THE MALICE

The woods swell in the breeze like a great thing taking a deep breath. Gus sticks out his big tongue and licks the malevolent air. Michael imagines what the dog can smell and taste with that simple lick. A blaze of maple, the heady pitch of the pines, blackberries and moss, tall grass, tepid ponds, wet bark; a climax of summer. There’s a whole country of forest out there, and the wind blowing through it is interminable. He can’t say what land it came from, no more than he can say what lake or river birthed the rain or where thunder learned to talk.

 

This far into the wild, it’s hard for him to believe that Harrow is just a few hours away. The city is an island. Fly a plane over main street and you might miss it amidst the mountains and trees that keep it prisoner. Now he’s adrift in the sea, and if he isn’t careful, he’ll be caught in a current and dragged out further than he can swim, into the big waves.

 

He can’t say what it is that’s waiting for him out there. Only that it’s a great thing, an ancient thing, an enormous and dangerous thing.

A thing that eats boys.

 

He clutches the handle of his hatchet and shakes the terrible thought away. Living in Harrow has made him especially good at that. When two boys go missing every summer—and the only person happier to accept that as a regular thing, a thing that’s supposed to happen, even, than the citizens themselves is the Sheriff—you learn to keep positive. Being a thirteen-year-old boy in Harrow is like being a fish in a very small pond, a very small pond with an alligator that all the other fish refuse to acknowledge, an alligator that the other fish don’t even admit is real.

 

He looks out at the woods he grew up in and breathes in the horror that looms in and around them. It’s dangerous to be here, but he’s not without sense. He follows Grandpa’s rules to keep safe, which aren’t even Grandpa’s rules according to Dad, no, they were his grandpa’s rules, and Michael thinks probably someone taught him the rules, too.

 

The first and most important is to never walk in the woods alone. There’s something in the 1900 square miles of national forest that hold Harrow hostage that doesn’t belong. There’s something (hungry) that came and never left, a thing that put out roots not like a tree but like a mountain, hard roots like iron that don’t come up in a windstorm. Something that grinds its teeth on young white bones and eats sweet meat like Michael’s dad eats sausage for breakfast. A grownup might call it an animal, or a predator, but Michael knows the truth.

 

It’s a monster, and it lives to kill and eat and hurt.

 

The problem is, the adults don’t seem to give a lick, and trying to comb through the whole Ozark National Forest all by your lonesome is like shitting in one hand and putting wishes in the other just to see which fills up first.

 

He hacks a path through a dense bit of brush and moss, shaking his head angrily at the thought. This difficult growth is another one of the troubles. The forest is thick enough to hide the truth. The pools that sit placidly at the base of the plateaus and hills might be endless. He couldn’t swim deep down in those lakes and look around at the caves and rocks and muck even if he were brave enough to try. Anything at all could be there.

 

The second rule revolves around the pattern. The boys go missing in the summer—between the precious months of May and September, when school is out and the days are long and time itself seems to stretch and bend like light that shoots off the top of a smooth lake—that’s when the monster eats.

 

You’re not supposed to go into the woods in the summer.

 

But Michael knows the truth. He thinks that deep down, most of the folks in town know, too. Kids aren’t falling in rivers and getting swept into deep lakes. They aren’t tumbling off cliffs or getting lost following overgrown trails. Not now, not fifty years ago, not a hundred years ago.

 

They’re being consumed.

 

The woods around Harrow have a power that pulls at curious minds. Boys are like magnets that move toward the unknown, or planets in orbit around curiosity; the Ozarks are the unknown. But they’re also an iron trap that can snap and break a leg and hold you fast and never let you go. They’re wolf jaws that crave fawn blood and tear live flesh right off the screaming neck of—

 

His best friends don’t even know what he’s up to. Risking his own butt searching for the truth is one thing: involving others would be like spitting in the eye of whatever the thing is that’s called him out here to begin with is. Floyd and Doug would come with him if he asked, and what kind of friend would he be if he let them? No, he decided months ago that it was best not to let them know.

 

All he needs to do is find it. Find it and photograph it with the Polaroid that swings around his neck with every step, and then the whole damn world will see. He figures the FBI, the Army, the National Guard—maybe even the CIA—will come down on Harrow like flies to roadkill. There’s a real life monster in Harrow, a thing right out of the movies, and the world will want to study it.

 

But now Summer’s almost over and no one has gone missing. With every day that passes toward the start of school, the danger mounts. It’s like a kind of pressure. The wind blows through the restless woods and screeches against the mountains, and bits of old moss and dirt that haven’t stirred for a thousand years go airborne, and they talk about what the trees looked like and felt like a millennia ago.

 

It’s time for another set of boys to disappear. Boys just like him, really, boys that want to make fires and hit their bats on metal poles just to hear how loud of a noise they can make and throw rocks off the bridge into the lake just to watch them fall and hear them splash. They want to walk in the woods and feel the bark of the oak trees under their palms and scratch chigger bites the day after while they lie in bed and dream about all the things they’ve seen. They want to pick cockleburs off their socks and pulls vines out of their dog’s fur and…

 

He’s not alone. That all important rule of Grandpa’s is always obeyed, no matter what. He’s got Gus with him, and even though it’s summer, even though he’s a boy out in the woods in summer, he thinks that’s enough. Because Gus is magic. He’s like a charm that works to counteract evil, kind of like how he works to counteract cats and skunks and old ladies that want to yell at you for riding your bike too fast across their lawns.

 

If there’s real sin in the world—the kind of wicked sin that’s perpetual and lives way out in the deepest corner of the least explored bits of America, that eats children and drinks blood and chews white fat like bubble gum—then dogs are the opposite of it.

 

He started exploring the mountains months ago. He began by simply following his compass’ needle south and chasing Gus through the deep brush where the last men to walk had been native men (and surely they knew not to walk there). There weren’t any trails to follow except the ones deer made, so largely he and Gus made their own. That meant thorns and rocks, blood and scabs, spider webs that stretched like bridges and angry blue jays that dove chirped.

 

They trampled brush and whistled songs. Michael grabbed pieces of bark off 200-year-old pine trees just to hold the skin in his sweaty palms. They made the kind of trail that only a boy and his dog might have made. He thought some of the things they stepped on probably hadn’t ever been stepped on before. At least not by anything that walked on two feet.

 

They chipped away at the woods like archaeologists and summer passed in a windstorm.

 

A pressure built as the days bled away, not unlike the thing that built as Christmas grew steadily closer and then erupted as the sun came through the frosted window on December 25th and lit up the little drops of water coalesced on the outside of the glass and dripping down the ice. It was a tangible thing, a force that swelled the further he pressed into the woods. Each day that he came out of the forest and cleaned off at the shop and lied to his folks about all the work he’d done on his motorcycle, it was stronger.

 

Until suddenly it was so big he knew it was going to blow. Not just because he could feel it, but because time had literally run out. He realized that fact with a jolt when he woke up this morning. Today was the last day of summer. After today the monster would sleep. And it never slept hungry.      

 

Today, two boys are going to go missing in Harrow. And if he can’t stop it—he’s going to at least prove it’s happening.

                                                                                   

                                                                                  ***

By noon, he’s dripping sweat and covered in fat black Arkansas ticks. The trees weave in the wind like Grandma’s needle, knitting a blanket of secrets and terror. He calls out, telling them he’s coming to see what’s under their branches whether they like it or not.

Gus barks importantly.

