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love and other monsters in the dark by kb jensen 3D

A Siren in Stone

In the morning, I heard the woman’s soft cries seeping from the stone walls of the 17th-century villa I had booked in Italy. It was my first trip alone after my breakdown. The sobbing echoed. I called out, are you okay? The voice went silent, and I was afraid. There was nothing on the other side.

In the afternoon, I heard the woman’s voice again. Jabbering in a language I couldn’t understand. I called out, are you okay? And the voice went silent. A soul trapped in stone. Could she hear me?

In the evening, I did not hear the woman’s voice at all. Heavy rain rattling the roof punctuated the silence. Was she afraid? Where did she go? Unheard, unseen, I touched the rough pale white walls, cold against my fingertips. If only we could escape this darkness together.

In the night, I heard her laughing. I couldn’t sleep. “Leave me alone,” I said. High-pitched chit-chattering started. I wondered if it was the rustling of mice. Knew it wasn’t. “You sound crazy,” I said. “Am I breaking down again?” Was I talking to her or myself? I have to stop this.

In the morning, I found a screwdriver and a mallet in a kitchen drawer and started chiseling at the stone. Tap, tap, tap. I heard her shrieking hysterically, as pieces fell. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “I’ll get you out of this.”

In the afternoon, I saw glimpses of the yellow bones in the wall. A femur emerged first, then a delicately curved tibia from the excavation. I was covered in dust with bits of stone grit in between my teeth.

In the evening, the bones were piled next to me on the floor. I pried and dislodged the skull from the stone and peered into her empty eye sockets. “Who are you?” She said nothing. I started the assembly, bleached the bones in boiling water and used bits of thread to tie her together as perfectly as possible.

In the night, I dreamt of gelatinous cold flesh, and organs as malleable as clay in my hands. Her heart was slippery. When I woke, I found I had added the organs and flesh to the bones. I got up and sat her by the radiator to heat up her limp body.

In the morning, I painted her face with a makeup brush, her eyes, eyebrows, and used lipstick to create a soft, red mouth. I propped her up against what was left of the wall, wiped the sweat off her damp forehead, gently pushed her shoulders back and upright. She smiled, mouth agape. Missing a tooth, far from perfect, but free.

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Chapter 1: The Breakdown

The windshield wipers slapped in a steady rhythm. The radio had turned to fuzz and whistles, like it was on the same station as the rest of reality. It’s called a whiteout for a reason, and the wind was whipping the white stuff around like crazy. She was going forty miles an hour, and she couldn’t see much beyond the tiny, yellow circle of her headlights in the dark. All it showed was white on County Road Z. She hunched forward over the steering wheel with her shoulders close to her ears. Her stomach did flips every time the tires started to slide and lose their grip on the road.

“Don’t go out of the grooves,” she said out loud to herself. “It’s going to be okay. Just another twenty miles to go. You should’ve known it was going to blizzard. It’s January in Wisconsin. You need to start watching the forecast.” She heard her father’s voice ringing with that last thought.

She always talked to herself in the car. People at stoplights probably thought she was crazy, but she didn’t care. “Crap,” she muttered.

She saw a dark figure ahead of her with a pair of arms raised, and she slammed on the brakes. The car seemed to float, like a boat moving across water. There was no friction, just a sliding sensation and a slow motion spinning out until the car was perpendicular to the road. Its front had slammed into a snow bank. The impact had swung her head forward and back and sent everything loose in the car flying, including her cell phone.

She got out and there he was lying in the snow bank, a hitchhiker maybe judging by his tattered coat. He wasn’t moving, just lying on the ground with his arms and legs under him. His face was out of view. Worried he might be hurt or worse, she ran over to him, her dress shoes crunching on the snow. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed at his coat and shook his shoulder. She was relieved to see a smile appear on his face.

“You’re an angel,” he said, gasping. “Thank God you stopped. No one else was stopping. I was freezing to death.”

