“You can’t be serious right now. This is your solution to what’s happening, to get high? And naked for some reason?”

Casey nodded.
“I really don’t see any reasonable alternative. I’ve seen enough movies to know how this goes. The sexy ones, the stoners, the red herring who you think is in on it but then gets murdered. I’m pretty much all three of those, so yeah. If these are my last moments on earth, I’m going to enjoy them. Though, to be honest, I’m not totally sure how I’m naked.”

Kirk stepped closer to the door of the van. He picked up Casey’s pants and held them out.

“Here, I’ll hold the joint while you put these back on.” Casey smiled and nodded as he passed the joint to Kirk. Kirk put it to his lips and took a large pull.

“See Cassie, he gets it. So what the hell. You guys are right. Let’s go get this guy, if in fact it’s a guy. If we’re going out, let’s do it in a blaze of glory.”

“Slow down, young gun.” Herb intercepted the joint as Kirk was passing it back. He took a quick puff and then dropped it on the ground, grinding it out with the toe of his shoe. “First of all, I really don’t think Tommy would want the lot of you dying on her behalf. I don’t know that anyone would want that. So going up there is still a terrible idea. Also, that is some pretty tasty weed.”

“Herb digs the herb! Awesome. Not the part where you put it out though.” Casey, wearing pants once again, reached across the seat and grabbed the cigar box, flipped it open and started to roll another joint.

“I don’t know. I think I’d want to be avenged.” Kirk opened the cooler between the front seats and grabbed a beer, cracking it and taking a long swallow, using the bottle to point toward Casey. “Wouldn’t you want to be avenged if someone murdered you for no good reason, Casey?”

Casey paused just as he was about to pour the weed from the grinder into the rolling paper.

“Wait. Is there a time where someone might be murdered for a good reason? Because it sounds as though you’re suggesting revenge is only rational when someone is murdered for no good reason. I might be misunderstanding though. I’m pretty gooned.”

Casandra slapped the half rolled joint from his hand, sending the sticky plant matter flying everywhere.

“Stop it! What the hell is wrong with you guys? How are you so damn casual about all this? After what’s happened, are you seriously considering heading into the woods at night to try and track down a psycho who knows the area better than any of us?” She turned to Herb. “Please make them understand how stupid they’re being.” Herb nodded.

“You three,” he pointed to Kirk, Cassandra and Casey. “Head inside the restaurant. Cassandra, grab that bottle of bourbon from the kitchen and pour five glasses. Nathan is going to help me finish up out here and we’ll be in soon.” He gestured to Nathan to follow him, leaving the others to help Casey find the rest of his clothes and put himself back together.

Nathan was curious enough to tag along, though eyed Herb suspiciously as the older man shone the flashlight ahead of them and strode forward confidently, seemingly unafraid.

“Where are we going?”

Herb stopped and turned abruptly, so that Nathan had to watch he didn’t crash into him. Herb shone the light into the space between them.

“We are going to get Tommy, and we’re going to put her body somewhere it won’t be disturbed. Because while I’ve never known anyone from the hills to come down this far to hunt,” he paused and leveled a look at Nathan, “there are other creatures who won’t show your friend’s body the respect it deserves.”

Nathan narrowed his eyes but didn’t rise to Herb’s baiting tone.
“Why ask me to come along? Why not ask Kirk? He’s stronger than I am.”

“Why not ask Kirk to help me with the dead body of a woman he has tender feelings for? I feel like Kirk has been through enough for the moment. Besides, a lesson in consequences rarely goes amiss. So? It’s you, helping me.”

“Why should I? Who put you in charge?”

Herb stopped again, this time shining the light directly into Nathan’s eyes, so that he squinted and put him arm across his face.

“Your friend up in the hills, that’s who. Now, let’s get this done before I lose what’s left of my patience, Nate.”

By the time they had wrapped Tommy properly and manoeuvred her into a small storage shed to the left of the restaurant, the rest of the gang was sitting at the long counter which ran parallel to the booths. Kirk and Casey were nursing their drinks, while Cassandra stood on the other side, making a cup of tea. She placed the mug in front of the empty stool between Kirk and Casey.
Herb walked behind the counter while Nathan took a seat on the other side of Casey, at the edge of the group. Herb poured two more drinks, sliding one to Nathan, who took a sip and immediately coughed until his face was red. Herb took a long swallow and let out a slow exhale, relishing the burn of the alcohol. He looked each of them in their faces, taking their measure, gauging where on the scale from more-or-less-dealing to seconds-from-panic they might be. He nodded.

“Okay. You’ve found yourselves in a really awful situation. I know what some of you are thinking, there is safety in numbers. But if the person responsible is who the stories are about? I’m telling you to leave it be. Leave him be. That’s all he’s ever wanted.”

“I feel like you know a whole lot you’re not telling us, Herb.”