 

It gets gradually cooler as he fights deeper into the reserve, and somehow quieter even through the ruckus of wind rattling the low branches. Gus drops his head and plows forward. He scrambles against bare rock and claws through rich dirt and Michael follows dutifully, thinking that four legs are better than two not for the first time.

 

The breeze grows as they climb. It smells like wildflower and pine pitch and fresh rain. They both stop to take in that summer smell.

 

“We’ve got lots of time,” he tells Gus absently, just talking to see what it’s like to have a human voice reverberate in the untouched wild. “Hours and hours.”

 

He decides it doesn’t sound right, and so he sinks into silence as they continue. For a long time, they just walk, letting instinct guide them. He holds at the top of a ridge and looks down at the tight crowns that make a roof for the world beneath the leaves. They call him to keep going.

 

When they reach the end of their furthest path, Gus helps break a trail and Michael hacks at thorns and vines and little saplings crying for life with his hatchet. It serves a dual purpose of marking their way and also making it easier next time they come. But this time, he reminds himself, there won’t be a next time. Because something is going to happen. Summer is nearly over and that means something is going to happen.

 

Eventually they find themselves on a rabbit trail and Michael hews another X into a river willow, knocking the bark off to expose the bright, live wood beneath it. Marking his trail is a habit he can’t break. The wind’s blowing through the kaleidoscope of leaves overhead and creating a roar of branch and frond and needle that drowns out the sound of their steps. It sweeps through the tree trunks, reaching down and onto the untouched ground. It pulls dust off old rocks and pollen off flowers.

 

The wind tells secrets and Michael listens while the Ozark Mountains swallow him whole.

 

                                                                                         ***

They go like that for a long while, plain hiking, until suddenly he realizes they’ve gone hours further than they ever have before. In fact—he looks back, as if by looking he can see—all the familiar bits of the woods are so far behind he’s not entirely sure just how far into the trees they are.

 

The realization makes him pause. Gus pauses, too, and for a few seconds, seconds which couple and couple until nearly a whole minute has passed, the two of them simply stand and listen.

 

Then something breaks the quiet, and for a full heartbeat, Michael can’t register the impossibility of what he’s hearing.

 

An engine. It breaks the solitude of the wilderness like a gunshot, it ruptures the natural world like only a manmade machine can. It’s the low thrum of an ATV, or more likely, he figures, a dirt bike.

 

Gus freezes and points, like all good dogs do when they hear something strange out in the woods, and Michael follows his eyes. The sound is coming from deeper into the woods, south, the last place it should be coming from.

 

The only thing out there is more wilderness. It’d be impossible—absolutely impossible—for someone to get a dirt bike this far into the trees. He’s had to scramble and claw and cut and hack for months just to get this far. A cumbersome dirt bike wouldn’t be able to make it half a mile into these woods.

 

“Find it,” he says, his heart beating fast despite the several minute rest they’ve now had. “Go, Gus. Find it.”

 

Gus takes off, not sniffing or looking, but just listening and chasing the sound of the engine. Michael rushes to follow, running full out to keep up. He leaps over old fallen logs and kicks dead branches; he jumps over a small stream and ducks out of the way of a low hanging branch.

 

The engine blares. It revs high. The sound ripping through the trees is hotter, wilder, bigger. They’re getting closer, his heart’s pounding and his breath is coming in short gasps, they’re closer, they’re—

 

The forest breaks like a spell. His feet pound down not on fallen leaves or dirt or bare rock, but pavement. And the trees that moments before were all around, the impregnable forest, is gone.

 

He’s standing at the edge of a clearcut wide enough to drive a tank down. The pavement is pristine shining black asphalt. The impossibility of it out here, the absolute impossibility, is like a punch to the gut.

 

The engine is blaring closer still. Now that he’s out of the trees he can hear it so well he can almost see it. He looks to the left and sees that the road bends sharply down the mountain and around a thick bit of forest. That’s where it’s coming from.

 

Michael pulls the Polaroid off his neck and takes a quick photograph of the road. He turns to his right and takes another. He jogs down the road, shoving the fear, which has made his head light and his eyes blurry, away.

 

The blacktop declines steeply down the hill. Gus is a stone throw ahead. He nears the end of the curve and stops running abruptly. Michael hurries to catch up, and just as he’s nearly abreast the dog, he sees it, and his legs stop, too.

 

There’s a great metal fence in the distance. It runs into the forest on either side of the road as far as Michael can see. It stretches nearly to the tops of the highest trees, taller than a house. The engine’s on the other side of it. He was beginning to be truly afraid that the driver would run him down, but now he sees that’s impossible.

 

He takes a photo and draws closer to the gate. The metal is thicker than his arm. The gate itself looks like it’s been welded shut. He sees movement through the gaps in the wall and hesitates. His heart jumps into his throat. He’s suddenly certain that he’s found something he shouldn’t have found, that he’s somewhere he shouldn’t be.

 

A secret military compound? A government agency? Some powerful and private organization that’s hiding from the world for… for…

The engine slows. The figure beyond the gate gets bigger and before Michael can really decide if he should run or not, before he can will his legs to move, there’s a man on the back of a motorbike pressing his face to one of the gaps in the gate.

 

Sweats pouring down his face and his eyes are wild. “You’ve got to get the hell out of here, kid!”

 

Michael gapes at him. “I didn’t mean—”

 

“It don’t matter what you meant,” he cries. “You’ve got to run, now!”

 

He lifts the camera, takes a quick picture, and then does what any sane boy would do in his shoes. He turns to run, heading for the place where he first came upon the road so that he doesn’t lose track of where he’s at. It’s a good half a minute sprint away, and he’s already tired, but he’s scared, too, good and truly scared, and that makes him fast.

 

He looks up, keeping his eyes on the trees, and skids to a halt.

 

The trees are moving.

 

He squints, so afraid he can barely breathe. The whole forest seems to shift and groan… but only in that exact spot. Gus lifts his nose, and when he growls, somehow whiney and low at the same time, Michael feels it like a bolt of lightning.

 

There’s something there.

 

Michael thinks, for no particular reason, that it may be grunting. He thinks it may be breathing out of a mouth that has a thousand teeth and dripping drool down an ancient chin. He thinks there might be bits of boy meat in its mouth, rotting and festering.

 

The trees stop moving. He notes how quiet it is with a chill. A moment ago, the woods were alive. But now… the wind must have gotten trapped in a valley. The branches are glassy and the leaves are like tile.

 

There are no birds singing, no insects buzzing. Gus is a step behind him and he doesn’t seem like he wants to be in front.

He takes a deep breath to calm his mind and he smells an animal smell, an old barn smell, a broken shotgun smell; a smell like a coffin in a funeral parlor where Grandpa rested like an old scarecrow. There’s something else out here, something other than the road and the gate and the motorbike and the man.

 

Michael reaches for Gus. His ears aren’t perked anymore. His head is down, his tail is tucked between his legs. He follows the loyal dog’s gaze and finds it’s right where his was a moment before.

 

He feels a wild flash of fear. A lunatic dread comes roiling in like a semi-truck, it comes like an avalanche of snow off the peak of a mountain, it comes like a trailer full of cement that has no breaks and is tumbling down from a big height.

 

“Kid!” the man at the gate roars. “Get out of the road! Get out of the—”

 

The trees swell like a wave. They crest, bob, weave—and suddenly something is pushing them away from their trunks and toward the road.

 

No, he thinks madly.

 

Branches crack. A groan comes from the woods, as if all the world is collectively sighing. The ground moans.

