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There are towns like Pine Deep.
But not many.
Luckily, not many.
Monk Addison rolled off the iron bridge and slowed to a stop on the two-lane blacktop. He sat idling in front of a sign that was mounted fifty feet inside the town limits. His car was a twenty-year-old piece of shit that growled like a sick dog. A Chevy something-or-other with reflector tape on one of the taillights, duct tape holding the seats together, and an ashtray filled with butts. The CD player worked, though, and Tom Waits was growling at him about chasing the devil through the cornfields.
Monk studied the billboard on the right-hand side of the road. It told two stories, one old, one a little less old. Neither new, and he read something into that.
The old sign was an advertisement for the Pine Deep Haunted Hayride—biggest on the East Coast, it claimed. There was some art, but it was so faded that it was impossible to tell what it showed. Looked like shadows in a glaucoma sufferer’s eyes.
It was the new sign that made Monk stop and look.
Someone had gone to some effort to paste a big white banner across the billboard’s face. Glued it down flat, no bubbles or wrinkles. And then used spray paint to write two words. Elaborate, in a mix of old English and cartoon; 3-D, with lots of color. Like one of the better graffiti taggers in New York. The message was just two words.
The message was obscure and it was clear.
Go home … because this isn’t it.
The sign was stained from rain and snow, scraped by stuff blown by wind; torn a bit here and there, maybe by birds looking for something to line a nest. Monk didn’t think anything torn from that sign would ever make it to a nest, though. The smarter birds would have dropped the paper before wrapping it around their eggs. The dimmer ones might have gotten all the way home with it, then their mate would have balked and kicked it away.
“Go home,” said Monk.
There was a U-Haul hitched to the back of his car. Everything he owned was in it.
He slapped his pockets for his smokes, didn’t find them, and remembered he was four days into his hundredth attempt to quit. Cigarettes were a bad habit, and he’d picked it up for the same reasons cops did. Monk spent hours, sometimes days, sitting in cars watching closed houses or apartments for the right person to come through the door. For cops it was someone they wanted to arrest. For Monk it was someone who’d already been arrested, charged, and who’d skipped out on his court appearance. The bail bondsmen who hired Monk to find those people paid him well, but the waiting was a bitch. Smoking gave his hands and mouth something to do. But he needed to stop killing himself one death stick at a time. All that said, he decided to find a store and buy a carton. He wasn’t that far down the shitter that he was going to dig an ashy butt from the tray. Give that a day or two in this place.
“Well, fuck me,” he said and put the car into gear, pulled onto the road, and drove toward the sunset. Behind him, across the river on the Jersey side, it was already getting dark. There were moody clouds bullying their way into the sky.
He drove along the blacktop.
He drove to Pine Deep.
He drove home.
There were hundreds of black birds on the power lines along Route A-32.
Most were crows. Some starlings and grackles. A few were so thin and threadbare that it was impossible to tell what they were. Maybe they didn’t even know. It was that kind of town.
Only a few of those birds were old enough to remember what happened the night Pine Deep burned. All of the birds—the black ones, the nightbirds—knew it, though. It was the lore of their kind.
The birds sat there in the fading light of the first of October, rustling their feathers, gossiping the way birds do, watching the old car with the trailer drive past. They stopped whispering and watched with black-within-black eyes.
They knew trouble when they saw it.
One by one the nightbirds fell like suicides from the cables, plummeting until they flapped their wings, and then flew along the road behind him. The bruised clouds in the east reached for them with fingers of rain, but they outflew it.
The car and the nightbirds followed the long road as it snaked and turned, rose and fell, rolling like a black promise through the endless fields of corn and pumpkins, of apples and garlic. Farmhouses, remote as ships on the ocean, stood amid oceans of green that rippled in the freshening storm breeze. Farm roads cut off north and south, seemingly at random. Every signpost was pocked with bullet holes, old and new. Every now and then the car passed a house or barn that was nothing more than a blackened shell overgrown with creeper vines. There were several houses being built, but the green wood bones looked naked and vulnerable.
Four miles from town the car passed a man who leaned a shoulder against a fence, his face shadowed by the visor of a ballcap embroidered with PINE DEEP SCARECROWS. He wore layers of filthy clothes—sports coats and fishing vests and tropical shirts and flannel shirts and windbreakers. There was no scheme to the clothes except they all had pockets. Lots of pockets. A fanny pack sagged around his narrow waist, and the pockets of old cargo pants bulged with things he’d picked out of garbage cans and gutters and elsewhere. No one in town knew his name. They called him Mr. Pockets. He watched the car pass with eyes older than the trees, and a smile whose lips seemed to ripple and writhe. He spoke a single word as his eyes watched the car roll away.
