“I think he hates me,” Sarah says, leaning her head against the cold window as the snow whirls around the Jeep. Hayden looks over at her, feeling a knot in his stomach. Yeah, you’re probably right, he wants to say to her, but that’s not going to help the situation. It’s not her fault after all. She just had to great misfortune of falling for Hayden and not Avery or hell, perfect little Harvey who practically shits gold in his father’s eyes. No, she just got it all wrong when it comes to picking out Ashmore boys.
“No,” Hayden lies to her. It’s a sour taste in his mouth, like bile and orange rind. Hayden can’t remember the last time he lied to her. He doesn’t like it. If there’s one thing that Hayden has never been called, it’s a liar. For him, owning up to mistakes has always been part of his character. Failures were just garnishes that made him more interesting. “He’s just pissed his partner got fucked up. He’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Sarah is quiet for a moment. It was her idea to follow the ambulance back to the station and make sure that he was fine. His father was far from fine. There was a look in his eyes that always told Hayden that things were not fine. The last time it was so crystal clear was when his father shot and killed a meth head passing through who decided to make Ashford Bend his last stand. He’d charged Mrs. Beverly with a screwdriver and slashed open her arm. When his father arrived at the scene, the meth head charged his father. No one charged David Ashmore and expected to live after that. People started calling him Dirty Harry. He would smile, but that was all for show. He hated the nickname. He hated what he’d done.
The night he came home after killing the meth head, his father had sat at the kitchen table with the same dead, cold look in his eyes. It resurfaced now and again, but this was the first time in a long time that Hayden had seen it as clear as day.
“Did you know that guy?” Sarah switches the conversation over.
Hayden hadn’t told her about the bloody tarp or what he had said to his father about Mike Collins. All he told her was that there’d been a huge accident and that his father was taking a man back in the ambulance to the station. She’d been interested in meeting my father and said that he might want some company. “You know? Maybe we could get a message back to your mom so she knows what’s up.” Sarah had said. She’s sweet like that and Hayden has never been able to fathom how she got to be so compassionate.
“Yeah,” Hayden answers, thinking about Jeb’s face. “He’s been our neighbor my entire life. I used to think he was a mountain man when I was little.”
“What does he do?” Sarah asks.
I don’t even think Jeb knows that answer. “He hunts,” Hayden answers with a shrug. “He knows a bunch of people on the reservation. He kills things, skins them, and sells whatever he doesn’t need to some craftsman who turns them into souvenirs for people stopping through. Other than that, I think he’s a taxidermist sometimes.”
“Creepy,” Sarah says, shaking her head.
“I think he makes enough money just to pay taxes and the few expenses he has,” Hayden turns onto the road leading up to the house. “He grows all his own food and has a well. He’s got money somewhere, but he doesn’t do a whole lot with it.”
For as long as Hayden can remember, Jeb has lived in that house alone. The only companion Jeb has ever had was a puppy he got seven years ago named Boggs. When they saw the puppy scampering behind gruff Jeb, they all thought they were hallucinating, but that little puppy turned out to be Jeb’s one true friend in life. Hayden couldn’t imagine what a life that lonely would be like, how depressing it would be to only have yourself and a dog as company through everything. He wondered what would happen to Boggs now.
Jeb was most likely going to be facing vehicular manslaughter charges if Luther ended up dying from the injuries that he received. From what it sounded like, Luther was going to end up losing both of his legs at the bare minimum. If there’s one thing that Luther Clarke is, it’s vindictive and spiteful. Everyone knows that if you stay on Luther’s good side, you could get away with murder. Piss him off, and there was no getting away form his wrath. Jeb was as good as gone, regardless of whether or not Luther survives.
“He has a dog,” Hayden says after a moment.
“Who? That guy?” Sarah asks, pulled away from her own thoughts.
“Yeah, a chocolate lab,” Hayden says, watching the veil of snow, trying to discern if he’s about to hit anything in front of him. “I think we should go see if he’s alright. If they end up booking him, I don’t think Jeb has anyone to look after the dog.”
“What’s its name?” Sarah asks.
Hayden turns down the road winding up the hill and slowly makes his way toward. “Boggs,” Hayden answers, realizing that this is the second time that he’s lied to Sarah today. Forgetting Boggs for the time being, Hayden knows that he wants to go to Jeb’s house, because he wants to see if there’s any signs of Mike Collins. Why would he kidnap and torture Mike?
Mike Collins worked at the Ashford Trust Bank, a small little bank that has been around since this town was founded. He worked as a loan officer and always had cheap suckers on his desk for children. They were the kind of suckers you get at pharmacies that taste like misery. Squatty, balding, and with glasses as thick as Coke bottles, Mike has always seemed old to Hayden. Honestly, Hayden had never once seen Jeb talking to Mike or Jeb talking to anyone for that matter. So why would he kidnap Mike? It didn’t add up to him and if it didn’t add up to Hayden then it definitely wasn’t adding up for his father.