 

A gargantuan, primeval figure takes shape. For a moment, Michael can’t register what he’s seeing. Then his mind absorbs it, and he feels himself go insane like a punch to the gut.

 

The sound of metal clinking on metal cuts the quiet. The dirt bike roars to life.

 

Michael barely hears it.

 

A tattered green dress of moss and vine drag the ground as the atavistic dread emerges. Every animal in all the Ozarks pauses. The wind itself in every corner of the state, in every corner of the country, abates for a crazed moment.

 

God looks down from his spot in heaven and his lips part in fascination.

 

Michael has no name for what he sees, but one comes unbidden into his mind anyway. Malice, he thinks, and feels himself go senseless as the word thunders in his head and echoes there like a grenade in a cave.

 

A dozen bloodshot eyes peer from the treetop, scanning the roadside and the woods beyond it. Long, skittering legs click and rub together in a kind of erratic frenzy. Then they stand very still.

           

It raises its round, grotesque face and looks down the road. Its burning eyes search. They scan the foliage. They narrow, slow, and fall on Michael like spotlights.

 

Its mouth parts; its eyes blaze.

           

It screams, and the last sane thoughts run hot like blood from Michael’s rent mind.

A storm was coming to pound the streets of Harrow and the Storm Seller walked before it like Helios in his chariot pulling the sun to wake the world. He had an oversized briefcase in one hand and a pregnant rucksack slung half over his back in the other. His boots were travel worn, and his clothes were storm colored. They matched and clashed at the same time.

           

Stephen and Harvey watched the strange man come into town, pulling the clouds like he was walking a dog. They were lazing on some fresh cut grass on the broad hilltop which marked the top of their street, fiddling with errant bits of wood they’d claimed from the woods on the other side of the lake.

 

They thought he looked a bit like a bloodhound scenting for prey. He walked through main street like he owned the place. His nostrils flared; he looked around with humid eyes, passing over a pair of farmers loading feed into the back of their truck, a housewife packing up a cart of groceries on the corner, and an old man piddling across the street with a single glance. He was looking for something, that much was obvious even to a pair of twelve-year-old boys.

 

Although he made no move to blend in or stay out of sight, not a man or woman in Harrow could have claimed, an hour later, to have seen him. He was like the wind, or a thin cloud. His feet ate up the sidewalk until he’d walked well through the town’s center.

 

That’s when he started up the hill Stephen and Harvey were lying on.

           

“Reckon he’s gonna wallop us or something?” Stephen asked warily. The feeling that the Storm Seller was dangerous was nearly overwhelming.

           

Harvey just shook his head. “Weird guy, isn’t he?”

 

 Although he was much too far to have heard them, the mysterious man looked like he had. He hailed them and shouted out, “There’s a Storm coming!” As if to confirm that fact, he sniffed at the air, knowing it, and the first breeze of the Storm came and rattled the river oaks and pines.

 

The boys shivered and cried out at how cool it was. They jumped to their feet.

           

The Storm Seller pointed to the horizon where the dark clouds were approaching. A long ways off now, a bit like Fall, but they’d be here within an hour rather than a few months. He stepped off the road and into their yard. Not so close as to make them nervous. “What do you two call one another?”

           

The nearest of the two boys, who had hair as black as burnt bark, introduced himself as Stephen and named his friend Harvey. He looked at the Storm Seller with wide, trusting eyes that were clear as river water. Harvey maintained a more careful expression. Strangers didn’t come to Harrow often.

           

“Well how do you do, Stephen and Harvey?” He beamed at them, and then motioned at the branches hanging languorously above them. “Take a look at those oak leaves, minted gold by that wonderful sunlight.”

           

They looked up, and each felt that they’d never looked at an oak leaf in the sun before in all their lives.

           

Stephen blinked at them, mouth ajar. They weren’t minted, they were glowing. “Golly!”

           

“Just like lightbulbs!” Harvey crowed, punching him on the shoulder.

           

The Storm Seller smiled at them, pleased, and then sighed sadly. “It’s too bad about the Storm. They’ll be limp as old noodles soon, and extinguished.”

           

The boys looked at each other worriedly. The idea of those leaves hanging limp and sad, all dark with rain, seemed evil and unfair. It would be like if a raging bonfire got puffed out by a single drop of rain.

           

“Unless…”

 

Harvey licked his finger and held it up into the brisk breeze, as if he couldn’t already tell where the wind was coming from by all the dust and pollen that’d blown into his blinking eyes, and the big clouds steadily nearing. “Unless what?”

 

“Say I could make that Storm go away?” he proposed this improbable circumstance as easily as he might have asked if they’d like him to mow their lawn.

           

Stephen reached into his pockets like he might be willing to produce something worth money, although all he had was a bit of lint and an old copper button. He looked at the rucksack, which the stranger had leaned up against the tree at his feet. “You got something in your bag that can make a storm go away? No lie?”

           

He stooped nearly in half to fish in the bottom of his rucksack and the boys realized, for the first time, just how thin he was. His clothes looked more worn than their oldest hand-me-downs and his shoes were just about nothing more than pieces of thin leather with bits of lace over the top of them. He was like nothing more than a bit of wind ruffling up some of their father’s things on the clothesline.

           

The Storm Seller jangled and banged in the bag. It sounded to the boys like he had the whole kitchen sink in there and they reached on their toes to try and peek inside. Just as they started to get a good look, he swept out of the depths with a flourish and produced a plain wooden box.

           

“What’s that?” Harvey reached out for it, but the Storm Seller pulled it away.

           

“Just a simple old box,” Stephen declared, although he didn’t have a clue. “Couldn’t barely fit my lunch box in it, couldn’t—”

           

The Storm Seller gestured wildly. “Just a simple old box? Do you boys have a schoolhouse around here? By God above, I believe I’ve never heard such an ignorant estimation in all my time walking the world, and that’s a long time by even an old man’s measure.”

           

Stephen felt foolish at once. He looked at it closer, squinting hard. But upon further inspection, it still looked like a normal, plain box.

           

“What could we do with it?” Harvey ventured to ask.

           

The Storm Seller waved a hand over the box and then thrust it out for them to look at.

 

The boys gasped. A moment ago—but no. No, that didn’t seem possible. They must have seen wrong. They hadn’t noticed the writing carved into the wood before because he’d been holding it too close. Now that he’d stuck it out for them to really see, they could actually appreciate it.

           

“Boy howdy,” Stephen breathed.

           

Harvey snapped his jaw closed and then gulped, “That looks like some kind of writing!”

           

Stephen blinked the pollen out of his eyes. “Chinese?”

           

“Probably Latin,” Harvey guessed wisely. “Or maybe even—”

           

“You’re both right,” The Storm Seller cut in. He found it wasn’t good to let his customers wonder too long at the box. If they looked long enough they might see something they didn’t like. He pulled it back toward his stomach and smiled at them favorably.

           

“Well what’s it do though?”

           

“Catches storms like an old cowboy catches ornery bulls that’ve slipped out of the pen and gone to bother the milk cows. Tames them like a good farmer will break a wild steer, by golly, it whips them into shape good as any lawman that’s ever caught a vagabond and put them to test.”

           

They gawked at him hungrily. Then they looked at one another and conversed without speaking at all, in the way that good friends can do.

           

Finally Stephen whispered, “it’s a whole day of summer.”

           

“Must be worth a fortune,” Harvey lamented, barely parting his lips. “What do you reckon we could use to pay for it? My folks got the keys to my mom’s new car in the kitchen drawers and—”

           

“But maybe he wants cold hard money,” Stephen worried. “My dad’s got some gold coins, not near so nice as that box, but—”

           

“He’d never want some ugly old coins,” Harvey cried, his voice rising like the tide. “Maybe we could—”

           

“Boys?”

