Chapter 2: Stiff
I really wasn’t the kind of person who would ever act like this—or even think like this.
First of all, I wouldn’t ever seriously consider sleeping around on my husband, even if maybe our marriage had fallen into a pretty deep rut. And I’m definitely not the kind of person who would ever actually get, well, just a little bit, um, wet, at the touch of a stranger’s hand on my shoulder. It was true that I liked sex, just like everybody else does. And for a while I really liked it, especially with Shawn when we were younger and things had been going well between us and we were like best friends. But I wouldn’t ever let anyone put their hand deep into my underwear while I was careening down a highway in the dark, probably not even Shawn in high school. And what I absolutely wouldn’t ever do while a stranger’s fingertip was beginning to press slightly inside me would be to actually hope that it was my sister’s husband who was doing it.
Or at least I thought I wasn’t that kind of person. Not until now. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
A voice whispered behind me.
It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t Ian’s voice, that’s for sure. And it definitely wasn’t any guy I knew.
“You’re wet,” it said.
Then there was laughter. Shocked laughter. It was Morgan.
“Oh my God!” she said, no longer whispering and now laughing out loud. She jerked her hand out of my pants. “You actually got a little into that, I think!”
Finally I was able to slow the car to a reasonable speed and I quickly turned my head, just enough to glimpse the outline of Morgan’s face.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I snapped my head back around to keep my eyes on the road, then glanced in the rear-view mirror. “Morgan! What are you doing in my car?”
I was still so startled that I could barely process the fact that the person who had just had their hand down my pants had been my best friend. And it really weirded me out. So maybe one time at a lame-ass football party in high school some of the guys had pressured us into kissing each other, and we’d gone along just to prove we weren’t prudes. But otherwise Morgan had never done anything like this.
She couldn’t stop laughing. “Who did you think I was!”
“You scared the shit of me!” I said, trying to sound more annoyed than flustered and pretending I hadn’t been turned on. “Morgan? What the hell? I almost wrecked the car! Your hands are like ice! What the fuck are you doing in here?”
“That was the funniest thing ever!” She kept laughing. “I thought you were so scared, at first. But obviously you weren’t just scared!”
Still giggling, she climbed over the seat. I pulled Ian’s hoodie out of the way, careful to keep the gun wrapped inside, before she sat down.
“But, wow, actually,” she said, “I mean where did your tummy go? There’s like nothing there.” She reached over and felt my abdomen. “I didn’t know you were trying to lose weight, Ash. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”
I was still flustered, and I couldn’t understand why Morgan would decide to hide in my car and then try to reach into my pants out of the blue. It was bizarre. Nothing was making any sense.
“You’ve been spending too much time with Jason,” I mumbled.
But even Jason’s influence couldn’t quite explain how Morgan was acting. I was still basically clueless about whatever weird shit had been happening since last night, but obviously things had gone very wrong in Muldoon, and I had a feeling they were going to get worse. Yet Morgan was still laughing as if everything was perfectly normal and we’d just been out drinking together.
“Can’t be because of Jason,” she said, now catching her breath from laughing and settling into the passenger seat. “I broke it off with him last night. He definitely wasn’t happy about it. I’ve been avoiding him. Sorry I didn’t back you up just now. Really, Ash. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want him to see me in the car after everything.” She slapped my arm with the back of her hand. “But that was crazy awesome what you just did! He’s such an ass hole! I bet he shit his pants when you broke through that roadblock. I mean, he should totally have to pay if you have to fix anything on your car. I bet you could even get him fired, after all that pervy shit he said to you.”
Morgan put her head in her hands. I could see by the dashboard lights that her hair was unbrushed, and that she was still wearing the same clothes she’d worn last night.
We were quite the pair. She looked like she’d just woken up too.
“I’m still so fucking hung over,” she groaned, then she forced herself to straighten up. “So are you gonna tell me, or what?” she asked suddenly. “What happened to you last night? I was worried.”
I’d been hoping that it would be Morgan who could help me answer this question.
I had no idea how much she knew, but I wasn’t quite ready to tell her that I’d completely blacked out and woke up in a room at the Starlight.
