Chapter Thirty-one

Jett opened the door to her room to find Gordon standing there.

“Where do you think you’re going, Jessica?” he said, hands on his hips, blocking the hallway.

“Um, out for a drive with Mom.”

Gordon grinned, and it looked like the expression of a cartoon possum, eyes narrow behind his thick lenses. “Mrs. Smith isn’t driving anywhere. She told me so.”

“Where is she?”

“In the attic.”

Jett leaned to the side and looked past Gordon. The linen closet door was shut tight. The closet was too small for the attic ladder to unfold without the door open. Either Gordon was lying or else he’d shut the access door with Mom up there. But why would Mom go up there, especially after the ghost had scared her silly?

Jett decided Gordon was lying, and figured that deserved a lie in return. “I was smoking pot that time in the barn,” she said. “When I saw-I mean, thought I saw-the scarecrow the first time. I guess I just freaked out.”

Gordon’s eyes narrowed. “You know the rules. No drugs in this house.”

“Well, technically the drags weren’t in the house.”

“I’ll have no sass from you, young lady. You’re a member of this family now and I’m your stepfather.”

Jett’s cheeks flared red in defiance. “You’ll never be my dad, no matter how hard you try.”

Gordon reached out as if to grab her arm, but she ducked past, slinging the backpack around. She tried to crawl between his legs but he brought his knees together, clamping her like an oversize vise grip. Her sides ached from the pressure, but she wiggled while he reached down to her. Gordon was shouting, his voice scarcely recognizable. Some of his words sounded like Latin, intoned like the traditional liturgy of a Catholic priest. Like something out of The Exorcist or some Goth band’s hokey attempt at demonic incantations.

Gordon had one of her boots, but they were recently polished and he lost his grip. She kicked free and crawled on her hands and knees down the hall, her mind blank except for the unbidden thought, How could Mom have been dumb enough to fall for this idiot?

Then she regained her footing and sprang forward launching herself down the stairs three steps at a time, clutching Captain Boo. She toyed with the idea of sliding down the railing, but there was a large wooden sculpture on the bottom newel post, and Jett pictured herself breaking a leg, lying there flopping and moaning on the landing while Gordon loomed over her.

What would he do to her? Even if he knew they were running out on him, which wasn’t likely, considering what a wet mop Mom had been lately, surely he wouldn’t do anything worse than scream and yell. Yet he had tried to physically restrain her upstairs, and she’d heard some guys went into possessive rages when a woman ditched them. His heavy shoes punished the stairs behind her.

When she reached the first floor, she dared a backward glance and suffered an acid flashback.

At least, she hoped that’s what it was, because a woman was floating-floating! — behind Gordon.

She was thin as threads, almost invisible, and she was pulled forward as if riding in Gordon’s back draft. Her lack of flesh was almost as startling as the fact that she had no head.

Jett hadn’t seen anything that bizarre on her actual acid trip, and couldn’t imagine how a flashback could be so intense and disturbing. But accepting it as a drug-induced hallucination made it somehow easier to assimilate.

Of course there’s a ghost in this house. Why wouldn’t there be, when creepy scarecrows live in the attic and the barn, when goddamned goats scarf your dope and try to eat your ass, when a man in a black hat peeps in your windows?

Jett was nearly out of breath when she reached the door, but she had twenty feet on Gordon (and thirty feet on the headless ghost). She threw open the door and was racing across the porch when she saw them.

Goats, dozens of them, a veritable army of horned stink factories, staring at her with their weird, glittering eyes. They blocked Jett’s path to the driveway and surrounded the car. Mom sat in the driver’s seat, clawing her cheeks in anxiety. One of the goats lowered its head and gave the driver’s side door a solid thwack with its horns and forehead.

“Going somewhere?” Gordon said behind her, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

Alex had a passing knowledge of tracking and hunting, and though he was mostly a vegetarian, he figured being able to round up meat for the dinner table might be a handy survival skill when the Republicans and Democrats finally toppled the Statue of Liberty. So he’d learned the basics and had even killed some small game with his bow and arrows. Of course, he was a crack marksman. That was required of any member of the antigovernment militia, even if you were only an army of one.