           

They turned sharply, shocked to find him still standing there. When they looked at the Storm Seller they saw the rumbling, black mold clouds coming fast behind him and felt the pressure of the trillion pounds of rain that those clouds held in their bellies pressing on their backs. The weight of it made their knees weak.

           

“We aren’t sure what we could offer you,” Harvey finally stammered.

           

“Not for something so… so…”

           

“Pretty,” Harvey tried, and hated himself for choosing such a dumb word. “I mean—special.”

           

“Extraordinary,” Stephen helped him, smiling up at the Storm Seller hopefully.

           

“Rare,” the Storm Seller agreed. He patted the box fondly and then offered it for them to take another look at. “It’s a special box, boys, the only one of its kind. At least until I can get back home to make another, and that could take an awful long time. Maybe years.”

           

They gazed at it frantically. That box meant a whole day of summer. Stephen asked, “What can we do for it, sir?”

           

The Storm Seller grinned. The corners of his mouth kept moving, and each time the boys thought he’d smiled as big as he could, his lips just kept getting further away from his nose and closer to his eyes until they thought he looked like a Jack-o’-lantern and had to avert their gazes for fear of seeing something that they weren’t supposed to.

           

“Stupid question,” Harvey decided. He punched Stephen on the arm to drive home his point. “Baby question.”

           

Stephen looked down at his feet. It was hard to knock him down a peg, but he suddenly felt very little and foolish. “Sorry.”

           

The Storm Seller waved away the apology. Then he looked at his watch again. “I guess we don’t have more than twenty minutes to get that Storm battled.”         

           

“What’s all the writing on the box?” Harvey leaned forward to look at it better.

           

The Storm Seller leaned back on his feet. “Instructions.”

           

Stephen peered at it appreciatively. “What for?”

           

“What for?” he echoed, swooning with shock. “Well what language does the wind talk, son? From what country does lightning spawn? From what lake or river or ocean does the rain hail? And where does the thunder hide when the Storm leaves it behind?”

           

They looked at one another with wide eyes. “Guess it has to talk to a storm from anywhere, then. Can’t just speak one language.”

           

The Storm Seller nodded grimly. “Not a hurricane on Earth this box couldn’t swallow. No foreign land from whence a cyclone came borne out of some chasm in the deepest valleys of the furthest forests that this box wouldn’t whip.”

           

They were thoroughly convinced that the box could capture the storm. But the problem remained: “We don’t have anything to offer you, sir. Barely got two nickels to rub together between us, and, well…”

           

“But I don’t want anything so base as coins or cars or quarters,” the Storm Seller declared happily.

           

They conferred together hopefully. Stephen continued to do the brunt of the talking on account of him being an entire month older than Harvey. “Well then what do you want?”

           

He stooped down again, making the boys think of a scarecrow. Were his arms too long for his body? Did his legs go up all the way near to his neck? What was it that made him look so oddly shaped as he bent and flipped through files in his briefcase? Searching, searching, searching…

           

“Got it!” He waved a sheet of heavy, printed paper that had a dozen simples lines of text on it and held it out for the curious boys to look at.

 

They cast their eyes on the paper and as they began to read, the wind started to blow again and the clouds boiled and the faint scent of rain fell on the town of Harrow with the kind of promise that nature very rarely, if ever, broke.

           

The Storm Seller pulled the paper back and produced a pen from behind his ear. Neither of the boys had noticed the pen there before. Stephen thought it hadn’t been there, and Harvey was sure it had been the whole time and wondered how he could have missed it.

           

“All I’d charge for a full day of blissful summer is a year each your time, to be subtracted from your life before its natural end.”

           

Stephen crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. “You mean a whole year of our life? Each?”

           

“Two years in total,” The Storm Seller agreed. “One from each of you.” He held onto the paper tight now. The capital S Storm seemed to want to rip it free from his grasp. It worried at it, maybe even trying to rip it. He brought it close to his chest.

           

They looked into ones another’s eyes, shivering at the cold wind, and then glared at the dark clouds. “Kinda sounds like slavery. What kind of work will we do?”

           

“Oh you won’t have to work,” he cried with a sinister gleam in his eyes. “You’ll be far too tired to work.”

 

Harvey landed on the truth of what the Storm Seller wanted and shivered at the thought. “You mean the last year of our life? When we’re real old?”

           

“So we’d die when we were 98,” Stephen clarified carefully, “instead of 99?”

           

“Or 99,” The Storm Seller offered, “if you’d have made it to 100. And boys, what do old men do, really, but sit around and lie inside all day?” He studied his nails. “It’s not even really being alive. You’ll be more than happy to die once you’re that old, hmm?”

           

Something occurred to Harvey and he let the thought fly. “Well but what if we were going to die young, like my Uncle? He was only 40 when he died, and—”

           

The Storm Seller flapped his free hand at the boy. “With modern medicine, we’re living longer and longer every day. And you two boys look fit as fiddles. Got any cavities? Any ailments to speak of?”

           

They shook their heads. Stephen felt like living to 100 would be dying young. “We’re healthy.”

           

He beamed and thrust the paper at them, holding onto the top tightly. “Just need your signatures. What’s a year of lying in bed and wasting away with hurt old bones and bad teeth and aching bellies compared to a full day of sprinting through the green grass and swinging on low branches and fishing for trout in the stream? You know I saw a deer when I came into town, he’s probably sniffing in the corn rows out yonder. I bet you two could catch him with a rope.”

           

“Doesn’t get dark until near nine,” Harvey whispered. “A full day of summer, Stephen.”

           

Stephen analyzed the paper suspiciously. Then he saw the clouds and felt the wind whip through his dark hair and tickle his ear and groaned. What was he hesitating for?

           

The Storm Seller hefted the box in his right hand, still holding the contract in his left. The boys grabbed at the pen together, wrestled over it for a moment, and when Stephen wrenched it out of Harvey’s hand to write his name first, it seemed to him like he’d won a great victory.

           

The Storm Seller put the paper against an old oak and Stephen wrote his name. The familiar letters looked like curious chicken scratch and he furrowed his brow as he handed the pen to Harvey, who wrote his name just beneath Stephen’s, and wondered at the fact that he’d never quite noticed how an A looked when it was nestled between an H and an R. Their names glistened wetly on the thick paper. The black ink drank up the sun. It seemed to absorb it.

           

The Storm Seller took a deep breath. Harvey and Stephen wondered if he wasn’t breathing in those two years they’d promised him. It looked to them like the tall, skinny man grew as he took that long, drawn out gulp of air. They wondered together how many times he’d taken a long breath like that and drank in the years of a pair of young boys and offered a long sunny day of summer in return.

           

They took the box and held it between them like a precious relic. Stephen brushed his fingers over the top of the lid and Harvey pressed his fingers into the wood as if he could make himself become part of it if he squeezed it enough.

           

“You boys wander on over to the top of the hill there,” The Storm Seller pointed helpfully. He was already packing up his things.

 

“Open up that Storm Catcher. You’ll find a whole sunny day ahead of you if you do that.”

           

“That’s all?” Stephen queried. He realized he felt older after the transaction. Not as if he’d given a useless year of old age away, but as if he’d grown a year instead.

