Does Peter Pan Stand the Test of Time?

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Review 2.33

I would be genuinely surprised if there was a child in North America who was not at least passingly familiar with the story of Peter Pan. The enduring quality of the children’s story has led to dozens of film and television adaptations, literary analyses, and reinterpretations over the past century.

I have read and reviewed at least two fairy-tale reimaginings for this website, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and, more recently, Jodie Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I truly enjoyed that latest novel, but it made me realize that I’d never actually read J. M. Barrie’s original source material. So I downloaded the audiobook and got to work.

It is almost impossible to separate our collective understanding of the Peter Pan legend from Barrie’s novel (which was originally written as a play). I will, however; try to focus on the character’s as they are presented in the book, and not how they have been portrayed over the years.

This isn’t even so much a book review as it is a look back to see how the original source material has held up over time. Because let’s be honest, there is a magical timelessness about Peter Pan that has captivated generations of children.

And then there some things that definitely have not stood the test of time.

I would have laughed out loud at the British imperialist attitude that pervades this novel if it weren’t quite so alarming. In some ways, the constant references to “the might of Brittannia” or “King and country” were quaint and almost charming.

But then Barrie spends nearly an entire chapter detailing the ways in which the “red savages” are simply inferior to the white man. There are constant references to the Native Americans as “redskins” or “pickaninnies”. They refer to Peter as their “Great White Father”.

It’s an example of racism that is so startlingly casual it almost makes you understand how the 1953 Disney cartoon adaptation thought it would be okay to include songs such as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” *Note – the movie somehow manages to top the book in terms of blatant stereotyping*

I also have a huge problem with Wendy.

She’s such a fucking sissy.

And I get it. This book was originally published in 1911, when women were kind of expected to be sissies. Wendy’s entire personality is sweet, motherly, and ladylike. That’s all she is, and she has nothing in the way of a character arc. She idolizes and worships Peter as the ruling “father” figure, and caters to his every whim. It is such an outdated portrayal of a young girl that I had to constantly remind myself while I was reading that it is literally antique. If anyone ever suggests that the past one hundred years of feminism hasn’t accomplished very much, I’ll show them this book.

With all of this in mind, would I recommend this book to parents?

Absolutely.

I’ve always been of the mind that reading changes the world for the better far more often than it changes it for the worse. Sweeping the bigoted mindset of the past under the rug isn’t the way to go. Instead, parents could use Peter Pan as a way to start a conversation about how ideas have changed over the past century, and why some people used to think in ways that were and are highly offensive.

Also, the more troublesome aspects of Barrie’s novel are but a fraction of the book as a whole. The excitement and adventure of Neverland is still there, as are the wonderfully silly lost boys, the pirates, and of course Peter himself.

I was personally glad I finally got around to reading the book.

My rating: 3.5/5

* Note: I read an unabridged copy of Peter Pan, which I believe contains a lot more offensive language than the one that is traditionally marketed to small children*

 

Book Review: And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

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Review 3.34

 

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see? [Source]

This novel was all style and no substance. I absolutely loved the visual form of this book. Words shrink and grow, they prance gleefully about the pages in a way that is wildly immersive. It creates a surreal atmosphere where the reader knows that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It was very effective at providing an appropriately spooky mood.

Except when it wasn’t. During the periods when Dawn Kurtagich’s novel is forced to play it straight and actually explain itself, it falls apart. Ultimately, this was a book of elaborate tricks hung upon the thinnest of coat-hanger plots. It’s difficult to pull of a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative for any long duration, and this is where And the Trees Crept In meets its downfall. The uncertain, dreamlike state that pervades this book makes it difficult to know what is real and what is not. This is a frequently used tool in the horror/thriller genre, but it has to be backed up by a story that is at least somewhat logical. Early chapters echo legendary short horror pieces such as The Yellow Wallpaper, but then neglect to devote the necessary time towards character development or a coherent storyline.

The central protagonist, Silla, is almost painfully static throughout the course of the novel. She begins the book in a haze of pain and hunger and anger, and that pain and hunger and anger are the only thing that motivate her through the next two hundred pages. There are occasional scenes with a oddly shoehorned love interest that feel forced, but then it’s right back to anger and obsession and constant, repetitive focus on trees.

Overall, And the Trees Crept In was very hit-and-miss. The ultimate explanation for the horrors visiting the sprawling manor home was both obvious and cliche. I enjoyed the middle third of the book the most, and again the visual style was really interesting, but ultimately that isn’t enough for me to recommend the novel.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find And the Trees Crept In here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.32

 

**contains minor spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend**

The final installment in any trilogy has a lot to live up to. Over the course of two novels, author Kevin Kwan has created a fantastic, opulent, fast-paced, and ultimately charming universe for his increasingly large cast of characters. Now he has to find a satisfying conclusion for all of them.

While RPP doesn’t have the breathless originality of the first novel, it definitely manages to rise above China Rich Girlfriend in terms of plot development. Things begin happening very quickly from the beginning of this book, and from page one I was sucked right back in to the complicated, extravagant lives of the Young/Shang/Leong family.

Rich People Problems does one thing right from the very start. It recognizes that Rachel Chu, the main protagonist from Crazy Rich Asians, has more-or-less played her role as the naive observer. She is largely absent from the bulk of the novel and, due to her complete lack of personality, is hardly missed. This allows Kwan to focus more of his time and attention on more interesting characters such as Astrid, Kitty, and Shang Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother.