“You first,” I said. At least having Morgan in the car would help take my mind off worrying about Haley while I drove home. Now that I was recovering from her weird prank, I was actually feeling incredibly glad to see her. “How’d it go with you and Bryce Fancy-Ass Tripp?” I asked.
“Me?” Morgan sounded genuinely surprised. “I couldn’t even get him to notice me,” she said. “Not after we got to the bar, anyway. You were the one he couldn’t take his eyes off.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “So I guess you didn’t get to see the inside of his bus?”
“Seriously? You were the one who disappeared with him. You should have seen how worried Ian got before he went out looking for you.” Morgan let out a little laugh. “But after how you were dancing with him, I gotta say. I’ve been telling you all this time to think about leaving Shawn, but I kinda thought maybe you were finally going for it. And, I mean, Bryce Tripp’s not a bad a way to do it.”
She glanced over at me.
“Well, you know me.” I shrugged. “I’m the good kid. You said it last night. I couldn’t do something like that to Shawn.”
I kept my eyes on the road. I could feel Morgan staring at me.
“Okay,” she said. “So, then, what did you do after we split up? I was looking for you. I was worried, Ash.”
“Worried? Why? I just ended up back at the beer garden for a little while.”
I didn’t like lying to Morgan, but I was too confused about what had actually happened to just tell her the truth. I’d explain later, after I’d got my bearings. She’d forgive me. I hoped.
“Then after that,” I said, “I was at the campground with some people I met from Boulder, or somewhere. I can hardly remember, actually. It’s your fault you got me so drunk. Then Ian found me and took me home.”
“Really,” Morgan said, sounding suspicious. “Ian drove you home?”
I wasn’t sure if she knew I was lying or if now she was trying to suggest that I had something going on with Ian.
“But what about you?” I tugged at her unbuttoned jacket sleeve and laughed. “What did you get up to?”
“Just stayed at the bar, pretty much. They actually ran out of beer on tap around one. So everyone just had more whiskey.” She rubbed her eyes, then let out a long yawn. “When the police started making everyone leave, I couldn’t find you, and the phones were all jammed, so I just went to your car. I was gonna wait for you, then I guess I fell asleep. I tried to get out of the fairgrounds in the morning, but they wouldn’t let me. I was so hung over I just went back to your car and tried to sleep it off. I figured you’d show up eventually.”
“So do you have any idea what happened last night?” I asked. “I mean, have you heard anything new?”
“Not a fucking clue. Some carney died at the high school, and later some kid got attacked at the fair.” She shrugged. “That’s all anyone’s saying. I was kinda wondering if Ian filled you in on any of the details today. He must know more.” Morgan had that same tone in her voice again when she mentioned Ian, but now I couldn’t tell if she was suspicious or feeling guilty about something she wasn’t saying. “He didn’t say anything to you?”
I thought about Ian’s Army hoodie and his gun in my car, and Morgan sleeping there. Had she been with him?
Of course she hadn’t. I didn’t know why my thoughts even went there.
“I haven’t talked to Ian,” I said, and I realized I had no idea if this was true or not.
In a small town like Muldoon, word about anything gets out fast. Everyone at the bar last night already knew about the body at the high school. So it was hard to believe that no one seemed to know anything at all about the girl who’d been attacked, or who’d done it. I couldn’t figure out why the police would keep information like this secret. I also couldn’t figure out why they would be blocking people from going in and out of the fairgrounds. It didn’t make sense.
My headlights reached a car parked on the side of the road up ahead. It was the first car I’d seen anywhere near the highway. Its taillights’ red glow dimly illuminated a hay field that stretched out into the darkness from the road.
As I drew closer, I could see that both of the car’s front doors were wide open. I couldn’t make out what kind of car it was. As far as I could tell, no one was sitting inside, and I couldn’t see anyone standing around.
Normally I would have slowed down in case someone was in trouble or hurt. But after everything that had been happening, the empty car was unnerving. I sped up just a little and passed it.
Morgan watched the car out the window as we drove by, and now she turned around in her seat to look behind us.
“What was that?” For some reason she was whispering. “Did you see that? Out in the field?”
“Wait. Go back, go back. What was that? Something was out in the field.”
