By STEVIE KILGORE - October 7, 2021
Even through the thick smoke of cigars, Jean knew she drew everyone’s attention. Perhaps it was her voluminous hair and dazzling brown eyes, her polka dot dress swaying back and forth like a hypnotizing talisman. Or, more reasonably, it was her voice, a delicate and low croon that contained a powerful falsetto. It was easily at her disposal, and it enraptured men and women alike.
She eyed the tables of people as she sang. She had an unmistakable feeling Tom was there, and as expected, he stood at the side of the bar, farther away from the commotion. Whiskey glass in hand and elbow resting cooly on the table, he flashed a prideful smile as she finished her song.
Tom was an admirable man in every fashion of the word; he was tall, handsome, wealthy, and most importantly, valued Jean like no one else had or would. He was an ex-marine, finishing his career during World War II, one of the most stressful times in their lives. He was haunted, and although Jean loved him more deeply than anyone, he also frightened her sometimes. There were parts about his past he rarely mentioned, and he never talked about the war. Still, she believed he would propose soon.
Jean was on her last note and, as the crowd gave her an uproarious applause and various whooping cheers, she saw a balding man in a large peacoat approach Tom. Jean noticed the two men talking but hadn’t the slightest idea who it could be. Maybe an acquaintance of Tom’s, or an old work friend? She was too far away to hear them clearly.
After the exchange of a few sentences, the stranger’s face reddened, and he struck Tom’s chest angrily, as if to antagonize him. Tom, being a man of pride and dignity, responded with a more aggressive gesture, shoving the stranger backward and lunging forward. With little hesitation, the man clocked Tom in the jaw just to whip out a small black handgun.
Tom froze, and although only about two seconds passed, it felt like time had slowed and his life was flashing behind his eyelids: gruesome wartimes, including the time his buddy’s leg was blown clean off. His childhood friend Charlie, and his years spent working at the post office. Recollections of his mother and flickers of his father…but the most prominent thing he saw was Jean. Dozens of wonderful memories together, her slightly crooked yet beautiful smile, both good times and bad, all came rushing at him. Tom took a minute to remember he was staring blankly at the stranger. A minute to remember the gun aimed between his eyes.
Jean’s breath hitched. The gun clicked. There were screams.
Tom’s body thumped to the floor instantly, blood gushing out from the center of his forehead like a wicked crimson stamp of death. As she ran to him, a huge mass of onlookers blocked her vision, and once she got to him, the stranger was gone.
“Tom, get up,” Jean said, slapping his cheeks. They moved a bit, but he did not open his eyes or utter a breath. “Tommy. Tom,” she pleaded, growing more frantic, beginning to shake his shoulders. She couldn’t breathe.
Then, she was going through his pockets. Grabbing anything she could, grabbing pieces of him. To collect him, and try to put him back together. A loose scrap of paper, his keys, his wallet, a fountain pen. A firm hand grabbed her shoulder and led her away. They told her not to cry. She hadn’t realized she was howling.
In the chilly night air, Jean tugged her coat tightly around her shivering body, red and blue lights reflecting off of her VW’s chrome hubcaps. She clambered in and stifled convulsive gasps. The crumpled piece of paper was clenched in her fist, the one that smelled like Tom’s leather jacket. She looked down at it and, between sobs, saw some sort of street name. Above it was an ink drawing of a lonely cabin in the woods, flecked in blood and tissue. She flipped it over and was greeted with crude — but horrifying — doodles of a beast on the back.
God. She had an eerie feeling that more pieces of Tom were there, in that cabin. She started the car, and before the policeman standing outside the bar could stop her, she turned out of the lot.
She needed clarity. She needed to grieve. And, above all, she needed Tom.
Jean loosened her grip and jiggled the long lever fastened to her steering wheel. Eventually, a flickering yellow luminescence appeared, flowing out of the front of her VW Beetle’s hood and onto the glimmering pavement below. A fly landed on her arm and she waved it away.
It had been three days since Tom’s murder. She could see the wet blood on his throat every time she closed her eyes, so she decided to blink as little as possible. She had written her mother, had told her what happened at the bar. Mother would be disappointed. She would cry. Sob, possibly. Out of every man her four girls had dated, Jean’s boyfriend was her personal favorite.
The VW dipped low, then sputtered up the steep hill again. Jean clenched the wheel tight enough to sear the pads of her fingers. She wrenched the car left, then right, then right again, glancing down every so often at the scrap of paper balanced delicately on the dashboard.
The scribbles in the margin confused her. Tom hadn’t mentioned that cabin once. And in the dim reflection of the headlights on her rusty side mirror, she couldn’t tell if she was supposed to turn on Copperstone or Cooperstone Street.