“I could’ve killed you,” she stuttered. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “At least I think I’m fine. You didn’t hit me very fast. It felt like more of a knock. I kind of rolled.” He patted himself down as if to make sure he still had all his limbs and winced slightly as he leaned forward.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said. “But you shouldn’t have jumped in front of my car like that. What the hell were you thinking? You could’ve been killed.”

“Would you have stopped if I hadn’t?” he asked. “I’m freezing to death out here.”

“I would’ve stopped,” she said. “If I had seen you.” She wondered if this was true. Stopping for strangers on the side of the road wasn’t something she usually did, but a snowstorm was different wasn’t it? It could be a matter of life or death. She would have had to make the decision in a matter of seconds, and she wondered what she would have chosen.

“Doubt it,” he said, as if he were reading her mind. “But I’m glad you’re here now. Can I have a ride?”

“Sure,” she said and then turned and looked at her car. The hood of the little, white Mazda was dug deep into the snow bank. The car was facing down into the ditch at an angle, which wouldn’t help when it came time to pull out.

“Crap,” she said. “Can you dig me out of that?”

They tried until they were both coated in white powder. She tried hacking with a scraper against the icy mound, then used her gloves to scoop out the snow, but the car was too far in. He bent down and tried to dig out around the wheels. Her feet were numb and her hands were freezing, but they had barely made a dent in the snowdrift. The snow had colored her blond hair white and she could feel it dampening her hair.

“This isn’t working,” she muttered, wiping the snow out of her eyes. It was hard to see.

She brushed as much of the snow and ice off as she could before she got back in the car, then shook it out of her hair, and slammed the driver’s side door shut. There he was on the passenger side.

Without the blur of snow clouding her vision she noticed he was actually kind of beautiful in a dirty hippie sort of way. Under his gray, wool hat, he had long waves of reddish brown hair and a set of deep, blue eyes. He was the kind of guy you want to take home and give a bath. It was hard to tell how old he was in the dark, maybe in his thirties. He looked at her like he was expecting something, and she snapped back into focus.

“We should call triple A,” she said. “Or the cops. We could call the cops for help, right?”

“That’s a great idea,” he said.

She fumbled for her phone among the debris in the console and swore when she saw it was cracked. Her fingers were icy cold but they fiddled with the buttons. It didn’t turn on. It was a useless piece of plastic with a black, blank screen. The thing had flown out of the cup holder when she slammed on the brakes and hit the dashboard.

“What about you? You got a phone?”

He shook his head and she wondered what kind of person wanders around in a whiteout without a phone. She wondered what kind of person wanders around in a whiteout at all.

“What were you doing out there?” she asked.

“I broke down…” he said.

“Where’s your car?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Are you homeless?” she blurted out.

“Does it matter?” he asked.

“Guess not,” she said, taking a few deep breaths. It was a shallow question, she realized, but she was still rattled. Her hands were still shaking. She wondered if she should be afraid of him.

“What about you?” he asked. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

“I was on my way home from class in Madison after work,” she said. “I’m getting my M.B.A. in an evening program. My parents live in the middle of nowhere and I live with them right now. How about you? What do you do?”

“I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” he said, laughing. “I’m a waiter, a bus boy, an artist, a pickpocket, a sailor and a psychic.” He raised an eyebrow.

“Let me tell you your future,” he said with a grin.

She couldn’t help but laugh nervously as she let him take the wet glove off her hand to examine her damp palm. His gloves were tucked near the heater vent on the dashboard. She wanted to pull her hand away, but he pulled it forward.

There was a small tickle of electricity as he traced the lifeline on her palm with his pointer finger. But then he recoiled and started shaking.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t tell you your future.”

“Why not?” she asked, pulling her hand back and crossing her arms. She leaned away from him.

“Because you can’t tell the future of the people whose destinies run close to yours.” As the words came out of his lips, she noticed he had a small gap between his front teeth. The words made her shiver, not because they were eerie but because she suspected they were true.

The windshield wipers were still slapping and she wondered how much gas she had left. She was afraid to look. She was afraid of a lot of things. Who was this stranger? Would they freeze to death? Would someone crash into them? She put the car in reverse and let the tires spin for a few minutes. They whirred loudly. The Mazda shuddered, but it did not budge. She gave up and put it back into neutral but left the car running.