I really, really just wanted to go home. I wasn’t looking forward to confronting Shawn—I still had no idea what I was going to tell him about where I’d been last night. At least when I reached my house, though, I could call my sister and make sure Haley was safe. But I was born and raised in a small rural town, and in small rural towns you don’t just pass a car on the side of the road without making sure everything’s okay. What if someone needed help? If I was hurt on the side of the road and someone just drove by, I’d feel awful.
I slowed down. I started to loop the car around to make a U-turn.
“Hurry,” Morgan whispered. She tapped the window, pointing into the darkness beyond the abandoned car. “Out there. Shine the lights out there.”
When I was about fifty yards from the parked car, I turned the wheel so the headlights would shine in the general direction Morgan had been pointing.
It was a hay field. Pretty much just like any of the other thousands of hay fields in northern Colorado. The stubble was short. It had been cut recently. Big round bales of rolled hay were scattered as far as my headlights reached.
“There! There!” Morgan yelled through her whispering voice. “Just turn back a little.”
I maneuvered my car so the headlights pointed toward the part of the field they’d just passed over.
I searched the field again. But still I couldn’t see anything. There was just the abandoned car with its doors open and its lights on, and, out beyond, hundreds of hay bales.
“Oh my God,” Morgan whispered. “Who is that?”
I still couldn’t see anything. The tone of Morgan’s voice was scaring me.
Morgan nodded stiffly toward the field as if she were trying to avoid making any fast movements.
Finally I saw what she was looking at.
I’d been scanning the field itself, searching for someone standing or maybe lying in the stubble. I hadn’t looked on top of the bales themselves. They were almost six feet tall, and I knew from experience as a kid that they weren’t easy to climb up onto.
But someone had. Two people, in fact.
On top of one of the bales, about three rows from the road, I could just make out a man’s back. It was bare. And there were a pair of equally bare women’s legs wrapped around him. From this distance I could just tell that they were swaying back and forth together.
It had to have been a couple of high school kids having sex. They must have been enjoying themselves, because I was shining my headlights right toward them now, and they weren’t letting up.
Morgan put her hand over her mouth and giggled. “Who is that?”
“Just some kids,” I said, not quite sharing Morgan’s interest. “Fair’s cancelled. What else are they going to do around here? Let’s go. Obviously our help isn’t exactly needed.”
“No, wait!” Morgan said, still giggling. “It isn’t kids! Look! Just pull up a little closer.”
I tried to look closer, but I couldn’t make out anything I hadn’t seen before. “I need to get home. I’m tired.”
“Just a little closer! Ash, seriously, it’s not kids.” Morgan cupped her hands around her eyes and peered out the window. “Who is that?”
I pulled up a little farther. I felt kind of guilty invading these people’s privacy like this, but now I was curious about what Morgan thought she saw.
I pulled within about thirty yards from the car.
She was right. It definitely wasn’t kids. I could see the man’s back more clearly now. He was older. He was rhythmically thrusting away, then for a moment he threw his head back and I could see that his hair was gray. And so was the woman’s.
“Oh my God,” Morgan squealed quietly. “They’re not even stopping! It’s like they don’t even see us. Can you tell who it is?” Morgan asked through a fit of suppressed giggling.
The man threw his head back once again, the woman’s legs clutched tightly around his ass, and now he arched his back. They whole hay bale shuddered.
“Oh god,” I said, disgusted.
“Can you tell who it is?”
I had no idea. It was too far away to tell.
The man rolled over onto his side, then his back, managing to keep his balance atop the hay bale. I couldn’t believe it, but now the woman threw her fleshy leg up and straddled him. She was plump, and her big ass shined white in the headlights.
“Oh my God!” Morgan squealed. “They’re going again!”
The woman just continued on swaying, completely oblivious to our presence, or, somehow, they just didn’t care that we were there.
What was going on? Something was off. I didn’t know any middle aged people who would ever act like this, especially not after everyone knew that someone had just died at the high school and half the town was under lockdown. And it wasn’t even a full moon.
“What’s happening around here?” I said out loud.
I was suddenly aware of the night’s darkness surrounding the car. I also remembered the weirdly charged rush of erotic energy I felt when Morgan reached between my legs.