The bulk of the plot is focuses on Su Yi, clan matriarch and the current owner of Tysersall Park, the family’s palatial Singapore estate, as she begins plans to draw up her last will and testament. And if the first two books gave us an insight into the behavior of wealthy people at the best of times, woah buddy just wait until a possible inheritance is thrown into the mix. There is also a very Godfather-esque feel to parts of the narrative, as the reader learns more about Su Yi’s danger-riddled youth under Japanese occupation.

Kwan seems to have learned from some of the mistakes of China Rich Girlfriend, and I was glad to see that the obnoxious label-dropping at dropped off to a reasonable amount. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous glittering descriptions of the splendor surrounding these characters; Kwan knows his readers and continues to embrace the rampant materialism of the first two books. It’s just that this time none of this stands in the way of actual plot development.

It took me almost five years to get around to reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, and once I began it took me less than two weeks to read all three novels. Afterwards, I was consumed by that strange empty feeling that true readers occasionally experience. It’s that weird kind of bittersweet melancholy, because on one hand I had so much fun spending time in Kwan’s world, but it’s mixed with sadness because never again will I be able to enjoy these books for the first time.

I highly recommend the series.

My rating: 4.5/5  (5/5 for Crazy Rich Asians as a complete series)

You can find Rich People Problems here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.31

 

**contains mild spoilers**

Being the second novel in a trilogy is a thankless task. The freshness and originality of the first installment has worn off, and the author needs to lay groundwork and build exposition before the final chapter can answer all the open questions. This is why for so many trilogies, both in literature and film, the second chapter is the weakest of the three.

China Rich Girlfriend sadly falls into this “middle child” sinkhole; it gets bogged down trying to resolve all of the plotlines from the first novel while introducing all the people that will become more important in the finale. That isn’t to say that Kevin Kwan’s second novel isn’t fun; it definitely is. But there’s something missing.

For one thing, there are a lot of new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Having just managed to gain a general understanding of the complicated Shang/Leong/Young/ family tree, now the reader must also get to know Rachel’s newly-found extended family (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed in the prologue) as well as an absolute entourage of new supporting characters.

Perhaps it is that the “label-dropping” reaches a saturation point in China Rich Girlfriend, though it’s possible that someone who actually knew something about fashion would heartily disagree*. The numerous descriptions of luxurious locations gets a bit ridiculous as well; at one point the male protagonist Nicholas Young notices that a yacht’s barstools were upholstered in “genuine whale foreskin” and I actually burst out laughing. Also, turns out that’s a real thing that actually exists in the world.

China Rich Girlfriend also does an incredibly efficient job of tidying up all of the unresolved plotlines from Crazy Rich Asians. The enmity between Rachel and Eleanor Young is swept away in the first fifty pages as if it never really mattered and is never again mentioned in any real capacity. Considering that I just spent four hundred pages watching Eleanor systematically destroy Rachel’s life, this easy resolution was unsatisfying.

Things aren’t all bad, and Kwan’s delight at bringing this secretive and showy world to life is both obvious and infectious. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no matter what happens to Nick and Rachel (who remain almost painfully milquetoast) it is Astrid who truly deserves her happy ending.

My rating: 4/5

You can find China Rich Girlfriend here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

*full disclosure-my annual clothing budget is somewhere in the range of seventy-five dollars

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, #1)

Review 2.30

I’ve been putting off writing this review for ages, because I can’t think of the best way to describe Kevin Kwan’s debut bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians. There’s been a ton of hype around this book since it was released in 2013, and it’s already been adapted into a film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said by a thousand readers and reviewers before me? Not much really. But I can say it again, and in slightly different words. What fun!

Speaking of fun, Crazy Rich Asians was a runaway bestseller for a reason; it’s pure unadulterated escapist fun. Instead of trying to avoid all of the cliches associated with the “chick-lit”* genre, it revels in them. At one point, a character literally pulls out an unlimited AmEx card and utters the words, “This is a fashion emergency!” (or some paraphrase thereof).

Crazy Rich Asians is shamelessly capitalist, and I spent the entire novel in a weird swirl of awe and envy that was nonetheless highly enjoyable. The name-dropping and label-obsession went completely over my head most of the time, but it was certainly an education  For example, I had no idea that “Hermes-orange” was its own color.

The thing that really sets this book apart from the myriads of forgettable chick-lit is that it is also opened my eyes to a culture I previously didn’t know much about and will, in all likelihood, never experience. I imagine this novel will do wonders for the Singaporean tourist industry, already a huge part of their economy. Personally, the numerous descriptions of delicious Hokkien street food were enough to have me poking into flights.

The central plot of Crazy Rich Asians is breathless, exciting, silly, and self-indulgent. The central character, Rachel Wu, isn’t terribly interesting at all and serves mainly as our introduction to this world of extravagant wealth. The bustling, busying, nosying, prying members of the Young family are the highlight of the book, and rarely have I enjoyed soap-opera-esque plot developments so much.

I loved spending time in Kevin Kwan’s world of extreme opulence and backstabbing family members. I also feel like I learned a lot about a culture completely different from my own, which is always a good time.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Crazy Rich Asians here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

** Personally, I find this term odious but it is a highly-effective description of the genre.

Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 5

This is the final installment, so enjoy!

If you haven’t had the chance, make sure to read Chapters 1-4! Chapter 1 can be found here.

 

Chapter Five

Lutz couldn’t tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight.

Bud McGuire’s face was frozen in a silent shriek, wide eyes fixed unblinking at the ceiling. His chest had been torn open crudely. The glinting white of ribs poked through the carnage.