           

Harvey felt something of the same tickling in his chest. He thought his heart might have beat a years-worth of beats in the moments before, during, and shortly after he put his name down on the Storm Seller’s contract. He wasn’t scared. But his body seemed to know something had been lost.

           

Yet his heart realized what had been gained. A whole day of being a boy with his friend. Seven or eight hours of sunlight, an hour or creeping dusk. Oak leaves glowing like fireflies, a lantern of sun blooming off the lake, cicadas and katydids screaming as the dark came; one whole day of summer.

           

The tall man hefted his pack with a noticeable pep. Somehow, it was half the size it was when he came, although all he’d removed from it was the tiny Storm Catcher they now clasped between them.

“That’s all,” he confirmed.

           

They watched him leave. He walked toward the dark clouds that he’d come from. His storm colored clothes weren’t so loose on his frame anymore, and he was definitely taller. He seemed old when he’d come into Harrow, and far younger now.

 

There wasn’t any time to discuss the matter. The boys had a job to do. They ran to the top of the hill, racing the storm. The wind pushed against their small bodies. It wanted to stop them and they dug their feet into the earth, hunkering down close to the grass to fight it.

 

It howled as they dropped the box into place. Thunder crashed, and when they looked up to check the progress of the Storm Seller, they saw he was gone, although the road was too long for him to have walked straight out of their sight.

           

“Open it!” Stephen cried.

           

Harvey clawed at the lid. His fingers fumbled; his nails scratched; he pried the top open as a dead man might pry the cover of his coffin free if only he had the power to do it.

           

“There!” he cried triumphantly.

           

The last bit of sun that remained in the quickly darkening sky revealed the inside of the box to be bare. The Storm raged against the opening of such a profane and offensive thing and a straight line of wind rocked the boys off their feet. Harvey tumbled and flipped backward while Stephen rolled like a bunch of tobacco in his father’s cigarette.

           

The sky split wide open like an overstuffed bag. A bolt of lightning launched from the Storm like a javelin. It struck the place the boys had been a moment before the wind knocked them off their feet and they saw the box go up in a blaze. It was a red hot horseshoe being plunged into a vat of cool water.

 

It glowed red, steamed, hissed, and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

           

They righted themselves at the same time and cried out in anguish. Twin sets of feet rushed up the windless hill, scouring the earth for any sign of the Storm Catcher. Stephen fell into the smoldering grass and ran his arms through the cinders like a blind man.

 

Harvey stood above him, eyes spinning like a vinyl album on a record player.

           

The box was gone.

           

“But the storm—”

           

“The storm!”

           

The boys looked into the sky and gaped at the uniform blue expanse that stretched like a blanket atop the town of Harrow.

 

There were no charcoal clouds. There were no harsh, wet breezes. The sun was alone. The sun was alone and they were alone and although the hilltop was hot and smoky, there was no box to evidence all that had occurred in the short span since they met the Storm Seller in his strange clothes and bargained a full day of sun in the process.

           

Stephen gestured helplessly. “You remember the clouds?”

           

“And the wind?”

           

“It was about to rain.”

           

Harvey stuck a finger in his ear. “Thought I heard thunder.”

           

“Definitely saw lightning.”

           

They sat still for a minute, just thinking. Trying to remember the look of the man that sold them a whole day of summer. Trying to remember what he’d been wearing or where he came from or even how his voice sounded.

           

But they couldn’t.

           

“We never even got his name.” Stephen put his hand over his heart and wondered at the way it was hurting. What was it aching like that for?

           

“Don’t even know where he lives.” Harvey sat down and tried to take a deep breath. His lungs wouldn’t quite open up enough to let his head clear. He didn’t remember running hard enough to wind himself.

           

Stephen looked up at his friend, concerned at the way his face was turning purple. His heart felt like it was trying to glug through a pool of old, thick oil. “What’d we even offer him for that old box?”

           

Harvey thought about it. His head felt fuzzy, like he’d just come up from swimming down at the ravine. “I don’t know.”

           

They leaned back on the hillside together and gazed up at the sky, feeling tired. Stephen felt Harvey’s hand fall into the grass beside him and grabbed at it. He felt like hugging him, but he’d have to stand up to do that, and he didn’t quite have the energy. Indeed, he thought what he needed right then was a nice long nap, right there on the edge of the hill with the smoke rising around him and the sun beating down on his ashen face.

           

He closed his eyes and resolved to do just that.

 

It’s Fall again, and Max feels the dread that all boys feel as the wind comes sweeping through the pine trees with the threat of winter on its back. Summer is over; how can Summer be over? He looks out the second story window of his bedroom and marvels at the world bathed in the just-rising sun. It’s different than it was yesterday. He can’t say how.

           

He smells at the breeze and wonders at the acorn-husks, the sawdust from the pine mill, the faint touch of old pollen that’s been revived by the cool breeze and is spiraling through the morning like so many little motes of dust, like so many little planets swirling through space. He smells blackberry vines and wet marsh grass; he smells the end of summer like a pie that’s been baking all year long and is finally ready to pop out of the oven.

   

Max wants to cry. It can’t have been months ago that he sat here and smelled the end of Spring. Fresh cut grass and pistachio ice cream, blooming lilacs and crisp pine needles that fell amidst a thousand maple trees. It seems like yesterday that he was welcoming Summer. What about all the things he was going to do? What about all his plans? Run his sneakers into the ground, tear up his jeans, rip half his good shirts from crawling through prickly vines and muddy ravines.

           

He checks off the list in his head, knowing it’s incomplete and knowing it’s too late to finish it but resolving to try anyway. Fall is coming. It’s coming like an airplane zipping through the sky—how fast? Max isn’t sure, because he doesn’t know how fast a plane can go, but Fall is moving quick and the pilot on board is a white knuckled demon and his craft is fueled by boy-tears. Max pictures the demon that flies the plane which brings Fall and hates him for existing.

           

One last day of summer and that means he can’t do it all. He’ll have to choose.

           

Make a camp out in the woods? He’s already done that ten times. Hit his bat against the iron bars outside the library? Mrs. Norma will get onto him, and he’s nearly memorized the big gong it makes, anyway. Maybe he could climb up the oldest tree in the park and see how high he can get—but no, he knows how high he can get already. He could pack a picnic and share bread with the birds and squirrels, but the squirrels will probably be looking for pecans and pine nuts now that winter is on the way. Probably the birds will know about it, too, and they’ll be thinking about leaving.

           

But the lake probably doesn’t know summer is ending yet. The lake always takes a few weeks to realize it’s getting colder outside and adjust itself to blend into the rest of the world. The lake stays warm for a time, inviting boys and girls to take a dip, to come on in.

           

Just so long as you aren’t alone.

           

But with only one day left, he really doesn’t have time to waste sitting around waiting on his folks. Sometimes they sleep hours after the sun is up, and on a day like today, hours may as well be years.

           

He changes into his bathing suit. He leaves his shirt behind because the sun is out and the sun is like a kind of shirt, a shirt that will keep you warm but let you feel the world around you at the same time. Mom and Dad are still sleeping. That means he doesn’t have to put on sunscreen. He doesn’t even have to eat breakfast or bring a lunch sack or promise to be home at a certain time.

           

He scribbles a note, because after Jessie’s sister drowned, it became a rule that you can’t swim at the lake unless you tell someone you’re going. When the turbulence from the kitchen door blows it off the magnet and lets it slip like a bill no one wants to pay beneath the cabinet, he doesn’t see, because the door’s already swinging closed and Max is halfway across the driveway by the time it crawls under the fridge.

