The water was cool and faintly sweet.
Finally, I dove in—told her about Orson and the desert and the threat he made against her family, her children. I told Beth about how Walter and I went and found Orson and kidnapped him from his home that Friday evening seven years ago.
I said, “So we drove out into the countryside with my brother in the trunk. Already dug the hole earlier that evening. We dragged Orson out and put him in the backseat. We needed to find out where Luther was—that’s the man who just kidnapped you. Orson had sent him to find you all those years ago.
“When Orson came to, he riled Walter, talking about what Luther was going to do to you and the kids. Walter wanted to shoot him, Beth. Right there. He lost his head. But I knew if we didn’t find out from Orson where Luther was, you and the kids would be dead. No question.”
I swallowed, growing colder, Beth’s eyes never moving from my face. Even in the poor light she seemed to have aged more than seven years since I last saw her.
“Walter pointed his gun at Orson. I told him no. He wouldn’t listen. He was so mad. It was a stupid f**king thing to do, but I pointed my gun at Walter. Told him, God I remember it so well, ‘you kill him, you kill your family.’ Out of nowhere, Orson kicked the back of my seat and my gun went off. He was gone instantly, Beth. Swear to you.”
She closed her eyes.
She let out an imperceptible sigh, then was quiet.
All I could hear was the wind stirring the pines.
The silence became oppressive.
After a long time, she whispered, “You buried him?”
“I’ll take you to the spot when we get out of this.”
“I hate you, Andy,” she said. Her voice was thick with tears. “Do you know how much I hate you?”
“Yeah. I do.”
She leaned into me and I put my arm around her.
As she quietly wept the candle expired and the lodge grew so dark I could see only the navyblack of the sky through the window.
Iced updrafts rising through slits in the floor.
I waited, thinking my eyes would adjust, but they never did.
“Andy,” she whispered. Her voice sounded strange and distant, as though she were calling out to me from the bottom of a deep well.
“Something’s not right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My head…I feel dizzy…it’s…so heavy all the sudden.”
Now that she mentioned it, my head felt weird too.
Maybe we were just hungry.
But when I glanced down at the empty jug between my legs, it dawned on me what had happened.
“Oh, Beth, I think we f**ked up bad.”
VI leaned against the live oak as Andrew stepped into the lodge. She watched the black creek, lined with marsh grass, meandering west between the pines. Had the night been clear, she’d have seen where it widened to join the distant sound.
On the periphery of vision something moved.
She saw a black shape emerge from the woods and move quickly toward the lodge.
At first she thought it was a deer, bounding. Then her blood iced as though she’d glimpsed a demon, watching in silent terror as it reached the steps.
She screamed, “Andrew!”
The thing with long black hair slammed the door to the lodge and padlocked it as Andrew shouted her name.
Then it looked right at her.
Vi reached instinctively for the .45, felt her bony hip.
Before she could even stand, the shadow had descended the steps and was running toward her.
Vi shrieked, sprang to her feet, and bolted into the woods, tree trunks screaming by, her animal panting drowning even the sound of her predator’s footsteps.
She ran and ran and did not look back, expecting at any moment to feel a hand come down on her shoulder and drive her into the ground.
The grove of live oaks turned back into thicket.
She tripped on a dead vine.
Chest heaving now against the ground.
In the distance she heard her pursuer flailing about in the thicket.
She held her breath.
Her ears adjusting.
Now she could clearly hear the sound of its panting. Much closer than she thought.
She prayed the woods were as dark to him as they were to her.
When her heart quieted she could hear her eyes blinking and nothing else.
A moment passed, then came the rustling, like footfalls on brittle leaves.
Craning her neck, she looked back, saw the shadow stepping gingerly through the thicket.
It stopped fifteen feet away, just a spindly bush between them.
Vi wondered if it were enough to hide her.
The thing walked toward the bush, so close now she imagined she could smell it. The brush shifted beneath her, made a crackling she thought was deafening.
The monster twitched, pushed its hair behind its shoulders.
It stood motionless for what seemed hours.
Then abruptly it turned and started back toward the lodge.
Vi couldn’t bring herself to move even when the sounds of its thrashing had grown indiscernible from the snaps and creaks of the island’s other nighttime murmurs.
She didn’t want to budge. Ever.
If I move, he’ll hear me, come back, find me, kill me. But I have to get off this island.
She lay in the thicket for another hour, praying for the will to stand and push on.
Vi had been making her way through the woods for thirty minutes when she stopped and sat down in the tangle of undergrowth. Closing her eyes, she pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to faze out the adrenaline and the panic. She wanted to boil the moment down to the facts and proceed from there. That’s what a strong cop would do.
She took several deep breaths, then stood up again and continued on, flinging the possibility from her mind that she had miles and miles of this thicket still ahead of her.
In keeping with the trend of her day, things degenerated. The undergrowth became so dense she was spending thirty seconds on each step, untangling the vines from around her ankles, whacking the labyrinth of limbs out of her way.
When she failed to unwind one persistent vine she found herself lying facedown in mud.
She did not get up.
She lay there and cried, then filled with anger at the tears, and resisted allowing the totality of this “fucking bad f**king day” to envelop her. You can’t think about it. It’s too much. Just get up and do your job, Viking. It could be worse. A lot worse. You could be dead. Now. Get. Up.
She struggled to her feet. Waded on. Mad. Weak. Right on the verge.
Ten steps later she broke out of the thicket. From claustrophobic vegetation to the sprawling spaciousness of a tidal flat, the wind spilling over the distant dunes, carrying the briny reek of the sea. Eerie black plants rose out of the alkaline soil—salt-sculpted formations, otherworldly and demonic, like the remnants of some nuclear apocalypse.