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Chapter 3

- 07/09/2017

I think it's when we fall into routines that we slowly start to die.

Not immediately, of course. It's not like there's some time bomb countdown clock ticking down, waiting for the right moment. More like a restlessness. We become too familiar with our surroundings. We get too comfortable. We start to get bored. Then it sets in and you start wondering if maybe there isn't something you're missing out on.

It happens to everyone, I think. Doesn't matter if you climb mountains for a living or file taxes in some dark office. Eventually the routine of it gets to you. We started out as nomads, and the moment we deny that wanderlust for too long it just eats away at our spirit.

People start questioning who they are. They make dumb decisions. Buy fast cars. Take vacations to places they don't even care about. Maybe they'll cheat on a spouse or suddenly take up a hobby like converting the entire garage into a custom tool shed. Something they can spend thousands of dollars on just to give to their kid before they pass on. As if that will be the thing that really defines their existence.

We get so caught up in trying to complete our day-to-day tasks that the moment we realize what we're caught in, it's a scramble to try to escape. Some people wake up too late and wonder where it all went wrong. Others figure it out early and crash and burn anyway.

I'm not sure which happened to me, but that's only because I don't think I'm qualified to say I'm alive.

After that family burned to death I swore I'd find a way to make a difference. To turn this curse into a gift. I knew what I wanted to do, but had no clue where to start. So I did the next best thing: explored.

Like a ghost I haunted power lines and electrical grids across the country, stopping only to draw in energy when I felt my own reserves run low. I explored construction sites, office buildings, and abandoned homes for survivors. Every now and then I found what I was looking for.

I helped a man start a car he was desperately trying to get moving, sparking its battery to life with a delicate touch. I threw a neighborhood into pitch-black silence to help a young couple hide from some sort of gang. Maybe raiders. They hunted for hours in the dark before calling off the search.

It wasn't all bad. I found towns untouched by the chaos on more than one occasion. Settlements of order that banded together when everything else seemed to be so crazy. I tried to keep my distance. They worked so hard to maintain a sense of normalcy aside from the chaos my kind inflicted upon them. It seemed wrong to sneak within their ranks just to satisfy my need to reconnect with humanity.

So I opened myself to the ruins of the world in my search for a way to help.

Fort Derringer was the last stop for Federation troops before hitting the Canadian border. As a military outpost it was more or less a checkpoint for large shipments of weapons, building materials or aid supplies. Civilians were largely kept out and sent down side roads arcing wide around the facility. Fort Derringer wasn't built for siege or secrets, but to hold and distribute valuable cargo across the Federation's midwest.

The entire region was all flat land and farming community before the Reforestation Initiative kicked in. Then a man-made lake was built, complete with its own fancy bridge that traveled straight across the middle. Reinforced glass and thousands of lights lining the bottom of the bridge would make Faith's Highway a popular tourist trap only miles away from the military installation. Take a slow stroll across the near-invisible walkway and glance down at the crystal-clear water below. Or drive, if your car met the rigorously-monitored weight limit. It was a romantic spot. Popular with young couples.

Fort Derringer itself was largely self sufficient. Towering walls and a steel reinforced gate. Climbing in would have been an incredible challenge, but I was lucky to have my own little shortcut via the concrete enclosed power lines feeding into the military facility underground.

The fort was a mess, but one filled with possibilities I had never considered. Here, in a facility hard-wired for electronic control, I had more than just a small measure of influence. Light firearms, ammunition, and food supplies had been looted long ago, but no attempt had been made to remove or disable the automated weapon turrets that lined the exterior walls. Cameras throughout the entire facility let me explore my surroundings with remarkable precision. In this place, made to serve the immediate needs of the digital age, I felt like I could make myself right at home.

So I did. I locked both gates into the facility, and set cameras to watch the perimeter. Solar panels and wind turbines along the exterior helped provide me plenty of nourishment. Enough to even feel comfortable testing the limits of my new form. I used to believe I was confined to wiring or circuits, but with enough strength and focus I could do so much more.