           

He cuts across the park at a diagonal and grins at the soft grass kissing his feet with dew. The flowerbeds that line the main path are always worth looking at and investigating. He draws down deep next to a mess of dandelions—weeds according to his father, flowers according to his mom, and good-smelling according to him—and inhales deeply. It’s not just the flowers he smells, but the rich earth they’re buried in and the wood of the planers box he’s grasping tight under his fingers and the faintest hint of donuts from Bernard’s Bakery on 2nd street.

           

He looks up sharply at the sound of heavy panting and stumbles back in surprise. He falls on his butt and laughs as he falls because it’s just Mr. Jenkin’s old coon hound, Zip. Zip isn’t anything to be afraid of. Shaggy black fur, big round head, Zip comes and licks Max’s face and he pushes him away gently, still laughing. Zip offers a big slop of slobber that soaks his bare chest and makes him shiver with delight.

           

Max climbs to his feet and pats Zip’s head. “Thanks, boy.”

           

He takes the quickest way to the lake, leaving the dog behind. Through the park, down the trail, stopping only to peer at the bark of an old oak tree and peel off a piece to hold in his cool hands. That’s good strong bark, he thinks, loving the tree as he takes a bit of its skin just so he can remember what it feels like after he’s left it behind.

           

The shore is long and lonely. The waves come up to it and fall, but not like a boy stumbling and falling on his butt when he gets surprised by a dog. The waves fall purposefully, with a kind of mind to them that makes Max’s mouth part in wonder. No one could fall like that, not even if they tried.

           

The sky looks bigger when it stretches across a big expanse of water. The wind blows and tickles softly over his ears, whispering some kind of Fall secret that Max, a Summer boy, might never understand as long as he lives. The waves fall, rise, and fall again, giggling at the wind. He thinks they’re like a kind of music that you can only hear if you’re alone and standing in just the right spot, at the right time of day.

           

He finds himself thinking of Jessie’s sister. Why would the lake go and drown a little girl like that? He squints at it suspiciously, looking further than the shore now and into the darker, deeper water that he doesn’t venture into even in the afternoon when there’s a dozen people around to help him not feel afraid.

           

The sun falls on him less like a shirt and more like a coat as he stands at the shore and considers the water. He can see the far coast across the expanse and he wonders whether the water falls there like it falls here. He wonders if the wind is whispering and chatting there just like it’s chatting and whispering here.

           

Max starts to sweat and decides it’s time to let the lake do its job and cool him down. He walks over the smooth, round stones, past the waves and into a softer and gentler depth that seems to be waiting rather than actively calling. Ankle deep, shin deep, knee deep, waist deep. He walks until his shoulders are submerged and turns back to the lonely beach. He’s never been to the lake when it’s empty like this, never seen the water without voices to disturb it, without thrashing feet and arms to make it splash and spray.

           

They didn’t find Jessie’s sister. She went out into the water, one bobbing girl amidst countless bobbing boys and girls. He was there that day. He was there that day. Golly, he thinks, suddenly realizing it. I was there that day. It could have been me the lake decided to drown. It could be me who they never found.

 

CHAPTER ONE: JIM

 

Jim heard the watch tick even in his dreams. The gears turned, and to another man they might have sounded like the second hand of a chronometer moving in intervals to mark the time, but to Jim they were time. Tick, tick, tick. The watch was a live thing with a heart that pulsed and thrummed with blood. Drops of blood in the morning dew; a wash of blood, like a river; a spurt of gore from pale flesh; a gush, a torrent, a geyser that shoots like a hose. Tick, tick, tick.

           

When the noise woke him, he already had a headache. The mere thought that he had a headache was enough to make him wince. The realization that thinking hurt was another thought, and that made him wince, too. He’d known this would happen. This was the price—the Proof Price, he called it, more expensive the more honest you got. The stuff he’d drank last night had been exact enough to convince a jury of twelve. Not that he had to convince anyone of anything.

 

He swung his feet out of bed, grimacing, and reached toward the nightstand. This is the price, he reminded himself, chanting in tune with his pounding skull. He pawed for the corner, past the bottle of bourbon, and his fingers landed on the chain. He pulled the watch into his palm, felt that comfortable weight there, and turned the little gold gear. Three times the charm. Turn it thrice, not twice; three cheers for Jim. Tick, he breathed. Tick. Tick. That’s the golden ticket.

           

Jess stirred, rolling into the cool spot that always sat between them, reaching sleepily. If she’d made that motion just half a minute earlier, she would have found him there. She would have touched his skin and jerked her hand back. There was no love lost between the two of them in the past weeks. Who was he kidding? Two years ago they’d tolerated each other. In the last year, it was a struggle just to be cordial. Something had grown between them, something bigger than the love they used to share. A constant thing, like a mountain, with roots that went deep into the earth, roots that might be older than anything that breathed or ever had breathed. Whatever it was, it had no name, and was to Jim more like a faint memory of something unusual, the kind of thing one works to not think about (and therefore rarely does think about).

 

Nonetheless, he considered climbing back in, going to her, possibly having a romp. No. He wouldn’t be able to get it up. Even if he did, he’d pass out from the pain. Besides, he knew she didn’t want anything to do with him. His head was really humming, anyhow.

 

He gritted his teeth, grabbed for the bottle, finally, and took a long draught. Anything to dampen the hurt.

 

There was no cheating the Proof Price, only prolonging judgement. Fight fire with fire. That was Jim’s motto. Of course, if you fight a fire with alcohol, you’re only apt to fan the flame. The thought brought a sour smile onto his unkempt face.

           

He donned a robe that reeked of cigarette smoke and stumbled toward the kitchen. Jess murmured something sleepily—he didn’t hear, and didn’t want to hear. Too early for an argument. Too late for an argument. The Proof Price would exact its toll, it always did, and he’d pay. She’d pay if she weren’t careful. He didn’t have much patience lately. She always thought she knew what was best. That was the root of most of their problems. Jessica Harp knows best, just like Mother used to know best. But his mother had been a whore, hadn’t she? She’d ended up poorly off.

 

All that blood—

 

No. He ought not to think about that. He took another swig, just a sip, really, to help fight off that damned hammer, tick, tick, tick against his skull. The watch trembled in his pocket.

 

CHAPTER TWO: CHARLIE

           

Charlie had been up for an hour by the time his dad came out of his room. He’d heard him get up and skipped into the kitchen, smiling as big as any six-year-old boy who gets a hard beating a few times a month would smile. Daddy came around the corner, dragging his feet, drinking his Grownup Drink, and Charlie let him have it. He dove into him, nearly making an impact, and buried his face in the fluffy robe. He hugged him big, big, big.

           

“Charlie… how long you been up?”

           

“I dunno,” he said, disentangling himself from the stinky mass that was his father. “The suns up, and that means I can get up. Right Dad? That’s what you said, right?”

           

Charlie watched as his Dad considered. He did this by measures. First, he took another drink. Then he made his way to the medicine cabinet. Charlie knew all about this routine. He needed his medicine so he could keep drinking. He needed to drink to help his headaches. The medicine gave him the headaches, or maybe it was the drinking. It was hard to keep straight. At the bottom of it, Charlie knew, was a simple fact. His dad was sick a lot in the mornings, and this made him feel better. Anything that made his dad happy was A-Okay with Charlie.

 

“I guess that’s right,” he finally said.

           

Charlie managed to keep quiet for a full minute before his patience broke. “Dad? You hungry?”