So Alex had no trouble following the goats’ hoofprints through the woods. Even his sister, a Boston lawyer, could have followed this trail-the fuzzy beasts had practically trampled a superhighway through the underbrush. The carpet of leaves on the forest floor was scuffled, branches hung broken and nibbled, and of course there was the occasional pile of plum-sized goat turds. In his haste, Alex hadn’t paid close attention to the ammunition he’d loaded into his shoulder bag, but he figured he had at least six rounds for each of the goats. Plenty enough lead to teach the Satan-faced little fucks not to mess with his property.

The trail followed the ridge. Wherever they were going, they were making a beeline for high ground. Alex understood the chemical processes by which marijuana played with the synapses. Marijuana required heat before the cannaboids were activated, so you had to smoke it or cook it in brownies or oil for the pot to do its stuff. But maybe goat neurology was different. Maybe goats could get stoned just from the raw green leaves. That seemed to be the only reason they would break into his shed and gobble up good bud that would net twenty grand on the street.

Unless they were smart enough to know what the pot meant to him.

Maybe they were part of some secret government experiment, too. He’d read about how the spooks trained dolphins to carry explosives toward enemy ships and trained chimpanzees to infiltrate bunkers. No doubt the same government that publicly frowned on genetic research was going gangbusters in their underground labs, splicing all kinds of stuff together, putting microchips in the heads of animals, developing entire battalions of remote-controlled killers.

Alex stopped and adjusted the strap of the submachine gun, the Pearson Freedom bow tucked under his armpit. Maybe the goats were fucking with him on purpose. Maybe they were trying to… well, to get his goat. The FBI had found out about his stash and his weapons and his tax evasion, and instead of coming up and knocking on the front door with a warrant, they’d concocted the most screwed-up, expensive, and outlandish revenge possible. Yeah, that was what the U.S. of A. was all about.

Well, revenge worked two ways. Alex patted the Colt Python at his side. The ripped-up ground was moist, the goat shit fresher as he climbed the slope of Lost Ridge. He was gaining on them, even with darkness settling in. And if the universe was as just and fair as Alex always believed it was, especially while brain-basted on a thumb-sized joint of God-green smoke, then he’d have his revenge before the sun surrendered to the night.

An engine roared in the distance. Motorcyclists or kids on all-terrain vehicles sometimes prowled the old logging roads, disturbing the peace, trespassing, and generally raising hell. If he came across one, Alex just might put a slug in a rear tire. From the camouflage of the forest, he wouldn’t be seen, and he’d bet his pair of Herman Survivors that the driver in question would fishtail his ass back to civilization, riding the rim or not.

Alex was in a good mood, despite the loss of a season’s worth of crops. The evening’s events felt natural, as if they had already happened, as if this were a stage play and the parts had been written ahead of time: Alex, the dark storm of vengeance, and the goats in their supporting role of government vermin. He might even encounter Weird Dude Walking, who seemed to be a part of all this craziness. Maybe Weird Dude was some sort of upper-level federal agent, in the National Security Agency, even. Alex realized maybe that particular line of paranoid delusion was probably a bit too extravagant, but it pleased him nonetheless.

He shifted into a double-time jog, eager to catch up with whatever was awaiting him at the top of the ridge.

“Shit, shit, shit.” Katy beat the steering wheel as the goat rammed its head against the door a second time. Another goat, this one a hoary old-timer, with gray and white streaked among the brown patches on its face, reared up and settled its front hoofs on the bumper and glared at Katy over the hood.

She’d tucked her suitcase in the trunk and had just closed the front door when the goats appeared. She had looked over the driveway and the gravel road checking things out before fleeing, and the coast had been clear. Admittedly, she’d been looking for Gordon and not goats. She figured he was still out making whatever weird farm rounds he kept on Sunday evenings.

The goats had appeared out of nowhere. First came Abraham, the only one she could distinguish because of the right horn that corkscrewed crazily behind his ear. Abraham had waltzed down like a show pony, in high spirits, even kicking up and clicking his back hooves. Katy had grinned at that one, even though Abraham had broken out of the fence. That was Gordon’s problem. Katy mourned briefly for the perennials she’d planted along the front porch, the forsythia, hosta, and snowball bushes that the goat would no doubt munch, but this wasn’t her house anymore. If it had ever been.