I could power more than just simple appliances, but complex ones as well. Short jumps between electronics was possible, though it was far from a subtle process. Assembly-line robotic arms. Cars. Trucks. Even those smaller mobile weapons platforms. After a few days of practice I started to understand how to manipulate circuit boards. I could even type -- although it was slow and difficult. Even still, it felt good to emoji again. A small, human thing.

A small part of me was hoping there would be more. A secret weapon. Some sort of tank or robotic prototype that I could learn to navigate and use to reconnect with the world. Bring order, represent justice. That sort of thing. But the truth is there was nothing there. Nothing of real value. I spent three months, alone without purpose or a real plan. I stopped exploring. Stopped caring.

Then came Zachary Gilbert.

He wasn't really anybody important. A lone wanderer. Zach, as I would come to know him, was a street artist from Chicago. I found him through one of the perimeter cameras as he was exploring the outer walls, trying to find a way in. Once or twice he caught my cameras following his exploration, which only made him more determined.

I'm not sure what prompted me to let him in. Maybe it's because I forgot why I locked myself inside to begin with. All I know is that once he stepped through that main gate, I had to find a way to communicate.

He was a young man. Tall, dirty, and clearly thin from weeks without a full meal. Wearing hiking gear that was well worn I watched from a distance as he tried to make himself somewhat presentable. When no one came to greet him, he worked to find signs of inhabitants. The usual amount of yelling. A healthy amount of skeptical fear.

But it was curiosity that drew him further into the base, and I wondered what would be the best way to reach out. I wasn't a ghost, but I may as well have been. Sure I could start a car or close some blast doors, but what good would that do beyond scaring the hell out of him?

It took a few hours of wandering aimlessly about the facility, but it gave me time to think of the perfect way to catch his attention. When Zachary stepped into the main communications hub I finally made my move.

Hello.

I flashed my message on the monitor nearest to him. White letters on sitting in black space.

He paused for a moment, looking around to make sure he was truly alone. Then, unsure how to properly respond, he leaned forward and typed into the keyboard I was trying to manipulate.

"Hey there. Anyone home?"

Yes. And no.

"Is this like a hacker?"

No. I'm here.

"In the building?"

Yes.

"I don't want any trouble. I'm just looking for others. Maybe a group."

Just me.

"Oh."

If I had to be honest, I was scared. We both were. I could see him through a webcam at his terminal. Coiled tense, eyes darting for the door. He was ready to go at any moment, but I wasn't ready to let him leave. I had to do something. The words came slow.

There's some food. Shelter here. We can meet when you're more comfortable.

I could see the uncertainty on his face. He leaned in to type.

"Alright. What have you got?"

I unlocked ration stores in a sealed part of the Fort, and guided him with a subtle light show along the ground via the emergency evacuation guidance panels. He seemed to accept that I was just in a separate part of the facility. We talked via information terminals. I played the part of the helpful hacker. He, the confused but appreciative wanderer.

Together we explored Fort Derringer's looted remains. It took a few nights to review the place top to bottom. I told him I was working from the primary server room, working around firewalls and complex subroutines. Anything I could think of that sounded high tech. If he didn't believe me, he never said a word against it.

Our thorough inspection of the facility turned up some valuable supplies. More food, which was good for him. A portable generator, field radio system, and everything else you'd need to have a shitty family camping trip. Or, a few good weeks alone on the road.

We spent a few days planning the trip. He'd talk with me via computers across across the base. I'd watch him from security cameras, unlocking doors or providing light in rooms without windows. Like his personal flashlight, I guess.

Loading up a jeep with food and fuel we could make our way along the Canadian border, keeping to farmland and small communities until we found a group we could trust. He even volunteered to siphon gas from a few other cars that were left behind. Fewer stops meant fewer risks.

It was nice pretending. I mean, it was nice helping him too, but it had been so long since I'd had a chance to be normal. I knew as our planning came to an end that I'd have to try and find a way to tell him I wouldn't be going. I never needed to. He brought it up in conversation one day. Just mentioned it while packing a duffel bag, instead of typing.