She leaned her seat back and he leaned his seat back. She stared at him in the dark for a moment, his blue eyes glittering back at her in the shadows. It made her think of the way the moonlight catches on a snow bank, specks glittering like diamonds. She looked out the window, wishing she could see the moon, but all she saw was white and black, night and snow.

“My parents must be so worried,” she whispered.

“I’ve got a headache,” he said, with his eyebrows furrowed.

“You can sleep if you want to,” she said, trying to comfort him.

“I don’t feel like sleeping yet,” he said. “Why don’t you sleep?”

He was looking at her, and she had no intention of sleeping with his eyes on her like that. His eyes were dilated in the dark, with large black pupils rimmed by light blue. I don’t trust you, she thought. I don’t make a habit of trusting strange men I don’t know who jump in front of my car. Like hell, I’ll sleep. But she was more diplomatically Midwestern than that.

“I can’t sleep. I’ve got to clear the tailpipe of snow so we don’t get carbon monoxide poisoning, wipe off the brake lights so no one slams into us and turn the car on and off to conserve gas,” she said in a monotone voice.

“How do you know all this?” he asked.

“I saw a survival show on TV,” she said. “Discovery Channel, I think.”

“What else did you learn?” he asked, holding his head and wincing slightly.

“That I should’ve put a chocolate bar in the car.”

“Too bad on the chocolate,” he said.

Her stomach growled loudly on cue. She was thirsty too and eyed the white stuff outside. If it melted on her tongue, would it quench the thirst or make it worse? She wondered and then remembered it would only make it worse.

“But I do have a sleeping bag in my car, at least,” she said. “That’s another thing they say you should have. My dad always insisted.”

She reached to the back seat and grabbed for the sleeping bag. It was green and earthy smelling with a few flecks of dirt dotting the slinky fabric. It had been in the car for a long time. She unwound it and spread it out evenly over the driver and passenger sides. It made her feel safer to be under something warm, strangely enough, even though he was under it too. The windshield was covered in a white blanket, and so were the car’s sides. It felt like the world was shrinking, encased in whiteness.

“We could get hit from behind,” he said.

“I know.”

“We could die tonight,” he said.

“I know,” she said, as calmly as she could. Her heart was starting to pound.

“Maybe that’s why I can’t read your fortune,” he said. “Because we’re going to die together.”

His eyes were wide and fearful, and she almost wanted to reach out and pat him on the arm, but she didn’t. She was still afraid of him.

“We should do something to pass the time,” she said. “Take our minds off things.”

He smiled real big when she said that, a little too big.

“Please, I barely know you,” she said. She wished she could kick him out of the car just then, but where would he go? Where would she go? There was nothing but white-streaked darkness outside the car.

“It could be our last night on earth,” he said.

“You’re so cliché,” she said. “No way.” She gritted her teeth.

“You’re gonna change your mind,” he said, the smile still there. “I have a feeling you’re gonna sleep with me before the night’s over.”

“Like hell I will,” she said, leaning away from him.

His hand twitched on his thigh and she could see his fingers gripping his leg, the white knuckles. He loosened his grip and she could see his hands were shaking. Maybe he was actually scared. Scared or angry?

Her leg was starting to bounce around involuntarily. The tension in the car was setting it off. She needed to collect herself so she put on gloves and stepped out of the Mazda. The snow flew into her eyes. She opened her mouth and snow flew in. But the drops melting did nothing for her thirst, and she closed her mouth again. She scraped the snow off the brake lights, shining red against white, and cleaned out the dirty mouth of the tailpipe, oil staining her gloves.

When she stepped back into the car, his eyes were closed, and she thought for a moment, it’s safe to sleep now, maybe, for a little while. The clock on the car read 10:33 p.m. in glowing green digits. She would normally be tired. She turned off the engine. The cold would wake her up. But she couldn’t sleep because she had a stranger in her car, and her heart was still pounding. They needed help.