I was scared. Something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but I was scared. I needed to drop Morgan off, collect myself, and get things straightened out. In fact, what I really wanted to do was talk to Ian as soon as possible. Whatever was happening, he would know what to do better than anyone.
I put my car in reverse, turned around, and started back down the highway.
“Ashley!” Morgan pleaded. “I wanted to see who that was! I couldn’t even see the car.”
I kept driving.
“Well, whatever.” Morgan settled back into her seat. She was too hung over to put up much of a fight.
For a moment she looked at me as I drove, and I could tell she was as perplexed as I was at everything that had been happening.
She shook her head slowly. “What is going on?”
Morgan lived in a tiny rental house on the Hershel ranch, the property that had abutted my family’s ranch for generations.
When we were younger, sometimes Morgan and I used to sneak into the little clapboard house to drink. Mr. Hershel was one of those old classic grizzled cowboys, but he was really softhearted. He used to tear up whenever he had to slaughter cattle. He knew we used his house, and I’m sure he smelled the scent of cigarette smoke we left behind, but he never said anything to my parents about it. He even had the place fixed up a little before he started renting it to Morgan, and he charged her practically nothing.
When I pulled up to drop Morgan off, I eyed the little house’s dark porch apprehensively.
“Are you gonna be okay?” I asked her. “You can stay with me and Shawn, if you want. Maybe until everything settles down?”
Morgan slapped my knee. “You’re a sweetheart,” she said. “But I just want to get into my own bed and sleep. I’ll be fine.”
“Ash. Of course.”
She opened the door and stepped out.
“Well,” I said. “Call the house number if you need anything. I lost my phone.”
“Oh, shit,” Morgan said. “Really?” Then she laughed. “What a night. I’ll be fine. Call me tomorrow.”
She closed the car door. I kept my headlights shining on her porch until she was inside and had the lights turned on.
The house I rent with Shawn isn’t far past my parents’ ranch. I was there in a couple of minutes.
None of the lights were on. My house was as dark as Morgan’s.
Shawn’s pickup must have been inside the garage, because the driveway was empty. I hurried to the house.
The door was locked.
We almost never locked our front door. I knocked.
I waited. I knocked again, louder, and this time I called Shawn’s name.
Nothing. My husband wasn’t home.
Shawn was always at home if he wasn’t working.
I tried not to panic. I’d been so apprehensive about confronting him that I’d just assumed he’d be there.
I got back into my car and drove straight to Ian and Danielle’s house, which was only a couple of miles past ours.
But there were no lights on at their place either. Their door was locked too, and when I knocked I was met only with a deep, disquieting silence.
I suddenly regretted not making Morgan come home with me. I don’t think I’d ever felt more alone. The sky was perfectly clear and moonless, and all of the stars shined down on me icily as I walked back to my little car.
My parents’ house was my last bet. I tried not to think about the possibility of finding their place abandoned and silent too.
I drove all the way back up the highway, still not passing a single car.
I turned of the road and drove under the big Travis Ranch sign spanning the dirt road. I’d always thought the sign was so tacky and worn out, but now I found it mildly comforting in the dark of night.
The old farmhouse I grew up in sits just over a low rise. When followed the road up the hillside, the house’s upstairs windows became visible first. None of them were lit. I braced myself.
But as I reached the top of the rise, I could see vehicles crowding my parents’ driveway. The front porch light was on. Shawn’s truck was there, and so was Ian’s SUV.
I’d never been so happy to be home. I sped down the driveway and pulled up behind my dad’s hay truck.
Then I remembered Haley, and what had happened last night.
What if everyone had gathered here at my mom and dad’s because it really had been Haley who’d been attacked at the fair? What if she’d been hurt, or worse? And what if while all this had gone on while I’d been out partying, sleeping around with who knew who, and out of reach all day?
I knew I was probably overreacting, but I ran up the steps and threw open the front door. I burst through the entryway.
The first thing I saw was Haley, lying at the bottom of the staircase.
Her head was resting against the lowest stairs. She was in her pajamas.
In each of her hands was a small bronze horse. These were the prizes at the horse racing pinball game at the fair. Every time you won, you traded up for a bigger horse. My parents must have taken her to the carnival last night, then brought her home, as planned, safe a sound, long before the attack.