Night was falling hard, and as the clouds devoured the sun, the car rolled on.
Patty Cakes remembered the man. The customer.
Remembered him coming in. Stripping off his shirt.
She remembered his skin. Like a mushroom. Cool to the touch and spongy. He smelled like yeast from a bakery Dumpster.
She could not remember his face, though.
He paid in cash, so no credit card receipt.
She half-ass remembered his name. Owen something. The last name was a blur, if he’d said it at all.
What she remembered most—what she remembered with an odd clarity—was his touch. It wasn’t deliberate, she was pretty sure. He hadn’t tried to cop a feel or accidentally brush against her breast, the way some guys did. He hadn’t laid his hand casually over the wrong part of the armrest in hope of the backs of his fingers brushing her crotch. That was an old trick, but he hadn’t done that, either.
What he did was so casual, so accidental.
It was after she took off the black pearl latex gloves she wore when sinking ink. She’d given him a punch card. Five sessions and a sixth free. The tips of his fingers just ran along the back of her hand as he took the card. Easy, no pause, nothing forced. Just that touch. Then he was gone, taking his name and his face with him. Taking the blowfly with him. The newest member of a swarm, he’d said, though there were only two others on his skin. Looking real, like it was crawling on his back. Her stuff always looked real.
That touch was real.
She hadn’t imagined it.
Had he meant to do that? Patty wondered. Had he? Or was it her being weird about being in a new place? New store. New town and state.
Patty stood looking out of her storefront window. Not knowing. She held her left hand—the one he’d touched—in her right, massaging the point of contact with a thumb that went around and around and around.
Will it hurt?
That was what he asked. She’d told him it would. It didn’t hurt that much. Not to most people, but if you said it did then they were usually happy it wasn’t as bad as they thought. They felt braver, stronger. That strength made them feel validated for having chosen to get a tattoo in the first place.
Will it hurt?
“Yes,” she said aloud, as if answering that question again now.
That’s what he said, and then he didn’t say anything at all until the blowfly was done. He was a cadaver in the chair, one of those people who go so far into their heads during the process that they might as well be dead. Patty preferred new customers to be chattier, because it gave her insight that might affect the kind of colors she used, or to inspire remarks that might bring them back. With a good conversationalist in the chair she could double the job in one sitting, or get them back as regulars and build some sleeves, or get them to buy the chest pieces or full-back work. Good money but also jobs that would allow Patty’s artistry to shine. Jobs that would make her fully alive.
Not this man, though. He asked the one question and then said, “Good.” Nothing else. Not a word.
She was quick with him, but only as quick as art allowed. After the blowfly was done, she gave him a printed aftercare sheet to which was stapled a 10 percent-off coupon for any new purchase.
He said nothing. But he’d sniffed the paper like a dog sniffing a patch of ground he wanted to roll in; then he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. He left without saying a word. That word, though, echoed in the empty shop after he was gone.
“Good,” Patty said, repeating it, trying for the same weight and inflection. Getting too close. The word tasted wrong in her mouth. Like someone else’s spit.
The first time Monk tried to call Patty, while he was still in New York, it had gone straight to voicemail.
The second time, while he was way out in some part of Jersey that seemed to be nothing but strip malls, there was no signal. One flickering bar that simply refused to push through his call. Or didn’t give a fuck. He wondered how the hell people who owned, worked in, or shopped at all those stores got through the day without Wi-Fi. He realized that he was being way too twenty-first century about that, and it soured him.
He called a third time as he was cruising along through farm country on the east side of the Delaware, while motoring between fields of corn that seemed endless. The corn was hypnotizing. Every mile seemed identical to the last. It was like being in one of those old Twilight Zone stories about being caught in a time loop, driving forever with no chance of ever getting where you needed to be. He was positive he was passing the same fence posts and the same damn scarecrow over and over again.
He called Patty again. Fourth time? Fifth? It rang three times and then she picked up.
“Monk…?” said Patty Cakes in a voice filled with sleep. It was early evening on a long workday.
“Hey, there,” said Monk, slowing to a stop on the shoulder for fear of driving out of cell range. “I’m here.”
“Here. In town. Or almost. Still way the hell out in farm country, but I’ll be there soon.”
There was a pause. A little too long, even for someone who just woke up. “In town…? You’re here in Brooklyn?”
“Huh? No,” he said, “I’m in Pine Deep.”