"You know, I've been all across the base twice over. Never found a room I couldn't get into."

A silence settled between us. I didn't know what to say. He kept talking while my mind raced to find some sort of means to excuse my behavior.

"I've seen some shit out there. Bad stuff, but stuff I could explain. Desperate people doing desperate things to survive." Zachary spoke softly, his hands kept busy folding supplies methodically. "One thing will really stick out in my mind though. Few weeks ago I was hiking. Thought I might have some luck finding friendly folk out of the cities. Climbed up this big ass hill, nearly broke my ankle."

"Anyway, I get to the top and I look down across this valley and that's when I see this wolf. Only, I know it wasn't a wolf. It was green. Made of leaves and vines, all wrapped up. Even had these little lilies blooming on it. I know shit like that doesn't exist. But there it was. Some kind of forest creature looked right at me, then ran away like I was in a fucking fairy tale."

He zipped up the bag calmly, then looked around the room. There was a weariness in his expression I never noticed before. Maybe I had been just too busy playing pretend.

"I'm not gonna pretend I'm well traveled, but that shit is clearly unnatural. And about as weird as talking to a mystery hacker in the middle of an abandoned Federation whatever-this-is. So, straight up then. Are you real?"

Was I real? If there was any time to be honest with who I really was, this was it. I flickered the screen so he would know where to look.

Yes.

"Are you a ghost?"

Yes.

So much for being honest. But was it really that far from the truth?

"Did you die here?"

No. Someplace else.

"Can you come with me?"

I thought about that question long and hard. There were limits to what I could do and where I could go. I would never be whole again, but a lifetime ago I signed up to join the Federation because I wanted to be more than what I was. I wanted to be a hero.

That's why I'm leaving this log. Once I leave this station the power will shut down for good, but maybe in a few years places like this will be back online. You should know I'm one of the lucky ones. If you find others like me, if there are others like me, I hope they're still trying to stay connected with this world. We can still make a difference.

I have to go now. The truck is packed. I'm nervous, but I think this is for the best.

Wish us luck.

-Kenneth Howard, a.k.a. Discharge

Chapter 3

- 23/10/2017

Stalking through the cornfield Jane had deduced the footprints belonged to two people: One who she believed to be Lynn Kline, and the other who was likely was her kidnapper. Complete sneaker treads were rarely left in the earth. She had been dragged, kicking, struggling, for at least several dozen feet into the cornfield before finally going limp.

Her attacker was strong. Strong enough to drag a young woman without any signs of difficulty. The footprints in the earth were unwavering. Never a slow in step or stride. Most likely a man. Maybe 6 feet tall. Possibly over 200 pounds. Hopefully unarmed, but Jane knew better than to assume the best case scenario.

Jane recited these facts to herself while following the trail. Blindly following the footprints made it impossible to know what direction she was going. The sun still hung overhead, giving her a clear sign of the attacker’s unpredictable tracks, but the rows of corn made it difficult to see much further than an arm’s length ahead. She kept herself moving low and slow, ready to spring aside at the first hint of danger.

Crops had begun to thin and Jane saw she was approaching the farmhouse somewhere between the backyard and the eastern side of the home. At a glance everything looked normal. Patio furniture, a swing set, and an abundance of toys made Jane wary someone would be inside. Families didn’t stray far from safety these days, and few places were safer than an armed farmhouse.

The drag marks left the cornfield, then continued on in the dirt for about a foot before disappearing into a healthy, green lawn. Stepping out into the open would be a sure way to expose her presence, but she knew her options were running low. If the killer was here she wanted every advantage possible.

She crouched, hidden, waiting to see if there was anyone home. Exploring the perimeter from the safety of the cornfield she searched for signs of movement. A light, a shifting curtain, a shadow -- anything.

It was the cellar that caught her eye. Its two wooden doors were faded red from years of sun exposure, but a chain sitting in the grass seemed out of place. At a glance she thought the lock was still on the chain. She paused, weighing her options until she noticed the lock was smashed. Crushed, like it was hit with a rock or hammer.