My niece sprang to her feet and ran towards me, a toy horse in each hand.
“She’s here!” Haley shouted. “Aunt Ashley’s here!”
I knelt down and right away, before even hugging me, Haley sat on my knee.
“Look,” she said, carefully displaying her pair of bronze horses as if they were small birds perched in her hands. “I got one, and grandpa got one.” She whispered, “But he gave his to me.”
My dad rushed into the entryway.
I’d never seen him look this way. He had this expression of utter relief when he saw me. I’d had no idea what I’d been putting them all through.
He was in the same kind of striped farmer’s shirt and faded jeans he always wore, his boots off in the house, and his eyes were misty as he strode toward me and put his arms around me. I could smell the hay dust on him, just like I always could whenever he used to hug me.
“Oh, thank God,” he said. “You’re here. You’re here.”
Now my mom appeared, and right behind her came Danielle and Ian. Even Tyler slouched over for my big return.
Everyone had been waiting for me. I hadn’t even considered that anyone besides Shawn would know I’d been gone.
My dad let go of me, and now my mom stepped forward, her arms folded. I could tell she was waging an inner battle between feeling relieved and being totally pissed at me, and it looked like the being-totally-pissed-at-me side was winning.
“I sure hope you have a good explanation for all this,” she said. My mom was small, but tough, especially during moments when she had to be emotionally strong. She gave me a quick hug, then she held on to both of my shoulders. “Do you know how worried Shawn’s been?” she whispered, glancing upstairs. “I’ve never seen him so sick with worry.”
Just then my husband appeared at the top of the stairs.
He looked almost as if he’d been crying, and he was as pale as he’d been in the locker room the night before. His expression actually reminded me of the days after his accident, and the endless months he’d spent in the hospital with pins holding his spinal column together.
He didn’t say anything. For a moment he just stared down at me, folding his arms around his now-pudgy frame, and I just stared back up at him, not knowing what to say, and everyone else just watched silently. I realized I’d been holding out hope that somehow, for some reason, it would turn out that it had been Shawn who I’d been with in the motel last night. I’d hoped that we’d both gotten so drunk that maybe on whim we’d just run off to the Starlight to make up for all the lost intimacy we’d been missing.
But now even that remote possibility was gone. If Shawn had been worrying about me all day, that meant he didn’t know I was at the motel. I’d cheated on him. I still had no idea who I’d slept with last night, but now I was sure that it wasn’t my husband.
I didn’t know what else to do other than to just start talking. I couldn’t stand everyone just staring at us. There was no way I could tell my family the truth, so I started making things up which I hoped were half-way believable.
“I got stuck inside the fairgrounds,” I explained. “I’m so sorry. I realized I’d left my phone at the bar when they started evacuating everyone.” My whole family just kept staring at me, listening, so I just kept talking. “I ran back to look for my phone, but the police wouldn’t even let me back into the Buckshot. By the time I made it all the way back to my car, they were already closing up the gates at the fairground. They wouldn’t let me out. I had to sleep in my car. It was only this evening when I finally talked Jason Gibbs into letting me leave.” I glanced up at Shawn, who had now sat down at the top of the staircase. “I have no idea what’s going on around here.” I felt myself starting to cry, but I got control of myself. I swallowed and took a deep breath. “I haven’t even really talked to anyone all day. I don’t understand. What’s been happening?”
My mom was feeling a little more generous now. She gave me her signature sideways hug and started rubbing my shoulder. Ian cleared his throat.
“Tyler,” Ian said. “Take your sister upstairs please.”
“Why?” Haley asked.
Ian didn’t say anything. He just raised his eyebrows sternly and Haley immediately dashed upstairs. Tyler followed. Ian took me by the shoulder.
“Let’s go outside,” he said.
I let him lead me out the door. We sat on the porch swing.
“We don’t know much more than you do about what’s going on, Ash. To be honest. There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s not good though. I can tell you that much. It’s not just the fairgrounds and the high school. There are roadblocks on all the highways coming in and out of town. I haven’t been able to get any answers.” He turned around and looked into the house. He was obviously worried about his kids. “There’s not a damn thing on the news,” he whispered. “None of the stations have picked anything up yet.”