She’d checked her watch and noted it was a quarter after seven. She debated running into the house and getting Jett. She’d also forgotten to call her mother and announce their unexpected arrival. When she looked up from her watch, three goats came around the house like a gang of gunfighters in a spaghetti western. That was when the first alarm had gone off inside her head, an insistent, irritating beeping.

She was about to open the door when the rearview mirror revealed a half dozen more, popping up as if they had formed from smoke. She didn’t like the look of their eyes. And while she hadn’t quite believed they were dangerous before-despite her own creepy encounters; after all, a goat was an herbivore, not a carnivore, right? — she accepted it now, because the goats moved with a common intent, as if they shared the same mind and the same hunger.

When Jett opened the front door, Katy wanted to scream at her to go back inside the house. Then she saw Gordon behind Jett, and the ghost-Rebecca-behind him, and figured goats were the lesser of three evils. Jett paused at the edge of the porch, clearly sizing up her chances of making it to the car. By now dozens of goats filled the yard their restless legs kicking in the dusk, their hooves pawing the ground ears twitching.

Katy decided she needed to improve the odds a little. As the butt-head slammed her car door for the third time, she turned over the ignition key. The Subaru engine roared to life, and she threw the gearshift into drive and hit the gas. The goat perched on the bumper (for some reason, the name “Methuselah” came to mind) lost its balance and bounced off the grille with a meaty thump. Gravel spat from beneath the wheels like Uzi slugs, and startled goats emitted bleats of surprise and pain. The fishtailing rear of the Subaru slewed into a small group of the creatures, scattering them like soft bowling pins. Katy heard limbs snap, and a stray horn clacked against a side window and caused the glass to spiderweb.

Some of the goats danced out of the way, their long, angular faces almost comical with those obscene eyes set deep beneath heavy brows. Katy navigated an arc, parking the passenger’s-side door at the foot of the porch steps. She leaned over and flung the door open as Jett hopped toward the car. Gordon looked shattered, as if he wanted to cry but couldn’t find any water in his dried-up heart. Katy would almost have felt sorry for him, but she was pretty sure he was distraught over the dead and injured goats and not over losing his wife.

“Shit, Mom, you rock,” Jett said as she climbed into the front seat. Katy was already pulling away before the door closed.

The goats had by now figured out a monstrous steel predator was in their midst, and they had parted like the waves of the Red Sea.

“Moses,” Katy said. “Did he have a goat named Moses?”

“That one,” Jett said, pointing to the left. “The one with the black hairs in its beard.”

Katy veered out of the way and clipped Moses head-on. The goat bounced up on the hood and pressed against the windshield. For one horrifying second, Moses glared through the glass at Katy, as if admonishing her for breaking some unwritten commandment. Then he rolled to the side and was flung from the car, which was by now halfway down the drive to the Ward house. When Katy checked the mirror, Moses was flopping and flailing on the hard-packed road.

“Sweet!” Jett yelled, as if this were a sequel to Thelma and Louise, only this time cowritten by Federico Fellini and George Romero.

“Fasten your seat belt,” Katy said, her hands no longer trembling. She hadn’t had time to be frightened-well, not such a much of it-but now the reverse endorphins were kicking in and the blood drained from her face, her bruised eye throbbing.

“I saw your ghost,” Jett said after obeying the parental command. She put her backpack in the floor between her legs, opened it, and rummaged while Katy aimed for the paved highway.

“It’s not my ghost,” Katy said. “I’m still very much alive, thank you.”

Jett pulled a CD from her backpack, opened the case, and slid it into the player. She punched a button and Paul Westerberg’s “Knockin on Mine” blared from the speakers like a bad attitude in A major.

Neither of them noticed the ghost sitting in the backseat, its head in its lap.

Sue parked the Jeep beneath a stand of balsam, gnarled trees whose bones had been bleached white by acid rain and foreign pests. A number of native tree species were in decline because of exotic diseases that had been brought to the country from Asia, usually piggybacking on landscaping plants. Human vanity had led to this imbalance of nature, as it did to most imbalances. The regional tourist economy, and Sue’s personal economy, was threatened by the damage to scenic beauty.

