Chapter Thirteen

Katy lay on the bed, listening to the ticking of the tin roof as the sun warmed it. The afterglow of sex had faded, and only a faint stickiness remained. Her toes were cold. Her robe was tangled around her. She must have fallen asleep because the alarm clock on the bedside table read almost ten. She forced herself out of bed, legs heavy, head feeling as if it were stuffed with wet rags.

On the way to the bathroom, she paused at the linen closet to get a clean towel. The closet was still a mess from moving, strewn with garbage bags full of winter clothes, boxes of shoes, and bun-dled-up coats. The door bulged open, with mufflers, pajamas, and dish towels oozing from the crack. Had Rebecca been this messy? She kicked the clothing away and opened the door, and a shoe box fell from the shelf and bounced off her shoulder. As she put it back, she noticed a string running down the inside of one wall. She thought it might be a light switch and gave it a tug, peering into the darkness above. There was a slight metallic rasp and the squeak of a spring. Katy pulled harder and saw a small wooden door descending. It must be an attic access.

Curious, she took a flashlight from the bedside table and carried one of Gordon’s heirloom rockers to the closet. Climbing unsteadily onto the rocker seat, she grabbed the lip of the door and pulled it down until it bumped the shelf. Rough pine rungs had been hammered onto a set of steel bars, making a folded ladder. She shone the light into the opening and saw the ribs of the ceiling joists and the dull galvanized tin of the roof. Cobwebs hung in large dusty beards and the air was stale and humid. Katy shucked her robe so she could climb more easily and grabbed the highest rung she could reach and pulled herself up. She held the flashlight in her left hand, keeping two of her fingers free for gripping. She nearly lost her balance, but managed to get a bare foot on the shelf for purchase, knocking off the shoe box again in the process.

With one more heave, she got her other foot on the lowest rung and stood, poking her head into the attic. Louvered grilles were set at each end of the attic to allow air circulation, with wire covering the openings. The old house must have once been insulated with shredded paper, because bits of gray fluff hung to the wooden support posts. Pale fiberglass had been rolled out in places, though a large section had been floored around the opening as a storage space. Katy focused the beam on the boxes, old lamp shades, and small pieces of furniture that were stacked around the floored area. A fuzzy orange ball bounced among the clutter; then she realized it was the flashlight’s beam reflected in a dusty mirror.

Katy climbed through the access hole and crawled on her hands and knees to the mirror. A space had been cleared away in front of it. Two rolls of lipstick, a makeup kit with several peach shades of face blush, and a silver-handled hairbrush were arranged before the mirror as if some woman had tended her appearance here. A small glass spray bottle lay on its side, and it took Katy a second to realize what was out of place: the bottle was free of dust, as if it had been recently used. One of the cardboard boxes was open and a cotton dress hung over the edge, bearing an autumnal print with a frilly white collar.

Behind the mirror was a long, wooden box covered with books. The box appeared too large to have fit through the access hole. Katy wondered if someone had carried the boards up one at a time and assembled the box in the attic. If the box were meant for book storage, it would have been simpler to nail shelving boards between the joists.

So something was inside the box.

Maybe books, maybe air.

Maybe a piece of Smith family history, something that would help her better understand Gordon.

Or understand Rebecca.

As Katy crawled past the clutter, she regarded her reflection in the mirror. Because of the dust, her reflection was fuzzy. Katy tried to grin at her double that was crawling closer. In the dim light, the reflection became distorted and for a moment, Katy’s face was narrow and pinched and snarling. But was it her face? The fragrance of lilacs rose over the odor of dry wood and blown insulation.

She closed her eyes and forced herself forward, knocking over a stack of Mason jars filled with a dark substance. One of the jars broke, emitting a fetid smell and spilling a tarry liquid on the plywood floor. Katy brushed the shards of glass away and eased her way beside the box. She carefully removed the books from its top. The lid was hinged, with one end held in place by a hasp that was hooked with an open, rusty padlock. Katy removed the padlock and laid it to the side, propping the flashlight so that its cone of light swept over the box.