“They won’t let any of us leave town? At all?” I knew things were going badly, but I never dreamed it could be as big as this. “How is that even legal?”
“It’s not,” Ian said. “But they’re doing it.”
“Why, though?” I asked. “I don’t understand. Just to find this guy who attacked a little girl? I mean, obviously they have to catch him, but none of this makes sense.”
Ian leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath. I could feel the weight of his body in the sway of the porch swing. He glanced inside the house again and lowered his voice even further.
“It’s not just that, Ash. They’ve got that little girl at the hospital. The one who was attacked. When I went back there last night there were armed guards all around her room. These guys were from way out of town. Maybe out of state. Not cops, military. Some kind of Special Ops or something.” Ian lowered his voice even further. “And they got him. They got the guy. They killed him. They already killed the guy who attacked the girl.”
Ian stared at me for a second, unsure what to say, maybe unsure if he’d told me too much already. I knew he hadn’t shared any of this with Danielle. And, honestly, I wasn’t sure why he was telling me.
“So, what’s this mean?” I asked, keeping my voice low. “What’s going on then?”
“All I can say is that I’m sure there’s a lot more going on than we know at this point.”
I started to cry. I couldn’t hold it back any more. Ian didn’t try to comfort me, which I was thankful for. He just sat there as the tears spilled down my cheeks and I tried to process everything he was telling me. I still didn’t understand what all of this meant, but for some reason it made me feel even more guilty about cheating on Shawn. It felt like such a small and stupid thing to have done, especially now. And I was worried that Ian knew more than he was telling me.
“I blacked out last night,” I confessed at last. “There are a lot of hours I don’t remember at all. The truth is I don’t remember much of anything after the bar.” I turned to look at him. “But I found your stuff in my car.”
Ian searched my eyes. There was something in his look that told me he definitely did know more than he was saying, but he also looked almost relieved when I told him I’d blacked out.
“You don’t remember anything at all?” he asked.
“I’m so stupid.” I tried to dry my eyes. “I haven’t drunk that much since high school. Everything’s pretty much a complete blank.”
“I went out looking for you after you disappeared at the bar,” Ian said. “I couldn’t find you anywhere. To be honest, I think I was even more worried than Shawn’s been.”
He wouldn’t look at me. Ian just kept folding and unfolding his hands and staring at them. He cleared his throat.
“After they starting evacuating everyone,” he whispered, “I was worried about you. Really worried. You know? I didn’t have time to go to the motel, so I looked for your car in the lot.” He shrugged. “I figured eventually you’d make it back to your car. I didn’t want you to be cold. And I wanted to make sure you’d be safe. You still have the gun, right?”
Ian’s phone rang while he nodded back distractedly.
I was used to Ian always getting calls, but this time when the ringer chimed it really startled me.
I saw the name for the incoming call flash on the screen before he picked up.
It was Morgan.
She was screaming. She was screaming so loud I could hear her the sound of her voice as soon as Ian answered. She was screaming for help.
We jumped into my little car. It was blocking all the other cars in; we had no choice but to use mine.
I got into the passenger’s seat to let Ian drive, which was a good thing, because he flew around the dirt-road corners way faster than I’d ever be able go without losing control and rolling.
I had to hold tight to the handle grip around every turn all the way there. Still, I managed to pull Ian’s gun from where I’d stashed it between the seats. I had no idea if the safety was on or off, but I held on to the gun as tightly as I held onto the car.
Somehow, in the middle of all of this, I flashed on what he’d just said to me on the porch swing.
He’d said he stashed the gun in my car because he didn’t have time to go to the motel.
“How did you know I was at the motel?” I asked as he skidded onto the long driveway leading to Morgan’s house.
“You said you didn’t have time to go to the motel before leaving the gun in my car,” I yelled over the sound of the gravel hitting the wheel wells.
“Ashley, I didn’t know where you were. I said I couldn’t find you.”
“You said something about a motel!”
He was racing toward Morgan’s house, and we were almost there, but he took his eyes off the road just long enough to give me a hard look.
“Listen to me,” he said decisively. “I don’t care what I may have said. I don’t know anything about any motel.”