With no one in sight, Jane risked moving from the safety of the cornfield. Dashing across the lawn she pressed herself close against the backyard wall. Pressing an ear to the cellar door she listened for any sound of a disturbance below. Leaning with her body craned against the wood her eye took note of the dried blood smearing the door’s handle.

Slowly, carefully, she pulled the cellar open with one hand. She grimaced through the low pitched whine its hinges made, keeping her revolver raised and ready. Something inside smelled of heat and decay, and she turned her head reflexively to keep from gagging. Thumbing back the weapon’s hammer she paused a moment to gather her courage before peeking downstairs.

Dirt and dried mud caked the basement floor, marking a clear trail of footsteps where Lynn had likely been dragged. The stairs down were steep slabs of uneven pavement. Without a source of light it was impossible to see too far below. After a quick scan of her surroundings Jane reached for the keyring in her back pocket. Unclipping a miniature flashlight she gave it a quick click into her palm to make sure the battery was still strong.

Praying she hadn’t already given her arrival away Jane stepped down the stairs, guiding her approach with a thin beam of light. Ducking her head to avoid the low ceiling she performed a quick scan, facing her back to the nearest wall the moment she felt it was safe. The pitch darkness of the basement made it difficult to take in her surroundings. She relied heavily on the flashlight while adjusting to the dark, resisting the urge to pull the lamp light chain she spotted nearby.

The basement was dusty, but normal for all intents and purposes. Her back was to a very well organized toolbench that stretched across the entire far wall. Basements weren’t common around these parts, and she guessed the home must had been built within the last year or so. There was only a single wooden staircase leading up, obscured by several metal shelves. It seemed completely ordinary, so long as your gaze never settled on the floor.

Following the drag marks along the ground she could see where the footsteps became muddled and impossible to read. The concrete floor was stained in layers of dark red. A lack of blood splatter meant whatever happened had been without a struggle. At first Jane thought there had been a stabbing or puncture resulting in massive blood loss. Bringing her flashlight’s beam across the ground she realized it was clearly beyond her expertise.

Chunks of flesh had been left pulped so thoroughly into the ground she wasn’t sure where the meat had come from. Small bundles of paper and cloth lay strewn about the floor as though someone had made an effort to clean. It only added to the confusion, making it difficult to tell what was definitively human and what was simply stained with gore.

Any doubt of Lynn Kline’s fate was silenced by the clear remnants of a once-yellow dress. Now torn apart and left unceremoniously on the ground, its lace pattern looked more like a bloodied doily than clothing. Questions bubbled through Jane’s mind.

Where was the body? Where were the bones? Organs? If all she could see was pulped meat and shredded skin she had to wonder where the rest of Lynn had gone.

Footsteps sounded off above her. Jane heard it after the heavy slam of the farmhouse front door. A single pair, moving about the house. They walked directly above her, then moved elsewhere before finally settling with a hard thump.

Jane turned her light away, glad to finally have something else to take her mind off the scene on the ground. Giving the murder scene a wide berth she kept her weapon trained on the stairway. Placing a foot at the base of the stairs she tested her weight on it, wincing slightly as it give a slight creak under the pressure of her foot.

Somewhere above footsteps began again. She aimed her weapon at the door, working hard to steady her breathing as someone walked past. A faucet turned on somewhere above, rattling pipes with the squeak of water pressure. Jane took the opportunity to move up the stairs, turning off her flashlight so she could take hold of the doorknob.

With a twist and push she slowly stepped into the farmhouse hallway to find herself poised somewhere between the front door, den, and kitchen. Family portraits hung on cream colored walls; a collection of the farm’s workers over the years. The furniture looked like hand carved wood, save for a cloth sectional couch which dominated the living room. It looked ordinary. A family home.