Bud’s legs were bent at an impossible angle to his torso. He had been torn almost in two at the groin.

The first scream that passed Sheriff Lutz’ lips was quickly followed by a second. He fell backwards to the ground and landed hard on on his rear, using the heels of his feet to push himself away from the mutilated corpse. His back pressed against the rusted green bathtub, and he idly noticed that the calico dress lain across the edge had a faint pattern of purple violets.

Then Clarkson’s strong brown hands were wrapped around his own, and his deputy hauled Lutz to his feet. They exited the broken bathroom and its grisly contents and went into the corridor, where Billy Hudson was already halfway down the stairs leading to the first floor.

The ancient staircase creaked threatening beneath their boots as the two officers followed the younger man downstairs, desperate to get as fair away from Bud McGuire’s mutilated corpse as possible.

Lutz burst out still-open front door and stumbled down the porch steps. The humid summer air was like a soothing balm against his skin. His lungs heaved with the effort to draw in fresh breath and he sank to his knees, digging his fists into the hard gravel of the walkway. He could hear the footsteps of Deputy Clarkson and Billy sounding down the stairs and out onto the front lawn.

They remained mercifully silent as Lutz fought against the waves of heat and chills that kept alternating their way through his veins. Distantly, as if observing someone else from far above, Lutz understood that he was having a panic attack. With shaking arms he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the lawn bordering the front path. Dry grass crackled as he brought his knees up to his forehead and sat there, breathing in the night air. Somewhere nearby a cricket chirped, breaking the stillness.

Crickets were still chirping.

Somehow, this was an encouraging thought. Lutz raised his head and looked for a moment at the night sky. The sun was still hours away from rising and the sky was pitch black, except for the thousands of glittering stars.

Lutz took a deep breath and held it for a long moment before slowly exhaling. He repeated this steady breathing twice more then wearily got to his feet, wincing as both his knees cracked in protest.  He brushed dry grass off the pants of his uniform and looked at his companions, both of whom had remained silently nearby this entire time.

Nodding once in silent gratitude, Lutz resumed his authority as sheriff. None of them would speak a word of his temporary breakdown, but they could all feel a sudden shift in the atmosphere, as if a sudden bond of kinship had just been forged. Lutz knew that the three of them would forever be bound by the events of this night.

Officer Clarkson looked to his senior officer. “Do you want to check the rest of the property? Look for the rest of the family?”

Lutz began shaking his head almost immediately. “No, we found what we were looking for. This is officially a crime scene. It’s also a forty acre farm with two barns and at least ten outbuildings. We need more men.”

“You want to call in Miller and Sanchez?” Clarkson asked.

Lutz nodded, but then shook his head, “Yeah, we’ll call them in when we get back to the station. No radio signal out here worth a damn anyway. Besides, I think we also need to get on the phone with the mayor’s office. We’re going to need the forensics people in Iowa City or Davenport or wherever the hell.”

At this, Sheriff Lutz turned and began walking back the way they had come. He glanced back once more at the darkened windows of the McGuire farmhouse, which now seemed like looming eyes in the receding light from their flashlights. His boots crunched under the rough gravel of the long driveway as the three men headed back towards the car.

The yellow, sickly looking corn blocked their view on either side, looming far taller than a man even in this unhealthy state. Lutz was struck again by the eerie silence of the place. The humid summer air was heavy and still, not a breath of wind rustled through the stalks. The near-complete absence of sound made him antsy and uncomfortable. The sooner they were back to the car the better.

Billy must have felt the same way; he trotted up alongside Lutz, his rifle loosely grasped in one hand now that they were out of the farmhouse. In a low voice he said, “What will happen now, Sheriff?”

Lutz shrugged, “First, we’re going to go back to the station. I have a bottle of Lagavulin 16 in a locked box in my office. Sheriff Bradley gave me that bottle the day I took office. Now, he told me this whisky was peaty enough and smoky enough to burn away the worst night of your life.Told me there would someday come the night when I would need it. It’s sat in it’s wooden box every night until I really started to think that day would never come. But come it did, and tonight I’m going to open that bottle and drink deep. And you’ll drink with me, if you like.”

Heartened by this prospect, the men picked up the pace and within a few minutes they emerged from the McGuire’s driveway back onto the smooth paved surface of Highway 99. Like an angel in the darkness, Lutz could see the police cruiser sitting on the edge of the road about three hundred yards down. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that some secret part of him had expected the black-and-white Chevy to be gone, leaving them stranded at the McGuire farm.

Lutz’ palms were sweating, and he wiped them furtively on the thighs of his trousers. He checked his watch, then checked it again in disbelief. They had barely been gone forty minutes.

When they reached the car, Lutz’ fumbled in his pocket for his keys, then unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. His hands trembled on the steering wheel, and he wondered briefly if he was fit to drive.

Can’t exactly ask Clarkson or Billy to chauffeur me home. He thought resignedly. Lutz unlocked the passenger and back doors, and his companions slid silently into their seats. Clarkson was still holding the buck rifle, and the shotgun was in Billy’s lap, the mounted flashlight still beaming a bright circle on the car’s upholstery. As one, the men fastened their seatbelts. The familiar, everyday click of the metal sliding into place struck him as utterly absurd after the night’s events.

Lutz slid the key to the Chevy into the ignition. He had a horrible, crawling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that when he turned the key, the engine would simply refuse to start. This was ridiculous since the cruiser was barely three years old and had never done anything but purr like a kitten. But tonight, right now, the car wouldn’t start. Because it couldn’t be this easy to just drive away.