We skidded right up to Morgan’s gate. We both leapt out of the car and raced up the front steps. The house lights were on. I didn’t loosen my grip on the gun for a second.
Morgan was still screaming. But her cries were more ragged now, more tired and defeated.
As we passed through the living room I made sure the safety was off. I knew that I would have to shoot whoever was making my best friend wail with such an awful, suffering sound. I couldn’t even let myself think what Morgan must have been going through, or what exactly was happening to her. I just knew I was prepared to kill whoever was causing her to make that sound.
She was in the bedroom. We could hear her crying out from behind the door, but it was locked.
Ian slammed his shoulder into the door, and the wood splintered, but it stayed shut. He backed up and slammed into it again, even harder this time, and now the handle broke out of the frame.
The door whipped open.
Only twenty-four hours earlier I’d helped Ian carry a dead body whose penis had been gruesomely mutilated. But what I saw in Morgan’s room was more horrifying than anything I’d ever seen. It was horrifying on so many levels that at first my brain just kind of shut down and I didn’t understand what I was seeing.
Morgan was on her back, lying atop her tiny writing desk, and bent backwards in what looked like an excruciatingly painful position.
She was completely naked. And she was bleeding. Her nose was covered in blood; her eyebrow was split. Patches of smeared blood ran from her face, down over her breasts, and all the way to her pubic hair.
And standing over her was Mr. Hershel.
I could barely comprehend that this was the same man who my mom always called the “gentle cowboy,” who had been my closest neighbor throughout my childhood, who had even once taught me how to ride his old graying mare.
And he too was completely naked. Or almost completely naked. As he spun around to see who had just crashed through the door, he was wearing just an old leather holster. The belt was fastened around his otherwise bare hips, and inside the holster pouch, which was dangling down against his thigh, was no six-shooter but a very modern-looking handgun.
Morgan’s blood soaked his tanned, weathered face and his bare white chest. And his penis was erect. It was standing upright so that its pointy head hovered just in front of his belt buckle.
I gagged. But I didn’t drop the gun.
Morgan was still crying out in agony, which I hoped was a good sign only because she hadn’t yet been beaten unconscious. But there was absolutely no question that Mr. Hershel had been raping her.
Now he planted a leathery hand between her breasts, holding her down, and Morgan screamed again. Mr. Hershel was fast, but his movements were feverishly stilted. It was almost as though someone were controlling him with strings. He kept fiercely twitching his head to one side and stamping his heel as though his entire body were itching.
But with his free hand, he drew his gun and pointed it right my face.
Ian dove at him.
Before Ian’s shoulder reached Mr. Hershel’s chest, Mr. Hershel fired his gun.
For a moment I was sure he’d hit Ian in the top of his head, but he must have missed, because as Mr. Hershel toppled backward under the weight of Ian’s body blow, Ian immediately tried to wrestle the gun from his blood-soaked hand.
Mr. Hershel didn’t utter a word. He just kept breathing at the pace of a dog’s panting, without stopping. His whole body was heaving with every breath.
Before Ian was able to pry the gun from his fingers, Mr. Hershel pulled away and brought the butt of his gun down hard right behind Ian’s ear.
Ian tumbled backwards, dazed, and fell at my feet.
I knew this was it. I knew this was the moment I had to pull the trigger. I was already aiming right between Mr. Hershel’s eyes.
But I couldn’t do it. Whatever strength I’d summoned to help Ian carry the mutilated body from the locker room without vomiting was all the strength I possessed. This was different. This was too much.
Mr. Hershel grabbed onto Morgan’s ankle and pulled her off the table. She cried out again as she fell awkwardly on her shoulder. She made a muted, coughing cry as she hit the floor. Mr. Hershel held tightly to her foot, twisting her leg up away from her body like he was dragging a club.
And still I couldn’t pull the trigger.
I was so ashamed. As certain as I’d been a moment earlier that I was going to kill whoever I found hurting Morgan, now I was just as certain that I couldn’t bring myself to end the life of the man I’d grown up next door to, no matter what he was doing.
I felt myself letting out a sob.
I heard the heavy blast of Mr. Hershel’s gun.
I was sure, in the next moment, that I was dead. Everything was black. I was lying on the floor.