She took a step. Weapon raised, Jane carefully took a peek around the corner into the kitchen. A single dining room table. A long row of cabinets stretching across the wall. A double sink, and modern-looking island burner. Rinsing his hands in the sink was a heavy-set man in his late forties. Black hair that sat straight down to his shoulders and darker complexion gave away his heritage. He was dressed as though he spent a day in the field, but Jane didn’t recognize him in the slightest. Not like that meant much. He could have been anything from someone’s distant cousin to a representative from another tribe.

Jane eyed the boots at the door, covered in mud. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it was one she couldn’t afford to take.

“Hands up!” Jane yelled with authority, revolver pointed at the man while she used the corner of the wall for partial cover.

Startled, the man turned, wide eyed with his hands still in the sink. He seemed frightened at first. Then, narrowing his eyes down at Jane his fear turned to anger.

“You breakin in, bitch? Here to steal from my family?” his voice sounded hoarse. Scratched from too many years of smoking and yelling.

“My name’s Jane Pilton. I’m the law around here.” she spoke clearly, and with authority. “Now I’m not gonna hurt you unless you give me cause. Understand?”

The man blinked for a moment, considering her words, then nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Tom.”

“You got a last name, Tom?”

“Yazzie. Tom Yazzie.”

“Alright. Tom, I’m going to need you to step away from the sink now. Hands up. Nice and slow.”

“And then what?” Tom asked, turning his body slightly to get a better look at Jane.

“We take a step outside and have a conversation.” her voice was steady, calm.

Neither made a move. Tom’s hands still soaking in the sink. Jane steadily training her weapon on him. It seemed like he was ready to speak again when a heavy slam made them both jump in shock. Jane turned to see the wind had caught the screen door, suddenly pushing it shut. When she looked back at Tom it was just in time to duck against the wall as something round and metal was tossed her way.

Raising her weapon she fired once in a clumsy flinch. A miss. Tom Yazzie was much faster than she had anticipated. Kitchen knife in one hand he swung at her revolver with a dinner plate in the other. She fired a second shot, but was off balance, stepping back to try and put distance between her and her attacker. Again her bullet flew too wide. The plate exploded into ceramic shards, but only after the gun was knocked from her grasp and across the hall into the living room.

“You wanna steal from me? Thief!” Tom screamed in defiance, bearing down on her.

Tom twisted the knife in his hand, getting a better grip to stab down at Jane’s smaller figure. Knowing that another step would put her closer to the basement Jane kicked out, catching the man square in the gut. Doubling over with a spray of coughing spit he stumbled backwards. It was all the opening she needed.

Pulling a picture frame from the wall with two hands she swung hard at her attacker, catching him across the jaw. Wood and glass cracked violently sending him reeling backwards. The knife dropped to the floor as he fought to keep his balance. Face bloodied and only somewhat aware of his surroundings Tom stumbled backwards down the hall.

“Help!” Tom yelled as loud as he could. His voice cracked with pain as he held his jaw in one hand. “Stop! Please!”

Jane tossed the ruined picture frame aside, boots crunching on glass as she walked over to him, triumphant.

“Oh so now you want to fucking talk? I’ll bet.” Jane fought hard to control her adrenaline, wringing her hands together to keep them from shaking.

The front door kicked open without warning, startling Jane for the second time while almost clipping the back of Tom’s head. She recognized the leather jacket before she saw the face. Ben Yazzie knelt down without hesitation, trying to help Tom up before Jane could protest.

“Don’t you touch him!” she scanned around the room for her revolver, unsure where it landed.

“I...I heard gunshot! I came as fast as I--” Ben started explain, raising his hands in self defense.

“--She’s fucking crazy! This bitch tried to kill me!” Tom yelled, his voice labored from trying to sit up. “She’s trying to rob us!”

“T-the sheriff?” Ben gestured to Jane. “What?”

“Either of you boys move another finger and I swear on my mother I will beat you so far into the ground they won’t need to bother digging a grave.” Jane said, her eye finally catching the glint of metal underneath the couch. “You’re both under arrest. Or whatever we’re calling it.”

“Arrest? For what?” Tom spat. “I didn’t do shit.”

“I ain’t even begun to start--” Jane had started to step towards the living room when Ben lurched back.

