“I don’t know anything,” Jeb says, shaking his head behind the bars. He looks at the ground, shaking his head over and over again as his knees jump and the heels of his shoes tapping the linoleum of the jail cell. We only have three cells for holding prisoners before sending them on their way to their new homes. This cell has seen more drunks and more vandals than it has seen for any other crime. We don’t get crime in Ashwood bend. That’s why we love it here. That’s why everyone loves it here. We pride ourselves in having a safe community, but right now, I’m not sure if that’s a thing any more.
I turn around and look at Hayden and his girlfriend sitting in the lobby just a few yards away. What’s her name again? God, Claire is going to kill me if I ask her one more time what Hayden’s girlfriend’s name is. I haven’t seen him in so long that I almost didn’t recognize him until he spoke to me out there on the road.
He looks terrible, but it’s an improvement from the last time that I saw him. When I saw him last time, he had long, greasy hair that hung down in his face. He smelled like he hadn’t showered in years and wore clothes that he probably stole from a Salvation Army donation bin. There were more needle marks in his arms than there were hairs. But now, he looks like he’s starting to clean things up. Starting to get things on the right track. He shaved off all of his hair to a short buzz and looks like he’s gained some weight. He’s probably off the drugs or he’s given up most of it.
His girlfriend looks right up his alley, tattoos and rough looking. She looks clean though. Unless she’s shooting up between her toes, her arms are clean. She has the tough look of a recovering addict. If she’s responsible for Hayden’s upward turn, then I’m grateful, but I still don’t like thinking about what he’s doing with his life. He was always a boy of such great potential and the only thing he enjoyed about that potential was throwing it away. At least Priscilla had the good sense to do something about her downward spiral. At least she joined the military and made something of herself.
But not Hayden.
He saw Priscilla’s attempt to make something of her life as some kind of terrible, damnable sin. I never understood how twins could be so radically different, but that’s the end of it. Priscilla is off fighting for our country and Hayden is still wasting his life in some bar. I don’t know. I’ve never understood Hayden, but I’m strangely glad to see him.
A father isn’t supposed to love his children more than some of them and he definitely isn’t supposed to like one less than the others, but he can’t help but feel this way with Hayden. He was always the child that I never understood and I connected to the least. He was always the child that never wanted me around. I think we both just sort of drifted into a sea of contempt after a while. I look back at Jeb behind the bars, twitching and shaking his head.
“I’ll get you a coffee, Jeb,” I tell him as I head back to talk with my son and his girlfriend.
I look at the girl, wishing that I could conjure her name up out of the dusty recesses of my cluttered mind, but I can’t. I can name every child in this town, but I can’t remember my son’s girlfriend. She looks up at me with her big, Christmas bulb eyes and I look over to Hayden, barely even looking at me. It’s almost as if he’s looking past me or through me.
“I think you guys should head home,” I tell them. “Your mother will be worried sick by now. I need to call her and tell her what’s up.”
“You sure you’re fine?” Hayden asks me, looking around and seeing that old Mary is the only other person in the station. I don’t know where the others are, but I’m sure they’ll have perfectly acceptable excuses when they get back. Until then, it’s just Jeb, Mary, and I.
“Yeah, no need for you to waste your night here,” I tell him. “Avery’s home, heard he passed out not long after he got in though. He might be up now.”
“Okay, we’ll tell Mom what happened,” Hayden says, rising first and his girlfriend rising too. They look like they’re wearing the same style of leather jacket; only their patches they’ve sewn on are different. The girl sheepishly smiles at me, clearly aware of Hayden’s side to this story. I must be the Big Bad Wolf right now.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say to her, shaking her hand. Playing off the fact that I have no clue what her name is.
“It was great to finally meet you,” she lies to me.
I take it as a compliment, watching as they head back out to the storm. I hope that they get home safe. I hope Max didn’t try going to work tonight. When I’m done here and I swing by to find him stocking shelves, I’m taking him home with me. I watch Hayden pull out with his Jeep, heading for a home that he no longer recognizes. This whole Holiday season is going to be strange and extremely uncomfortable.
Walking back to Jeb, I pour him a cup of coffee that has been stagnate and festering in that container all day. I take a moment to add a cube of sugar, eager to hear what Jeb has to say before anyone else gets here. I’m not eager to hear whatever morbid his tale he has. There’s a moment where I think that maybe he’ll have a decent reason for why there was a tortured body in the back of his truck, hidden away before it was flung free and his prisoner escaped.
God, tonight is becoming something terrible. We’re going to have to go out there and hunt for whomever it was that Jeb had bound up and beaten in the back of his truck. I take a moment to get my mind straight, my head right before I go in there. Taking a deep breath, I push through the doors to the holding cells.
Jeb is still nervously twitching his knee as he looks at the wall, his eyes boring a hole into the wall. I look at him, watching him as he sweats profusely over the wounds he wouldn’t let the paramedics tend to. I stare at him, wondering how a man lets himself go like this. He’s not fat by any means. He’s sinewy and lean; but his hairy and haggard looking. He looks entirely beaten down, broken and stitched together to form sort of ambiguous entity.