Her hand itched. She glanced up, and the fly was there again. She waved it away in annoyance and repositioned the note.
Jean rounded a bend and the VW’s front bumper rattled. In the darkness, the thin trees swimming by looked like famished green men. Her throat was deathly dry, and she decided she was afraid of the dark. She was a fire ant separated from its colony, and any sign of human activity, even a grotesquely bright neon-plated advertisement for knickers, would be a welcomed sight. But the night rolled forward, and so did her car, and each turn she took felt like more of a toll.
She looked down at the note again. There was the fly. It stared and shuffled its wings and rubbed its little black hands, as if in anticipation. Then it took off, flying circles around her head. She swiped at it, swiped again, picked up her purse from the passenger seat and tried to bludgeon it. The car sped up and the trees smeared like eviscerated bugs on the windows. She felt the fly land on her hands, her neck, her face, her ears. It was teasing her, wanting her to yell, wanting her to crash the car, wanting her to crash the car and watch it crumple and deform and completely entomb her, a final mold around her lifeless body, her frame more bent than the damaged skeleton of her vehicle. The fly landed, its red diamond eyes looking back up at her, its hands folded neatly in front of its body, and Tom’s beast illustrations suddenly flashed through her mind like an unpleasant film reel.
Without warning, the VW bug slowed, and then it stopped with a solid metal grunt. Her first impulse was to check the gas meter. It was at zero. She flicked it; still nothing.
“Aw, hell!” Jean yelled, slamming the steering wheel. The vibration of her impact startled the fly, and it began to circle the interior of the VW again.
Jean opened the door to let it out, and then she followed, kicking the side of the car in seething frustration. She needed to get to the nearest station, and quickly. With a huge sigh deep enough to crumble mountains, she hefted her purse over her shoulder, shoved the note into the pocket of her coat, and began to walk.
She was already frightened as it was, but the still air, hot enough to weigh down her entire body, forced chills down her spine. There weren’t any sounds in the greenery around her either, and she strained her ears to detect even a faint chirp of Pennsylvanian cicadas or skittering squirrels. It was agony, and it felt like a never-ending purgatory.
Finally, after nearly an hour of walking, her legs growing more and more fatigued with each step and her mind dimmer than an oven light, she spotted a faint glow in the distance. It was a bright sign, and if she squinted, it read “GAS.” Her face lit up, and with a renewed source of energy, she ran towards it.
Under the ill-defined flush of red neon, Jean noticed a woman perched on a bench, smoking a cigarette. She was dressed in greasy navy coveralls and her auburn hair was tied neatly in a bow. As Jean got closer, she noticed the woman’s pronounced cheeks and slouched stature.
“Pardon me, but my car is out of gas,” Jean said. “Is there any way you could help me?”
“I’ll get that done lickety-split, ma’am,” the woman said, and smothered her cigarette. “The name’s Charlotte. Charlie for short, if you’re a friend. Can I trust you ‘nough to call me Charlie?”
“Well, yes,” Jean said. “But my Volkswagen Beetle--”
“I got it, honey,” Charlie said, and hopped into a freshly-oiled tow truck parked in the garage. In about twenty short minutes, she returned with the VW.
“It must be hard to believe, but this has been the worst week of my life,” Jean said, as Charlie got out of the truck. Jean had this odd feeling, a feeling that she could completely trust Charlie. She continued: “You see, my boyfriend was shot and killed on Tuesday. I’m searching for answers. Some clarity, maybe.”
Charlie seemed unfazed, but her cornflower eyes were soft. “Uh-huh,” she said, and put an arm around Jean. Jean welcomed it and felt like crying.
“I found a note on him, Charlie. It’s pointing towards a cabin. Am I crazy for driving all this way for some silly cabin?”
“No, no, love,” she said, and grabbed Jean’s face. “Grief makes us do crazy things. Some people think it’s destiny. Some think it’s God. I dunno what you think, but a lot of the time, those crazy things’re actually well n’ good for us.”
“Oh,” Jean said, her mind rattling like a pinball machine. “Uh, I hate to ask more of you; it’s so late. But do you happen to know where Copperstone Street is?”
“Sure I do,” Charlie said, grinning and shoving her hands into her coverall pockets. “Want me to get you there? I can drive an’ you can get some shut-eye.”
Jean nodded and grabbed her coat. She felt guilty, but at least she wasn’t as lonely.
“Golly, what a night, huh?” Charlie said, adjusting the rearview mirror and smiling into the morning sun. She tapped the other woman on the leg with a pointy red nail. “Jean. Look.”