She heard his voice whisper in the dark, “What did you have in mind then, to pass the time?”

And she looked over at the blue eyes in the dark.

“Stories,” she said. “We could tell each other stories.”

“Confess all our sins?” he asked.

“Well, I wasn’t thinking that extreme,” she said. “But maybe it’s not a bad idea.”

“I killed a man,” he said.

She opened her mouth and let out a slow breath, the kind an animal makes when it freezes in front of a predator. Her eyes opened wide in the bright snowlight. What else do you call the mix of swirling white snow, moon and blackness outside? Snowlight.

And then he started laughing. “I haven’t even told you my name yet,” he said. “And you think I’m going to make that kind of confession.”

So he turned on his side like he was going to sleep, and she stared at the back of his coat. It was brown and tattered and reminded her of a camel. The collar had remnants of what must have once been fur.

The collar was waterlogged. The ice and snow crusted to the coat had started to melt. She could see the trickles sliding down his back in dark ripples. He must be cold, she thought. He must be. Because she was, so she turned on the ignition and there was the soft sound of the Mazda purring. She could smell the gas. The windshield wipers scraped against the ice, and the windows were fogged and dripping wet with condensation. She turned up the defroster. I don’t care if it wakes him, she thought, because he’s playing games with me, and I hate that.

“What kind of person says they killed someone just to get a rise out of a stranger,” she muttered. “Who does that?”

“Someone looking to pass the time, maybe,” he said.

“Well, it’s kind of messed up,” she said. “Are you trying to freak me out? It’s scary enough picking up somebody on the side of the road.”

Now it was hot and he was still shivering. With the hot air blowing on them, her feet were sweating inside her dress shoes. She had tossed the whole sleeping bag to his side.

“How can you be so cold?” she asked.

“I got wet,” he said. “What do the survival shows say about that?”

“It’s a bad thing,” she said.

“Why don’t you take your jacket off and air out a bit?” she said.

“I don’t want to,” he said, pulling up his collar.

“So why are you out here?” she asked.

“I told you, I had a breakdown,” he said.

“So where is your car?”

“What car?” he said, laughing. “Hey, shouldn’t you be watching the gas?”

“Yes,” she said in an exasperated tone and turned off the engine. His responses were getting frustrating. They didn’t make any sense.

They both watched the needle slide down, as she turned the engine off. It went down from less than a quarter tank to orange to red, like a preview. This is what’s going to happen over the next few hours, she thought.

“I think we should cuddle,” he said.

She looked at him for a minute. If it were just a matter of appearances alone, snuggling with him would not be a problem, she thought. But he kept messing with her.

“I don’t trust you,” she said.

“I wouldn’t trust me either,” he said. “But what do the survival shows say anyway?”

“They say I should have a working cell phone,” she said, running her thumb along the cracked screen, and then pressing the power button. The phone was unresponsive.

“Who would you call?” he asked.

“My boyfriend,” she said. “I’m sure he’s worried.”

“You don’t have a boyfriend,” he said with a smirk.

“Yes, I do,” she said a little too loud. She shifted her body away from him, uncomfortable in the seat, uncomfortable in the conversation.

“Nope,” he said. “I’m a psychic, remember? You wouldn’t be so wound up, if you had a boyfriend. It’s your mother.”

“Do I need to kick you out of my car?” she said.

“Depends,” he said. “Are you a heartless bitch?”

“Maybe.”

“You’d be willing to kill me because I have bad manners?” he asked. “Interesting.”

“Just trying to pass the time,” she said. This time she laughed, and he didn’t.

She closed her eyes and heard his breath slow down, gradually rise and fall rhythmically in waves that reminded her of the ocean. Her breath and heart slowed down too until she was walking on the beach alongside him, and it was warm and sunny. They were holding hands. The sleep was impossible to resist. Her heart had beaten so long and so hard, had been so wound up and whipped up with the snow, that it wasn’t a choice anymore but an involuntary reaction.