           

Dad considered the question with a grimace. Charlie was used to watching him think. Sometimes he scrunched up his face and put a hand on the side of his head, like what was going on in there hurt. Sometimes he thought real hard, sometimes real long, before he answered. It was when he spoke fast that you had to worry—not that he had to worry. Daddy didn’t get mad on purpose. So long as Charlie was careful they got along great.

 

“I could have an egg,” he eventually relented. “You know how to make eggs yet?”

           

“Dad,” Charlie chortled. “I’m not allowed to use the stove.”

 

Jim peered at him suspiciously. “Not allowed?”

 

“Not until I’m older,” he said wisely. “Mommy said so.”

 

His eyes crinkled into his leathery skin. “Did she now?”

 

Charlie startled, recognizing that squinty look as something that could be dangerous. He chose his next words carefully, like someone afraid to offend. “Want me to get Mommy?” he tried. “She won’t mind.”

           

Dad rooted around in his pocket, pulled out his watch, and blinked at it for all of a second. Charlie fancied he could see the reflection of its gold face blink in his dark, brooding eyes. “I believe that’d be all right. You tell her the men are hungry and they want eggs. Will you do that for me, champ?”

           

He let out a breath he hadn’t even been aware he was holding, smiling in relief. “Want to help me get her?” Charlie was fully capable of launching a tickle-monster-assault on his own, but nobody was better than Jim Harp.

           

Daddy tapped his head, frowning. “I’ll leave that one to the better man.” He took another swig, sloshing it around in his mouth, just missing the fall of Charlie’s grin. By the time he looked back, Charlie had fixed his face back into a slight smile. “How’s that sound?”

           

Charlie snapped to, like G.I. JOE, offered his best salute, and did an about-face. “Yes, sir!”

 

JIM: CHAPTER THREE

              

The Frenchmen called it déjà vu. Familiarity. But this was something more. Something worse. Déjà vécu: not just familiarity, but a certainty. He’d been here before. Done this before. Lived through all this before. The goddamn watch. The rage. The frustration. The tick in his skull, pounding, drilling, deadening until he was numb and tears streamed down his eyes and all he could do was lash out and attack.

           

It was louder than it used to be. At night, when the world was still, he could hear it on his bedside table, clear as day. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Like time, the watch would never end. The hand would go around forever if it were allowed. It would stop, maybe, if he didn’t wind it… but he had to wind it. He lay in bed and he dreaded the noise of its little gears turning the second hand, popping it ever so slightly forward, fifty-nine times and then sixty. One minute. One hour. Twelve hours. Twenty-four. A day into a week into a month. The year goes by and before he knows it, he’s missed a birthday party at the fair that Jess swears she told him about, but that he knows she didn’t. No, she wanted the day with Charlie all to herself. She’d paid for that one.

           

He heard movement in the kitchen. Low, playful voices and the clap of a pan on the stove. He took a long drag off his cigarette, the fourth of the morning, and flicked it into an empty can. His bourbon was gone, and maybe that was just as well. His head was pounding worse now. It’d probably be smart to get some water.

           

He reached for the door, raised his leg to go inside, and nearly fell from the shooting pain in his neck. The jolt was secondary to the mental strain that hit him like a dart right behind his eyes. It was a javelin of shock; a memory that hit like a heavyweight. A red recollection that stunk of blood and…

 

But he’d never do that. Never. He never had done that. Of course he hadn’t. Jess and Charlie were right on the other side of that door. They were fine. Sometimes he got mad, sure, but he’d never really hurt them. He’d never do something he couldn’t take back.

           

He gritted his teeth and groaned out a plea to his father, who was dead and had been dead for decades, but perhaps was not actually dead at all. He was doubting that more and more the older he got. Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated, wasn’t that how the saying went? “Get out of my head.”

           

A bead of sweat rolled down his temple and got lost in his beard. He squeezed his eyes tight, trying to hold back the tears, involuntary tears, the only kind he allowed. All that blood. All that fucking blood. The watch hung in his pocket, growing heavier and louder. Ticking, sure, but maybe doing more than that. Sometimes he suspected it could do a lot more than tick. Sometimes he felt it stir in there. Sometimes he felt it nudge at him when he was feeling down. Sometimes…

           

A question occurred to him, suddenly, for no particular reason at all, flaring where that ember of rage sat in the back of his mind, waiting to flash up and set fire to the neighborhood when given the fuel of irritation or slight. That thought, which used the coal of rage as its conduit, occurred with all the power of a hurricane, and he was caught in the eye. To resist such a power was absolute folly. A man doesn’t resist a storm of such torrential authority. He hunkers down and survives. Maybe he tries to run. But Jim knew there was no running from this storm.

           

When did he take possession of that watch, exactly?

           

It was his father’s once, and now it was his. But when did his father pass it down? Why couldn’t he remember? It should have been a simple question. It wasn’t a graduation present, no, Jim had owned the watch for as long as he could remember. Even when he was a boy. His father was long dead by the time he graduated, anyhow.

           

He backed up from the door, taking his hand off the knob as if from the pin of a live grenade that he had, only a second before, been prepared to pull. He walked to his workbench (last used for work nearly three years ago) and reached behind the toolbox, where he kept a bottle for emergencies. He broke the seal, took a small sip, and then another, longer, and finally one to wash it all down. He looked at himself in the dark reflection of the big bottle’s glass.

           

He was surprised to see he hardly recognized the crazed expression of the man who looked back.

 

JESS: CHAPTER FOUR

           

The plate of eggs sat untouched for the better part of an hour. By the time Jim finally came in (Jess learned long ago to never disturb him while he was in the garage) the sunny-side-up breakfast looked like a sad motel buffet—the kind people only eat at because they feel it would be wasteful to not utilize the complimentary meal. Indeed, when Jim sat down to eat, the yolk of his egg was colder than his glare and a sheen of oil clung to the bottom of the white plate.

           

Jess bit her lip. “Do you want me to warm it up?”

           

Jim grabbed his fork, holding the side of his head with his other hand, and took a labored breath. As if the mere thought of speaking to her was too much for his troubled mind to handle.

 

Finally, in a voice quieter than she’d expected, he said, “That’s all right.”

           

She breathed. The pressure blew out in a tiny, quick shot of steam. Jim cut into the egg, speared it, and swallowed without chewing. She saw him wince and felt guilty for feeling worried. She should take gratitude in seeing him in pain. But she felt concerned instead.

           

“Do you want something for your head?”

           

He took another bite, slower this time, actually chewing. “Where’s Charlie?”

           

She looked over her shoulder, into the living room. Charlie was there, in clear view of them both, playing on the floor. When she looked back at Jim, she saw his gaze had found their son and answered his own question.

           

She said, “He’s bored.”

           

Jim engulfed half a piece of toast and washed it down with a big gulp of orange juice—perhaps the first non-alcoholic beverage he’d had since last weekend. “I’m sick,” he said, climbing to his feet, only a little unsteadily. “I’m going to cut wood. Helps the pain.”

           

She found the courage to speak as he turned his back and put his hand on the backdoor. “Jim?”

           

His shoulders tensed and he turned. He didn’t say anything, he just grunted. Sometimes that was more than she could hope for.

           

“Is everything all right?”

           

He blinked at her like she was an alien. She felt like a child under that angry gaze, and she almost quailed beneath it. She would have, if she weren’t so damn worried.

           

“Have I done something wrong?”

           

“Probably,” he said. “But not that I can think of off the top of my head. Give me a while and I’ll come up with something.”