Jean garbled something incoherent and rose slowly from her resting position. As realization hit her, so did the first real joy she’d felt in days.
The cabin was set neatly into a hill, a large pine and maple forest surrounding it. The light winking through the trees gave it an ethereal quality, a sort of warmth derived directly and deeply from the core. It was a windy day, and as Charlie rolled the windows down, Jean could hear the rustling of long grass. She watched with pure fascination as wet leaves swirled down from the trees and landed on the windshield.
“Beautiful,” Jean said, and got out of the car. This was a stark contrast to the city; even the dead leaves and soft bed of fallen pine needles under her feet seemed more lively. Charlie hopped out, too, and handed Jean her keys.
“These’re rightfully yours, ma’am,” she said, and smiled. “So, you ready?”
“Of course,” Jean said, unlocking the door and swinging it open easily.
The interior was surprisingly sparse. A single window greeted guests as they stepped over the threshold, and in each corner were two metal-framed bunk beds. Directly below the window, decorated in a halo of illuminated dust, was a single record player on a wooden table.
Charlie noticed the player and, with a flourish, plugged it in and grabbed a record. She read the cover, seemingly pleased, and placed the needle. Ol’ Blue Eyes’ soft vocals began to fill the room, and out of nowhere, Jean’s pump caught on something and she tumbled to the floor.
“What was that? I must've...” Jean said, momentarily forgetting about her bruised knees, and trailed off. Charlie, in the motion of helping Jean get up, stopped too. A nail was sticking out of the wood near her foot. Jean touched it, and it jiggled easily, so she removed it. With the help of Charlie, they lifted the floorboard.
Below the board was a hole in the dirt. A lump of cloth was tucked inside, and when Jean unwrapped it, it was a shotgun—loaded with two slugs. In the hole was a red and yellow cardboard box containing five more.
“What’s that for?” Charlie asked, but Jean didn’t care. She was just exhilarated, having found another piece of Tom. She hugged it to her chest, the cold metal pressing against her collar.
The house shivered, and a bit of dust fell from the ceiling. The sound chilled Jean’s insides. Without a word, she grabbed the shotgun and creaked the door open, Charlie following nervously behind her. Jean swallowed the lump growing in her throat; the hope of finding something to quell her grief was too great to miss. It was unbearably close, and she could feel it.
Outside, all was still and calm, save for a few flexible trees bending in the wind. Another loud thumping noise. Jean looked to her left.
The whole forest seemed to shift and suddenly a mass of oily skin, ragged breaths, and knobbly joints leapt down from the trees, landing and quickly standing upright. With horror, Jean noticed that its face was some sort of dark funnel, rows and rows of sharp, pallid teeth inside it. It licked its round, open lips, sighing raspily, and shifted its arms and legs. Its joints creaked and popped. It was almost like a large monkey with a lamprey’s face, huffing as it quietly surveyed the terrified women.
Charlie tembled. “Jean. Gimme the keys,” she whispered, her voice whistling with each breath she took. She grabbed Jean’s arm and began fumbling through her coat pocket.
Jean’s blood fizzed with fear, her thoughts swelling and expanding inside her skull, a clashing orchestral scream, and her grip on the shotgun became slick. The beast flicked its head to the side, observing her with its small, pearly eyes.
Tom’s beast illustrations rose to the surface of her mind like dead, bloated fish. He wasn’t the most talented artist, but this. This thing…it was part of him. He had seen it before. Jean watched the beast sniff the air with its single nostril, a blowhole on the top of its head, a small perforation. She thought of a partially-healed bullet wound and felt sick.
“Charlie. I want you to take my keys and I want you to get in the car.”
“What? But Jean, you--”
“You heard what I said,” Jean said, loading the shotgun. “I need to finish it. And I need you out of the way.”
Charlie nodded reluctantly and rushed to the car as quietly as she could. She stumbled frantically for the door, her breath rushing from her in short, hot, quick bursts. As she unlocked the door, the keys jingled. The creature perked its head up, and the little black hands that rested in the dirt bared their claws, claws that gleamed like steak knives coated in wet tar...those hands. Those little black hands. They were war and they were hate and they were black and they were bloodied and they were the Crimson Death, the Red Scare. By God, they were the Red Scare.
The whites of Jean’s eyes flashed like polaroid bulbs as she cocked the shotgun. Whatever outcome transpired mattered immensely. She swallowed, even though there was nothing to swallow, but dear God, she’d protect Charlie. She’d protect herself. And, most importantly, she’d avenge Tom, or die trying.