Perhaps Harmon Smith, the Circuit Rider, was another such blight, invading a realm where he didn’t belong. The Circuit Rider was just as much a threat, because he couldn’t be caged and put on display at five bucks a head. Instead, he literally killed her customers, if indeed he had done away with the Everharts while they were cycling. Plus, somebody had to pay for the damage to the bicycles. Though the Circuit Rider couldn’t pay in a pound of flesh, Sue hoped to extract some sort of substance.

“Ready to rock and roll?” she said, looking over at Sarah. Maybe ancient wisdom had something on the brashness of youth, because Sarah gripped the safety bar on the dash in front of her and stared straight ahead at the woods.

“I don’t know why you brung me along,” the storekeeper said. “If I was meant to take care of Harmon Smith, I expect I’d have done it many moons ago.”

Sue brandished the pickax, letting it catch the last rays of sunlight. “Maybe you didn’t have the right tool.”

“And what in tarnation am I supposed to do with that? Hammer it into his heart like he’s some kind of ass-backwards vampire?”

“I think we’ll know when the time comes. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants here.”

“You act like you’ve done this kind of thing before.”

Sue flicked the headlights, strobing the silent trees. “No, I just don’t want to be waiting for the next time Harmon Smith decides to come around. Solom is my home now.”

“You younguns are so full of piss and vinegar. It’s a wonder any of you ever live to be old.”

“Well, Miss Jeffers, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but if the people of Solom had faced this problem right at the start, maybe it would all be over by now.”

Sarah’s voice broke, nearly becoming an old woman’s whine. “We couldn’t figure out what he wanted. We figured he’d just come to claim somebody and that was that, and each time he went away, the ones who weren’t picked just counted their blessings and went about their business. That might be the worst of it all. Because, until he comes back again and you start seeing the people he killed, you somehow manage to forget”

Sue wrestled a flashlight from beneath her seat and flung open her door. “Well, nobody’s forgetting this time.”

“I hope it ain’t you,” Sarah said. “But 1 hope it ain’t me, either, and if it does turn out to be one of us, I’d rather he carry you over. Nothing personal, mind you.”

Sue almost smiled despite the knot in her stomach. Her bravery was mostly false, but Sarah was clearly shaken, and Sue felt a need to be strong for both of them. She believed Harmon Smith would be impressed by a lack of fear. She went to Sarah’s door and helped her out, then played the flashlight around beneath the dark canopy of the forest.

“Where to now?” Sue asked.

“Right here,” came a voice from the trees.

When Mark Draper arrived at the Smith house, both vehicles were gone from the driveway. He knocked on the front door with no answer, then walked around the house. He didn’t know how Gordon Smith would react to trespassing, but a tingling at the base of Mark’s skull told him something was wrong. After hearing Jett’s stories and seeing the dead boy in the waterwheel, he was willing to believe his paranoia was real and not a side effect of the cocaine.

Mark was about to drive back to the general store to call the sheriff’s department when he saw the barn. The doors were swung wide, and the gate was open. Twin tire tracks led into the old wooden structure, and the tracks looked fresh. That was where Jett had been attacked by the scarecrow and the goats, and he figured he’d at least take a peek. He owed her that much. He hadn’t believed her this morning. Now he realized, maybe for the first time in his life, that he expected her to lie. Because she’d learned it from him. Along with other bad habits. His failure cast a bigger ripple than a mere broken marriage and a troubled childhood, because Jett would be carrying that bad karma with her even when Mark was worm food.

As he approached the gate, he noticed splotches of blood on the gravel driveway. The blood led into the barn.

“Shit,” Mark said, breaking into a jog even though his knees were trembling. Dusk seemed to settle more heavily with each step, and the dark heart of the barn beckoned him like a carnival funhouse. Chickens emitted clucks from a row of cages along the front of the barn, and in the otherwise brooding silence, the clamor added to his uneasiness. What if the blood were Jett’s? And what if something had happened to her just because he didn’t believe her?

The wet drops reflected in the scant light that leaked through the doors and windows. Mark followed them to a set of narrow wooden stairs, where the drops were larger and stood out like black paint against the gray, bleached boards. Mark hesitated only a second, making sure none of the goats that Jett had talked about were around.

Man-eating goats.