Pulling to a stop in front of the blanketed, old hermit’s shack that Jeb called a house, Hayden left the Jeep running. Turning and looking at Sarah, he lets out a sigh. “I’m going to run in and feed Boggs,” Hayden says to her, offering her an assuring smile. “Then we’ll head over to my parents’ house.”
“We’re never going to get there, are we?” Sarah lets out a sigh and gives him an equally fake smile. She looks at the house with a distrusting look written on her face. “This place looks like Jason’s childhood home. Have you ever been inside?”
“Once or twice,” Hayden says, trying to remember if he was four or five the last time he went into that house. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay,” Sarah declares, shaking her head as she unbuckles her seatbelt. “Really? Have you ever seen a horror movie? That’s the last thing everyone says before they go into the freaking creepy house before they get tortured and chopped to pieces.”
Hayden, smiling like a fiend, pushes open the door to the Jeep and steps out into the blustery cold of the blizzard and makes his way toward the sagging old house. Who knows how old this place is, but Hayden will always associate it with hermitage and loneliness. He leads the way, letting Sarah stand behind him as he walks up the steps onto the porch and tries the front door. Pulling back the screen door and trying the handle, he listens as it screeches against turning and without any difficulty, the door swings open.
“Who leaves their door unlocked?” Sarah hisses.
“Creepy loners,” Hayden answers, stepping into the dark of the house.
Already, it smells putrid and horrendous in this house and Hayden pulls his scarf out from under his jacket and holds it to his mouth and nose, blindly groping for the light switch. When his fingers find it and he flips on the light, the room is bathed in burnt, golden light that reveals that something is seriously wrong here. The living room, dining room, kitchen, and hallway all seem to be wired to the same switch. Everything turns on in the blink of an eye and Hayden feels his stomach constrict at the sudden illumination.
“Jesus,” Sarah whispers as Hayden nods in agreement.
All the furniture is up against the walls and the windows are all boarded up form the inside. In the center of the living room sits a single table with cans of food torn open and spilled everywhere and spare ammunition littered all over the place. It’s like every gun in this house has been set up in a different place to hold of a siege. Hayden looks at the SPAS shotgun next to the folding chair near the table that’s sitting on the floor, waiting for something. Did he really kidnap Mike and expect the cops to storm the place and kill him?
Walking through the living room, Hayden is almost too afraid to call to Boggs. “This guy was crazy,” Sarah says, looking at the old walls that are covered with writing. It’s the kind of frantic, delirious writing that Hayden expected to see in the bathroom stalls of a mental hospital. Hayden looks at the writing on the wall near him. “December Eighteenth, they’ve taken the barbwire that I put up. Must keep eye out for more traps.” Hayden looks over to Sarah who is examining the walls like she’s in the middle of a dig sight for some lost civilization.
“Someone killed his dog, Hayden,” Sarah says softly. Her fingers reach out and touch the writing on the wall as she speaks to him. The tips of her fingers brushing the words, she looks at them silently. Hayden can’t help but notice the hole in the wall where Jeb’s fist shattered the drywall and the paint. Sarah looks over her shoulder at him. “Hayden, what’s going on here?”
“I don’t know,” Hayden feels the words heavy with truth as they fall out of his mouth, sinking to the floor. Jeb has lost it. That’s the only explanation that Hayden can think of. He reads another piece of writing on the wall.
Saw one wearing Boggs’ skin. Kill him first.
Looking away from the writing, Hayden walks toward the kitchen and looks through the room to the dining room on the far side of the little house tucked into the forest. It’s the source of the stench that is filling this house. From where he’s standing next to the folding chair, he can see the dining room table, or what was once a dining room table. Jeb turned it into something that truly does belong in a horror movie.
He drilled clamps onto the legs of the table and anchored them into the floor, drilling them into the linoleum. Like rust colored, robotic snakes, chains lay limp on the floor, coiled naturally as they sit undisturbed. They’re not rust colored from age or neglect, but because the floor is covered with blood. The top of the table is covered with blood and chunks of what looks like leather, but Hayden isn’t naïve enough to buy that. He stares at the table, noticing the knives on the floor, the hammer whose head is covered in the same dark, rust color as the chains and the top of the table.
Slowly turning, he looks at Sarah, who has pulled herself away from the writing and is looking at the table as well. Unmoving and disturbed as much as Hayden, she looks at him with cold, emotionless eyes.
“We need to get out of here, right now,” she tells him.
“Get back to the Jeep,” Hayden nods in agreement.
Turning and rushing behind Sarah, he can’t help but look at the writing on the wall right next to the door. The words burn into his mind as he rushes past them, out into the freezing cold of the nocturnal storm.
Must tell David soon, saw them outside his house.