Another pause. Then, in a voice that was more dreamy than sleepy, Patty said, “Oh. Sure. Good. See you.”
And the line went dead.
Monk stared at the phone as if the screen display would provide an explanation. Or translation. Or something. He frowned, not liking that conversation one little bit. Patty was going through some shit—that’s why she left New York. This place was supposed to be a dial-it-down move; zero stress in rural America. But she sounded out of it. Or high. He put the pedal down. The speed was posted at thirty-five. He didn’t give much of a fuck about that.
The big cop in the shiny black-and-white cruiser was tucked behind a billboard advertising the Pinelands Fringe Festival. He sipped a Diet Dr Pepper and felt the day get older one dying molecule at a time. There had been five cars in two hours. All of them local, none of them breaking any laws he cared about.
Then he saw the old Chevy blow past. The cop didn’t have a radar gun pointed out the window, but it didn’t matter. Guy had to be doing sixty in a thirty-five zone.
The cop reached out a hand and got as far as the switch for the lights and siren, but stopped there. It wasn’t the car that stopped him, or the profile of the big man behind the wheel. He hadn’t seen either before.
No, it was the birds that made him pause.
In the air, fifty or sixty feet above the car, a flock of nightbirds followed that car. More birds leapt from trees and joined in. All of them dark. No pigeons or finches. He wasn’t even sure they were crows. He knew those birds. Had for a long time. Birds like those anyway.
This was, after all, Pine Deep.
The cop leaned back and let the car go. Thunder rumbled off to the east. Very close. Maybe already on this side of the river. There had been a lot of clouds lately, a lot of rain. The early October crops were getting fat, but there was a weird feel to things. People seemed a little jumpy. The nights were colder than they should have been. Lots of roadkill on the highway. The cop didn’t like any of that because it reminded him of another autumn back when he was a kid. That started with storms and nightbirds, too.
There was a sudden bang of thunder accompanied by a supernova of lightning. The cop winced and covered his eyes; the cruiser shuddered.
“Jesus Christ,” he hissed and then fought to blink his retinas clear. The storm seemed to have suddenly leapt across the river and now crouched over the farm fields, its underbelly heavy with ugly udders filled with rain. The next bursts of thunder were loud, but not as shocking, as if the storm—having gotten his full attention—was settling down to business. The cop saw lightning reflected on the curved leaves of the corn, making them look like polished porcelain, and when the lightning flashed they looked cracked and ready to break. The cop ran the pad of his thumb along the red-gold stubble on his chin. A habit he had that he didn’t know he had.
Then his radio squawked.
“Base to four,” said the voice of the dispatcher, Gertie. “Base to four, over.”
The cop picked up the handset. “Four to base. Go ahead.”
“Mike, honey,” said Gertie, “are you off dinner yet?”
This was a small town and they weren’t all that formal.
“Copy that. Skipped dinner. I’m watching by the Fringe billboard on A-32. What’ve you got?”
“A 10-54 out on Barkers Farm Road.”
Officer Mike Sweeney smiled. That ten-code was for “livestock on road.”
“Walking or hit?” he asked.
“Hit. Tourist car plowed into a cow.”
“I think so.”
He smiled up at clouds. “Then,” he said, “it’s a 10-52.”
“Oh,” said Gertie. “Right. But there was the cow thing, too.”
“Is the cow dead?”
“No. Messed up, though,” she said. “I’ve got some EMTs inbound. For the people, I mean.”
Gertie was a nice-enough person—though Mike was aware that he was the only one who thought so—but she was not cut out for police dispatch. She gave Mike the make, model, and color of the car, and the name of the tourist who’d called in.
“Gertie…?” said Mike.
“You don’t really need to use the ten-codes. You can just tell me a car hit a cow.”
“Trying to be professional,” she said defensively. “Crow likes us to act like real police.”
“We are real police, Gertie. But we can talk plain … and trust me when I say that Crow doesn’t give much of a damn about how we ‘act.’”
There was a silence. Not exactly sullen or stony, and—he was sure—not all that contemplative. Gertie was Gertie. More of a fixture than a part of the team.
He heard her clear her throat. “You going out there?” Her voice was a little stiff.
“On it,” Mike said and ended the call.
The old car pulling the U-Haul was gone and the road was empty. The locals would have read the sky; the tourists wouldn’t be flocking in too heavily midweek. Mike started the engine and pulled away from the curb, did a U-turn. Rain began splatting on his windshield. He turned on the wipers and his light-bar, kept the siren off, and went in the opposite direction.
He thought about that old car, though. There was something about it that he did not like. No, sir, not one little bit.
Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Maberry.