The lid lifted with a groan, and Katy broke a fingernail as the lid banged back against the floor. She gathered the flashlight and brought its beam to bear on the box’s contents.

Katy nearly bumped her head as she drew back from the sight.

A prone figure was laid out in the bottom of the box. Its suit was faded black, spotted gray with dry rot. The arms were crossed over the chest, a straw boater hat resting on them, and straw spilled from the stained sleeves. The face was made of cheesecloth, with white buttons sewn for eyes. A gash in the cheesecloth represented the mouth, and filthy cotton wadding bulged from the opening. The scarecrow was almost a replica of the one in the barn, except this one had never been in a field.

What had she expected to find? Rebecca’s body?

She wouldn’t have looked otherwise.

Katy was about to close the lid when the flashlight glinted off something tucked in the scarecrow’s jacket. She reached toward the dusty figure and pulled the object into the light, a small chain trailing behind. It was a locket, its gold plate peeling away in spots, the alloy beneath smudged and worn. Katy opened it and played the light over the portrait that was set in the locket’s base and covered with glass.

The woman in the black-and-white photograph was beautiful. Though the hairstyle was not of any identifiable era and she’d seen no other photographs of her, Katy knew it was Rebecca. No wonder Gordon still thought of her and fantasized about her. She was ethereal, cheekbones fine and thin, eyes dark between soft lashes. She wore a dress with a frilly collar, and Katy recognized it as the dress with the autumnal print.

Gordon must have placed the locket here. But why go to all the trouble of making a scarecrow, an oversize fetish doll? Looking at the objects stored in the attic with new interest, she realized that none of these things were Gordon’s. The books were mostly romantic suspense, Mary Higgins Clark, Daphne du Maurier, and Anne Rivers Siddons. The few pieces of furniture might have come from a college girl’s sorority room, thrift shop junk made of cheap wood. Perhaps Gordon had set up the attic as a shrine to Rebecca’s memory, though there was certainly no loving arrangement to the clutter.

Gordon studied religion and probably saw symbolism in ordinary objects. The locket was more than just a picture memory; it must have been an aged heirloom, and Katy found it hard to believe that Gordon would banish it to the attic. Maybe Rebecca’s loss had been so devastating that he’d put her things out of sight and out of mind, though he hadn’t the heart to throw them away. Katy played the light over the scarecrow once more. f ad the mouth twitched? perhaps mice nested in the wadding. She let the lid drop with a wooden bang and backed away to the mirror, propping the flashlight on a ceiling joist so that it shone down like a stage spotlight. She hooked the clasp on the locket’s chain and placed it around her neck. Her reflection seemed pleased, smiling back at her through the snowy film that covered the glass. Katy picked up the tiny spray bottle and sniffed.

Lilacs.

This was Rebecca’s scent, the one that drifted across the kitchen or rose from the bed in sudden urgency. Katy sprayed a little on her neck, the mist tickling and chilling her flesh.

She then picked up the lipstick tube, pulled off the cap, and regarded the rose shade. This might have been the lipstick Rebecca wore when the portrait was made. Katy sniffed it. She rarely wore makeup, though as a business professional she’d had to dress in pantsuits. Her hand lifted as though of its own accord the lipstick sliding across the grinning lips in the mirror. Next she applied the blush to her cheeks. Her reflection startled her. In the yellow circle of the flashlight, she looked deathly pale. Too deathly.

She stood and removed her robe. The attic was warm but her nipples swelled inside the cups of her bra. This was dirty and exciting, the putting on of a mask. She thought of the morning’s intercourse with Gordon and his calling Rebecca’s name. The memory of her own orgasm came back and she was tempted to slide her finger into her panties.

Instead, she tried on the dress.

It fit perfectly.