“You’re right, Kirk. Cassandra has heard some of it, but not all. For the sake of brevity, I’ll sketch some backstory before I tell you what I know of him. Back in the day, my dad, a greedy venture capitalist type, decided he and his buddies wanted to build a resort up in the hills. There was a hold out, a widow who refused to sell. If this was the godfather, they would have made her an offer she couldn’t refuse, but my dad, like yours, lacked imagination. So he sent some hired goons up there and…” his words trailed off.

“Fuck! Are you serious? He had her killed?” Kirk sat upright, both hands on the counter, a look of disgust on his face. Herb nodded sadly.

“I sincerely hope that was all they did. At any rate, she disappeared, and within a year or so, the permits to build miraculously found their way into my dad’s hands, likely sliding across greased palms to get there. All was going according to plan. It took them some time to clear the space, and get all the materials up here. The builders stayed in town at first, but the townsfolk weren’t too excited about them, so they started camping out here during the week and heading back to the city on weekends. And if tools disappeared from the site now and then, well, that was weird but not enough to rile anyone. And then a couple of workers thought they saw someone watching them from the trees, but that’s just being in the forest. Probably a big raccoon or a small bear or maybe a..”

“Little boy.” Cassandra finished, her face a mask of horror. Herb tilted his drink at her.

“Got it in one.”

Casey shook his head.
“So they killed his mom but left him alone up there? How could a little boy survive on his own?”

“They probably didn’t know about him. And the family was extraordinarily self-sufficient. He likely knew how to hunt, to trap, to skin and clean an animal from real early on. It could be that she had years worth of food put up as well. Doris, over at the post office could count one hand how often she came to town. Her husband did the trips, she stayed up at their place for the most part. Friendly enough, but preferred to keep to home. She only had to after her husband died in a hunting accident. Never underestimate an injured animal. Can you imagine the tenacity required to skin and dress the bear who killed your husband, and then have to leave your kid alone while you hike into town to tell the authorities?”

“Why would she bother? If she was really such a hermit, why wouldn’t she just bury her husband and have done?”

“Because she knew that there would be times she’d have to come to town, and people would ask questions, and the best way for her to be left alone was to answer those questions before they were asked. Understanding how the world works is especially necessary if you want to exist outside of it. Learn the game, learn the rules, and then you’ll know where the wiggle room is.”

Herb stopped and refilled his glass. He gestured and Kirk slid his over, as did Casey. Nathan hadn’t even taken a sip of his beyond the initial. He sat as though frozen, but his bearing was that of someone who was listening so Herb continued.

“So, his dad is dead. His mom has been murdered by goons, possibly while he was in the house, hiding, watching. His whole life has been an experiment in how to thrive and exist away from people. Who knows what his mom told him about the world. And the first time the world comes to his door? It takes his mom away. How would you feel about outsiders? About people coming into your woods? Hoping for a glimpse of the monster? But just like we learned from Frankenstein, monsters are more often created by arrogant men who see no reason they shouldn’t do whatever they want.”

“And what makes you such an authority on how monsters are made?” Nathan was staring at his hands, then wiped them on his pants, as though they were covered in dirt that wouldn’t come off.

“Because I survived the origin story. My brothers, our friends, all dead. When I told Cassandra that story earlier, I spoke of our going out there to have a last long weekend at the resort before school started. I didn’t tell her how we went looking for the cabin where the widow had lived. We knew the conjecture about the little boy, thought it would be a hoot to catch a glimpse of a real live hillbilly. Didn’t tell her how we found it, surrounded by bones and skins hung to dry. For a bunch of city kids it was horrifying. We had no connection to our food, where it comes from or how it’s prepared in many instances. To us, it was the most grotesque scenario imaginable. You would think it would be enough to deter us, to send us packing. But the voices of reason were drowned out by the hubris of entitled brats who didn’t see anything wrong with sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. What doors had ever been closed to us before? Imagine the loathing he must have had for us, knowing that our parents were responsible for his mother’s death, only to have us come poking around and mock everything he cherished. I wonder now if he was sitting inside the house, listening, maybe even hiding in the same place as he did all the years before.”

Cassandra shivered.

“I won’t go into detail about what happened next. How he picked my friends off one by one, sometimes by two. By then I was begging my brothers to get us out of there. They wouldn’t believe anything could happen to them, and were determined to bring him to justice. They knew how the system worked, in the favour of people who looked like them. They’d been raised with a silver spoon jammed so far up their asses, it kept them from accessing reality sometimes. The irony was, he probably saw what he was doing as a sort of justice as well. So I did the only sane thing I could think of. I ran.”

“You left them there?”

Herb nodded.

“They were on a collision course with reality and wouldn’t listen to reason. I used to wonder if maybe they made it out too, but I know that it’s unlikely. I feel it in my bones. They same way I know that he’s still there.”


Photo by Vidar Kristiansen on Unsplash