The key turned, and the motor roared to life, just as it always did. The front headlights came on, casting two wide beams of light into the darkness around them.

Reflecting back, impossibly high against the skeletal pines of the forest, were a pair of glowing red eyes.

Clarkson screamed first, throwing his hands over his face and crying out in terror.

Lutz couldn’t scream, his voice seemed to have completely locked itself away. His mouth gaped open in horror, but the only sound that came out was a strangled choke.

Billy was scrambling to get out of the police cruiser, but since he was in the back the doors only opened from the outside. He tried rolling down the window, and when that failed he began to panic and bashed at the glass with his fist again and again, but this was equally ineffective.

Billy raised the butt of the shotgun and drew back, preparing to ram it through the window of the car. “NO!” Lutz roared, never taking his eyes from the glowing red orbs watching them from the forest.

He jammed the clutch in, praying to anyone who might be listening that the car did not stall. He shifted into first, gave the engine some gas, and the car began slowly moving. This entire time he continued staring at the red eyes hovering twenty feet above them. They looked back unwaveringly, glittering with a malevolent intelligence. As the cruiser rolled past, the eyes followed their progress, but did not advance. Lutz fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror, waiting for some ravenous beast to come charging behind them.

But there was nothing. The darkness of the night took over, and the eyes receded into the trees.

Intent now on putting as much distance between himself and the McGuire farm as possible, Lutz laid one heavy boot on the gas. Only after ten miles, when he could see the lights of Harry Gibson’s fuel station, did he ease his boot off the accelerator and relax the hunched position of his shoulders. Ten minutes later they pulled up to the darkened windows of the sheriff’s station.

Lutz killed the engine of the cruiser and the three men sat in silence. After a long moment, Henry Clarkson opened his mouth, “What was that thing –” he began, but Lutz put up on hand and stopped him. Lutz shook his head, opened the door of the cruiser with a loud creak, and stepped outside.

Every muscle in his body was accusing him of gross misconduct, and Lutz knew he would feel the punishment the next day. He unlocked the door to the sheriff’s office and went in.

The comfortable surroundings of the dingy sheriff’s station almost brought him to tears. Weakly buzzing security fluorescents cast a dim, yellowish glow on the familiar disarray of desks and chairs. Without bothering to turn on the main lights, he crossed the bullpen to the corner office at the back of the station and went inside his office. On the bookcase against the far wall was a narrow wooden box, which Lutz now opened for the first time in ten years.

Nestled against dark silk was the bottle of Lagavulin 16, given to him by retiring Sheriff Bradley on his last day in office.

There will come a day when you need it.

Lutz motioned to Clarkson and Billy, who had followed him into the station and now stood silently behind him, framing the door to his office. Clarkson had fetched three glasses from the small kitchen, and he set them down carefully on the stained wood of Lutz’ desk.

Andrew Lutz sat heavily in his black office chair. He twisted the cap off the bottle of scotch and poured three fingers into each glass. The amber liquid glinted dully in the dim light. The powerful, peaty smell of the alcohol bit into his nose as he raised his glass and the two men in front of him raised theirs.

“Drink up,” he advised. In the one smooth motion all three of them drained their glasses.

The scotch blazed a fiery trail to his stomach.

To burn the nightmares away.

He reached to refill his glass.

THE END

 

***

Acknowledgements

Creative credit for this idea must be shared with my father Mark, who greatly enjoyed scaring the shit out of his children during long trips on dark country roads.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 4

Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3!

 

Chapter Four

Deputy Clarkson had been a wonderfully good sport up until this point, but when presented with the prospect of crossing the threshold of this house, he balked. He released his death-grip on his rifle, lowering it to his side and exclaiming, “No offense, Sheriff, but fuck this. I’m not goin’ in there. Let’s go back to the car and call–

“Call who, Henry?” Lutz said flatly. “The state troopers can’t do anything except write tickets to out-of-towners. The town police call us when there is a violent death. So who exactly should we call? Animal control?”

Clarkson glowered back at him, “Then let’s go back to the car and come back in the goddamn daylight, “ he hissed between clenched teeth.

Personally, Lutz felt that Clarkson was speaking the most sense that anyone had all night. But as much as he privately agreed with his deputy’s plan to retreat far away from the McGuire house, they were there and there was a job to do. “Come on now,  Henry. Billy’s been inside. Can’t let the kid show us up now, can we?” Lutz said with a forced lightheartedness that rang false in his ears.

He sighed, ran one hand along his forehead and through his salt-and-pepper hair, and tried again. “Yeah, this sucks. Doesn’t change facts. We have to find out what, if anything, occurred here tonight. So let’s just sack up and get it done, yeah?”

It wasn’t much of a pep talk but it seemed to do the trick. Billy gave a heavy shrug, scuffing his boots against the brown grass bordering the McGuire’s front porch. Clarkson closed his eyes for a moment as if offering up a silent prayer, then reshouldered his firearm and nodded at Lutz. “I’m taking a long weekend,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Gonna take my wife up to Iowa City. Gonna go to Red Lobster. It’s Crabfest.” He continued muttering to himself about his upcoming weekend, but brushed past Lutz and climbed the creaking steps onto the porch.

You can have the whole week off. Lutz mentally promised his deputy. Then he pulled his revolver out of its holster, thumbed the safety off, and followed the two men past the entrance and into Bud McGuire’s home.

A profound silence settled around the men as they crossed the threshold of the McGuire house. The footsteps made by the officer’s heavy boots were muffled by the layer of dust that lay upon the floor. In the beam of the flashlight, the wallpaper in the foyer may have been a sunny striped yellow at some point, but had been warped with water damage and was now the color of old urine.

