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Luke’s family farm stretched along both sides of the rural highway that routed traffic through the north end of our county to the Georgia line. Laden with beer, liquor, and few other party favors, we sought to attract as little attention as possible from the roving county patrols. So we parked in front of one of the cattle gates on an unpaved farm road that led onto their property.
The waxing moon illuminated our awkward climb over the rickety steel gate. Once far enough from the highway, we switched on our flashlights and followed the winding trail through the woods toward the familiar camping site, a mainstay of our freshman and sophomore years. What had been fertile farmland in decades past was now an expanse of rock and red clay covered by an overgrown pine plantation.
Neither Klaus nor Turtle spoke as we moved toward our destination. To my knowledge, they hadn’t spoken to each other since the morning of the incident in Klaus’s apartment. But that hadn’t stopped either of the quarreling friends from using me as a sounding board and occasional go-between.
I hoped Luke would have a rational explanation for his rash decision to return to a state of nature. And if not a sensible reason, at least one fueled by his years of drug abuse rather than the supernatural.
Born and raised in these parts, I took the lead on our silent moonlit stroll. Though my eyelids were heavy, I still took the opportunity to gaze up at the pale beauty shining in the sky above us. My enjoyment was not to last, for one spider web and then another brushed my face, setting me on edge.
My unease turned to alarm when a cry broke the stillness of the night. We stopped walking and panned the beams of our flashlights around to scan our surroundings. Our resolve wavered like a stand of pine trees in the path of a twister. Another scream almost sent us into full flight.
“Is that a woman screaming?” Klaus asked as he backed down the trail.
“Probably a big cat, maybe a panther,” I replied, more concerned about becoming a meal for a hungry hunting cat than anything else.
“That’s reassuring. Glad I’m armed.”
“Armed? What the fuck do you mean you’re armed? I got drugs on me and a record haunting me. That ain’t cool, man!”
“Simmer down, convict,” Klaus quipped, referring to my brief stay in county jail over a possession charge. “I didn’t bring my Glock, so your ass cherry is safe. But I brought this baby.” He opened his leather jacket to reveal a foot long bowie knife. He pulled the blade halfway out of its sheath and gestured to its sheen.
Turtle commented, “I see you dipped it in silver like I said.”
“Yeah,” Klaus answered, “I did it like bluing a gun. Let’s just hope it worked.”
“What do you mean ‘dipped it in silver’?” I asked. “And when did you two start talking to each other again?”
“We haven’t been talking,” Turtle said. “We’ve been emailing. Making plans.”
“Making plans for what exactly?” I asked, my level of alarm rising along with my sense of dread.
“It’s probably nothing, Jay,” Klaus said, returning the knife to its sheath. He used my first name so rarely that I knew that the situation was grave. “But didn’t Boy Scouts teach you to be prepared? Isn’t that your motto: hope for the best; prepare for the worst?”
“Guys, I don’t like where this conversation is going,” I reiterated. “This is not a game; we are not smiting evil. We see where that avenue led us, nowhere fast.”
Another scream from the direction of the firelight shimmering through the trees interrupted any response to my warning. But it reinforced their position. Perhaps this had been an ill-conceived notion. Or could it have been a deliberate manipulation based on their fears, superstitions, and ulterior motives? Had my friends coaxed me here because they thought Luke possessed? Worse yet, could they be right? Was it even possible?
We crept toward the edge of the clearing that contained the camp site, but no further cries assailed us. Instead, a wet sucking sound met my ears that caused me to halt instead of pushing through the wood line.
“Sounds like a wet boot stuck in mud?” Klaus whispered.
Turtle blushed and giggled. “Or something like that.”
Could we be interrupting Luke and one of his dippy hippie girlfriends? I thought. If so, how angry would they be with us for disturbing their nocturnal, arboreal romp?
“What do we do now?” I asked. “Should we let him know we’re here? Don’t know about ya’ll, but I’ve got no interest in seeing hairy man ass by the pale moonlight.”
“You’re in luck then,” Klaus replied. “Luke is pretty hairless.”
I paused in mid step. “And how do you know that?”
“We’ve gone to the gym before,” Klaus explained, “to work out.”
Turtle pantomimed an obscene sexual gesture behind Klaus’s back and caused me to giggle despite the nebulous nature of our situation. The human scarecrow spun around but failed to catch our clownish friend in the act. The frustration and bewilderment on Klaus’s face caused us to share another laugh at his expense.
“Come with me if you want to see your gym buddy,” I said in a horrible mockery of California’s former Governator. I added with a squawking cry, “Get to the clearing!”