“--HURGPH...” Ben tried to speak but only a rolling wave of blood burst from his mouth. Jutting from his chest, puncturing his jacket and out his shirt, was a sleek sharpened point of bone stained a deep red.

Standing behind Ben was a figure that made Jane’s blood run cold.

It stood tall despite a severe hunch, but looked thin and frail. Like a man wasted away from months of starvation. Ragged jeans hung loose around stilted legs, stuffed into oversized boots. A thick brown raincoat, worn down with holes from the passage of time, made the creature almost look human. Despite its lopsided appearance, it may have even of passed as a man from behind. Facing it directly the illusion was completely shattered.

As the creature continued to lift Ben off the ground Tom scrambled on all fours, partly covered in Ben’s blood. Underneath the brown raincoat was a mess of human parts. Kidneys, lungs, and a single liver were all twisted and tied together into a slick, wet mass, held in place by a wrap of intestine. A beating heart pumped a sludge-like blood through the semi-transparent organs. The stress and force of each beat sent what looked like wet mud out from ventricles that were no longer connected to a human circulatory system.

It reminded her of a scarecrow, and Jane immediately knew what she had to do.

Jane didn’t watch what happened next. She couldn’t see the scarecrow’s face under its hood; a human skull, stripped of all but a few tattered strips of flesh, opened its mouth wide. There was only a single eye in its left socket that seemed to hang in place, as though suspended from something within. The scarecrow slipped Ben onto the ground, pushing from its left arm which had no hand. Insead the bone was sharpened at the wrist to create a spear of bone. Jane had dove under the couch and was reaching for her weapon.

The flow of blood from Ben’s mouth became a panicked gargle as the teenager went into shock. Mismatched fingers on a skeletal hand reached down with delicate precision. This time it was Tom’s turn to look away. Scrambling to his feet, he ran to the back of the house while the scarecrow slowly plucked a right eye from a screaming, struggling teenager.

With four shots left Jane knew she had to make each one count. She watched the scarecrow struggle to fit the eye into its empty socket, gently lowering it into the socket while holding back its hood with its arm-spear. Ben Yazzie lay still on the ground, a growing pool of blood spreading out from around his form.

Not waiting for the scarecrow to finish its task, she took aim and fired once. It staggered, head snapping back as her shot connected. An eruption of black sludge splashed across the wall. Then it tilted its attention to Jane, skull locked in a skeletal grin. Its newly installed eye rolled in its head, sagging within the socket like it had yet to be properly assimilated. A reddish black sludge crept out the bullet hole, slowly flowing down its face.

Clicking its teeth in a chatter the scarecrow shambled toward Jane, off balance but ready to strike. She fired another shot into its face that cracked the skull along the right side, sending a flood of black paste down onto the wood floor. It took another staggered step and she fired the third into its heart. The organ squelched, leaking black pus, but it stood undeterred.

Jane hesitated, unsure where to place her last shot. Nothing seemed to have any real effect. Missing most of its head and with no discernible weakness in its vitals she knew there was only one option left.

She broke into a sprint, trying to dash past the scarecrow only to find a horrific pain tear through her arm. The creature had lunged faster than she had anticipated, impaling her bicep with its bone-spear. Body twisted mid-run she turned frantically, trying to pull herself free while it quietly began to drag her back. She screamed in pain and fear and anger. It sounded like an explosion of force sounded off somewhere nearby, then suddenly she was on the ground, free.

“You killed him, you son of a bitch!” Tom pumped the shotgun in his hand and fired again.

While Tom sprayed the scarecrow with another shell Jane staggered to her feet, her right arm limp at her side. Each new round of pellets shredded away more of the scarecrow’s clothing, revealing its hanging organs tied loosely to its skeletal frame. One lung was deflated, leaking a sickly-looking goo. It only had a small collection of ribs that were in no discernable order. There were too many vertebrae on the spine.

“It’s just...parts.” Jane said quietly. She took her last shot at the scarecrow’s exposed kneecap, watching it tumble over. “It’s just parts!” she screamed at Tom, who nodded in recognition.