Ahead of the men was a long corridor with a doorway on either side. On one side, Lutz could see the ubiquitous farmhouse “mudroom”, complete with rows of rubber Wellington boots and heavy winter parkas. The Wellies were dull and cracked with disuse, and the coats were moth-eaten and smelled of damp. A closed door led deeper into the house, probably into the kitchen.

On the left side of the corridor was a room Lutz’ wife would have referred to as a “parlour” when she was alive, with delicate furniture and assorted porcelain figurines. Here was the first evidence of human activity. The dainty tables were smashed to bits, and the rose-patterned loveseat was at a defined angle to a moth-eaten rug, as if someone had forcibly shifted the couch by standing with sudden force. A broken water jug lay in pieces on the floor.

Oddly enough, even these violent scene was gentled by a thick layer of dust. So far, the only sign that a living person had been in the house were the tracks he could see in the corridor that had clearly been made by Billy’s heavy workboots.

Where were the McGuire’s?

Lutz moved on a constant pivot, shining his high-powered flashlight into every corner and crevice. His senses felt electrified as he strained each one of his senses to determine whether or not a threat still lurked in this house. According to his eyes and ears, this was just a normal house, though terribly neglected. “Billy,” he whispered under his breath. “Why the fuck did you even come in here?”

Billy responded equally quietly, “Like I said, sir, I thought maybe someone was in trouble. But when I got here — it was like I just had to keep going. I had to see for myself.”

Lutz understood. He could feel it too. The panicky urge to head back for the car was drowned out by grim determination. He needed to find out what the hell had happened here.

Past the open doorways to the mudroom and the parlour was a flight of stairs that went from the first floor all the way to the attic in a long switchback. The stairs, like everything else in the McGuire house, seemed to be standing upright by sheer force of will alone.

Running along the right edge of the staircase, in a long unbroken line from top to bottom, was a wide swath of dried blood.

The first thought that ran through Sheriff Lutz’ mind in that moment was that he wished he lived in a larger city, with more resources. If they were farther north, near Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the three men standing in the McGuire house could be surrounded by backup within an hour.

A small fleet of detectives, forensic experts, photographers, evidence baggers and rubberneckers could gather at the homestead. The living darkness of the August summer night would be be beaten back by high-powered flashbulbs and battery-powered spotlights. Under their harsh glare, and soothed by the shop talk of the gathered officials, whatever horrors had visited the McGuire family would be revealed as just another crime scene, still tragic but acceptable to the mind. A sane sequence of events. Unfortunately, his little pocket of eastern Iowa was small and underpopulated, the mechanics needed to properly investigate a potential crime were simply not in place.

As much as Lutz dreaded the idea, it would have to be him that ventured up those stairs, and it would have to be now. He would have to venture up there, and so would Clarkson, as department regulations forbade an officer from entering a potential crime scene alone. Plus, he wanted Clarkson’s steady presence beside him with the Winchester.

That didn’t mean they all had to go. “Billy,” Lutz said to the young man without turning, “if you don’t want to go up there a second time, now is your chance. Go wait for us on the porch. Stand guard.”

“With all due respect sir, there is no way I am staying down here by myself.” Billy squared his shoulders and gave Lutz a defiant look.

“Your choice, kid.” Lutz gave him a nod and turned back to the problem of the staircase. They would have to make sure they didn’t contaminate the crime scene with their boots. The blood was thick all the down the stairs, where it abruptly stopped on the second to last riser. Here, a slightly thicker pool of blood still shone with faint wetness under his flashlight.

Whatever had happened here, had happened recently.

“Slow and steady does it, now. Don’t step in it.” Squeezing his lanky frame to the far edge of the staircase, Lutz placed a heavy boot on the first riser. A puff up dust arose, and the stair gave an wheezing groan, but it did not buckle under his weight.

Lutz began slowly advancing his way up the stairs, pressing firmly on each stair first to test its stability. The staircase creaked and moaned but continued to hold firm, and he motioned for  Clarkson to follow. Lutz could hear his usually taciturn deputy muttering various prayers and swear words under his breath.

The swath of blood continued up the stairs in an unbroken streak. Now it veered off to the right and disappeared into the darkness of a long corridor. The overwhelming odor was of dirt and mold, but the coppery smell of fresh blood was also thick in the air. A few framed photos hung at uneven intervals, their subjects almost completely obscured with dust. The dust on the floor was disturbed now, but there were no distinct tracks; it had been swept almost clean away in some places.

Resigned now to seeing this through, Lutz felt his earlier fear retreat to the back of his mind. The adrenaline pumping through his system was working for him now, sharpening his focus and steadying his pulse. The corridor opened twice to the right, and Lutz circled warily around the open entrance to the first room.

A cursory glance revealed a dingy bathroom. Or perhaps it had once been a bathroom. Now it was a heap of stained and cracked porcelain, with a rusted out pipe hanging loosely where a sink may have been. Torn linoleum covered parts of the floor, but most of it was the same weathered floorboards as the rest of the upstairs. The air was heavy with the smells of stale grime and mildew.

The path of blood, which had become thicker as they advanced along the corridor, continued down the hallway to the second room. Lutz signaled to Billy to cover the entrance of the bathroom, then he and Clarkson advanced, firearms cocked and ready. Lutz still carried the Maglite, held to the top of his service pistol, so he was the first to cautiously peer around the corner of the room at the end of the hall.