Turtle and I were still laughing at my bad impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger when we broke through the pines and into the area cleared for the family campsite. But laughter and mirth died on our lips as we surveyed the shadowy sanguine scene illumed by the flickering campfire. In the coming months, what I saw that awful night would haunt me; I couldn’t laugh or sleep from the time the moon rose until it set. After that punctuated period of insomnia passed, my memories of the silver lady remained forever tarnished by the image of our bloody friend bathed in her light.
Luke crouched over the nude body of a young woman whose chest had been ripped open. Rocking back and forth on his bare feet, he gnawed on the ruined heart clutched in his hands. As my mind reeled, it connected the dots for me. I recognized the similarities between the act of terror playing out before our eyes and the murderous scene from our dreams. The location and victim were different, but the ritualistic nature of the killing was almost identical. Klaus’s darkest dreams had become our new reality.
Luke’s black eyes sought us out across the firelight. He stared at us without blinking for what seemed like an eternity. And then he went back to the hearty meal in his hands.
“What do we do now?” I asked, truly at a loss.
“We do what we came here to do,” Klaus replied.
“And what is that exactly?”
“We end this,” Turtle said. “We send this thing back to where it came from.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “And how do we do that?”
“We kill the host with a sliver of silver in the heart and then burn the body. That should do it.”
“Are you sure, Turtle?”
“Thanks, thanks a lot, guys.” Not that I meant it. “So what now, brave crusaders?”
Klaus drew his silvered bowie knife and yelled, “We charge!”
In the landscape of his mind’s eye, he saw himself as the shining noble warrior he preferred to play in our Dungeons and Dragons expeditions. But he had less training with a knife than he had experience at stabbing someone in the heart, which was to say zero, to my knowledge.
Perplexed and unarmed, I watched as disaster, born from my friend’s inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, manifested itself before my very eyes.
Luke raised his head and shrieked so shrilly that it halted Klaus’s advance. My friend staggered under the assault on his eardrums and equilibrium. As soon as he was off balance, Luke leapt. He sprung into the air and landed close enough to Klaus to force the taller man back a step.
Klaus dropped the knife as he gazed into the soulless eyes of the being inside our friend. He turned to run but never made it. Luke pounced on him like a blood-soaked Tigger and took the lanky man to the ground. Snarling, Luke clawed and snapped at him. Blood from the cannibal on his chest dribbled into Klaus’s mouth. Gagging and retching, he flopped like a fish underneath the lighter but stronger man on top of him.
Turtle rushed forward, but I put discretion before valor. No way was I facing off against some hellish thing with a sack full of beer and munchies. Looking about the campsite, my eyes settled on a shovel at the edge of the clearing. I bolted for it.
Turtle and Klaus wrestled with our possessed friend as I raced to arm myself. They punched, kicked, and elbowed him but nothing seemed to stop the assault. Turtle’s choke hold ended badly when Luke flipped our hefty friend over his shoulder. Luke tore at Klaus with his fingernails and then latched onto his forearm like a vicious pit bull.
Snatching the spade from the edge of the freshly dug latrine, I looked back toward the tussling trio of men I’d called friends before this insanity began a few weeks ago. I realized at that point I was risking my life for people who’d risked it without any concern for my safety.
Turtle had done so with his psychic parlor tricks gone awry. And then Klaus had led me to the woods tonight under false pretenses with his half-assed plan to stake a man possessed by a murderous being from another world, be it one of dreams, spirit, or fire and brimstone. By all rights, I should have fled.
But I didn’t. And when I can’t sleep at night now, I remember that that was my turning point, the moment that I sealed my fate and decided my future. I hefted the shovel like some medieval pole arm and sprinted toward the tussling trio. As I closed on them, I swung with all my might. The shovel blade rang when it made contact with the side of Luke’s head. He landed on the ground beside Klaus but kept fighting. The handle vibrated in my hands but spurred me onward. So I kept swinging.
Luke’s skull gave way before my arms did, but the mangled body kept fighting me long after its face was no longer recognizable as our friend. Finally, Klaus stumbled forward and jammed the silver knife deep into the possessed man’s chest. The effect was instantaneous. Luke seized and then collapsed backward. He lay there unmoving, smoke rising from the wound. I couldn’t tell if it was the flesh smoldering or the silver boiling.
The smoke from the body of our murdered friend rose up around us. It grew so thick, so fast that it obscured Klaus for a moment. The noxious cloud dissipated quickly, and then it was gone. We were left in the clearing with an injured friend, a dead one, and the ravaged body of a total stranger.
### Stay Tuned. The Final Installment is coming soon ###
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