(Longer than the other parts, but I wanted to wrap it up today)
Kent Lewis pulled up to the Swanson residence with his emergency lights on but the siren off. As those red lights pulsed along the side of the house, the porch light flicked on and Gus Holcomb came sprinting out, as close to sprinting as Gus could achieve. He carried a shotgun with him and a pale look of horror covered his face. For a split second, watching that fat body bounce toward his cruiser, Kent thought it all to be a prank. They thought I was sleepin’ again, he thought. Those buggers thought I was havin’ a good old nap and decided to get clever and call me out to try to snap some surprise into me.
When Gus slammed his heavy body onto the hood of the car and started yelling incoherently, that idea vacated Kent’s mind.
“Damnit, Kent, did ya hear me!? Get on the squawker to Jen now! We need medics ASAP!”
Kent fell into a momentary daze. The red lights kept pulsing around and slapping Gus in the face. Each round showed a gravity Kent had never seen before. Gus was in his civies, and a black fluid was smeared across his shirt, his arms, his hands. It made Kent wonder if the real trouble was with a tractor’s gearbox and not the Swanson’s dog.
Gus jolted toward the door and the sudden movement broke Kent from his trance. He grabbed the radio and called up Jen. When she responded, almost instantly, Kent looked at Gus with a slacked jaw.
“Give me the goddamn thing!” Gus yelled. He shoved his hand through the open window and snatched the radio.
“Say again, Kent,” said Jen.
“Jen, it’s Gus. Get the medics down here quick. Tell them boys we got a mess on our hands.”
“What’s happened, Sheriff?” she asked.
Gus looked at Kent, speechless. Kent shrank back at the sight. He had worked with Gus Holcomb for nearly nine years. Their time together in the rural country of Ohio had been pleasant and more often than not filled with dealing with inconveniences rather than crime. But through it all, Gus had kept a calm persona and always knew what to do next. Flustered was not a word Kent used to describe Gus Holcomb. He watched Gus’ jowled jaw hang open and whispered, “Sheriff, what’s happened?”
Gus shook his head and squeezed the radio mic. “Just tell ‘em there’s been an accidental shooting.” He glanced at Kent and then back at the house. “Tell them to expect a mess of a shotgun wound.” He dropped the radio into the Kent’s lap. Jen gave a muted affirmative from the crotch of Kent’s pants.
“Shotgun?” asked Kent.
Gus stepped back from the cruiser. His eyes were wide and Kent saw that the man was trembling. Kent turned off his lights and stepped out of the cruiser. “Jesus, Sheriff, what the hell happened?”
Gus just shook his head. He reached out to grab Kent by the shoulder, saw the mess on his hands, and stopped. “Just wait here,” he said. “Keep a close eye out for anything strange. You see something, you lay on that horn until you see the whites of my eyes or the barrel of my gun, ya hear?”
Kent nodded. He suddenly felt a strange revulsion toward the sheriff. He looked changed, defiled. The cool nerves were gone, the calmness of his voice replaced by nervous barks. “Okay, Sheriff. Okay.”
Gus turned back toward the house. “You get in that car and you stay put.” Kent did so and watched Gus Holcomb disappear into the front door.
When Gus entered the house, he flipped on the living room light without thinking about it. His mind, after enduring such a whirlwind of insanity, was trying to find normality through light. The scene exposed to him did not help to restore that normality.
The room was destroyed.
Dale’s recliner had been thrown into the television, exploding the glass across the dark carpet. The couch was wedged in the corner of the room after being violently flung aside. Curtains were ripped from their rods, the coffee table was nothing more than splinters, and the ceiling fan hung from a single, precarious wire. As his eyes toured the wreckage, they spotted burnt hoof marks in the carpet.
“Sheriff, help,” said Dale. He was halfway down the stairs with his wife in his arms. Gus felt his jaw snap shut at the words. He hurried over and leant his hands. Peggy was wrapped in several towels to try to contain the bleeding (or whatever in God’s name that black stuff is, Gus thought). Gus grabbed her legs and began backing her body down the stairs. As Dale landed, Peggy’s head rolled like a rag doll to the side and black foam, thick like head from a stout beer, oozed from her open mouth. Gus fought off the urge to vomit then and there.
“Just get her outside,” Dale said. “Maybe fresh air can help.”
Gus nodded but heard the hopelessness in Dale’s words. He caught a glimpse of a fearful Andrew Swanson standing at the top of the stairs in his Bigfoot t-shirt and felt his heart crumple inside. There’s no happy ending waiting for this poor boy, Gus thought. They laid Peggy on the front porch and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Dale hunched forward, leaning with his hands on his knees. “What the hell, Sheriff?” he asked. “What the hell?”
Gus saw themselves from distant eyes in that moment. They were two men lots in a world of darkness. Despite the fact that Peggy clearly wasn’t breathing, neither attempted mouth to mouth. They both kept their distance from her body as though she were an infected corpse waiting to spread that blackness to the rest of them. Gus had no words to offer. He just shook his head.
They stood there in silence for several minutes while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Neither tried to chase Andrew off when he looked at his mom from the doorway. Dale kept wandering in small circles, muttering the same phrase now and then. “What the hell, Sheriff,” he’d say, but Gus knew the words weren’t directed at him. And all the while, Gus felt a strange finality to the situation. They no longer felt the need to scour the night for an assailant. The threat, whatever it was, seemed to be no more.