 

****

 

When Lutz first shone his flashlight into the darkened room, he actually breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to find the strewn and dismembered bodies of April McGuire and her children in pieces about the floor.

Instead, the room appeared entirely empty on first glance. There were no severed limbs clad in footie pajamas. There was also no furniture, curtains, rugs or anything else to indicate that the space had ever been occupied by inhabitants other than mice. The bare wooden floor was littered with their droppings, but not much else. He began sweeping his flashlight from floor to ceiling. The walls had been painted a deep scarlet that looked almost wet by the light of the–

Oh.

For a span of time that felt like an eternity but was in reality probably more like thirty seconds, Lutz stood stock still in the entrance to that room, his head cocked to one side like a man trying to figure out a really good riddle. One eyebrow was raised, and his mouth hung open in bewilderment.

The room had been drenched in great splashes of blood that reached all the way to the ceiling in some places. It was swirled in sporadic circles across the floor, and spattered against all four walls. The closest thing Lutz could compare it to

Behind him, Lutz could hear Clarkson’s sharp intake of breath as he also took in the scene before them. Then it was as if all the air went out of his lungs, and Sheriff Lutz suddenly deflated. He felt his knees give way, and had to lean one hand against the outside wall of the hallway for support as his vision blurred and his head spun.

He still held the flashlight in one hand and it was pointed into the room, shining onto the dripping walls. He felt more than saw Clarkson stumble backwards into the wall behind him.

Billy stood at the doorway to the demolished bathroom, studying the mud on his boots. Lutz realized that the younger man had already seen all of this. “Billy, did you see any bodies when you were here earlier?”

Billy met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “When I saw the blood on the stairs, I figured maybe someone was still alive up here. But when I got up here there was nothing. The batteries in my flashlight were starting to die, and then I saw that room, he gestured towards the room with the bloody walls, “I got the hell out of here quick as I could. I didn’t check any of the other rooms.”

“So then where the fuck are the bodies? It looks like Bud McGuire and his family in a Salad Spinner. There’s blood on the goddamned ceiling.” Clarkson queried, stepping closer to the open door of the empty room and glancing inside once more.

“Yeah, but that’s the problem. It’s blood. Just blood. No bones. No organs.” Lutz’ mind was still spinning as it frantically tried to bring a sense of logic into what it had just witnessed. “There should be pieces of the McGuire’s everywhere. But so far, the only evidence of an actual crime is that arm out on the road.” he turned to face the other two men, continuing to speak under his breath.

Clarkson faced him, his normally placid face a mask of tension and fear, “Yeah, how did that arm even get out there? Why does it look like no one has lived here in five years? Where the hell are the McGuires!” this last sentence he said in a whispered shout.

“Are they in the barn? The basement? Did Bud chop them up and carry them into the woods? Was it even Bud? What the hell were those claw marks on the door, Sheriff?” Clarkson continued his questioning in a voice that did not conceal his rising terror.

Lutz gripped his deputy tightly by the shoulders, his own fear gone in the face of his officer’s increasingly panic, “Of course it was Bud, Henry. We’ll find him. Don’t worry.” This idea, as nightmarish as it was, offered  a kind of morbid comfort. Bud McGuire might be a deranged madman who had just killed his entire family, but he was a man.

A man bled when you shot him.

This whole time Billy Hudson had been silent, his eyes fixed on the open doorway to the dingy bathroom. Now Billy cleared his throat, and almost sheepishly said, “Sheriff? You might want to see this.”

Had there ever been less welcome word’s in human history? Lutz pinched his nose between two fingers and reluctantly asked, “What is it?”

Billy just gestured with the head of the shotgun, and in the bright glow from his Maglite Lutz could see a thin line of blood slowly making its way from behind the open bathroom door.

Immediately his heart, which had just begun to resume its regularly scheduled beat, started jackhammering wildly in his chest. Somehow, in that moment, Lutz knew.

Whatever they had come here to find was on the other side of that door.

 

****

 

On their first walkthrough of the corridor, all three men had been preoccupied by the path of blood that led to the room at the end of the hall. Now, upon closer inspection, Lutz realized that there was the faintest glimmer of light coming from the darkened bathroom.

His mouth was dry as a bone, and Lutz swallowed hard and then, pistol still at the ready, he eased around the doorway of the bathroom and put his back against the nearest wall. He checked the corner and, finding it empty, proceeded to circle slowly around the room. Clarkson covered him from behind, while Billy stood guard once more outside the room.

The light was coming from two flickering candles, the tall glass ones of the sort his grandmother used to burn on Sundays. The flames were sputtering their last breaths, and two more candles had already drowned in their own wax. How long do those candles burn? Lutz made a mental note to check and kept his eyes on a swivel, trying to observe as much as possible about the scene.

The candles had been arranged next to a chipped green bathtub. The formed a small circle, in the middle of which was a blackened circle, as someone had foolishly decided to build a fire in the middle of the floor.

On the edge of the bathtub was a draped a faded calico dress. Lutz approached the garment, which had been carefully arranged so as not to wrinkle against the sides of the tub. The tub itself was empty.

Lutz suddenly froze as he heard Clarkson swore a low oath behind him. Filled with sudden dread, he pivoted instinctively on his heel and prepared to fire.

For the first time that night, Andrew Lutz screamed at the top of his lungs.

Slumped in one corner of the trashed bathroom, in a slowly spreading pool of blood, was what remained of Bud McGuire.

***

Click here for the final chapter!

 

The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.

Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.

“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.

Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.

All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.

His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.

That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.

This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.

The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.

Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.

“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”

Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.