Sticking its bone-spear into the wood floor the scarecrow immediately began to drag itself, weathering another round of Tom’s shotgun to make a clattering scramble toward Jane. Afraid she was too slow to run, Jane dove into the kitchen. The THUNK of sharpened bone sounded behind her as the scarecrow moved closer. Her good hand managed to grab hold of the pan Tom had thrown earlier. A desperate swing managed to knock aside the spear’s next jab.

A mismatched collection of skeletal fingers gripped down on her leg, and Jane swung her pan down on the scarecrow’s wrist in response. She felt the pressure from its grip immediately cease as the joint snapped. Jane knew she had made a fatal mistake.

The scarecrow lurched up on its spear. One leg crippled, its arm severed, leaving a trail of tattered organs and chipped bone along the hall, it pushed off the ground for a single downward swing. With her good arm crippled there was no way to move in time to escape.

Cracking bone and a hollow thud rang through the home. Tom, using the shotgun as a bat, swung as hard as he could at the scarecrow’s head. Its jaw shattered, teeth scattering across the room. The force of the blow was enough to roll the creature’s lopsided body over and away from Jane. Gripping her pan Jane dragged herself up while Tom swung down.

Together they did everything they could to break it apart, piece by piece. They crushed its arms, splintering bone and removing its only remaining weapon. And yet it moved, so Jane pulverized its skull with her pan. Tom’s shotgun broke apart after its sixth swing, which shattered the discs in its spine. And yet it moved, so they continued to rip at its organs until only a thin slippery paste slipped through their fingers.

The pair stepped away from it, exhausted, in agony. Tom had cuts all over his body from the struggle in melee. There was a terrible cut across his chest where it must have raked him with a bony limb. Jane’s arm felt dead at her side.

“Did you see that?” Tom whispered, eyes wide, staring at the piled remains of the creature. “Did it move?

Jane watched, waited, before she finally spoke.

“Let’s burn it.”

“What? The monster?”

“No.” Jane shook her head. “Everything.”

The fire that consumed the farm attracted attention for miles. When help had arrived to control the blaze they came across Jane and Tom, covered in blood and gore. Both had decided it was best to leave Ben inside when they set the fire. Tom had taken the young man’s leather jacket to pass on to his immediate family. It was a small gesture, but one that provided a little closure to Ben’s violent end.

Neither took their eyes off the flames. Their wounds were treated as they watched the farmhouse burn to the ground. Jane fell asleep watching the heat bubble and pop away any trace of horror from the waking world.

She woke up in her home, surrounded by the locals of Beryl Lake, community leaders from Elk’s Rest, and Open Sky Reservation’s tribal council. Dawn was there with a box of her favorite cereal as a gift. Tom Yazzie was waiting in her living room. Strangely, she found his presence especially comforting.

Word spread fast. It took some time to come to terms with what she had to report. The creature, its nature, and the fate of both Lynn Kline and Ben Yazzie were hard to describe. There was skepticism when she was done, but Tom’s testimony and their injuries helped to lend some weight to the truth. Something had hidden itself within their community. No one knew how many other travellers had gone missing during its stay.

Jane would recover over the next few months with assistance from Dawn, who was happy to visit and break the monotony of bedrest. Every now and then rumors would circulate within Beryl Lake of something gone wrong at a local farm, or of someone acting unusually at the reservation. More supplies than normal. Strange weather. Selfish behavior. To their credit the Klines spoke up against such accusations, whenever they arouse. They never forgot it was thanks to ‘those people’ that their daughter’s killer was brought to justice.

It was only once that Jane saw everyone band together as equals to a common cause.

Despite her certainty that the creature was slain, a rally was held to help reassure everyone that their land was safe from similar threats. Hundreds of men and women gathered from every corner of their community. They moved from farm to farm in small groups, investigating every home, barn, and bale of hay. Each had their own method of searching for monsters, but there was one precaution that was unanimously agreed upon:

They burned every scarecrow on every farm, without hesitation.