When the paramedics arrived, Gus gave them a hand signal that said not to rush. The victim had been lost. They pulled the gurney from the black and laid a fresh body bag on it. This procedure seemed to ground Dale Swanson, and he scooped up Andrew and brought him back in the house.
“Sheriff,” said one of the paramedics, “I don’t… what happened?”
“Boy, you wouldn’t believe me if I told,” said Gus. “I don’t even believe it myself.”
“What did this?” the paramedic asked.
Gus thought of Cinder, the snicker, the high-pitched squeal, the red eyes. He looked at Peggy’s shoulder, flesh that looked as though it had been peppered with shotgun blast and soaked in motor oil, as the body bag made its closing zip. “God only knows,” he said. “And even that may be up for debate.”
They took the body of Peggy Swanson away. Gus motioned for Kent to wait a moment and then went inside.
“Dale,” he said. “I hate this as much as you do, but I need you to come in to the station. We’ve got to sort this out somehow.”
Dale was standing in the middle of his destroyed home. Andrew was standing beside him, clinging to his waist, and Dale had a dirty hand on his head. “Okay,” he said. The response was empty, distant.
“My man’s gonna stay here and start some preliminary, have a look around. You and little Andy there can ride in with me.” Dale nodded, and the three of them walked out together.
When Gus explained to Kent his duty of staying behind, Kent became quite a negative Nancy.
“No way, Sheriff. Just no—“
“Shutup, Kent!” Gus said, slamming his fist down on the roof of the cruiser. “If you’re too scared to poke around on your own then you get John or Gary down here to help you out. Wake them up if you have to. I don’t care. But I’m just about at my wit’s end with this thing. I can’t investigate this with a clear mind, and I need to take these boys to the station to try to unravel some sort of reasoning from this nonsense.” Dale Swanson walked up to the side of the car and they both turned to look at him. His entire torso was covered in black goo that was now thick and sticky from drying. Swollen bags hung under his eyes, and a small stain of vomit lingered at the corner of his mouth.
Kent hung his head. “Alright, Sheriff.” Gus clapped Kent on the shoulder and walked to his cruiser. He opened the back door for Dale and Andrew, got in himself, and the three of them headed on down the road. The washboards in the road shook Gus in all of his soft spots again. The feeling was like a finger rubbing on a raw nerve, and he was happy to pull onto the smooth pavement of the country road.
“Dale,” Gus asked after several minutes of silence, “you got any mind to explain what the hell happened tonight?”
Dale pressed his head against the glass and watched the corn rows go by and made no attempt to respond. Gus nodded. He imagined himself in Dale’s shoes, seeing poor Cynthia in a state like that, and figured he wouldn’t be much for answering questions either. The thought occurred to him that taking them to the station was a mistake, almost vulgar, like taking a rape victim to a strip club. His foot came off the accelerator for just a moment as a change of heart swept through him.
Then he saw the accident.
“Oh what in God’s name now?” Gus said. He lit off his emergency lights and pulled to the shoulder of the road. Dale snapped out of his daze and looked ahead to see the ambulance rolled onto its side. One of the rear wheels was still spinning. In the headlights they could see that the back doors were hanging open. Gus stopped the vehicle and put it in park. He looked in the mirror at Dale. “You wanna see this?” he asked.
“Your boy?” Gus asked.
Dale looked at Andrew whose eyes had gone wide again. The nightmare still wasn’t over. “Put him in the front seat,” Dale said. “You see something, you lay on that horn, got it?” Andrew, small and timid, nodded his head. “Alright,” Dale said. “Let’s take a look.”
They came up to the ambulance slowly. Gus had his pistol drawn and Dale was creeping behind him at arm’s length. Gus moved to the cab while Dale hunkered down at the rear of the vehicle to see in through the double-doors.
“Mother Mary,” said Gus. He stopped at the driver’s side door and shook his head. There was blood everywhere.
“What is it?” Dale asked, not stopping. He needed to see his wife’s body.
“Jesus Himself couldn’t explain,” said Gus. “What kind of devil-night is this?”
Dale grabbed the door and pushed it up. It was heavy with the ambulance on its side and Dale had to struggle to get under it. He lifted it up, and the headlights from the cruiser poured in. The pulsing red from the emergency lights added their effect.
The two paramedics had been torn apart. Their limbs were scattered within the ambulance, and the entire inside of the vehicle was awash in fresh blood. Mixed in with the blood was the same black fluid that had been leaking from Peggy’s wounds. At first, Dale thought that Peggy had suffered the same fate, that her body had been destroyed and her parts mixed in with the others. But as Dale counted the limbs, the hands and feet, and the two heads that held frozen faces of horror, he knew better. Peggy’s body was not part of this desecration. Her body was nowhere to be found.
Dale backed out of the ambulance and let the door slam down. He bumped into the cruiser and nearly fell down. Then he turned and vomited. Gus, who had managed to hold his composure throughout, heard the sound and did likewise. Dale fell to the ground in his convulsions as his gut clenched and rejected until only thin, yellow strands fell from his mouth. He looked up from the side of the road, out to the corn rows that surrounded them, and saw something he never told anyone. Deep within the field were two small eyes of brilliant red that sparkled with pleasurable hate. The fear it caused sent Dale to vomiting again, and when he looked up after his second fit, the eyes were gone.
A full investigation of that night was under taken by county, state, and federal officials. Soon after, a nation-wide manhunt was initiated for the person of Peggy Swanson for the brutal slaying of the two paramedics that responded to the call that evening. Peggy Swanson, neither the person nor the body, was never found.