That was about as loopy an idea as, say, a dead boy crying for help. He shivered and ascended the stairs, stepping as carefully as he could, though even missing a shoe his footfalls sounded like the beating of a kettledrum. Or maybe the noise was his pulse pounding through his temples. He leaned against the wall for balance, not trusting the skinny, cockeyed railing. His hand brushed cloth and a dusty snuff of dried straw and chicken manure assailed his nostrils. He fought off a sneeze, eased up another few steps, and his hand struck cold metal. He ran his hand along the smooth length and came to wood, then back up into a sharp edge. Some type of cutting tool. Mark lifted it free of its support and checked its weight. It was a long scythe, the kind the Grim Reaper carried in cartoons. The curve of the blade made it awkward to handle in the confined space, but gave Mark a sense of security.

At the top of the stairs, the blood had pooled on a short landing, as if whatever-or whoever-was injured had struggled to open the door that must lead to the hayloft. The blood gave off a bright, warm smell that reminded Mark of seawater. He tried the latch, and his hand came away slick and moist. He wiped his hand on his slacks and eased the latch up. The door swung open with a slow groan of hinges.

The hayloft access was open on the far side of the barn, and the first glimmers of moonlight cast the pastures and surrounding hills in silver, as if the scene had been electroplated. The air was rich with chaff and the sweet smell of an early dew. Mark was tempted to call out for Jett, but what if someone was holding her prisoner? The scarecrow thing, or whatever?

Mark hefted the scythe and held the blade in front of him, taking careful steps forward. Something could be hiding in the hay bales to either side of him, and he couldn’t swivel the scythe fast enough if he was jumped. Light from the gaps in the boards threw lustrous stripes across the floor, giving the illusion of prison bars. Mark was in the middle of the hayloft when he glanced out the window and saw Gordon’s Chevy Tahoe parked up on the hill. The truck appeared to have been driven through a section of fence, because barbed wire curled around it and a broken fence post lay across the hood. The truck’s driver’s-side door was open, and the cab appeared empty. Mark was edging toward the window for a closer look when he heard a whisper of movement behind him, the soft rattling of corn husks or the stirring of a rodent. He spun, the scythe causing him to lose his balance.

Silhouetted against the silver spill of moonlight was a man in a hat.

The one Jett had told him about.

Mark squinted, trying to pool enough light in his pupils to make out the face. It appeared to be covered by a rough, grainy cloth. The rest of the clothing was ragged, with frayed strips fluttering in the breeze that carried the smell of autumnal decay from the valley outside.

“Where’s Jett?” Mark said, his voice thick from dust.

The man didn’t move.

The man in the black hat, Jett had said. But as his eyes adjusted, Mark saw that the hat wasn’t black. It was a straw planter’s hat, dented and torn, with stray sprigs of reeds sticking out at odd angles.

Mark took two steps forward, then went weightless, and he pushed the scythe across his chest as he realized he was falling. A square was cut in the floor, wide enough to drop through a bale of hay {or a man, he thought), and his rib cage banged, and then his chin, as he kicked to keep himself upright. The floor couldn’t be more than twenty feet below, but it was hard ground, packed by the hooves of generations of animals.

And as Mark struggled to keep a grip on the scythe, fighting to keep his elbows on the long wooden handle, he was suddenly sure that goats-carnivorous goats-were milling down below him, as silent as sharks cruising a chum-stained sea.

He pushed his legs out, swinging like a drunken gymnast in a surreal Olympics, then lifted himself until his belly was across the scythe handle. He reached one hand and found the hayloft floor, his index finger ripped by a protruding nail head. Blood trickled down bis finger to the pad of his hand, where it fell to the barn floor below. The unseen movement beneath him increased in intensity, and hooves padded softly in the dirt. But that didn’t matter, because he had his balance and then his other hand was gripping a floorboard and he pulled himself forward, forward, and then he had a knee on the scythe handle and he was going to make it-He looked up to see the scarecrow standing over him, a crescent moon of metal arced above its straw hat. Mark couldn’t be sure, but the stitched face seemed to be grinning. Then the sickle swept down, slicing into Mark’s left wrist all the way to the bone. The whole arm went numb, but he kept a grip with his right hand, even though his blood pressure plummeted and his skin grew cold as he went into shock. As the sickle reaped its sick harvest a second time, Mark let go, and as he fell to his death, he concentrated on Jett’s face but all he saw was the long, endless tunnel of a final failure.

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