Alex Eakins parked his pickup at the edge of the woods, below an embankment where the road had been cut to his property. He finished the last of his joint and doused the roach. He almost tossed it in the ashtray for later, but if a cop found it there, that would probably constitute grounds for a search warrant. The fucking pigs were just that way, and they’d gotten a lot porkier under the nou-veau Stalinism of the Bush II regime.

Fuck them all. Fuck big-budget Bush and his totalitarian ways. Fuck the spineless Democrats who curled up in a ball as they were kicked and fuck even his own chosen Libertarian Party for lacking in ability to capture the popular imagination. When it really counted political action was up close and personal.

He got his Pearson Freedom compound bow and arrows out of the backseat and wandered to the fence. Gordon Smith’s goats grazed and browsed among the scrub vegetation, eating blackberry vines, pine trees, locusts, and pokeweed not caring what entered their mouths as long as it was green or brown. Alex considered having a neighborly talk with Smith, but that might lead to unexpected visits and snooping around, and then maybe a peek into the little shed behind Alex’s mud house. Gordon was a professor, which almost certainly meant he’d smoked some weed in his day, but when it came down to it, someone on a university payroll was part of the Establishment and couldn’t be trusted.

Besides, it was the goats that had fucked with his garden, not their owner. So it was the goats that had to pay. Alex notched an arrow and tilted the bow, then pinched and stretched the string back, muscles straining against the taut arc. It was power, primitive and raw and heady. Or maybe he was stoned.

The flock of a half dozen had paused and given him a speculative appraisal when he’d parked, but the animals now returned to their chewing. The nearest goat was thirty yards away, peeling the bark from a bare sapling. It was tan and white, ears long and tunneled, horns curved and short. The age of goats was hard to figure, since they got plump and grew beards before they were a year old but Alex figured this one for middle age. Probably was bound for the meat locker this winter.

Alex sighted down the arrow, aiming just a little high to compensate for the natural pull of gravity. He was about to let fly when he saw movement in a prickly grove of crab apples behind the flock. Somebody was walking toward him. Shit. Must be that redneck goon Odus Hampton, the odd-jobber who hung around down at the general store. Odus did chores around the Smith place in exchange for liquor money and crops, and probably had some sort of inbred devotion to his master. Mountain folk like Odus seemed to cling to the ideals their Irish and Scots ancestors had brought to the mountains as they fled to the freedom of the Southern Appalachians. They were driven by a rebel streak, but still measured themselves against the value systems of their oppressive overlords and would do anything for a dollar.

Or maybe Odus was just drunk and rambling.

And maybe the Scots-Irish who wanted to be left alone had a lot in common with antigovernment stoners.

Alex was shielded by a stand of small poplars, so Odus wouldn’t be able to see him right away. Alex eased the tension on the string and leaned against the camouflage to wait for Odus to move on. The goats didn’t turn toward Odus’s approach, which didn’t make sense. If Odus was the one who regularly fed them, they should have gone running at the first sniff of his bourbon-sweet stench.

Alex peeked from his cover. It wasn’t Odus coming down the dirt path.

It was a man in a hat and an ill-cut suit that was too short for his arms. He wore a ragged black tie that was cut in the shape of a cross, and his white linen shirt looked like a stained tooth against the grimy topcoat. His bony wrists were exposed along with a couple of inches of pale forearm. He wore square-toed leather boots and his woolen pants were riddled with tiny rips and moth holes. His face was hidden in the shade of the hat’s oversize brim.

Fucking Twilight Zone material, weird dude walking.

Alex debated getting back into his truck and driving away, but the man would probably see him carrying the bow and arrow. The stranger wouldn’t know that Alex had been about to kill a goat, but he might tell Gordon about the encounter. And Gordon might get suspicious, drive up the dirt road and knock on Alex’s door, or take a look around the property. Worse, Gordon might report Alex to the sheriff’s department as a trespasser, and they would come with a warrant whether Alex was guilty or not. That’s just the way the fucking cops were, they made up a stupid reason to investigate you so they could find something serious to bust you over. It was the same whether your broken taillight led to a drunk-driving arrest or a bogus trespassing claim got you busted for illegal manufacture of a Schedule I narcotic.