And here we are in the sunshine. No, she thought. This isn’t real. But here we are skipping stones along the water. Here we are dipping our feet into the foamy waves, over and over in the sea salty warmth. “How did we get here again?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said in the dream.

When she awoke, there he was with his tangle of reddish brown hair cascading across the seat.

“I have to trust you,” she said. “That’s what the survival books say.”

And so she climbed over the armrest and wrapped her arms around the damp, brown jacket. She brushed his hair to the side so it wasn’t in her face. Her legs lined up with his legs. It was an odd pairing, like the wrong kind of food with the wrong kind of wine.

“I told you you’d sleep with me,” he said softly.

And just as she started to get comfortable, just as the shivering seemed to have slowed down, that’s when she noticed the blood. It had soaked through the back of his jacket. It was hot and sticky and congealed against her shaking fingers.

The sight of his blood made her stomach lurch. Her heart pumped her own blood through her veins in an uneasy, fast-paced rhythm. She could feel her heart clunking away sloppily through it all, like it was going to sink in her chest, another piece of faulty machinery in a broken down car. Up to this moment, she had been upbeat and hopeful that help would come soon enough. Now she wasn’t so sure.

“Oh my God,” she yelled. “You are hurt. I’m so sorry.” The features of her face squeezed together as if the tears would rush out of her eyes any minute. But they didn’t. She fought to blink them back. Crying wouldn’t help anything. It would not make him feel any better, and she didn’t want him to panic. “It’s my fault, isn’t it? I’m the one who hit you,” she mumbled. “Crap.”

“How bad is it?” he asked. “Is there a lot of blood?”

“Not that much,” she lied. “It will be okay. It’s… it’s not that bad.”

“My head does ache, but it’s not the first time,” he said.

“Are you delirious?” she asked. “Have you been delirious the whole time?”

“I never had any intention of shooting anyone,” he said. “They shot first.”

“Hush now,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

He had a concussion, she thought. He was in shock. She pulled back his collar and saw it was not water that had melted along the back of his jacket but blood. The color had been hard to make out in the dark. She pulled back his hair, and she could see the small wound, a gash at the base of his skull with its edges puckered. It must have started as a tiny trickle of blood at first, but as the time had passed the inside of his jacket had become wet, the collar soaked. He yawned.

“You might have a concussion,” she said. “You shouldn’t sleep.”

“Is that what the survival shows say?” he said, shivering. “Screw it, I’m going to sleep.”

“No,” she said. “You can’t. “You have to stay awake.”

She opened her jacket and tore a piece of her T-shirt off underneath her sweater and held it against the base of his skull. The blood gushed warm into the white cotton. Her fingers were sticky and wet. She was angry with herself for not noticing she’d hurt him. How do you not notice a head wound? What if he died?

“Now that you pointed it out, it does hurt like a bitch,” he said. “Distract me.”

“You want a story?” she asked.

“You and your stories,” he said. “Tell me something juicy, or I’m going to fall asleep.”

“Okay, I think I know how to keep a man awake. So Mr. Psychic, what do you think about this one?

“There once was a girl who was a nymphomaniac. She figured it out when she was fifteen, and a boy made her toes curl so hard they cramped up.

‘How often would you want to have sex?’ the girl asked him.

‘Once a week,’ the boy said.

‘That’s it?’ she said.

‘How about you?’ the boy said.

‘Everyday,’ the girl said, watching his eyes widen. Ahh, she was a freak, wasn’t she, she thought. And so she made this rule early on, a rather old-fashioned one.”

“What was the rule?” the dying hitchhiker asked, perking up.

“Never fuck a man you don’t love.”

“Then you aren’t really a nymphomaniac,” he said.

“It’s a made-up story,” she said, blushing in the dark. Why couldn’t she think of a better story? A real story about a safe topic, a boring, normal topic.

He laughed. “Sure. You know, if you were a man, you’d just be called a man. No one would think anything of it.”

“It’s not fair, is it?” she said. “I guess it’s just a label. Screw labels.”

“So you aren’t going to be granting a dying man any last wishes, then?” he asked.