“Who was in the back of the truck?” I ask him. Extending the coffee through the bars. He turns and looks at me, taking the cup of lukewarm coffee from me. “I need you to talk to me before the others get here. It’s getting cold out there. We need to find whoever you had in there.”
“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” he says bitterly.
“Then tell me about it,” I suggest to him.
“A couple weeks ago, I noticed someone broke into my shed,” Jeb says coldly, thinking back to that day. “It was the night we first had a real snowstorm. It wasn’t heavy or anything, but it was thick enough that it lasted until morning. I picked up the trail when I saw that the lock was broken. So I followed the footsteps out into the forest. It took several hours when I found the thieves.
“They’d built this shack out of sheet metal and branches that they found lying around the forest. They built some sort of camp out of crap that they’d been stealing form the nearby houses and cabins. I’m sure if you go home and look through your own shed, you’ll find things missing, especially if you don’t lock it up. It looked like they were building some sort of crude forge out there. At first, I thought it was a couple of vagabonds going around, stealing scrap metal, melting it down, and then selling it to recycling shops. So I figured they’d be armed if they were stealing from everyone, so I went back home to get my shotgun.
“When I got back, I figured that they’d caught sight of me since they’d started packing up and were moving. I didn’t actually see anyone of them. But when I got there, most of their things were gone and it looked like they were scrapping everything and moving on. I figured that they wouldn’t mind if I went around looking for the stuff they started stealing from me. I didn’t find a whole lot, just a bunch of stolen pieces of equipment, like power tools and ladders.
“I didn’t find anything that looked like mine, so I started getting ready to leave when I noticed these leather sacks hanging from the tree branches. They were big, like someone was bleeding out a deer or something. I figured I’d take a look; see if they were hunting out of season, sick Fish and Game on them. So I pulled back the tarp they were using and saw that it was Mike Collins. His eyes were open, faded, and he smelled like he’d been rotting out there for days. His skin was pale and looked like it was already starting to turn. Damn near puked right there.”
“Wait,” I say, shaking my head. “You said that it was Mike Collins in the back of your truck, in the tarp that flew out the bed when you rolled.”
“It was,” Jeb looks at me angrily. “I cut him down with my buck knife and dragged him all the way back to my house so that I could call you fellas. I pulled him in and locked the doors and dropped the blinds, thinking those bastards would follow my trail back. I thought they’d try to do me in too. So I picked up the phone and started to dial and that’s when I heard Mike breathing.”
“Bullshit,” I say to him, the first time I think I’ve said a curse word in thirty years. You have to keep principles and your head with this job and believing fairytales like this is breaking both of those rules. I look at Jeb who doesn’t look like a man lying to me. He might be crazy, but he believes every word he’s saying.
“I ain’t shitting you, David,” Jeb says coldly. “Mike started breathing again. So I pulled the blankets and leather off him, thinking I might have been wrong, but when I pulled off the blankets, I knew he wasn’t Mike anymore. That thing under there was something else. I swear, I don’t buy into that science fiction shit on the radio and television, but there was some strange shit happening in my kitchen when I tied him to the table.”
I look at him, feeling nauseous, feeling sick to my stomach.
He takes a long, steady pull from the coffee cup, smacking his lips after he finishes and looking at me with tired, weary eyes. “I could take the stench and the oozing, but when the others came looking for him. It was too much. I wrapped him back up and dragged him outside. I strung him up in the tree, out by my shed by his feet, leaving him like some kind of offering for them. They never came for him. They left him there. They just wanted to know what I was doing to him, or something. I don’t know what they are, but they were watching me, for weeks, Dave. They would come up to the windows, tapping on them. I wanted to shoot at them, but I knew that you’d hear and come to investigate and I was too scared that they might get you. They’re sneaky, Dave.”
I shake my head, swallowing hard and staring at him. “What the hell are you telling me, Jeb? Was the man in the back of your truck, Mike Collins? Are you certain of that?”
“Mike was dead before I ever found him,” Jeb looks at me with his bloodshot eyes, the deep circles and the puffy bags underneath. He looks like he’s down to his last wire. I don’t like this. He leans closer to the bars, looking at Mary beyond the glass. “They’re out there, Dave. Mike, whatever’s left of him, he’s out there too. I don’t know what they want, but they’re building something out in the forest.”
“Jeb, you kidnapped Mike Collins,” I tell him, trying to shake some sanity loose in that web of crazy. “You were carrying him in a bloody tarp in the back of your truck when you crashed. Now I need you to tell me if you’re certain that it was Mike in the back of your truck.”
Jeb shakes his head slowly. “You’re going to see,” Jeb sets his cup of coffee down softly on the bench next to him. “I’ve seen them lurking around your house. One day, you’ll see them and then you’re going to understand.”