Alex decided to wait it out. Maybe the stranger was trespassing, too, and would walk amid the flock and head on down to the road. Weird Dude Walking could just walk the fuck right on off the stage.

But the stranger didn’t keep walking. He stopped in the middle of the flock, in a cleared area of trampled goldenrod and tickseed. He tilted his head forward so that even the shadow of his face was hidden by the hat’s brim. He folded his hands in front of him and stood as still as a scarecrow. The goats stopped their ruminating and turned to him, one by one. The only sounds were the September breeze skirling dead leaves and the ticking of the Jeep’s engine as it cooled. Even the crows had grown hushed in the high treetops.

The goat closest to Alex, the one he had planned to murder, took a few steps toward the man in the hat. It emitted a soft bleat. Another of the goats, farther up the hill, echoed the bleat, and then others joined in. It wasn’t the yearning bleat that hungry goats often made. These calls were gentle and almost tender, like the sound a kid would make as it neared its mother’s teats.

Weird Dude Walking kept his head tilted down but slowly lifted his arms until they were suspended straight out from the sides of his body. It looked as if he were imitating a giant bird and would at any moment start flapping for takeoff. But his movements were slow and graceful, like those of someone at peace. The goats all moved forward at me same time, headed for the stranger. The largest, a fat old billy with a long, filthy beard, reached him first and sniffed at the wool suit. The man remained perfectly still, though his body seemed to relax a little, his limp hands dangling from the ends of his raised arms. Other goats crowded around, their nostrils flaring as they checked the air.

The nearest goat put its nose against the man’s coat, then opened its jaws and took the cloth in its mouth. The man kept his head tilted and made no sign of movement. The goats squeezed closer, and now others put their snouts against his skin. The big billy tugged on the coat, first gently and then harder, until a lower button popped free. The other goats nipped at the fabric, yanking their heads back with the clothing clenched between their jaws, their bleats growing more frantic.

Alex wondered if Weird Dude had worn some sort of scent that attracted the goats. Deer hunters would splash their coveralls with buck urine, hoping to entice does from the woods. Maybe there was a special scent to attract goats, though goats were tame enough that they didn’t need to be stalked. Alex fell back on the theory that the man had fed the goats before and they associated his scent with grain or sugar. Or maybe homegrown sinsemilla bud dulled Alex’s thought process. Alex liked that theory better, because then he could take the credit for growing mythical motherlode mind-fuck instead of the possibility that something fucked up was happening that might be happening whether or not the observer was stoned. Like Einstein on acid or something, or an Escher drawing where you were on the inside looking out.

Whatever, man, because it’s happening no matter which theory fits…

Desperate goat mouths ripped open Weird Dude Walking’s coat, the bone buttons sparkling in the sun as they arced to the ground. The man had on a flannel long john shirt underneath, but it was shredded in places and deathly pale skin showed through the openings. The goats tugged on the man but he kept his balance. Alex wondered why Weird Dude didn’t push the animals away.

Because this is only happening in your mind. Yeah. Okay.

The man’s arms were pulled down, and one of the sleeves was yanked free. Two goats played tug-of-war with the wool coat, and then jerked it off the man’s back. The coat settled on a patch of dried goldenrod. Weird Dude finally lifted his face and Alex expected either the awe-inspiring expression of a Mushroom God or else a Carlos Castaneda smirk. From fifty yards away, all Alex could tell was that Weird Dude looked sick, his skin unhealthy and sallow. But a smile creased his doughy face as he looked at the sky and endured the hircine assault.

The goats grew frantic, their teeth tearing the man’s clothes, and Alex almost left his hidden vantage point and went to the rescue. If Weird Dude had acted in any way alarmed, Alex would have emptied his quiver of arrows into the goats. But his unnatural serenity caused Alex to watch and wait.