The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.

Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.

All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.

What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?

To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.

A sudden snap from the forest on his left.

Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.

Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?

He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.

Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.

But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.

Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”

Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”

Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”

Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.

Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.

At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.

The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.

The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.

As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came  home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.

It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.

As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.

Beyond the door lay only more blackness.

***

Click here for Chapter 4!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 2

If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Chapter 1!

 

Chapter 2

The twenty miles from the sheriff’s station to the McGuire farm passed in almost complete silence as the mostly darkened buildings of the small town gave way to the entirely darkened farmland that made up ninety percent of the area. Endless acres of corn and soybeans framed every small town in the county, with up to forty miles between communities. Lutz had spent his entire life in Richmond county, and for him the horizon would always be where the sky met the fields.

This limitless expanse of cultivated land was interrupted, rarely, by spotty patches of trees and scrub brush. Most of these “forests” were barely twenty acres wide, except the Iowa River Nature Preserve, which sprawled over nearly thirty miles of land on the western side of the highway. On the eastern side of the road was Bud McGuire’s farm.

Those woods had always given Andrew Lutz the creeps. It was an odd, silent place of skeletal pines and briar bushes, offering none of the secret trails and trickling streams of the patches of woods he had enjoyed as a boy. It was also unused by hunters, even in a region choked with hungry deer they had no desire to chew on the tough pine bark offered by the trees. Whatever “nature” the state government was intent on “preserving” was an open question.

The tiniest sliver of  waxing moon shone in the sky, not providing enough illumination to make out anything beyond the orange beam of the cruiser’s headlights. Each man was lost in his thoughts. Sheriff Lutz had conveyed the broad strokes of the matter to his deputy as they had pulled out of the station. At least one casualty. Likely more. Reports of a large animal. Possibly a mountain lion.

“A mountain lion, sir?” Officer Clarkson had asked in complete bewilderment when Andrew had told him. “Have you looked around, Sheriff? You see any fucking mountains? If we are going out to the Bud McGuire’s house, sir, you know as well as I do what we’re going out there to find.”

Yes. Lutz thought as he pulled onto the pitted asphalt of Highway 99.

I know exactly what we’re likely to find.

His hands itched for a cigarette but he pushed the urge aside. He allowed his thoughts to drift to Bud McGuire and tried to ignore the sinking feeling of dread in his stomach.

 

****

 

Andrew Lutz had been in his mid-twenties when he had first encountered Buddy McGuire. He had been out on patrol one afternoon, driving down the quiet streets of the town when he had seen a young boy in an abandoned lot, squatting in the dust next to a dog. The dog was lying on its side. Concerned that a beloved pet had been struck by a car, Lutz had parked and approached the pair.

The dog, a brindle mutt with wide, sad eyes was convulsing in the dust, panting shallowly as the young boy watched. Buddy could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but he showed not a flicker of emotion as he watched the dying animal.

“Is this your dog, son?” Lutz had asked kindly.

Buddy hadn’t answered. Most kids were unfailingly polite to police officers, as least back in those days, but Buddy simply ignored Lutz and continued watching the dog as it’s breathing became slower.

“Do you know what happened to this animal?” Lutz tried again.

Still nothing. But then Lutz had noticed a sheet of butcher’s paper balled up at the boy’s feet. Looking closer, he could also see scraps of some kind of ground meat. A picture of what had occurred here was beginning to form in his mind.

“Did you give poisoned bait to this dog, boy!” Lutz demanded, raising his voice for the first time.

At his shout, the boy finally turned at met Lutz’ eyes. The blank, expressionless look on the face of the child caused the officer to take a step back in surprise. There was no fear, no hint of intimidation at being addressed by a stranger, a policeman at that. There was nothing reflecting back in Buddy McGuire’s eyes.

Shaken, Lutz had reported the incident to then-Sheriff Bradley. Bradley had hooked his thumbs into the sagging waistband of his trousers and pointed out that it had been a stray animal, not a cherished pet. It was a terrible death to be sure, but local farmers often shot or poisoned strays that wandered onto their properties. The mutts would occasionally kill chickens, ducks, or even begin menacing the farmer’s children as they played outside. It was a necessary evil; one the boy had probably learned from watching his own father.

Lutz had gone back to the abandoned lot later that evening and buried the animal himself.

Over the next ten years, Buddy McGuire made a name for himself as one of those boys who are just really good at hurting people. When he was in sixth grade, an upperclassman had teased Buddy about his dirty, unkempt hair. In full view of the students and teachers, Buddy had walked over to the older boy, grabbed his wrist, and twisted until bones crunched.

 

Bud McGuire had been expelled in tenth grade, and was just in time to be swept up by the Vietnam War two years later. No one quite knows what he got up to over there, but when he returned to the town in ’75, it was as if a blanket of rage had settled itself on Bud’s shoulders. His father had died of cancer while he had been deployed, and Bud took over his family’s hundred or so acres. This small farm was barely have been enough to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but it had been in the family for three generations.

The soil, that thick black Midwestern soil, failed Bud McGuire. Corn, beans, wheat, every crop he planted seemed to wither and die at his touch. His fellow farmers prospered, the rich soil of the land sprouting healthy rows of strong green corn seemingly overnight.

Despite all of this, Bud somehow managed to land himself a wife. In the fall of 1977, a mere fifteen months after Bud came back from the war, a pale slip of a girl was seen hanging laundry on the front lawn of the McGuire farm. She had long, mousy brown hair and wide blue eyes that were forever fixed on the ground. Who she was, where she came from, was anyone’s guess. This would have maddened the women of the community, all of whom were obsessed with lineage, but no information on the girl could be found. She was just there one day, silently feeding chickens or beating rugs. She never came into town. Never spoke to anyone.