“Nope,” she said. “Not unless you make me fall in love with you in a couple of hours.”

“That’s impossible,” he said, starting to close his eyes.

“Impossible love. Why don’t you tell me some stories about that?”

“I don’t know about love but I can tell you impossible stories,” she said, dabbing at the back of his head. She examined the wound again. It was ripe and raw with a flap of skin spewing wine-colored liquid in the dark. What did the survival shows say? Keep him awake. Go outside, find a dead reindeer carcass and feed him pieces from it. Oh, those stupid shows. Press down on the wound. The cotton was dripping. “It’s the least I can do since I almost killed you,” she said. “I don’t know what the hell the stories will be about, though. All I can think about is the fact I nearly killed you.”

“It’s not your fault, you know,” he said. “I jumped in front of your car. Besides, it’s nicer to bleed to death inside a warm car than freeze to death out in the cold.”

“Actually, the survival shows say freezing to death isn’t so bad,” she said. “You just go numb and get sleepy.”

“I always mess these things up, even my own death,” he said, smiling. “At least I get to look at someone beautiful as I bleed to death. Turn the engine on, please.”

“It’s already on,” she said.

His head slumped forward and she slapped him gently. “Wake up, now. If you’ve got a concussion, I don’t want you sleeping. They’ll find us soon enough. You can sleep in the hospital.”

He moaned and closed his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I thought you were crazy. I didn’t know you were bleeding.”

“Maybe I am crazy,” he said. “Why should it matter?”

She leaned forward against the dashboard and heaved a sob or two before collecting herself. The fear ratcheted up in her stomach, tightened in her abdomen, squeezed her chest and spilled out of her mouth in a series of short, tight gasps.

“I’ve made this drive a million times. It’s only sixty miles,” she said. “I should’ve just skipped class.”

“Maybe you should go get help?” he said.

“And where am I going to walk to? This is a rural area in the middle of flipping Wisconsin. There’s not a barn or a house within ten miles of here. I know this road. We just have to stay with the car,” she said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do, stay with the car.”

“Oh, my head,” he said, his hand cradling his skull. “Worst headache of my life. Distract me, please. Please just distract me.”

“Did I ever tell you the story of the dog?” she said. “Of course not. We’ve never met before this.”

“It feels like we have,” he said. “I think I’ve known you a long time, since we were children.”

That doesn’t make any sense, she thought. The poor man isn’t making any sense anymore. Did he ever make sense? Why was he walking in the middle of a snowstorm? The wind roared outside, shaking the car slightly.

“What were you doing out there walking around?” she asked.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “Why were you driving?”

“I told you I had to get home,” she said.

“A sixty-mile commute. Environmental karma. Your carbon footprint must be horrendous,” he said, leaning back his head and wincing. He seemed to go in and out in terms of coherency. Sometimes she’d swear he was normal. She wondered if he could be faking it, but then again, she could see the wound as clear as day.

She ripped off another piece of her T-shirt and dabbed the back of his head and his neck. Her stomach felt exposed under her sweater and coat. She just pushed the cotton against the mouth of the wound. The bleeding seemed to have slowed. He moaned. She rubbed his back with her other hand.

“Has anyone ever told you the story about the dog?” she said. “The St. Bernard?”

“No,” he said. “Why, does it matter?”

“It’s a true story,” she said. “A friend of a friend swore it was true. His friend was babysitting this guy’s St. Bernard while he was on vacation, and the dog died.”

“Oh no,” he said.

“And it was a record hot Chicago summer and the thing instantly started to rot and stink in the heat. She called the vet offices to find out how much it would cost to cremate the poor thing. The cheapest place was $200 bucks. She was a student, so she didn’t have any money or a car, but she was gonna put it on a credit card.”

“Why didn’t she call the owner?” he asked.

“She tried, but she couldn’t get a hold of him.”

He leaned back his seat some more and closed his eyes, picturing the giant dead dog and this scrawny, blond girl in his head.

“Then what?” he asked. He took a broken breath.