The stoner stereotype called for an indecisive and befuddled reaction. Alex was no fucking stereotype. He knew he was a stoner and that put him several rungs above the people who bought his dope. For all Alex knew, this was some elaborate trick of the Drug Enforcement Agency, because the spooks would spare no expense in bringing down a single freethinking, tax-exempt American. Because from such men revolutions were sparked.

The goats ripped until Weird Dude’s flannel underwear gave way, and then one of the goats bit deep into the man’s side. The man should have screamed, but the smile didn’t waver as the goat worked its head back and forth, trying to pull the piece of flesh free. Another goat went for the soft portion of the stomach just below the navel and backed away, a string of meat dangling from its mouth.

Alex gripped the tree in front of him, the bark scraping his cheek and his breath so loud he was sure the goats could hear it above their own noise. A mantra came to him, in a dull throb that mirrored his accelerated pulse: Not Real, Not Real, Not Real. And then came the syncopated accent beat: Not-Fucking-Real.

Instead of blood spilling from Weird Dude’s wounds, a milky substance oozed out, thick as cottage cheese. The goats bit into the man, and one butted him in the left thigh, causing him to lean to one side. A dirty brown goat grabbed the outstretched arm as the man tried to regain his balance. Its teeth clamped on the wrist and dragged the man toward the ground, the black hat flying from the man’s head and landing in the trampled vegetation. Once the man was on his knees, the goats clambered over him, rending the flesh of his neck and back. Not once did the man cry out.

The goats’ bleats grew muffled as their mouths filled. They fed on the clabbered juice that leaked from the man’s torn flesh.

Weird Dude Walking ain’t fucking walking anymore.

Alex broke from the trance that seemed to have fallen over him as he watched the bizarre spectacle. This was no psychedelic vision, this was an ass-end-up slab of reality. He gripped his bow and arrows and stepped from his cover. “Hey,” he shouted.

The goats kept feeding. Weird Dude was buried beneath the goats, hidden by the mass of dirty, furry animals that were now in a feeding frenzy. The bearded billy backed out of the herd with a prize, a swinging slab of gristle that looked like the man’s cheek. No blood leaked from the ripped skin, only a few dribbles of moon-white liquid. Another goat tottered away, dragging what looked to be the strip of a forearm. A third dipped its head into the downed man’s belly and came up with a swollen rope of intestines decorating its blunt horns like a satanic Christmas trimming.

Alex fought an urge to vomit. The vestiges of the morning’s bong hits faded, and even the high from the seedless, resin-sticky buds he’d crammed into the recent joint had deserted him. He grew kick-ass weed by any standard, but no buzz was deep enough to mask the insane scene that played out before him. Fuckers didn’t just crawl out of the weeds and get eaten by goats. Didn’t happen. Maybe in a video game, maybe in a shitty direct-to-video horror movie, but certainly not here on the slopes above Solom, where the Bible thumpers said God was closer than ever and the sky weighed three thousand pounds and the government didn’t meddle too much and his girlfriend Meredith was sleeping off the effects of a bottle of wine and three orgasms and no fucking way in the world is Weird Dude getting reamed by goats!

Alex debated his options. He could charge into the midst of the herd and scatter them, but as much meat as they had stripped from Weird Dude, Alex didn’t see any way the man could still be alive. Alex had four arrows, so he could thin the flock a little, except then they might turn their eye to fresh prey. And he knew how goats were-once they got a taste for something, they gobbled it until it was extinct. The third option made the most sense: back the hell away, get in the truck, and pretend this had all been a hallucination. Forget reporting the incident to the authorities, because authority equaled government equaled search warrants.

When he started the truck, one of the goats looked up from the corpse and stared in the direction of the noise. A couple of maggot-white fingers protruded between the twisting lips. The goat looked right through the windshield and met his eyes. Alex was probably just stoned-yeah, that had to be it-because mere was no way the goat could have been grinning. Either he was stoned or else he had cracked, and he was too rational to crack.

As the pickup bounced up the pitted mountain road, Alex realized that Weird Dude Walking, even while the goats were eviscerating him, had not uttered a single sound.

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