The second time Andrew Lutz encountered Bud McGuire in a professional capacity had been about a year after the arrival of this mysterious woman. The locals had thrown their hands up in exasperation; all of their kind gestures and housewarming casseroles had been met with a closed door. The McGuire’s had never been seen attending any of the many churches in the community, nor had the young woman appeared at the supermarket where the wives could pounce on her.

The initial confusion had given way to righteous indignation. Who did they think they were, holed up all high-and-mighty on their plot of land? Did the McGuires’s think they were too good to associate with their peers?

But as the weeks dragged on and still there was no sight of the young woman in town. Winter set in, and she was no longer seen outside by the few people who drove on the old county road. The offended feelings of the townspeople began to shift into concern. Was she okay? After all, Buddy had always had quite the temper, even before his years in the jungles of Vietnam.

Finally, in the spring of ‘78 the wives nagged their husbands until the husbands had called the city police. The police in turn, called the sheriff’s department to tell them that someone needed to go check on that girl, to soothe the nerves of their worried neighbors. Lutz had been the junior deputy on duty at the time, and had set off up Highway 99 to the McGuire farm.

Barely three miles from the floodplains of the Mississippi River, the ground in March was a quagmire of mud that had sucked at Lutz’ boots as he stepped out of the police cruiser. The house was a traditional farmhouse, two stories with sweeping gables that rose to create a third story in the attic. A large, wraparound porch upheld by thick wooden beams led up to the entrance. Lutz had looked around warily before climbing the stairs to the porch. He had knocked twice. No answer. This had been expected, and Lutz turned away from the house and went instead around the back, where sure enough a petite young woman was sorting fresh spring herbs into an array of bowls.

She had bristled like a startled cat when she caught sight of him, and Lutz had held his hands in front of him to show he meant no harm. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Deputy Lutz, I’m with the sheriff’s department. Can I ask your name?” he spoke in a low, gentle voice, taking very slow steps towards the girl.

The girl’s eyes had been sky-blue as they looked into his with an unreadable expression.

“April”

The word had been little more than an exhale of breath, and Lutz had been about to ask her to repeat herself when the girl’s eyes had focused on something behind his shoulder and widened with alarm.

Lutz had turned to see Bud McGuire standing a few paces behind them. His black eyes had been just as blank and soulless as when he had gazed upon that dying dog. Leaning with casual menace on his shoulder, pointed at the sky, was a double-barreled shotgun with a long, sleek muzzle.

Lutz had thankfully resisted the urge to startle at the sight of the burly man. “Morning, Bud,” he said. With slow deliberate movements, Lutz had moved his hand to the pistol hoisted at his hip and thumbed open the clasp.

Bud had noticed, as he was meant to. His mouth twisted in a scowl, he had replied, “You’re not welcome here,” he had said in a flat, toneless voice, and Lutz had realized this was the first time he was hearing Bud speak.

“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Lutz had replied in an authoritative tone. “People have been wondering how you two have been getting on up here by yourselves all winter. Thought I’d come over and make sure everything was okay.”

“Fine. You’ve seen. Now go,” and with that, Bud had crossed the short distance between him and his new wife. Lutz had waited for him to hit her, if he did than the deputy could bring him into the station, but Bud just stood a few feet from the girl with a look of pure fury on his face.

April McGuire had been utterly silent during this encounter. Now she sprang from her table of herbs as if scalded. She knelt then, and Lutz saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the table was a large wicker basket lined with woolen blankets. Nestled sleeping in the blankets was a tiny, swaddled infant.

The girl snatched up the basket and fled into the house without another word. Bud had turned, the shotgun still balanced on his shoulder. “This is my property. Ain’t no crime been committed. You got no right to be here.” All of this was said in the same eerie, deadpan voice.

Bud’s words, spoken in the same eerie, deadpan voice, were all true. April McGuire had not accused Bud of anything. It wasn’t against the law to hold a firearm while standing on your own land. There was nothing more for Lutz to say, so he had retreated back to the cruiser and headed back to the station.

He hadn’t returned to the McGuire property since that day nearly eight years ago. The McGuire’s had been seen no more than a handful of times in those eight years, most often driving in Bud’s battered Dodge Ram as the family returned or drove away along Highway 99. At some point another child, a daughter, was added to their number. Neither child was ever seen at the local public school or the local Christian school.

Many times Lutz had driven slowly down the county road, hoping to see April McGuire or her children out in the yard. But the house had been shuttered and silent, and Lutz had been forced to keep driving. Over the years, most of the people in the community had long since stopped gossiping about the McGuires. Everyone sympathized with the lonely young woman isolated with her children and Bud’s anger. But these were also a conservative group who prized their right to privacy. As long as there was no apparent problem at the McGuire farm, everyone merely shook their heads and went about their lives, even though they all knew what the ultimate outcome was likely to be.

As Sheriff Andrew Lutz neared the McGuire homestead, he was cursing himself for not doing more, for not inventing some ridiculous reason to go check on April and her children.

He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

But it didn’t look as though that were the case.

“Uh, sir?” the voice of Billy Hudson suddenly snapped Andrew Lutz out of his guilt and grief. Consumed by his ghoulish thoughts, he was about to miss the blind curve in the road leading up to Bud’s farm. The heavy police cruiser was instead aimed directly at a large pine tree.

 

****

Be sure to check out Chapter 3!