“So she has no way to transport it. The dog weighs hundreds of pounds and she stuffs it in a huge suitcase and can’t even close the zipper all the way. One of its paws is sticking out, and she keeps trying to push it back in. She wheels the suitcase to the Brown Line train station. But the station has no elevator and she’s struggling up the steep, narrow, wooden steps.”

He opened his eyes and there they were at the bottom of the steps and the petite, blond girl with the wavy hair was pulling this suitcase up, step by step, walking backward, her back hunched over, her thin arms stretched out like her elbows were going to pop from the strain.

“And this guy offers to help her. ‘Thank God,’ she says. ‘Thanks so much.’ He carries it up and they get to the top a split second before the train pulls away, and he darts inside. The doors slide shut, and she watches him pull away with the suitcase with the dead dog. He was a thief. He stole the dog. And she’s left there wondering, crap how am I gonna explain this to the owner. He’s never going to believe me.”

“That didn’t happen,” he said, shaking his head and then wincing from the pain. “Come on. That’s impossible.”

“Maybe the details are sketchy, but there’s still some truth to it,” she insisted. “It did happen. And imagine the thief, what he must have thought when he opened the suitcase and found a dead dog.”

“I can imagine,” he said.

“You know why I’m telling you this story?” she said. “A week ago, my cousin from Mississippi told me the same goddamn story. I kid you not.”

“What happened to the dog?” he asked.

“I like to think he’s been traveling,” she said.

“All the way to Mississippi and back,” he said.

“Yeah, you get it,” she said, smiling. “No one ever gets my stories.”

Then he slipped off into unconsciousness for a while and she let him stay in the land of dreams. She hoped she didn’t let him stay there a little too long.

 

Prologue

Steve Jackson was trying to get his Honda Civic through the snow, but the tires spun loudly and the vehicle wouldn’t swim through. “Come on baby, please, please, we need to get out of here now,” he coaxed and swore.

But the Civic couldn’t climb out. It slid back into its final resting place, crooked against the curb. He turned off the ignition and slumped forward with his gloved hands on the wheel and his forehead against the top of it. He felt drained, empty. He had said what he needed to say and it wasn’t wise to linger. They let him walk out the door but they could still change their minds.

“Thank you, God, it’s over,” he said. “Now, please help me get the hell out of here.”

He was surprised they hadn’t stopped him after he gave his “notice.” Drug dealers aren’t normally so courteous. They don’t give you a card and a goodbye lunch before you walk out the door. But the worst of it was over now and he just had to drive home in the storm.

Blinking the snow out of his eyes, he glanced up at the old, three-story brick building through the blur of snowflakes and saw a dark face in the oversized window. It moved back behind the curtain.

He got out of the car and started digging out holes behind the tires, kicking the snow with his boots. He shivered. He was only wearing a puffy black vest over a flannel shirt. He had been too preoccupied to listen to the forecast that morning, too nervous about getting killed to worry about what clothes he’d be wearing when the shots would ring out. Snow had been the last thing on his mind when he showed up to tell them he couldn’t work for them anymore. His conscience wouldn’t allow it, that feeling in the pit of his stomach every time he made a delivery. A 13-year-old girl had thanked him, for what? For helping her kill herself slowly. He knew he had to answer to God one day and the day was coming soon, sooner than he’d like.

He bent down and dug out the snow with his gloved hands. The blur of white snowflakes stung his eyes so he could barely see. He didn’t hear the footsteps in the snow behind him through the whistle of the wind. He didn’t hear the metal slide through the air as it sliced down and cracked open the top of his head. He spun sideways from the blow and fell.

For a matter of seconds, he lay there flat on his back in the snow bank watching the flakes twirl and land on his face. His vision whirled. He had bitten his tongue, but he could still taste the snow melt and mix with blood as it dropped into his open, gurgling mouth. He thought of his mother, what she would say when she found out? Did she know that he had changed? She’d never know.

“Jesus,” he gurgled. It was a prayer this time.

Then the heavy metal blade came down again, and the white out turned to a permanent black out.