and navigate the U-Haul to our front door. The next three days are a flurry of packing boxes and loading our belongings. Lorelai and Sasha don’t understand, but when the check arrives in a sealed envelope on our doorstep, Lorelai turns to me.
“What the hell is going on, Scott?” She shakes her head and shoves the check in my hand. “This is beyond bizarre. We just finished getting settled!”
“I can’t explain it all,” I shake my head and try to comfort her, “At least not right now. You have to believe me when I say it’s for the best, for all of us. I messed up, and we’re really not wanted.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me with you burning down half the countryside.” She sighs, “Have you tried talking to these cattlemen? How serious could it….” she pauses as she looks out our window.
A line of silhouetted figures stand sentinel at our property line, their faces darkened by the moonlight’s shadow.
“This...” she whispers, “This is serious isn’t it?”
“Yeah, we need to finish up,” I respond and stare at the Ranger’s red jeep pulling up to the edge of our driveway. His cold stare is constant.
We finish that night, and I take the truck’s wheel while Lorelai follows behind in our station wagon with the kids. We stop at the Star Chevron to fill up, and I try to explain to Sasha why she’ll love Boise.
“I just started making friends,” she pouts, “This doesn’t even make sense.”
“Sometimes we have to take a step back before we can move forward,” I offer. “You’ll make new friends. Here.” I give her a fiver. “Grab a slushie for dinner.”
She kisses my cheek and runs inside the market, cash in hand. Lorelai hands me Mikey as she follows our daughter.
“I know you did right by us,” she grasps my hand as she passes, ” I just hope you’ll explain when you’re ready.”
“Thank you.” I nod, “I will.”
I hoist my son to my hip and watch her laugh as she helps Sasha pick a flavor. I turn to face the city of Star in the distance and wonder how fragile the flickering light of those homes is, how many folks like Jimmy are candles fighting against an ever-growing darkness.
A sick feeling fills my stomach as I watch two crimson blooms open in the tall grass beyond the concrete, and I call for my family to finish things up.
The Ranger is not the only one watching us go.
Its unsleeping gaze is ever-present, and two new eyes, one brown, one silvery blue, watch us drive away.
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