           

She scowled at him, but there wasn’t any heat behind the expression. This was as close to joking as Jim got these days. “I know it’s your father’s birthday today.”

           

The look of surprise on his face was so genuine that Jess knew he actually hadn’t remembered.

           

“I’m sorry,” she rushed as his expression curled into disgust. “I’m s—”

           

His right hand shot into his pocket and gripped something there like a priest might grab at a crucifix when confronted by a demon. Jess knew he was holding the watch, and not for the first time, she marveled at the power that little gold trinket had over her husband. She could almost hear it ticking in his palm.

           

Her mind was locked up; she knew there was nothing safe to say. Sometimes, in situations like this, the best thing she could do was simply wait for him to do or say something himself.

           

He broke the tension by spinning about, wrenching the door nearly off the frame, and then slamming it behind him as he rushed into the yard. The whole house shook as it flew into the jamb.

           

In the beginning, when they were still learning about one another (when they still cared enough to learn) she’d asked him about it. Where did it come from? He’d looked at her with those wide, peculiar eyes—an expression not dissimilar to the one Charlie wears when she catches him in the kitchen after bedtime. He’d been quiet for a frightfully long time. And then he’d cracked a smile, as if it was a joke. Well I guess I can’t remember. That’s funny, isn’t it?

           

Jess had agreed.

 

But looking back, she didn’t think it was funny at all.

 

CHARLIE: CHAPTER FIVE

           

Joe was under attack. The red commies were coming in hot from above, unleashing a radical socialist reign of hellfire on the allied troops at the base of the coffee table. Charlie called in support to Joe over the radio, offering intel that allowed him to avoid the brunt of the attack, but at least half his men weren’t so lucky. The screams of the dying carried all the way into the bathroom and brought his mother’s anxious face around the corner.

           

“What’s going on in here?”

           

“Can’t talk,” he huffed. “Joe’s in trouble.”

           

And he was. The collectivist force in Russia had intercepted a secret message from Joe’s men and laid an ambush. Now, Joe and the remainder of his forces were wounded, cut off from reinforcements, and surrounded. Enemy soldiers parachuted into the adjacent fields. They took cover behind the television stand, grouping up, and Joe turned to his men. Over the sound of scattered bombings, he spoke the truth, as Charlie’s father liked to put it. Speaking the truth was important in tense situations like this. There wasn’t any time for anything else.

           

“Listen up,” he said. “We’ve got two options. Die, or die fighting!”

           

The men talked it over and decided they’d die fighting.

 

JIM: CHAPTER SIX

           

Jim made it to the wood stack in spite of himself. The watch was heavy as an anvil in his pocket. He felt it weighing him down as he walked to the back of the yard and was alarmed to realize he was favoring his opposite leg. The trouble of it was something he wanted to push away, just as he pushed away the trouble of his smoking and drinking and of the horrible memories.

 

He grabbed the familiar axe off the top of the wood pile and brought it down on the end of an old log. The watch stirred angrily in his pocket and he heard it tick; a heartbeat passed and he heard it again, louder than the trumpet of an angry elephant. The gears were oiled and smooth but they clanged like a cymbal as they turned. It grew heavier yet, somehow, and Jim realized it was demanding to be heard and seen and understood. Today he couldn’t drink or work the memories away.

           

He couldn’t get it out of his head. The storm had come, and he was stranded, without power, without a car, without a life raft. His head pounded, wailing like a newborn, and his eyes watered as he took a swig from his flask. But that only seemed to make it worse. His vision swirled and the memories came washing in like cold water. If he hadn’t given up gambling, he would have bet all the money in their bank account (not exactly high stakes poker, truth be told) that it had happened before. But then how would he know about it?

           

He worked jerkily, moving now like a clock himself. Tick, he raised his arm. Tick, he swung, just a second hand now, moving fast to the 5, 10, 15, and 20. Tick, he hit 30 and the log came in two. A splinter of wood broke from the deadfall. It flew out of the time piece, into the nether. Jim watched it go, acutely aware of that fine detail, and laughed in spite of the pain. The watch snickered with him, tick, tick, tick.

           

The curious spin of that splinter brought on a startling wave of understanding, more powerful than earlier in the garage. Suddenly, in one great punch of recollection so potent it nearly knocked him off his feet, Jim understood the true horror of that watch: the true horror of his fate. He remembered for the first time since he’d been six years old and trembled madly at the terror.

           

He saw the face of his father and realized with a jolt that he used to wind the watch. He’d always known it was his father’s, of course, but he’d never quite realized he was still the one winding it. He heard the whispers that came late at night; he saw the old, fumbling fingers working at the gears. The dead, rotting face of his father loomed in the shadows and Jim watched him come out of the dark and walk to his bedside table as he slept. He saw the long dead man reach for the golden watch that used to be his own and turn the dial.

           

He’d always kept the spring tight.

 

Suddenly, he remembered, maybe for the first time… why.

           

He let the insanity wash over him in a cold sheet of dread. His eyes grew wide and his lips peeled back from his teeth and he began to laugh, a choking, ripping laugh that came from somewhere deep inside, a place he’d kept away from the world (and even himself), until now. He opened the gate, which had closed the same day he’d taken that watch off the ground. He saw that scene of horror, heard the howl of the watch, and knew it was too late.

           

He never heard the door open. Never heard her steps come closer. He never heard her calls, quiet at first, and then louder.

 

“Jim,” she said as he clutched the axe hard enough to close the circulation to his hand. Then louder: “Jim! Jim Harp!”

 

He felt a hand close round his shoulder and he turned, swinging with all the strength of a madman, and took his wife at the neck with the rusted head of the old axe which he’d got, so many years ago, from his father’s toolshed where it had hung, unused, for who knows how many winters before he thought to take it down.

           

It sunk deep, unhindered by the skin and muscle, emboldened by the spine, which split like dry kindling, thrilled by the sinew and exhilarated by the tendon. It cut straight through Jessica Harp’s neck, taking her head clean off and slinging a single bright wash of blood as it went. He followed through with his swing, like the good baseball player his father raised him to be.

           

He watched, more than halfway blind between the deafening screech coming from his pocket and the pounding of his skull as Jess’s body fell, dancing, headless, to the ground. A shot of blood erupted from her ruined neck like water from a busted hydrant. Her arms and legs twitched as if full of an electricity which had been waiting, all these years, until now to make itself known. Her fingers curled, her ankles twisted back and forth. Her legs kicked as if to run—but with no head and no brain they couldn’t make up their mind!

           

Jim stood over her for a full minute, and then he set to work. He looped an old, frayed rope from a strong branch and made a noose just the way he’d been shown in boy scouts. A hangman’s noose, the instructor had said, pleased with himself. It gets tighter the more you pull. He put the rope round his neck and scaled half the ladder. Then he kicked it out from under his feet, pleased to find that even after all these years, he’d remembered how to tie the knots.

 

CHARLIE: CHAPTER SEVEN

           

A streak of blood marred the watch face. It seemed crueler to Charlie than a deep scratch. He leaned down and picked it up, wiping the stain away on the leg of his jeans, feeling troubled but not really able to make sense of it all quite yet. He gripped the gold weight tight, pleased by the feeling, and took a deep breath.

 

The watch thrummed in his hand like a live thing. It had a heartbeat! He felt it pulse with a rhythm not unlike that of a kitten. It breathed.

 

It occurred to him for no real reason at all, that he’d better wind the watch. Because if he didn’t, then who would? Turn it thrice, a voice seemed to say. Not twice, thrice; three cheers for Charlie. Three times the charm.