But not because I’d been shot. Mr. Hershel hadn’t even fired his gun. This fact dawned on me slowly as I opened my eyes.
What had happened was that Ian had grabbed the gun from my hand, knocking me over in the process, and had shot Mr. Hershel.
A massive wound had opened up on his shoulder.
But as if nothing had happened to him at all, Mr. Hershel lunged at Ian, toppling him over. Now he held Ian down, pinning him on his back. Mr. Hershel raised his gun once more, this time with a new urgency and rage.
He brought the barrel level with Ian’s eyes. But at the same instant Ian stabbed his own gun up under Mr. Hershel’s chin and fired.
There was an abrupt, compacted explosion. A piece of Mr. Hershel’s skull leapt up into the air and landed wetly on Morgan’s bed.
Mr. Hershel slumped. Ian pushed the now limp body away, and it fell in a semi-sitting position against the desk.
Ian got on his feet and slid to Morgan’s side.
“You’re okay,” he said. “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay now. Everything’s all over.”
Morgan stared blankly around the room, never quite meeting Ian’s eyes and looking too utterly confused and in too much pain to cry, or even to begin to try to speak.
Ian pulled the comforter from her bed and wrapped it around her bloodied body. One of her eyes was almost swollen shut, and she was starting to shiver. He picked her up and carried her toward my car while I followed close behind.
He turned to me as he eased Morgan out the front door, careful not to let her head bump the doorframe.
“Can you get her some clothes?” he asked me. It was hard to comprehend such a practical request right now. “We’ll take her back to the house, but she’ll need some clothes.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. I can”
I hurried back through the house and stepped once again into Morgan’s room.
Mr. Hershel’s body lay partly propped up with its back against the writing desk. I tried not to look at it.
But I couldn’t help it. I especially couldn’t help but notice Mr. Hershel’s penis.
It was still strangely erect. It hadn’t subsided at all. Not throughout the entire fight with Ian, and not even after he’d been shot in the head.
And his testicles, I noticed only now, were swollen and blackened, just like the corpse in the locker room.
His head was pitched forward over one shoulder. I tried not to look at the gaping wound. I didn’t think I could handle actually seeing the brain matter.
But it wasn’t exactly brain matter that I glimpsed inside his shattered skull. Just when I was about to force myself to look away, I saw . . . movement. There was something happening—some kind of slow churning—inside Mr. Hershel’s head.
I took half a step closer.
Inside the skull cavity was a mass of larvae.
Hundreds, thousands, maybe more, were spinning and twisting around in a thick bunch. Each larva was pale white, almost translucent, and about the width of a fingernail. A few had started to spill out of the gunshot wound, plinking down onto the blood-soaked carpet and writhing there.
“Ian!” I called. I tried to take a breath, but I couldn’t breathe. “Ian!”
I realized I wasn’t calling out at all, but whispering. I couldn’t speak. Another pair of larvae fell from Mr. Hershel’s head and landed softly on the carpet.
I turned away from the body. I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe. I just had to get Morgan’s clothes, and then I could leave.
I jerked open all of her drawers. I grabbed a few pairs of underwear, socks, and the first tops I could find. All she needed was something to cover up with; it didn’t matter what. As soon as I found a couple pairs of jeans, I wrapped everything up in an oversized t-shirt.
Morgan’s phone was on the dresser, so I grabbed that too and left the room as quickly as possible.
Just as I stepped out onto the porch, the phone rang in my hand.
Ashley flashed on the screen. Someone was calling from my phone.
“Who is this?” I snapped, in an irrational mixture of overflowing confusion and fear.
“Whoa!” said a male voice. “Everything okay? Is this Morgan?”
“Who is this?” I repeated. “This is Ashley. You have my phone.”
“It’s Bryce. Ashley, it’s Bryce. I ended up grabbing your phone after last night. I’m so sorry, it’s the same model as mine. I wanted to get it back to you.”
I was approaching my car now, but I stopped short at the front gate.
Even after everything I’d just witnessed, what I saw now was even more surprising.
I had no idea what to think. I dropped the phone.
In my car’s front seat, dimly lit by the overhead light, Ian was holding Morgan tightly in the comforter.
But she had placed both of her hands, gently, at either side of his face.
And she was kissing him.